People's Democracy(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)
On Malegaon Riots
ACCORDING to the government, peace has returned to Malegaon, the situation is under control and no untoward incident has taken place in the last two days. But curfew still continues, with relaxation for a few hours a day, and police and paramilitary forces are patrolling the city. Unofficially, stray incidents still continue to take place. Tension prevails in the town and surrounding areas. People, who migrated during the riots, have not returned to their homes. The horrendous riots, which erupted on October 26, claimed 14 lives and injured hundreds. Loss of property may exceed Rs 400 crore, most of which was due to widespread arson and loot. Of the dead, 10 were victims of police firing.
Malegaon had witnessed communal riots in the past, but never on this scale. For one full week mobs went rampaging --- armed with petrol cans, gas cylinders and weapons, attacking the shops and houses of the other community in full defiance of the police and army patrols. A new feature of the riot was that it was not confined to Malegaon city, as in the past. Rioting took place in villages and 3 taluks surrounding Malegaon in Nasik district. It also spread to the neighbouring Jalgaon and Dhulia districts, The water pipes supplying water to Malegaon were damaged in the rural areas, creating acute water shortage in the city during the riots. The enormity of the riots reflects the growth of communal and fundamentalist forces in the region, as also the failure of the state government to curb their activities.
Malegaon has a population of over 5 lakh, with 75 per cent of it belonging to the Muslim community. It is one of the three major powerloom centres in Maharashtra, with majority of workers being Muslim weavers who have migrated from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. Normally the powerlooms work in two shifts of 12 hours each day. The average earning of a weaver is Rs 400 per week. In the last two months, most of the industry has been working 3 or 4 days a week due to a slump, causing tremendous hardship to the working families and creating a climate of frustration and anger.
Though the riots erupted on October 26, the situation leading to it had been built up for over a month. No doubt the American bombing of Afghanistan and reports of innocent civilians being killed led to resentment and anger, particularly in the Muslim community. The fundamentalists fanned their fire of anger. On October 26, which was a Friday and a weekly holiday, a large number of Muslims came out for Namaz. Some persons were distributing handbills which called for boycott of American goods. When jawans of the Special Reserve Police stationed there tried to snatch away these handbills, a scuffle took place and the city was engulfed in a riot within an hour. The incident was just the immediate provocation which shows that the riot-mongers were already well prepared. Apart from the tension built up by the bombing of Afghanistan, the riots had also a background of political rivalry because of competition for Muslim votes.
Nihal Ahmed, the state president of Janata Dal (Secular), is an ex-MLA and had won from the Malegon constituency five times in the past. But he lost to the Congress candidate, Sheikh Rasheed in 1999. Nihal Ahmed also lost control of the Municipal Council recently when the JD(S) candidate lost to the Congress candidate in the contest for the post of municipal president. The rivalry between ex-MLA Nihal Ahmed and sitting MLA Sheikh Rasheed, with both out to capture the Muslim votes, had thus reached a new pitch. Municipal elections have already been announced and are due to take place within a couple of months. That gave a new edge to this political rivalry.
In the first week of September, the Congress MLA organised a satyagraha to protest against some incidents against the minority community which had taken place in nearby districts. Not to be outdone, Nihal Ahmed organised a satyagraha on September 15 on the same issue. It may be noted that Nihal Ahmed is one of the very few leaders who still carry a black ribbon on their arms as a mark of protest against the demolition of Babri Masjid. One can imagine the type of rhetoric these two gentlemen used to rouse passions among the Muslim workers. In any case, political observers report that tension had already started to build up from September, irrespective of the American war-mongering. Left forces are weak in Malegaon; the RSS-BJP have a sizeable presence in Malegaon and the surrounding rural areas. Samna, the Shiv Sena daily, has been carrying provocative news and headlines on its front page for the last one month. On Dussehra day, October 26, Shiv Sena chief Balasaheb Thackery in Mumbai and the RSS chief K S Sudarshan in Nagpur called upon the Hindus to arm themselves. This was the culmination of the anti-Muslim propaganda carried on for months.
On October 19, a Friday, Nihal Ahmed organised a morcha and satyagraha to protest against the bombing of Afghanistan. Some of the demonstrators carried portraits of Osama bin Laden. Nihal Ahmed, in a later statement, claimed that he had asked those carrying these portraits to leave and that the stone-throwing during the morcha was the handiwork of Congress supporters while he and his activists had worked towards keeping peace. There are few takers for his story. The consensus among observers is that the October 19 morcha raised the communal tension to a point where it needed only a paltry incident to cause an explosion. It may be noted that the state police has not been allowing any morcha in Mumbai and other cities since September 11. In fact, the Mumbai police banned the September 27 morcha and demonstrations organised by the CPI(M) and arrested the demonstrators when they gathered at the starting point. Similarly, on October 12, some comrades, who spoke in condemnation of the September 11 terrorist attacks, the subsequent American war and the Vajpayee governments servile support to the US war were issued notices threatening action. Then, why did the police allow the October 19 morcha in Malegaon, an area regarded as ultra-sensitive by the home department? This remains to be explained. It shows that the police were blissfully ignorant of the tension building up in the city.
The police firing on Muslims of Malegaon on October 26 was excessive, as is shown by the number of those killed and injured. It may be recalled that Srikrishna commission had, in its report on the 1992-93 riots in Mumbai, found how a section of the police force had become communalised. As mentioned above, the Mumbai experience of September 27 and October 12 shows that a section of the police force was overzealous in acting against our demonstration, exhibiting intolerance of any criticism of American policies. It is to be found out whether the unwarranted excessive firing in Malegaon on October 26 had any communal angle to it. Apart from that, the state government has to answer for its complacency and its hesitation to take prompt and timely action against communal incitement. When the riots erupted, political leaders were not allowed to visit Malegaon. It is reported that even Congress president, Sonia Gandhi, who was in Maharashtra at that time was persuaded by the chief minister to keep away from Malegaon. The chief minister and deputy chief minister paid only flying visits to Malegaon during the riots, caring little about their responsibility in that serious situation. This has led to discontent in the Congress also.
As mentioned above, rural areas had in the past been free from any communal violence when riots erupted in Malegaon. This time a number of villages in the neighbouring talukas of Satana, Devla and Kalyan saw Muslim houses being burnt down and Muslims assaulted. Even state transport buses were stopped on the highway to hunt down Muslims. This was organised by Shiv Sena hoodlums. It is reported that "Police Hamare Sath Hai" (the police are with us) was one of the slogans of Shiv Sena riot-mongers. RSS-BJP leaders are now accusing the government for its pro-Muslim bias in handling the situation, which allowed the riots of such an unprecedented scale, as a cover-up for their own capability.
The Left forces are weak. The CPI(M) units in Malegaon worked to the best of their ability to counter communal frenzy and in several places protected the people threatened by mobs. In Nasik city and several talukas of the district, where the CPI(M) wields some influence, its activists worked to keep their areas free from communal violence. The situation is still tense, not only in the district but elsewhere in Maharashtra too. The Left and secular forces have to remain vigilant and prevent the communal forces from creating mischief. The state government must be forced to take firm action against the vendors of communal poison if Malegaon is not to be repeated.