(This story was originally published on 20 November. It has been republished from The Quint's archives.)
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Syed Usman, then 54, was sitting outside his puncture repair shop in north Telangana's Bhainsa town on the evening of 12 January 2020 when he got to know that communal violence had broken out in the area – and that his decades-old home had been set afire by a mob.
As he rushed home, his then 35-year-old cousin Syed Ghouse – whose house adjacent to Usman's was also torched – moved their families to a relative's house in a safer locality.
"I just stood there and watched it all burn. There was nothing I could do," Usman recalls to The Quint.
Usman and Ghouse had lived near Panjeshah Chowk in Bhainsa – located in Telangana's Nirmal district and bordering Maharashtra's Nanded – all their lives. Once a major cotton hub, Bhainsa, over the past few decades, has earned the undesirable tag of being a communal tinderbox.
With the population of Hindus (49.06 percent) and Muslims (46.94 percent) roughly the same, this town has seen even personal issues between two groups escalating to full-blown clashes.
But tragedy struck Usman and Ghouse not once but twice. Months after they spent a significant sum making repairs, on 7 March 2021, their homes were torched yet again in another bout of communal violence.
"It was a few months after my wedding that the 2020 clash broke out. All our new furniture, our clothes, our money – everything was destroyed. After the second clash, our homes were damaged beyond repair and all that was left to do was dismantle them fully," Ghouse, a BSc graduate who now runs a kirana shop, tells The Quint.
Usman currently stays at a rented house with his seven-member family at Madina Colony outside Panjeshah Chowk, whereas Ghouse lives in Kaloni, about 3 km from Bhainsa town. While both of them have relaid the foundations of their homes, the work has been slow owing to a lack of money.
"The government has not helped us at all. We didn't get any compensation or help after all these years," Usman alleges.
Bhainsa falls under the Mudhole Assembly constituency, which is one of the 119 Telangana Assembly segments going to polls on 30 November. While the ruling Bharat Rashtra Samithi (BRS) has fielded sitting MLA G Vittal Reddy (who won on a Congress ticket in 2014 and defected to the BRS that year), the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has fielded Ramarao Patel and the Congress, Bhosle Narayan Rao Patil.
The All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM), which has a considerable presence in the constituency, holds 15 of the 26 wards in Bhainsa municipality, whereas the BJP has control over nine wards.
In the recent past, Bhainsa has seen at least three communal clashes – in January 2020, May 2020, and March 2021 – and a few subsequent flare-ups. While no fatalities were reported, people from both Hindu and Muslim communities faced substantial losses – be it their homes, belongings, or health.
The town, since then, has relatively remained peaceful, but most residents who incurred these losses continue to live in distress – so much so they see no point in casting their votes in the upcoming Telangana Assembly elections.
'BJP-RSS People Did Everything for Us': Hindu Survivors
A few other survivors of the violence, however, say that help has come their way in the form of political parties and right-wing organisations.
"When the mob came to torch our house, we hid inside one of the bedrooms. We escaped unhurt but they destroyed all our things. We don't know who did it because it was all dark; all we know was that our hall was completely gutted," recalls 46-year-old Chinna Pochetti, who lives in Korba Gully, a few metres from the Panjeshah Chowk.
At least eight homes of Hindus in Korba Gully were partially torched in the 2021 violence, she tells The Quint, but all of them (Pochetti's house included) were supposedly repaired in less than a year with the help of the BJP and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS).
Pochetti – who has three sons – was seated next to her daughter-in-law and her 70-something mother, Sukunabai, on the steps of their home with yellow walls. They were chopping vegetables for lunch when this reporter approached them.
"We have lived here all our lives, where else will we go? BJP-RSS waalon ne sab kuch karke diya (BJP-RSS people did everything for us). They repaired our homes as well as those of our Hindu neighbours," adds Sukunabai, pointing to a few newly painted homes in the area.
She, however, points out that the government "gave us nothing. What did Vittal Reddy [incumbent MLA] saab do? He came here with his promises, but nothing happened," she alleges.
Speaking to The Quint, a local BJP leader confirmed that the party helped rebuild a few homes in a Hindu locality. "The Hindus here are in danger. When we come to power [in the Assembly elections], we will protect them at all costs," he asserted.
In an interaction with The Quint on Sunday, 19 November, AIMIM president and Hyderabad MP Asaduddin Owaisi said:
"As far as I know, some communal violence victims have been helped in Bhainsa. I will have to check again with our senior party president who is the four-time chairman [Jabir Ahmed] of Bhainsa [municipality]. If compensation has not been given to any person, whichever religion he belongs to -- it is a government announcement that has to be implemented. We will ensure that after elections, Mr Jabir Ahmed meets the Nirmal Collector. If need be, we will take it up here as well."
The Quint reached out to incumbent BRS MLA Vittal Reddy but he was unavailable for comment. This article will be updated as and when he responds.
'All Our Belongings Were Burnt'
A little ahead of Korba Gully, beside the Panjeshah Masjid, resides 56-year-old Mohammed Mohiuddin, his wife, mother, and daughter, who just completed her Intermediate. His eldest daughter is married and lives in another town.
At about 9 pm on 12 January 2020, as clashes broke out in the area, Mohiuddin's family found shelter at their Hindu neighbour Chandrabai's home. But he stayed on to guard his house.
"A mob of at least 100 people hit me with a bucket that night. I was bleeding all over. I had no faith I would survive," he tells The Quint, holding up a photograph of his injuries.
Mohiuddin's was one of the six homes in the Panjeshah Chowk area to be torched – including those of Usman and Ghouse – in 2020. "We received Rs 10,000 and some kitchen supplies from the Mandal Revenue Office but it was hardly enough. Only two of our bedrooms were intact. Over time, we started rebuilding with whatever little money we had. It cost us at least 1.5 lakh to fix the house," says Mohiuddin.
Fifty-five-year-old Khairun Unnisa, who lives a few metres from Mohiuddin's house, also recalls taking shelter at Chandrabai's house that night after the mob set her house on fire.
"Ours was one of the first houses to be torched. My six daughters and I ran out of our house and rushed to Mohiuddin saab's house. When the mob came there, we rushed to Chandrabai's and stayed there till the police arrived," narrates Khairun Unnisa, who used to roll beedis for Rs 50-60 a day.
One of her daughters was about to get married then. "Bachhe ke shaadi ka saaman, poora zindagi ka saaman jal gaya uss raat (my daughter's wedding things, all our life's savings were gutted)."
Like Usman and Ghouse, 42-year-old Abdul Ahad's house was also torched in 2020 and 2021. "In the first violence, we lost almost the entirety of the house. We vacated it, moved to a safe area, and started rebuilding it two months later. Then it happened again in 2021. All of this cost me at least Rs 2 lakh and the work is still going on," he tells The Quint.
"We spoke to the Nirmal Collector, we spoke to the MLA saab at least 10 times. But nothing has happened," says Ahad, who undertakes building work for a living.
Speaking to The Quint, Abdul Majid, an AIMIM councillor in Bhainsa Municipality where violence broke out in 2020 and 2021, says:
"The victims have not received any compensation from the government – whether they are Hindu or Muslim. From my end, I tried to help a few of them by supplying some materials for rebuilding their homes. But there's a limit to how much we can help."
Bhainsa's Tussle With Communal Violence
"I have always remembered Bhainsa like this; it has always been communally sensitive," recalls 35-year-old Syad Sarfaraz, a local journalist and columnist who writes for an Urdu publication.
Since 1992, when the country grappled with the demolition of Babri Masjid in Ayodhya, Bhainsa too felt its effect, he says. "Some shops were burnt here. There weren't as many police personnel here then. I remember police from Uttar Pradesh being stationed here to control the flare-up."
Later, in 1996, another clash was reported during a procession amid the Ganesh festival, which passed through the Panjeshah Masjid.
But the most brutal and violent of all clashes broke out during a Durga procession in 2008 when three people were allegedly killed in a police firing. The same violence spread to a nearby village called Watoli, where six of a Muslim family – including children – were burnt alive.
"Each time a clash happens, I have noticed that it is never based on a big issue. It was always a small issue. In Bhainsa, even petty personal issues become the whole town's problem. There has been no lynchings here, no disrespect towards religious places. Whatever has happened, it happened because of small issues."Syad Sarfaraz
After the 2021 clash, an IPS-rank official, Khare Kiran Prabhakar, was posted as the Deputy Superintendent of Police (DSP) in Bhainsa for the first time, paving the way for better management of communal flare-ups, say residents.
Speaking to The Quint, a senior police official, on the condition of anonymity, said: "In a bid to curb communal issues, we have installed more than 200 CCTV cameras across the town. In total, there are about 500 such cameras. Police battalions are stationed here and they patrol the town 24/7."
He, however, refused to share specific details, causes, and effects of the 2020 and 2021 clashes as they are "sensitive issues."
Residents, meanwhile, say the January 2020 clash was triggered by an afwaah (rumour) that violence broke out during an ijtema (annual three-day congregation of Tablighi Jamaat), which was happening in Nirmal town, about 40 km away from Bhainsa.
The March 2021 clash, on the other hand, started off as a minor argument between Hindu and Muslim youths.
In most cases, the violence has concentrated in Panjeshah Chowk, Korba Gully, and Zulfaquar Gully – where both Hindus and Muslims live, albeit in a segregated fashion.
"The lanes are divided in such a way that Hindus live side by side and Muslims live side by side. There are areas were the boundaries are visible. When an area is fully mixed, those inciting violence would be careful because their houses would also be there. But when it is divided, it becomes an advantage for them."Syad Sarfaraz
'Why Should We Vote?': The Fallout of Communal Clashes
"Vote karke kya faida hai? (What's the point of voting?)," asks 46-year-old Zainab (name changed to protect identity), who lives right next to Korba Gully.
"I think we shouldn't vote at all. Nobody is on my side. It's my right to vote, so I'll do it, but it is useless," she says, adding that several politicians, human rights activists, and journalists have come and gone but no one has helped them.
In January 2020, Zainab's home was partially destroyed in the violence. She runs a tailoring shop and is the sole earning member of her family of three.
"Bhainsa is peaceful now, but whenever there is a festival happening, we make sure we lock our homes and vacate this house for a few days," Zainab, who suffers from a heart-related ailment, says.
This constant anticipation of violence apart, a major fallout of the communal sensitivity of the town is the lack of economic progress in Bhainsa, say residents.
"Earlier, Bhainsa used to be an industrial area. We had a huge cotton market. After Adilabad, Bhainsa was the second choice for cotton traders. But because of these clashes, development has stopped," remarks Mohiuddin.
He adds that "the new generation doesn't want to come here and the youngsters here are leaving. Nobody wants to marry into Bhainsa. There's no future here."
While the residents have given up hope on getting compensated for their losses, they can't help but urge the government to ensure they have safety and security in the future – so that the younger generation would not be fully devoid of hope.
(This story has been updated with the response of AIMIM president and Hyderabad MP Asaduddin Owaisi.)