Did Hindu-Muslim Unity Really Go Up in Flames in Odisha’s Bhadrak?

How social media fanned religious fervour to turn an Odisha town into a tinderbox – and the politics of it all.

8 min read
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The Quint travelled to Bhadrak, 130 kilometres from Odisha’s capital Bhubaneswar, to examine the fallout of the communal violence that struck last week. This ground report explores how a small town turned into a tinderbox. Why was the police caught off guard? What are the social, political and economic ramifications of the violence?


As Bhubaneswar decks up to welcome Prime Minister Narendra Modi later this week, a shopkeeper – whose store was gutted in Bhadrak’s communal violence – asks if the PM would care to visit the town and see for himself the damage that has been caused.

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Both the Centre and the state are sleeping. They don’t realise how much we have lost in the violence. The administration hasn’t even come to inspect our burned shops yet, even five days after the violence.
Owner of a shop that was gutted by a mob in Bhadrak’s Chandan Bazaar
So what exactly prompted communal violence in a town that last saw a Hindu-Muslim riot 26 years ago, in the summer of 1991?

Online Abuse Turns into Offline Frenzy

It’s impossible to imagine social media today without the presence of trolls, abusing and insulting their way into conversations.

It was an abusive comment thread on Facebook that ostensibly sparked communal tensions in Bhadrak. A Hindu youngster’s seemingly provocative post drew comments insulting Hindu deities Ram and Sita. These were allegedly made by Facebook profiles named Asif Ali Khan and Md Asif Khan.

On Thursday, 6th April, Hindu groups arrived at Bhadrak Town Police Station demanding action against those who had offended Hindu sentiments on social media.

The next day, a peace committee meeting was convened where representatives from Hindu and Muslim communities met district and police officials.

At the end of the meeting though, all hell broke loose. A senior police official told The Quint that pro-Pakistan chants were raised outside the venue of the meet.

The hours that followed showed how spectacularly the peace meet had failed. Muslim mobs attacked shops owned by Hindus in places such as Chandan Bazaar, Hindu mobs burnt Muslim establishments on Town Hall Road, Hanif Market and so on – in defiance of Section 144 prohibiting any assembly of over four people, that had been imposed.
How social media fanned religious fervour to turn an Odisha town into a tinderbox – and the politics of it all.
(Photo: Meghnad Bose/The Quint)

While Bhadrak Burned, Where Were the Cops?

The cops were right there. Four policemen watched as mute spectators as a mob came and burned my shop in Chandan Bazaar.
Krishna Murari, Grocery Shop Owner 

“Fifty years worth of hard work ruined in one hour,” rues Rajkumar Gupta, whose grocery shop in Chandan Bazaar was gutted by a mob. Gupta confirms that police were there, but was clearly outnumbered by the mob.

How social media fanned religious fervour to turn an Odisha town into a tinderbox – and the politics of it all.
A shop in Chandan Bazaar, gutted in the mob violence (Photo: Meghnad Bose/The Quint)

Senior police officers deployed in Bhadrak after the violence, say the local police lacked the requisite reinforcements to seriously attempt controlling the mob.

After the violence, 4 companies of the CRPF, 2 companies of the RAF and 43 platoons of the Odisha Police were deployed in Bhadrak. There was even a 48-hour clampdown on internet services and curfew every evening after 4 pm.

How social media fanned religious fervour to turn an Odisha town into a tinderbox – and the politics of it all.
Heavy security on the streets of Bhadrak (Photo: Meghnad Bose/The Quint)
But the question is – if Hindu groups had mobilised themselves on Thursday seeking police action against the social media offenders, why did the police underestimate the potential for a full-blown crisis to erupt the next day? Had the local police requested additional forces on Thursday itself, could Bhadrak have been spared the carnage?

From sub-inspector to ACP, cops at every level, that The Quint spoke to, agreed that the police had underestimated the crisis. And that Bhadrak paid the price.


'My Son Is a Scapegoat'

In the narrow lanes of Purana Bazaar is Asghar Ali’s house, whose son has been arrested in connection with the offensive comments on Facebook.

How social media fanned religious fervour to turn an Odisha town into a tinderbox – and the politics of it all.
Asghar Ali holds up a photograph of his son (Photo: Meghnad Bose/The Quint)
SP Bhadrak Dilip Das on Wednesday told The Quint that Asghar Ali’s son was the ‘Asif’ that the police had been looking for. Das said, “Asif and Sarfaraz are the same, Sarfaraz is an alias.”

(Following Odisha CM Naveen Patnaik’s visit to Bhadrak, Dilip Das has since been transferred from his posting as the town’s SP.)

Asghar, who has been associated with both the BJD and the Congress in the past, vehemently disagrees with the police. “My son Sarfaraz had made an abusive comment on the controversial Facebook post, but his insults were not directed at any religion. On Thursday, the cops picked him up. If they are calling him Asif Ali Khan, they are wrong. I have documents to prove my son’s name is Sarfaraz Ali Khan. Asif is not even his nickname, nobody calls him Asif.”

Asghar Ali showed The Quint a file containing Sarfaraz’ Aadhaar card and other documents. Brandishing his son’s identity cards, Asghar asserts, “Police will have to answer for their actions.”

Moazzam Ali Khan, Sarfaraz’ elder brother, claims that the arrest was made following the police station being gheraoed on Thursday.

Police had to act quickly so they made him a scapegoat. They have ruined the reputation of an 18-year-old with this baseless arrest. What will he do after this?

Asghar Ali adds, “We will go to court for bail and tell the court it’s a wrong arrest. How is my son Asif Ali? He is not. Police have failed to catch the real culprits.”

Apart from Sarfaraz, police have arrested close to a hundred other people in connection to the cases of arson.


The Bhadrak Blamegame – Where Does the Buck Stop?

How social media fanned religious fervour to turn an Odisha town into a tinderbox – and the politics of it all.
Most shops in Bhadrak have remained shut since the violence (Photo: Meghnad Bose/The Quint)

Fifty-year-old Sheikh Naeem Akthar owns a shop in the plastic market on Bhadrak’s Town Hall Road. The violence last Friday saw his store and everything inside it get burned to the ground. Akthar is upset with the state administration for letting things come to such a pass.

If the BJD government can’t guarantee us our safety, and our shops’ safety, then what is the point of us voting for them?

But other Muslims, who also lost shops, blame the BJP and its Sangh affiliates. While one claims that the BJP is responsible, another shopkeeper Sheikh Kala claims, “Members of the Bajrang Dal and the RSS were part of the violence. They burned Rs 7 lakh worth of items in my shop.”

Local BJP leader and former councillor Enamul Haq Khan rubbishes these allegations. “This is being done by the BJD to disrepute the BJP. They are wary of our steady rise in Odisha and are doing this to protect the minority vote.”

Local businessman Rajkumar Gupta echoes Khan’s sentiments. “The BJD is scared that the BJP will come to power in the state in 2019.”

How social media fanned religious fervour to turn an Odisha town into a tinderbox – and the politics of it all.
Local BJP leader Enamul Haq Khan (Photo: Meghnad Bose/The Quint)

Enamul Haq questions the role of the sitting BJD MLA from Bhadrak, “I ask Jugal Kishore Pattnaik, how could a rally take place despite Section 144?” Haq claims “Close relatives of local BJD leaders were involved in the arson.”

While the BJD has rebutted allegations of fomenting violence, there are murmurs within the party. For instance, senior BJD leader and Bhadrak MP Arjun Charan Sethi’s comment on the inept handling of the situation by the district administration and the police. Clearly a swipe at his own party that rules Odisha.

Sethi had asked how the district administration allowed a bike rally in Bhadrak when Section 144 was in force.

A senior police inspector in Bhadrak remarked, “The BJD MP has said out loud what we possibly couldn’t. He’s clearly pointed the finger towards local MLA Jugal Pattnaik.”


Shops Gutted in Communal Blaze, Losses Worth Crores

Shopkeeper Sheikh Naeem Akthar recounts, “On Thursday, hundreds of Hindus proceeded from the police station to the marketplace, and warned us to shut shop and leave. We did that. But the next day, the mobs returned and burned our shops down.”

Even as a Hindu mob was gutting Akthar’s shop and the ones adjoining it, elsewhere in Bhadrak, Muslim mobs were pillaging the grocery stores of Chandan Bazaar.
How social media fanned religious fervour to turn an Odisha town into a tinderbox – and the politics of it all.
A store in Chandan Bazaar, burned down in the communal violence last Friday (Photo: Meghnad Bose/The Quint)

Businessman Rajkumar Gupta explains, “This is a wholesale grocery market. Most shops are owned by the Marwari community. On Friday, Muslim mobs broke in, looted and eventually gutted an entire row of shops here. I lost goods worth Rs 3 crore.”

Whether it is Naeem Akthar or Rajkumar Gupta, Mirza Abbas Ali or Krishna Murari, shopkeepers belonging to both faiths have been left devastated by the rampage. Their common demand now? Adequate compensation.

Speaking to The Quint on Tuesday, grocery shop owner Krishan Murari is livid: “The administration hasn't inspected our burned shops yet, it’s been five days since the violence. How long do we preserve the evidence and keep our shutters down?”

How social media fanned religious fervour to turn an Odisha town into a tinderbox – and the politics of it all.
Grocery shop owner Krishan Murari (Photo: Meghnad Bose/The Quint)

Murari recounts the happenings of that fateful evening. “From where I stay, I could see the mob burning my store. Instinctively, I rushed down.” Pointing to the injuries on his leg, he continues, “They threw stones at me. Help wasn’t available. Four policemen stood and watched. Even the fire brigade arrived hours after I called them.”

For 40-year-old Sandesh Kumar Gupta, neither his general store nor his scooter survived the arson. “The fire reached the upper floor where we stay, so we had to rush down. But on exiting the building, I was attacked by the mob.”

Sheikh Tabarak Ali sold stationary products and cosmetics at his shop on Court Road. On Friday, he shut his shop at 1 pm. “After namaaz, I went home for a nap. I was coming back to open the shop at 5 pm.”

On the way, I saw people with torches and swords and didn’t venture further. In the evening, I called the Guptas who live next to my shop. They said the mob had burned my store.
How social media fanned religious fervour to turn an Odisha town into a tinderbox – and the politics of it all.
Odisha CM Naveen Patnaik in Bhadrak on Wednesday (Photo: PTI)

On Wednesday, Odisha CM Naveen Patnaik visited Bhadrak for the first time since the violence. He is reported to have asked the district collector to identify the genuine victims of the violence so that arrangements can be made for their compensation.


'Bhaichara Bana Rahega'

Though Bhadrak catapulted into national headlines for the communal unrest in the region, yet through the violence, there were instances of Hindus and Muslims having each other’s back.

How social media fanned religious fervour to turn an Odisha town into a tinderbox – and the politics of it all.
Sarfuddin Khan looks at the remains of his ‘Fancy Footwear’ shop (Photo: Meghnad Bose/The Quint)
For example, when 35-year-old Sarfuddin Khan’s ‘Fancy Footwear’ shop in Loknath Market was set ablaze, it was his Hindu neighbour Jiggu who rushed to inform him. “I was at home. Jiggu called the fire brigade and did all he could to save my shop.”

Not much was salvaged of ‘Fancy Footwear’. But amidst the communal violence was a message of brotherhood. Or as a shopkeeper in Bhadrak put it,

Yeh bhaichara tha, hai aur rahega. Yeh bana rahega.

19-year-old Shubham Mishra, a first year BSc student at the Bhadrak Autonomous College, speaks with the optimism of youth.

Leaders misguide youngsters to achieve their ulterior objectives. Communalism is a virus being unleashed into our society. But it won’t succeed.

He laughs, “I am a Brahmin. But I love going to the houses of my Muslim friends and having their chicken biryani. After all, they make biryani like no one else can!”

They will not break Hindu-Muslim unity here. Yeh bhai-bhai ki dosti nahi tod payenge.

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