It is almost two weeks since eight SIMI activists were gunned down in a police encounter hours after breaking out of the Bhopal jail, but sections of the Muslim community in Khandwa, the Madhya Pradesh town from where five of the killed fugitives hailed, is still seething with anger.
Thousands had turned out for the funerals of the five on November 2 and raised angry slogans against the state government and the police. Agitated mourners also pelted stones in Tapalchaal neighbourhood of the city, best known to outsiders for being the birthplace of legendary singer Kishore Kumar.
Aqeel Ashraf, a prominent activist, said the encounter shrouded in controversy has further deepened the sense of alienation among the local Muslims. “The problem is that an impression is being created in the minds of youth that Muslims mean terrorist and incidents such as the encounter only increase the feeling of alienation among the community members. The way the media covered the entire episode has not helped matters. I think the Bhopal encounter will lead to radicalisation among Muslim youths,” he said.
Khandwa-based lawyer and a prominent community member, Javed Chouhan, said the resentment and anger brewing among Muslim youth was a reaction to the encounter. “When we received the bodies, it was clear from the bullet wounds that the intention had been to kill. The police had violated the Supreme Court guidelines for encounter,” he said.
Senior Congress leader Riaz Hussain said the October 31 killings have added to the communal tension. “A fair and impartial probe into the entire incident is a must and any eyewash in the name of probe will only create more resentment,” he pointed out.
Local elders say Khandwa has always been a communal tinderbox and had witnessed riots following the Babri Masjid demolition. Muslims account for nearly 30% of the town’s 2 lakh population, compared to 8% in entire Madhya Pradesh. A look at the recent history shows that hardly a procession, whether Hindu or Muslim, has passed peacefully in the town. A police official, who did not wish to be named said “Hindus and Muslims try to outdo each other in organising religious processions and this gives an opportunity to fringe elements on both sides to foment trouble”.
The encounter deaths have inflamed passions and the state government has ordered a judicial probe following public criticism. Activists and lawyers of the SIMI activists say the encounter was staged. Several audio and video clips that purportedly suggest the fugitives being shot in cold-blood have deepened suspicion.
Cleric Syed Ansar Ali said a fair probe was the only way to stop Muslim youth from being radicalized. “There is some insecurity among the Muslim youth, but I don’t see any radicalisation. Having said that, the small-time leaders of the right-wing groups must stop making provocative statements. The problem is that everybody is not wise, not educated and there is a lot of influence of TV and media,” he said.
The police, however, insist the situation in Khandwa is under control. “Yes, the situation was tense during the funeral procession, but things are normal now. At present, there is no evidence of SIMI being active in Khandwa,” additional superintendent of police (ASP) Gopal Khandel told HT.