I guess I should not have been diplomatic. But I had believed that being neutral was the best way out of the sticky situation I found myself in. And a name like Aftab Khan did not help.
I had travelled overnight to Dhule from Nashik and the first thing I did was to visit the Collector's office for a curfew pass. I got that from the Resident Deputy Collector S. Waghmode and, stapelling it to my pocket thought this was all the protection I would need.
Most of the rioting on Monday and defiance of curfew seemed to be in the Hindu-dominated areas of the town, where Muslim shops were being looted and burnt. I began to move from area to area, where despite the curfew men and women were in huddled in groups, while policemen, zipping through the streets, seemed uncaring that a curfew was on.
Soon I ambled into Nagarpatta, about half-a-kilometer from the Collector’s office. I was taking notes and clicking pictures — routine activities of a reporter. There were other reporters around, so it should not really have been a problem. But then a man asked,“Are you a journalist?'”
When I said, “yes,'” he asked who I thought had been more affected by the riots — Hindus or Muslims. It was as undiplomatic a question as ever asked and I knew Muslims had been the bigger victims, but I sought to be neutral, more so than perhaps I would have been while stating the truth in my report.
So when they persisted, I replied as non-commital as possible. “I think both communities might have suffered equal losses. That's what usually happens in riots of this nature, doesn't it?”
Obviously, it was an answer that none liked. There was a sudden palpable tension in the air as a big group of men, all of them armed, began to close in on me. They were intent on reading the name on the curfew pass pinned to my shirt and once they had read it, the weapons began to be brandished.
“Whatever you do….” said one man menacingly and left his sentence ominously unfinished. I found myself being jostled around. I thought this was now the end of my life. I first thought they might rough me up but seeing the knives out, I was sure I would be stabbed.
But God, obviously, had different plans. For just like a hero in Hindi films, the cops arrived. this time they arrived not late or too late, but just in the nick of time. They stopped these potential attackers and even as the mob was arguing with the cops, there was another eerie, Bollywood-like experience. A local journalist, Sunil Bahalkar, vroomed into the middle of the crowd on his motorcycle, told the cops and the rioters that he knew me and rode away with me now riding pillion.
I was taken to the Azad nagar police station, though, where after I had made sure I had collected enough information for my story on the riots, the cops flagged down another knight on a motorcycle (in this town, they seem to be playing the role horses did of yore) and made sure I was dropped at the Gurdwara outside the city on the outskirts of Dhule with the instruction that I should head out of town as soon as possible before nightfall.