Malegaon was ragged and sullen and dry as a tinderbox on Sunday, two days after cycle bombs tore through the peace of Friday prayers, leaving 31 people dead and about 270 injured. It seemed as if it would take very little to push the town over the edge.
The townspeople had been blessed with the usual post-traumatic political visitation, this one by Samajwadi Party leader and Rajya Sabha MP Abu Asim Azmi.
Around 4.15 in the afternoon, a crowd of about two thousand took to the narrow streets, blocking the road to the graveyard that was the scene of one of the bomb explosions.
The angry crowd forced shops in the area, one of the busiest in the town, to pull down their shutters. And, furious over rumours that some Muslims had been detained, the crowd began to shout slogans demanding that the “real” attackers be caught.
Just as it seemed another bloody footnote would be added to the troubled town’s history of sectarian violence, however, a few Muslim religious leaders, helped by some sane Malegaon citizens, intervened to keep the fragile peace.
A visit by superintendent of police Rajvardhan helped too. He called on the people to maintain calm. As the mob milled around him, Rajvardhan promised that he would not leave the town until all those responsible for Friday’s attacks were behind bars.
“We have a number of leads,” he said. “The shop from which the bicycles were purchased has been identified. Eyewitnesses are coming forward and we are in the process of preparing sketches of the suspects.”
“Do you want us to arrest innocent people? This will only lead to the guilty being let off the hook. Work with us and we will nab the criminals,” Rajvardhan said.
Community leaders also stepped up to say their bit. “The media and people across the world have praised the people of Malegaon for their restraint after the blasts,” said one resident. “Do you want all that good work to go down the drain?”
The combined effort seemed to work and the crowd began to drift into the nearby mosque for afternoon prayers. Suddenly, tension rose again when some young men objected to the presence of the police outside the mosque.
Accompanied by only two policemen and a few Muslim elders, Rajvardhan went to the mosque to speak directly to the crowd. “We are here to help you,” he told them. “To bring the guilty to book. Have faith in us and, above all, in Allah, who will never deny justice.” As Rajvardhan was being escorted out of the mosque by some of the elders and the crowed began to disperse, a few cries of “deen, deen” rose from behind him, but it was clear that — for the moment at least — the fuse had not been lit, and Malegaon would sleep peacefully but uneasily one more night.