A crowd gathers after police recovered alleged cow meat from a home in Araria, Bihar. The mob protested the alleged sacrifice of a cow on the occasion of Eid ul-Adha. (HT photo)
A crowd gathers after police recovered alleged cow meat from a home in Araria, Bihar. The mob protested the alleged sacrifice of a cow on the occasion of Eid ul-Adha. (HT photo)

Post alliance, communal row in Bihar points to slow rise of BJP’s Hindutva

Experts say the events in Araria reveal how the BJP and its affiliates are leveraging their influence in the state government to expand their muscular brand of Hindutva to regions where they had no previous presence.
By Aman Sethi | Hindustan Times, Araria (Bihar)
UPDATED ON SEP 05, 2017 09:54 AM IST

The policemen looked bored and the parents who had gathered at the police station were panic-stricken, as their teenage sons sulked behind the bars of the lockup in this sleepy rural district headquarters along the Nepal border.

“Ma tum jao ... just leave,” a skinny young man in a saffron vest shouted as his teary-eyed mother tried to negotiate the release of her son.

Several parents nervously peered at a policeman’s phone as he played footage of the violence from the night before when an mob of hundreds of angry Hindu men lit a fire not far from National Highway 57, blocked traffic, and pelted stones at a convoy of policemen to protest against the alleged sacrifice of a cow on Eid ul-Adha.

While approximately 30 people were initially detained for questioning, Dhurat Sayli Savlaram, Araria’s superintendent of police, said a total of 13 people — both Hindu and Muslim — had been arrested for cow slaughter, and for rioting.

A month after Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar dumped his former ally and formed a new government by forging a mid-term alliance with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), experts say the events in Araria reveal how the BJP and its affiliates are leveraging their influence in the state government to expand their muscular brand of Hindutva to regions where they had no previous presence.

“The Bajrang Dal has made steady inroads in Bihar, particularly amongst non-Yadav groups,” said Mohammed Sajjad, a professor at Aligarh Muslim University and author of Muslim Politics in Bihar: Changing Contours, “With Nitish tying up with the BJP, we will have to see if he can hold onto his extremely-backward caste base, or if it gravitates towards the BJP.”

In Araria, the incident began, the police said, in the afternoon of September 2, when Hindus in an unauthorised settlement on the Araria-Raniganj road said their Muslim neighbours had sacrificed a cow for Eid ul-Adha. Police were called and they confiscated several pieces of meat from one of the huts and sent it for analysis. By then, a crowd had gathered, which was dispersed at almost 11pm after heavy police deployment.

“We defused the situation by the evening when we promised to arrest the accused,” said a senior police officer involved in pacifying the crowd. “Then a crowd re-appeared, someone waved a Bajrang Dal flag, and the mob demanded the accused be handed over to them for punishment.”

The intensity of this most recent demonstration, which resulted in injuries to at least three policemen, surprised city officials. Senior police officers said this was the first time the Bajrang Dal, an affiliate of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, had participated in a demonstration in Araria town.

Local leaders from the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) have made representations to the district administration to release those arrested for rioting.

“The police has detained several innocent people,” said Shishir Kumar, the RSS’s city representative, insisting that no Hindu organisation was involved in the fracas, “A false impression of RSS involvement is being created.”

“We control the central government, the state government, and the local administration,” said his deputy, Nagendra Mishra. “We don’t need to riot to put our point across, we can do so through the proper channels.”

WhatsApp Violence

While the Bajrang Dal has no presence on the ground in Araria, its small unit in nearby Forbesganj has been quite active on social media.

In September 2016, for instance, a Facebook page affiliated to the group exhorted followers to join the Dal in a post with a meme wittily titled, “Keep Calm and Join Bajrangdal Forbesganj,” along with a number for a WhatsApp group.

“Young people today will disregard what their parents say, but will treat a WhatsApp forward as the truth straight from the mouth of Gandhiji,” said a senior police officer, who said the viral transmission of information make it possible to organise huge crowds at a moment’s notice, “They will say, look what is happening in Kashmir, look what China is doing, and try and connect it to Araria town.”

For Anil Kumar, a bank collection agent, the arrest of his college-going son Sushant for rioting came as a shock.

“Ninety per cent of my clients are Muslim,” Kumar said, “We don’t want any communal tension in this town.”

Sushant, his father surmised, had probably made contact with the Dal when he participated in a religious rally last year. There had been a significant increase in such rallies since 2014, he said, including this year when a rally celebrating the Hindu god Ganapati was organised for the first time.

“I’m really going to shout at Sushant when he is released. Who does he think he is?” said Kumar, as he paced nervously outside the police station. “If a cow has been killed, let the police handle it. Has he taken a contract to protect Hinduism?”

None of those arrested had any jobs, Kumar said. “They just spend the whole day staring at their phones.”

The Bajrang Dal’s Forbesganj unit was unavailable for comments as they had switched off their phones, and were not replying to WhatsApp messages.

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