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Communal Riots and Jamshedpur

This article was written by Kashif-ul-Huda and was published in the Economic & Political Weekly on May 23, 2009.

Remains of Sakchi market after it was set on fire
Remains of Sakchi market after it was set on fire. Source: India Today

Much before Jawaharlal Nehru envisaged a vision of modern India, attempts to realise that dream were made in a remote area in Bihar surrounded by dense forest. It was à dream to build a modern industrial city with the essence of Indianness, i e, ethos of plurality, composite culture and a modern world view. That was the city of Jamshedpur. It was a mini-India.

Jamshedpur was a new vision for India. Its founder, Jamshedji Tata is reported to have instructed the planners of this city:

Be sure to lay wide streets planted with shady trees, of which every other should be of a quick growing variety. Be sure that there is plenty of space for lawns and gardens; reserve large areas for football fields, hockey fields and parks; earmark areas for Hindu temples, Mohammedan mosques and Christian churches.

Founded in 1919, Jamshedpur is the first planned industrial city of India. The plan was to promote the establishment of corporations and their eventual prosperity in an Indian setting. Jamshedpur continues to be the only Indian city that does not have a municipality and still, offers great services to its residents. It is a "prosperous" city that provides its residents with access to good paying and stable jobs.

The Tata family has its companies all over Jamshedpur. All economic activities here are directly and indirectly linked to the Tata companies with Tata Steel and Tata Motors (formerly TELCO) being the two biggest employers. Employment and business opportunities here are open to all. This fact has facilitated the growth of Muslims and they have done very well here. Their prosperity and success in the city show in the detailed designs of the mosques that they have built up over the years.

Jamshedpur's peace and prosperity attracted some of the best talent from all over the country and soon it became a microcosm of India. Languages and cultures from all parts of India are proudly displayed. From Urdu mushairas to Bharatnatyam to Christmas parties, the dream of Jamshedji Tata was enthusiastically accepted by its residents. People of different faith, culture, and religion lived next door to each other in quarters provided by the companies.

1964 Riots

In 1964, violence erupted in several places in east India. The reason for this outburst was due to thousands of Hindu refugees from East Pakistan coming to India to escape the anti-Hindu violence back home. The government of India engaged special trains to settle them in India. Tales of horror in East Pakistan raised passions and many cities along the route of these special trains - Calcutta, Jamshedpur, Rourkela, and Raigarh saw anti-Muslim violence in - which thousands - mostly Muslims were killed.

It seemed as if the latest wave of communal violence was unfinished business stemming from the bloody Partition. An analysis of the results of subsequent elections showing electoral gains by the Bharatiya Jan Sangh (BJS) - would suggest that this violence was simply a ploy to make political capital. While both conclusions have elements of truth in them, there is a third dimension to it.

A local economic factor was also at play in the violence of March 1964. The new opportunities that opened up because of the 1960s wave of industrialisation allowed Muslims to move up the economic ladder. Violence tried to put a stop to this mobility. There is anecdotal evidence of some Muslims going back to their villages and towns and not returning back to their jobs.

The violence in 1964 paid rich dividends to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and its affiliates. They were finally able to take root in Jamshedpur and it was the Muslims who were at the receiving end. The BJS showed up for the first time in the elections held in Jamshedpur after 1964 and was able to garner as much as 10% of the votes polled in 1967.

Many Muslims living in company quarters were killed and this gave way to Azad Nagar. A Muslim majority area Azad Nagar, took shape on the edge of the city, on land sold by the adivasis. The Jamaat-e-Islami took an active part in securing the lands for Muslims. They also fought court cases when the RSS tried to disrupt the Muslims' plans by attempting to set up temporary temples on lands ac- quired by the Muslims. Thus the 1964 violence, which saw an estimated 2,000 killed in Jamshedpur, Rourkela and Calcutta, mostly Muslims, helped establish Hindu and Muslim communal organisations as champions for the rights of their respective communities.

Dina Nath Pandey, the man who was to play an important role in 1979 Jamshedpur riots, first arrived on the electoral scene as a BJS candidate in the 1972 Bihar assembly elections, winning 10% of the votes, and rising to the third position for Jamshedpur East assembly seat. He was to win this seat in the 1977 elections as a Janata Party nominee.

1979 Riots

In April 1979, Jamshedpur witnessed Hindu-Muslim violence. Both Muslim and Hindu communal forces had found a receptive audience after the 1964 riots. The Sangh parivar tried to widen its base by starting outreach efforts among the adiva- sis. It was done slowly by introducing Hindu deities and rituals. The Jamaat-e- Islami, on its part, was ready to lend a helping hand in the effort of the Muslims to relocate to outside the city.

Establishment of Muslim bastis brought Muslims closer to the adivasi villages around Jamshedpur. Sabirnagar was one such basti close to the adivasi colony of Dimnabasti. These two bastis provided the spark that put Jamshedpur on fire in 1979. There had been no reports of conflicts between Muslims and adivasis. In fact, Muslim bastis were established on lands sold by the adivasis. In their attempt to "Hinduise" the adivasis, RSS tried to take a Ramnavmi procession in 1978 from Dimnabasti. This was the first time a Ramnavmi procession was to start from Dimnabasti. The organisers insisted that the procession take a route that goes through Sabirnagar. The district administration rejected their request and the high court ruled that though the road is a public thoroughfare and everyone should have access to it, the local administration has the authority to deny permission.

The matter did not end there. The RSS had a whole full year to campaign and spread the word that Hindus in their own country are not able to freely parade their religious processions. In 1979, they again attempted to take the procession from the same route. The district administration and Muslims suggested an alternate route that would have avoided Sabirnagar and a potential source of a clash. However, the organisers of the Ramnavmi procession would have none of it and a stand-off ensued.

Tensions increased in Jamshedpur over this stand-off. By March 1979 almost everyone knew that violence was imminent. RSS chief Balasaheb Deoras visited the town on 1 April. Jamshedpur erupted in violence 10 days later. The Jitendra Narain Commission of Inquiry was set up to investigate the riots. One thing they took into consideration was the speech given by Deoras in Jamshedpur. They held him and the RSS responsible for creating the climate that led to the communal violence.

The commission blamed Deoras for encouraging Hindu extremists to insist on the route that goes through the Muslim basti. The speech along with the camps organised during the conference helped in creating a militant atmosphere. Though there was no precedent of the Ramnavmi procession coming out of Dimnabasti and certainly not passing through the Muslim area, similar processions from other parts of the town were told by the Hindu leaders to be put on hold till the Dimnabasti issue was resolved. There were efforts to reach an agreement or come up with a compromise, while Hindus forced closure of shops to pressure the administration, a few of the leaders were arrested.

A pamphlet was issued by Sri Ramnavmi Kendriya Akhara Samiti on 7 April, which was not only a declaration of communal violence but also openly detailed how and when it would happen. Hindus were told to come to Dimnabasti at 11 am on 11 April and take the procession from the route that was to go through Sabirnagar, a Muslim area. Once the procession had successfully passed through the area, then other processions would start later that afternoon. Meanwhile, a deal was reached on 11 April, a procession did pass through Sabrinagar accompanied by some local Muslims. The procession was attended by very few and reached the main road safely.

But the danger was far from over. Processions crawled; an attempt was made to delay the progress till the 11 am mark when a large number of people were expected to join it. The procession stopped in the Mango area in front of a masjid. Now, the procession had grown to about 15,000 strong. Local MLA Dina Nath Pandey announced that the procession would not move forward till all Hindus who had been arrested earlier were released. The administration tried to reason that any release will take hours if not days but Pandey would have none of that, and did not budge from his decision.

Muslims were also prepared for the violence. A stone was thrown at the procession and the violence started. In the next few days, 108 people were to lose their lives. Thousands of houses were looted. Muslims living in company quarters and predominantly Hindu areas were especially vulnerable to violence.

Though the district administration was praised for trying its best to prevent the violence, junior level policemen and Bihar Military Police were held responsible for not deterring Hindu mobs from attacking Muslims or attacking Muslims them- selves. All those who died in police firings were mainly Muslims.

A most horrific incident that occurred during these riots would be seared into the memories of people present. This was the burning of an ambulance full of women and children. About 60 were inside this vehicle, a part of the caravan of vehicles carrying Muslims from the besieged Bhaulbasa area to safety. This ambulance veered off the road to a side lane and was burnt. Only a few could survive to tell the tale of horror.

One prominent victim of these riots was Zaki Anwar, a professor. He went on a fast in Gandhian fashion a day before in an attempt to prevent the violence. A man of secular principles, he lived in a Hindu area and refused to leave his house during this frightening event. In the afternoon of the violence, he was dead. There were rumours that he was killed by Muslim fanatics, as they could not see any Muslim espousing secularism ideals. It does not matter who killed the professor. One thing is certain for sure, secularism and communal harmony died along with him that day in Jamshedpur. The city continued to have fears every year on the occasion of Ramnavmi. Fortunately though, it never again resulted in a full- fledged communal riot. Maybe it was the sacrifice of Zaki Anwar that saved Jamshedpur from future riots.

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