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Bike rally, stone-pelting & ‘hidden assault’ — tracking the spark that set Karauli on fire

Curfew and internet suspension continue to impede life in Rajasthan's Karauli two days after a communal clash left at least 35 wounded. The place has the eerie quiet of calm before the storm.

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Karauli: The tiny lanes of Phoota Kot and Hatwara Bazar in Rajasthan’s Karauli, generally abuzz with activity, lie empty. Black, putrid fumes from burnt shops rise into the unusually quiet sky.

Men in khaki dot the area. The place has the eerie quiet of calm before the storm.

It is the second day of Ramzan. Curfew and internet suspension continue to impede life in the city 48 hours after a clash left at least 35 people — both Hindus and Muslims — wounded.

The two connected areas were the epicentre of a communal clash Saturday in the wake of a bike rally called to celebrate the Hindu New Year.

The bike rally, called by 10-15 Hindutva organisations — believed to include the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the Bajrang Dal, the and Sewa Bharti — began from a thoroughfare. The clash took place near a T-Point connecting three lanes, one of which leads to a temple and a masjid.

Neither shrine was harmed in the clash, police sources said.

The Rajasthan government has deployed 1,500 police personnel in the area. Twenty people have been arrested so far, Karauli Superintendent of Police (SP) Shailendra Singh Indoliya said Monday. Thirty-three people have been arrested for allegedly breaching curfew.

An FIR dated 3 April — the day after the clash — is filed under several sections of the IPC: Sections 332 (voluntarily causing hurt to deter public servant from his duty); 353 (assault or criminal force to deter public servant from discharge of his duty); 307 (attempt to murder); 295A (deliberate and malicious acts, intended to outrage religious feelings); 147 (rioting), 392 (robbery), 336 (endangering life or personal safety of others).

It names a total of 40 people, a senior police officer said, adding that both Hindus and Muslims have been arrested in equal numbers.

Indoliya said police were now looking at videos of the incident to help identify the suspects. “More arrests will follow,” he added.

Police sources said 22 bikes were damaged in the riots and 13 shops — 11 belonging to Muslims and two belonging to the Dalit ‘Khatiks’ — were burnt in the violence.

Some minor arson incidents were reported Sunday too, Inspector General (Bharatpur range) Prashant Kumar Khamesra told ThePrint.

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How it happened 

Both Phoota Kot and Hatwara Bazar are Muslim-majority areas.

District authorities claim permission was given for a rally of 250 bikes. Karauli District Magistrate Rajendra Singh Shekhawat claimed that the rally followed a decided route.

A peace committee meeting was held on 31 March, between representatives of both communities, sources in the administration said.

A peace committee meeting held at Karauli Monday, in the aftermath of the violence | Bismee Taskin | ThePrint
A peace committee meeting held at Karauli Monday, in the aftermath of the violence | Bismee Taskin | ThePrint

Some 50-60 police personnel were initially deployed for security on the day of the rally.

The rally began at 4 pm. Police sources privy to the ongoing investigation said trouble began after some people from the rally played songs that could be deemed “offensive” to Muslims, followed by “provocative” sloganeering on loudspeakers.

Chaos ensued, the sources added, saying stone slabs were hurled down one of the buildings along the rally route.

“Those part of the rally gathered the members of their community and burnt down the shops belonging to Muslims. Around 500-600 people gathered after the stone-pelting,” a senior police officer said.

Police reinforcements were subsequently brought in at the site.

When ThePrint asked him about the sloganeering, SP Indoliya said police were verifying the authenticity of the videos that have been circulating since the incident.

A special investigation team (SIT) headed by an ASP-rank officer is investigating the case.

As the probe continues, however, highly placed sources in Rajasthan Police admit to lapses in dealing with the situation.

“The DJ and the music should have been shut down at the first instance. The sloganeering in the Muslim-majority area should have been stopped,” a source said.

The sources also pointed out that the tiny lanes and the fact that only one fire truck was available added to the property damage. When asked, DM Shekhawat said, “Yes, there were only two fire trucks, one reached the spot.”

Police sources said they were looking for two people who have been named in the FIR — Neeru Shukla, head of the local RSS shakha, a convenor of the rally, and Matlub Ahmed, the councillor of ward no 35.

Ahmed lives just ahead of the masjid, police sources and local residents said. The stone-pelting allegedly began from a house belonging to one of his relatives, the sources added.

However, the sources said, whether the people who engaged in stone-pelting are connected to Ahmed is still a matter of investigation.

ThePrint reached both Shukla and Ahmed by calls but their phones were switched off.

What exactly happened?

Top officers of Rajasthan Police said the violence prima facie appears to be unplanned.

“These stone slabs are already in their homes,” one source privy to investigation said. “It doesn’t appear that they collected it to throw at the people in the rally,” the source added.

Both Shekhawat and Karauli police have dismissed claims that petrol bombs were used in the violence.

“Bangle shops, which were among the shops that were burnt down, have lacquer, which is highly flammable. Even a tiny matchstick flame can cause huge damage,” Shekhawat said.

Indoliya, however, said the cause of the fire will be known only after forensic analysis. When ThePrint asked if it was a conspiracy to create disharmony, he replied that the case was being investigated.

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‘Damage to communal harmony’

Akhilesh Parashar, a 26-year-old engineering graduate, says he was an eyewitness to the sloganeering and the violence that day. He is currently nursing a fractured hand and a severe head injury at the Karauli district hospital.

“I was standing near the Shani Dev mandir,” he told ThePrint from the hospital.

Akhilesh Parashar, 26, who was injured in the violence, at Karauli district hospital | Bismee Taskin | ThePrint
Akhilesh Parashar, 26, who was injured in the violence, at Karauli district hospital | Bismee Taskin | ThePrint

“Everyone had saffron flags. I took one and waved it too. Yes, people were raising slogans. Suddenly, people started pelting stones from a three-storeyed building. All of them were wearing masks. One slab hit me. Some people were hidden in shops and they started hitting rally participants with sticks. I ran away and hid in one shop,” he said.

“My brother, who was also at the rally, was detained after the violence,” Parashar added.

One of the convenors of the rally, Vipin Sharma, who’s affiliated with the RSS and was wounded in the violence, claimed that when the rally reached Hatwara, he saw some masked men standing on rooftops of buildings.

“The rally started very peacefully,” he said. “But when we reached Hatwara, about 250 people were standing on the rooftops wearing masks throwing stone slabs. This was a pre-planned conspiracy,” he said over the phone.

Aminuddin Khan, a social worker, said he believes the songs and the sloganeering triggered the violence.

“Provocative songs were played in the area near the masjid,” he added.

Qazi Rukshar Ahmed, a community leader, claimed that the two communities had mutually agreed to abstain from provoking each other.

“Why were those Muslim shops burnt? What did they do? They are simple businessmen,” he said. “Those who pelted the stones should be punished, but why were the rest punished?”

Ahmed, he said, was being unfairly blamed. “Matlub isn’t responsible for those who threw stones from the house,” he added.

The incident has had an impact on the area’s communal harmony, residents claimed. Local residents say the area has earlier seen two minor clashes — one in 2006 and another in 2012— but nothing of this scale.

“I live in a Muslim-majority area,” the 26-year-old engineering graduate said. “There was harmony between the two communities. There have been fights before but nothing of this scale.”

Anjum Karaulbi’s readymade garment shop was burnt down, as was his brother’s footwear shop. He, like many others whose shops have burned in the violence, now fears for his livelihood.

One of the shops that have been completely destroyed in the fire is Muskan Bangles. Arbaaz Khan, 22, ran the shop, located on the ground floor of a three-storey building. The owner of the building, a Hindu family, moved to Mumbai years ago and visits only on vacations.

He was in the shop with his 12-year-old brother, father, and mother when 8-9 men allegedly came knocking on the shop’s shutters and pulled him out.

“They had sticks in their hands and warned us to leave the area if we wanted to stay alive. I held my younger brother and we ran for our lives,” he said.

22-year-old Arbaaz Khan's shop Muskan Bangles at Karauli was completely destroyed during the violence | Bismee Taskin | ThePrint
22-year-old Arbaaz Khan’s shop Muskan Bangles was completely destroyed during the violence | Bismee Taskin | ThePrint

His house across the street also came under attack. The family’s been living in the fields nearby ever since, struggling to survive as supplies dwindle.

“They have burned down my father’s life savings. We have no food and water,” Khan said to ThePrint, sobbing on the phone. “We have never seen such a thing here. There has always been a sentiment of brotherhood.”

They had rented the shop in 2010 for Rs 5,000 a month.

“Now we pay 17,000 a month and the lease runs for the whole year, so all the money’s gone now. How will we survive? What will we eat?”

PFI link? 

Some news reports link the violence to the Popular Front of India (PFI) — an Islamic organisation — but SP Indoliya played down the claim. Much of the speculation centres on a letter written by state PFI president Mohammed Asif to Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot and the DGP ahead of the bike rally.

Speaking to ThePrint, Mohammad Asif said: “The letter was sent to the CM and the DGP of Rajasthan requesting [them] that no objectionable slogans should be raised during the rally in various districts because it could lead to communal disharmony and that external anti-social elements may try to create communal tension.

“We asked the administration to keep a complete record of information on the organisers of the rally.”

Asif added that the “PFI has no presence in Karauli”.

District Magistrate Shekhawat Monday promised compensation to those who have suffered losses and to consider curfew relaxations. He also announced mohalla committees to speak to the families in the disturbed zone.

Meanwhile, a peace committee gathering Monday afternoon to demand stringent punishment for culprits and compensation for the affected saw around 200 people from both communities in attendance. They also vowed to maintain peace.

(Edited by Uttara Ramaswamy)

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