‘Argument, arson, tear gas’: What happened in Chhatrapati Sambhajinagar on Ram Navami eve

‘Argument, arson, tear gas’: What happened in Chhatrapati Sambhajinagar on Ram Navami eve

Tension has been building ever since the city's name was changed from Aurangabad to Chhatrapati Sambhajinagar in February. Violence has triggered fresh political row.

Maharashtra police personnel (Representational image) | palgharpolice.gov.in

Maharashtra police personnel (Representational image) | palgharpolice.gov.in

Mumbai: On the eve of Ram Navami, violence broke out in the Kiradpura area of Chhatrapati Sambhajinagar (erstwhile Aurangabad) in Maharashtra. A mob of 500-600 people allegedly pelted stones at police personnel near a prominent Ram temple late Wednesday, leaving at least 10 of them injured, and torched 13 police vehicles. In return, the police used tear gas and plastic bullets.

While police say an argument between two groups from the Hindu and Muslim communities on the night of 29 March snowballed into clashes that lasted over three hours, tension had been building up in the city ever since its renaming in February.

Political parties have, for years, played the religion card in the city — be it Sena patriarch Bal Thackeray turning his demand for its name change into his party’s poll promise since the 80s, Raj Thackeray of Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) demanding removal of loudspeakers from mosques last year, or the Hindu Sakal Samaj holding morchas demanding a law against ‘love jihad’.

The latest incident has also provided enough fodder to start off a blame game. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), and the Shiv Sena (Thackeray) have accused the All India Majlis-E-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM) of keeping the communal pot boiling, while the latter has claimed that the renaming of the city contributed to disturbing the peace.

As many as seven people have been arrested in connection with the violence while one injured man died in hospital Friday. Commissioner of Police Nikhil Gupta confirmed to ThePrint that a Special Investigative Team — comprising three officers and seven personnel — has been formed to investigate the case.

According to Union Minister of State for Finance Bhagwat Karad, the violence began after some members of the Hindu community visited a local temple at around 12 am. He told the media, “They were allegedly beaten up by some miscreants, which triggered riots. There is a possibility of involvement of public representatives, especially those from the AIMIM.”

Local Member of Parliament and AIMIM leader Imtiaz Jaleel told ThePrint, “I kept getting calls about the clashes from locals. When I confronted the police, they said that there was a team on the spot. But I started getting calls for help as the violence intensified.” Following which, he said, he went to the spot and remained inside the temple.

Asked about Karad’s insinuation of AIMIM’s involvement, he said, “This is being done to hide their (own) failure. According to them, they are behind all the good work but if anything bad happens, it is because of the AIMIM. A high-level inquiry committee should be appointed to probe the incident and find those involved in it.”

The central government approved the renaming of Aurangabad to Chhatrapati Sambhajinagar in February and there have been protests across the city against it since. Jaleel himself was booked for holding a protest candle march early last month.

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The night of violence

Kiradpura in Chhatrapati Sambhajinagar is a Muslim-dominated area. But this area houses a famous Ram temple where every year, a procession is taken out on Ram Navami, according to local residents.

Police Commissioner Nikhil Gupta told mediapersons that an argument broke out between two groups of men around 11.30 pm Wednesday. The police intervened and one group left. But after another hour or so, a mob gathered there, and the issue escalated.

The mob then allegedly started attacking police personnel with lathis and iron rods. The police, outnumbered, could not disperse the mob, according to the FIR, seen by ThePrint.

However, MP Jaleel said that according to one of the theories floating around, the clashes erupted when a group of men carrying saffron flags began sloganeering. One of them, who was on a bike, allegedly bumped into a bystander, who was a Muslim, leading to a fight. The situation aggravated as the mob grew.

The MP claimed that police did not act on time. “How the violence began would be clear once the police checked CCTV footage…but why was there no response when I called the police? Why did the force reach the spot almost two hours later? Why did the fire brigade not rush to the spot immediately, despite me calling them? These questions need to be answered,” he said.

ThePrint reached commissioner Gupta via phone calls and WhatsApp messages but did not get a response. This report will be updated if and when a response is received.

The politics

The city is turning to normalcy with the government deploying five companies of the State Reserve Police Force (SRPF) as a precaution, but politics continues to be played over this.

Earlier in March, MP Jaleel led a protest against the renaming of the city and rival political parties are now blaming him for disturbing peace in the city.

“I think the protest taken out by Imtiaz Jaleel over renaming has created an aggression among the people,” said BJP district head Shirish Boralkar.  

“This looks like a pre-planned conspiracy with a targeted attack on police,” he added.

Even Shiv Sena (UBT) is on the same page with the BJP on this.

“The protest march over renaming disturbed the peace in the city…One community was upset over the renaming of the city. The BJP lent support by allowing the protest to happen for many days. The home minister should have stopped it earlier,” ex-mayor and Shiv Sena (UBT)’s Nandkumar Ghodele told ThePrint.

Leader of Opposition in the legislative council Ambadas Danve of Shiv Sena (UBT) alleged that the BJP and the AIMIM have been trying to instigate violence ever since the city was renamed.

“These parties consistently tried to pitch Hindus against Muslims and create an environment that will lead to riots. I have told the police commissioner four times earlier, but it was not taken seriously. They create polarisation as it suits their politics,” he said.

Responding to the allegations, Jaleel said, “This is being done to hide their (own) failure. According to them, they are behind all the good work but if anything bad happens, it is because of the AIMIM. A high-level inquiry committee should be appointed to probe the incident and find those involved in it,” he said.

City & communal tension

The city has a history of communal tension. It was in the late 80’s that Bal Thackeray first demanded that Aurangabad’s name be changed to Sambhajinagar after the Shiv Sena contested the first-ever municipal corporation election here. Since then, the Sena has fought almost every election here on this agenda.

Finally, in its last Cabinet decision, the Uddhav Thackeray-led MVA government decided to rename Aurangabad as Sambhajinagar. This was later passed by the Eknath Shinde-Devendra Fadnavis government and finally approved by the central government late February this year. 

On 20 March, Sakal Hindu Samaj held a morcha in the city where Telangana MLA and suspended BJP leader T. Raja Singh made a provocative speech targeting Muslims. Maharashtra ministers Atul Save and Sandipan Bhumre were present on the dais at the event.

In April 2022, MNS chief Raj Thackeray also organised a rally in the then Aurangabad and demanded a removal of loudspeakers from mosques, threatening to recite Hanuman Chalisa on loudspeakers. He was later booked for his provocative speech.

(Edited by Smriti Sinha)

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