• The Holy Ganga Turned Red: Horrors of Mass Communal Violence in Independent India

    Warisha Farasat and Prita Jha

    June 4, 2019

    In their book, Splintered Justice: Living the Horrors of Mass Communal Violence in Bhagalpur and Gujarat (2016), Warisha Farasat and Prita Jha closely examine the aftermath of Gujarat and Bhagalpur massacre of Muslims in Independent India. Though separated by over a decade, both massacres have much in common. Articulated through the touching accounts of survivors, along with their legal reflection, the book presents a valuable sociological resource to expose the gap between 'equality' and 'justice' promised by the Constitution to each citizen, and the stark reality of our condition. 

    The first extract is from the Introduction, written by Harsh Mander and Navsharan Singh. Mander is an activist and writer who works with victims of mass violence and the director of the Centre for Equity Studies, and Singh is a senior officer with the Canada-based International Research Development Centre.

    In the second extract, from Chapter 1, 'Remembering the Bhagalpur Carnage' Farasat indicates that there was sufficent evidence to prove that the state governement was aware of mounting communal tensions in the area. She also describes through survivor accounts how the police had not only failed to stop the violence but gone so far as to colluded with the rioters. The role of the then superintendent of police, KS Dwivedi, allegedly played a key role in enabling the Hindu mobs.

    Image Courtesy: Three Esssays

    The two communal massacres selected for this study were separated by thirteen years, but had much in common. Both connected, in diverse ways, with the movement to raze the Babri Masjid and build a grand temple, on its site, in Ayodhya. The violence in Bhagalpur, as well as at several other places, was directly spurred by the Ayodhya movement, during which bricks for the temple were paraded through towns across north and central India. BJP leader L.K. Advani's Rath Yatra in 1990 further galvanised the communal mobs that eventually tore down the Babri Masjid in 1992, which again sparked bloodletting in Bombay, Bhopal and elsewhere.

    The 2002 Gujarat massacre too was linked to this same movement in a way: its flashpoint was the burning of a train compartment carrying returning volunteers who had gone to work on the site of the proposed grand temple in Ayodhya.

    Although in Gujarat three of the largest and most gruesome massacres took place in Ahmedabad City — in Narodya Patiya, Gulberg Society and Narodya Gaon — in both, Bhagalpur and Gujarat, the killings spread to rural areas, unlike most other commual clashes since the Partition riots of 1946-47. Urban riots are easier to curb for police and civil administrations, as it is easier to muster and use adequate force to disperse mobs and impose curfew in town and city localities. Rural riots are harder to control, as there are limits to the amount of force that can be deployed when riots spill from town into village, and from village into another village. Also, the rupture in social relations is much more profound in the case of rural riots because, unlike in cities, where one often does not even know one's neighbour, social relations in villages are more intimate. Therefore, the sense of betrayal runs much deeper. However, city life in slums and low-income housing settlements tends to ensure greater social mixing of people of diverse faiths, languages and castes, while villages have older systems of hierarchical segregation based on caste, class and religious identity.

    In both Bhagalpur and Gujarat, the violence targeted substantial local Muslim populations, killing large numbers of men, women, children. Both were runaway riots, continuing for several weeks, even months, and marked by culpable weak-kneed and prejudiced state attempts to control them. And both were spurred by rumours of Muslim perfidy in killing innocent Hindus. In Bhagalpur, false rumours spread that Hindu youth had been slaughtered in hostels in Bhagalpur. In Gujarat, the government itself propagated the claim that the burning of the train compartment carrying Hindu pilgrims at Godhra station was a pre-planned Islamist terrorist attack, a charge it has never been able to prove in the courts.

    The Bhagalpur carnage was not followed by any major organised effort by human rights workers to secure justice for the survivors; the only fact-finding mission was sent by the Peoples Union for Dem- ocratic Rights (PUDR).8 It was left to brave survivors like Malka to fight long legal battles on their own, with little support from the human rights community.

    By contrast, numerous dedicated human rights activists and organisations have worked with the Gujarat massacre survivors in pro-longed, on-going legal battles in both trial and appeal courts, thereby ensuring greater engagement of alleged perpetrators in legal battles.

    The year 2014 marked the 25th anniversary of the Bhagalpur massacre, but its impoverished victims are still waiting for justice. As this study reveals, for a carnage that claims hundreds of lives only a hndful of police complaints, or FIRs, were registered, while criminal cases are still being heard in district courts. When we started this study, many asked: "Why rake up old memories? What purpose will it serve? Why do we not collectively just move on?" We reflected and agonised over these questions. We asked ourselves whether it was, indeed, socially productive to recall the massacre in Bhagalpur, or for that matter the relatively recent one in. Gujarat, which many claim has been "studied to death".

    Our initial meetings with the survivors in Bhagalpur, however, soon presented us a different reality, the sombre colours of which were filled as we proceeded with our research. The survivors had not forgotten or 'moved on'. The wounds of the carnage were still fresh, marking their bodies, scarring their minds. They were still living with the consequences of the hatred of their erstwhile neighbours, official neglect and political indifference, every day of their lives. "No one visits us from outside. Perhaps because there is no airport in Bhagalpur?" one survivor dourly remarked. We were convinced that the story of Bhagalpur had to be told, even after all these years.

    Even in Gujarat, where social and human rights activists and lawyers have been working closely with the victims of the carnage, braving a hostile and unrepentant state government one sees that beyond the rulings in the fields of formal justice, legalistic discourses and institutional processes such as the SITs and the inquiry commissions, not much is known about how survivors continued to wage a daily struggle against a biased legal system, administrative hostility, and sustained social and economic boycott. Such disturbing details seldom become part of the public imagining of post-2002 Gujarat, or feed into our understanding of the nature of state institutions in democratic India. So, we were convinced that this had to be studied further in order to understand the institutionalized biases against the religious minorities and the marginalised.

    Although separated by time and geography, the two episodes of communal carnage were marked by very similar trends and strategies that that systematically denied justice and reparation largely to Muslim victims. After studying the evidence, we find that denial of justice and reparation to the victims is not simply a result of random institutional failures, but a reflection of the endemic institutional bias of the police, the judiciary and the relief administration; it is not the arbitrary result of chance, but deliberate, systematic and planned. We also find consistent evidence of the state's apathy and failure to plan and respond to the immediate and long-term needs of survivors and offer suitable support in ways that would have enabled them to rebuild their lives, livelihoods, homes and social relationships.

    As a result, survivors suffer grievously not just in the immediate aftermath of communal violence to which they are subjected, but for long afterwards, even across generations, as the accumulated suffering and vulnerabilities of parents are passed on to the children. These failures, of justice and of reparation, are the main subjects of the investigation in this book. it is to them, as well, that this study is dedicated.



    The holy Ganga turned red

    Every year dining the festival of Vishari Puja, Bhagalpur, a medieval city settled along the holy river Ganga in Bihar, is awash in milk, offered by its people to their snake gods and goddesses.1 Around the Vishari Puja in 1989, Bhagalpur was awash in innocent blood. A communal pogrom, the likes of which independent India had rarely seen, raged, leaving in its wake over a thousand murdered citizens, hundreds injured and several thousands displaced, an overwhelming majority of them Muslims.

    As communal fires spread, the Congress Chief Minister of Bihar, Satyendra Narayan Sinha, remained in Delhi; until Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi rebuked him and asked him to return to the state, to monitor and control the violence. Subsequently, Gandhi himself made a huge blunder that emboldened the rioting mobs; he caved in to pressure from right wing Hindutva groups of the Sangh Parivar and revoked the transfer of the communal police chief of Bhagalpur, K.S. Dwivedi. His failure to stand his ground, as Prime Minister of the country, cost many lives.    

    The carnage was triggered, a Commission of Inquiry appointed by the state govemment of Bihar afterwards concluded, by the Ramshila movement launched by the Hindu fundamentalist Sangh Parivar to mobilise Hindus for its programme of construction of a Ram temple in Ayodhya, in neighbouring Uttar Pradesh, on the very spot that constituted in 1990 under the Commission of Inquiry Act, 1952, was tasked to investigate what led to the communal carnage identify individuals and institutions responsible to prevent the recurrence of such a pogrom.

    The commission examined 126 witnesses and prepared a report, which stated that the riots had affected at least 250 villages and 50,000 people, and left around 900 dead.2 It merits mention that the members of the commission disagreed over their findings and ultimately compiled two separate reports — one by the Chairperson, Justice Ram Nandan Prasad, and the other by its members Justice Ram Chandra Prasad Sinha and Justice S. Shamsul Hasan. Justice Prasad's nomination to the commission was controversial as he was widely seen as sympathetic to the Hindutva elements that many believed fanned the pogrom.

    So, what caused the pogrom? The commission's report attributed religious tension in Bhagalpur to the "simmering misunderstandings between the two communities, the Hindus and the Muslims, for various reasons, justified and unjustified, caused by a historical legacy.” 3

    The tension was exacerbated by the growing fanaticism fuelled by the emergence of political parties oriented on religious identity, such as the Bharatiya Janata Party (BP). The BJP, which aimed to "reverse the process of history and restore the social, cultural, religious and political set-up as prevailing in ancient (Hindu-dominated) India"4, was behind several campaigns for exerting Hindu dominance, prominently on the issue of the Babri Masjid.

    Indeed, the report noted that the issue of the Babri Masjid was "acting as a fertiliser to give nourishment to the soil of Indian commmunalism.5 The BJP, and its affiliates in the Sangh Parivar, claimed the Babri Masjid was built over the birthplace of Lord Rama, prompting Hindu religious lobbies to seek access to the site. The BJP organised and spearheaded the Ramshila movement.

    The report highlighted the Ramshila procession through Bhagalpur on October 24, 1989 as the trigger of the violence, but conceded that there were other underlying factors that led to mounting tension—rumours that some Muslim youth had broken an idol of the god Surya, Hindus' displeasure with the location of a Muslim graveyard, and a road blockage during namaz. These disaffections came to a boil in the atmosphere of communal polarisation created by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh activists and the Ramshila procession.

    Throughout its report, the commission reiterated that the failure of the district administration and the police to act worsened the violence. It, accordingly, also held these individuals and institutions responsible for the carnage. The report indicated that there was sufficient evidence to prove the Bihar state government was aware of the mounting tension between Hindus and Muslims; yet it let the Babri Masjid issue fester, which only worsened the situation. This could be due to its negligence, and because it had appointed inexperienced officers as the Chief Secretary and the Director General of Police.

    K.S. Dwivedi, the then Superintendent of Police, Bhagalpur, showed his communal bias by not protecting Muslims from the rioters, and then denying them aid. He even let his subordinate officers pursue aggression against Muslims. He did not isolate the fanatical factions of both sides early on, a move that could have prevented the conflagration.

    The report held several officers of the Bhagalpur district administration and the police responsible for not only permitting the carnage, but even participating in it. The report noted that ultimately, it was the absence of a quick response, the inexperience of authorities in charge, and their criminal abandoning of impartiality that led to the failure to prevent and contain the violence.

    Besides the two reports of the Commission of Inquiry, the Minorities commission of India also prepared a report after its Chairman, S.M.H. Burney and other members visited Patna and Bhagalpur from January 22-24, 1990. The commission, however, made it clear that its mandate was to examine the measures being taken for the rehabilitation of the riot-affected, rather than to inquire into the causes of the riots, a job entrusted to the Commission of Inquiry.6

    The Minorities Commission reported that the outbreak of violence on October 24,1989 was preceded by a series of false rumours propagated by criminal elements — that some 200 Hindu students living in lodges in Bhagalpur town had been killed by Muslims, and that 31 Hindu boys had been murdered and their bodies dumped in a well at the Sanskrit college. Both rumours were baseless but they succeed-ed in fanning hatred against Muslims, as they were clearly meant to.7

    Later, in 2006, exercising his power under Section 3(1) of the Commission of Inquiry Act, 1952, on the recommendation of the Chief Justice of Patna High Court, the Governor of Bihar constituted a one-man Commission of Inquiry headed by Justice N.N. Singh.8

    The commission was tasked to inquire into the conduct and performance of investigating and prosecuting agencies for the cases that had come with regard to the Bhagalpur riots. It was to analyse the nature, causes and circumstances under which the police officers had submitted final reports stating mistakes of fact, absence of clues, in-sufficient evidence after detailed analysis of records, and to fix responsibility for the negligence, connivance and lapses in doing so on the police officers.

    The commission was also asked to find whether distress/duress sale of properties in riot-affected areas had taken place, and to in-quire into the circumstances and people responsible for the sales. At the same time, they were to consider, suggest and supervise ways of rendering relief to riot victims, and for restoring their possession over the lands and houses they may have been uprooted from, forcibly and criminally, during the riots. They were also asked to consider and apprise of the steps taken by the concerned authorities on the suggestions and recommendations given by the previous Bhagalpur Riot Commission for rehabilitation etc. And lastly, the commission was asked to suggest remedial measures to prevent recurrence of communal riots and the prevention of future connivance and abetment to the riots by the authorities responsible for maintaining law and order, and for rehabilitation of the victims.

    It was also laid down that the Deputy Inspector General of Police (DIG), Northern Region, Bhagalpur, would supervise an investigation team, which would report its progress to him every fort-night, and he in turn would report to the commission every month.

    The final report of the N.N. Singh Commission of Inquiry was introduced in the Bihar Legislative Assembly in August 2015.9 The report blamed the then Congress government of Bihar and the Bihar state police for the communal violence, thereby affirming the findings of the earlier Commission of Inquiry.

    Further, after coming to power in 2005, the Nitish Kumar government directed the DIG of the Crime Investigation Department (CID), Girija Nandan Sharma, to scrutinise cases of the Bhagalpur communal violence and ascertain whether some of them could be reopened. The DIG recommended reopening of 27 cases, including seven in Banka district, which had since been carved out of Bhagalpur. All these cases — for murder, arson, rioting, and destruction of property had been closed because of the police's failure to find evidence or to produce witnesses. DIG Sharma's report found that many of the investigating officers — whom he named along with other Police officers — had deliberately delayed and hindered investigations.


     8 Recalling Bhagalpur: A Report on the Aftermath of 1989 Riots, People's Union for Democratic Rights http://www.unipune.a.c.in/snc/csshi HumanRights/04%2000MMUNAL%2ORIOTS/A%20-%20%20ANTI- MUSLIM%2ORIOTS/02-BIHAR/02b.pdf
     1. A shorter, introductory version of the research on the Bhagalpur carnage appeared in Warisha Farasat, 'The Forgotten Carnage of Bhagalpur’, Economic & Political Weekly, 19 January 2013, vol. XLVIII, No 3.
     2. Ram Chandra Prasad Sinha and Shamsul Hasan (1995), Report of the Commission of Inquiry to inquire into the communal disturbances at Bhagalpur, 1989, p.10
     3. Ibid., p. 12.
     4. Ibid.. v. 13.
     5. Ibid., p- 14.
     6. Twelfth Annual Report of the Minorities Commission (1990), p. 235.
     7. Twelfth Annual Report of the Minorities Commission (1990), p. 242. 
     8.By Notification of Home (Special) Department, Government of Bihar (accessed on 26 February 2006). 
     9. http://www.dnaindia.com/india/report-bjp-blames-congress-for-1989-bhagalpur-riots-questions-nitish-kumar-a-alliance-with-rjd-2112207

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    Warisha Farasat is a lawyer practising in Delhi, and Prita Jha is a legal activist and researcher based in Ahmedabad. Both writers are long time human rights activists.

    This is an excerpt from Splintered Justice: Living the Horrors of Mass Communal Violence in Bhagalpur and Gujarat , written by Warisha Farasat and Prita Jha published by Three Essays Collective. Republished here with permission from the publisher.

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