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Kherlanji, Aligarh and the Provincial Armed Constabulary

November 15, 2006

The horrific massacre at Kherlanji and the protests that have followed have, once again, raised troubling questions on the impartiality of the Police force. The following is an article that i wrote for Frontline in the aftermath of the Aligarh riots in April 2006. The article finally didn’t make it – not because of a conspiracy of silence – but because another correspondent had already filed; but I think it might answer the “What were the police doing?” question that we often find ourselves asking.

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“The mob is frenzied and frightening. But you can run from the mob. You can’t run away from a police bullet,” says Sarfaraz Khan, a resident of Aligarh. When he heard the mob coming, Khan’s son, Shadab pulled down the shop shutters and headed home, but never made it. As he scrambled up long slope that separates Muslim settlement at Tantan Para Farsh from the Hindu settlement at Kanvari Farsh, Shadab was cut down by a bullet that sliced through his neck with clinical precision. He was nineteen. By afternoon on the 6 April 2006, police firing in the riot hit town of Aligarh had claimed three more casualties: Naved was 16, Sarfaraz was 22, and Azam was 24 years old. Another 17 people were wounded.

As the curfew hours are gradually lifted in Aligarh, the resident Muslim community is yet to come to terms with the horrific repercussions of a badly botched riot control operation. “There was a fair amount of stone-pelting by both communities,” says Dilshan Khan, a survivor, “Things went out of hand when the police opened fire on the Muslims.” Dilshan was admitted at the Jawaharlal Nehru Medical College and is undergoing treatment for a bullet wound on his arm. He is fourteen years old.

According to survivor testimonies, the first clashes between the two communities were on 5 April 2006 at the site of a disputed structure in Dahi Wali Gali on the occasion of the Hindu festival of Ram Navmi. Local reports suggest that a large Hindu contingent assembled in the pre-dominantly Muslim locality and, in a blatant attempt at appropriation, publicly offered prayers at the contested site. Tensions rose when Muslims in the locality objected to the prayers and the use of loudspeakers, and a minor scuffle broke out, that soon escalated into a street brawl. However, a strong police presence ensured that the riot did not attain critical mass, and normalcy was restored.

The next morning, however, a large crowd of Hindus stormed through the bazaar and headed towards the Muslim quarters at Tantan Para Farsh. Eye witness accounts have mentioned the presence of political activists such as Shakuntala Bharti of the RSS and former BJP MLA K.K. Navman, both of whom were subsequently arrested for inciting and participating in the riots.

“The riots started at about 10:30 AM,” says Mashkoor Khan, an eyewitness, “a large Hindu mob slowly started advancing up the road, chanting ‘This shall be another Godhra’ and pelting stones.” Muslims retaliated, and the riot grew in intensity up till the point at which the Provincial Armed Constabulary (PAC) opened fire on the Muslims, killing four and wounding seventeen.

While the police have shrugged off allegations of targeting a particular community, the fact that all those killed or wounded by police firing were Muslims suggests more than mere coincidence. Senior police officers admit that all four fatalities, and most injuries, “were caused by single entry-exit wounds, probably caused by .315 or .303 calibre rifles that are standard issue for the PAC.” All wounds were also above the waistlines of the victims, suggesting that the PAC were shooting to kill, rather than to disperse the crowd.

While refusing to comment on police involvement in the incident, Singh Senior Superintendent of Police, Aligarh, Akhil Kumar told Frontline that forensic evidence had been collected and the reports would be in soon.

A recent report by the National Commission for Minorities has further undermined police statements by holding the PAC squarely responsible for the casualties. Harcharan Singh Josh, the author of the report, told Frontline that an efficient district administration could easily have stopped the riots if they so desired. Josh also confirmed that the PAC had received written orders from the Superintendent of Police City, S.K. Verma, authorizing them to open fire on the crowd if required; an order many see as proof that the firing was not triggered off by any particular threat, but was planned in advance. Given the history of the dispute in Dahi Wali Gali, few view the PAC as an independent, secular arm of the state.

Aligarh’s “disputed structure” is neither a massive temple, nor an imposing mosque – it is a small, almost non-descript, public water tap, or “piao”. While local Hindus refer to it as the Mata ka Mandir, Muslims contend that the land belongs to a nearby mosque. In the nineteen forties, in an attempt to defuse communal tensions, elders from both communities chose to build the “piao” as a neutral structure that would serve both communities. However, the dispute arose once more in the 1980s, and the matter went up to the Allahabad High Court. The Court issued a stay order and directed the local administration to maintain status quo, and the matter is yet to be formally resolved. The PAC entered the picture when the state administration granted it a small piece of land right behind the structure for the construction of rudimentary barracks. Most narrative diverge at this point: Hindus maintain that the site had always housed a small temple, while the Muslims claim that PAC policemen had setup a makeshift temple on the site, thereby violating the orders of the court. When Frontline visited the site, we were confronted by a bizarre spectacle, where in spite of a High Court order asking the state to maintain status quo, PAC members – charged with maintaining communal harmony- were openly praying at the makeshift temple that was the flashpoint for the recent riots. Openly religious displays such as these have only further discredited the PAC after it was described as a “highly communalized force” by a PUCL report authored by Justice VM Tarkunde, Justice Sachar, Dr. R.M Pal in the aftermath of the 1990 riots in Aligarh.

Politically, the unrest in Aligarh seems to be part of a larger stirring in the Hindu heartland that has seen riots in both Lucknow and Mau in the last six months. Provocative comments by BJP spokesmen, particularly Kalyan Singh, seem designed to consolidate a larger Hindu electorate across the state ahead of assembly elections in 2007. The Congress has also launched an aggressive strategy centred on “administrative failure” in an attempt to win back the “secular vote”

For its part, the state machinery has gone into overdrive. Fending off allegations of “administrative negligence” and “state failure” from the Congress and “minority appeasement” from the BJP, Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Mulayam Singh, of the Samajwadi Party, suspended an entire hierarchy of officials starting from the Circle Officer, the Superintendent of Police City, the ADM City, the Senior Superintendent of Police and the District Magistrate. Families of those killed in the riots have been given Rs 5 lakh as compensation, and the injured shall be given amounts ranging between Rs 50,000 and Rs 25,000. A two member commission has been appointed by the State Government, and the Rapid Action Force has been posted at all sensitive areas in the town. The district administration has also revived the town’s dysfunctional “peace committees” in an attempt to foster greater dialogue between the two communities. But the citizenry is skeptical. “The only way to ensure peace is to bring the guilty to book,” says Rafiq, a local shopkeeper, “It’s the only way to restore our faith in the government.”

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