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Voices from Atali Village



pic courtesy statesman- atali villagers protest outside harridan bhawan




Irfan Engineer

Atali village in Ballabgargh (Faridabad Dist., Haryana State) had witnessed communal riots on May 25th 2015 which led to displacement of Atali’s entire Muslim population. A few members of Jat community were objecting to RCC construction of a Mosque by the Muslims of the village. Muslims were offering namaz for over 50 years on a plot of land under a make-shift structure. No one was objecting to Muslims praying on the plot under a make-shift structure. A couple of Muslims were injured in the riots and a few houses were burnt. Muslims of the village sought shelter in police station for a couple of days till some Jat elders persuaded them to return to the village. There was a stay order on construction of the Mosque and the work stopped. On their return, the community had to face debilitating social boycott. No one in the village engaged them for any work, nor sold them any goods or services, including milk for children. Children could not go to the village school. Communal riots broke out once again on 1st July 2015. The CSSS team – consisting of this writer, Sandhya Mhatre and Neha Dabhade visited Atali on 17th and 18th August. We intend to reproduce here some of the conversations with diverse sections of communities we could talk to for the benefit of the readers. Some preliminaries first.

Role of the police

Atali, it must be noted, is among rare examples where the riot survivors were in fact persuaded by some Jat elders to return on account of the assurances given to the survivors, unlike the survivors of the 2013 communal riot in another Jat dominated villages of Muzaffarnagar and Shamli. Those who returned then faced debilitating social boycott as pointed out earlier. Atali stands out in another respect – the role of police. Police provided security for the construction of the Mosque. Though the Police Commissioner told us that they were outnumbered on 25th May by the rioting mob, and therefore could not protect the Muslims inside the village, they ensured their safe evacuation and riot survivors in fact felt safe inhabiting within the premises of the police station. Police had an important role in getting the social boycott against Muslims lifted – they threatened action against the shop keepers practicing social boycott. Business interests of the shop owners and vendors of goods and services too contributed to the cry of lifting the social boycott of Muslims.

While the police protected the Muslims of the village well, they were also slow in taking legal action against those Jat community members involved in rioting and arrest them on the pretext that such an action would elicit a strong reaction from the Jats and worsen the communal harmony in the village. Gauging the hesitation of the police and the impunity enjoyed by them, the second incident resulted on 1st July. Even now, the conspirators, instigators and abettors are roaming free whereas about 14 foot soldiers who allegedly indulged in rioting have been arrested. The families of those arrested vow that their children are innocent. However, there is fear among youth of arrests and many have fled. Contrary to the understanding of the police, the arrest of those involved in rioting leads to the family wanting to settle the matter and lessens their opposition to the Mosque and hostility to Muslims. We met some relatives of the arrested persons who would support construction of the Mosque to prove that their detained relative was arrested by mistake. The classic case is of Dharamveer whose son was arrested. Dharamveer told us that the Mosque will be constructed and should be constructed. It is only later we learnt that Dharamveer had filed an application in court praying that the construction of the Mosque was illegal. Decisive and firm legal action by police deters the rioters.

The Mosque

A piece of land was allotted to the Muslim community outside the village for burial of their departed ones decades ago. With the growth and expansion of the village around the cemetery, the community was allotted another plot of land for burial of their dead. The community members then started using the former burial ground for their prayers and put up a make-shift structure. In 2009, boundary walls and pillars were constructed around the plot where Muslims offered prayers. The then Sarpanch Pralhad Singh helped in installing pillars and boundary walls. There was no objection from the villagers and the land records registered with the revenue department show the plot of land as waqf land.

One Muslim family – that of Ishaq Ali and his nephews – Shakir Ali and Shabbir Ali – improved their economic situation in the recent past. They were registered as licensed electrical contractors. Whoever wanted to install or change electrical wires / metres, could do it through Ishaq. Ishaq and his nephews also have a readymade garment shop in Ballabgarh in the main market. Appearance of the upwardly mobile Muslims began to change – wearing skull caps, growing beard etc. It is this change that gave uneasy feeling among the elite Jats of the village. The Ishaq family came in contact with non-Haryanvi Ulemas (euphemism for Urdu speaking – Deobandi trained). These Ulemas started influencing the culture of fakirs and “correcting” their behaviour. The fakirs were no more merely submissive labourers adopting all the traditions of the Jat elite and subjugating themselves to the Jat panchas (a body of Jat elite that enforces customary traditions and administering punishments to the defaulters ranging from fines to social boycott). They had other influences as well – those of Deobandi Ulema. Members of the community now chose between the two cultural traditions and adopted those they thought were good for them.

The Mosque symbolized that change and therefore was resented. The grander the Mosque looked, stronger was its symbolic statement of the change it represented of an assertive Muslim community. Jat elite objected to the minarets on the Mosque and use of loudspeakers for call to prayers azaan. The Jat elite argued that due to the Mosque, (Muslim) outsiders would come to the village – read Ulemas. Muslim community had agreed in writing that they would not use loudspeakers for azaan.

Muslims, if they remain fakirs – labourers, they are as welcome as they were during the partition. Members of the Muslim community were allotted plots for construction of their houses. The Jat elite claims that the land on which mosque is sought to be built belongs to panchayat (elected body for local administration) and while they can continue to pray (offer namaaz), there should not be any construction. The panchayat had allotted them another plot outside the village and if the Muslims desired, they could build RCC Mosque on that plot.

The voice of peace and harmony

About 8-10 people gathered in the house of Hukum Singh – a retired Sanskrit lecturer – as the team was sitting there. Let us call them “the bhaichara group”. Hukum Singh was aware that Dara Shikoh – elder brother of Emperor Aurangzeb – translated 52 Upanishads from Sanskrit to Persian for the Muslim world. According to Dara Shikoh, both religions preached the same universal truth in different languages. Among those gathered included Ranjit Dakiya, Jagdish, an English lecturer in a college, Dharambir, Ramveer and a few youth. Jagdish was rationalist in his attitude and against all blind rituals and traditions as the rituals divide people. Jagdish was proponent of rational thinking.

The bhaichara group recalled that in 1947 too Muslim fakirs (backward class Muslims) feeling insecure on account of partition riots were persuaded to say back in the village. The fakirs worked as labourers for the farmers. There was interdependence, but more importantly, the fakirs looked no different than the Jats. They wore same clothes, spoke same language and followed same cultural mores, traditions and customs, except that their way of worship was different. The change was not accepted by the Jats in the village. The bhaichara group further felt that the fear of change under the influence of “outsiders” led to uncertainty and therefore insecurity among the rest. This was the fertile ground on which prejudices against the Muslim community were being internalized. They asked us many questions – are we kafirsaccording to Islam? What is being taught in madrasas – are they trained to be terrorists? Does Islam permit Muslims to marry their first cousins? We gave a brief account of diversity among madrasas, drive for modernization in some and that in some madrasas non-Muslim children were also admitted. We also told that Muslims accused each other to be kafirsmore often, than accusing others to be so and a brief account of composite culture. These explanations were appreciated by the group and they opened up and started questioning the dominant discourse prevalent among the Jats.

Two incidents have been doing rounds in Atali and are being widely deployed to whip up anti-Mosque and anti-Muslim sentiments. They were raised by the bhaichara group too. Ranjit Dakiya said that a Muslim boy and a Hindu girl had eloped from the village and got married. Marriage between any two individuals within same village is considered a sacrilege by the Jats as all residing in the same village are brothers and sisters. Inter-caste and inter-religious marriages are even more serious sacrilege. A male child was born out of the marriage. The Muslim community, in order to rub salt into their injured psyche, asked the Jats to perform the rituals related to birth of the first child to their (Jat) daughter. We could not independently corroborate this. The second incident was a statement by the Muslims in Jat pancha throwing gauntlet to the Jats stating that they would construct the Mosque even if their heads was severed. When we asked the Muslims, they denied having made such a statement. On the contrary the Jats, according to them, had said that they would not permit Mosque to be built even if their heads were severed. The various compromises entered into by Muslims and agreeing to various conditions put by the Jats is a testimony that if at all, the latter might be true. There is so much of propaganda being bandied around that it is difficult, if not impossible, to tease out facts from fiction.

Hukum Singh told us that in another gathering in Delhi, he was shown an image circulated on WhatsApp showing damage to a temple in Atali supposedly by Muslims. He clarified to the people there that neither any temple was damaged in Atali, nor were the Muslims in the image from Atali. There were several such messages being circulated and that was one source of prejudices. They opined that anti-Muslim discourse had increased after election of the BJP Govt. in the Centre. That Sadhvi Prachi and RSS shakhas were being run and poisoning the young minds and that of women. The shakhas and the Sadhvi were stopped recently.

The bhaichara group told us that they had they had organized a meeting a few days ago to promote peace in the village. Some of them had gone to invite the Muslims to return to the village after the 25th May attack. In the last meeting held a few days before, there was a lot of debate and discussion. Some youth not agreeing with them were also present in the meeting. In the discussion, about 60% of them were agreeing that the Mosque should be allowed to be constructed as the land belongs to the Muslim community, while 40% felt that Muslims should not construct their Mosque on “panchayat land”. One member of bhaichara group made a very strong statement during our discussion – “if there can be a liquor shop in the village, why not a Mosque?” The bhaichara group was feeling remorseful that they could not speak up when Muslims were facing social boycott and were not very forceful in countering anti-Muslim discourse.

Gulbir Singh whom we met separately, also supported the construction of the Mosque but his take was that 30% of non-Muslims would support the construction and 70% are still opposed to it.

The Genesis of the problem – Panchayat politics

There are two Panchayats – traditional and statutory/constitutional for administrative purpose. While the traditional panchayat is of elders and notables and to enforce the socio-cultural traditions, the statutory Panchayats are the third tier of governance deliberating on and administering local infrastructure. Statutory Panchayats are elected. The elite Jat elders in the village lament statutory Panchayats as generally younger people get elected. Canvassing for votes entails approaching as many people as possible. All individuals are politically equal unlike in traditional Panchayats where there is no canvassing and elite Jat elders are assured privileged status based on their social standing. The statutory Panchayats have lot of funds at its disposal while the traditional Panchayats do not have any.

In a small village with population of 6640 of which 3599 are males while 3041 and 1193 families residing, there was intense competition between Rajesh Chaudhary the present sarpanch and Pralhad Singh – ex-sarpanch. About 150 Muslim families and their votes are crucial in this competition. Pralhad initially promised to support the construction of the Mosque in 2009. Later he got one of his supporters to file a case against the Mosque. Rajesh donated Rs. 21,000/- for the construction of the Mosque to get the support of the Muslim community during the panchayat elections that were to be held in a month’s time but were postponed. Rajesh Chaudhary’s family supports construction of the Mosque and for inclusion of Muslims in all affairs even today.

The Jat elite felt that the statutory panchayat was the root cause of the entire conflict. There was intense competition to get elected as sarpanch which compelled rival candidates to canvass for Muslim votes and woo them with promises which resulted in the Muslim community being offered more than what they were traditionally entitled to – security – provided they were submissive. The Jat elite were disturbed that the prospering members of the Muslim community were adopting “outside” culture. However, they were more insecure that Jat youth were adopting “outside” culture too – their clothes and cultural value system was not influenced by Jat traditions alone. The Jat youth too learnt from their mobiles, WhatsApp and other information technology devices, televisions, consumerism and contact with the urban middle class values. The elders did not enjoy the same respect as they traditionally did. Jat girls and their dresses were changing too. Gotra restrictions on marriages were becoming increasingly difficult. Making Muslims confirm to the Jat traditional values was one hope that they would make the youth too confirm to them.

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