In the wake of the Kasganj violence, Hindus say BJP’s win in last year’s polls had frustrated the Muslims and the latter accuse right-wing of becoming more aggressive after the saffron party came to power.

Snigdha Poonam
Hindustan Times, Kasganj
A week after clashes broke out, Kasganj remains on the edge with heavy security deployment.
A week after clashes broke out, Kasganj remains on the edge with heavy security deployment.(HT Photo)

By 9 am on January 26, Kasganj was set for a confrontation. The Hindu boys had arrived in Prabhu Park riding motorbikes and carrying tricolour and saffron flags to take out a Republic Day rally. The Muslim boys had finished decorating Baddunagar Chowk for a Republic Day celebration: rangoli, chairs, balloons, and a flagpole holding up the tricolour.

“This is the first time I joined the Republic Day rally from its origin. I was very excited,” said Mayank Maheshwari, a 19-year-old college student at the Vishwa Hindu Parishad’s office.

“We had put so much effort into organising the event this year. Everyone was here — old people, young people, children,” said a young resident of Baddunagar who identified himself as “doctor” Asif.

At 9.45 am, the Hindu rally— nearly 150 boys on nearly 70 motorbikes — rode out from the park. Seconds after, mobile phones in Baddunagar started buzzing with updates of the rally’s movement.

By 10.15 am, the town had turned into a battleground. The motorcycle procession charged into the narrow lane through Baddunagar, the Hindu boys demanded a passage, the Muslim boys stood their ground, the Hindu boys demanded the Muslim boys chant ‘Vande Mataram’ or leave India, the Muslim boys scoffed at the swagger, and as both sides later said in their accounts, there was “tu-tu-main-main”( verbal confrontation) and “haatha-pai”(physical fights).

Then things turned more violent. Overpowered by the Muslim boys, the Hindu boys left behind their bikes and ran away. They returned for revenge in 45 minutes, this time armed with lathis and firearms, to another Muslim-majority neighbourhood called Tehseel Road.

The two sides faced off again, someone in the crowd opened fire, and a bullet hit a 22-year-old man called Chandan Gupta. By the afternoon of January 26, he was declared dead at the government hospital. Over the next two days, several Muslims homes and shops were set on fire in retaliation.

A week into the first incident on January 26, Kasganj remains on edge. Some shops have opened, but the market is deserted. Policemen roam the streets in packs, and everyone claims that “everything is normal” until you ask them what they really think. There is only thing that unites the town: the belief that January 26 was just waiting to happen. Hindu-Muslim tensions had been building up in Kasganj, where their relationship largely remains “normal”, since the change of political regime in Uttar Pradesh in March. Long called a “bellwether” constituency, Kasganj, seat number 100 in the UP assembly, has voted for the winning party since 1974.

In March 2017, the BJP candidate from Kasganj defeated his Samajwadi rival by 52,030 votes, shifting the power dynamic between the town’s Hindus and Muslims. The last time Kasganj voted for the BJP was in 1991. The last communal riot in Kasganj was recorded in 1992.

Rapid Action Force (RAF) and Provincial Armed Constabulary (PAC) personnel stand guard in Kasganj. (PTI File Photo)

“Yogi’s win first caused fear among the Muslims,” said Vinay Raj, a local businessman who leads the town’s chapter of the VHP. “Then, after some time, things returned to normal, but the feeling of frustration among them hasn’t left. They felt as if their votes lost their power,” he added.

This feeling, Raj said, was heightened in the Muslim-dominated areas of Kasganj. “When they are among us, they are fine, but when they are among their own, they are different,” said Raj. It is to remind Muslims of their place in Kasganj that the Hindu boys wanted to take their Republic Day rally through Baddunagar.

“Since the last elections, the Hindu community has been acting with aggression and impunity,” said Farooq Bhaddan, a community leader and an established businessman. The sentiment echoed through Baddunagar, where the rangoli was fading, the balloons had turned to shreds, and a piece of saffron cloth hung from an electrical wire crisscrossing the chowk. “If the intention was to celebrate Republic Day, why were people carrying saffron flags in that rally?” asked Asif.

“The tensions had been rising since January 23,” said Vinay Raj. Three days before Republic Day, an incident at the town’s historic Chamunda temple had set the Hindu-Muslim scene up for a climax. Situated in a Muslim-majority area, the temple’s premises are used by the local residents to park their vehicles.

The movement of Muslims through the temple property upsets the town’s Hindus and recurs as an election issue. One of the promises the BJP’s candidate had made in his 2017 manifesto was to build a gate across the walls. On the morning of January 23, the local administration had tried to initiate the process by putting up barricades. The areas Muslims had responded with protests and the Hindus with counter-protests.

“We have been demanding a gate for years,” said Vinay Raj. “They only demand a gate before elections,” said Farooq Bhaddan.

And last but not the least, there was the matter of slogans. “What is wrong with demanding that they say ‘Vande Mataram’ if they wish to live in India? It’s all about taking pride in your nation,” said Mayank Maheshwari, who was one of young men who took part in the rally on January 26..

“I have no problem with saying ‘Vande Mataram,”’ said Yusuf, “but of my own free will. I can say it a hundred times. But try to force me to say it, and you will fail.”