There are uncanny similarities between the 1991 and 2017 violence, both happened during Ramnavami festival. Biju Patnaik was the chief minister during the 1991 riots while his son Naveen Patnaik happens to be CM during the 2017 riots.

Written by Debabrata Mohanty |

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Bhadrak: A scene after a communal tension broke out in Bhadrak, Odisha. PTI PhotoThe communal violence that erupted in Bhadrak town last Friday reportedly over a derogatory comment by a Muslim youth on Facebook may have taken a lot of people by surprise. However, the town with a sizeable Muslim population (about 40 per cent of its 1.21 lakh population) is a tinderbox for communal problems despite the apparent peace.

Unlike 1991, when a riot on Ramnavami claimed 17 lives, last weekend’s riot did not lead to the loss of life. But the impact has been as devastating with the violence effectively tearing apart the fabric of peace that existed in the town. There are uncanny similarities between  the 1991 and 2017 violence though. Both happened during Ramnavami festival. Biju Patnaik was the chief minister during the 1991 riots while his son Naveen Patnaik happens to be CM during the 2017 riots.

The riot was triggered after Muslim youths on April 5 allegedly posted vulgar remarks on Ramnavami. The following day, Hindus led by Bajrang Dal and Vishwa Hindu Parishad gheraoed the town police station demanding the arrest of the persons forcing the administration to impose section 144 of CrPC. The next day a peace committee meeting between the two communities in the presence of local BJD MLA was called, but it ended in failure.

Even as prohibitory orders were in force, over 200 bike-borne Muslim youths allegedly went on a rampage, targeting shops owned by Marwari and Hindu traders which lined the arterial roads. Retaliation followed with the burning down of shops owned by Muslim traders. By Friday night, many shops in the main market area including vegetable shops, furniture shops, cloth shops, restaurants and roadside slaughter houses were burning. With the situation deteriorating, the state government imposed curfew in the town and rushed the home secretary, the director general of police and senior officials to the spot to control the situation. It even sent a new collector to take charge as the previous one had retired a week earlier. Four companies of central paramilitary force apart from 35 platoons of the state police spread through the town, keeping an eye on troublemakers.

Five days later, with over 100 arrests and 8 cases, the police are back in control of the situation. Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik today visited Bhadrak to review the situation and meet the riot-affected people. The police have arrested a Muslim youth, son of a small-time  BJD leader, over his inflammatory Facebook comment.

Bhadrak town had more Muslims than Hindus before 1990, but the influx of Marwari businessmen after 1965 changed the demographics and made it a Hindu-majority town. The Marwaris soon took over most business establishments and by 1991, when the first-eve riot happened, they monopolised the trading scene. In March 1991, when riots took place in the lead-up to the Ramjanmabhoomi movement, the shops, godowns and houses of Marwari businessmen were attacked along the main roads. The riots soon spread to Soro, another small town located nearby, where 16 persons died.

Since then, regular peacemaking efforts between the two committees had restored communal harmony to a large extent. However, over last few years the peace committee has been rendered defunct with the administration and local political leadership making little effort to rein in the hotheads in both communities. While Bhadrak did not see any communal tension last year, the sudden rise in Ramnavami processions from 47 in last year to 65 this year certainly played a role in raising the temperature. In September last year, in neighbouring town of Soro police had to impose curfew for three days due to pelting of stones on a procession for the immersion of Ganesh idols. The same month, Pattamundai town in Kendrapara district too continued to simmer as members of minority community opposed the use of loudspeakers and beating of drums in front of a mosque during an immersion procession of Ma Khudurukuni, a local deity. In the steel city of Rourkela, section 144 of CrPC was imposed after some miscreants hurled bricks at an idol of Lord Ganesha when the immersion  procession reached minority-dominated Nala Road.

The lack of a full time collector during the Ramnavami festival was also a reason cited for the current violence. The previous one was on leave for a week before he retired at the end March, thus making the district effectively headless for over a fortnight. On April 9, the government finally curbed the use of social media in the town and its environs. A team of cyber crime sleuths from the CID have now identified over 150 people who either forwarded messages or posted inflammatory photos and comments through social media that fanned the fires during the riot. Five of the 150 identified are now being interrogated by the cybercrime cell over their role in fanning emotions.

Last week’s riot was not as deadly as the 1991 one or the 2008 riots of Kandhamal, but had the rioters got more time and used social media a little more cleverly, there could have been casualties. In July last year, Rourkela saw similar tensions during Lord Jagannath’s Rath yatra when a boy posted an objectionable comment about the minority community in a WhatsApp group. Timely action of the local police and effective coordination between elders of both communities saved the city.

The 2017 riot of Bhadrak is a reminder of the challenges that administrations face in times of social media.