Only this morning, DGP KB Singh was assuring the state that all is well in Bhadrak. “Some people had tried to disturb peace last evening. But now things are under complete control,” the DGP said without batting an eyelid. By evening, he was on his way to the trouble-torn town in the company of Home secretary Asit Tripathy; Sec 144, imposed since yesterday, had been replaced with curfew and Cuttack Municipal Corporation (CMC) commissioner Gyana Ranjan Das posted as the collector and rushed to take charge of the town ‘under complete control’. How hopelessly wrong can a government get in assessing a situation!

It was a situation that called for extraordinary vigil and alacrity on the part of the government. For one thing, Bhadrak is one of the few places in Odisha with a sizeable Muslim population and a history of communal violence. For another, with the BJP national executive meet in Bhubaneswar just a week away, it should have been obvious to the administration that miscreants would be on the lookout for an opportunity – any opportunity – to raise the communal temperature.  There was thus a need to pull out all stops to ensure that things didn’t go out of hands.

Instead, the government did the exact opposite. It lulled itself into complacency that things would get back to normal on their own.  No need was felt for an emergency meeting by the Home department. After a good night’s sleep, the Home minister quietly left on his monthly sojourn to New Delhi. There was not a word from him on the Bhadrak situation before he left. Nor did the media think it was important enough to ask him about it. The Home secretary and the DGP, who should have seen the trouble brewing in the communally sensitive town since yesterday, waited for the Peace Committee to do what they should have done and had no option but to rush to the town after the situation flared up following the failure of talks.

As if the bumbling, fumbling and ham-handed manner in which the government had dealt with the situation was not bad enough, the Bhadrak district administration, headless since the last collector retired on March 31, woke up to the gravity of the situation rather late in the day. After all, the allegedly offensive comment on Ram and Sita on Facebook that was at the root of the trouble had gone viral since Wednesday. In this age of the social media, the police should have been alert enough to sense that it could be a recipe for communal trouble and taken adequate measures to nip the trouble in the bud. Instead, it allowed things to fester all through Wednesday night and the better part of Thursday before violence broke out on the streets of the town and the adjacent National Highway No 5 in the afternoon.

As it often happens in such cases, violence has now spread beyond the limits of Bhadrak town to other places in the district. There are reports of arson at many places and Sec 144 imposed in Dhamnagar. Mercifully, no life has been lost in the conflagration so far. But if things get worse – and there is no reason why it won’t – and some lives are lost, the local administration, the police in particular, would have no one but itself to blame. The new collector, for sure, has an unenviable task on his hands. No matter how efficient he is, he would need a day or two to understand the ground reality. By that time, there is every possibility that things could take a turn for the worse.

It is obvious that the conflagration in Bhadrak is not a spontaneous outpouring of hurt religious sentiment but the outcome of a meticulously executed plan by mischief mongers to raise the communal temperature in the sensitive town. It is important therefore to book the trouble makers and prevent the situation from deteriorating any further. But what is even more important is to guard against attempts to stoke communal fires elsewhere in the state.