In the past two weeks, Bihar has seen two incidents eerily similar to the Kasganj violence which claimed a life in Uttar Pradesh in January. More worryingly, a leader of the BJP, which is part of the ruling coalition, is involved in one of the incidents, and has refused to surrender despite an arrest warrant for rioting and inciting communal violence.
His Union minister father has rubbished the FIR, declaring his son need not turn himself in over it. The police have so far not arrested the leader, Arjit Shaswat, even though he is not in hiding – in fact, he is participating in rallies, brandishing swords.
Arijit Shashwat at a Ram Navami rally. Photo credit: Facebook/Arijit Shashwat
The incident is not isolated, it is part of a recent trend in the state that raises several questions on chief minister Nitish Kumar’s tryst with secularism, with power, and with the BJP.
Spike in communal violence
Arijit Shashwat, the son of Union minister of state for health and family welfare Ashwini Kumar Choubey, led a rally in Bhagalpur on March 17 to celebrate the start of the Hindu New Year. The bike procession – for which police permission was not taken – passed through Muslim-dominated areas, shouting, according to the police, “provocative slogans”. This led to stone pelting and shots being fired, injuring several people.
Even as the police failed to arrest Shashwat despite an FIR, the same thing happened in Aurangabad, this time on Ram Navami, where another bike rally caused violence.
In Kasganj, Republic Day had seen a similar slogan-raising procession ride through a Muslim neighbourhood. After the incident, the Bareilly district magistrate had said it was becoming a trend to “force processions into Muslim mohallas and shout anti-Pakistan slogans”.
Incidents fomenting communal passions in Bihar have been on the rise for a while now, with February witnessing tensions and violence in Gaya, Arrah, Dhaka (Champaran), Gaighat, Marwan and Mahua. All the incidents had to do with weapon-wielding mobs taking out processions on religious festivals.
In 2017, the state saw the fourth largest number of communal incidents (85) in the country, according to statistics prepared by the ministry of home affairs.
Over the past few years, groups such as the Hindu Yuva Vahini and the Bajrang Dal have expanded rapidly in the state. A report in The Wire points out that demonetisation meant a large number of migrant workers from different parts of the country lost jobs and came back to Bihar, helping swell the ranks of such saffron outfits.
The same report shows that most such incidents have taken place in areas with more than 40 per cent Yadav and Muslim voter population, or where Muslims are economically or politically influential.
Nitish-BJP bhai bhai?
The many similarities in the recent cases make it apparent that they are not spontaneous clashes, but engineered hate in action.
Also, some BJP leaders are not even trying to make a secret of where their sympathies lie. This has put them on a direct collision course with CM Nitish Kumar’s avowedly secular image.
In the Bhagalpur incident, minister Choubey and his son have openly accused the police of registering a fabricated case against him. Some days before that, a man was beheaded in Darbhanga, and BJP’s state chief Nityanand Rai and Union minister Giriraj Singh were at pains to communalise the murder, even as Nitish maintained it was the result of a land dispute. To his credit, BJP leader and deputy chief minister, Sushil Kumar Modi, too denied the incident had a communal angle. Meanwhile, Singh even asked the crowd to raise slogans against the local additional SP Dilnawaz Ahmad.
The BJP is part of the ruling alliance in Bihar. Law and order comes under the purview of the home ministry, held by Nitish himself. If a part of the government does not trust the law enforcement agency – the police – to do their job right, it puts a question mark on the credibility of the government.
The FIR is nothing but a piece of garbage which was registered by corrupt officers of the area. My son made no mistake: Union Minister Ashwini Choubey on arrest warrant against Arijit Sashwat over Bhagalpur incident pic.twitter.com/8SoPOHcvs0— ANI (@ANI) March 26, 2018
Bihar is crucial to the BJP’s plans of an absolute majority in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls. The Muslims have traditionally been RJD supporters, and the recent jail sentence to Lalu Prasad may get the party some sympathy votes, or cause its total drubbing. But the real task for the BJP is cutting down to size Nitish Kumar, who has so far enjoyed a loyal support base – thanks to his vikas purush image and secular credentials – and is a proven undependable ally.
The BJP, too, does not have a good track record with allies. While cracks in the NDA at the Centre are apparent, Shiv Sena, part of the government in Maharashtra, is routinely snubbed.
Communal polarisation is BJP’s best bet at political ascendency. Thus, it seems to be working on its tried-and-tested formula of demonising Muslims and presenting itself as the one true proud Hindu party.
Union minister Choubey’s comments after the Darbhanga clash parrot those of local MP Rajveer Singh after Kasganj: “Is there anything wrong in leading a procession to celebrate the Hindu New Year? Kya Bharat Ma ki baat karna galat hai? Kya Vande Mataram kehna gunah hai? (Is it a crime to talk about Bharat Ma? Is it a crime to say Vande Mataram?)”.
In UP, Singh had said the clash was “a planned attack on those taking out a rally with the Tricolour”.
From 2005 to 2013, when the BJP and JD(U) were in an alliance, Nitish’s party was clearly the senior partner. This time round, the BJP has been more assertive. The recent appointment of the 1989 Bhagalpur riots-tainted IPS officer Krishna Swaroop Dwivedi as the state’s police chief is being seen as an instance of the saffron party prevailing over Nitish. Ironically, Nitish’s had been the loudest voice raising the issues of the 1989 riots victims.
In a communal riot, when members of the ruling party throw their weight behind one of the communities, it is no longer a “clash”, it is a targeted victimisation of one religious group. The “secular” Nitish Kumar needs to keep a tighter check on what he is allowing under his watch, or rethink his association with the BJP.