Aurangabad violence: How little it takes to ignite a communal flare up 

The city in Maharashtra with a population of one and a half million has been without a municipal commissioner as well as a police commissioner for several months; and Shiv Sena blames the BJP for it

For well nigh half a century, the advent of Ramzan sees a Meena Bazaar set up on the streets of Aurangabad. So does Diwali - a Diwali Bazaar comes up on the streets selling goodies at economical rates as does the Meena Bazaar. On both festivals, police divert the traffic to facilitate the markets. Never have Hindus or Muslims ever had trouble with these bazaars.

This year, however, an anti-social element took objection to the stalls set up on the streets and overturned a few of them. Mobs soon destroyed some of them. Political observers now say the anti-social has affiliations to the Shiv Sena and the provocation was deliberate.

“The kind of mayhem that happened could not have been without preparation. Where did those who mobbed together on May 11 get petrol bombs and other weapons from if the clashes were spontaneous,” asked a citizen not wishing to be named.

The ostensible reason given out by the authorities is that civic officials had raided a mosque to check out an illegal water connection and shut down the tap. But large sections of the people scoff at that excuse. Such inspections by civic authorities are routine and while many illegal connections have been discovered at many establishments, a shut-down has never caused a riot. In fact, for nearly two decades, Aurangabad has been a quiet city, not reacting to any provocation even after arrests of several Muslim youth for alleged involvement in terrorist activities in the 1990s and early part of this century. Or even to similar activity by people affiliated to the RSS.

The last riot happened, as in Mumbai, in 1992, in the immediate aftermath of the demolition of the Babri Masjid. When, in 2015, the Shiv Sena and the All India Majlis-e-Ittehad-e-Muslimeen clashed head on at the elections to the Municipal Corporation, the situation was tense owing to various irresponsible statements of leaders from both parties but that still did not result in communal clashes. The Shiv Sena won that election, as usual on the polarisation of the votes, the AIMIM pushing the Congress for the first time since 1988 to fourth position behind even the BJP which was not in an alliance with the Sena in those elections. The Shiv Sena now is solely in charge of the city administration with no full time municipal commissioner or even a police commissioner to oversee the local governance.

THE GARBAGE CITY

A sensitive city like Aurangabad has been left without a police commissioner for the last couple of months ever since Yashasvi Yadav was sent on compulsory leave for alleged lathicharge in March by his force on women and children from nearby settlements who were protesting against the dumping of garbage in their villages. Indeed, according to local correspondents, it is that garbage which is now again responsible for the conflagration - for heaps of it is piling up all across Aurangabad city and is not just leading to protests by citizens but also showing up the Shiv Sena as unable to administer a city they have ruled since 1988.

Last month, Uddhav Thackeray had apologised to the citizens for his party’s failure to suitably deal with the garbage issue – they have neither been able to turn it into compost nor dispose of it adequately. With monsoons barely two weeks away, people are afraid the mountains of garbage might lead to many epidemics and the Shiv Sena needed a diversionary tactic.

Although the party had made peace with the Muslim minorities in Mumbai and elsewhere after the riots of 1992-93, the Sena now is at odds with the BJP, its partner in arms two decades ago, and sharpening its claws for the 2019 general elections which it plans to contest solo without the BJP which it must defeat at every cost or be decimated. The Marathi manoos vote bank does not exist beyond Mumbai and Thane which are cosmopolitan districts and the Sena needs somewhat more than its outsider plank in these areas. The Marathi manoos plank does not work outside Mumbai for other regions are not troubled by migrants from other states.

SHIV SENA-BJP SLUGFEST

Aurangabad, however, has always seen tension lurking beneath the surface even when it has remained peaceful and the Sena now seems to be going back to Bal Thackeray’s formula of polarising the Hindu and Muslim communities to consolidate its vote bank. At one time its Hindu extremism was, well, too extreme for even the BJP but now this is also an attempt to emerge as a bigger champion of Hindus than the BJP.

Additionally, the Home department in Maharashtra is with Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis and it is a subtle play of one-upmanship between the two parties. The riots in Aurangabad make Fadnavis look incompetent but they also seem to be a retaliation by the Sena for the Chief Minister’s failure to appoint a full-time civic commissioner to the city who can deal with the garbage and other issues adequately and save its reputation.

The BJP is in no hurry on that score for precisely that reason - to show the Sena up as incompetent. Both the Sena and the BJP thus have locked horns in Aurangabad and two innocents, including a minor and a handicapped person, have died because of the resultant clashes. The minor was an innocent bystander, the handicapped person could not escape the flames in a burning shop in time and died of asphyxiation. In the meantime, the discovery of a stash of petrol bombs, triggers, stones and chilli powder from the troubled areas has given credence to allegations that the riots were planned in advance while the surfacing of a now viral video showing cops looking the other way while rioters go on rampage has led to allegations of deliberate mismanagement by the government.

Piquantly, Saamna, the Shiv Sena mouthpiece, has accused Fadnavis of deliberately denying the city a police commissioner “unless and until they can find a pro-BJP officer for the job”. His lack of urgency in appointing a full-time police chief despite the riots lends credence to that allegation as also the suggestion that the two parties are positioning for maximum electoral gains in the coming 2019 elections.

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