“We have never had religious riots in Kasganj before. Even at the time of demolition of Babri Masjid in 1992 when there were sectarian flare-ups across the state and country, Kasganj didn’t see any violence,” Ravi Gupta, a businessman in Kasganj’s main market at Bilram Gate proudly recalls.
But the Hindu-Muslim violence, which started after a procession of over 200 riders on 60-odd bikes, affiliated to RSS-allied outfits and carrying saffron flags, disrupted the Republic Day celebrations in a Muslim neighbourhood on January 26, seem to be shaking the communal harmony that this quaint district on the banks of the Ganges has been renowned for.
“Chandan Gupta was just a kid. He shouldn’t have been killed. Though there is a feeling that Chandan was used as a pawn by members of the Thakur community who helm these outfits, the Muslims shouldn’t have killed Chandan nevertheless. He was just 22,” Ravi Gupta, who runs a business selling quilts, complains.
In the wake of Chandan’s death, activists from the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) torched vehicles and at least 11 business establishments, all belonging to members of the Muslim community. Two mosques were also set on fire, amid an alleged hate speech video featuring Chandan’s elder brother, in which he is heard passionately inciting violence against Muslims. So far, 112 people have been arrested, even as the police continue with their search operations in Muslim homes. Two Muslim youth, Naushad and Mohammad Akram, have sustained grievous injuries, finding themselves caught in the middle of rabid Hindu mobs.
Rabble-rousing by senior BJP leaders isn’t helping the situation much. The day Chandan Gupta died, local BJP MP Rajveer Singh stated in public to a roaring crowd that “we can’t be blamed for what has happened”.
“Our community cannot be blamed for this. This is a conspiracy and we will get to the root of it,” Singh, son of former Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister (CM) Kalyan Singh, said.
Former two-time MP and MLA, Samajwadi Party’s Devendra Singh Yadav, like many other residents, see the MP’s inflammatory remarks as a clear indicator of BJP’s attempts to polarise the electorate in the lead-up to 2019, amid Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s waning popularity over his failure to deliver on some of his key electoral pledges.
“All that the BJP wants is to make Hindus fight the Muslims and they want the election to be fought on religious lines. They realise they have failed to deliver on the promise of development and jobs that Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Yogi Adityanath had promised,” said Yadav.
Refusing to mince words, Yadav debunks Rajveer Singh’s statements.
“Why hasn’t any violent incident been reported from a Muslim neighbourhood? Why are just the mosques that have been torched? All the shops that have been set on fire belonged to members of the Muslim community,” Yadav asks.
“There have been continuous attempts to polarise Kasganj’s electorate since the Yogi Adityanath government came to power. These Hindu outfits had taken out a similar rally on Independence Day, but then the Muslim community refused to get drawn in,” the former MP adds.
However, he admits that the Samajwadi Party has failed to get their message of peace across to the people.
“We are trying hard. We want to make the people of Kasganj understand what the BJP is trying to do,” he says.
But clearly, the BJP seems to be better placed at the moment to influence local and national politics, evidenced from a barrage of provocations emanating from the saffron camp.
“It has come to light that there are some miscreants who support Pakistan and will go to any extent to defy the Tricolour. They need to be dealt with strictly,” Vinay Katiyar, founder of militant Hindu outfit Bajrang Dal and BJP MP in Rajya Sabha, said, becoming the latest in line to add fuel to fire.
Delving into the details of Chandan’s days preceding his death, it emerges that Chandan may well have been a pawn in the larger project: Yogi Adityanath as a successor to Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
According to locals, Chandan Gupta was close to Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath, having met the firebrand Hindu leader several times over the last few months. Adityanath Gorakhpur Mutt oversees the appointment of a priest at a local temple, 800-year-old Shernath Temple which is located next to Kasganj train station.
It is learnt that the since coming to power, Adityanath, through his mutt, has been making continuous attempts to influence local politics in the lead-up to 2019 elections. Not only Kasganj, the Gorakhpur Mutt has been trying to have a greater say in Uttar Pradesh’s regional politics through its branches. There is a widespread feeling that the Gorakhpur Mutt, of late seen as a vehicle for Yogi Adityanath to advance his political ambitions, doesn’t wield as much influence in other parts of the state as in eastern Uttar Pradesh. While he has not said it publicly, many supporters of Yogi Adityanath see him as a political successor to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, if not in 2019, then maybe in 2024.
Adityanath’s appointee for the priest of Kasganj’s Shernath Temple, Yogi Somnath, is learnt to have refused to be hand-in-glove with Adityanath, in the wake of which the CM backed the formation of an NGO, Sankalp. Chandan Gupta is learnt to have been part of this NGO, which is still seen as a front for the BJP and allied groups. Members of this NGO, including Chandan, are said to have organised evening aartis at the temple.
In fact, Chandan and his associates had protested the release of the movie Padmaavat in Ghaziabad on Jan 24.
Chandan’s elder brother is also believed to be part of the same non-profit and gave a self-recorded hate speech urging members of the Hindu community to avenge his brother’s death. The speech has gone viral locally, despite the ban on internet services in place by the local administration in the immediate aftermath of the violence.
While on January 26, the violence led to the shooting of Gupta and ensuing rampage by his sympathisers, a procession carrying an idol of Lord Ratan Nath marched past the streets of Kasganj, which was another provocation for Muslims on a different day. Nothing, however, happened on that day.
It is also emerging now that Yogi Adityanath was scheduled to visit Kasganj on January 28, which couldn’t materialise in the wake of Gupta’s death.
While Kasganj remained on the boil for at least four days after sectarian violence, the situation seems to be returning to normalcy now, even as uneasy calm prevails amid the Muslim community’s apprehension as to what may come next.
Already, there have been reports of more sectarian flare-ups from other parts of Uttar Pradesh.
A Tiranga yatra organised by the VHP and Bajrang Dal took place in Firozabad district, less than hundred kilometres from Kasganj, on Jan 31. While timely police intervention prevented the situation from escalating into something ugly, the intentions of the Hindu outfits are becoming clearer by every day.
A Muslim man was shot dead in UP’s Amethi district on Jan 30 in another instance of inter-community clashes, following which the shops shut down.
There seems to be a consensus that Kasganj is just a start in what would possibly be a series of sectarian clashes in the lead-up to 2019. However, what is to be seen is if common sense would prevail in other parts of UP as the RSS-allied outfits double down on their once frowned upon ideology.
(with inputs by Abhishek Srivastava)
(The story was first carried in last week’s edition of National Herald on Sunday).