Home Secular Rethink Tapan Kumar Pradhan
Tapan Kumar Pradhan’s essay, below, won third prize in the Citizens for Peace/Indian Express essay contest, 2007 on the theme “Living With Differences”.

The day was 20th March 1991. Ram Navami was being celebrated in Bhadrak, a small town in northern Orissa. Around 4:30 PM a procession of Hindu devotees was passing through Puruna Bazaar (a business street of Old Bhadrak) when a young processionist uttered a controversial slogan over the microphone, which was objectionable to a section of the sizeable Muslim bystanders who were enjoying the festivities. The slogan was : “Jab Bharat mein rehna hogaa, Raamnaam kehna hogaa” (If you want to stay in India you have to take Ram’s name). At this time the bicycle of a Muslim passerby hit one of the processionists. Nobody knows whether it was a deliberate act, but some Hindu processionists pushed the bicyclist and he fell down. Suddenly an irate Muslim youth snatched the microphone from the sloganeer, whereupon he was slapped by some processionists.

What happened thereafter needs no description. Pushing and pulling led to stone-throwing, which led to arson, looting, carnage and finally police-firing. How many died, how many businessmen became paupers overnight, how many houses were destroyed - all these statistics are not relevant now.

What is significant is that, from that day onwards Bhadrak became a divided city - partitioned into Old Bhadrak and New Bhadrak - the former with a predominantly Muslim population, and the latter dominated by Hindus.

Four Pillars of Harmony

Before this, Bhadrak was a very peaceful town, with exemplary camaraderie among various communities. An interesting feature of the social organization of Bhadrak is the Chauda Mahala (literally Fourteen Mohallas) - which refer to the 14 original Muslim clusters established circa 1700 AD. At present there are 44 such mohallas in Bhadrak. The Chauda Mahala Council, existing since 1887, is the apex decision-making body for local Muslims. Each Mahala is represented in the Council by its sardar, elected through consensus. The Chief of the Council is the Sadar, assisted by Naib Sadar, Nazim and other office-bearers, who head various social, cultural and educational sub-commitees. Various local disputes are first resolved at mahala level, failing which the matter goes to Chauda Mahala Council.

Besides providing a platform of cohesion for Bhadrak Muslims, Chauda Mahala acts as a bridge in Hindu-Muslim interaction. In any dispute involving Hindus and Muslims the Mahala Council amicably sorts out the matter. Though Hindus have nothing to do with internal affairs of Chauda Mahala Committee, the Muslim office-bearers always consult local Hindus on matters of common collective interest.

With a tradition as old as Chauda Mahala, Mogal Tamasha, a lyrical Urdu-Oriya bilingual dance-drama of Bhadrak, written by Banshi Ballav Goswami, is another example of Hindu-Muslim unity. Traditionally enacted in each sahi and mohalla on all festive occasions, this masterly work is a humorous satire on Muslim Rulers - besides depicting a colourful historical account of Hindu-Muslim cultural relations and communal harmony in general. Sayyad Ashraf Ali and Narayana Palei are two leading exponents, often performing together, mostly on Chaitra Sankranti day. But because of cinema and TV, people are showing no more interest in this Tamasha, and a great platform of Hindu-Muslim get-together is gradually getting lost.

Sadabrata Matha in Bhadrak, a monastery established in early 16th century by Saint Narayana Das, is a place of religious discussion and service to humanity, where hundreds of poor people, irrespective of caste or community, are provided with free meals and health care. It has enjoyed the patronage of local Bhuyan landlords as well as many liberal-minded Muslim businessmen. Karamat Ali, a tobacco-seller, says that his father, although a Muslim, used to supply food-grains for the Ashram inmates. After his death, Karamat found shelter in the Ashram, and even learnt Vedic mantras and shlokas. Although now financially self-sufficient, he remains close to the Matha and declares that, “Sabu Dharma Samaan, Allah Vishnu Ek” (All religions are the same, Allah and Vishnu are one).

On the opposite side of the Matha, across river Salindi, is the Duhsa-Pehelwan Kabristan - the burial ground of the 17th century Muslim saint Pehelwan, and his Hindu disciple Duhsasan. Legend has it that one day when people expressed their desire to become Pehelwan’s disciples, the latter declared that he would accept only those who could wash his clothes. Many people tried but nobody could lift the wet clothes from Salindi river. Finally Duhsasan, a low-caste dhoba (washerman) could do it, and became his first disciple. Today thousands of Hindus and Muslims pay their homage together at Duhsa-Pehelwan, especially on Urs days. Shantilata Pramanik, a primary school teacher, who says she gave birth to a boy only after praying to Pehelwan Pir, declares that “Muslim Pirs and Faquirs are more powerful than Hindu Saints!”

Thus Mogal Tamasha, Chauda Mahala, Sadabrata Matha and Duhsa-Pehelwan have been four traditional pillars of exemplary harmony among Hindus and Muslims of Bhadrak.

Was It a Communal Riot?

So why did the riot occur in 1991 ? If one examines the backdrop of socio-economic changes, one can see that 1991 was the year when Hindus first outnumbered Muslims in Bhadrak town. This was mainly due to the influx of outsiders, especially Marwari businessmen who started migrating since 1965-67. Initially they worked as assistants and partners with local Muslim traders, but soon took over most business establishments through shrewd business tactics. By 1980-85 they had monopolised cloth, domestic appliances, kirana, electrical goods and jewellery businesses.

If one further analyses the 1991 riot, one finds that the arson and carnage were all pre-planned, as only shops, godowns and houses of businessmen were attacked. The riot spread only along main roads; it did not penetrate the interior mohallas and residential areas. From all these accounts the riot appears to be an act of revenge arising from long-standing business rivalry between local Muslim merchants and migrating Marwari businessmen.

This view is supported by historical facts regarding Marwari-RSS linkage. Although RSS has been active in Bhadrak since 1970s, it was only during 1985-86 that Marwaris became involved in large numbers. As a result, Ram Daya Parishad, a religious-charitable organisation of Hindus came up in Nua Bazar (away from Muslim-dominated Puruna Bazar), with Marwari patronage and RSS volunteers. Its main activities were Durga Puja, Ramlila, religious discourses and Yajna at the sprawling Gandhi Maidan. Hindu newcomers were attracted to this Parishad, as they were unaware of the four traditional pillars of harmony. Marwari businessmen of Puruna Bazar increasingly associated themselves with RSS in Nua Bazar, distancing themselves from Chauda Mahala and Puruna Bazar. This gradual polarisation of Marwari and Muslim traders, combined with business rivalry, led to the 1991 violence.

The common man played no role in this violence. Is it correct then to call it a communal riot?

After the Riot

Following the 1991 incident, as a part of peacemaking deliberations, representatives of both communities got together to form a Vijaya Milan Committee. Since 1992 it has been organising inter-community get-togethers at the time of Durga Puja celebrations of Hindus and Eid and Muharram of Muslims. The term Vijaya Milan is a combination of the words Vijaya Dasami and Eid Milan. Cultural programmes are organized, to which all citizens are given open invitation, and sweets are distributed to both Hindu Vijaya Dasami processionists and Muslim Muharram processionists. In 1992 sweetmeats and cold drinks were distributed to more than 5000 processionists.

Although after 1991, Hindus in large numbers shifted from Puruna Bazar to New Bhadrak, and Muslims vice versa, both communities in Old Bhadrak now reside harmoniously together. In Chauda Mahala area, Hindu and Muslim clusters are so intermixed, often with thatches touching, that an outsider cannot tell them apart.

Harmony is not a Difficult Art

Bhadrak is a beautiful example of two communities, with two distinct cultural traditions, living harmoniously together, in spite of the traumatic memory of a violent riot.

Interestingly, such camaraderie is nothing new in India, which has witnessed more than 11,000 communal riots since its independence. A Hindu secretary of a Muharram committee or a Muslim secretary of Dussera committee is nothing new in our country. At the Ajmer shrines of Muslim Sufi Saints the majority of devotees are Hindus, and at the famous Kapaleeswaran temple in Tamilnadu, Muslims offer prayers during Muharram, rubbing shoulders with orthodox Shaiva devotees. Similarly Hindus, Sikhs and Christians flock to the ziyyarats (shrines) of Sayyad Muslim saints of Badayun in UP to seek miraculous cure from diseases. In the villages of Anantnag in Kashmir it is the Muslims who perform the funeral rites of local Brahmin pundits. In Kerala the fishing communities, irrespective of their religion (Hindu, Christian or Muslim) live together and often intermarry. And in Ajmer, Udaipur and Bhilwara districts of Rajasthan, the Meherat Muslims and Hindu Rawat-Rajputs have frequently intermarried, following either the Islamic Nikkah or Hindu Agnisakshi method, as per individual choice.

Our newspapers may be full of communal violence, but the heart and soul of our 100 crores Common Men and Women have not been corrupted by divisive communal sentiments. Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam is still our common mantra. But what happened in 1991 can happen again. We have to safeguard our harmony from the relentless onslaught of political leaders and vested interests, for whom communalism is the sole bread and butter. Most of the communal riots in post-Independence India have been sparked by petty business rivalry or have been politically instigated. The 1991 Bhadrak riot was one such one-off incident. It is time to forgive, and forget.

As-Salaam Aleikum wa Rehmat-ullah … Om Shantih

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