The Wire: With Little Hope of Government Protection, Muslims in Tripura Are Living in Fear - IAMC

The Wire: With Little Hope of Government Protection, Muslims in Tripura Are Living in Fear

Many have lost their peace of mind in addition to their financial security, and are wondering what the future holds.

By Hrishi Raj

New Delhi: After a spate of anti-Muslim attacks and violent incidents in Tripura, Muslims in the state, particularly those living in or close to affected areas, are filled with fear.

As per reports, by October 27, during protests organised by right-wing Hindu groups like the Viswa Hindu Parishad (VHP), Hindu Jagran Manch, Bajrang Dal and Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) against anti-Hindu violence in Bangladesh, at least 15 mosques and over a dozen of houses and shops belonging to Muslims were vandalised in Tripura.

The violence in the state has led to rising fears among many Muslims, who are a minority forming 8.6% of the total population. Those who live in the Unakoti and North Tripura districts told The Wire that they were feeling particularly vulnerable.

People from the violence-affected areas say they are being targeted “without any reason”. While attacks against Hindus in Bangladesh are being used as an excuse for the violence and vandalism in Tripura, the minority Muslim population in the state knows they have nothing to do with what happened in the neighbouring country.

“I have two children. My wife and all the other women and children of our family have taken refuge in one house. Around 100-110 people have left for Kailashahar since this morning. We are Indians and we were born here. Why are we being made to suffer for something which has not even happened in our country?” Abdul said.

Following the vandalisation of mosques, Section 144 of the Code of Criminal Procedure was imposed in the affected regions.

Advocate Abdul Basit Khan practices at the district judge’s court in North Tripura. He is a resident of Dharamnagar town in the North Tripura district and lives with his wife, daughter, son and son-in-law. On October 21, his house was vacant when, according to him, “members of the VHP, who were holding a rally in Dharmanagar, barged into the locked house and vandalised it”.

“I was out for work in Agartala, and my son and wife were in Guwahati and my daughter and son-in-law were in Delhi when members of VHP entered my residence and destroyed everything,” Khan told The Wire.

He said the damaged items includes a “sofa-set, wardrobe, laptop and television among other things”.

“What hurts the most is that all my case files were either torn up or thrown out on the street. I have lost possessions worth Rs 10 lakh but what bothers me is that I lost many valuable certificates and papers, which cannot even be compensated with money,” he said. Khan lodged a complaint at the local police station; however, according to him, no action has been taken till this report was filed.

Khan is associated with the Trinamool Congress and is a member of the party’s state steering committee.

He believes that with the civic elections approaching, “these (right-wing groups) are using different means of intimidation to prevent the elections from happening”.

Most political parties, including the non-BJP ones like CPI(M) who have a good foothold in Tripura, have not intervened on the ground after the violence. The Indian National Congress (Tripura) conducted a ‘dharna pradarshan’ in Agartala, while the CPI(M) also showed their support for victims on Twitter. Local CPI(M) MLA Islam Uddin condemned the violence openly and gave an interview to regional news channels. Former MP Jitendra Choudhary of the CPI(M) also spoke about the issue on his social media handles. However, the necessary on-ground support was missing from the opposition.

On October 22, about a week after the violence against minorities in Tripura began, the State Election Commission declared that civic elections would be held on November 25. “It is like that the hate crimes will have an impact on the elections that are approaching in the state. Parties seem to be worried about the Hindu vote bank and have not even been speaking up on the issue,” said Sultan Hussain, a resident of North Tripura and state secretary of the SIO (Students’ Islamic Organisation). On October 27, the SIO held a press conference to try and amplify victims’ voices. A memorandum was also submitted by the APCR (Association for Protection of Civil Rights) on October 22 to district magistrates and sub-district magistrates of the districts that saw these incidents.

Recounting the violence in his area, Moin Uddin, a resident of Choumuni Bazaar area, told The Wire that he was terrified after what had happened. “We have not not able to leave our houses in the last four days and even go to the market,” he said, adding that supplies were running out. “We don’t have any vegetables left. What will we eat?”

According to him, violent mobs were visible in the area until October 24. “They came every night for the past three nights and pelted stones on the houses of the Muslim residents,” he said.

Moin said he was unable to go to work due to fear. “I have been getting calls from work but I chose to stay home. I am the sole breadwinner in the family. I am afraid if something happens to me, what will my family do?”

Locals say that at Pal Bazaar on October 22, there was a meeting called by the Bajrang Dal after which the violence in Chaumuni Bazaar started.

Following the meeting, Bajrang Dal members allegedly attacked the mosque at Pal Bazaar area and vandalised it. Saidul Choudhary’s residence is right beside the mosque. While speaking to The Wire, he said, “We were all inside our homes. We could hear constant sloganeering but could not do anything about it. We saw the condition of the mosque only the next morning in the presence of policemen. The Quran was burnt, ceiling of the mosque was destroyed and so were other things.”

After this, at night, the same mob reached the locality of Chaumuni Bazaar where stone pelting and sloganeering of “Jai Shree Ram” and anti-Muslim slogans were seen. About 100-110 families reside in the area, and nobody could sleep due to fear. In the morning of October 23, at least 30 families had to vacate their houses and move to Kailashahar, a neighbouring town. There are two or three pucca houses in the Chaumuni Bazaar area, these were the main centres of the attack.

“Our mental peace is gone. My father and I cannot sleep at night,” said Akbaruddin, son of N.B. Allaluddin, a resident of the Chaumuni Bazaar area. Their house too was attacked.

Allaluddin, a local water supplier, was one of those who fled with his family to Kailashahar and did not return until October 26. He told The Wire, “I was extremely scared the night when the goons tried to attack my house. Although they did not cross my boundary [wall], the stone-pelting continued all night. The very next morning, I left with my son, daughter and wife to a relative’s place along with other families who were going to Kailashahar. We did not come back until we were absolutely sure about the situation going back to normal.”

Allalludin’s family was the last to return home. “We have come back but there is fear in our hearts. I can’t sleep all night, thinking anything could happen. We know incidents are happening in other districts even now. We do not have any expectations from the government and do not feel safe here.”

The locals of Chaumuni Bazaar told The Wire that the local MLA, Sudhangshu Das, visited the area on October 23 after reports of people vacating their houses and fleeing to Kailashahar had surfaced. “He came at about 4 pm on October 23. He asked us to call back the people who had left. He offered us a bribe of Rs 1,000 each if we call them back,” a local from Chaumuni Bazaar said.

On October 24, 2021, the DM and SDM of the area were supposed to visit at 9 am to understand the situation and take steps accordingly. However, as per the locals, they did not ultimately visit as the MLA had brought the situation under control. Most of the families who had earlier left the Choumuni Bazaar had also returned by the evening of October 24.

Ashfaq is a resident of Chaumuni Bazaar area and owns a shop in Pal Bazaar. He was one of those who stayed in the locality even after the incident. His house is near the mosque that was vandalised in the October 22 violence. “For two days, azaan (the Islamic call to prayer) had to be stopped at the mosque,” he said.

Sohanur Ali is the sole breadwinner of his family. He used to sell footwear and clothing items. Most of his stock was brought to ruins in front of him; the only part of the stock left now is what can be seen in the picture. Photo: Hrishi Raj Anand

Kailashahar, a place with comparatively better media presence, also reported incidents of provocation on the same day.

Abdul Mannan, a prominent businessman from Kailashahar, told The Wire, “I was out of station and my son and wife were home. When I returned on October 22, I saw a bhagwa (saffron) flag on my main gate. I called the police, filed a complaint and they took it away. A similar incident happened at the town mosque as well.” This was not the only incident at Mannan’s house. On October 16 at around 12:20 am, there was an attempt to vandalise his residence. Stones were pelted and slogans were shouted for at least 20 minutes by group of 15 or so people, he alleged. The police came in for investigation on the morning of October 27. Using the CCTV footage gathered, only one person could be identified. However, he has fled and the investigation continues.

Pertinently, the incidents of violence and vandalisation of mosques has been reported from areas where the Muslim population is smaller. Apart from Kailashahar, Chaumuni Bazaar and Pal Bazaar, areas like Ramnagar, Panisagar, Dharamanagar also reported incidents of vandalisation.

On the other hand, Sonampura, which comes under the Sepahijala district, saw a rally on October 23, organised by both Hindus and Muslims. Dr Jahirul Haque led the protest. During the rally, the group urged the government to maintain communal harmony in the state. The protestors also condemned the incidents of brutality towards Hindus in Bangladesh. Those who participated in the rally were seen raising slogans for ‘secularism’ and promoting ‘co-existence of different religions’.

Post October 24, it seemed like these incidents had come to a halt. However, after just one day’s peace, similar rallies and cases of violence continued in North Tripura’s Dharamnagar sub-division and Panisagar area. On October 26, a mosque at Chamtila, Panisagar was vandalised. Following this, at around 3:30-4 pm, a Hindutva mob allegedly marched towards the masjid in Rowa which also comes under Panisagar sub-division. This time, a group from the minority community was reportedly guarding the mosque. Seeing this, the mob turned their eyes towards the shops in the area and allegedly burnt at least five shops down.

Three of those shops belonged to Amiruddin. In a conversation with The Wire, he said, “My brother and I have 13 people to feed in the family. I was standing some distance away, saw my shops burn but could not go near as it could have been a threat to my life… They did not just burn two of my grocery shops but also looted my godown of tobacco. I lost the entire stock for winter, resulting in a loss of at least Rs 10 lakh.”

A vandalised shop in Rowa. Photo: Hrishi Raj Anand

Akbar Ali, another resident of Rowa, talked about how the fear increased as the night approached. He said, “We spent the night in the forest as we were scared that the goons would enter our houses. We knew what had happened in Chaumuni Bazaar. We were not the only ones there, at least eight families from our village had to do the same.”

Following this, the Kadamtala region of North Tripura saw disturbances on October 28. As a response to the vandalisation and silence from the administration, a few minority groups decided to hold a rally in Kadamtala area on October 28. The administration imposed Section 144 and did not allow the rally to happen. Post this, in the evening, 32-year-old Parvas Ali was in the local market. He saw a group of 30-40 people roaming around despite Section 144 being imposed, and started to film it. Someone from that group saw him do this, and 3-4 people allegedly beat him up. He was later referred to Dharamanagar Hospital. The police took three people into custody, but according to sources they were released soon after.

Another such incident was seen on October 29, where in the evening, right in front of the Kailashahar police station, Shibaji Sengupta, an ABVP leader, was stabbed after an argument broke out between some youngsters. Shibaji later alleged that the people who attacked him were minority community members from the BJP, members of the student wing of the Trinamool Congress and NSUI. Hindus were agitated post this incident and allegedly attacked an innocent madrasa teacher in the market place. To avenge this, a Kali temple built out of bamboo in the Kofzar area of Kailashahar was attacked. However, zila parishad member Md Badaruzaman got it rebuilt immediately.

The state government, led by the BJP, has come under criticism for its handling of incidents of anti-Muslim violence.

“This party hates us, it will not let the Muslims of Tripura survive. They want to finish us all off and make this place an entirely Hindu belt,” said Akbar Ali, a resident of Pal Bazaar area in Unakoti district.

After recent developments – and the government’s decision to maintain silence rather than speak in favour of the victims – the people have somewhat lost faith in their government. In the days leading up to October 30, at least 27 incidents of hate crime have been seen in the state. At least 15 mosques and shops have been brought down and three mosques have completely been ruined. There are other reported incidents too in remote villages, where there is not much access to the internet and media attention has been limited.

The Tripura Police, via its Twitter handle, mentioned that a lot of fake news was being spread on social media and stringent action would be taken against those trying to disturb the peace and harmony of the state. Until this report was filed, no accused persons in any of the districts had been identified or arrested. The Wire tried getting in touch with the SDPO of Panisagar and SP of North Tripura, but received no response. However, as per information gathered from several reports, Section 144 of the CrPC has been imposed in all the afflicted areas and the police says that action is being taken.

According to the administration, areas that saw mob violence have been provided protection by the TSR (Tripura State Rifles), Tripura Police and paramilitary forces. Deployment has also been increased after rumours of several other mosques allegedly being demolished was brought to notice. Reports also suggested earlier that Muslims from Panisagar were now guarding the mosques that they felt could be the next targets.

All of this stopped on October 29, with the Tripura high court taking suo moto cognisance of the matter. Locals said that the situation is much better now and it seems likely that everything will go back to normal soon. The Tripura high court has now directed the state government to consider forming peace committees not only at district levels but also at sub-divisional levels and panchayat levels if necessary. It also called upon political parties to participate fully in such peace processes. Peace meetings, as directed by the high court, were held yesterday in several affected regions.

In a video that was circulated after the peace meeting in Rowa, a man can be seen expressing anguish and addressing local Hindu leaders. “We were left helpless. It is not like we were not in a position to help ourselves, but we did not want a riot situation. The indigenous people were there for us, kept asking how we were but nobody from the BJP even bothered to look at our state,” he said.

Addressing the local BJP leaders, he added, “All our people in 2018 voted for you, thinking you would work on our upliftment; and now when our lives were at stake, we kept trying to reach out to you on your mobile, but it was either not reachable or was not answered.”

While right-wing groups claim that the violence in Tripura is a reaction to what happened in Bangladesh, there’s one key difference that they seem to be ignoring. In Bangladesh, at least 450 people have been arrested; in Tripura, most perpetrators still roam free and the victims live in fear of the next possible attack. Only three arrests have been made so far, police say, “from both communities”.

Hrishi Raj Anand is a freelance journalist based in Delhi, writing on the issues of human rights, marginalisation and COVID-19.

The names of some victims have been changed to protect their anonymity.

This article originally appeared in The Wire