Anatomy of A Riot: How Bhadrak Was Thrown to the Wolves

By Sandeep Sahu

When the BJP said it, it was easy to dismiss it as the ranting of a party desperate to come to power in the state. But now that veteran BJD leader and the local MP Arjun Sethy has said the same thing, we can no more ignore the charge that a small issue that could have been nipped in the bud in the first few hours was allowed to grow into a full-fledged communal conflagration by the inept – and inexplicable – conduct of the district administration in Bhadrak last week.

Four days after things spiraled out of control on Friday, video evidence has now emerged of how the administration, which should have pulled out all stops to douse the communal fire, literally played with fire by allowing a bike rally on Friday afternoon at the precise time when a peace committee meeting was on to find a solution to the problem. The bikers apparently raised provocative slogans, including ‘Pakistan Zindabaad’, just outside the venue for the meeting. As was only to be expected, all hell broke loose after that. Significantly, Sec 144 was very much in force at the time when the procession took place.

The same ineptitude (or was it complicity?) was in evidence when the police dilly-dallied for three full days in arresting Asif Ali Khan, the son of local BJD leader Ajgar Ali Khan and the man who started it all on Ram Navami day with his highly offensive comments on Goddess Sita on Facebook, after a complaint was lodged against him and two others. This only helped raise the temperature on the other side of the religious divide and led to a fresh and deadlier round of violence that required a sustained spell of curfew and paramilitary intervention to control.

More than ineptitude, there are reasons to believe that the conduct of the police and the district administration was being choreographed by a none-too-invisible political hand. With the Chief Minister, who also doubles up as the Home minister of the state, away in New Delhi, this choreographer had a field day playing his dirty political games.

Though there is a monumental difference in the scale of the two tragedies, one cannot but recall how similar inept handling of the situation, again with politicians calling the shots, led to the communal carnage in Kandhamal in August-September 2008 that left at least 38 persons, a majority of them Christians, dead. In a decision that defied all logic, the district administration allowed the followers of Swami Laxmananada Saraswati, who had just been gunned down by Maoists with four other followers, to carry his body in a procession through various places in the communally sensitive district, raising the communal temperature all along the 150 km-long  route that the procession covered. Forget statecraft, even elementary common sense suggested that such a course is fraught with disaster. But that such a procession was allowed to run its full course left no one in doubt that as in the case of Bhadrak, it was not the district administration but some external – and obviously political – forces were calling the shots. By a strange coincidence, Naveen Patnaik – who later famously said that ‘every bone’ in his body was ‘secular’ – was both the Chief Minister and Home minister of the state at the time, as he is now.

As RTI activist Pradip Pradhan has pointed out in a Facebook post today, the reports of the two Commissions of Inquiry on the Kandhamal riots (on which the government has spent a small matter of Rs 4 crores), are yet to be made public or acted upon even two years after they were submitted to the government. One can only hope that the Chief Minister would not remain content with just ordering another inquiry – judicial or administrative – on the Bhadrak violence and would actually act against those, including some in his own party, who stoked the communal fires for their selfish political gains.

The BJP has rightly been taken to task for often pursuing a blatantly communal agenda by the media and the democratic, secular and liberal class in the country. But when it comes to the communal agenda pursued by parties other than the BJP, many of which have given themselves the ‘secular’ tag, this class suddenly develops cold feet. This makes their outrage at the BJP brand of communalism appear selective and agenda-driven to the layman and helps win support for the party – as is happening in many states in the country. It is high time the secular class shed its double standards and condemns communalism of all kinds, in all forms and by all parties and organisations. If it does not, the time is not far off when the forces of Hindutva would paint the whole country saffron.

And this would certainly be a tragedy of monumental proportions.