The far end of Platform 6 at the KSR Bengaluru railway station was deserted on Thursday afternoon, with no trains scheduled to arrive or depart from there. Yet, there was heavy deployment of the Railway Protection Force (RPF). The RPF personnel on duty were hovering around a freshly painted room, ensuring that nobody enters it without their permission. The room they were guarding is the resting room for porters that had become the cynosure of Hindu groups who objected to Muslim porters offering namaz inside.
The videos showed that earlier, the wooden panels in the room had been painted green, the walls were checkered black and white and the floor was laid with colourful tiles. A line of taps were installed for the porters to ablute themselves before offering namaz. The hall had been partitioned to create three separate rooms too. After videos and photographs of the room went viral, the railway authorities swiftly restored the walls to the uniform railway colours-blue and white. A flex board calling the room ‚ÄėRailway sahayak rest room‚Äô was installed outside the room.
But when TNM visited the location, the door was locked and we were denied access inside the room. We were denied permission to even click a photograph of the room from the outside. When asked for permission, we were directed by the RPF to the Railways PRO and then to the local Law and Order police, all of whom passed the buck to each other.
Speaking to us off the record, officials there claimed that while they were aware that porters were offering namaz inside the said room, they were unaware of the modifications done to it. They said that if it was just a matter of a few pictures or maybe a few carpets put for namaz, they would not have acted against it. Since there had been large-scale modifications, they were forced to ensure they remove the embellishments, ‚ÄúThe room is government property and it is illegal to make these modifications without permission‚ÄĚ, the official said.
But what is baffling is that both RPF as well as Bengaluru police personnel claim that they didn't know the extent of modifications done. The RPF outpost adjoins the resting room, even sharing a wall with it on one side. The local police outpost is just behind it.
‚ÄúThe room had been used to offer namaz for at least 25 to 30 years now. Nobody had raised any issue because the Hindu porters would use the other room for their prayers,‚ÄĚ a police personnel told TNM. Another RPF officer corroborated this. He said that while the practice of porters using the room to offer namaz was not new, they did not know that there have been large-scale renovations made, which amount to serious violations. ‚ÄúNone of us (RPF officers) are Muslims so we had not gone inside. We just saw that between themselves the porters had an understanding and had divided the two halls provided to them,‚ÄĚ the RPF officer said.
He said that the issue came to light initially after a passenger from Kerala belonging to the Muslim community went inside for namaz. He then reportedly shot a video recording how convenient it is for those who want to offer prayers and posted it on social media. ‚ÄúThis is what drew the attention of the Hindu groups,‚ÄĚ the officer said.
But while swift action was taken to restore the resting room used by Muslim porters, in most of the offices in the railway station, including in the police outposts, we saw large pictures of Hindu dieties displayed. The other resting room, used by Hindu porters, had a stand with pictures of Hindu deities Ganesha, Lakshmi and Saraswathi, Jesus Christ and Islamic scriptures on the wall.
We tried speaking to nearly 20 porters from both the Hindu and Muslim communities, but most of them seemed too scared to speak, especially in the presence of the RPF personnel. Finally a porter from the Hindu community agreed to speak to us. He said that in the years that he has been working at the station, he has not seen any tension between the Hindu and Muslim porters. ‚ÄúWe do not go to that resting room, we use the other one behind it. We never had an issue because we too celebrated our festivals. We regularly celebrate Ayudha Pooja, Ganesh Chaturthi, Deepavali in the resting room without any issue,‚ÄĚ he said.
Another porter belonging to the Muslim community spoke to us even as he hid behind a building to shield himself from the other porters as well as the police personnel. He said that while the room was now locked, the keys to the room were given to a shopkeeper on the platform and those of them who wanted to offer namaz or rest could access the room. He insisted that none of his colleagues, even from other communities, had a problem. ‚ÄúIt is people from outside with political intentions who are creating trouble here,‚ÄĚ he said, lowering his voice.
Meanwhile, on Platform 7, a Hindu shrine continues to exist. The shrine has a small gopuram, around 5 feet wide, 4 feet tall, and a chamber underneath that is barricaded with a grill gate and locked.
We spoke to members of Hindu groups who had gone to the station on February 1, 2022. One of the men who shot the video, Mohan Gowda who is the spokesperson of the Hindu Janajagrutha Samithi, said that they initially received information about the room from someone working at the station over a month ago. ‚ÄúThat person had sent a video of around 60 porters offering namaz there. We then wrote a letter to the authorities objecting to this. Later, the railway authorities had issued a notice to clear a temple at the Cantonment railway station. We then took up the issue of how the matter of a resting room converted into a Muslim payer hall has not been resolved yet,‚ÄĚ he told TNM.
TNM accessed the memorandum letter submitted to the Divisional Railway Manager, South Western Railway, Bengaluru Division, by the Hindu Janjagrutha Samithi on January 31, 2022. Apart from raising objections to the resting room converted into a Muslim prayer hall, they also ludicrously linked it to terrorism and a security threat because of this. ‚ÄúPresently Bengaluru has become a haven of terror activities. The National Investigation Agency had arrested West Bengal based Adil Asadullah from the Bengaluru Cantonment station in 2018,‚ÄĚ the letter reads.
‚ÄúIn 2019 the NIA had arrested a terrorist, Mohamed Akram, from the Majestic area in Bengaluru. The police had arrested a Bangladesh based terrorist of Jamaat UI Mujahideen member, who was hiding in the Cottonpet Masjid in Bengaluru. In this background, how appropriate is it to allow a place of prayer on the platform in the Railway station? It is requested to take immediate action on those who have permitted the unauthorised place of prayer and prayers should not be allowed at the resting room, Failing which there will have to be a severe protest (sic),‚ÄĚ the activists say in the letter.
‚ÄúThe issue again came up when a Kerala resident belonging to the Muslim community made a video showing the room. This video became viral and many news organisations covered it too,‚ÄĚ he added, confirming what the RPF officer had told us earlier. ‚ÄúWe then visited the station and insisted that the authorities there inspect the room in our presence. There we saw that over 25 taps had been installed and several religious boards had been put in Arabic. The Station Manager was shocked to see all this and said that he had taken over three months ago and was not aware of all this,‚ÄĚ he said.
The videos of the ‚Äėraid‚Äô that was captured on the mobile phones of the Hindu group members show that there are police personnel along with railway authorities accompanying several men clad in saffron clothes, belonging to five Hindu groups ‚Äď Hindu Janajagruthi Samithi, Bajrang Dal, Vishwa Hindu Parishad, Hindu Mahasabha and Rashtra Rakshana Pade. The videos also show a room where materials that were being used in the construction were kept.
‚ÄúWe went to the station and gave a memorandum. The same night the railway authorities removed the modifications to the restroom as assured to us. They said that they had not given permission to make these changes,‚ÄĚ Mohan Gowda said.
One of his associates, Shashikant Sharma of the VHP, confirmed that the initial information came from someone working in the station. ‚ÄúWe got information that it was not just used for prayers but it was converted into a masjid. I also got a 20-second video that showed what was happening inside. After this, we decided to act on it,‚ÄĚ he said.
When TNM asked if there was a concerted effort to stop Muslims from offering namaz in public spaces, like in the case of the school in Kolar district where students were filmed praying inside the school premises, Shashikant Sharma claimed that Muslims and some sections of the Opposition supporting them are cherry picking incidents to highlight so the BJP can be portrayed as intolerant. ‚ÄúThis is happening in an organised manner since the BJP came to power in the state. We are very sure that there is a concerted effort to increase and highlight such things ‚Äď students wearing hijab as seen in the Udupi college, offering namaz like it happened in the Kolar school, and now this. This is all being done with someone‚Äôs support in the background,‚ÄĚ he said.
The authorities at the railway station did not want to talk about the issue and further fuel the controversy. Speaking to us off the record, a senior official working with Railways said that they had all been instructed not to speak to the media. ‚ÄúThis has become a communal and political issue. Not just us, even our higher-ups cannot speak about this to the media. Because we will then be questioned on how we let the violations take place for so many years right under our noses,‚ÄĚ the official said.