As the rising sun ushered the first Road Transport Corporation (RTC) bus for the day to Bhainsa, a town situated to the north of the Godavari river in Telangana, the entire area wore an empty and uneasy look. It was less than two days after the town, with a population of a little over 50,000 people, witnessed communal clashes between persons of two religious communities – Hindus and Muslims.
On January 12, a trivial issue took a violent and communal turn when members belonging to the two communities clashed late in the night, leaving 19 people, including eight police officials, injured. On the evening of the clashes, a huge religious gathering was held between Bhainsa and Nirmal, and was attended by members of the Muslim community. The clash between the two communities, however, began when a few Hindu youths got into a confrontation with members of the Muslim community, who had allegedly created a ruckus in Korba galli. The argument between the members of the two communities quickly turned into assault, stone-pelting, and arson which continued well beyond midnight.
The next day, on January 13, some members from both sides clashed again, despite the imposition of section 144 of the Code of Criminal Procedure (CrPC), which bars the assembly of more than four persons in a public place. Between 11am and 3pm, both sides indulged in violence – pelting stones at each other and taking to arson. A total of 14 houses were damaged by arsonists and close to 30 vehicles were burnt. The police have registered 13 cases and detained 61 people from both the communities so far.
Two days on, while an uneasy calm prevails, due mainly to the armed security personnel that can be seen stationed everywhere, the charred remains of several objects reflect the tense situation that took place. The incident has also brought back haunting memories from 12 years ago, when the town had witnessed its worst communal violence.
What happened in 2008
In October of 2008, a Hindu procession passed through a road next to the Panjeshah mosque in the town. The people praying inside the mosque came out and objected to loud music being played as their prayer was going on. Even as heated words were exchanged, a few miscreants sprinkled 'gulal' (color) on some members of the Muslim community. Things soon escalated and this led to stone pelting from both sides.
The police rushed to the spot and found the situation out of control. Shots were fired, three people were killed in the violence.
By the time the situation was brought under control, close to 150 shops and 20 vehicles had burnt down, and many were left injured.
Within 48 hours, the violence spread to Vatoli, a neighbouring village, where six members of the family of a Muslim grocer – including three children – were burnt alive, making it a horrifying incident of communal violence. An incident that would be difficult to forget.
Politicians flocked to Bhainsa at the time and made various demands, ranging from an inquiry by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) to compensation for the victims of the violence.
Now, with the latest incident of violence also leading to a large number of people visiting the town, locals in Bhainsa remember what happened in 2008 and talk about how the recent violence has brought back memories of the fissures between the two communities.
'Them and Us'
Thirty-eight-year-old Poshanna*, a security guard at nearby Basara town, says the area has transformed in the last decade.
"There are colleges and good irrigation facilities here, and as you can see, many buildings have come up, and there is some sort of development. But despite this, a communal gap is always visible. Though it is only a few people who want to disturb the peace, there is a 'vaallu-memu' (them and us) sentiment that prevails," he says.
When asked if he had any idea how the latest row started, he said, "I don't know. I can say that violence can be sparked easily here, because of this sentiment."
The T-junction of Bhainsa town intersects with the road coming from Nirmal on one side, and Nizamabad on the other. At the heart of the junction, also referred to as 'Shivaji Chowk' by some, is a flex board of Chhatrapati Shivaji, with the lines, "See the sword in the hands of Shivaji, see the strength of Hindu Vahini."
As one walks into town, the same median hosts another flex board at yet another junction. This time, it showcases Tipu Sultan, put up by a Muslim group. At many places, saffron and green flags compete for space and visibility, indicating that the area is yet to move beyond its past image.
A tea seller near the bus stand, who opened his stall a day after the violence, amidst the uncertainty, sits down for a conversation over tea.
"We (locals) were just coming out of the shadow of the past incident. These kinds of incidents bring a bad name to the whole of Bhainsa itself," he says.
Though the fresh violence was not a result of any recent altercation between two communities, the ongoing unrest in the country over the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and National Register of Citizens (NRC), cannot be detached from Bhainsa's landscape.
Inside the town, less than a kilometre from the Bhainsa DySP's office in college galli, while in conversation with some youth and senior citizens, local residents asked this reporter and another to leave. A person who had been taking us around houses which had been burnt as a result of the arson, says, "People are anxious in the neighborhood after the CAA and NRC announcements. They are suspicious of any new face. This was the case even before this incident happened."
According to police sources, the town was also witness to anti-CAA and NRC protests, while a large chunk of people from Bhainsa had attended a pro-CAA rally in Nirmal town recently.
A police officer from the same district, who is deputed on special duty in Bhainsa says, "This is a communally sensitive area for three decades. A lack of education, and gullibility among the youth, is being used by some elements and groups which have vested interests."
The officer believes that the "hate-filled WhatsApp groups and social media" is further radicalising many. According to the police, keeping the town peaceful during religious festivals is not a cake walk, given the sensitivity of the situation.
Did municipal polls flare up communal tension?
Some also see a conspiracy behind the incident to gain political ground ahead of the municipal elections in the state. Besides the ruling Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS), the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM) are also fielding candidates in the area, and are in a stiff competition.
The BJP, which made inroads into northern Telangana by winning Lok Sabha seats from Karimnagar and Nizamabad in the elections last year, hopes to strengthen its base further by winning some seats in the municipal polls as well.
"No communal party will thrive without another communal party. The BJP wants to fish in troubled water while another party (AIMIM) wants to groom the benefits of that – one needs the other," says prominent educationist and activist Professor Haragopal.
Haragopal says that this may have been an 'experiment' for both groups.
"They can see whether communal politics will work, whether they will have electoral gains, and whether it can be spread to other towns. Even for Owaisi to win over Hyderabad, some communal climate is needed. Bhainsa is only a ground for experiment, otherwise, in Telangana, there is no communal situation as things stand today," he adds.
He further says, "If there were no municipal elections, I don't think it would have happened now. Municipal elections are the background, but communalisation is the process through which they want to gain in the polls. As there is a sizeable Muslim population in Bhainsa and there is some communal history, it's easy for things to flare up, especially at the time of elections. That's what I have noticed."
Meanwhile, the Election Commission (EC) is planning to go ahead with the polls. Shruti Ojha, the Election observer for Nirmal and Adilabad districts, visited the areas where stone pelting and arson took place on January 14. She spoke to local residents from both communities and assessed the scene on the ground. She was accompanied by senior police and revenue officials, and instructed them to take measures to ensure normalcy in the areas.
The police meanwhile have said that "confidence building measures were being initiated in the area" as personnel of the Rapid Action Force (RAF) and other security forces remain deployed on the streets.
A youngster who has come home for the holidays asks, "Some did it but everyone is affected. Who doesn't want to have celebrations?"
Visit any corner in the affected area of town, irrespective of the community they belong to, and everyone says, "After 12 years, this has happened again, who knows what will happen now?"