Atali Fact Finding report

Introduction:

On 25th May 2015, violence erupted in Atali village in Faridabad in Haryana. A mob of Jats attacked Muslims in the village over the construction of a mosque in the village which is opposed by the Jats. The Muslim community was attacked with bricks, swords and axes. Some of the houses belonging to them were set on fire. Three persons got injured. To investigate into this violence, three a team of three members constituted by Centre for Study of Society and Secularism (CSSS), Mumbai visited Atali on 17th June and interacted with Police commissioner, Muslim community, some elderly persons from the Jat and other communities who were part of Pal panchayat, shopkeepers, media persons and activists. After these interactions, analysis and observations, the fact finding team arrived at some findings and conclusion. These will be presented in this report.

Purpose of this fact finding:

The Indian Constitution guarantees all its citizens fundamental right, including the right to profess, practice and propagate religion of one’s choice. As opposed to this principle and vision, the targeted violence against the Muslims in Atali shook the collective social conscience of the people of India. India has a rich history of coexistence of various communities for centuries. Such violence which tears apart the very social fabric of our society is indicative of intolerance and hatred. This is a grave concern standing before a peaceful and plural society. It is an anathema that in a village like Atali where the Jats stopped Muslim families from migrating to Pakistan in 1947 is in news for politics of hatred. CSSS wanted to look for an unbiased analysis of the conflict which it can present before the society.

This fact finding was constituted in order to investigate and understand the reasons causing this conflict. There is a triggering point in every conflict but deeper causes of the conflict should also be investigated. It is required to probe all grounds behind the conflict. This will help to mitigate the impact and formulate strategies to resolve the conflict. Though the reason cited for violence in this conflict is the construction of mosque, CSSS wanted to dig deeper into the facts and understand the conflicts and its reasons and implications in all its nuances from different stakeholders.

The fact finding team:

The fact finding team consisted of Adv Irfan Engineer, Satish Kumar and Neha Dabhade. Adv Irfan Engineer is the director at the Centre for Study of Society and Secularism (CSSS), Mumbai. He is a writer and social activist who has worked on issues relating to peace, rights of marginalized etc. Satish Kumar is a social activist and trade unionist. He is the editor of a fortnightly called Mazdoor Morcha. Neha Dabhade works with CSSS.

Like mentioned above, the fact finding team in order to understand different views and perspectives into this issue spoke to different stakeholders in this conflict. As gathered from previous media reports and fact finding reports, different aspersions were stacked against the police, a lot was written on the status of the mosque, the damage suffered by the Muslims and the actual attack that took place on the ill fated day. Repetition of these issues wouldn’t be necessary or desirable. Thus the fact finding team focused more on understanding the pattern of relationship between the Muslim and Jat communities, the processes that built up to the violence and the possible solution. CSSS wanted to unravel the causes of conflicts which give insight into social trends and processes.

The Incident:

It was undisputed that on the evening of 25th May 2015, around 6pm when the Muslims were offering Namaz in the mosque which was being reconstructed, a mob of around 500 people attacked the mosque and the houses of Muslims around the Mosque. The estimation of the strength of the mob differs from source to source. The mob was armed with axes, kerosene, brickbats and gas cylinders. Muslims fled the village to save themselves. The mob burnt the houses of some Muslims staying around the mosque. The damage to property was extensive in the houses of a couple of Muslim families like that of Ishak Shaikh and Nasser Ali. Their kitchens, living rooms, cars and motorbikes were set on fire. All the grains and utensils were charred in the fire. There were no casualties. Muslim houses were pelted with bricks and stones. Some of them told the fact finding team that they heard bullets been shot.  A couple of families having smaller houses showed the team how their clothes and valuables were looted. The cattle feed was burnt too. The grocery store of a Muslim was burnt.  During the stone pelting number of people were hit.

The land where the mosque stands today was once a kabristan and on the village outskirts. Village development led to its extension and the kabristan fell within its boundaries. Muslim community was allotted another plot for kabristan outside the extended village. The waqf land which was formerly used as kabristan by the Muslim community was now used to offer namaz in a makeshift mosque for over fifty years. There had been no objection raised to the Muslims praying in this mosque from anyone in the village. This fact was undisputed. As the numbers of Muslims increased in the village, the Muslims wanted to build a larger mosque to have more space to pray. The panchayat opposed this move claiming that the land on which the mosque stands is panchayat land. The case went to the courts in Faridabad. The civil court ruled that the land was waqf land and the community was therefore entitled to build the mosque. Thus after the order of the court, the construction of the mosque was undertaken. The Commissioner of Police, Faridabad, informed us that a stay order was sought and granted once again from the Appellate Court for stay on this construction but after inspection, the court vacated this stay. This makes it amply clear that the land is waqf land.  Thus when the construction of the mosque started, the police were deployed to offer protection and maintain peace. Tensions prevailed since the construction of the mosque which commenced about five days before communal violence targeted the Muslim community.

Some residents of the village, most belonging to the Jat community resisted the construction. However on 25th May when the roof and linter were constructed around 6pm the mosque was attacked by the mob.  The communities as well as the police informed the team that majority of the individuals in the mob that attacked the mosque and the Muslim houses belonged to the other villages.  One Muslim woman told the team that a cluster of Muslim houses were saved from being burnt when their Hindu neighbor told the mob that only Hindus resided in that cluster. This indicated towards lack of knowledge of the mob which consisted of the outsiders from other villages about the village and the location of the houses of the Muslims. Why should residents of other villages object to construction of a mosque in Atali as it does not affect them in any way? The police, according to the Commissioner of Police, Faridabad, after being outnumbered rescued all the Muslims in the village and took them to Ballabhgarh police station. The Muslims shaken from this unexpected attack felt grave sense of insecurity and uncertainty. They refused to return back to the village. Some Jat elders from the community went to the police station to convince the Muslims to return to the village. After assurances and persuasion the Muslim families returned to the village after camping in the police station for 11 days. The wealthy Muslims have been supporting the embattled community by providing them with food and relief when they had taken refuge in the police station. None of the Hindu families went to help.

One of the demands of the Muslims is to arrest the culprits who were involved in this attack. The police haven’t made any arrests so far. The police stated that it would deteriorate the relations between the Jat and Muslim communities had they made any arrests. The police think that arrests will be made in due course and it was inevitable. In the meanwhile, in Atali, though the Muslims have returned there is no peace yet. There is a feeling of distrust and animosity. While the Muslims were persuaded to return to the village, they are facing a formidable socio-economic boycott. The interactions between the neighboring Muslim and Jat families are not as usual and that of cooperation. The interactions are strained. No one in the village hires or buys the services of the Muslims in the village. No vehicle takes Muslims as passengers barring the State transportation buses which ply only twice a day. Thus the Muslim youth can’t get out of the village to work elsewhere. No vendor is selling food stuff to the Muslims and the stores refuse to sell their products to Muslims. The Muslim women were complaining of their children being hungry. The Muslim families are living on limited ration that some families are able to procure from other villages. One of the Jat shopkeepers, the fact finding team spoke to openly admitted that they wouldn’t sell their wares to Muslims. He also mentioned that the Muslims got INR 50 lakhs as compensation and are not suffering. The Muslim families are worried that their children mostly won’t be able to go to school if this boycott persists. Thus their lives are in a sort of a limbo.

Some disturbing information that the Muslim community and the police gave the team was that of the involvement of a large number of youth and women in the mob. While the women in the villages traditionally cover their faces in public, it is interesting how women in such a conservative society are mobilized and participate as member of a violent mob. The team was told that women were actively involved in pelting stones and bricks. This was a disturbing disclosure made by most Muslim women spoken to. This came as a shock to them because they knew these women who were pelting stones and lived together with them since their childhood. They use to celebrate festivals together and eat together. Another grave concern is the violent role of the youth in this conflict. The police as well as the others narrated that youth have been taking an aggressive stand. While the elderly in the village wanted compromise, normalcy and peace in the village, they blamed the young generation to be aggressive and unrelenting. Some anti social elements in the youth are playing mischief and instigating the other youth to take extreme unyielding stand. This is hampering the reconciliation process and eluding resolution of this conflict.

As much as the Pal panchayats lament their loss of power to political panchayats consisting of younger individuals from the villages, they have decided to resolve this conflict and mediate between the two communities. Some members of the Pal panchayat narrated to the team that the Jats of the village had stopped the Muslims from migrating to Pakistan during partition. The village was in need of the valuable services that the Muslims could provide and hence wanted them to continue living in the village. Though this was a positively encouraging story which seemed like an olive branch for peace offering, most of the panchayat members also stated that the backlash that the Muslims face in terms of social and economic boycott was inevitable since they resorted to criminal justice system and are demanding arrest. However at the same time there is a fine levied by the Panchayat on Hindus who speak to Muslims or sell the Muslims any goods or services. It emphasized that they do not want these tensions to prevail and would like the Muslim families to stay in the village with peace. The fact finding was given to understand that the members of the village abide by the decisions made at the panchayat. The Pal panchayat claimed that there are members in the panchayat even from Muslim community.

One of the key issues that were cited to be one of the major factors in the prevailing tension between the Jat community and Muslim communities is that of inter religious marriages. Both the Muslims and Jats spoke about it. Few years ago, a Jat girl eloped with a Muslim boy and settled down in a different village. A year ago, the girl bore a child. The perception that Muslim community is ‘enticing’ Jat girls has become a sore point for the Jat community and they perceive it to be an offence.

The fact finding team so far couldn’t gather information about the exact quantum of compensation that the Muslim families received. While some Muslims claim that the compensation received is meagre and the other community is giving exaggerated figures.

Analysis:

Given the size and composition of the mob and the tools used for the attack goes to show that the attack was pre planned meticulously. Though it isn’t clear how this mob was mobilized and the actors responsible for the same but it is difficult to imagine that such a huge mob can gather from different villages at a given time to undertake an attack of this scale. However this violence was a low intensity and contained so as to not draw spectacular media attention and scrutiny from the country. Though no political party has got involved or so it appears but there is a deliberate restrain. Mobilization on this scale is possible with deliberate hate mongering and planning to procure tools and manpower.

The cause behind this attack on the surface appears to be the mosque. But as stated above, the Muslims have been praying in that mosque for decades without any objection from the Jats. So what went wrong this May? From the interactions with different stakeholders, it seems that the Muslims in the village rendered valuable skills and services in the village and thus stopped from migrating from the village. Even after the violence erupted the elderly of the village convinced the Muslims to return only to a socio economic boycott which they justify. The cause of this attack is the change in social order and the upward mobility of some Muslim families in the village on one hand and the reassertion of hegemony and domination of the Jat community on the other. A couple of Muslim families in the village are becoming relatively wealthy due to electricity contracts and other occupations. Since their economic status is improving they desire befitting social status. Pushing for the construction of the mosque is one such way to assert this social prestige. This better condition of some Muslims coupled with their resort to criminal justice system for arrests of the ones involved in the attack is a sore point. The elements in the Jat community that have vested interests want to relegate the Muslims to an inferior position and like to remind the Muslim community that they were given land here and thus have to toe the line set by the majority community. Any claim or assertion of equality is being looked down upon and rivalling the status of that of the Jats. Thus the Muslim community is subjected to violence, fear and discrimination so as to instill fear and acceptance of their secondary position. One Jat youth went to an extent of predicting that there will be internal strife within the Muslim community between the laboring class and the wealthy if this issue is not settled. The social boycott will push the community in such a situation that the laboring class from the community will not be able to carry on and would severe relations from those who have attained middle class status and seek refuge of the rest of the residents of the village (read jats).

The fact finding committee understands that construction of the mosque which is appearing to be the bone of contention is an issue which may not be resolved despite court orders upholding the right of the community to construct the mosque. Interventions from democratic civil society organizations would be necessary to strengthen the vulnerable sections so that they are not forced to write off their democratic rights to buy “peace”. The courts earlier have given order in favor of the Muslim community. A makeshift Mosque existed at the same place for over five decades and this is not disputed even by the Jat community. The land earlier was used as a Kabristan for the Muslim community. The cemetery was shifted to a land allotted by the village panchayat outside the village. Muslims then started praying on the land that was five decades ago used as a cemetery and constructed a makeshift mosque thereon. For five decades none in the village objected to Muslims praying in the makeshift mosque. Now even the court orders have vindicated put a seal of approval for the construction of a pucca mosque. The elite of the Jat want the Mosque to be constructed outside the village. The Pal panchayat (panchayat that includes group of villages) convened on 28th June, 2015 will now sit on the issue. A Jat youth told us that the Muslim community dare not disobey the decision of the panchayat. Criminal justice system or the State can’t protect the Muslims and eventually the panchayat will decide their fate.

Role of the Police:

The Commissioner of Police, Faridabad appeared very earnest about the shortcomings as well as efforts of the police in the conflict. He denied any ill intention towards the Muslim community or any partisan action. He was of the opinion that the police went wrong in assessing the severity and intensity of the attack. Thus it was caught off guard and pathetically outnumbered. The police wanted to contain violence and thus evacuated all the Muslims out of the village and brought them to the police station in Ballabhgarh. The police have been unable to make any arrests due to the strong apprehension of further deterioration of relationship between the Jats and Muslims. Though arrest of the culprits is an important demand of the Muslims in the village, the police have delayed arrests due to strategic reason. They fear further violence and tension in the village if arrests are made. However they have applied stringent sections of the Indian Penal Code like dacoity, attempt to murder, mischief (for setting afire the houses) etc. and invoked stringent provisions of the Arms Act, all of which are non compoundable by nature (cannot be settled between the parties) and non-bailable. 18 FIRs have been filed for the offences committed on 25th May. So arrests of the accused are inevitable and they would be arrested sooner or later. However the police maintained a good presence in the village and want restoration of normalcy and peace first.

Conclusion:

It is very alarming to witness violations of the right of the Muslim community in Atali to practice their religion. The treatment meted out to the Muslims in the village is that of second class citizens. Jat elite behave as if they have superior rights. The writ and might of the majority runs large. The strong message given out to the Muslim community is to live on the magnanimity shown by the Jats and within the boundaries set by them. Resort to the Constitutional mechanisms of justice and rights will not be tolerated. The pal panchayat uses its power to make decisions which it thinks will bring ‘peace’. The power and authority that the Pal/ Khap panchayats commands is a formidable challenge to the Indian Constitution, the mechanism it lays down for justice and democracy as a whole in the country. An example of this hegemony lies in the fact that the police have been unable to and hesitant to make arrests in this case as they feel that arrests of the Jats will make it more difficult for the Muslims to live in the village and increase the quench for revenge on the part of the Jat community. The political winds blowing in the whole country might have strengthened the feudal and anti-Constitutional attitudes and forces in Atali too. The unrestrained stigmatization of the Muslim community, though an offence, is freely exploited for gains in electoral politics on one hand, and to strengthen feudal and anti-Constitutional institution like the Pal/Khap panchayats on the other hand. The Jats have been unable to accept any change in social order wherein any member of the Muslims who are largely from labour class, gain upward mobility and become respectable socially. The Muslims who are considered to be lower in hierarchy and social and economic status by the Jats are not being allowed to assert in anyway their rights or their equal existence. The demand to build a pucca mosque is being looked at as their assertion of rights and thus perceived as a threat.

The fact finding team was told about the strong mobilization of youth and women on the basis of hatred and violence. This doesn’t augur well for a young country like India where women have traditionally played a role of peacebuilders. The youth of the country and every citizen must be respectful of the Constitution which embodies the inclusive vision of our founding members. The right to religion guaranteed in the Constitution of India is openly and defiantly being challenged by the hegemony of the pal panchayats under control of elite Jats who want to avenge and reprimand the Muslim community and have them submit to their power in every way possible. The construction of the Mosque is just one symptom or manifestation of this scheme. Peace can prevail where there is justice and where justice appears to have been done.

The recommendations of the fact finding committee:

This conflict in its various nuances especially the causes and implications is not strictly isolated or found only in Atali. There are several instances of targeted violence – physical as well as social and economic against marginalized communities. This has to be problematized and there are various approaches to this issue. After our interactions with different stakeholders in the conflict and our assessment of the situation, the fact finding team would present some recommendations that might help in resolving this conflict and put in perspective the larger issue:

  • Legal Justice: Although the police have identified miscreants, arrests haven’t been made due to apprehensions of exacerbating the situation. However, the ones involved in rioting and criminal offences must be brought to justice. Since direct arrests made by the police have the potential to instigate more disturbances, the police can approach the court to issue summons to those accused and then proceed with arrests. It is crucial that rule of law must prevail all across the country irrespective of localized bodies like khap panchayats that extend their dominance in their respective regions.
  • Protection of police: To ensure the safety of people engaged in the construction of the mosque and those supporting the construction of the mosque, should seek police-protection to continue with the construction of the mosque peacefully without facing violence and intimidation.
  • Respect for law: While the CSSS fact finding team recommends protection for the Muslim community involved in the construction of the mosque, it also recommends the mosque to function within the ambit of the law. Measures should be taken to ensure that the construction of the mosque does not disturb the local population and equally importantly, the mosque should respect the law and not disrupt peace and quiet during the assigned hours of 10 pm to 6am ban on use of loud speakers in public spaces.
  • Anti-discrimination law: The social economic boycott faced by the Muslims in the village is an immediate concern and steps must be taken to lift it. While efforts can be made at micro level by the administration and panchayats, it would be helpful to deal with such crisis if there is an anti-discrimination law or any other laws which will sufficiently deter as well as penalize this kind of boycott and protect equality of all.
  • Welfare Scheme to be accessible by all: Benefits of welfare schemes must be equally enjoyed in the village by all individuals and thus involvement of Muslims must be ensured in MNREGA, access to capital, scholarships etc. to ease the impact of the boycott.