Nawada was the eighth district in Bihar where communal riots broke out in succession. In the middle of the violence, Hindus and Muslims stepped out of their houses to save their shared cultural heritage — the shrine of Baba Sufidullah Shah.
It was 11 am on a hot Friday morning in Nawada when 34-year-old Mohammad Dawood Khan, a renowned businessman of the area, got the call he was waiting for.
Communal violence had for the past fortnight been spreading like wildfire in Bihar. And riots had now broken in his very own district. The fact that the eye of the communal storm in Nawada — a vandalised statue of Lord Hanuman — lay very close to his house, naturally had brought Dawood at the very edge of his nerves.
He was glued to his television set when the call came. All three entries to his palatial house were bolted from within. Just to be sure, Dawood had put his phone on charge and turned the volume of his ringtone to its loudest.
“I had decided not to step out because of the communal tension. From my windows, I could see a lot of police on the roads outside. I was watching news channels attentively to know which areas were being mobbed and set afire. Because a Hindu deity’s statue was broken it was obvious that Muslims would have to bear the brunt of violent mobsters,” said Dawood recounting the events of March 30.
Suddenly the phone rang aloud. It was Rajeev Kumar Sinha, Dawood’s business partner, whom he also describes as his boss, philosopher, and guide.
“There is absolutely no hesitation between Rajeev bhaiyya and I. We share a very close relationship. Boss informed me that some miscreants had set Sufidullah Shah Baba’s Mazaar (shrine) on fire in retaliation for the desecration of Hanuman statue. He had received an image on one of his Whatsapp groups of the Mazaar on fire. He told me to immediately leave and see if things are fine there. I obey him blindly but decided to call a local bureaucrat to confirm the news as a lot of rumours are spread during such times,” said Dawood.
In a few minutes, the news about the local shrine was confirmed. It did not surprise Dawood.
It was only two days ago, when in Silao, Nalanda, roughly 40 kms from his house, communal violence was stoked during a Ram Navami procession. Groups of Hindus and Muslims eventually fought with each other, reducing several shops and houses to ash.
The same script had repeated itself several times over in Bihar. A Ram Navami procession, communally charged sloganeering, desecration of religious symbols, stone-pelting, arson and intense communal violence.
Within a fortnight seven districts in Bihar had burned in communal fire. The fire had now reached Nawada.
Dawood, who had shut himself in his house, wasn’t the only person in Nawada closely tracking the communal violence unfold. In the closely-knit community of Nawada, almost everyone, irrespective of their faith, was fervently making calls enquiring about each other’s safety.
Manmohan Krishna, a local journalist, was witnessing the events unfold from ground zero.
Krishna, grey haired and slightly-built local journalist was busy taking pictures of the angry mobs throwing stones at one another.
“I was at the site where lord Hanuman’s statue was vandalised. People had completely lost control of themselves. Heavy stone pelting was going on, traffic on the highway had been halted, people were being thrashed, while police was lathi-charging everyone to disperse the mobs. I ran away from the crowd. This is when I received a call,” said Krishna, showing his phone to News18.
It was Mohammad Barkatulla Khan, professor in Nawada Vidhi Mahavidyalay. Krishna was a law student in the university where Khan was his favourite teacher.
“Professor sahab asked me if there was an incident of the Mazaar burning. His wife is a teacher in a school that is very close to the Mazaar and he was asking me if it was safe to send for her. I told him not to move out. A Mazaar burning was the last thing that the district needed at that time,” said Krishna.
The local reporter for the Hindi national daily, Hindustan, Krishna took shelter in a nearby building and called the local police officer Anjani Kumar to verify the truth behind the matter.
“When I called the inspector, he told me that Dawood Khan had already left for the place and asked me if I could get some locals from both the community who could help cool the tempers. So I took two of my friends from different media publications and rushed to the spot. Fighting fire at the Mazaar became my top priority,” said Krishna.
While Hindus and Muslims of Nawada were coming together to ensure each other’s safety, another lot, whom the police suspects of being outsiders, were busy setting fire to properties and fanning communal flames to start full-blown riots.
The mobsters running through the town torched a tea-stall and an adjacent meat seller’s shop, both owned by Muslims, to provoke a retaliatory arson by the Muslim community.
In another part of the town, around a kilometre away from the burning Mazaar, Shravan Kumar Barnwal, a Hindu garment shop owner, was watching the rioters ransack the town from the terrace of his six-storied building in Adarsh Nagar Housing Complex.
He got a call from his friend Banwari Lal, who was distressing on hearing the news about the Mazaar.
“Banwari Lal, a resident of the nearby village called me up. He and I know each other having worked together for quite a few causes. He told me that somebody had set Baba Sufidullah’s Mazaaar on fire. I asked him if he had seen someone do it, he hadn’t. I quickly summoned a few of my neighbours, we filled our buckets with water and left for the Mazaar,” said Barnwal.
The Mazaar, whose desecration had upset both Muslims and Hindus of Nawada, is surrounded by paddy fields on all four sides. One has to walk for a kilometre through these fields to reach the Mazaaar. Nobody in the town seems to know for sure how old the Mazaar is. “It is older than me,” 86 year-old Mohamad Alam Khan, says with a smile. But what unites the residents of Nawada is a belief in the sanctity of the Mazaar. A protective love for the shrine that has passed down several generations. The attack on the shrine was in many ways an attack on the shared history of Nawada’s people.
A Hindu farmer, who lives close to the Mazaar, who did not wish to be named, described the attempts to put out the fire at the shrine. “Clashes had already broken out at several religious sites in Nawada. We did not want this Mazaar to be the reason for more bloodshed. As soon as we saw fire, our first instinct was to find out ways to stop it. We used our water pipes to extinguish the fire,” he said.
The decades old shrine was not the only rallying point for the people of Nawada. They came together at several other instances to put out communal flames.
Just before the Ram Navami procession, which through the years has been used by various polarising forces to rupture the social fabric of the town, the local superintendent of police had appealed to the residents to join him in the night vigil.
He didn’t have to ask twice. Residents from across the town, from both the communities, came together and patrolled the town with him day and night to ensure peace.
“I was one of the civilian volunteers. I was more than happy to be in the list. SP sahab had asked us to help the forces in reaching out to more areas and ensuring a peaceful atmosphere by interacting with our friends and families. I thought why just help them during the day,” said Rambalak Yadav, a resident of the town.
He added that on seeing senior police officers not going home all through the night and camping at different places. He decided to show support by staying put with them through the night. “I used to sleep on cement platforms close to where they camped and went back home only after the seniors left,” he said.
News18 in its visit to the town saw several small tea-stalls keeping their shops open late into the night only to serve the police officers during their night vigils.
Mohammed Dawood Khan had meanwhile reached the Mazaar. He was surprised to see the number of Hindu residents of the town, who at the peak of communal tensions had risked their lives, and left their houses to put out the fire at the shrine.
“I was surprised to see Hindu farmers in plenty. There were at least ten of them,” said Dawood.
Though the fire had subsided, there was still a lot to be done. The sight of the burnt Mazaar and the thick coat of black soot could have become an excuse for another round of communal clashes.
As one climbed up the stairs of the shrine, one could see holy tapestry in the shrine, including the cloth used to cover the grave, reduced to ashes. Some of the tiles on the Maazzar had been vandalised with hammers.
In some time, District Magistrate Kaushal Kumar reached the spot. He had a group of junior police officials along to guard the Mazaar and help the men clean it.
“We decided to pay for all the expenses of cleaning the shrine. Things such as surf, broomsticks, pieces of cloth to clean the floor and ceiling, buckets and the holy cloth used to cover the grave was bought by us. The residents displayed exemplary behaviour in restoring peace,” the DM told News18.
It took several hours to put out the fire that took just moments for some anti-social elements to ignite.
Moments after the fire had been extinguished, Krishna found a copy of a torn Quran thrown behind the grave.
“When we reached, the fire had almost subsided due to the efforts of the villagers there. But when I saw the Quran torn off and thrown off here and there, I got really scared. One careless mention about the desecrated Quran and there would have been no stopping another round of riots,” said Krishna.
The group of Nawada residents were in a fix about what to do next.
“Initially nobody was willing to touch it. I could sense that my Hindu brothers thought that Muslims would get offended if they as much as came near it. While there was no question of being offended, their apprehensions were understandable,” said Dawood.
Taking matters in his hands, Dawood decided to collect all the torn pages in a sack, tie the sack up and walked at least 250 metres away from the shrine.
“It was Friday so it was a holy day as well. I along with the help of others, dug a four feet deep pit and buried the Quran in it. I don’t know what I did was correct or not, whether burying my religion’s holy book was justified to save the district from further clashes,” said Dawood still running over the day’s events.
In a couple of days the residents put the Mazaar back to its original glory. The patrons of the shrine took pictures of the place and spread it across social media platforms to spread the message of peace.
It may be too early to tell how successful the attempt to stoke riots in Nawada have been. But if there is something that one can say for certain having interacted with a number of residents of Nawada is that they are hopeful about a better, peaceful tomorrow.