New Delhi- There was uneasy calm at Mira Road’s Naya Nagar on January 21-22. The residents of the Muslim-concentrated neighbourhood were afraid of leaving their homes.
Tension erupted on the intervening night of January 21-22 in the locality after a bike rally of the Hindutva outfits chanted provocative slogans while passing through Taini Villa mosque and Mohammed mosque on Lodha Road.
Some of the bikes, as The Indian Express reported, had modified silencers — which were emitting sound like gunshots being fired. Some of the locals, the report said, reached the spot to see if bullets were being fired towards the mosques. It led to a panic-like situation, with the bikers trying to escape.
While escaping, one of the bikers reportedly bumped into a bystander leading to a fight. It led to the first part of the violence that flared up — disturbing the communal fabric of the suburb (just 27 kilometres from Mumbai).
It was around 10:30 pm, the eye witnesses said, when young men entered Banegar Gali in Naya Nagar — blaring loud music and chanting “Jai Shri Ram”. They said almost all of the residents of the area are Muslims.
The locals alleged the mob stopped and played loud music outside the Sanghvi Empire housing society.
“It is well-known that the building is at the dead end of the road, there is no other route to get out from there. Therefore, saying that the people were passing through the lane is not true. They had intentionally come there for provocation,” said a resident, not wishing to be identified.
The Muslim locals entered into a heated argument with the Hindutva men and the argument soon got violent. Videos have gone viral on social media platform and local BJP leaders have used it to flare-up communal sentiments in the state. Soon after the incident, Maharashtra deputy minister Devendra Fadnavis had announced that “strict action” would be taken against anybody trying to disturb law and order in the state. 13 men were arrested soon after. Of them, two are Zuleikha’s sons. “The police took away our children. But did not question the men who had entered the area and were shouting Jai Shri Ram slogans late at night”, she complained.
Among those arrested, two are minors and have been sent to a children’s home in Bhiwandi. A few more arrests were made on January 23.
Because of the surprising lack of deployment despite the procession being numerically strong, the police struggled to bring the situation under control.
January 23 was the day of “revenge”. A crowd of 200-300 people gathered at Sector 5 of Shanti Nagar in Mira Road. Their targets were apparently well-defined — the shops with saffron flags hanging outside had to be spared, while the rest were to be attacked.
Shanti Nagar is a predominantly Hindu-dominated shopping neighbourhood, with few establishments owned by Muslims.
Most of the rioters were in their teens or mid-20s. They allegedly pelted stones on the shops with Muslim names and not sporting saffron flags, barged into it and destroyed glass panes and mannequins.
Many claimed most of the attackers had backpacks, which had stones. Some of them had their faces covered, while many did not even care to muffle their faces.
The attacks, according to locals, were taking place in presence of the police. “But they didn’t attempt to stop the mob. It appeared as if the cops were stationed there for the safety of the mob,” the locals alleged.
Eighteen complaints have so far been registered, and 19 people have been arrested.
The situation had not yet completely come under control when on the same day, the Mira Bhayandar Municipal Corporation bulldozed 15 unauthorized shops in the Naya Nagar area.
Some of these shops were completely demolished, while the rest were partly damaged. The market, which used to be jam-packed with customers, was strewn with bricks, broken roofs and debris of walls.
“They pulled me out and bulldozed my garage. Neither did they listen to us, nor were we served any notice — stating that our garage was illegal,” Mohammad Abdul Hasan Sheikh told The Mooknayak.
He claimed that he had been running the garage there for 22 years. To support his claim, he showed electricity bills of the garage of heavy motor vehicles. “Some official action should have been initiated before running the bulldozer. I still don’t know why my garage was razed to the ground,” he said.
“Five-six people used to work here. Who will take care of their families?” he asked and burst into tears. Since the area was gripped with tension, the survivors are connecting the bulldozer action with the communal violence.
A local shopkeeper, requesting anonymity, said, “No such incident ever happened in this neighbourhood. None of us have anything to do with the violence, yet our shops were demolished. We don’t know why.” Ahead of the bulldozer, people said, a posse of police force — including the Rapid Action Force (RAF) and the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) apart from the local cops — were deployed in the entire area.
A few steps away from Shaikh’s garage, there is a clothing shop located at the ground floor of a high-rise building that sells hijabs (head scarves) and veils.
Alisha, who is pursuing masters in business administration, has set up this shop after leaving a well-paid job at a multinational firm. She sells designer ‘hijabs’ and veils. “A portion of my shop has been bulldozed without even intimating us. If we were encroaching on the road or the government land, the due process would have been followed instead of the extrajudicial demolition,” she said, adding that “they (the authorities) did not even care that their move — which self-explains discrimination and bias — would hurt us as a citizen”.
“Aren’t we citizens of this country? Don’t we have the right to self-sustain ourselves? Are we second-class citizens of the country?” she posed a battery of questions, asking what her fault was if the violence broke out in the locality. She too raised questions on the timing of the action. “Why did bulldozers roll in Naya Nagar a day after the violence? It could have been done a few days earlier or later.
When asked about the allegation of bias, Maruti Gaikwad — deputy commissioner of the Mira-Bhayandar Municipal Corporation — said, “We have taken action against unauthorized shops. According to the Municipal Corporation Act, if there are any unauthorized shops on the road, footpath, and drains, we are not bound to serve notices before demolishing them. Such demolitions are part of our daily routine. We are not bothered with who says what.”
He said the civic body had carried out such “anti-encroachment drives” earlier as well. “No shops or any structures were demolished. Only the roofs of the shops were demolished because they were encroaching the road — vehicular movements,” he said, reiterating there is no need to give notice for demolishing temporary structures. He said the anti-encroachment action at Mira Road should not be seen in isolation.
“Action has been taken at 33-35 places where shops were set up without the permission of the corporation. Since we have no record of such illegally-built business establishments, how can we give them notice,” he added. Though Gaikwad said no notice is required to be served before such a drive, a former employee of the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) said even if the municipal officials say so, demolition work cannot be done without giving notice.
“Residential and commercial structures built on the footpath also cannot be removed without notice. The Supreme Court has said that the civic body can put up notices in public places about new structures on the road. And the notice has to be served to the owner of such illegal structures not only once but twice, thrice and even four times before demolishing them,” he said.
“According to the law”, he said, “a notice under Section 351 has to be given to be replied within seven days. No action can be taken during that period”.He said if a shop pays electricity bills, it means the structure is in the official record. “And therefore, it is mandatory to serve the owners of such properties a notice to be responded to within a week if they are found flouting any norm,” he said.
Even the commissioner of the municipal corporation, according to him, has no special power to bypass the law. “Action must be unbiased and without any consideration of caste and religion,” he concluded.
Some political speeches were delivered in the evening in the area following the demolitions. A few vehicles were again attacked near Naya Nagar’s Sector-3.The police have registered a case in this matter. They said an auto-rickshaw owned one Abdul Haque Chaudhary was damaged in the attack. His driver was brutally assaulted. “We were returning from Bhayandar when several vehicles were attacked. We were in our auto-rickshaw. The attackers first sought to know our religious identity and then assaulted us. If we had not run away, leaving the autorickshaw behind, they would have killed us. They had swords in their hands and were shouting slogans of ‘Jai Shri Ram’,” he told The Mooknayak while narrating the horror.
Normalcy is returning at Naya Nagar, with business established resuming operations, but there is an atmosphere of fear in the neighbourhood and surrounding areas. Refusing to be named, a resident said many are not sending their children to school for days.
“There is a wedding in our family, and we wanted to go shopping. But we are not doing it as the atmosphere is still tense,” he said.
An organiser of the rally said no such violence has ever happened at Mira Bhayandar. The locals are supporting each other.
“People of all castes and religions participated in our rally. The people belonging to Christian and Muslim communities also participated in the procession. It has at least 500 from the Muslim community. A total of around 10,000 took part in the rally to celebrate the scheduled Pran Pratishtha of the Ram Mandir. The rally ended at 5 pm on January 21,” said Vikram Pratap Singh. He claimed whatever happened was the handiwork of “outsiders”. “The police should investigate the incident without any preconceived notion,” he said.