Panisagar (Tripura): In the bright mid-morning sunlight, Mohammad Sanohar Ali was distraught as he stared at the remnants of his shop that was partially burnt down by a Hindu mob on 26 October.
“My Hindu bhai from the nearby shop would come over every day, we would chit-chat,” said the 40-year-old whose footwear and garment store in the Rowa Bazaar area of Panisagar, a town in North Tripura district, now lay in shambles. Charred clothes were strewn among broken display shelves, and the roof was damaged.
“My forefathers, my father and I have grown up in this village,” said Ali, “And we never experienced any communal disharmony.”
Even as Ali and other Muslim shop-owners in Rowa Bazaar calculated their losses, on 6 November, the West Agartala police station of the Tripura Police filed criminal cases against 102 social media handles that had called attention to the developments in Tripura. In a notice to Twitter’s India grievance officer, the state’s police claimed these handles had posted “distorted and objectionable” material regarding the incident.
These social media posts, by journalists, activists and others, could lead to “a communal flare-up” in the state, the police’s 3 November letter to Twitter said, adding that a case had been registered in connection with the matter under India’s stringent anti-terror law, the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA), 1967, and sections of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), 1860.
Meanwhile, for the vandalism and arson on 26 October that led to losses worth several lakh rupees for Sanohar Ali and others, four men who were part of a mob of hundreds led by a right-wing group were arrested. Two more arrests were made in the neighbouring district of Unakoti, in connection with other anti-Muslim violence.
The social media handles the police selected for criminal cases had posted opinions and comments on the violence; some had shared reports. The police’s letter claimed they had used photographs or videos of unrelated incidents, and had “fabricated” statements and commentary.
The police demands from Twitter included registration details of the handles, browsing logs “from the date of registration”, lists of IP addresses used to log into these handles, linked mobile numbers and linked accounts.
Barring a few, most of these handles belong to Muslims. Article 14 is not naming the handles or their users listed in the police’s letter as it is still unclear how many and which of them may face charges under UAPA or sections of the IPC.
On 3 November, the West Agartala police station also filed a case against two lawyers who had visited the state as part of a fact-finding team. One of them is a Supreme Court (SC) lawyer. They were accused of promoting disharmony, enmity or feelings of hatred between different groups, provocation to break public peace and criminal conspiracy. Section 13 of the UAPA (committing, advocating, abetting or inciting the commission of an unlawful activity, a charge attracting up to seven years’ imprisonment) was also applied in the case, filed a day after their report was released.
Earlier, on 27 October, the Tripura Police tweeted from their official handle that the law and order situation in the state was “absolutely normal”, contrary to “fake news” spread by “vested interests”.
No mosque-burning incident has occurred in Panisagar, the police tweeted. “... legal action will be taken against all those spreading fake news and communally sensitive rumours (sic),” the tweet said.
Ali did not know about the state police’s insistence that the law-and-order situation was normal. For him and others whose shops were burnt down in Rowa Bazaar, the situation remained fraught with tension.
Ali said he felt their relationship with their “Hindu bhais” would be strained. Nobody from the Hindu-owned shops in Rowa Bazaar had come to enquire about his losses or express sympathy, he said.
UAPA For Tweets, Reports: False Propaganda, Said DGP
The group of lawyers who undertook a fact-finding visit to Tripura presented their report at a press conference in New Delhi on 2 November.
Led by Supreme Court advocate Ehtesham Hashmi and comprising members of organisations including Lawyers for Democracy, People’s Union for Civil Liberties and National Confederation of Human Rights Organisations, the team said in its report that the violence could have been avoided if the police and administration had taken stricter measures.
The report recounted the incidents along the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) Panisagar rally, as it traversed different localities including Chamtila, Jalebasha and Rowa Bazaar. “The rioters who took part in the rally damaged the mosque, which broke the windows, damaged the stuff of the mosque and a tree was cut down in front of the mosque,” the fact-finding team found.
The report called for an inquiry committee headed by a retired high court judge.
A day after the report was released, the Tripura police filed criminal cases against two of the lawyers, quoting five sections of the IPC and one of the UAPA.
Speaking over the phone from Delhi, one of the two lawyers who received notices from the Tripura police, Mukesh Kumar, said he was “shocked”. They had hoped to provide legal aid to the victims of violence and had not reported anything that would create tension, he told Article 14.
According to Tripura’s Director General Of Police (DGP) VS Yadav, the messages on social media about large-scale violence in Tripura were “false propaganda” by “certain groups that have arrived in Tripura”. He said these groups were trying to “instigate communal hatred”.
“The advocates gave an impression that they had been sent by the Supreme Court, but they came on their own. I think they have been sponsored by some political party, either Congress or Trinamool Congress,” Yadav told Article 14.
Yadav described the lawyers’ posts on social media regarding the violence as “inaccurate”. “They said the Quran was burnt,” he said. “But there were no Qurans burnt.” He said the police decided to file a case because the lawyers had tried to “provoke religious feelings” among people.
Overreach In Invoking UAPA: ‘Sledgehammer To Swat A Fly’
According to retired Supreme Court judge Justice Madan Lokur, the Tripura police went “too far” in invoking provisions of the UAPA.
In an interview to Article 14 over email, Justice Lokur said the UAPA, originally enacted as a legal counter to secessionism, was amended to include counter-terrorism measures in line with a series of United Nations resolutions.
“The definition of ‘unlawful activity’ has to be understood and interpreted in that context, otherwise it becomes overbroad and vague and therefore capable of abuse,” said Justice Lokur.
Any offence in the current case can be tackled by other laws, including the IPC, Justice Lokur said. “Bringing in UAPA is like using a sledgehammer to swat a fly when a fly swatter would do,” he said, adding that officers of the state must be made accountable to the rule of law and the Constitution, “... otherwise we will slip into anarchy, the antithesis of the rule of law”.
Meanwhile, the Editors’ Guild of India issued a statement expressing shock at the Tripura police’s action against journalists for reporting and writing on the violence. It quoted one journalist saying he had been booked for merely tweeting that ‘Tripura is burning’.
“This is an attempt by the state government to deflect attention away from its own failure to control majoritarian violence…” the statement read, reiterating its earlier demand for guidelines on the application of laws such as the UAPA so that they do not become a “tool for suppressing press freedom”.
In the absence of a more careful interpretation of ‘unlawful activity’, anything unlawful can be made to fall within the definition of ‘causing disaffection against India’ and an arrest made under UAPA, said Justice Lokur, after which the “mantra of 'let the law take its course' will be parroted by the police”.
A Hindu Group’s Rally To Protest Incidents In Bangladesh
The flashpoint for the mob attacks came on 26 October, when a VHP rally reportedly vandalised a mosque in the Chamtila area of Panisagar subdivision. The mob then set fire to shops in Rowa Bazaar, located a couple of kilometres from the mosque.
When Article 14 visited the spot on 31 October, five shops bore signs of violence and arson. Sanohar Ali’s shop was one.
The VHP rally was organised to protest attacks on the Bengali Hindu minority of neighbouring Bangladesh during the Durga Puja festival that ended on 15 October.
Tripura shares an 856-km border with Bangladesh to its north, south and west. On the east, it shares borders with northeastern states Assam and Mizoram. While ethnic conflict between Tripura’s tribal population and its Bengali-speaking people has broken out at intervals, religious conflagrations are rare, according to locals.
Bangladesh’s Comilla district, where a photo of the Quran placed on an idol of a Hindu deity during the Durga Puja festival triggered clashes across the Muslim-majority country, is an immediate neighbour of Tripura. Comilla town is 216 km east of Rowa, one of the sites of the October mob violence.
The state’s Bengali-speaking population has its roots in places such as Comilla, migrating during Partition in 1947 and during the Bangladesh liberation war of 1971. These mass displacements altered Tripura’s demographics, rendering the Bengali-speaking people a majority in a state formerly dominated by tribals.
Bengali Muslims constitute less than 9% of Tripura’s 4.2 million population. “It (Bangladesh) is not just another country, it’s very near and events on one side of the border will influence the other,” said journalist and author Samrat Chowdhury.
In Rowa Bazaar, Muslim-Owned Shops Set Afire
The VHP rally started in Panisagar town, about 155 km from Tripura’s capital Agartala. Along the two or three kilometres that the mob marched to Rowa Bazaar, some members of the mob reportedly vandalised a mosque in Chamtila, a five-minute drive from Sanohar Ali’s shop.
About 2 km from the Chamtila mosque, a bend in the road leads to Panisagar town. At the bend is a cluster of shops that serves as a market for Rowa village located in the opposite direction. About 15-20 shops with tin roofs, separated by cement walls, stood in a row. From this market, Rowa village’s mosque was clearly visible.
“A few people from the rally tried to enter our village mosque,” Ali told Article 14. “But they couldn’t, because most of us were trying to protect it. Instead, they set our shops on fire.” According to Ali, the mob was equipped with petrol, and raised slogans, such as ‘Muhammad kay baap ka naam, Jai Shri Ram’ (Muhammad’s father’s name, Jai Shri Ram).
A day after the attacks, section 144 of the Code of Criminal Procedure (CrPC), 1973 was imposed, prohibiting gatherings in Panisagar, Dharmanagar and the adjoining areas in North Tripura, and security forces were deployed.
International human rights groups expressed concern at the incidents. On 2 November, the chair of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), an independent, bipartisan federal government commission, Nadine Maenza tweeted: “USCIRF is concerned about ongoing violence in Tripura against Muslims, which some regard as retaliation for attacks against Hindus in Bangladesh last month. The Indian government must stop violence against religious communities (sic).”
Bhanupada Chakraborty, superintendent of police (SP) of North Tripura, told Article 14 that members of the Muslim community tried to film the rally on their phones as it marched past, after which the protestors tried to chase local Muslims. “Some protestors then broke three houses and set two shops on fire,” Chakraborty said, seated in his office in Dharmanagar, 15 km from Panisagar. “The fire spread and damaged two more shops.”
“If the police had tried to stop the mob, our shops wouldn’t have been burnt,” Janaluddin, a resident of Rowa, told Article 14. At the time of the mob violence, he was at the Rowa mosque, which overlooks the row of shops.
To this allegation, the SP said the police did stop a few men from the rally.
DGP Yadav said the VHP rally was not 10,000-strong as suggested by some local residents. He said the rally comprised about 2,000-2,500 protestors. “Had there been 10,000, the police wouldn’t have been able to control, and there would have been more destruction,” Yadav told Article 14.
In Rowa, locals and shop owners said the row of shops did not belong to a single community, but only Muslim-owned establishments were selected. “Someone from our village must have been part of the rally,” asked Sanohar Ali. “Otherwise how would the mob know which shops belonged to Muslims?”
Amir Hussain, another resident of Rowa, claimed his electrical goods shop, where he also provided photocopy services, was about to be burnt down until the mob realised that the adjacent unit belonged to a Hindu family. In Hussain’s partially burnt shop, he lost a printer, a glass showcase, a xerox machine. His laptop was stolen, he said.
According to Hussain, the mob doused the fire in his shop before it could spread to the next shop and then burnt some of his belongings outside the shop, items he assessed were worth Rs 10 lakh. “I have received Rs 26,000 compensation from the government,” said Hussain, who has a family of eight.
Amiruddin, another shop owner, was offering prayers in the Rowa mosque when the mob attacked three of his ration shops and burnt them down entirely.
Amiruddin’s shops were shut for business at the time of the attack. “But they broke the doors, took all the samaan (wares) out and set everything on fire,” he said.
Local residents said three people were compensated with sums ranging from Rs 20,000 and 30,000, but they were seeking “100% compensation for the damages”, according to Amiruddin.
A Hindu shop owner from the area said he wasn’t present when the violence broke out. Another resident, Ashish Das, who was away at work during the incident, said he used to spend a lot of time at one of the shops that was burnt.
“Hindus and Muslims have always lived here peacefully,” said Das. “This is very sad, and they are all poor people.”
Chakraborty, the SP, said police arrested four people in connection with the 26 October violence in Panisagar subdivision, but he declined to provide further details about the ongoing investigation.
The Defacement Of The Chamtila Mosque
The Chamtila mosque in Panisagar subdivision was reportedly vandalised by the mob before it reached Rowa.
When Article 14 visited the site on 31 October, the wooden door and a window at the entrance were broken, the ceiling fans’ blades were twisted out of shape, motifs and designs on the walls were broken, perhaps a result of stone-pelting. A few small glass pieces lay among bricks strewn on the floor.
Ratindra Debnath lives across the street from the Chamtila mosque, and was watching the rally pass by on 26 October. He said the rally was “going well” when suddenly some people started attacking the mosque.
“Police and other people who were part of the rally tried to stop them,” Debnath said, adding that he thought this was a stray incident. “There is brotherhood among the people here—we invite them for our functions, and they invite us for theirs.”
SP Chakraborty corroborated the eyewitness account. “A few supporters wanted to attack the masjid,” he said, and tried to do so despite being stopped by the police and other rally members. They subsequently proceeded to Rowa.
Mufti Abdul Momin, president of a faction of the Tripura Jamiat Ulama-e-Hind, was present when Article 14 visited the vandalised Chamtila mosque. He said religious clashes had never broken Tripura’s peace. “This is created by certain groups who don’t want people to live peacefully. I think there is a bigger network behind this,” Momin said. “It’s a loss for Tripura.”
Govt Said No Mosque Burnt, But One Was Torched In Panisagar
The All India Jamiat Ulama-e-Hind conducted a survey on the incidents of violence across Tripura over the last few days. A press release they issued said 12 mosques had been attacked across the state, including four targeted by arsonists.
Article 14 could not confirm the veracity of these claims.
Sultan Hussain, a resident of Kadamtala in North Tripura, and secretary of Tripura chapter of the Students Islamic Organisation of India (SIO), told Article 14 that the police were underplaying the attempted arson at mosques. “... they are trying to give an impression that things are absolutely normal,” Sultan said.
At Rowa, local Muslim residents said a mosque was set on fire about 3 km away, in Panisagar town. At this location, Article 14 found a mosque bearing signs of arson.
Parts of it lay in ashes. Various objects such as books, chairs, buckets were damaged and strewn around the area. The mosque is situated near a regional sports institution on an uneven plot of land.
Abu Hassan, a resident of Rowa, said he visited this shrine occasionally and had seen it last on 19 October, when it was “absolutely fine”. He said the arson took place on 24 October.
According to police and locals, the mosque was built for Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) personnel to offer prayers in what was a former camp of the paramilitary force. The mosque is next to an abandoned temple.
DGP Yadav said the mosque was built in the late eighties or early nineties, and has remained abandoned along with the temple. “No one uses it,” Yadav told Article 14.
He said police are investigating who is behind the arson at this site, and added that the “miscreants” could belong to any community. Until 8 November, no FIR was registered in connection with this incident of arson.
Meanwhile, Al Jazeera reported that the wooden bier and prayer mats at a small mosque in Naraura in Sipahijila district were targeted but arsonists were stopped in the nick of time. Locals reportedly said they saw kerosene poured inside the mosque, but said they had gathered before any untoward incident occurred.
When Article 14 asked DGP Yadav about the incidents at this mosque, he sent this reporter photos of the mosque and said: "Naraura mosque is fine."
Run-Up, Aftermath: More Attacks, Including On Hindus
On the night of 26 October, following the incidents of violence in nearby Panisagar, there were reports of clashes at Churaibari in Kadamtala. Locals here told Article 14 that a procession of around 100-200 people, identified by police as Muslims, was carried out.
A Hindu household was attacked, their car vandalised. “We were alone at home—my mother and I. I was studying when I heard sounds of glass breaking and stones being pelted,” said Sunali Saha, who later found out that their car’s rear windscreen had been shattered. The mob left when the police arrived around 9 pm, she said.
Another resident, Sudip Dey, who was attacked by the mob, said they stole his phone, broke his shop and threw his refrigerator out of his shop. “They hit me with stones and also threatened to use a knife,” he said pointing at injuries he sustained in the palm of his hand.
Both Hindu and Muslim shops were attacked in the Churaibari area. Ajmal Hussain who closed his shop around 8.30 pm, said he found his shop door broken the next day. “They destroyed and threw our stuff out of the shop,” he added.
Rallies were conducted by organisations including the VHP, the Hindu Jagran Manch (HJM), and Bajrang Dal, among others, to protest the attack on Hindus in Bangladesh. According to news reports, during some of these protest rallies, “miscreants” vandalised houses, shops and mosques.
At a rally by the VHP and the HJM at Udaipur in Gomati district on 21 October, protestors clashed with police as the “latter denied them permission to enter localities with mixed populations”, the Indian Express reported. Similar rallies were conducted in Agartala in West Tripura, where a few miscreants allegedly damaged a CCTV camera in a mosque.
Nani Gopal Debnath, the North Tripura president of the VHP who organised a similar rally on 21 October in Dharmanagar town, said he had taken police permission for the rally. He claimed, however, that it wasn’t his rally that turned violent in Panisagar on 26 October.
Debnath said he heard “some rumours” about the 26 October incidents in Rowa Bazaar. “The Muslims came out with long knives, sticks, etc,” said Debnath. “They tried to attack rally participants and later put the blame on Hindus.”
Rowa’s residents refuted this version of incidents. The Hindu rally was too large to attack, they said. “We were very scared,” said Amir Hussain of Rowa Bazaar.
According to Sumit Dey, spokesperson for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in Dharmanagar town, the VHP was an independent organisation that should not be conflated with the BJP. “They do not consult us before organising their events,” he said.
According to Dey, the “miscreants” who attacked shops, houses and mosques could be from the Opposition, the Left parties. “Since BJP came into power in Tripura three years ago, the opposition parties have tried to create an atmosphere that would put pressure on the government,”said Dey.
The scars run deep on the ground for people like Sanohar Ali, Amir Hussain and Amiruddin, gripped by grief and anxiety, their future in the only town they know as home uncertain.
As Ali put it: “Things have changed in a day.”
(Sanskrita Bharadwaj is an independent journalist from Guwahati, Assam.)