Dewas (Madhya Pradesh): “Agli bar ye dudaan me dikh gaya to poori dukan me aag laga denge.” Next time we see this, we will set the whole shop on fire.
That’s a threat delivered by a group of 15 young Hindu goons in saffron scarves to a father and son who run a firecracker shop in the town of Dewas in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh. In a viral video shot on 3 November 2020, the father-son duo from the minority Bohra Muslim community, are being menaced for selling firecracker boxes with images of Hindu gods.
When the white-bearded father explains that firecrackers have traditionally carried such images and come directly from manufacturers, one of the young men says: “You tell us who is doing this, maa ch***nge (we will f*** his mother).” The men were, according to a shopkeeper, from the Hindu Yuva Vahini—a fundamentalist group founded in 2002 by Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath.
“The state government issued the order after our drive,” said Rahul Ram Raj, one of the men who harangued Bohra shopkeepers. “Our drive is not just related to firecrackers, we are protesting against the pictures of Hindu deities on wedding invitations and those printed in newspapers during Diwali. We are appealing to people not to print them, so later these pictures don’t end up in garbage, where these pictures don’t belong.”
Raj said he was associated with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), and that he and his friends called themselves ‘Team Azad Savarkar’. The group had members from various Hindu organisations, such as the Bajrang Dal, RSS and the Vishva Hindu Parishad but to avoid “political pressure”, they came together under ‘Team Azad Savarkar’.
The police took no action after the threats on the viral video and the subsequent vigilantism. Calls and messages to Dewas Superintendent of Police Shivdayal Singh seeking comment remained unanswered. Instead, after the government order, the police raided shops.
Threats To Shopkeepers Lead To Police Raids On Shops
A day after right-wing goons threatened the father and son and other Bohra shopkeepers in Dewas, Madhya Pradesh (MP) Chief Minister Shivrajsingh Chouhan banned the sales of firecrackers made in China and other foreign countries.
In the order, the CM also banned the sales of firecrackers with pictures of Hindu deities. Most firecrackers are made in the Tamil Nadu town of Sivakasi by Hindu-owned companies.
Firecrackers are sold by both Muslims and Hindus across MP, which is run by the Bharatiya Janata Party, but Dewas, where the trade is almost entirely in Bohra Muslim hands, has been singled out by Hindu groups.
“We have raided some places so far and from one shop we have seized 43 boxes of firecrackers bearing the images of Hindu gods and goddesses,” Dewas additional collector Narendra Suryavanshi told Article 14. “ The boxes have been seized, but no action has been taken against the shopkeeper, as these raids were conducted before we received the preventive orders.”
The order has since become a tool to harass Dewas’ Bohras, apparently as revenge for their solidarity with protests in 2019 and early 2020 against the Citizenship Amendment Act, 2019, and even as revenge for global Muslim protests against cartoons of the Prophet in the French magazine Charlie Hedbo.
Threat Videos Viral, Official Says He Hasn’t Seen Any
Although there is no official data, there is a considerable population of Bohras in Dewas, and they run 80% of the firecracker business.
The shops that the Hindu right-wing activists raided all belonged to Bohras and the videos of these incidents indicate that their prime motive was not to only find firecrackers with photos of Hindu deities and request shopkeepers not to sell them.
Akbar Ali Bohra, who knew the names of some of the young men who forced their way into his shop, said his brother told them they had no such firecrackers, but they forced their way in anyway.
“My point is, who gave them the right and the power to conduct such a raid; if they have any issue they can make a police complaint,” said Akbar Ali. “We have not filed a police complaint yet, but the way the videos of such incidents are increasing, we are also thinking of asking the police or district administration to make arrangements for our safety.”
On 3 November, Dewas collector Chandramouli Shukla said during a press conference that if he came across such videos, he would act against those involved “when a formal complaint is filed”.
A week later, no action was evident. The additional collector said he did not know of any such videos.
Most shopkeepers we spoke to said they wanted to forget the harassment and get on with life and business without filing a police complaint because they were afraid and a complaint could lead to more threats.
Now all firecracker shops have put up banners declaring that they respect all religions, and they do not sell any firecrackers with pictures of Hindu deities.
“Hum sabhi dharmo ka samman karte hain aur humare yahaan kisi bhi dharm ke devi devtaon ke photo ke patakhe nahi beche jate hain (We respect all religions and we don’t sell firecrackers with the photos of gods and goddesses of any religion),” read banners since displayed at almost all firecracker shops owned by Bohras in Dewas.
‘We Only Want To Do Business In Peace’
“We removed all the items with the photos of devi, devta (deities),” said one of the Bohra shopkeepers who was threatened, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals.
“When they came we agreed with them and started removing these items, but they were not satisfied with this, they still abused us,” said the shopkeeper. “It looks like they were just holding a grudge against us for keeping our shops closed in solidarity when anti-CAA protests took place.”
In one of the videos, a man can be heard saying, “If there can be a huge uproar about just one cartoon (a reference to global Muslim protests against Charlie Hedbo), then we are also not impotent. We are asking people to not buy from any Bohra shop, as Bohras kept their shops closed against the CAA. If you are against the nation, we are against you.”
Dewas’ biggest firecrackers dealer, a Bohra, said that the CM’s order should have been issued early, not just before Diwali. “As wholesale dealers, we always have firecrackers at our warehouse and we don’t even know if those with pictures of Hindu deities came in this year or last year,” said the dealer, refusing to reveal his identity because of safety fears. “ If the order was issued earlier, we could have at least asked the manufacturer strictly not to send such items.”
“We can’t do anything about the order, we have to support the government decision,” said the dealer. “But at the end of the day, it’s us who lose business and suffer financially.”
Send Back Stocks, Says Govt. Impossible, Say Dealers
Asked why the order was issued so late, additional collector Suryavanshi said: “The order was issued at the right time and all the vendors were informed about it. If they have already ordered such firecrackers, they can return it to the company.”
Ali Hussain of Asian Fireworks said that made no sense.
“We order our stock from Sivakasi, and sending a part of the entire consignment back all the way to Tamil Nadu will cost me lakhs of rupees,” said Ali Hussain. “There is no point in sending it back.”
“Why should the onus of saving pictures of the deities be on the seller,” asked Ali Hussain. “Why can’t the manufacturing companies and the users be held responsible?”
He said if firecracker companies do not make boxes with Hindu deities, there would be no problem.
“For about 15 years, I have been writing to the manufacturers to stop printing the pictures of gods on firecrackers, but they still do it,” said Ali Hussain. “I never order Lakshmi bombs (a popular brand of firecracker), but sometimes they just send it if they fall short of other items. The government can stop this entire issue in one order sent to the manufacturers but it just targets the sellers.”
The MP government has no jurisdiction over manufacturers in Tamil Nadu, where the use of Hindu deities on firecracker boxes has never been questioned.
Why Only Firecrackers?
Questioning the government order banning firecracker boxes with Hindu deities, Dewas lawyer Chandrapal Singh Solanki said it was “mindless”.
“What about packing material bearing images of Hindu gods and goddesses, what about all those newspapers which will start printing photos of Lakshmi ji for Diwali?” said Solanki, who accused the district administration of not acting against those going from shop to shop, threatening shopkeepers, “disturbing the peace and harmony of the city”.
“To ban something and to punish someone for selling it needs a proper law, which the Madhya Pradesh government has not done,” said Solanki. “No cabinet meeting is held, no session of assembly is conducted, no bill is introduced, and no bill has been passed, then how can such an order be called legal?”
There may be little that is legal about the threats and the ban, but the viral video of the Bohra father and son being threatened indicated how the vague threat of the law is used. From saying “dikkat ho jayegi (you will be in trouble),” and “achchha nahi hoga (it won’t be good for you),” the threats escalate to “295A karwao ispe (charge him with hurting religious sentiments).”
The next threat is to burn the shop.
(Shailesh Shrivastava is the managing editor of 101Reporters.com a pan-India network of grassroots reporters.)