SPECIAL REPORT

Peace, in grief

An Imam lost his son but he saved Asansol from descending into communal violence

21-imdadulla-rashidi Working miracles: Imdadulla Rashidi | Salil Bera

On March 30, a disturbing Facebook post by CPI(M) West Bengal secretary Surya Kanta Mishra went viral. Quoting Nasim Ansari, a Trinamool Congress councillor of the Asansol municipal corporation, Mishra wrote about the brutal murder of Sibtulla Rashidi, son of Imdadulla Rashidi, imam of the Noor Ilahi Mosque in Asansol. The 16-year-old was killed on March 27 in a bout of communal frenzy during the Ram Navami celebrations. After his postmortem examination, there was a namaz session at the mosque, which was attended by around 10,000 people. Ansari said they were baying for blood, and that he feared Asansol was about to witness the worst communal riot in its history. That was when Imdadulla stepped forward and addressed the crowd.

“My son was alive till the day Allah wished him to stay alive,” said Imdadulla. “Those who killed him will be punished by God at the right place, not here. But, none of you have the right to take revenge. Nobody would be attacked for my son’s murder.... If you consider me as your own, then all of you have to maintain peace as instructed by Islam. If you cannot do that, I will take it that I am not your own. I will leave Asansol forever, and will never come back.”

The restive crowd listened to the bereaved father. And, all of them dispersed peacefully. In his Facebook post, Mishra praised Imdadulla’s courage and fortitude. “You are a symbol of greatness of not just Asansol, but the whole country,” he wrote. “I request you with folded hands, please don’t leave us.... We need you.”

After reading Mishra’s post, I called up a police officer from Kolkata, posted in Asansol, and asked him about the veracity of the news. “Everything you told me is true,” he said. “The boy was picked up from the road and was brutally murdered. A case has been registered.” He said the police did not anticipate any trouble as Ram Navami organisers had guaranteed that the processions would be peaceful.

Another reason why the police dithered from taking firm action was that the ruling Trinamool Congress also chose to take out Ram Navami processions this year along with the BJP. Wasimul Haque of the CPI(M), leader of the opposition at the Asansol corporation ruled by Trinamool, said the corporation gave Rs 5,000 each to all councillors to celebrate Ram Navami. “It was so unbecoming that public money was spent to celebrate Ram Navami, which caused the riots,” said Haque. Trinamool leader Abu Kawani conceded that the corporation gave money for celebrations. But, when asked about the riots and how local Trinamool leaders worked with Asansol MP Babul Supriyo of the BJP, Kawani refused to elaborate.

Police patrolling riot-hit Ranigunj | PTI Police patrolling riot-hit Ranigunj | PTI

Haque said the BJP brought people from different parts of West Bengal and Jharkhand for the Ram Navami processions, which ultimately turned the Asansol-Ranigunj area into a battlefield. “The administration was caught ill prepared and the police refused to act despite the Muslims—irrespective of political affiliation—requesting for help,” he said.

Ansari said Sibtulla was at the mosque when the procession passed by. “At some locations, the processions were stopped by the Muslims, resulting in clashes. Sibtulla came out to see what was going on,” he said. “He was picked up by the mob and was never seen after that.” He said the boy’s family called up the police, but no help was forthcoming. “I would not say they refused to come,” Ansari said. “They said they were coming, and asked us to wait. Some said they did not have enough policemen. Of course, there was no preparation to check the riots.”

Sibtulla had appeared for class X state madrassa board examinations this year and was awaiting results. Eyewitnesses said he did not create any trouble during the procession and was only trying to see what was going on. Ansari said the police found his body the next evening.

While Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee was in Delhi trying to stitch together an anti-BJP alliance, her party joined hands with the BJP to celebrate Ram Navami, leading to a major law and order crisis in West Bengal. “It would have been the biggest communal riot in the history of India,” said Ansari. “More than 10,000 angry, desperate people were looking for a signal from the mosque. It could have been worse than Gujarat. Even other states would not have been spared. But, one man doused the fire. He stood like a symbol of peace, and told us in a firm voice, ‘Don’t touch my brothers and sisters from the other community’. I ask Modiji to call this man and salute him on Republic Day.”

Imdadulla has been living in Asansol for the last 30 years as the head of the Noorani mosque. “He leads a simple life. I know him from my student days,” said Haque. “My children study under him, and he always asks everyone to love their watan (country) more than even their parents. Only from such a man can you expect such forgiveness, even after his son was murdered in a gruesome way.”

Dashed dreams: Sibtulla was picked up by a mob from outside the mosque and he was found dead the next day. Dashed dreams: Sibtulla was picked up by a mob from outside the mosque and he was found dead the next day.

When I met him, Imdadulla told me that only a father could understand his loss. But, he said he was ready for further sacrifice to ensure peace in Asansol. Imdadulla, however, was critical of MP Babul Supriyo. “Had he been more responsible with his words, my son would not have been killed,” he said. Supriyo allegedly made some provocative remarks on the Ram Navami day, and he was stopped by the police from entering Asansol. He, however, expressed his desire to meet Imdadulla at an appropriate time.

Rajya Sabha MP and senior Congress leader Pradip Bhattacharya criticised the Trinamool’s decision to celebrate Ram Navami with the BJP. “Didn’t Mamata Banerjee know the implications? Could she not ask her partymen to celebrate at home? Now we have come to a situation where we can hardly differentiate between the Trinamool and the BJP,” he said. “Who is responsible for that?” At the Asansol corporation council meeting held on March 31, even Trinamool members criticised the administration, according to Haque.

The riots have not just been limited to West Bengal. In neighbouring Bihar, riots have been reported from Bhagalpur, Aurangabad and Chapra. More than a dozen BJP workers, including Union Minister Ashwini Choubey’s son Arijit Shashwat, have been arrested.

The Janata Dal (United), which rules Bihar in alliance with the BJP, said the police were asked to take strict action against the rioters. “Yes, we have tied up with the BJP. But, that would not prevent us from taking stern action against any attempt to create communal disturbances,” said JD(U) spokesperson Sanjay Singh.

Bhattacharya said the BJP was trying to polarise people to gain new ground and to protect old turf. “Other parties should be careful and should realise that the Congress would be the best option to defeat the BJP at this critical time.”