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Inside Bhadrak: Why a sleepy town in Odisha burnt in communal fire

Bhadrak town, located in the northern part of Odisha, has witnessed communal violence recently. The area has been under curfew since Friday (7th April). While Odisha police has been able to contain much of violence by now, curfew is still enforced in the town for the major part of the day (and night) while adjoining areas are still under prohibitory orders under section IPC 144.

No loss of life has been reported but properties worth lakhs have been gutted and normal life is thrown out of gear.

It all began with a derogatory Facebook post where abusive language was used for Hindus and Hindu gods Rama and Sita. This happened on the eve of Ram Navami (5th April) when three Muslim youths left these abusive messages on the profile page of Bajrang Dal activist Ajit Padhiari.

An outfit named Bhagat Sena Ram Navmi Samiti lodged a complaint with police in this regard with a demand of arresting the youths whose names were identified as Asif Khan, Asif Ali and Mohammed Rehan.

With tensions soaring, a peace committee meeting was convened on Friday evening with local MLA and IG police. However, situation turned worse as a group of youths riding nearly hundred bikes rallied in Puruna Bazaaar area shouting “Pakistan Zindabaad” and other anti national slogans even while the peace meeting was on.

This group is reported to have targeted shops owned by Hindu traders in Chandan Bazaar area. In retaliation, shops were also burnt in Muslim dominated areas.

While police and administration are being accused of not acting promptly to curb the violence, they were prompt in the clampdown on social media websites, which were banned for at least two days to curb spreading of rumours. On 9th April, Police was able to arrest the main culprit who made these derogatory comments. Other two are still not traceable.

The main culprit, Asif Ali Khan, happens to be the son of a local BJD leader Asghar Ali Khan. Asif, who is pursuing an engineering degree, has admitted to the crime according to the Police. Along with Asif, 80 other arrests have been made so far in cases of violence and arson in the area.

Bhadrak had witnessed similar riots in 1991, again during Ram Navami, which unfortunately had claimed 17 lives then. Biju Patnaik was the Chief Minister then, who happens to be the father of current Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik.

So far the state administration has been largely able to contain the riot without any loss of lives. Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik visited Bhadrak on Wednesday and appealed for peace to all sections of the society. A new SP has been appointed and ADM has also been transferred.

With nearly 40% Muslim population, Bhadrak has always been a communally sensitive town. Bordering town Soro too had witnessed such incidents during Ganesh idol immersion last year. In fact, small communal skirmishes have been reported during Ganesh Puja from various part of the state in 2016. Similar scenes were witnessed during Lord Jagannath’s Bahuda Jatra (Rath Yatra) in Rourkela last year.

People are now beginning to question as to why such incidents happen only during the Hindu festivals. If Muslim festivals like the Birthday of Prophet Mohammad, which was celebrated early this year, can pass off peacefully, why Hindu festivals have to witness violent incidents? While it is easy to blame fringe Hindu groups, one also needs to question the radicalisation among Muslim youths. Last year, four SIMI suspects were arrested from Rourkela, who were staying in Bhadrak for at least six months as carpenters.

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