Assam: How a group offering namaz on road led to a communal clash, 1 death

Updated 5:13 PM, 13 May, 2019
A scene outside a vandalised shop after clashes broke out in Hailakandi, Assam on May 10. Photo: PTI

The residents of Hailakandi, a small town nestled in the heart of Assam’s Barak Valley, don’t remember when the SS Road market last wore a deserted look, especially during the month of Ramzan. Hailakandi, which also happens to be the headquarters of the district, has a mixed population of Bengali-speaking Hindus and Muslims apart from a number of communities such as Meiteis, Kukis, Reangs, Chakmas as well as Marwaris.

Three days after a communal clash broke out over offering namaz, there was an uneasy calm across the town with most shops and commercial establishments shut on Monday (May 13) even as Rapid Action Force personnel patrolled the streets. An indefinite curfew that was imposed in the district was relaxed for three hours on Sunday, even though internet services remained suspended in the entire Barak valley.

A mosque and two temples: the local version

On the busy SS Road that runs through the Marwari Patty area, there stands a mosque flanked by two temples. It was a usual Wednesday (May 8). However, as faithfuls came out of the mosque after offering their afternoon namaz, many found their bikes that were parked outside damaged — someone had ripped apart the seats. In the absence of CCTV cameras placed in the area, no one could tell what had transpired. Angry over the incident, a few mosque committee members went to the police and filed an FIR, demanding that the culprits should be arrested immediately. They had also announced to offer Friday namaz on the road, if the culprits were not punished.

When Friday came and a group assembled at the Marwari Patty to offer their prayers on the road, another group of unidentified people started throwing stones at them, injuring many. Soon, youths from both the sides started throwing stones at each other. The police came in and resorted to baton charge and fired a few rounds of blank fire to disperse the crowd.

While the district administration immediately imposed curfew in the town, additional security forces were rushed to Hailakandi from nearby Silchar and Karimganj. Things took a grim turn when one of the youths injured in police firing died on Saturday following which curfew was extended across the district. More than 15 vehicles have been reportedly damaged and 12 shops vandalised and set on fire in some parts of the town.

Whispers on social media

Even as the police claimed that the situation in the district was now under control and the curfew was suspended for a few hours on Monday (May 8), they feared that people may resort to retaliatory attack to avenge the killing of the youth. A senior police officer told The Federal that mobile internet services in the district have been suspended to prevent spread of rumours through social media. Bulk SMS services have also been barred.

“After Wednesday’s incident, someone started a campaign on Facebook to offer namaz on the road on Friday. The message, as expected, spread quickly and the outcome is in front of our eyes,” a Hailakandi resident told The Feredal on condition of anonymity. “The police should first find out who started the Facebook campaign,” he added.

Internet services have been suspended in Karimganj and Cachar districts of Barak Valley as well since Friday night. “The overall law and order situation will be reviewed and a decision will be taken whether to continue the curfew,” the police officer said. “The services will resume only after assessing the situation on Monday,” he added.

The police version

According to district magistrate Keerthi Jalli, the incident is the “handiwork of some miscreants” and not a communal flare up as “there exists unity and amity among the communities” in the district.

But not everyone seems to agree with the broad-brushing, especially as the issue of National Register of Citizens (NRC) has again returned to haunt many in Barak Valley with the deadline for publishing the final list nearing (July 31). “It’s true that there have been no major communal clashes here and people by and large live peacefully, but times have changed and with that the concerns. There has been a simmering undercurrent of malevolence on religious lines. Even in the aftermath of the Babri Masjid demolition back in 1992, Hailakandi witnessed communal violence. However, it has been mostly peaceful ever since,” said another resident.

The crisis aftermath

According to senior journalist Satananda Bhattacharjee, who is based in Hailakandi, the residents of this town are facing a drinking water crisis owing to damage of the main pipe after the clash. The town has around 20,000 households, with 15,000 water connections. “The residents’ woes have been compounded by their inability to venture out to collect packaged drinking water owing to the curfew,” Bhattacharjee said, adding that he and other colleagues in the media are hoping that the internet curb will be lifted by the evening.