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Mainstream, VOL LII, No 7, February 8, 2014

Communal Disturbances in Sitamarhi, 1992

Monday 10 February 2014, by A K Biswas

A phone call from the District Magistrate about 8.30 in the morning on October 7 (?), 1992 startled me. I was informed from the other end that communal troubles on account of the Durga Puja immersion of idols had begun the previous night in the Sitamarhi town and engulfed the Riga town and some surrounding villages. The District Magistrate was palpably demoralised. He even expressed his apprehension that the angry and agitated mob could attack his official residence anytime. This was perhaps a reflection of the public image of the officer in question.

I was shocked because only a week preceeding the Durga Puja, I had attended a Peace Committee meeting convened by the District Magistrate at the Sitamarhi Collectorate. Respectable Hindu and Muslim representatives, besides officers (who included administrative, police and medical officers), had attended the meeting where all relevant issues for ensuring communal peace and harmony during the four-day festival were discussed. This is the only district where, as the Commissioner, Tirhut Division, I had attended a Peace Committee meeting in previous year as well as subsequent years. The memories of the past communal violence were enduring. In 1967, the Sursand thana of this district had witnessed serious communal clashes for three days (October 13-15).

Immediately I called up the Home Secretary, Jiya Lal Arya, at Patna and briefed him about what I had learnt from Sitamarhi. I requested him to keep the Chief Minister and Chief Secretary suitably posted with the developments. I also told him that I was at once rushing to Sitamarhi, some 65-70 kms off Muzaffarpur, my headquarters. In 20-25 minutes, myself and the Regional Inspector General of Police, Muzaffarpur, Shivaji Mohan Caire, were on our way to Sitamarhi. The Deputy Inspector General of Police, Muzaffarpur Range, Vishnu Dayal Ram, my batchmate in the IPS, was requested to mobilise the police force from various districts under Tirhut, besides neighbouring Saran and Darbhanga Divisions for rushing to Sitamarhi.

Entering the town from the Dumrao end, we saw the roads deserted; shops and bazars had downed the shutters in Sitamarirhi. We started shouting at the top of our voice from inside our car that curfew had been imposed. We urged the people to remain indoors. Actually curfew was not clamped till then. But the townfolk were quick to repond positively to the announcement and went inside their homes.

We drove to Mesaul Chawk, Murgia Chawk, Ram-Janki Mandir area, Bazar Samiti, and various other places making similar announce-ment about the imposition of curfew. Motor tyres were being burnt on roads even very close to a petrol pump station which fortunately did not catch fire. More police force was mobilised, patrolling and the collection of intelligence intensified. Searches, arrests and/or detentions of communal elements were widened. Rumour-mongering was scoffed off. Vehicles carrying passengers were subjected to checking to apprehend anti-social elements and mischief-mongers.

Whatever information percolated to us was pursued and acted upon with promptitude for defusing the tension. We went up to Riga, a small town, known for an excellent sugar mill. The adjoining Imlia Chawk, Ashogi etc. had suffered communal outrages. Within an hour-and-a-half of our arrival in Sitamarhi, we saw a helicopter in the sky hovering over the town. Bihar Chief Minister Laloo Prasad had headed to the scene of communal violence. After hovering for an ariel survey for sometime, the Chief Minister landed at the Dumrao High School ground. He wanted us to meet him immediately. We sent word to him saying that we would return after having taken a stock of the situation.

After about three hours or so, myself and Caire reached the Circuit House to meet the Chief Minister. His first question to us was, “When did you come to Sitamarhi?”

“Over three hours ago,” we informed him.

The reply and information seemed to calm him down. We gave him an overview of the action taken by us and the situation as we saw after our hurried tour of the places of voilence. He camped and was available at the Circuit House. The CM told us that we were free to take action as the situation warranted.

By the evening additional police force started arriving at Sitamarhi from various districts. They were fanned out in different directions and deployed at various sensitive locations including vital installations like power stations, places of worship/prayer, telephone exchanges, railway tracks etc. In the evening, the Chief Minister wanted to visit some of the disturbed areas. We took him to a few areas in the town. He also went to Riga, Ashogi, Imlia Patti etc. A mukhia of a panchayat under the Riga thana had given shelter in his spacious building to a large number of people who had fled their homes.

The Chief Minister wanted that we started relief measures for the riot victims the next day. So at night we called up the managers of nationalised banks and the District Manager, State Food & Civil Supplies Corporation, and arranged for funds as also foodgrains and other essential commodities for relief of the affected people. Having an eye on the upcoming winter, emphasis was given for supply of wollen garments, blankets etc. for the victims.

Myself and DIG Vishnu Dayal virtually assumed charge as the de facto District Magistrate and Superintendent of Police of Sitamarhi respectively. The whole night we both toured throughout the district checking the police deployments and enquiring about the situation, Areas falling under police stations for example, Riga, Surdand, Pupri, Paurauni Runnisaidpur, etc., besides the town, were covered by us.

Three days later the Governor of Bihar, Muhammad Shafi Qureshi, drove to Sitamarhi and we had no inkling of this visit. He saw me distributing relief materials among the riot victims in a mango grove on his way to Riga around midday.

The Chief Minister stayed in Sitamarhi for the night. The next three days he kept hopping to Sitamarhi. Relief materials, voluntarily donated or organised by the government, started pouring into Sitamarhi from Patna. The Chief Secretary, Home Secretary and DGP, in the meanwhile, visited the district. Acitvities aimed to improve the situation nurtured a sense of security soon in the minds of the people in general and the victims of violence in particular. The determined political will and administrative resolve reflected in the public domain for maintenance of communal harmony and peace conveyed the correct message to all conerned and yielded the desired results. Normalcy returned soon to the district.

AFTER six months of the incident, I sent a formal request to the Accountant General of Bihar for a special audit of expenditures incurred for the relief and rehabilitation of riot victims. The special audit found the expenses in order. All relief works in the past had left a devastating trail of misfortunes due to massive corruption and irregularities indulged in at various levels.

Veteran political leader Chandra Shekhar had visited Sitamarhi after the riots. He was reported in the media as observing that he had long experience of visiting places of communal violence across the country but he had rarely seen relief work so perfectly carried out to match Sitamarhi.

To conclude, it may be added that communal violence rarely erupts without a warning or foreshadow which, if overlooked or ignored, can cause misfortune to the people of the district without fail. In such cases the District Magistrate and Superintendent of Police are caught offguard. Intelligence inputs, if at all, are either vague or inadequate or nebulous to pre-empt the erruption of violence.

The relations between the District Magistrate and Superintendent of Police in any district across the country, I dare say, is rarely marked by trust, confidence and cordiality. On many issues, they scarcely see eye to eye or there is a meeting of minds of the two. Such an environment simply wrecks day-to-day working in critical times. Besides, there are social and psycological factors to embitter their inter-personal relations.

The District Magistrate, Nalanda was on French leave when the communal conflagration broke out in Biharsharif town in 1981 and took a heavy toll obliging the Prime Minister to pay a visit to that town. When Mrs Indira Gandhi was airborne only then did the Bihar Chief Minister get the information of her impending visit.

In Sitamarhi, the DM and SP were not on the same page. The procession carrying idols of the deity Durga for immersion at Lakhandei river was allowed to divert from the route under pressure from some political bigwigs including a Union Minister of State belonging to the district. This triggered the unfortunate disturbances. Some senior police officers, however, believed that the number of people in the procession was large and had spilled over to other areas which could not be termed as diversion of route. The presence of the DM and SP on the spot could have averted the crisis befalling the district but sadly they had fled the scene leaving the emerging situation to their juniors to handle. The junior officers lacked the weight and stature to measure up to the situation in public esteem to curb it successfully. It was an inescapable recipe for disaster indeed!

After the Biharshariff riots, the Government of India had issued guidelines which, inte ralia, laid down that the District Magistrate and Superintendent of Police would be held responsible for communal violence in the district under their charge. There is perhaps no record to boast of action against any recalcitrant officials anywhere in the country. Only those without godfater(s) might have been taken to task, if at all.

The author is a former Divisional Commissioner and Vice-Chancellor, B.R. Ambedkar University, Muzaffarpur, Bihar. He can be contacted at biswasatulk@gmail.com