By Ziya Us Salam
At first glance, Dasna near Ghaziabad in Uttar Pradesh looks like an idyllic village with vast green fields of wheat. An unpaved road cuts across the fields, and an occasional villager riding a bicycle or a motorcycle crosses one’s path. But a closer look reveals that the taps in the village are dry and many of the houses are without a door or a concrete floor. Electricity is a much-loved but erratic visitor. There is a single-storeyed school that is open on Sundays. Scratch the surface and the undercurrent of communal tension and insecurity in the village, barely a kilometre from Dasna railway station, comes to the fore. Most of the village residents are poor and unlettered. They do not have bank accounts either. Whatever precious little savings they have are kept on their person. The family jewellery, usually not much more than a gold chain and a ring or two, are stashed away in a brass tub along with some clothes for the special occasion. The tub is pushed under the wooden cot on which the family elder sleeps.
Of late, though, many houses have removed the jewellery from the tub and hidden them in a pit dug in the house. The pit is covered with hay meant for buffaloes and cows. Many have done likewise with their Aadhaar cards and voter’s ID cards. Most do not have land ownership documents; those who do have given them to their relatives elsewhere for safe custody.
Jaan Mohammed, a 40-year-old resident, said: “We have always lived peacefully here. Since 1947, there has not been any communal violence in the village. However, since the temple incident, everybody is on tenterhooks.”
The incident he refers to is the much-talked-about unprovoked attack on a 14-year-old Muslim boy Asim (name changed) who had entered the Dasna Devi temple premises on March 12 to drink water. Yati Narsinghanand Saraswati, the temple chief priest who has often courted controversy, has put up a board outside the temple barring the entry of Muslims. It says: “Ye mandir Hinduon ka pavitra sthal hai. Yahan musalmanon ka pravesh varjit hai” (This temple is a sacred place for Hindus. Entry of Muslims is prohibited).
Asim, a ragpicker who is said to be illiterate, entered the temple to drink water. As he was coming out, he was stopped by a staffer, who slapped him on learning his name and asked him to leave. Then Shringi Yadav, another man in the temple premises, beat him up, kicking him in the groin.
A video of the assault was uploaded by a Hindutva outfit and it went viral, evoking instant outrage and sympathy for the boy, with many condemning the attack. Alka Lamba, a Congress leader, visited the victim and was heavily trolled by right-wingers for it. Meanwhile, a sum of Rs.10 lakh was raised for the boy to enable him to pursue his studies.
Citizens for Justice and Peace, a non-governmental organisation that keeps a focus on child rights, approached the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights and the National Commission for Minorities with a complaint against the assault on the boy.
However, Yati Narsinghanand Saraswati defended the attack by Shringi Yadav, who was arrested but released on bail soon afterwards. “The boy got a befitting reply,” he said. According to him, earlier too Muslim boys had been dealt with in a similar manner but no video had been made. In other words, the attack was fine as long as it was not recorded. Later, Shringi Yadav claimed that the boy was a thief but then changed the story, alleging that Asim had urinated on an idol inside. Another video of Shringi Yadav was soon uploaded on social media where he was shown sitting on a chair with a butcher’s knife in his hand and threatening a clearly cowering man.
Yati Narsinghanand Saraswati was not done yet. A few days after the attack, he called former President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam “a jehadi” and accused him of “supplying the formula of atomic bomb to Pakistan”. He said: “Any Muslim in the top echelons of the country cannot be pro-India.” He had earlier given a call for a “final war against Muslims” before the Delhi violence last year, asking: “If we don’t finish off Islam, how are we going to survive?”
The temple chief priest also runs a Hindutva outfit called Hindu Swabhiman Sanghathan which has a ‘dharm sena’ wing that aims to provide arms training to Hindu youth. It is headed by Parminder Arya, who is said to be an ex-Army man and one of the brains behind the establishment of a private Hindu militia. Parminder Arya said: “The training is not going on at the moment. Our boys are inside the temple. They stay inside only. The police did not create any trouble. The Muslim boy who is said to have been thrashed had only minor bruises. The media exaggerated the issue.” Pinki Choudhary, who runs an outfit called Hindu Raksha Bal in the area, said: “Now there is a big board at the temple. Nobody will come to the temple there. We will try to install a metal detector.” He added that after the Dasna incident, more and more temples in the region were putting up boards barring the entry of Muslims.
A social apartheid is also under way, with many food and vegetable carts sporting a saffron flag to announce their religion; the Muslim food carts have no such flag.
Pinki Choudhary rubbished media reports that local Muslims had earlier participated in giving the temple a facelift, or that there had been complete communal harmony until the rise of Hindutva militia. He said: “We cannot expect cooperation with Muslims. There can be no communal harmony with them. Muslims can never respect the Hindu faith. We have not taken any initiative to hold a meeting with local Muslims. Why should we? We are powerful. We plan to increase the size of our private Hindu Sena. The Hindus will have to be powerful. Even Narendra Modi will support us only when we are powerful.”
The Hindu Swabhiman Sena was established in early 2016. It was then reported to have been founded to counter “the danger of ISIS”. It claimed to have “15,000 soldiers ready to die” to safeguard their faith. At that time, it was running 50 training camps in Dasna, Muzaffarnagar and Meerut, where boys and girls were given arms training, including how to wield lathis and swords and how to use pistols and guns. Some recruits were as young as eight.
Yati Narsinghanand Saraswati had then told the media: “I think an extremist body like the ISIS should exist for Hindus. The only answer to the ISIS is an HS, a Hindu state. We have been addressing two panchayats per month on an average. I ask my Hindu lions to be brave and make sure they keep weapons with them at all times.” Whether the local Hindus heeded his suggestion to keep weapons at home could not be verified. What is clear, however, is that the entire Dasna-Masuri belt in Ghaziabad is sitting on powder keg. Jaan Mohammed said: “Since the attack on Asim, more and more men are seen at the temple brandishing swords and knives, raising anti-Muslim slogans. We have told our children not to go anywhere near the temple. We worry too for our women. In many houses, the menfolk go to Ghaziabad or Delhi for work and return only late in the evening. In such cases, either the men try to return a bit early or their families have started putting up doors to ward off miscreants.”
Jaan Mohammed, who used to sleep in the open earlier, now sleeps in the courtyard, guarding the women inside. On whether they had approached the police, he said: “What for? Doesn’t the police know what is happening at the temple? It is all so sad. There were times earlier when our buzurg (elders) helped in temple construction. Today, they have divided water too on the lines of religion. We had heard of Hindu paani, Musalmani paani in the Partition days. It gives the same sick feeling.”
Meanwhile, more and more temples, not just in Dasna but even in Ghaziabad, have put up strong railings and hoardings barring the entry of non-Hindus into their premises. Those who are barred from entering include journalists and government officials too.
This story first appeared on frontline.thehindu.com