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October 22, 2001

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The Rediff Special/Yogesh Pawar

Maangley abandons its Muslims
Maangley abandons its Muslims

If fear had a face, it could be Razia's. This five-year-old resident of Maangley village in Shirala tehsil (block) of Sangli district in western Maharashtra keeps tugging at her freshly pierced nose-ring. The subdued pain, perhaps, helps her deflect her attention from the gruesome reality around.

On October 9, her 70-year-old grandfather, Zainuddin Sutar, was burnt alive by a mob of 150 men from the same village in the family-owned sawmill. "She hasn't spoken since. She was very close to him," says Razia's father Akhlak Sutar (32).

The abandoned house of Abbas Alam Sheikh
  The abandoned house
  of Abbas Alam Sheikh
Trouble first came calling on this village of 35,000 on August 30 following the desecration of a Ganesh idol kept at the local taalim (rural gymnasium with a wrestling pit).

On September 2, police picked up local wrestler Yunus Mussa Sheikh despite protests from the family that he didn't have the keys to the taalim and thus could not have been involved in the act. "All three boys who have the keys to the gym are Hindus," said Yunus's childhood friend and neighbour Vishal Suryawanshi.

Sheikh's arrest strained relations between the two communities. Stray incidents of stone-pelting followed. The target every time was Muslim houses.

Curfew was imposed in the village under section 141 of the IPC and additional forces were deployed. The curfew was relaxed after a couple of days and a peace committee was constituted. Some 70 villagers were picked up for rioting. All but two of them were soon out on bail.

For some reason, not one Muslim found representation on the peace committee. Assistant Police Inspector S Katke, who oversaw the formation of the committee, told rediff.com: "We left it to the villagers... none from among the Muslims volunteered to be on the committee."

While the police claim that calm was restored in the village after the constitution of the peace committee, that is not what actually happened.

A gram sabha (a gathering of male heads of all families in the village) was called on September 8 at the village Datta Mandir to discuss the desecration.

Muslim families remember how a mediŠval-style town crier went around announcing that it was incumbent on all adult Muslim males to attend. "We were asked to change from our traditional skullcaps to phetas and shave off our beards before we entered the temple," recounted Rafique Sayyed, who, along with seven others, followed the dictate.

Nine Muslims, who came to the temple unshaven and without the recommended change of attire, were taken to a barber and forcibly made to undergo a shave. The sabha later decreed that Yunus Sheikh's family would have to leave the village within a week.

Dr Mahadeo Bapa, a local doctor who chaired the sabha, claims the Sheikhs volunteered to leave the village. "We were touched. The meeting ended with the Hindus honouring the Muslims with turban lengths and hugs," he told rediff.com "We even promised to give the Sheikhs a formal farewell."

While the 40-odd Muslim families in the village put up with this, one youth, Riyaz Sutar (25), while visiting relatives in Mahad in Raigad district, sent a complaint to the state Minorities Commission in Bombay.

News of the arrival of the commission's team in the nearby district town of Sangli angered the Hindus in the village.

The commission's chairman, Ameen Khandwani, led a fact-finding team to Maangley. "We were told that the situation could worsen if we conducted the inquiry in the village and we decided to summon those whom we wanted to meet to Sangli," Khandwani explained. He denied that this was done to get only the Muslim side of the story, as is being alleged by Hindus.

Interestingly, after several witnesses corroborated Riyaz Sutar's complaint, a letter was given to the commission signed by Muslims denying that anything had happened in the village.

Probably scared of retaliation, the Muslims in the village took the same stand initially during our visit. Only after being assured that we had not been sent by the police did they open up.

"We have no one to speak for us," wept Salim Sheikh. "If the police can ill-treat you [both I and photographer Jewella Miranda were detained and grilled for over two hours by the police before we were allowed to speak to the villagers], imagine our plight."

Salim Sheikh said that even the local masjid is now out of bounds for them. "With so much trouble, who will stick his neck out by wanting to go there to pray?" he said.

On October 9, a canard provided the spark that caused this inflammable situation to explode. While the source remains unknown, the canard said: "The government has prevailed upon the police to go by the Minority Commission's findings. While Hindus involved in stone-throwing are going to be picked up, Yunus Sheikh will be set free."

The police had reduced security only a day before. The deputy superintendent of police (Shirala) claimed this was done because there were no violent incidents after the curfew was relaxed.

But in the night of October 9, over 3,000 men armed with swords, staves and torches gathered at the village ground raising provocative slogans. They then went on to systematically burn down every shop and establishment owned by Muslims in the village. They even tried to break into the Sheikh residence, where two constables were on duty.

The constables were attacked, but when one of them fired in the air with his gun, the mob moved towards the sawmill and timber shop owned by the Sutars. Septuagenarian Zainuddin Sutar, who used to sleep in the shop, came out to plead with the mob. But he was bodily thrown into a bonfire made of the timber stored in the mill.

The sawmill where Zainuddin Sutar was burnt alive
  The sawmill where Zainuddin Sutar
  was burnt alive
"We could hear his cries," says Riyaz Ahmed, 24, "but going out to help him would have been suicidal." Ahmed's family is contemplating leaving the village. "We have nothing left. What will my family eat?" His voice choking, he leaves the room abruptly.

Ahmed's neighbour Abbas Alam Sheikh has abandoned his house and is living with relatives in Karad, a nearby town. The tractor and a Hero Honda bike the family owned have been left behind.

The Minorities Commission, in its report to the state government, has passed strictures against the police and accused the law enforcers of having a "communal bent of mind." The commission also believes that Yunus Mussa Sheikh was picked up without any proof of his involvement in the desecration of the idol.

But Hindus in the village believe the commission is siding with the Muslims because that is the politically correct thing to do.

"Where was the government and the police when we made a complaint about the desecration?" retorted Parshuram Prahlad Ankush Patil, 38. "It took them five days to pick up the accused. And when one Muslim makes a complaint to the Minorities Commission they come in their red-Klamex cars and try to teach us secularism. Do you call this justice?"

The defiant man added, "It was this attitude of humbling us in front of the Muslims, which saw this eruption. If there is anyone to blame for whatever happened it is Yunus Sheikh, Riyaz Sutar and the Minorities Commission."

Social Welfare Minister Jaywant Gangaram Awale, guardian for Sangli district, argued that the media would only feed the fire by reporting such events. "The district collector and the superintendent of police have been in touch with me," he said. "I could not find the time to visit the village owing to my busy schedule, but I will definitely go in a day or two."

Sangli Collector Hanumant Pawar too 'advised' us to leave the villagers alone. "We are trying to take care of it," he claimed. "Involving the media can only worsen the situation. Things are under control."

Reassuring words for the authorities, but not enough to calm the frayed nerves of Maangley's Muslims. "Even our children are not spared. They are told they belong to Pakistan," Jubeda Rizvi told us. "I will not send my son Hussain back to school. Who knows? Anything can happen in this kind of atmosphere."

Photographs: Jewella Miranda. Design: Uttam Ghosh

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