Tripura, India – Liton Miya is still in a state of shock. It was 10 pm on October 23 when the 35-year-old heard some villagers scream in panic. As he rushed out along with others, a wooden bier and some prayer mats in the courtyard of the local mosque were on fire.
“We found that the attackers had poured kerosene inside the mosque as well. But before any more damage could happen, the village had woken up and the attackers fled,” Miya said outside the small tin shack which serves as a mosque and traditional religious school in a quiet corner of Naraura village in Sipahijila district of Tripura state in northeastern India.
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Naraura is less than 50km (31 miles) from Comilla in neighbouring Bangladesh, where a photo of the Quran placed on an idol of a Hindu deity during the Durga Puja festival triggered violence across the Muslim-majority country, killing six people, including two Hindu men.
In apparent retaliation to the deadly violence in Bangladesh, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council or VHP), and other local groups took out protest rallies in Tripura and allegedly attacked Muslims and their religious places, including mosques.
The VHP is affiliated with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the ideological fountainhead of India’s Hindu supremacist groups which seeks to convert India into an ethnic Hindu state. Most top leaders of India’s governing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), including Prime Minister Narendra Modi, started their political careers as RSS workers.
Tripura, a remote state dominated by Bengali-speaking Hindus, is currently governed by Modi’s BJP. Muslims form about nine percent of its 3.7 million population.
’16 mosques targeted’
The string of attacks targeting mosques has triggered fears and anxiety among Tripura’s Muslim minority.
“There are 16 mosques which have been targeted,” said Mufti Abdul Momin, who heads a faction of Jamiat Ulama-e-Hind, an influential pan-India Muslim organisation, in Tripura.
Momin said most incidents happened in the night and the locals were not able to identify the perpetrators.
“We do not sleep at night these days. Six or seven of us are up till dawn to guard the village,” Najrul Islam, a government employee in the Chamtilla area of Panisagar, told Al Jazeera.
Panisagar town, located in North Tripura district, saw the most arson and vandalism on October 26. Residents and police say the violence happened during the VHP rally.
Islam said the rally passed through Chamtilla area at about 3 pm. “The mob was shouting provocative and derogatory slogans against the prophet. Suddenly, 30 to 40 of them came towards the mosque and vandalised it,” he told Al Jazeera.
The attackers broke the windows and smashed the ceiling fans as Islam and other locals watched from a distance, scared that the mob could come after them if they intervened.
“They did not even spare the agar (Aquilaria) trees. They sell for thousands,” he said. A row of trees in the mosque’s courtyard was uprooted by the mob.
After attacking the mosque in Chamtilla, the rally proceeded towards Rowa, a short distance away where a group of Muslims had gathered at the local mosque.
“Some of those who were part of the rally wanted to march towards the mosque. But they were stopped by the police and some Hindus of the village,” Sanohar Ali, who owns a shop in the local market, told Al Jazeera.
Then, a section of the mob first attacked a couple of houses on the periphery of the village and started torching shops belonging to Muslims. Approximately half a dozen shops in the market were either fully or partially burned.
“One of them served as the local BJP office. Even that was not spared,” said Ali as he stood inside his charred shop where he sold footwear and clothes.
“It went on for over an hour. The police could not stop them.”
The same evening, Churaibari in the same district, saw some vandalism targeting religious places, including some belonging to Hindus, local media reports said.
Bijit Roy, a local VHP leader, blamed “some miscreants” in their October 26 rally for the violence.
“Some anti-national slogans were blaring out of the loudspeaker of the local mosque. It is then that some ‘duracharis’ (miscreants) indulged in the torching of shops,” he told Al Jazeera.
Roy said the Muslims were shouting “Naara-e-Takbeer, Allahu Akbar” – a slogan commonly used by Muslims across the world.
“Some of them were even screaming ‘Pakistan zindabad’ (Long live Pakistan),” he alleged. “Hindus are peaceful. Our intention was not to target Indian Muslims.”
‘We were outnumbered’
A police official in Panisagar, who spoke to Al Jazeera on condition of anonymity, said they are investigating the incident.
“But there was no provocation from the other side,” he said, referring to the area’s Muslims.
The police officer said it was the VHP that flouted their regulations.
“We were hugely outnumbered,” he said, explaining the rally had far more people than the administration had permitted.
“The VHP violated the conditions that were placed while granting permission for the rally.”
The official said police have arrested four residents for their alleged role in the violence. “The one who raised slogans in the rally is absconding. Raids are on, we will arrest him,” he said.
The police officer also said they are looking into separate fire incident in a local mosque. This mosque, situated right next to an abandoned temple on the campus of an erstwhile paramilitary camp, was attacked four days before the October 26 violence.
Religious books and other items had turned into ashes inside the tin-roofed mosque and a portion of its wall was brought down.
A local resident, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the incident at the mosque where the area’s Muslims only offer Friday prayers happened on October 22.
“We are looking into it. There was no complaint about it. No intimation to the fire services either,” the local police official said.
On Tuesday, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) said it was alarmed by reports of violence against Muslims in Tripura and urged the Indian government to prevent the attacks.
“USCIRF is particularly alarmed about reports from Tripura of mobs desecrating mosques and torching properties of Muslims. The Indian government must bring those responsible for instigating and engaging in religious violence to justice and must prevent further attacks,” USCIRF said in a tweet.
USCIRF is an independent, bipartisan federal government commission that makes religious freedom and foreign policy recommendations to the US president, the US Senate and the State Department.
In a recent interview with Al Jazeera, USCIRF chair Nadine Maenza said religious freedom conditions in India – a “country of particular concern” for two years in a row – were “greatly concerning”.
But Tripura police chief VS Yadav downplayed the violence and said they were “minor incidents” that are being investigated. He claimed many attempts like the one in Naraura were thwarted by “timely intervention” by the police.
“There has been no incident in the past week,” Yadav told Al Jazeera. He said multiple cases, including the ones pertaining to violence and sharing of fake videos and photos on social media, have been registered in the state.
“There are cases from both sides,” he said.
These are fake videos are being circulated under criminal conspiracy to disturb the peace and communal harmony in the state and defame the state government and police. police has registered criminal cases and suitable action against the fake rumours is being taken expeditiously.
— Cyber Crime Tripura (@CrimeTripura) November 3, 2021
On Thursday, Tripura police said it has arrested six people in various “communal incident cases”. Four others were arrested for being “involved in spreading malicious propaganda with a view to creating hatred between two religious groups” in North Tripura district.
Meanwhile, at least two New Delhi-based lawyers who were part of a fact-finding mission to Tripura have been booked under the stringent Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA), a controversial anti-terror law.
They have been asked to appear before the police in Tripura and delete their “fabricated and false statements” posted on social media. Police said they will take action against 71 people who “posted provocative posts on social media”.
The Tripura government said it will take action against those responsible for the recent violence and promised to compensate those whose properties were damaged.
Politics of polarisation
Tripura shares an 856-km (532-mile) border with Bangladesh. Once a predominantly tribal state, Bengali speakers, including migrants and refugees who came in several waves, make up for the majority now.
While the state has had a history of fault-lines between the Bengalis and the native tribals, conflict on religious lines had been rare.
State police chief Yadav says there was no pattern to the multiple incidents. The officer said he suspects it was the “handiwork of miscreants” who may have acted at the behest of a political party.
“Whichever party is against the present government may be involved,” he said.
In 2018, the BJP, in alliance with a regional tribal party, came to power for the first time in Tripura, removing a communist government that had been in power for 25 years.
Three years later, the state government seems to be grappling with anti-incumbency even as its tribal ally loses its base to a new political party formed by Pradyot Manikya, the scion of the royal family which once ruled the princely state before it acceded to India in 1949.
With a large number of Bengali speakers, Tripura has also emerged as a key state for Mamata Banerjee, the head of the Trinamool Congress (TMC) party and chief minister of West Bengal state.
“It’s local politics at play,” Abdul Basit Khan, a lawyer and president of North Tripura district’s TMC unit, told Al Jazeera.
Khan alleged that VHP members ransacked his house on October 21 when his family was away. “They want to consolidate Hindu votes and terrorise the Muslim voters.”
TMC parliamentarian Sushmita Dev said her party’s entry into Tripura has “disturbed the status quo”.
“Now there is a competition which is bothering them,” she told Al Jazeera.
The state will vote to elect a new government in 2023.
Jitendra Chaudhury, the chief of the state unit of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), said the BJP is “trying to divert attention” from the issues of governance by splitting people along religious lines.
“There is total lawlessness and the BJP was perhaps trying to take advantage of the situation in Bangladesh to polarise the state,” he said.
BJP spokesman Nabendu Bhattacharjee claimed the Left was behind the violence to destabilise the state. “It is their IT cell which is responsible for fake social media posts,” he said.
Back in the Rowa market, Manik Nath, a Hindu businessman has a different set of worries.
“It has been seven days since any Muslim came to my shop,” he said. “I hope the long, cordial relationship we have shared does not break because of this unfortunate episode.”