Locals allege more than a dozen mosques vandalised in northeastern state in apparent retaliation to anti-Hindu violence in Bangladesh.
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.
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..
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.
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.
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.