Seldom in the past, never in recent years, has the solemn occasion of Ram Navami ignited a communal flare-up as Odisha’s Bhadrak district bears witness. Palpable is the degeneration of matters religious. It was a riot situation for two days in Bhadrak, a communally sensitive belt even in the most normal of times. There is a collective sigh of relief within the administration in Bhubaneswar over the fact that there are no casualties; but this ought not to detract from the gravity of the crisis, underscored by Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik in course of his visit to the affected areas on Wednesday.
More accurately, his BJD government has suffered yet another jolt in the aftermath of the debacle in the panchayat elections. Nor for that matter can the political fallout be discounted. The communal flare-up has occurred on the eve of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s national executive meeting in Odisha… after 20 years. The damage to property must have been considerable considering Mr Patnaik’s prompt reshuffle of district officials and the directive to the administration to make an assessment within 72 hours. The charred remains of business establishments are a testament to the fanatical fury on both sides of the communal divide in a district where tension rages beneath the normal tenor of life, and violence a further inch beneath tension. Bhadrak, close to the Bengal Odisha border, exemplifies that communal truism.
Indeed, there appears to have been a severe dislocation of commercial activity, going by the Chief Minister’s directive to the recast district administration to provide financial assistance and to establish a vending zone to accommodate traders whose shops have been burnt and ransacked. At stake is the restoration of livelihood, and the task must rest as much on the administration as the people… cutting across communities.
The situation went out of control owing to the hamhanded approach of the police in the face of the tension that was building up on April 6 and 7. Hence the almost competitive mayhem, marked by retaliation and counter-mobilisation. Neither side can evade responsibility for having provoked the crisis, and the reckless use of the social media has done not a little to exacerbate matters. The police ought to have been circumspect before allowing a massive Ram Navami procession to wend its way through a surcharged Muslim area of the town. As it turned out, curfew was imposed and central forces despatched after the worst had happened. The local police stood by as mute witnesses as activists of the VHP and Bajrang Dal gheraoed the Bhadrak police station for three hours. It was no less helpless as “Hanuman flags”, so-called, were planted in predominantly Muslim areas of the district. Bhadrak has showcased a lethal cocktail of Ram Navami celebrations, the occasionally provocative social media, and an effete administration.