ASANSOL, West Bengal — Imdadullah Rashidi sat with his head bowed, as middle-school students from a local school enacted scenes from a 'riot' on a stage in a playground. During the 20-minute play, the boys hurled lines of mock hatred at each other and wrestled on stage in the lead-up to the climactic scene, which showed a teenager being clobbered to death. The young actor gasped out prayers as his 'last' words and the small gathering of youngsters, their parents and other locals clapped hysterically at the story of the brave young 'martyr'.
The 'martyr' referred to in the play was the imam's 15-year-old son. Md Sidghatullah Rashidi, the youngest of Rashidi's four children, left home on the afternoon of 28 March. The police found his corpse in the evening, barely 5km away from his house. The teenager was one among four people—Hindus and Muslims—killed in clashes that broke out after Ram Navami processions were taken out across West Bengal.
Many reports at the time praised Rashidi, who helped curb the spread of violence by threatening to leave the town if Muslims tried to avenge his son's death.
Five months later, Rashidi froze as waves of applause coursed through the small playground and adults showered praise on the group of beaming young boys huddled on the stage.
"It was shattering to watch the play," Rashidi told HuffPost India, sitting in his dusty, cluttered room in a mint green, three-story building known as the Noorani mosque, where he is the cleric. Months after the boy's death, Rashidi's wife is still inconsolable and breaks down at the sight of his shirts hanging in the almirah. "I can barely spend an hour at home," he said.
SIGN UP FOR THE DAILY BRIEF FROM HUFFPOST INDIA
Several residents of Asansol—an industrial Bengal town barely an hour away from Bihar—told HuffPost India that for the first time since the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992, communal tensions seem to be on the rise again. In fact, this time, the undercurrent of animosity seems stronger, said Swati Ghosh, a civil rights activist who has lived in Asansol for nearly 40 years. A sign of it, Ghosh said, is the language used in various Ram Navami processions which seemed to have become a 'trend' in the town since 2015, a year after BJP and Narendra Modi came to power at the Centre.
26 years after the mosque was torn down, the demand from right-wing groups for a temple at Ayodhya is gathering steam once again.
HuffPost India attempted to piece together Sidghatullah's life to understand how a quiet teenager who preferred his books over cricket became yet another statistic in the list of victims of communal violence . He was just a 'curious' boy who read the Quran daily, wanted to become a doctor and ended up getting killed, allegedly by men he saw almost every day for years.
Now, with the 2019 general election just months away, Rashidi fears that his dead son will live on as a reminder of violence and hatred.
And the school play where his child was casually turned into a 'martyr', he said, was the first sign of it.
A 'Child' Caught In A Riot
Sidghatullah was a quiet boy—his friends called him a 'bookworm'. His favourite subject was biology and his friends said he often said he wanted to study medicine. How did he end up at the site of a communal clash?
22-year-old Asif Ansari, who studies Islam under the imam and had known Sidghatullah for almost 10 years, used a cricketing analogy to explain.
"When you watch a match from the stands, you cannot really tell what the players are going through or doing, but you kind of want to have a part in it. You should have nothing to do there, but your emotions run high and you think maybe you could do something about a match, given a chance," he told HuffPost India, frowning as he spoke.
In March, said Ansari, as word reached their neighbourhood in Asansol's Railpaar area that people at a Ram Navami procession had been 'bad-mouthing' Muslims and that the two groups had clashed with each other, Sidghatullah and other boys his age badgered elders, asking what was going on. "Most of them were asked to stay in their homes and not step out," Ansari said.
A day before Sidghatullah's death, when he heard that one man had been killed in neighbouring Raniganj, he told his sons to stay at home and left for the mosque as usual.
"Word was doing the rounds that some men had taken out a procession and had been shouting that every head which wears a skull cup will ultimately have to bow before Ram," he said.
But unbeknown to him, on the afternoon of 28 March, Sidghatullah slipped out of his house, telling his mother that he was headed to the madrasa. She tried to stop him, as the boy's madrasa was close to the main road.
"We had heard there was some trouble was brewing there," Rashidi told HuffPost India.
Ask anyone in neighbourhood about Sidghatullah and the first thing you are told is how well-versed he was with the Quran. Salim, who runs a tea stall metres from the mosque, said everyone wondered how the teenager had managed to memorise so much of the Quran at such a young age. Of the 30 sections of the text, Sidghatullah had managed to memorise 22 by the time he was 14-years-old, locals said with a mix of admiration and disbelief.
So Sidghatullah's mother didn't badger the boy too much, given his daily routine of visiting the madrasa and reading the Quran by himself.
A few hours after he left the house, a group of boys came running breathlessly and told Rashidi that his eldest son was in police custody and Sidghatullah had gone missing.
'Curiosity and excitement'
Ghosh, the activist, described the kind of slogans that were being shouted from loudspeakers as Ram Navami processions went around the town as "repulsive". "'Musalmano ka do hi desh, ek Pakistan, ek kabristan (Muslims have two countries, one is Pakistan, the other is the grave)' they were shouting. This was a clear attempt to rile people up," said Ghosh, who is also a doctor.
Sidghatullah was a quiet boy, said Ansari, but he had asked the older man once, months before his death, why people were threatening Muslims openly. The boy was referring to 'slogans' like the ones that were heard in the Ram Navami procession later in March.
"He must have seen something in the news or read something on social media on his friend's phone or something. He once said, 'why are they saying bad things about Islam' and I explained, that's what troublemakers do and that was that," Ansari said.
Sidghatullah's childhood friend, who is now a humanities student in Class XI, said that they barely spoke about religion. In fact, Sidghatullah's friends were gobsmacked by how quickly he had memorised so much of the Quran.
"He kept to his books. In fact, he liked reading over even playing cricket. We used to joke he is a 'bookworm'," the 16-year-old, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said.
"When the news of clashes (in Raniganj) broke out, we briefly spoke about how we've witnessed nothing like this in Asansol and wondered if it would reach this town," the boy told HuffPost India. "We said it was scary, but we did not talk any further about it.
Instead, the boys spoke about enrolling in a computer training class and decided to speak to their parents about it. That was the last time the 16-year-old would speak to his best friend of 12 years.
Ansari suspects that it was a mix of 'curiosity' and 'excitement' that led the boy to the site of violence. "He was 15. And when you hear things, that people are fighting and especially it has to do with religion, your blood boils," he added.
Though Rashidi believes that his son was abducted on his way to the madrasa, Ansari and other locals say that Sidghatullah had gone to see what was going on.
"We heard someone lobbed a tear gas shell or something. And in the confusion he fell into the enemy territory. Of course, they dragged him away," a local shopkeeper said on condition of anonymity.
When the boy's elder brother realised that the teenager was missing, he went to the local police to inform them that he had been abducted. After the police heard about the skirmish, they detained the brother for rioting.
"As the hours passed, I felt an uneasiness. Deep inside my heart, I knew something terrible had happened," Rashidi told HuffPost India.
In the evening, he requested to speak to the officer in charge of the police station alone. "I told him, 'I can sense what has happened. Please tell me the truth'."
The policeman told him that they had found the teenager's body but were not announcing it immediately, fearing it would lead to more violence.
From 'Neighbours' To 'Enemies'
Two men, Rashidi said, have been arrested in connection with the boy's death, both belonging to a settlement of milkmen a 10-15 minute walk away from the Noorani mosque. "My son would go to buy milk there from the time he was a child," Rashidi said.
The police, Rashidi said, had asked for a list of names he suspected in the murder. "I did not give them any name. Whose name was I supposed to give? We have been neighbours for three decades, they keep coming here to sell milk, we buy milk from them, how will I know who wanted to hurt my child?" he said.
He added that when the father of one of the arrested men turned up at his doorstep, urging him to tell the police that his son was not responsible for Sidghatullah's death, Rashidi realised that they had a milk shop just next to the one from which the boy bought milk for four years.
As news of the boy's death reached RK Dangal, not everyone reacted with restraint. Rashidi recounts how some of the local boys tried to abduct a Hindu teenager and hold him hostage till the culprits were arrested. "I had to convince them to do no such criminal nonsense," he said.
However, when Rashidi saw the play, he realised that his son has been turned into a 'martyr'. Despite his best efforts, he feels, political parties are making it difficult for peace to prevail in Asansol.
"Did the Prime Minister reach out to me and ask what happened? Isn't he my PM as well?" Rashidi asked.
After the violence, singer Babul Supriyo, the BJP MP from Asansol, was stopped by the police from visiting a relief camp in Asansol. When a protester asked him to "go back", the MP was caught on camera threatening to "skin him alive".
Supriyo had called Rashidi to offer his condolences. "I asked him what he planned to do. He said he could do a cultural function to promote peace. I told him, 'that people will forget in a day. Will you go announce that no provocative speech will be tolerated by your party?'"
The MP had no answer to that.
Pointing to a small bridge that leads to the milkmen's colony, Ansari said interaction between the communities had reduced to the bare minimum.
"There's no trouble, but we don't chat like we used to. The milkmen come, people pay them and we don't talk much. It wasn't like this before," he said.
Months after the riots, the BJP announced it would hold 'rath yatras', slated to kick off from a Hindu pilgrim town in West Bengal. The 'yatra', to be inaugurated by BJP chief Amit Shah in December, is expected to cover 44 towns in the state.
Though the party has been claiming this is a 'democracy' procession, the intention, as with similar yatras in other states, is to polarise opinion, consolidate voters and gain electoral ground. And of course, there is the constant reminder of the BJP's first such rath yatra in 1990, which sparked numerous communal riots and the destruction of a mosque. Do Rashidi's efforts to maintain 'peace' still hold in the face of the chariots of communalism?
"I heard about it. The last time someone took out such a Rath Yatra was LK Advani. Babri was demolished, there were riots, yes. But where is Advani now, in his own party?" the imam asked. "Everyone pays for their actions."