‘They are poisoning the rations’: Muslim volunteers distributing food in Bengaluru harassed, beaten up

A group of volunteers were allegedly targeted by Hindutva goons. One of them was even threatened at home.

ByHameeda Syed
‘They are poisoning the rations’: Muslim volunteers distributing food in Bengaluru harassed, beaten up
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After politicians and the media started holding the Tablighi Jamaat responsible for the surge in coronavirus cases in India, unverified news has circulated targeting the Muslim community for being “careless” in tackling the Covid-19 outbreak. While TV channels have been doing their bit in fanning the flames, Muslims and mosques have been attacked in different states and told to “stop” the virus from spreading.

One such incident was spotlighted when The Hindu reported that a group of volunteers with Swaraj Abhiyan were attacked in Bengaluru while distributing relief material during the lockdown. Swaraj Abhiyan is a sociopolitical organisation started by Yogendra Yadav and Prashant Bhushan.

According to the report, the volunteers were allegedly attacked by members of a Hindutva organisation. There were three incidents of harassment, culminating in the volunteers being hit with cricket bats.

Newslaundry spoke to some of the volunteers involved to find out what happened.

First incident

On April 4, a group of Swaraj Abhiyan volunteers in Mahadevpura was stopped while they were distributing food rations to the poor. They were stopped by a handful of people wearing what the volunteers described as “RSS attire”: white shirts and khaki shorts.

Zia Nomani, the organisation’s youth president, was among the volunteers present that day. The volunteers had already obtained police permission to distribute food rations.

“A few volunteers and I from Abhiyan were in Mahadevpura. Around 1 pm, we were told by few people dressed in RSS uniform to not come into this area and distribute rations,” Zia told Newslaundry. “We told them that the situation’s really bad and we all have to come together.”

Zia was wearing a kurta at the time. He thinks that’s why he was “judged” as being Muslim. A video taken by one of the volunteers shows Zia sitting in the driver’s seat of his car, while two men in white shirts and khaki shorts question him.

The men told the volunteers that “not all Muslims are bad,” Zia explained, and since the volunteers were “good Muslims”, they were allowed to distribute relief material. When one of the volunteers expressed confusion at this, a man said, “Muslims are spreading corona.”

“We told them, ‘There’s nothing like that and everyone is helping each other out. In fact if the government helped us out, you and I wouldn’t be here’,” Zia said.

That’s when the situation “started getting communal”, he said. The goons told the volunteers they no longer looked like “good Muslims”, and directed them to leave within two minutes.

According to Zia, the men then told them to go to the police station. The volunteers complied, and when they reached Mahadevapura police station at around 8.30 pm, the men were already there.

However, the police supported the volunteers, and told them they were “doing good work” and should continue doing so. When asked if the police could accompany them, the police replied that the volunteers could approach the police if anything untoward happened.

The police also told both groups — the volunteers and the harassers — that they should work together.

Second incident

As these events were unfolding, at 6.30 pm the same day, a group of 25 Bharatiya Janata Party workers went to the house of Zareen Taj, the general secretary of the Bengaluru chapter of Swaraj Abhiyan. Led by BJP district president Venkatesh Naik, they asked Zareen’s landlord why he had rented out his house to a Muslim.

Zareen lives in Amruthahalli in Bengaluru, and has been participating in Swaraj Abhiyan’s programme of distributing rations for a couple of weeks.

“I was right at home when the workers came outside and asked who had given the volunteers permission to distribute rations,” Taj told Newslaundry. “They asked why my landlord had given his house to a terrorist. They threatened him and told him to vacate the house where I was living.”

According to Zareen, the BJP workers told her that Muslims had “no right” to distribute food to people, and that Zameen and the volunteers “had come from Nizamuddin” to “spread diseases here”. Her landlord was told to contact the health department and “test” the rations being distributed.

The landlord responded that he had known Zareen for over a year, and he believed the house was rented to “good people”.

“He supported me in front of them,” Zareen said. “He told me not to think about it, and that he was taking care of me.”

Sources close to Newslaundry spoke to the Zareen’s landlord, who neither confirmed nor denied what had happened.

“What others say is not my problem,” the landlord said. “They [Zareen and her family] are in my protection. They are most welcome to stay here as long as they like.”

Third incident

On the evening of April 6, Zareen and six others were allegedly attacked by Hindutva goons in the Dasarahalli slum, about a kilometre from her home, while they were out distributing food rations to the poor.

The six others were Junaid, Riyaz, Feroz, Amjad, Kiran, and Zareen’s son Syed Tabrez.

Zareen said there were 15-20 men wearing white shirts and khaki shorts near her house. “They told us we were not needed in that area. I told the boys that we would go a little further, so we could distribute rations someplace else.”

The group went to Dasarahalli and began distributing food in the slum. That’s when about 15 people arrived in cars, Zareen said. “They immediately came to attack us with cricket bats,” she said.

All seven volunteers were badly injured. Five of them were admitted in the intensive care unit at Shampur’s Dr Ambedkar Medical College.

In a video clip that was circulated on WhatsApp, Zareen said the goons told the group: “Muslims are poisoning the rations. You people don't deliver food here. You Muslims have to leave the slum and relocate somewhere else.”

Syed Tabrez, Zareen’s son, received injuries on his arms, hands and head. He told local journalists that they had police permission but were “physically assaulted and hit with bats” by “at least 15-20” people.

Police’s response

On April 6, soon after the assault, Syed Tabrez filed a complaint at the Amruthahalli police station. An FIR was lodged under the Indian Penal Code sections related to criminal intimidation, intentional insult with intent to provoke breach of peace, rioting, and joining unlawful assembly armed with deadly weapon, among a few others.

On April 7, three men were arrested for allegedly attacking the volunteers in Dasarahalli. The Hindu quoted deputy commissioner of police Bhimashankar Guled as saying the accused — Jagadeesha, Karthik and Raghu — were not affiliated with any Hindu nationalist organisation.

The police also told The Hindu that they were “probing” whether the Dasarahalli attack was linked to Zareen being threatened at home.

Zareen said she was summoned by the police on April 7, after the arrests, and told to “leave the matter be”.

“The police said not to make a big issue of it, and let the three men go in front of me,” she said. “They didn't even berate them or lock them up. They told us to be one with each other and work together.”

Zia claimed the men weren’t arrested, merely detained. “An FIR was lodged, but no charges were put on them,” he told Newslaundry.

Newslaundry tried to contact Bhimashankar Guled, but he was not available for comment.

This isn’t the first time that volunteers have been assaulted in Dasarahalli. A Muslim volunteer with an organisation that provides food to the poor said his group was verbally abused in the same slum on April 4.

“At 6-6.30 pm, one of my colleagues and I went to distribute food at the slums. While we were distributing food to people congregating there, a car passed by the Dasarahalli slum and told the people that we are spreading corona,” he said in a video that was widely shared on Whatsapp. “They said that the people should see the news and shouldn’t take food from us.”

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