Is a mosque different from a prayer hall? Is it still a mosque if it is “abandoned”? These questions arise in the wake of statements issued by the Tripura police and union ministry of home affairs in connection with the communal violence that swept through the state in October.
On November 13, the MHA said, “There have been news reports that have been circulating that a mosque in Kakraban area of Gomati district in Tripura has been damaged and vandalised...These news reports are fake and are a complete misrepresentation of facts.”
It further said, “There is no reported case of damage to the structure of any masjid in Tripura in the recent past.”
However, two FIRs, and reality on the ground, suggest otherwise.
Newslaundry visited at least three mosques that were damaged in Tripura between October 19 and October 26 – two in North Tripura district’s Panisagar subdivision, and one in Gomati district’s Kakraban subdivision, to which the home ministry statement directly refers to.
In addition to the soot-covered remains of these structures, FIRs filed by the Tripura police also indicate that two mosques – one in Panisagar and another in Kakraban – were vandalised and burnt by “unidentified miscreants” in October. Both incidents took place in the middle of the night and within 48 hours of each other.
Like local worshippers, the FIRs refer to the structures as functional mosques, contrary to Tripura police’s latest claims that they were no longer in use, or were merely “prayer halls”.
Dargah Bazar mosque, Kakraban, Gomati
Residents of Kakraban’s Hurijala village, 60 kilometres outside Agartala, woke up to an unsettling sight on October 20, they said. The Dargah Bazar mosque, named after the nearby market, was allegedly up in flames.
The villagers said they had been alerted by one Rakesh Mian, whose house stands 40 yards away. By 4 am, the police reached the spot and a fire engine had put out the blaze which left the mosque – made entirely of asbestos – dilapidated, they said.
Dargah Bazar in Hurijala village.
The Dargah Bazar mosque was set ablaze on October 20, according to the FIR.
That evening, the Kakraban police station registered an FIR in the matter, seen by Newslaundry. Numbered 74/2021, it was filed by Rahmat Ali, Rakesh Mian’s father.
“The fact of the case is,” the FIR stated, mentioning Rakesh Mian, who “went out from house for natural call” and found a “fire inside the Dargah Bazar masjid which is situated in front (of) the house of complainant”.
On seeing this, Rakesh Mian started shouting, and “other family members as well as local people came there and tried to mitigate the fire”, the FIR stated. “They called the fire service staff of Kakraban” which subsequently reached the spot and “mitigated the fire”.
The FIR also described the condition of the structure. “Due to the fire incident, part of the said masjid gutted by fire and all the articles fully burned due to fire.”
The Dargah Bazar mosque was built 18 years ago, locals said.
Who was behind this? “The complainant also stated that they (did) not know who (is) involved regarding setting fire in said masjid.”
Mizanur Rahman, 37, a resident of Hurijala, told Newslaundry that the mosque was built 18 years ago and was used for daily prayers, but not the Friday prayer. “The village is too big,” he said. “It takes a few hours for one to walk to the local Jama Masjid, which is several kilometres away. We go there only on Fridays, but on the remaining days, we would use this mosque for prayers. That is why it was built.”
Bahar Miya, the village head of Hurijala, and a member of the Bharatiya Janata Party, was informed about the blaze at 2 am by one Rafiq Mian, who is part of the mosque committee. “Someone must have set the mosque on fire. It does not have any permanent electricity connection nor is it surrounded by any other structure,” he said. “Someone is definitely behind it.”
Bahar Miya, the village head of Kakraban and a BJP member.
Earlier this week, the Tripura police arrested Samriddhi Sakunia and Swarna Jha﹘two journalists associated with news website HW News﹘for claiming that a copy of the Quran was burnt inside the mosque.
Bahar Miya said he saw the burnt pages too. “A few advocates who came from Delhi took the remains away,” he claimed.
There are nearly 900 families in Hurijala, of which 150 are Muslim. According to Bahar, about 70 to 80 families would use the mosque, in addition to traders passing through the local market.
Dhruba Nath, Kakraban’s sub divisional police officer, told Newslaundry that the police are yet to make any arrest. “We are in the process of investigation,” he said. “There has to be concrete evidence. The locals are helping us.”
“This is basically a prayer hall,” Nath said. “The main mosque is a kilometre away.”
Nath’s comment reflects a shift in Tripura police’s communication strategy on the violence.
Since the MHA’s denial on November 13, the police have called the Dargah Bazar mosque a “prayer hall”.
On November 14, when the police detained two HW News journalists for their social media posts on the mosque, its press release referred to the structure as a “half-burned prayer hall damaged by mischievous fire”.
And yet, the FIR in the matter, filed three weeks before, called the structure a “mosque”, as do the locals who worship there.
However, a senior police officer in Tripura told Newslaundry that the FIR’s content was based on the complainant’s words, and should not be read as an acknowledgement by the police.
The officer said the Islamic holy book was not burnt when the “prayer hall” caught fire. “The locals are manipulating and misleading you,” he said. “You should ask them where the actual mosque is – it is situated at a distance, and that’s where the Friday prayers are held. This is only a prayer hall.”
Newslaundry asked Islamic scholars to comment on this supposed distinction. “It is not necessary that every mosque should have Friday prayers,” said Maulana Ali Mohsin Takvi, the imam of the Shia Jama Masjid in Delhi’s Kashmiri Gate. “There are many mosques where Friday prayers are not held. But they are still mosques. A mosque does not even need to have a dome and minaret to be a mosque.”
Muhammad Raziul Islam Nadvi, the secretary of the Sharia Council in the Jamaat e Islami Hind, said there are two types of mosques. “Unlike a jama masjid, smaller mosques usually do not conduct Friday prayers,” he said. “To deny that they are mosques is wrong. The distinction drawn by the police between a mosque and a prayer hall is arbitrary. Whether a mosque has Friday prayers or not, it is still a mosque.”
Panisagar Jama Masjid, North Tripura
Another mosque in North Tripura’s Panisagar, called the Panisagar Jama Masjid, is now dark with soot; its black roof and charred furniture the only remnants of the structure.
Like the mosque in Kakraban, the Jama Masjid in Panisagar, situated beside the town’s Regional College of Physical Education (RCPE), was burnt down in the intervening night of October 21 and 22﹘nearly five days before a VHP rally, , vandalised another mosque in the nearby Chamtilla village and arsoned two shops in Rowa Bazar.
The Jama Masjid in Panisagar.
The FIR in the matter, lodged on November 11 and seen by Newslaundry, said, “The fact of the case in brief is that on 21/10/2021 night, at any time, some unknown miscreant vandalised Panisagar Town Jama Masjid...miscreants also burnt down many valuable articles. Next day on 22/10/2021, when the complainant came to the spot, (he) saw the entire thing.”
It tries to explain the delay in filing of the FIR. “The complainant stated that delay in filing of the complaint at PS (police station) occurred due to communicating (with) the masjid committee members for taking their consent.”
The complainant in the matter is one Abdul Basit, who, Newslaundry learnt, is the secretary of the mosque committee. He refused to comment on the issue.
However, another member of the mosque committee, speaking on the condition of anonymity, fearing an “attack” from the local authorities, claimed that Basit had filed the complaint on October 23﹘seen by Newslaundry﹘but the police “delayed” it citing errors in the complaint format.
Newslaundry learnt that the first eyewitness to the arson was a Hindu man, who allegedly alerted a committee member of the mosque on the early morning of October 22.
However, the senior police officer mentioned above claimed that the mosque had been “abandoned” and was only used by “drug addicts”. “It was a small scale fire probably caused by these drug addicts,” he said. “We did not even get an alert at the local fire department.”
Two worshippers denied this claim, and said that a dozen people offered prayers at the mosque every Friday. There was also a functional committee, they claimed, that looks after the structure.
To support this, they produced a memo from Panisagar’s sub divisional magistrate, dated January 18, 2021, to the mosque’s president and secretary. The document was related to the “relocation/removal of unauthorised religious structures erected on the government khas land/public premises”. It listed four temples and the “mosque near RCPE college”.
The mosque committee had replied to the SDM’s memo on January 20, 2021, stating that the mosque was constructed by CRPF personnel in 1982. “At the time of departure”– around 1999, according to local worshippers – ”the Muslim CRPF jawans had handed over the mosque to the local Muslims,” it said.
“Gradually, the aforesaid mosque became Panisagar sub divisional Jumma Masjid. Muslims who come from various corners of the sub division to the SDM and other offices perform prayers in this mosque...sometimes, professors and students from RCPE college and BSF jawans also come to perform prayers,” it said.
While this suggests that the mosque was not “abandoned”, the police used other ways to douse the fire in official statements.
"During yesterday's protest rally in Panisagar, North Tripura, no masjid was burnt,” Tripura police on October 27. “The pictures being shared of burning or damaged masjid or collection of sticks etc are all fake and are not from Tripura.”
Here’s what Saurabh Tripathi, Tripura’s inspector general of police, ANI on October 28: “The videos and photos that are being spread have no connection with the Panisagar incident.”
These statements do not claim that a mosque was not torched, but that it was not burnt on October 26 during the VHP rally.
The Jama Masjid was set ablaze on October 21, five days before the rally.
Newslaundry sent a set of questions to the ministry of home affairs. This story will be updated if we receive a response.
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