The Rath Yatra rolled out of the Jagannath temple in Udaipur on July 1, passing through the city’s cramped old lanes filled with nearly on lakh devotees and stalls offering sharbat, tea, lassi, and pakoda. The festival couldn’t be held the last two years because of Covid, so this year it was especially fervid. There was another reason, too: by two extremist Muslim men have sent emotions running high and the tension was palpable at the yatra.
Carrying saffron flags with depictions of the Hindu god Hanuman and the medieval ruler Maharana Pratap, bikers zipped through the lanes chanting, “Jai Shree Ram”, “Vande Mataram”, and “Bharat Mein Rahna Hoga Toh Vande Mataram Kehna Hoga”. The last of the slogans, which translates to “You’ll have to say Vande Mataram if you want to live in India”, was clearly intended at the Muslim community, concentrated mostly in the walled city of historic Udaipur.
“This is one of the biggest festivals of Udaipur. People come from all over India to worship Lord Jagannath. Because of the curfew and the unfortunate incident, footfall is down to some extent,” Pankaj Kumar Sen, a volunteer at the community kitchen set up in the temple’s car parking to feed the devotees, said. The curfew was imposed after the killing on June 28.
He pulled no punches when asked about Kanhaiya Lal’s murder. “All Hindus have united. People from the city who had earlier stayed away from participating in the yatra have joined too. It’s a show of strength. The yatra is a message that we stand with Kanhaiya Lal’s family,” Sen said. “We won’t be cowed down by the cowardly act of the radicals.”
Hindus and Muslims have lived largely peacefully in the walled city, according to some of the residents Newslaundry spoke to, but Teli’s murder has cracked the harmony, if not pushed it to collapse.
There is an eerie calm in the city, nestled in the Aravallis with a cooler climate than cities in the Thar, but only skin-deep. The city seems lost as to how it could grapple with the situation. People in the walled city express empathy for Teli’s grieving family and anger and frustration at Ashok Gehlot’s government. “He was killed by deceit.” “Terrorists have been given shelter in parts of the city.” “The terrorists should be hanged instantly.”
An official at the Udaipur collectorate said: “It is true that the distrust has widened. We don’t see eye to eye any longer. I have 15-20 Muslim friends, but they all contend that the killing was against their religion. They said, ‘No religious people would ever do it. This was against our religion.’”
He said more people from the city turned out for the yatra this year because of the murder, even as the footfall from outside went down. Rajendra Srimali, a member of the organising committee, estimated a total footfall of around 1 lakh.
Mahendra Prakash, who owns a restaurant in the city, said the yatra was a “befitting reply to those who questioned our religion”. “We are staunch believers in our religion as Muslims are in theirs. Kanhaiya Lal belonged to a poor family and was a simple man. He was killed by deceit,” said Prakash, busy setting up a pakoda stall for devotees.
Kuldeep Singh Rathore, a volunteer, harboured suspicion about the old city areas dominated by Muslims. “Khanjipeer has turned into a sleeper cell for terrorists,” he said, referring to the neigbourhood where the main accused, Mohammad Riya Attari and Ghouse Mohammad lived. “People from other parts of India have settled here. They should be banished.”
Gaurav Singh, a resident in his 20s, was curt in his assessment, “Don’t ask anything now. The situation is tense.”
Laxman Singh, who runs a hotel, said, “See, they had a motorbike with the number ending in 2611. This means they were just looking for an excuse to commit such a heinous crime.” He explained that 2611 was code for the 2008 Mumbai attacks. The bike, with the licence plate RJ27AS 2611, and registered to Attari was used in the crime, the police said.
A 75-year-old city resident who runs a rent-a-bike shop lamented the tragic turn Udaipur had taken. “The city has always been very peaceful. Of course, there have been murders but communal harmony was intact. But not anymore,” said the man who refused to be identified as he “has only one son who is not settled yet”. He blamed the government for “supporting such people”. “This can stop only if we have officers like Dinesh MN. Politicians should follow in his footsteps,” he said.
Dinesh MN is not Udaipur’s superintendent of police or the inspector general of the Udaipur range. The additional director general of the state’s Anti Corruption Bureau has been parachuted into the city to arrest its slide into a communal fire.
Accused of being involved in the Sohrabuddin fake encounter case when he was Udaipur’s police superintendent in 2004, Dinesh was discharged in 2017 by a Mumbai court. Since the June 28 murder, he has been running the show while Udaipur’s senior officers have taken a backseat. Wherever the police officer goes, young men rush to take selfies. When Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot visited Teli’s house on Thursday, the assembled crowd shouted the slogan “Dinesh MN zindabad” even though the police officer wasn't around. The previous day, when an angry crowd had attempted to remove the signboard from the graveyard abutting the crematorium where Teli’s last rites were performed, the officer had pacified them.
Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot at Kanhaiya Lal Teli's house.
A drone buzzed overhead as the Rath Yatra started at 4.30pm. Top police officers kept an eye from their vantage points, while around 2,000 police personnel stood ready with shields and tear gas shells to prevent any untoward incident. As the idol of Jagannath was placed on the chariot, music started blaring from the giant DJ system. A conch shell announced the arrival of Jagannath, and cymbals and damroos raised the decibel level. The packed-to-rafters crowd shouted, “Hathi Ghoda Palki, Jai Kanhaiya Lal Ki”. Jagdish Chowk swayed to spiritual songs set to Bollywood tunes.
As the chariot lumbered ahead, an organiser sitting atop the DJ system abruptly lowered the volume. “Who is this young man with the sword? Remove him,” he announced. “We have received the permission to hold this yatra after so much struggle. Please make sure it’s peaceful.”
People from other parts of the city merged their processions with the main yatra. Tableaux showcasing people in army fatigues in open-top jeeps joined in as well. Small religious organisations showcased gods and goddesses from different parts of Udaipur.
With the city under curfew, police denied permission for the yatra to pass through Muslim-dominated areas, unlike in the past. The number of small processions was also reduced considerably. Around six hours later when it reached Surajpole, the yatra seemed to have no end point up to 2-km. After covering a distance of 5.5-km, Lord Jagananath finally returned to the temple past midnight. Earlier in the day, around 500 people from Hindutva groups had carried out a flash march in the main market, demanding justice for Teli. Around 7 pm, around 200 people assembled in the main city square and shouted provocative slogans against Pakistan and Muslims. “Muslims have become dominant here. Whosoever questions our religion won’t be spared,” said Satyanarayan Singh Tanwar, a guide. “We are ready to give up our life.”
‘Believe in police’
A few metres away from Teli’s “Supreme Tailors” shop on Maldas Street, the Bhorawadi neighbourhood was the first to face people’s anger on the night of the murder. The two communities pelted each other with stones. “All stone pelters were from other parts of the city. My two bikes were burnt and a scooty reduced to mangled remains. This is the locality of the trading Bohra community,” said Md Firoz, 50. “But we believe in the administration and police that they will protect us. We are stressed and living in fear.”
A few kilometres away at Khanjipeer, where Attari and Ghouse lived, ward councillor Shamma Khan, 60, denounced the murder: “Religion does not teach us to hate each other. Peace and tranquillity has broken. Both communities are on the edge.”
Udaipur has been the scene of many battles in the past. But the ongoing battle to maintain peace could be one of the hardest. The extent of the damage to communal harmony will become visible once the curfew is lifted.