“My heart broke”

As police claims normalcy in Tripura, Muslim residents reel from attacks on homes, shops and mosques

Munafuddin, a resident of Rowa Bazaar, in front of his home, which was attacked by a Hindu mob. On 26 October, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad held a massive rally in Panisagar, in North Tripura district, that passed through his locality. Munafuddin was guarding the local mosque when his home was vandalised. His mother, wife and two children were at home when the mob approached. The family ran into the woods behind the house, fearing for their lives. Munafuddin said his family has lived in this home for three generations.
Munafuddin, a resident of Rowa Bazaar, in front of his home, which was attacked by a Hindu mob. On 26 October, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad held a massive rally in Panisagar, in North Tripura district, that passed through his locality. Munafuddin was guarding the local mosque when his home was vandalised. His mother, wife and two children were at home when the mob approached. The family ran into the woods behind the house, fearing for their lives. Munafuddin said his family has lived in this home for three generations.
22 November, 2021

“You cannot enter here,” a police officer said as she stood guard near a mosque in the Panisagar block in North Tripura. Another police guard seated in the lane leading to the structure gestured at us to deny entry. We asked them if we could see the mosque. “No, you cannot see the place, you have to take permission from the police station,” the first police officer said. 

The mosque in question, the Panisagar Jame Masjid, was built by personnel of the Central Reserve Police Forces in 1982 and is located next to a Hindu temple, the Debasthan temple, reportedly built the same year. On the intervening night between 21 and 22 October, a night before Friday prayers, unknown assailants allegedly set fire to the mosque, which is also often called the CRPF mosque. Earlier that day, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, an arm of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, had held rallies in Dharmanagar, a town about fifteen kilometres away, as well as in Agartala, the state capital, to protest violence against Hindus in neighbouring Bangladesh. Tripura shares a border with the Muslim-majority nation.

Members of a VHP rally on 26 October vandalised the Chamtilla mosque in North Tripura district’s Panisagar division. The mob broke the fans, damaged windows and doors, and smashed a part of the announcement system. An eyewitness said that CRPF personnel were present to guard the mosque when the attack took place, but did not intervene.
A window at the Chamtilla mosque, destroyed during an attack by a Hindu mob.

In mid October, a Quran was found at a Durga Puja pandal in Bangladesh’s Comilla, allegedly desecrated. The incident set off communal attacks in the country, leaving seven people dead. More than eighty Durga Puja pandals were reportedly destroyed in the violence. As news of the violence flowed across the border into Tripura, the VHP decided to protest the attacks with a series of rallies across the state. 

Its rallies quickly turned their anger towards Muslims in Tripura, setting off a spate of anti-Muslim violence across several towns. Hindus passing through Muslim areas in parts of west and north Tripura attacked and ransacked mosques, vandalised Muslim homes and set fire to Muslim-owned businesses. A fact-finding mission by four lawyers, conducted in end October, found that at least twelve mosques and several homes and shops belonging to Muslims had been vandalised in the state. Media reports indicated that several mosques had been vandalised, and some had even been burned down. When, in the Gomati district, the police attempted to impose restrictions on the demonstration, the VHP rally pelted stones, injuring over a dozen police personnel.

But the police and government authorities in Tripura maintain that barring a few incidents, the state remained peaceful. Through its social media, the Tripura police has repeatedly insisted that “the law and order situation is absolutely normal” in the state. The police took action against those who reported otherwise, arresting two reporters and invoking the draconian Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act against two of the lawyers who undertook the fact-finding mission.

Mohammad Jaynaluddin owns a building in Rowa Bazaar, where 6 shops were burned. He estimates that he had lost anywhere between 10 to 15 lakh rupees in damages to the building. When we spoke, he had not received any compensation from the government yet. “I have little children. Where will we go from here? Hindustan is also our country. Where will I go now?” He said, “There’s no other place to go to. We were born here. We will die here.”

Earlier this month, we visited the Panisagar block in the North Tripura district. On 26 October, the VHP had organised a massive rally through the block, which includes areas such as Rowa Bazaar and Chamtilla, where many Muslim families reside. Close to four thousand people participated in the rally. By eyewitness accounts, a section of the mob from the rally clearly targeted Muslim shops and homes in Rowa Bazaar, and vandalised a mosque in the Chamtilla area. According to an eyewitness, the Chamtilla attack took place in the presence of CRPF personnel, who were supposed to be guarding the mosque. Another eyewitness, who visited the CRPF mosque a day after it was allegedly set ablaze, told us that he had seen the burnt structure. But we were unable to verify the status of the mosque, as the police restricted our entry to it, stating that it was “under protection.” Our reporting also suggested that the police was downplaying the nature of the violence and its aftermath on social media.

The communal attacks had instilled fear in the Muslim community. The dread was palpable among those we met in North Tripura, most of whom are village residents, and run small shops or businesses. Many were afraid of speaking to us, anticipating further reprisals. Others were unwilling to be photographed or to speak on camera. By and large, the Muslim community was reeling from the shock of the attacks, which many said were unexpected and rare.

Nizamuddin owned a stationary and candy shop in Rowa Bazaar, which stands destroyed behind him. He was only able to salvage one coloring book, which too was severely burnt around the edges.
Muhammad Sunowar Ali of Rowa Bazaar, in Tripura, was standing by the local mosque as he watched the participants of a VHP rally set fire to his clothing and footwear shop, about a 100 meters away. “I was just simply watching my shop burn. I had put all my 9 years of savings into this shop.” He said the mob was in the thousands, and the Muslims only a couple of hundred. “I was unable to do anything about it. I could only stand and watch.” Ali said that he had lost close to Rs 15 lakh, but had received less than Rs 1 lakh in compensation.

A deputy superintendent of police in North Tripura denied that the CRPF mosque was targeted in any way. He confirmed that a first information report had been lodged into the vandalising of the shops in Rowa Bazaar but refused to discuss the status of the investigation. Other senior officials we contacted were either unable to speak or did not comment. At the time of publication, the police had not responded to written queries regarding the Chamtilla mosque, the alleged burning of the CRPF mosque and the attacks on the homes and businesses at Rowa Bazaar. The VHP denied any responsibility for the violence, saying that some “miscreants” had carried out the attacks. 

The VHP’s rallies began within days of the attacks in Bangladesh. On 21 October, the Hindutva group held a rally in Agartala, in West Tripura, and another in Dharmanagar, in North Tripura district. The next day, Muslims in the Panisagar sub-division woke up to the news that the CRPF mosque had been burned down. A Muslim man who was familiar with the area and had been to the CRPF mosque in Panisagar multiple times visited it on 23 October. He spoke to us on the condition of anonymity. “We did not see how many people came as they burned it in the night,” he said. “There are no Muslim families nearby. Some people from the village run the mosque. People still did namaz in the mosque, there is a namaz on every jummah”—referring to Friday, which is considered a holy day among Muslims. “There is a lady who cleans the mosque every jummah. She had gone there, and after seeing the condition, she informed us that the mosque was burned.”

He said the assailants destroyed everything present at the mosque. “The masjid had a makeshift wall, which they tore down. They put all of the items in the centre of the masjid and set it on fire. There were maybe two or three Qurans in the mosque. All of it was burnt.” He added, “It made me very sad.”

After the police guards denied us entry to the CRPF mosque, we went to the Panisagar police station, where we met the officer-in-charge, Sougat Chakma. He directed us to the superintendent of police’s office in Dharmanagar, fifteen kilometres away. There, we met Snehasish Kumar Deb, the deputy superintendent of police for the intelligence bureau in North Tripura district. We asked him about the CRPF mosque and requested permission to visit it. “No mosque was burnt,” he said immediately. He said that any news of mosques being burned was fake. “So many people are saying that a mosque has been burnt, this is a false thing. We have cleared it from our Tripura police, it has been fully cleared that no mosque was burnt,” he said. We asked if the mosque had been vandalised. He said, “No, not vandalised either. People are showing some videos of Delhi and saying it is Panisagar.”

The deputy SP’s response to our request for permission to visit the CRPF mosque was confusing at best. He said that the mosque was under “police protection” but insisted that only the sub-divisional magistrate would be able to authorise visits. “Police do not give permission,” he said. We asked why journalists were required to take permission to visit a public place, to which he said, “It is under protection.” We asked him why entry was restricted, if, as he said, no vandalism or arson had taken place. Ignoring the contradiction, he said, “Why have you come here, for any mosque and this thing? If in any place, something has happened, police is protecting that place, that means you don’t have authorisation to enter.”

Clockwise from left to right: Burnt footwear in Muhammad Sunowar Ali’s shop in Rowa Bazaar; burnt candies at Nizamuddin’s shop in the same area; a printer at the shop of a Rowa Bazaar resident, Amir Hussain; and a damaged switchboard the advocate Shabana Khan’s home, in Dharmanagar.
The Hindu mob threw bricks through the windows of the Chamtilla mosque, which had intricate jali patterns in them. A star, which earlier formed part of pattern, lay broken among some rubble in the mosque compound.

On 18 November, the news website Newslaundry published a report on the CRPF mosque, including photographs of the burned structure. A senior police officer told the publication that the structure was “abandoned” and used by “drug addicts.” He claimed, “It was a small scale fire probably caused by these drug addicts.” The publication reported that the police had lodged an FIR into the matter.

We visited the Chamtilla mosque on 11 November, nearly two weeks after the 26 October rally. The structure, painted white, pink and green, was marked by unmissable signs of attack—broken shutters, bent ceiling fans, and windows with intricate jali work showing brick-sized holes. A broken pink door stood outside the structure, amid some rubble from the attack. Locals had collected the bricks that were used to target the mosque on the front porch. A few dozen Agar trees planted in front of the mosque had been slashed.

A man who resided nearby spoke to us on the condition of anonymity. He said he saw a Hindu mob that was part of the VHP’s 26 October rally attack the mosque. “They came around 3.30 pm. There were about eighty-five people,” the Chamtilla resident said. “There were no locals among them.” The mob attacked the mosque, and the resident said he watched, hiding in his home, afraid of being seen. “They brought petrol in empty liquor bottles, I think they were trying to set fire to the mosque but they failed,” he said. We saw some broken bottles littered around the mosque, among the rubble. He said that attackers took away three Qurans and a mic unit that was in the masjid. “The mosque belonged to 15 families,” he said.

The Chamtilla resident further said that men from the CRPF had been stationed around the mosque for its protection, but did not do anything to stop the attack. A few days earlier, he said, after hearing of communal tensions across the state, the members of the community had requested Chakma, the officer-in-charge of the Panisagar station, to provide protection to the masjid. “The OC gave us 8 CRPF personnel,” he said. “They were standing there, they did not do anything. They had bullets and everything, if they had shot twice, the attackers would have left. But they did not say anything.” The Caravan reviewed a written request for protection, and Chakma confirmed that he had provided a protective detail. The CRPF did not respond to our queries regarding the alleged inaction of its personnel. 

Amiruddin ran a general store in Rowa Bazaar. The room adjacent to the shop served as his godown. He owned the building and was paying rent for the land on which it was built. “I would often take candy from my shop for my children, when I went home from work. Nowadays when my children ask me for candy I feel like crying.” Before the mob burned down the shop, it was also looted. “The Hindu brothers that we grew up with and knew since we were children could have helped stop this. When I think that these people were a part of the rally and did not prevent this from happening, it makes me very sad,” Amiruddin said.
A side road leading to the Rowa Bazaar mosque. When the crowd in the VHP rally started moving towards the Mosque, four local VHP members blocked this road. To the right, the ruins of Amiruddin’s stationary shop are visible.

When news of the Chamtilla attack reached the Rowa Bazaar locality, less than two kilometres away, some of the male residents gathered at the mosque to protect it. Local residents said that the rally passed through Chamtilla around the time of the Friday prayers. As the rally crossed the Tilthai-Damcherra road, the main road close to the locality, a section of the mob attempted to enter a side road that led to the mosque. Some of the men who were guarding the mosque told us that local VHP members had helped them, and used cars to block the road. Unable to access the mosque, assailants set fire to several Muslim-owned shops. A local resident, who asked not to be identified, shared with us a list that the Muslim community had put together to document the damage. It had sixteen names. The estimated losses and damage, according to the list, was well over one crore rupees.

We spoke to six shopkeepers who lost their businesses. Just next to the road leading to the mosque was a shop and godown owned by 35-year-old Amiruddin. The mob set fire to these. All that was left of the shop and the godown were three scorched walls, burnt food packets and melted bottles. “When the mob could not proceed towards our masjid, they started thrashing the doors of my shop with sticks and then, set fire to it,” Amiruddin said. “Standing at the masjid and watching my shop getting vandalised broke my heart.” He said he became “senseless” when the mob began setting his shop on fire. “I wanted to go but people stopped me, saying my life would be in danger, so I just watched it burn from a distance.” He said that the mob specifically targeted Muslim businesses. “Even our Hindu brothers’ shops were there, but they selected our shops and burnt them.” 

Mohammad Jaynaluddin, a 41-year-old, owned a one-story shop complex in Rowa Bazaar, which he had rented out to six businessmen. The Hindu mob burned down all his shops. Jaynaluddin was also in the mosque when his building was set on fire. “Mera dil tut gaya,” he said—my heart broke. What hurt him even more than watching the violence, he said, were the slogans that the mob was chanting. “The rally was abusing our Mohammed,” he told me, referring to the prophet in Islam. He said he heard the crowd chanting, “Tripura mein mullagiri nahi chalegi” (“Tripura will not tolerate mullagiri,” a derogatory term for Muslims) and “O Mohammed, tera baap, hare Krishna hare Ram!” (O Mohammed, Ram and Krishna are your fathers).

Amiruddin said that since the attack, he had been managing his household by collecting the money owed to him by former customers. “Even though our books were burnt, whatever I can remember, I am asking them for—Rs 500 and other small amounts.” He worried what to tell his children, aged three and five, who often asked him, “Why was our shop burned?” 

Shabana Khan at her home in Dharmanagar. Khan, an advocate, was away on vacation when her home was vandalised during a VHP rally in her city, on 21 October. The house is built on waqf-board land in a Hindu neighborhood. There is a small mosque on this plot, attached to the back of the home. Theirs is the only Muslim home in the neighborhood. “Previously we felt free. Now we need to think twice about where to be, where to hide.”
A television set, with its screen missing, at Khan’s home.

A section of the Hindu mob also attacked a Muslim housing area close to the mosque, where some of these shop owners live. Most of the men residing in the homes were guarding the mosque when the mob attacked their homes. A 25-year-old told us that while he was at the mosque, his mother and sister as well as her young children and a cousin were at home. “I never thought they would come to our house and vandalise it,” he said. “Around forty or fifty people had come.” His brother saw some people from the mob heading towards their house. “My brother told me that they were attacking our home, so I thought I will go and check,” the 25-year-old said. His brother told him not to go alone, but he had no choice. “I had seen that they had talvars with them. There was one stick in my hand and nothing else.”

Upon reaching, he saw the mob had destroyed his home. The 25-year-old said he felt helpless and did not know what to do. “I put a voice note in a WhatsApp group where some Muslim brothers are there, saying, ‘Please someone help us, Rowa Muslims are very distressed.’” He said he was in shock for hours after the attack. “At around 6 pm, after they were long gone, my whole body started shivering. I was feeling like I woke up from a dream.”

The 25-year-old said that the attack had impacted his mother greatly. “My sisters and mother were so scared as they had never seen anything like that in their life. Till now they are afraid, because Muslims are a minority here,” he said. “My mother does not sleep, she stays up the whole night. She sleeps during the day.” Most of the Muslims in Rowa Bazaar had sleepless nights for days after the attack, he added. “My mother is 54 years old. She has high blood pressure. When we are sitting to eat, she cannot eat anything, so she is growing weak.” 

Bricks and stones thrown into one of the bedrooms of a Muslim home in Rowa Bazaar. In addition to burning down shops, the Hindu mob from the VHP rally also attacked several Muslim homes. The 25-year-old who resided here, who asked not to be named, was guarding the local mosque when the mob attacked his home. His mother, sister, two nieces and a cousin locked themselves up in a different room in the house to save themselves.

As media reports emerged of the vandalisation of a mosque in the Panisagar sub-division, the Tripura police posted a tweet claiming that the “Panisagar masjid … is safe and secure.” It posted photos of the Rowa Bazaar mosque. The police neglected to mention that while the Rowa Bazaar masjid was unharmed, the Chamtilla mosque, also in Panisagar block, had been attacked. It also did not mention the CRPF mosque, located in the same area.

In Dharmanagar, where the VHP had held a rally on 21 October, the house of Shabana Khan was vandalised while she and her husband were away. They are both advocates, and her father is a member of the Trinamool Congress Party. The first room in the Khans’ house is a chamber that they use as their office. When they arrived home, they found that all their files had been thrown in a nearby drain—the notes were illegible. The mob had broken panels of the ceiling in their home and taken down the fan. It had smashed their laptop into pieces. Their sofa set had been slashed and their TV screen was gone.

“We have lived here for over thirty years. I was born in this house,” Khan told us. Before the day of the incident, she said, she had heard that the VHP was organising a rally nearby. Her neighbours called and expressed concern for her house’s safety. But she was not worried. “We have lived here for so many years, our neighbours are so nice, and we never felt like we are the only Muslim family in the area,” Khan said. “It didn’t even cross our mind to request the police to give protection to our house.”

She was shocked when she heard their home was ransacked. “There are thousands of Muslim families in Tripura and such an incident has never happened,” she told us. Since the attack, the couple has not returned to their home out of fear. They are staying with a relative. The incident had made Muslims fearful of even normal activities, Khan said. “After the incident, the minorities have to consider their safety before doing simple things like heading out at night,” she said.

The 25-year-old, whose home was vandalised while he was guarding the mosque at Rowa Bazaar. He was armed with a stick. He saw that the members of the mob were holding knives. “I had to protect this mosque with my life. There was no question about that,” he said. His hands were trembling the entire day, he said, even as he was holding the stick.
Bijit Rai, the Panisagar president of the VHP. He acknowledge the attacks at Rowa Bazaar and the Chamtilla mosque, but denied that any members of the VHP were responsible. He said that “miscreants with wrong intentions” had carried out the attack.

Amiruddin, the shopkeeper, felt let down by his fellow village residents. “My village folk were part of the rally. We have been together since childhood—if they wanted, they could have stopped this. They could stand in front of my shop and say, ‘This is my friend’s shop, don’t do this.’” He said he could not understand what was going through the minds of his fellow villagers. “We have nothing to do with Bangladesh, we are Indians. My grandfather, great grandfather, they are all Indian. India is my mother,” he told us. “My total loss came to around 15 or 17 lakh rupees. I have received Rs 5,000 as compensation,” he added. The local administration had assured him that he would receive the remaining amount. He was worried but hopeful. “If the government doesn’t compensate 100 percent, what can a poor man like me do? But I fully trust that the government will help me.”

Jaynaluddin said that communal incidents in Tripura had risen since the Bharatiya Janata Party came to power in the state, in 2018. “Earlier, we used to do business together and go to school together, our children played together … we lived very peacefully,” he said.

Muhammad Sunowar Ali, the owner of a shop store in Roha Bazaar, echoed this sentiment. “There have been some changes after the BJP government came, the RSS and VHP became more active, it was not like this before. There are more attacks and there is no action that is being taken.” Ali said that the Muslims of Rowa Bazaar would have supported any rally against communal violence, had they been reached out to. “If they called us, we would have joined them. We are all humans and we also don’t feel good about what happened,” he said. Ali was sitting on a chair as we interviewed him. Behind him, his shop lay in ruins. All his goods had turned black from the fire. The shop’s wooden shelves were lined with charred white tennis shoes, sandals and school shoes and a variety of other footwear, covered in ash. 

Shabana, too, felt the government should have done more. “Our leaders should think this happened to a human and leave aside who is Muslim and Hindu. They should come up with an apology,” she said. “At least one leader could call a press meet and say that ‘such an incident that took place, we are very sorry.’” 

A policeman guarding the CRPF mosque, also called the Panisagar Jame Masjid, in North Tripura. An eyewitness alleged that the mosque had been burned down on the intervening night between 21 and 22 October. We were unable to confirm the status of the mosque, as the police restricted our entry. A senior police official denied that the mosque had been damaged in any way, but said we could not enter it as it was “under protection.”

We met the MLA of Panisagar, Binay Bushan Das, from the BJP. Das claimed that there had been some “tod fod” at the CRPF mosque—slang for vandalism—but did not think much of it. Bijit Rai, the Panisagar president of the VHP, denied that any attacks were connected to his organisation or the rallies. He claimed that a few “miscreants with wrong intentions” had vandalised the homes and shops in Rowa Bazaar. Rai said that everyone at the 26 October rally was unarmed. “We ensured that there was no stones or sticks, there was just one stick of bamboo that we split into four pieces to ensure that we have a peaceful rally.” When asked about the Chamtilla mosque, he said that “people had just cut down some trees” in the complex, denying that the mob did any other damage.

Rai appeared to blame the fire department for the shops being burned down. “People with bad intentions started setting fire … fire service took some time to come because of the gathering. If they came in five minutes, they could have stopped the fire.” He seemed dismissive of the losses of the shop owners. “These are small stalls, the goods are not much … might be worth around Rs 25,000 or so.” Rai claimed that the same day as the rally, a BJP office in Rowa Bazaar where party workers held evening meetings, was burned down. This proved that the attackers were not affiliated to the VHP or the BJP, he claimed. We were unable to verify whether a BJP office was targeted.

The VHP leader denied that any mosques had been burned. “A news channel showed a shop burning and said mosques are burning and that is viral in the whole world ... Not even one mosque was burnt,” Rai said. He claimed that Panisagar was a peaceful area with communal harmony. “It never happens like this here. One of the most peaceful places in our state is Panisagar.”

Even though the RSS, the VHP’s parent organisation, has been active in Tripura since the 1950s, the BJP had failed to come to power in the state until 2018, when it won by a resounding majority. Tripura was earlier considered a stronghold of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), which was in power in the state for 25 years. After the BJP came to power at the centre in 2014, the RSS and BJP intensified their efforts to get a foothold in the state, appointing RSS alumni such as Sunil Deodhar and the BJP general secretary Ram Madhav to oversee the growth of the party on the ground. Media reports suggest that between 2013 and 2018, the RSS expanded from about fifty or sixty shakhas in the state to over two hundred and fifty, and that around fifty thousand BJP and RSS members were active in the state in the run-up to the elections. Meanwhile, in August 2017, seven legislators who had earlier quit the Congress party to join the Trinamool Congress, agreed to move to the BJP. From less than two percent of the votes in 2013, the BJP won over forty percent of the vote share in 2018, and 32 of the 60 seats in the state legislature.

A Bharatiya Janata Party flag in Panisagar. A BJP flag greeted motorists and pedestrians every 20 to 30 meters along every major road in Panisagar. Earlier considered a stronghold of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), Tripura elected the BJP with a majority in 2018.

Currently, the BJP is at loggerheads with the Mamata Banerjee-led TMC in the state. At least fifteen legislators of the TMC announced that they would be flying to Delhi on 22 November to seek a meeting with the union home minister Amit Shah, regarding the Tripura violence. The TMC has also announced that it will be sitting in protest in Delhi on the issue.

Meanwhile, Ali, whose shop was burnt on the day of the rally, continued to put his hope in the government and looked forward to a return to a peaceful atmosphere in his once tranquil village. “Our Hindu brothers don’t look us in the eye anymore. Even I don’t make eye contact. That’s the atmosphere,” he said. “The government is responsible for how our future will be, they can fix everything if they want to,” he said. He hoped that if the government did this, Muslims would feel at home again. “No one needs to leave, where will we go? We were born here, we will live here … If the government takes action against those who did wrong, then everything will be alright.”