Nearly a dozen incidents of communal violence have rocked West Bengal during Vijaya Dasami and Muharram. What’s causing these incidents and why is the mainstream media in the state and the government trying to downplay it? Are Right wing forces taking root? Sambit Pal reports from Howrah and Naihati and argues that Bengal’s claim of ‘communal harmony’ is actually a myth.
Sabina Bibi sitting in the middle of a pile of ashes. As she stares at the half-burnt churni she bought for her grand-daughter’s wedding, her son Nasim Ahmed narrates the horror story how all the savings and items bought for his daughter’s wedding turned into ashes in the recent communal violence. Burnt houses, shops; vehicles in the Kabirajpara neighbourhood in Naihati in West Bengal, testimony to the riot that broke out during Durga Puja and Muharram in the second week of October.
“She had saved and bought utensils, clothes and other items one by one. She had kept some money for the wedding. Everything has been burnt down,” says Nasim. The shocked old woman in silence keeps searching the debris to see if anything can be salvaged.
As soon as I enter Kabirajpara, which has been out of bounds for outsiders for almost a week during the violence, the residents of the locality gherao me. They all want me to visit their violence-torn homes and shops hoping to draw the government’s attention.
A few kilometers away in Banakpara, Ramesh Chowdhury and Chandan Jaiswal narrate the stories of their plight as they point towards a heap of debris, which once used to be their home, near a mosque. “I used to run a video editing and photography facility from home. The whole house was set ablaze on October 14 evening,” says Chandan Jaiswal. “Somehow we managed to escaped and save our lives.”
The neighbourhood may be different, but the stories are the same of Muslim and Hindu communities in Hazinagar. The whole area, which bears clear signs of arson, ransacking and looting, was under siege. While police and the administration were trying to ease the tension, neither politicians nor journalists were allowed to go inside the bylanes of Hazinagar. More than a week later, the usual buzz at a jute mill colony is missing. Most of the people have fled the area or are inside their locked homes. Police pickets in every nook and corner of the locality bears evidence to the simmering tension in Hazinagar.
There is no single version of what exactly triggered the communal violence. A section claims bombs were hurled at a Muhurram procession and clashes erupted thereafter. They allege that the RSS and other Hindu groups had been adding fuel to the fire. The other section alleges that some Muslim antisocial elements had torn off the national flag on August 15 this year and there were disturbances in the neighbourhood since then. They claim miscreants had been planning to seek revenge and they got an opportunity when the communal violence broke out in the area.
Even the top police officials in Bengal are not ready to pinpoint the real cause of the communal violence.
About 65 kilometers away from Hazinagar, in Howrah district’s Sankrail, almost similar scenes had played out simultaneously. As I enter Manikpur Roypara village looking for Samesh Roy’s house, a quiet neighbourhood greets me. Samesh had got injured in a similar incident of communal violence on the day of Muhurram procession. He is still recovering from his head and arm injuries at the Howrah District Hospital. There are two men sitting in front of Samesh’s house. When I enquire about Samesh, one leaves the spot in hurry and the other points towards a closed door, “There is no one at home. You can knock the door and check.” A while later, after confirming my identity, he opens the door and takes me inside to introduce me to Samesh’ father Sadananda Roy. Later, I come to know that the man who almost blocked my entry to the house was Samesh’s elder brother Ramesh.
“Police are raiding the village every day and detaining young men. I am scared to identify myself. We come to the house in the morning and by evening we go into hiding,” says Ramesh.
“They should arrest those who attacked my son with swords. We are living in fear,” says his father Sadananda. “I am fortunate my son is still alive.”
According to eye witnesses, a huge procession with a tajia was passing through the main road with a group of Muslim youth, as part of their rituals, was playing with swords in front of a Ram temple. There was a Durga Puja pandal opposite to the temple and the organisers of the puja committee asked the gathering to move away from the temple area. An altercation followed and the mob got violent. Twenty-three year-old Samesh Roy, who works in a small factory in Kolkata had come home on vacation, got injured when someone from the violent mob attacked him with a sword. Two other persons were allegedly injured in the incident. Both the communities retaliated and several shops were ransacked before a larger contingent of police arrived at the spot to disperse the fighting crowd. Later, the tajia was burnt down and crude bombs were apparently recovered from inside the tajia.
A week later, in Manikpara area tension is still palpable with continuous police raids and a picket at the junction of the Hindu and Muslim neighbourhood. “We are not being able to keep our shops open after seven in the evening. We don’t stay at home at night,” says Sankar Kumar Pandit, a local businessmen and organisers of the Manikpur Beltala Byabsayi Samiti Durga Puja Committee. “This area has seen such serious communal violence after about 22 years.”
Mohammed Rafiq, who runs a chicken shop a kilometer away from the Ram temple in front of the Star Sporting Club in the area, echoes similar sentiments. “We last saw communal violence when I was a child. Now the situation has worsened. Every night my friends and I are hiding behind bushes. It is affecting our businesses.”
Now, the market is open and people are moving in the locality but the police is making sure that there are no large gatherings. The mazar, where local Muslim youths would gather and chat during the day, is now under lock and key.
Government in denial mode?
Not only in Hazinagar or Sankrail, communal violence were reported in different parts of Malda, Murshidabad, North 24 Parganas, West Midnapore, Hooghly and Howrah districts. Almost all of them started during Vijaya Dasami and Muhurram procession. This year, as the Muhurram processions and Vijaya Dasami coincided, the administration restricted Durga idol immersions on the Vijaya Dasami day to avoid any clash. Later Calcutta High Court modified the notification and extended the immersion timing. It created confusion among communities.
While some Muhurram Committees and Durga Puja organisers showed goodwill and facilitated each other’s procession in parts of Bengal, in a few places communal forces were at play.
The ruling Trinamool Congress (TMC) government had been downplaying the incidents as isolated ones. There have been no official reactions from the government except a few tweets from the West Bengal Police cautioning people to not pay any heed to “rumour mongering by mischievous elements” .
On the other hand Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee warned people of “communal terrorism” through a tweet, but there was no clarity in her message about whom she was targeting. It was left open to interpretation.
No one from the ruling party is ready to accept on record that there have been incidents of communal violence. Some top TMC leaders are terming it as “clash between two paras (neighbourhood)”. Off the record they are blaming the BJP and the right wing Hindu groups for creating tension in some pockets. At the same time, the opposition is blaming TMC’s ‘Muslim appeasement’ policies for the increasing violence and police inaction.
Political blame game
Some may lament that Bengal’s tradition of communal harmony is being tarnished by these incidents, the fact remains Bengal has seen communal violence in various pockets over the years. Kolkata riot over Taslima Nasrin, Deganga and the most recent Kaliachak incidents are testimony to the fact that communal tension has always been there in the state.
CPI(M) MP, Md Salim claims the nature of the communal tension is changing in Bengal with growing presence of right wing Hindu groups and alleged tacit support of the ruling TMC behind the Muslim community. “Communal tension has been increasing continuously in the last couple of years. The mindset and attitude have been changing. Mamata doesn’t have any political or ideological campaign against RSS and BJP,” says Md Salim. “Mamata talks against Modi sometimes, but she doesn’t talk against communalism. Government’s policy is such that it is giving clearance to communal politics. Her ‘communal terrorism’ tweet is nothing but to hype the situation.”
The Left parties and Congress allege that these communal incidents will help the BJP in the long run. Ironically, in most of the pockets where communal violence is erupting now has a good presence of BJP or right wing groups. Either these areas have elected BJP local panchayat or municipal representatives or organizations of RSS or Bajrang Dal or Hindu Samhati. This is helping the outfits to garner support from the local Hindu communities in the name of protecting them.
“We may not vote for the BJP or be a member of the BJP or any other Hindu outfit, but when we are being attacked, we are looking for shelter and these Hindu groups are proving us protection,” says a local shopkeeper in violence-torn Sankrail.
The BJP is trying to cash in on the sentiment but at the same time distancing itself from the ultra right wing Hindu groups. Former MLA and BJP spokesperson Samik Bhattacharya, who visited Hazinagar and confronted TMC MLA Arjun Singh when he chased the BJP supporters in the area in front of the police barricade, says, “BJP or RSS doesn’t preach violence or call for killing people of different communities. Some self-claiming Hindu groups may go for violence but we are for peace.”
While TMC and the Left are blaming BJP for the communal divide, he is holding Mamata’s divisive policies responsible for the current situation in Bengal. “Rather, I would say the violence is increasing after Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s anti-terrorist drive in her country, hard core communal elements have been taking shelter in this side of the border in Bengal,” says Samik. “A doctrine of communal hatred is being preached by these elements in the bordering districts. This is growing because TMC is not taking any definite action against them.”
He refuses to take responsibility for the growing activities of the right wing Hindu groups like Hindu Samhati and Gau Raksha Samiti, who were not this active even five years ago. He also avoids the question if this polarisation is going to help BJP electorally. The fact is that BJP is hoping to reap the benefits of the tension while the vote percentage of the Left and the Congress in Bengal is at all time low.
Social and mainstream media
The government may be in denial mode, the mainstream media may not report the incidents of communal violence and political leaders may keep off the disturbed areas, but news of riots are going viral on the social media, thanks to some active Hindu outfits.
Hindu Samhati’s Tapan Ghosh, who is active in organising Hindus to resist the attacks by Muslim groups in Bengal, takes credit for drawing the attention of the people and the national media through his social media updates on communal incidents. There are some other websites, which continuously reported on the communal violence in Bengal.
This raises a question that in the age of social media, should the mainstream media shy away from reporting communal incidents. Mainstream Bengali and English dailies and news channels in Kolkata generally do not report any communal incidents. But some senior journalists feel the time has come to change this stance.
“The mainstream media is more credible than the social media and they serve with responsibility,” says Suvasish Maitra, a senior journalist who has worked with top Bengali newspapers and news channels. “The way photos, videos and wrong messages are going viral on Facebook and Twitter, it’s time that the mainstream media should start factual reporting of the incidents to give a true and balanced picture.”
Even political leaders accept that suppressing such news gives rise to rumour mongering and causes more harm.
As the hatred between two communities increases, this trend does not hold good for the young generation and future of Bengal. Akhtars will go missing, Chandan will have to struggle to rebuild his house, Samesh will probably lose faith in communal harmony, Rafiq will continue to lose business. Ignoring these incidents and lack of strong message by the government to the communal forces cannot really help in keeping Bengal’s pride in ‘communal harmony’ intact.