Biswajit is a journalist and associated with democratic movements.
Part I: The Social-political Backdrop To The Communal Violence
Part II : The Dynamics Of Communal Polarization In Bengal: A Probe Into Baduria-Basirhat Flare Up
Part III : Facebook Generation: New Pawns Of The Old Game
Part IV : How Divisive Forces Are Gaining Ground In Rural Bengal: Magurkhali, A Micro Example
Part V : The Anatomy Of Muslim Youth Rage
Part VI : The Role Of Feuding Maulanas And Pirjadas In Basirhat Violence
As violence was spread to Basirhat town on 5 July, a section of Hindu youth formed ‘resistance’ groups after some initial confusion in their ranks and clashed with the Muslim ‘invaders’ from Baduria and outlying villages in localities like Trimohoni, Maylakhola, Paikpara, Tantrabazar, Godownpara and Malancha and attacked Muslim-owned shops in their areas. Swords and sticks as well as bombs and other missiles were reportedly used by both sides. But fortunately enough, neither side apparently had used firearms which could have increased casualties. Rioters of both hues clashed with police who were vastly outnumbered and chased them away blaming the uniformed force for failing to disperse the other side. Local criminals including cattle-runners took advantage and looted some shops including mobile phone showrooms.
For next three days, some of the Hindu youths, both upper castes and scheduled castes, roamed the roads chanting ‘Jai Sri Ram’, the war cry of the Sangh Parivar against their counterparts’ chants of ‘naraye takdir, Allah hu Akbar’, Arya Jati Bharat Chharo’. They insisted other Hindus to shout the same and join them to prove ‘their worth as Hindus’. Some women of the community too joined them at the height of the communal fervor, locals said.
BJP, despite losing the assembly seat to TMC in 2016, has retained some influence in the town as it held three wards in Trinamul controlled municipality. The Left Front which had once dominated Basirhat, a major centre for food movement in the sixties by hunger-stricken Hindu and Muslim masses together and represented both the assembly and parliamentary constituency for decades lost the south but gained Basirhat north. Congress, which still retains Baduria assembly seat and a few wards in Basirhat is also losing its base. With Trinamul being perceived as partisan to Muslims and state administration a ruling party stooge, the BJP call for Hindu unity against Muslim attackers has gained ground.
Local RSS leaders too insisted that Hindus irrespective of political affiliation had joined ‘Hindu resistance’. “Hindu Samaj had turned up on the streets irrespective of their political allegiances to resist Muslim attackers after police and administration failed. Hardly any of 22 Hindu men who were arrested later belonged to BJP or Sangh,” Rabishankar Pal, the RSS in-charge of ‘Basirhat district’ said. All the arrested persons are now free on bail; he said adding that some Muslim youth too had been arrested.
The Sangh’s organizational set-up deals Basirhat subdivision as a separate district since last two decades, Pal informed. It indicated the bordering zone’s importance in its demographic mapping of Bengal. In contrast, the state government has decided to revisit an earlier plan to make Basirhat a separate district for administrative convenience in the wake of latest violence. He however, declined to divulge the number of Sangh units active in the zone and the rate of its expansion. “Our leadership prohibits disclosure of organizational information,” Pal said reminding the secretive tradition of the Sangh.
Both state BJP and local RSS leaders highlighted the role of lower caste Hindus including Dalits in spearheading in the ‘resistance’, mostly, in the periphery of the town. One of such areas was Godownpara. “Scheduled caste people at the town’s periphery saved the Hindus in the main town as they stopped the Muslim attackers. BJP has some support base among them and Sangh also will reach out to those people. But we do not prefer to cash in instant reaction. Sangth works painstakingly round the year irrespective of intermittent flare ups,” Pal commented.
One middle-aged Hindu resident of Trimohoni who preferred not to be named observed that the retaliation against Muslim vandals in Basirhat had boosted Hindu morale. “Now they are seeking peace and asking us to forget. But the administration and Muslim community leaders must ensure that such violence is not repeated. Otherwise our people will prepare for tit for tat,” he cautioned. This state of mind makes a fertile ground for the Hindutva ideology and politics.
A recent report in The Hindu by Subhojit Bagchi also revealed the growing influence of the BJP among the scheduled caste and Dalit migrants from across the border. The older generation who had supported CPI and CPM in their struggle for survival in post-partition years now got converted to BJP in view of perceived or real threats from Muslims. Younger men of their families and localities identified themselves as Hindus irrespective of political allegiances. Interestingly, another report in thequint.com by Chandan Nandy quoted a Baduria Muslim leader, a former Trinamul man, now ‘independent’, who complained about the ruling dispensation’s support to recent Hindu migrants from Bangladesh to settle on the strength of forged identity papers.
Police was restrained against rioters fearing huge casualty
Policemen including senior cops had to run for their lives and several of them sustained injuries when they tried to restrain the protesters. Normally prone to use brute force including caning and firing, with or without provocation on opposition demonstrations against the regime of the day, the law-enforcers this time resorted to ‘maximum restraint’, a senior district police official said. “Nabanna (state secretariat) asked us so as the government feared loss of many lives in case of firing and further snowballing of the violence,” he reasoned.
“We kept restraint despite injuries to our forces. It took time to disperse the mobs since we did not want casualty,’’ the officer who himself sustained injuries, said. Instead, Muslim leaders were roped in to calm down the community youth but they largely failed here too. Hindus in Basirhat were furious with Trinamul as they accused its leaders of being ‘one-sided’.
The state RAF and central BSF units were pressed in after the violence spread to Basirhat amid the political one-upmanship between the BJP-led Centre and Trinamul-led state over the deployment of central forces. Complaints of not using them properly were galore while government side cited the ineffectiveness of BSF as their presence had been a regular sight in areas closer to border, therefore, evoked little fear among rioters.
In post-frenzy days, complaints of indiscriminate arrests of ‘innocent’ Muslim and Hindu youth have been made by certain section in both communities pointing to the delicate task that police face now.
Organized crime gangs including cross-border cattle-runners and smugglers of contraband goods worth crores of rupees have been part of everyday life in bordering areas. Petty smugglers as well as businessmen from both communities are enjoying patronage from politician-police nexus as well as border guards at both sides for long. An intricate system of greasing the palms has been in vogue for decades. Recent crackdown on illegal cattle-runners notwithstanding, their role in the recent flare up, as both the government agencies and some locals have pointed out needs to be probed more.
Chief minister Mamata Banerjee, although after the outbreak, herself blamed the police for their lack of promptness in dealing with the digital trigger to the communal frenzy and ordered stopped internet service in and around the subdivision till normalcy returned. Media reported her moves to augment cyber crime monitoring while some online mischief-mongers were arrested and cases were filed against some BJP office-bearers. Overhauling of intelligence gathering and creation of cyber sleuth cells in every district was also reported. She also announced creation of thana-level peace committees involving police and community leaders and other respected elders. But government has been accused of making them an extended forum of the ruling party. Meanwhile, BJP-RSS has planned its own ‘village defense teams’ which Muslim groups are likely to ape.
Among the ruling party politicians, Basirhat’s Trinamul MP Idris Ali along with his Rajya Sabha counterpart Ahmed Hasan Imran tried to pacify the Muslim youth at Berachapa thoroughfare in Baduria. But they faced mob wrath in full force which tried to overturn his car. According to the eyewitnesses, his intent was good as he had brought a Hindu monk and a maulana with him. “But the maharaj (the monk) made a mistake by requesting Muslim youth not to overreact over a ‘small thing’.”
The mob fury appeared to have come full circle for Ali, who was instrumental in fanning community rage against feminist and atheist Bangladeshi writer Taslima Nasreen in 2007. It had ignited a violence street protest in Kolkata forcing Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee government to seek army help and eventually ousting her from the city.
Dipendu Biswas, former Indian soccer captain and TMC MLA of Basirhat south faced Hindu mob ire in Basirhat. He was out of the town when the trouble had begun. On his return, he had allegedly asked police to arrest some Hindu boys, apparently close to the BJP. A furious Hindu group including some women manhandled him, vandalized his home as well as some Trinamul offices. He had to leave Basirhat under police protection. He and his party denied any move for partisan arrests of miscreants and complained of BJP hand behind the attacks on him and the party offices. Already faction-ridden, Trinamul is now busy in damage control, party leaders said.
Opposition leaders including BJP blamed the regime for sidelining them despite administrative failures during the violence. For example, Baduria’s Congress MLA and his influential father who had represented the seat for consecutive terms were not involved in the fire-fighting. Same reluctance was evident in case of Basirhat north’s CPM MLA, they complained. But leaders of both secularist parties, affected people of both faiths recalled, lacked the courage of convictions of the yore as they had failed to rise to the occasion.
Role of media
Local media, both print and audio-visual, largely followed the Press Council guidelines of not reporting communal clashes in details or naming the communities. Instead, they carried stories of individuals and groups who stood for amity and humanity at trying times. Apart from respect for a post-Partition tradition, pressure from ruling Trinamul Congress appeared to have worked. Nevertheless, some journalists of state level media were attacked, mainly by Hindu mobs in Basirhat who complained non-coverage of Muslim attacks in the name of communal amity.
In contrast, the so-called national media was generally keener in picking up the stories on the law and order breakdown in Mamataland, seemingly at BJP’s prompting. The role of Republic TV and Times Now among English News channels was disturbing as they harped on the killing of a Hindu and attacks on Hindu properties. As the latter was evidently trying to outmatch the former in its majoritarian fervor, it was evident that the self-styled inquisitor for the nation is still haunting his former newsroom.
Another aspect came up during interactions with journalists who had covered the recent communal troubles. They questioned the rationale behind mainstream media’s restrained reporting in the wake of advent of online social media and websites. They pointed to the propaganda blitzkrieg by the army of hate campaigners in fanning the fires in absence of unbiased reports about the ground reality in troubled zones.
Next: Bangladeshis among Basirhat troublemakers?