Dhulagarh (West Bengal): Fear continues to rule the villages of Dhulagarh in Howrah district some 30 kilometres to the west of Kolkata even two months after violent clashes that left several shops and household looted and set ablaze by an unruly mob.
The affected villagers who blame the police for failing to provide security are too terrified to return to normal life fearing a rerun of the December attack.
Though there were no deaths, property damage was extensive. Around 80 households and shops, mostly belonging to Hindus, were looted and torched in three villages – Deonghat, Banerjee para and Joyrampur – at Dhulagarh on December 13 and 14.
Local villagers said the trouble began when the Milad-un-Nabi procession carried out every year by Muslims in the area deviated from its usual path and entered their villages on December 13. “The procession took a different route and entered our villages. When people in the village protested this, some individuals who were part of the procession hurled crude bombs. It seemed as if there was a plan to disturb the communal harmony of the area which had remained peaceful over the past several years,” said Subhro Halder, a resident of Banerjee para that sustained the maximum damage in the violence.
The opposition Communist Party of India (Marxist) has accused local leaders of the Trinamool Congress (TMC) and Bharatiya Janata Party of instigating the violence.
Speaking to The Wire, villagers accused the authorities of being hand-in-glove with the attackers because of the way the police responded. “We immediately alerted the police when the violence broke out. Local policemen along with a squad of Rapid Action Force (RAF) arrived and brought the situation under control. But within hours they disappeared and no policemen were present in the villages the next morning (December 14) when the vandals looted one house after another before setting them ablaze. Some of the houses were even blasted with gas cylinders. The assault continued uninterrupted for four hours, from 10 am to 2pm, before the cops arrived but it was too late as the attackers had already fled by then,” said Maitri Mondal, whose house was looted and set ablaze by the mob.
Two months on, the administration is yet to restore confidence among the victims despite the incident happening barely 20 kilometres from Nabanna, the state administrative headquarters.
Pintu Hazra, a stationery shop owner at Deonghat market, said that he lost everything in the violence and is now finding it difficult to feed his wife, son and ailing mother. “I used to run a stationery shop with average sales of seven thousand rupees a day. But now I am reduced to a pauper. The vandals forced me out of the shop and looted it before setting it on fire. I suffered losses to the tune of 4 lakh rupees. The shop reopened recently only after the administration bore the expenditure for its restoration, but the business is completely ruined. “I have sold items worth Rs 30 in the last six hours. How can I feed my family?” he told this reporter, looking visibly shattered.
A few metres away, Dilip Rong, a goldsmith, is yet to reconcile to his fate. He pointed to the empty kerosene jars to prove that the attack was pre-planned, “I will never ever forget the fateful day. I had to hide in a toilet along with my family to save our lives when the hooligans barged into our house looting whatever they could lay their hands upon. They took away around eight lakh rupees worth of gold items that was kept for a marriage.”
The victims say that the compensation of Rs 35,000 offered by the administration is totally inadequate. “We have lost our lifetime savings and valuables in the attack. The money offered by the government is simply not enough. We are even finding it difficult to rebuild our houses after having lost everything to the violence,” said Ashish Hazra (name changed on request), whose house was completely destroyed in the violence.
In the aftermath of the clashes, politics quickly took over, with the Bharatiya Janata Party and the CPI(M) attacking the ruling TMC government for failing to maintain law and order in Dhulagarh, and the TMC denying anything untoward had even happened.
“We have provided food and shelter to several hundreds of people who got displaced in the violence. Senior BJP leaders are keeping an eye on the situation,” said Subhendu Sarkar, a local RSS leader who is monitoring the food supply being handled by a local temple.
Two central teams from the RSS paid a visit to the area and met the victims after the clashes. The Congress and Left also took out rallies in support of the victims, although the West Bengal government prevented senior BJP and CPI(M) leaders from visiting the area.
Many of the victims told The Wire that they were stunned and upset when chief minister Mamata Banerjee declared that nothing had happened in Dhulagarh and blamed journalists and social media for putting out what she claimed was wrong information. An FIR was also filed against a senior journalist and a local reporter of a Hindi news channel; the two were accused of giving a communal colour to the clash. At the same time, in action that belies the chief minister’s claim that nothing happened, the police have since arrested over 60 people for involvement in the violence and have seized over 100 kilos of explosives. The local superintendent of police, Sabya Sachi Raman, was also transferred out in the aftermath of the clashes.
Meanwhile, the opposition has raised questions that the government is finding hard to answer. “I want to ask the government that if nothing has happened then why is compensation being paid to the villagers? [Mamata Banerjee] is a habitual liar who was desperately trying to bury her failure in stopping the clashes, but has failed to do so,” said Abdul Mannan, Congress leader from Hooghly who is also the leader of the Opposition in the West Bengal assembly.
Far from the political tug-of-war, the only concern for the victims of Dhulagarh is how to feed themselves.