Schoolchildren Caught in Vortex of Communal Politics in Bengal's Nadia District

Communal tension has resulted in the defiling of religious places, attacks by Hindus and Muslims, and the destruction of and damage to properties.

BJP public meeting in Nakasipara. Credit: Twitter

BJP public meeting in Nakasipara. Credit: Twitter

Nakasipara (West Bengal): History textbooks in schools across India tell students how the Battle of Plassey of 1757 was a watershed moment, heralding British rule in the country. In that historic battle, Bengal’s last Muslim sovereign, Siraj-ud-Daulah, was defeated by the East India Company’s forces, led by the crafty Lord Robert Clive. Faction-ridden generals and courtiers betrayed the nawab, leading to his defeat.

Plassey or Palashi (as the site is known in Bengali), is not far off from Palashipara and Nakasipara in Nadia district – the area that the BJP-RSS combine has turned into a zone of conflict and tension.

The deceit and bloodshed that marked the Battle of Plassey 260 years ago seems to have returned once again to the site. Marked by political overtones, the area is rapidly turning into a communal cauldron. School students have been turned into pawns in this war. The traditions of tolerance in Nadia – the home of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, icon of Bengal’s Bhakti movement – that drew a large numbers of Muslims into its fold, appears to be fast vanishing from this area.

On September 14-15, communal tension spread to several villages having mixed religious populations, covering two police stations and two assembly constituencies. Though won by the ruling Trinamool Congress (TMC) in the last election, the BJP had fielded candidates in both constituencies. This has to be seen in Bengal’s broader current political perspective. All electoral indicators are so far signalling that the BJP is fast emerging as the main adversary against chief minister Mamata Banerjee, and eroding the support base of the Left and the Congress.

The communal tension resulted in the defiling of religious places of Hindus and Muslims as well as mutual attacks and injuries, in addition to destruction of and damage to properties. A crackdown by the police and Rapid Action Force (RAF) contained the violence but the tension is palpable even a week later.  The prohibitive order on public assembly under section 144 of the Code of Criminal Procedure is still intact. Police pickets and patrols are still in place. Schools are either closed or nominally open without student attendance.

The communal tension resulted in defiling of religious places of Hindus and Muslims as well as mutual attacks and injuries, in addition to destruction of and damage to properties. Credit: Moutuli Nag Sarkar and Tapas Chakraborty

The communal tension resulted in defiling of religious places of Hindus and Muslims as well as mutual attacks and injuries, in addition to destruction of and damage to properties. Credit: Moutuli Nag Sarkar and Tapas Chakraborty

How the clashes came about

The row was triggered by brawls begun by schoolboys from two neighbouring villages in Nakasipara – the Hindu-dominated Patikabari and Muslim-dominated Changya. The students of Patikabari higher secondary school hail from both communities. But the current atmosphere of bigotry led to a fight among adolescent students of class 11 and 12 over classroom seats. The wrangling students marked out their seats by scrawling ‘Jai Sri Ram‘ and ‘Allah Hu Akbar‘ on them.

Interventions by teachers led to a temporary suspension of the brawl. However, it resumed the next day following alleged assaults by Changya’s Muslim boys on three Hindu students from Patikabari. The clash spilled over to the streets involving youths from both villages, leading to thr filing of police complaints and arrests.

“They (the Muslim boys) bullied us (the Hindus) by asking us to leave our seats for them. They threatened to build a mosque in the school premises to counter Saraswati puja in the school and scribbled their slogans in the name of Allah on classroom benches. We retaliated by demanding a temple in the compound and writing Jai Sri Ram on our seats. Why should we cower before their dadagiri (domination),” Subhankar Biswas, a class 11 student and one of the three Hindu boys who had allegedly been ‘roughed up’ by Muslim youth, said.

On September 15, the situation took an ugly turn when pieces of meat, presumed to be beef, were found in front of some Patikabari temples and near the school in the morning. The Hindus informed the police and blamed their Changya neighbours for the mischief, which the latter, from the village mosque, denied. The police came and removed the meat and assured action. A few dissatisfied members of the Hindu community marched to the Nakasipara police station, demanding the arrest of the Muslims in Changya who they said were involved.

According to the men from Changya, the assembled Hindus raised anti-Muslim slogans on their way back, allegedly damaging a roadside mosque. They were accompanied by local BJP and Hindu Jagaran Manch leaders. Muslim shops were also ransacked. The Changya Muslims, in turn, assaulted their Hindu neighbours. Soon, the mutual mob fury travelled to Toibichara, Kalibhas, Brajapur, Dhananjoypur and some other villages as news and rumours of attacks and injuries spread.

Also read: Communal Contest Over Durga Puja and Muharram Processions is Recipe for Disaster in Bengal

Hindus blame Mamata, Muslims blame the BJP

The police and RAF crackdown started late evening. The police came under attack, mainly from the Hindus, who complained of one-sided high-handedness. The number of arrests on the day of my visit stood at 31, eight of them Muslims – something that has further strengthened the Hindu perception of a biased government.

“Mamata Banerjee has completely sided with the Muslims. We faced the RAF wrath, most of the boys picked up by police are Hindus. I was with the Communist Party of India (Marxist) earlier and later shifted to the Congress. Now, I will join the BJP and fight to save the honour of Hindus,’’ said Ajit Roy, a middle-aged labourer from Patikabari. Others gathered around echoed his sentiment.

A Hindu elder complaining against police assault at Toibichara. Credit: Moutuli Nag Sarkar and Tapas Chakraborty

A Hindu elder complaining against police assault at Toibichara. Credit: Moutuli Nag Sarkar and Tapas Chakraborty

Hindus at Toibichara aired similar complaints of selective police brutalities and ransacking of property by uniformed men. “I used to be a Trinamool Congress worker but Didi’s bias for Muslims has upset me,” Sufal Sikdar, a cycle-repairing shop owner said, with an aged Narayan Matabbar who had suffered police lathi-charge, nodding in agreement.

In contrast, the Muslims of Patikabari, Kalibas and the neighbouring villages blamed the BJP for inciting Hindus. They complimented the police for restoring order. “Hindus and Muslims have lived here in peace for long. We attend each other’s religious festivals and family functions. It is the BJP which is vitiating the social atmosphere. Police vigilance has saved the situation,” CPM supporter Abdul Sarkar Sattar said.

“It is now being said that Muslims can’t stay in this country. What crimes have we committed that we have to leave the home of our forefathers?,” asked an agitated Aijaddi Shiekh, a farm labourer, complaining that his teenage nephew was accosted by a Hindu mob on the evening of the flare-up. “He had to identify himself as a Hindu to save his skin,” Sheikh added. In ‘retaliation’, Muslims vandalised Hindu shops at Habatala, close to Kalibas.

Police sees conspiracy

Police officials at Nakasipara police station denied there was any bias in their action but hinted at a conspiracy. “The beef was found around Patikabari temples at around 10 am. How come Muslims dared to do such mischief at that hour? We are probing the possibility of provocation from inside,” a senior officer said. He confirmed damage to a mosque but was evasive about who did it, despite police presence during the clash on September 14. He also spoke of the role of the BJP’s factional fight in stoking communal fire, but denied having knowledge of a similar kind of factional feud within the ruling party.

Villagers in Muslim-dominated Kalibas are divided on whom to blame. Credit: Moutuli Nag Sarkar and Tapas Chakraborty

Villagers in Muslim-dominated Kalibas are divided on whom to blame. Credit: Moutuli Nag Sarkar and Tapas Chakraborty

The Patikabari panchayat is TMC-controlled. But the local body also has BJP and CPM members. The TMC appears to be dividing its loyalties between the Hindu and Muslim communities. Changya is more uniformly TMC-dominated now. The saffron camp has a long presence in this area, which is close to the India-Bangladesh border. Since the Babri Masjid demolition, there have been sporadic communal disturbances in the area, deepening the Sangh’s influence. TMC insiders admitted that the party’s factional fights over the recent election at Bethuadahari College and subsequent violence contributed to the communal build-up.

Elusive peace

The two communities continue to remain divided after the frenzy. Patikabari Hindus are dismissive about any effort at mending fences with their Muslim neighbours. A local inhabitant, Dipankar Mandal, described Muslims as ‘Mir Zafar-er Jat’ (members of Mir Jafar’s community), in an obvious allusion to his betrayal of  Siraj-ud-Daulah.

But Nebulal Ghosh, a Hindu businessman of Sonatala, who had visited Muslim shop-owners at Kalibas despite the tension, blamed politics and not prejudices of castes and religion for fomenting the conflict.

“The BJP is instigating lower castes, particularly the Namasudra refugees from Bangladesh, who had suffered religious persecution by Muslims in that country. Following the appointment of Dilip Ghosh as Bengal’s BJP chief, SadGopes (roughly equivalent to Ahirs) have become more radicalised. But Hindus and Muslims can’t wipe each other out. The divisive politics must stop,” Ghosh said. Incidentally, Patikabari is a Namasudra-dominated village.

Rahid Ali Mandal, a CPM-turned TMC supporter, described the damage done to Hindu properties at Kalibas, as “self-inflicted”. But Mujibar Mondol, a fellow villager, regretted the acts of violence.  “We used to sip tea at the same tea-stall at Habatala. Now I feel ashamed to go there because of the hotheaded youth who did it. I don’t know who is behind the larger conspiracy to poison Hindu-Muslim relations here. Had I known them, I would have pleaded with them not to indulge in such disastrous games that will ruin us,’’ Mandal commented.

Peace initiatives face obstacles

The Association for Protection of Democratic Rights (APDR), which has a local presence across communities, had tried to organise peace meetings involving community elders and local leaders. “But the police discouraged us on the grounds of the prohibition on assemblies.  At the same time, our posters appealing for harmony have been removed by some unknown forces,” complained APDR leader Asoke Sarkar. Instead, the police seem to have left the peace initiative to the ruling politicians. “We have requested the stake-holders to participate in this process of building peace since we are busy in maintaining law and order,” local police circle inspector Anjan Ghosh said. The chief minister’s directive for peace committees at every police station area notwithstanding, there is an abundance of complaints, pointing fingers at the TMC for not involving the opposition in such exercises. The imposition of Section 144  has become handy in denying political rivals access to the trouble-spots.

Biswajit Roy is a senior journalist.

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