Communal Rioting Lays Bare Volatile Political Ground in Bengal

Mamata Banerjee's high handedness and the Sangh parivar’s amplified efforts to encourage communalism may soon take over the historically harmonious state.

The government declared curfew in Kharagpur as a result of the riots. Credit: Gautam Kumar Pal/Twitter

The government declared curfew in Kharagpur as a result of the riots. Credit: Gautam Kumar Pal/Twitter

New Delhi: The state of Bengal, which had remained immune to communal tension even at the peak of religious polarisation during the nineties, witnessed a spate of communally-charged clashes last week. Reports of communal rioting in at least four districts in Bengal during Muharram and Dussehra has caused concern for the state government, even as BJP and constantly growing offshoots of the Sangh parivar blames the Trinamool Congress (TMC) for being biased against Hindus.

The Left Front-Congress union, on the other hand, attributed the large-scale rioting to TMC’s administrative inefficiency, while also accusing the ruling party of using regional strongmen for petty political gains. Often, it has been noted that influential strongmen fuel tensions between communities in exchange for material benefits.

The state government, however, denied that the violent incidents were communal in nature and dismissed the riots as the result of a ‘personal rivalry’ between individuals which spun out of control. It attacked the opposition – BJP, Left Front and the Congress, as well as a few media houses which reported the cases – for tinging the incidents with communal colour in order to settle political scores.

Meanwhile, in many districts, hundreds of distraught families – their homes and shops looted and gutted – have migrated to safer territories. Major clashes between Hindus and Muslims were reported from Hazinagar in North 24 Paraganas, Chanchal subdivision of Malda, Chandannagar in Hooghly and Kharagpur city in Paschim Medinipur, while minor communal scuffles broke out in rural Birbhum, Howrah, Asansol and Burdwan too.

Most of these places, except Hazinagar, have seen minor scuffles between Hindus and Muslims in the last few years but deft administrative action prevented the situation from spiralling out of control. In the past few months, however, the Sangh parivar has been running an aggressive campaign against the ruling TMC for allegedly going out of its way to favour and fund Muslim people and their institutions. Following the riots, critics of the Sangh have alleged that organisations like Hindu Samhati, led by Tapan Ghosh, have indulged in rumour-mongering and spreading hate against Muslim people.

Right-wing Hindutva organisations have been posting graphic images of the violence on social media and circulating unverified information about the riots – portraying only Muslims in a bad light – contributing to a tense environment. Similarly, a section of the Muslim community has also indulged in hate campaigns against the Hindu community in riot-affected areas via social media. The absence of credible media reports, which many allege is due to an unofficial diktat imposed by the state government on media houses, has led to greater polarisation in the affected communities.

Minor clashes to major riots

Most of these incidents were triggered because of minor clashes that occurred during the simultaneous occurrence of two important religious events – the march to take Durga’s idol for immersion and the tazia procession on Muharram. The minor clashes soon escalated into large-scale communal ones. For instance, in Hazinagar, following a clash on Dussehra between the two communities, a crude bomb was hurled on the Muharram procession. The clash spread from a small area to the whole of Hazinagar. Over the next three days, mobs from both communities attacked and burnt down shops, houses and property belonging to each other, injuring many people in the process. It is said that Hazinagar saw the maximum number of people displaced because of the riots.

Similarly, in Kharagpur, considered to be one of BJP’s biggest strongholds in Bengal – the party won its first assembly seat from here in the last assembly election from when BJP’s Dilip Ghosh defeated his Congress rival – also saw a similar series of events. A full-scale clash broke out when members from both communities fought over a minor tussle that occurred during Ravana’s effigy burning on Dussehra and the simultaneously-held Muharram procession.

The government’s silence

The TMC’s silence on the riots and the resultant lack of clarity on the part of the state’s police and administrative officials, has further energised the communal elements in both communities, said a regional journalist that The Wire spoke to.

For instance, Hazinagar’s economy runs on jute mills. A large section of Hindu people migrated from Bihar or eastern Uttar Pradesh to work in the mills a long time ago. Muslim residents of the area consider themselves ‘locals’. “The divide between the two communities, however, was only cultural, never political. Most of them earned their living from the jute mills or associated businesses. The political divide is a recent one, especially since the time the mills have started to make huge losses,” said a Kolkata-based journalist who declined to be named.

Hazinagar’s two jute mills – Hukum Singh mill and Naihatti mill – have been suffering losses for some years now, leading to escalating anxieties among workers. The failing formal economy has made way for an informal one. Residents said that in the last few years, there has been a mushrooming of gangs that employ people in a variety of odd illegal jobs, the most prevalent being narcotic trade across the Hooghly river. Hazinagar’s strategic location on the bank of the river makes it convenient for smugglers to carry out many such businesses.

In such a context, communally-charged campaigns by the Sangh parivar’s goons, irrespective of political affiliation, have fanned worker’s worries, turning Hazinagar into a volatile ground for communal polarisation. A similar industrial decline and concurrent growth of illegal trade has been seen as one of the causes for a communally charged environment in many places like north Bengal’s Malda where riots have broken out in recent times.

The BJP, which has been the most vocal about the riots, has been claiming that chief minister Mamata Banerjee’s policy of ‘appeasing Muslims’ is the reason for communal tension in Bengal. In the days preceding this year’s Durga Puja, the BJP fanned communal sentiments across the state by accusing the TMC of favouring Muslims when the state government verbally set a time limit for idol immersion so that Hindu devotees wouldn’t clash with Muslim ones walking in Muharram processions.

When, in a controversial order, the Calcutta High Court partially nullified the order, the BJP found an opportune moment to take its agenda further. The court held that the state government’s order was “arbitrary” and looked like “a clear endeavor” to “appease the minority section of the public”. The BJP went to town with the order, emphasising the fact that the court safeguarded the rights of Hindu people, despite the fact that the court clearly stated that the government’s order was overturned only for private household pujas and not the innumerable public congregations.

The former state president of the BJP and current governor of Tripura, Tathagata Roy, went on to tweet about the court order.

Ground realities 

However, based on their experiences during the riots, the ground-level BJP activists in Bengal seem to differ from their leadership. Ravi Shankar Singh, a BJP councillor in Hazinagar, said his experience was different and held both the Hindu community and Muslim community responsible for the riots.

“Peace in Hazinagar was first disrupted two and half years ago when a few Muslim men stopped some volunteers of Hindu Jagaran Manch (a Hindutva collective) from parading a Bharat Mata idol in front of a mazaar (a Muslim shrine) on Nelson road. There was a minor clash following this. The areas around the mazaar became a rallying point for people who wanted to stoke communal tension since then. We have seen brick and stone pelting from both communities in that area at least 20 times in the last two years. The administration did not pay heed to it and now the boiling pot has exploded,” Singh told The Wire.

He added: “Ever since the mazaar became a polarising point, some Hindu boys deliberately indulge in violence on Hanuman Jayanti and Ram Navami just to provoke Muslims who live around the mazaar. Political aggression has become the order of the day.”

After a bomb was thrown on the tazia, the whole of Hazinagar was gutted by hate over the next three days, Singh, who has been a jute mill worker, said. “We gheraoed (surrounded) the police station after the first day of riots, demanding that the situation should be brought under control. We also demanded that paramilitary troops should be deployed. Yet, it [the government] did not pay any attention to our demand. As a result, the third day of the violence was the worst in terms of injuries, [and] destruction of property. We could only hear children and women squeal in pain those three days. The fact is that some anti-social elements in both the communities, buoyed by a few religious organisations, have wreaked havoc here. Almost 2000 people from both communities have left Hazinagar and it is very unfortunate,” he said.

Singh’s remarks are a clear instance of how a high level social media campaign built around a narrative to suit the party’s agenda has little bearing with  the BJP’s own ground level assessment of what is going on.

As the situation in Bengal remains tense, opposition leaders believe it may get aggravated further unless the state government takes prompt action. They have demanded an immediate all-party meeting to discuss the issue and are pressing the government to deploy paramilitary forces in the affected areas and organise peace marches as well.

“What we saw in [the] last few days was organised kind of rioting. Sporadic incidents of communal nature continue as we speak. The government is still in denial mode and because of that both [the] administration and police are at a loss. I have spoken to many top officials. They want to foil the attempts of communal elements but feel helpless as they have not been given clear instructions from the top. As a result, they are just re-iterating what the TMC leaders are saying – that there have been no riots,” Mohammed Salim, a member of parliament from the Communist Party of India (Marxist) told The Wire.

He added that media outlets in Bengal have not covered the incidents at all because they are under tremendous pressure from the government. “At the same time, the Sangh affiliates have taken to widespread rumour-mongering and have been preaching hate on social media. Largely two streams of thought emerge from the Sangh’s campaign – firstly that Hindus are being beaten up as the state is protecting the Muslims and secondly, photographs and rumours of how Hindus protected themselves by looting and burning Muslim houses are being circulated to portray a sense of Hindu muscularity.”

Salim, who said that the opposition leaders are not being allowed by the authorities to visit the riot-affected areas, blamed the TMC for bringing the state to such an impasse. “TMC practices a kind of localised majoritarian politics. The benefactors of such politics could be both Hindus and Muslims. This has led to a large number of revengeful killings in the past. With the Sangh in the picture, the violence has turned communal now. Although not many killings have taken place, large-scale plunder and displacement has taken place. The state has become a breeding ground for communalism – a sort of hybrid communal politics, a kind of cross- fertilisation between the RSS and TMC goons. Who, if not the state government, should be held accountable for this,” he said.

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