Ground Report: A Year After Violence, Bengal's Asansol Gears Up for Elections

Maulana Rashidi, whose 16-year-old son was killed in the violence, continues to preach love and hopes that harmony returns to the region.

Asansol (West Bengal): This March, it will be one year since Maulana Imdadullah Rashidi, the imam of Noorani mosque, lost his 16-year-old son to the communal violence that erupted over a Ram Navami procession in Asansol.

Sibghatullah, Rashidi’s fourth son, had just finished writing his Class X Board exams and was awaiting the results. On the day of the violence, March 27, 2018, the young boy was studying in a madrasa next to a Hindu-dominated locality.

As the riot spiralled, Sibghatullah – panic-stricken – rushed towards his home. Amid the hue and cry and tear gas-fuelled fog, Sibghatullah lost his way and entered the Hindu colony nearby.

His body was discovered a day later, after his family looked for him everywhere in the locality. Sibghatullah, it was suspected, was beaten to death.

At the centre of last year’s narrative of violence – the likes of which Asansol had not seen for more than five decades – was Sibghatullah’s father, the grief stricken Maulana.

When the outraged community vented their grief and anger and the situation threatened to spiral even more out of control, Maulana Rashidi repeatedly urged his restless community members to keep the peace.

After his son was buried, Rashidi addressed thousands of people gathered at the Eidgah Maidan. He said:

I want peace. My boy has been taken away. I don’t want any more families to lose their loved ones. I don’t want any more houses to burn. I have already told the gathering that I will leave Asansol if there is any kind of retaliation. I told them that if you love me, you will not raise a finger.

A year has gone by. Asansol is now gearing up for the imminent – and perhaps one of the most politically charged – Lok Sabha elections Bengal has witnessed in a long time. Even the historic 2011 assembly elections, scripting the ascendancy of Mamata Banerjee to power and ending the over three-decade-long uninterrupted rule by the Left Front, did not match the atmosphere prevalent in the state today.

A clear demarcation

I am headed towards the Noorani mosque to meet Maulana Rashidi. The car crawls through densely populated, tapering alleys, shops and tea stalls lining both sides of the street. It’s impossible to escape the feeling of moving through a ghetto.

Over a rusty, narrow bridge travel scores of autos, cycles, even cars, entering from both sides, often missing each other by a whisker. Looking down from the tacky bridge, you can see the murky water in the nullah with garbage of all kinds floating in it.

A large chunk of Asansol’s Muslim population lives in ghettoes separated from Hindu settlements by a nullah or a road. My driver, a young man probably in his late 20s or early 30s, looks uneasy. He tells me he can’t recall ever entering this area before.

Also Read: Endgame in Asansol, the ‘City of Brotherhood’

We are passing through some of the areas where trouble erupted last year. Before entering the exclusively Muslim settlements, I pass through the Dhadka road, lined by shops and residential houses. This area has a slightly more mixed population. I speak to a Hindu shop owner in the area. Requesting anonymity, he tells me, “Asansol is part of Bengal. The majority of people living here are Hindi speakers (Hindi bhashi). They prefer the BJP and will vote for Babul Supriyo.”

The Parliamentary constituency of Asansol is currently represented by BJP MP Babul Supriyo, who defeated his nearest rival, TMC candidate Dola Sen. Prior to that, the constituency was held by the CPI(M) MP Bansa Gopal Choudhury.

The cloth shop owner concedes that Asansol was free from communal violence till March last year. So what happened to trigger such a breakdown of peace? “It’s because the TMC has empowered Muslims so much, they think they can take the law into their own hands,” he says. Adding: “During the CPI(M)’s reign, they were calm.”

Since the 1950s, Asansol was primarily a stronghold of the CPI(M), followed by the Congress. The Narendra Modi wave of the 2014 general election and the victory of Babul Supriyo, however, disrupted traditional political equations.

The Noorani mosque stands in Chetladanga Nadi Par. The alleys seem to close in more and more as you make your way inside the locality. I climb the stairs to the first floor of the mosque to meet Maulana Rashidi. He is seated on a mattress in a room, its walls faded shades of blue and green, filled with all manner of objects – from books and empty water bottles to large bags, and what appears to be a cooler on the floor.

Imam Rashidi. Credit: Monobina Gupta

Since the tragedy, Rashidi is used to receiving visitors, national and international journalists as well as others, in his room. Like in the past, he reiterates that he bears no one any ill will. “I am overwhelmed by the kind of empathy and love I have received in Bengal and also from outside.” His words ring of praise for the Bengal government. “I feel that our present Bengal government has served the people – even if it has not fully met our expectations. They are working well.”

He recalls that the chief minister personally intervened following his son’s death. Mamata Banerjee didn’t come to visit Rashidi after the incident, “But she called me up. And there was a genuineness in the words she spoke to me. When this accident took place, the TMC leaders offered me a job, I refused.” Rashidi received a circular offering a job with a salary of Rs 2,000. Feeling slighted, he turned it down.

“After that Didi called me. She told me that she has raised the salary from Rs 2,000 to Rs 10,000. And further, the posting was in Asansol. I agreed. Soon afterwards, papers were delivered home and my second son works with the government’s health department,” said Rashidi.

He also recalls how, after he refused the government’s overture to honour him with the Bangabibhushan title because the event coincided with Ramazan, the chief minister told him, “‘Whenever I next get an opportunity I will bestow this honour on you.’ I liked the way she spoke to me, with genuineness and clarity.”

Gearing up for Lok Sabha elections

As I exit the alley, I run into Naseem Ansari, the area’s TMC municipal councillor who has an office on the nearby street. Elected in 2015, Ansari appears in to be in a good mood. “This area is perfectly peaceful now,” he says. Despite his optimism though, Ansari agrees that the current divisive tensions bring to mind 1994 and the tense and violent period following the demolition of the Babri mosque.

“We want Didi to become the prime minister. We want a Bengali to be the prime minister,” stresses the counsellor. In a throwback to the 1996 elections, when then Bengal chief minister Jyoti Basu missed being the first Bengali as well as Communist prime minister by a whisker, Ansari emphasises, “It was a big mistake to not allow Jyoti Basu to become prime minister.”

Jitendra Tewari, TMC legislator from Pandaveswar and mayor of Asansol, says, “If you look at the numbers, the Left is still our main principal opponent. There are 106 wards in Asansol municipal corporation. The BJP has three councillors and the Left, nine. The BJP won eight councillors in 2015. Later five of them joined us.”

Also Read: In West Bengal, Two Contrasting Voices of Violence and Peace

For Bengal, one of the most significant aspects of the 2019 general elections is, perhaps, their unravelling in such a different political context. Since 2014, coinciding with the thumping victory of the Modi-led government at the Centre that jolted traditional political equations, the political ground in Bengal has rapidly shifted.

Facilitated by the inefficacy of the Left parties – particularly the CPI(M) – the principal contenders emerging this time are the ruling TMC and the BJP. And one of the most visible manifestations of this changed reality are the presence of multiple TMC-BJP flags and the near total absence of the Left Front.

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