Bengal chief minister and ruling Trinamul Congress supremo Mamata Banerjee has landed into the trap laid by her friend-turned-foe Bhartiya Janta Party (BJP) by deciding to celebrate Ram Navami and Hanuman Jayanti with gusto since last year. Her plan to ‘hijack’ Ram from Sangh Parivar’s clutches appeared to have gone horribly wrong as it triggered riots in several mixed population industrial areas over the last week of March.
Asansol-Raniganj, the industrial hub at Western Burdwan bordering Jharkhand, was the worst-hit. The latest bout of communal clashes in the state took the toll of at least six lives, including four in the coupled cities under the same parliamentary constituency and civic corporation.
A bitter division among the TMC support base between Hindus and Muslims became evident as this reporter visited both the cities. The prolonged police inaction at the height of the frenzy and TMC infighting that divided the party grassroots communally, added to the administrative and political paralysis.
The Sangh is now hoping to harvest Hindu discontent within the TMC camp while the latter is busy in damage control. If Mamata repeats her folly of competing with the Saffron camp on Hindutva planks and plays up Hindu and Muslim religious sentiments alternatively, it will not only help BJP to retain the constituency in 2019 but also to spread its politics of polarisation in the coming polls.
Interactions with affected people, mostly poor and oppressed caste slum-dwellers in this cosmopolitan industrial hub revealed that the riot was triggered by the Sangh’s insistence on taking out Ram rallies through the Muslim-dominated areas in both cities despite the history of troubles in these areas over the years. Not only did the TMC administration allowed it, the ruling party leaders and supporters also joined them following Mamata Banerjee’s instruction to rival the Sangh Parivar’s control over Ram Navami celebrations. Jitendra Tiwari, the mayor of the twin cities, claimed that the government had banned display of weapons and playing of DJ boxes in the rallies but he was the one who had doled out Rs 5,000 to each of the 146 akharas or organisers of Ram Navami processions. “We honoured the tradition but BJP betrayed it,” he reasoned.
The Sangh instigated the matter further with provocative slogans: “Hindustan me rehna hai to Jai Sriram Kehna Hai, Ram Lalla Hum Ayenge Mandir Wahi banayenge, Ailan karte hain danke ke Chot par, Mandir banayenge har mor par, Go-hatya bandh koro, deshdrohi musalman ya to jao Pakistan ya kabarstan” and more.
The Sangh instigated the matter further with provocative slogans: “Hindustan me rehna hai to Jai Sriram Kehna Hai, Ram Lalla Hum Ayenge Mandir Wahi banayenge, Ailan karte hain danke ke Chot par, Mandir banayenge har mor par, Go-hatya bandh koro, deshdrohi musalman ya to jao Pakistan ya kabarstan” and more. Babul Supriyo, the Bollywood singer turned BJP MP and union minister of state for heavy industries, stoked the fire by posting one-sided images of the violence during March 26-28 on social media and bashed Muslims and their alleged appeaser Mamata. Neither he nor the other BJP leaders bothered to call for communal amity even rhetorically.
The district BJP leader, Madan Trivedi, and VHP leader Shasibhushan Yadav admitted that the epicentres of the riots, Rajabandh-Hilbasti in Raniganj and Chandmari-OK Road in Asansol had been trouble-prone earlier. Yet, they decided to hold the armed rallies ‘to assert Hindus’ religious rights in their own land’ and blamed the TMC for instigating the riot. “Milad-Un-Nabi (birthday of the prophet) rallies have started after Mamata came to power. We started Ram Navami rallies on Lord Ram’s birthday to counter it since Modiji ascended to office at the Centre. The increasing footfall in our rallies organised by the VHP has unnerved Mamata. She decided to take the wind out of our sail and asked her men to create trouble, to ban our rallies before the general polls next May. But come what may, BJP will come out with flying colors as the riots would unite Hindus more,” Trivedi said sitting at his bookshop in Raniganj.
Poor bore the brunt
The epicenter of the clash in Raniganj – mixed population slums of Hillbasti, GC Mondol Road, Shib Mandir Road and Dompara – were in ruins. As we entered the lanes and by-lanes that were still adorned with saffron flags and chains with occasional green flags, men and women of both communities beseeched us to take a look at their vandalised and plundered homes with the hope to draw attention of the politicians and babudom for compensation. Poor and lower middle class women of both faith, stood side by side narrating their plight, complained against police inaction during the height of communal frenzy, and expressed their fear of complete lack of security and safety.
Swaraswati Sharma and Yasmin Khatun, Bhasani Badyokar and Husna Bibi were in tears while recounting how their jewellery meant for their daughters’ marriage or their newly-wed daughter-in-law’s valuables, including the refrigerator and washing machine, were looted and destroyed. Teenager Rita who is appearing for the ongoing higher secondary examination cried as the vandals torched everything at their home including her exam-hall admit card.
As we entered the poorer Dompara, Dalit slum dwellers like middle-aged Nandini Badyokar, Basanti Badyokar, Jyotsna Dom and the younger Kabita Dom, all domestic helps at the middle class homes of the town, took us to their dilapidated and dingy houses. Since looters have ransacked their homes and put some on fire, most of these women and their families pleaded for shelter and succor. “Neither police nor fire services men listened to our plea to save us, claiming that they have no orders to move into our slums. No government officers or political leaders have turned up since then,” Jyotsna lamented. “We are extremely scared to move out but hardly have any money left to feed ourselves. Our employers may not retain us if we are absent anymore. Who will save us from starvation death?” asked Kabita.
“One of the boys who had attacked my home threatened of ripping open my body with his sword like what they did to Muslim women in Gujarat,” elderly Noorjahan Bibi said.
Both sides blamed the politically protected ‘rowdy boys’ of the other community for the loot and arson when we were inside their mohallahs (colonies), that are a stone’s throw away from each other. Muslim women and men accused the boys of Dompara and their accomplices from other localities around, who have become converts to the cause of the Sangh Parivar and its heady politics of hatred. “One of the boys who had attacked my home threatened of ripping open my body with his sword like what they did to Muslim women in Gujarat,” elderly Noorjahan Bibi said. Dompara women blamed local Muslim boys. “Billi, Kallu, Sagra, Taj and Seni were among those who had beaten us up and set our homes on fire despite all our pleading,” Kabita complained.
Men from both the sides echoed the same divisive narrative. Muslims, both TMC and Left supporters, who look down upon Dompara Dalits as ‘easily pliable to the lures of free booze and feasts’ which made their area a ‘den of VHP – Bajrang Dal’. They accused ‘Dompara boys’ of inciting the clash by raising provocative slogans against Muslims and amplifying it through high-decibel ‘DJ’ boxes. “They carried sharp weapons as well as bombs and other missiles on small trucks in the processions and used them to attack our locality. We had to defend ourselves,” a Muslim TMC leader said. Some Dompara youth who earn a livelihood as Rickshaw pullers and labourers admitted that they had attended the organised Ram Navami rally on the morning of March 26, that clashed with some TMC supporters among Muslims. “They opposed our slogans and sounds of DJ box near the Mosque and attacked us with brickbats and bombs. We fought back. After the Muslims put our homes on fire, we paid them in the same coin,” Shambhu Choudhury said. Krisna Badyakar and Jitu Badyakar echoed him, narrating a TMC-BJP tussle in the area since 2014 poll that underlined the Sangh’s strategy of using Dalits against Muslims.
Elders lament new politics
Saner voices, mostly elderly, however lamented the loss of mutual tolerance and assimilation of yesteryears. “The political competition between BJP-VHP and TMC over Ram Navami and Milad-Un-Nabi rallies is killing humanity. Why did the VHP raise provocative slogans against Muslims and Islam in the name of Ram? The government must ban the cassettes and CDs of songs offensive to other religions. Our boys too did the wrong thing by taking law and order into their hands. Hindus and Muslim boys burnt and looted each other’s home. What are the benefits they and their political masters have brought to their own community?” an Abid Iqbal, owner of a small-scale business, asked. “We could not save each other’s homes despite being neighbours for generations. This increasing communalisation of politics and war cries like ‘Jai Sri Ram’ and ‘Allahu Akbar’ during the clashes brought back the horrors of the Partition days,” Sudhakar Mandol, an octogenarian former school teacher, said.
“We could not save each other’s homes despite being neighbours for generations. This increasing communalisation of politics and war cries like ‘Jai Sri Ram’ and ‘Allahu Akbar’ during the clashes brought back the horrors of the Partition days,” Sudhakar Mandol, an octogenarian former school teacher, said.
Competitive communalism ruining lives
Kaium Khan, another old man, felt that all religious processions should be banned to de-fang the communal politics. “Let the people pray to Ram and Rahim at their temples and mosques et al. These so-called religious rallies with covert political aims are ruining our lives,” he said, echoing many across the riot-ravaged areas in both cities.
Elderly Syed Israel Khan, former CPM civic councillor for 20 years in Raniganj’s Rajbandh-Hillbasti area, said there was a social agreement since a riot in 1974 that no rally would pass by the local mosque except the Mahavir Jhanda rally during Durga Puja, since it belonged to an older tradition. But the Sangh Parivar did not honour that agreement and instigated troubles in a planned manner. “They funded Dompara boys and other scheduled caste poor among Hindus around the locality to play DJ boxes that ran inflammatory songs and slogans for several days prior to Ram Navami on 25 March,” he added. At the same time, he accused Mamata of promoting competitive communalism that has started taking roots since Trinamul has come to power in 2011.
According to him, an impressive ‘Julush-e-Mohammadi’ or joint rally from Muslim neighbourhoods on the occasion of Milad-Un-Nabi has begun after Trinamul came to power. To counter that, the Sangh Parivar has been organising huge Ram Navami rallies, particularly after the Modi government came to power at the Centre.
“There was no major communal trouble till 2011. Recent rallies by both sides used provocative slogans and aggressive body languages undermining the social relations between the two communities. They want us to forget the local tradition of both Hindus and Muslims praying at Mazar-e-Gouse at the outskirts of the city. People of both faiths had joined Mahavir Jhanda rally at Sholo Ana Mandir earlier. Young ladko me mazhabi junoon paida karna aasan hai. Ye politics Bangal me nahi tha. (It is easy to raise religious passion among youth. This politics is new in Bengal),” the old man lamented.
We met him at the office of Anjuman Imdad-e-Bahami, a local social organisation that runs schools and vocational courses for boys and girls. The BJP and VHP leaders complained that hot water and missiles were thrown from the Anjuman school building during the clash. The Anjuman leaders denied the charge and claimed to have sheltered some local Hindu families at the school during the riot. Mahesh Mondal, a wage labourer reportedly died during the clash in Raniganj. However, we could contact his family.
Role of the police
The police response in Asansol-Raniganj pointed to a pattern that the state had witnessed in other conflicts earlier. From Kaliachak to Basirhat, Dhulagarh to Asansol-Raniganj, prolonged police passivity has only increased time as investigations by this correspondent as well as fellow travellers have pointed out. Aariz Jalees, the CPM councillor from Raniganj’s Hill Basti area recalled how they tried to keep the rioters from both sides apart from each other for more than two hours while asking for reinforcement for the small police team that was clearly outnumbered and shaken. Three senior IPS officers and a contingent from Kolkata police were rushed to Asansol to control the situation two days after the initial clash, apparently in response to the BJP’s clamour for deployment of central forces and home ministry’s offer of assistance.
The police, seldom known as the paragon of patience to Opposition rallies, resorted to ‘maximum restraint’ even after police stations were attacked by frenzied mobs or top cops were badly injured. An ACP of Asansol police who had almost lost his right hand after a bomb hit him at Raniganj was the latest example. Police officials either confided their helplessness in the wake of ‘order from the top’ to avoid police firing that would invite larger trouble for the government in case of casualties or blamed meddling of ministers from districts and ruling party leaders. The absence of political determination and police professionalism to handle the rioters of all hues with iron hands has only helped the Sangh.
Ruling party infighting
The TMC infighting helping BJP is an open secret. Mamata’s chosen candidate, Dola Sen, Naxalite-turned TMC labor leader, lost following her tussle with state minister and Asansol north MLA Malay Ghatak and Mayor Jitendra Tiwari, who is also a MLA from Pandabeswar. With the ‘outsider’ Sen being dispatched to Rajya Sabha, Tiwari is being now touted as the next TMC Lok Sabha candidate in 2019. Ghatak’s camp is not exactly happy with the prospect. According to the ruling party workers as well as local journalists, Tiwari hobnobs more with the Hindu leaders as he eyes the Lok Sabha seat now. The civic body led by him has doled out funds to the organisers of the 146 sanctioned processions, Rs 5000 to each in pursuance of the state policy of balancing favours to Hindu and Muslim religious organisations.
Hindi-speaking Tiwari maintains a soft-Hindutva image which TMC needs to counter BJP. He was seen visiting Hindu mohallahs with a saffron scarf around his neck and removing it at Muslim localities. Last year, he had attended the Ram Navami rally with a sword in hand. In contrast, Ghatak’s support base is mostly among the Muslims who dominate the area that comes under his constituency in north Asansol. The loyalists of both camps blamed each other for queering their leader’s pitch in the coming polls by their acts of commission and omission during the riots.
Communal division in TMC
Many of the ruling party men who have rubbed shoulders with BJP-VHP leaders in the Ram Navami processions have upheld the ‘Hindu cause’ at Asansol-Raniganj and Kankinara this time. This has divided Hindu and Muslim supporters of TMC along the communal line further as it happened earlier in riot-hit industrial areas including Hazinagar, Chandannagore as well rural areas like Basirhat and Nakasipara. That the factional feud has turned communal in the TMC rank and file became evident in Chandmari-Nawapatti-Kasai Mahallah-Quereshi Mahallah in north Asansol’s Rail Paar area. The BJP turned TMC civic councilor CK Reshma and local TMC leader Banti Chakroborty were among the ruling party men who had joined the Ram Navami rally in trouble-prone Chandmari along with the BJP-VHP supporters on 27 March. The procession that started from the Bajrangbali Mandir at Hindu-dominated Nawa Patti later clashed with Muslims at Gulzar Basti, Azad Basti on BC Roy road triggering the riot that engulfed almost entire north Asansol the next day.
The Hindu TMC supporters close to Chakroborty said that they had been organising Durga Puja and Ram Navami celebrations at the social level for many years. “But the party asked to organise and lead a bigger Ram Navami rally this time and we moved accordingly. We were told that some of our Muslim TMC councillors have organised roadside receptions to distribute sherbet to participants in our procession to mark the communal amity. However, we faced a hostile mob near Reliance mall who asked us to go mute though there was no mosque closer by. They attacked us with brickbats following an altercation and beat up many of us badly, including Shyam Narayan Rabidas, a boy who had dressed up as Lord Ram on a vehicle,” one of them complained.
“Humein bali ka bakra banaya gaya. We were betrayed by some of our Muslim party men. Police protection to our rally was minimal and the unarmed cops fled fast. We kept calling the police for hours next day when the riot spread. Police did not turn up till late afternoon. The cops faced the ire when they came but tried to stop the protests by Hindus. There was no substantial BJP-VHP presence here but TMC supporters on both sides. It was no more a political fight against BJP but a communal clash that includes our party men at both sides,” the TMC cadre said sitting near the Ram Navami Akhara and Hanuman temple in Chandmari.
Muslim leaders and supporters of the ruling party, on the other hand, accused their Hindu counterparts of playing into the hands of BJP. They accused sections of Ram Navami rallyists of raising anti-Muslim slogans with mosques at a stone’s throw away that gave the ‘hotheads’ among the Muslim youth an opportunity to score a point. They admitted that conservative Muslim organisations like Tablighi Jamat and Jamiat-e-Islami are active in the area in organising religious congregations like Ijtema. Their indoctrination focuses on strict monotheism and separate identity of Muslims, opposed to Hindu-Muslim composite beliefs manifested in many mazaars and dargaahs in the zone.
Another mid-level TMC leader at Kalyanpur in Asansol who took initiative to run a relief camp for affected Hindus, complained of ‘pro-Muslim bias’ of the administration and party leadership that dismayed Hindu party workers. However, as police started picking up some TMC men, both Hindus and Muslims, following orders from the top, he felt Ghatak’s men were booked more than Tiwari supporters. “May be I will be rounded up. Ask your people to lie low or leave your areas,” the man advised a party colleague over phone before scurrying out, making it clear which camp he belongs.
It seems that clash of economic interests of ruling party apparatchiks and mafias was also instrumental to the riots, local sources said. The infightings among dons like Joydeb Mondal, Haji Nanhe and Imtiaj Khan who have switched sides from the left to TMC after the change of guards in the state have also contributed in the communal divide. One of the big bones of contention is the one km long encroached government land that belong to the railways and Asansol-Durgapur Development Authority (ADDA). The epicenter of the riot in north Asansol was in and around the area. Hindu TMC leaders complained that illegal settlements of Muslims, mostly new arrivals from Bihar and UP had come up in Gulzar Basti, Azad Basti and Kismat Nagar while Hindus got a “raw deal” from the party and government. They voiced same complaints about the lopsided communal ratio in accommodations in a BPL colony run by the government. The colony too was hit by the riots. Their Muslim counterparts denied the charge and maintained that these Hindu leaders were only echoing BJP slurs on them as some of them were real estate promoters.
Local civil society and political leaders pointed to the soaring land prices in and around the slum areas. It is not coincidental that the riot started in Asansol at a place where a Reliance Mall has come up by filling up farmland surrounded by clusters of dingy slums. The towers of middle class apartments at Shuvam Park nearby mark the new skyline hitherto dotted by dilapidated worker’s colonies. New government buildings that are coming up to create administrative infrastructure after Asansol has been made headquarters for the newly created district, also increased the demand for land and its price.
Further, the land sharks are eying the prime area following the constructions of bypass and feeder roads that have made the low-lying and curvy Rail Paar zone accessible from highway ends. Earlier, Raj-era railway bridges, culverts and tunnels as well as warehouses had made this pre-dominantly working class area relatively inaccessible and unattractive to middle class and high-end real estate developers.
The political and social fallouts
The riot took place mainly between Hindi-speaking Hindu settlers who dominate the urban demography and Urdu-speaking Muslims. In Raniganj, it was between predominantly Hinduised Dalits and Muslims who looked down upon the former as did the caste Hindus. While in Asansol, it was mainly Yadavs and other middle caste Hindus and sections of Dalits, versus Muslims of same caste backgrounds. Hindus are largely divided between the BJP and TMC supporters in this former Left bastion, Muslims now have veered around the ruling party. Post-riot, BJP and rest of the Sangh Parivar is busy in harvesting the discontent of TMC’s Hindu supporters, particularly the Dalits and other oppressed castes.
A section of the Muslims are also upset with Mamata for her enthusiasm for celebration of Ram Navami and Hanuman Jayanti, purportedly to offset the impact of BJP’s charges of Muslim appeasement. Even local TMC leaders admitted that the political game is now ‘advantage BJP’, primarily because of police failure to either prevent communal clashes or to protect victims from both communities and party infighting that turned communal. “With the government brazenly favouring Muslims, BJP is likely to win the parliamentary seat in 2019 by a margin bigger by 70,000 votes, than that in 2014,” one of them said on the condition of anonymity, in Asansol’s Chandmari – one the worst-hit areas at Asansol’s Rail Par, called ‘Mini Pakistan’ by Hindutva groups and lay Hindus.
On the other hand, their Muslim counterparts feared an erosion in the support to TMC among the minority as a section of minority are unhappy with the party’s enthusiasm for Ram Navami et al. “They are accusing the TMC for running with the hares while hunting with the hounds,” one of them commented.
Role of the Left and Congress
Lefts and Congress which have been losing base both to BJP and TMC have nothing to rejoice in this increasingly bipolar situation. Unless, as their ground level leaders in the constituency pointed out, these parties make concerned efforts to ‘harvest’ the Muslim discontent with the TMC and anti-BJP Hindu votes. “We maintained vigils in our areas but failed to intervene effectively in the entirety of the riot-hit zone. Communal polarisation has become stark as class politics has taken a backseat since long. Both TMC and Lefts held peace rallies outside the troubled areas. Unless we rekindle popular movements on poor peoples’ everyday issues, communal divide would lead us to lose grounds further. Hindus would veer around BJP more while Muslims would be compelled to vote for BJP despite their unhappiness,” Owasimul Haque, the CPM councillor from ward 24 in Asansol and leader of the opposition in the civic body admitted.
With all the stakeholders busy taking stock of partisan political dividends and risk factor before the 2019 general polls as well as assembly election in next two years, the common people in the affected areas are keeping their fingers crossed about the future. The social and psychological effect of wounds of the riots would take a long time to heal as the manufacturers of hatred and mistrust, fear and canards are still busy. Fortunately, no major crimes against women has been reported but mothers and wives from both communities are scared of sending children to schools outside their Mohallah. Civil society initiatives are few and far between. The glimmer of hope comes from individuals mainly.
The rays of hope at the dark hours
The voices of sanity and humanity came from exemplary individuals like the Imam Imdadullah Rashidi of Noorani mosque in Asansol. He had called for peace and love even after losing his teenage son in the riot. The boy had appeared for Madhyamik examination this year. “Maine beta khoya, magar imaan nahi khoya (I have lost my son but not my beliefs in basic tenets of Islam). We are the children of the same ancestors and share our humanity. We must learn to live together and work to bond the broken hearts. May be my words of love and peace would soften the hearts of those who killed my son. There are many people like me who stand for mutual love and oppose hatred. Let their message reach to larger communities instead of those rubble-rousers who divide us for their narrow ends,” the middle-aged Imam said to stream of visitors from across the country. He, however, declined to entertain any ‘siyasi sawaal (political questions)’.
The family of Pratima Raut, a middle-aged mother of two sons, who died reportedly under the wheels of a fleeing police vehicle after being tear-gassed on 28 March also blamed the merchants of mutual hatred for their loss. “Had there been no Ram Navami rally, I would not have lost my wife,” her husband said, sitting at their one-room home in a narrow by-lane of Ramakrishna Dangal. Her elder son Sandip lamented the fact that his mother had gone out looking for him during the clashes. “I had joined the Ram Navami rally earlier. But my mother had asked me not to go this time fearing trouble. I would not have lost my mother if there was no riot,” the youth said.
Sourabh, his younger brother was empathetic in his condemnation of religious politics. “These leaders would never know the pain that we are suffering. The country belongs to people of all faiths and we must stay together to survive. Otherwise, more people like us would lose their near and dear ones,” the student of class XI said.
(Photographs by Biswajit Roy and Swatilekha Mandal)