Biswajit is a journalist and associated with democratic movements.
The communal cauldron in Bengal’s Baduria-Basirhat bordering Bangladesh is no more at the boiling point, though embers are still glowing. This probe into the anatomy of the sectarian strife, latest in a series that have taken place from Kaliachak in North Bengal’s Maldah to Dhulagarh in Howrah close to Kolkata since last year indicates a method in the madness that suits BJP-RSS politics of Hindu consolidation wholly, and Trinamul Congress’ treatment of Muslims as a vote-bank, at least partially. Indications from the ground are enough that the Sangh Parivar will intensify its drive for religious polarization while ruling Trinamul will facilitate it by default at the expense of fragile social fabric till the 2019 general election.
The pattern emerging out of the latest flashpoint in the state points to deep inroads made by the votaries of competitive communalisms of both saffron and green hues, particularly in areas close to Indo-Bangla border where demographic balance has remained uneasy for long. As the genies of communal passion get released to enjoy their dance of death and destruction, it’s not always easy to bottle up them even for their masters. The weeklong frenzy in the frontier area in early July is the latest example. These forces are likely to gain more social and political space if their mutually complimentary roles in igniting the frenzy are not exposed and countered effectively by the voices of sanity and humanity in both communities in order to fight the worst of the polar politics.
Here is a quick recap of the sequence of incidents followed by our findings on the dynamics of factors and players that we found responsible for the violence before we delve into the details in a series of reports.
The latest boil in Bengal was sparked off by a highly inflammatory post on facebook containing provocative graphics about the most revered symbols of Islam with Bengali text by a Hindu teenager, a resident of Baduria under Muslim-majority Basirhat sub-division. The post which was made on or before 2 July, received circulation in facebook and whatsapp providing a digital trigger to a widespread mob fury mainly by Muslim youth on the same evening who too used social media for their protest mobilization. Blockades on roads and railway lines, forcible closure of shops and establishment and sporadic vandalism and arson continued at different corners of Baduria even after the offender’s arrest in the wee hour of Monday.
The agitators, mostly uneducated or madrasa/school drop-outs including local-born migrants to North and West India who had come home on leave continued blockades demanding handover of the accused to them for public lynching or hanging. Local police station was attacked to snatch away him from the custody and police vehicles were set on fire. Senior cops were injured in the mob violence and uniformed men had to run for their lives. The unrest got fresh lease of life and spread to Basirhat since 5 July following wild rumors of attacks on Muslim religious shrines there. Though Muslim mob anger was mainly directed against police in Baduria, it faced Hindu backlash from the same age groups in Basirhat and vandals of both groups enjoyed field days over the week end. The state administration’s order to police for exercising maximum restraint in use of lethal force in order to avoid casualty prolonged the rampage. Belated deployment of BSF and police initiative, albeit almost after a week, quelled violence.
The extent of the dance of death and destruction was fortunately limited considering the space and time it involved. An elderly Hindu was killed in Basirhat town and some people from both communities sustained injuries while dozens of their shops and establishments were vandalized. Only a few religious places were damaged contrary to widespread rumors of such attacks while no incidents of hate-crime against women have been reported. The voices of sanity and humanity in both communities have gained ground following belated administrative actions though scars are yet to be healed.
Findings and observations:
Role of Facebook generation and digital technology
Basirhat conflagration highlights the increasing use of online social media for hate campaigns and youth as the foot soldiers for communal conflagrations. Most the participants in the violence were male teenagers and youths in their early twenties underlining the changes in bigoted mob profile in the wake of global and national surge of fundamentalist forces and their sway on the greenhorns across faith lines.
Sangh Parivar’s footprints
The timing of the ominous post indicates that it was part of a sinister design. Apparently, it was someone else’s handiwork but was shared by the boy in the week following Eid-Ul-Fitr and RathaYatra. It received a wider audience on 2 July, Sunday on the eve of Ulto Rath. Any role of the Sangh Parivar outfits in this design is yet to be established as chief minister Mamata Banerjee has complained and tasked a judicial commission to identify the provocateurs. But we found BJP and RSS activities in and around the boy’s village and their influence on Hindu youths palpable. BJP now represents the ward including village Magurkhali as well as two other neighboring wards in Baduria municipality.
In Basirhat, many in the Hindu mobs shouted the Sangh Parivar war cry—Jai Sri Ram in response of the Muslim mob’s chant of Nareye Takdir. A section of Hindu lower caste groups including Dalits said to have spearheaded ‘Hindu Resistance’ while some Hindu women, too, joined it. Despite BJP’s loss of Basirhat south assembly seat in 2016, it indicates its continued influence which is supported by increasing Sangh campaign and activities in bordering areas. Even as the state government is tinkering with idea of making Basirhat sub-division a separate district for better administration now, RSS organization here has been running a district set up for last two decades underlining the zone’s import in its plans.
Neither BJP-RSS had condemned the anti-Islam post by the Hindu boy nor appealed for communal amity during the violence. Instead, the central ruling party clamored for president’s rule in Bengal on the ground of Mamata government’s Muslim appeasement at the cost of breakdown of law and order. In the meantime, its apparatchiks and online army of trolls circulated visuals of arson elsewhere in the country and rape scenes from films as the proofs of increasing Muslim dominance in Bengal. The pincer campaign made its game-plan to takeover Bengal clear.
Further, the party’s state chief’s public threats to ‘thrash intellectuals with shoes’ for protesting against the killing of Md. Akhlak and teenager Hafiz Junaid in Hindi heartland while keeping mum on murder of Kartik Ghosh in Basirhat is aimed at demeaning assorted secular and liberals. Abusing peaceniks has become a part of the parivar’s increasingly shrill rhetoric down the line. BJP even claimed the slain elder as its member but the deceased family denied any political affiliation.
Muslim outrage: role of community hawks and pacifiers
Muslim leaders described initial outrage of the community as ‘spontaneous outburst of anger against gravest insult to Allah and His Messenger’. But insiders admitted that some zealous minority leaders had incited young agitators to prolong the blockades, apparently to score over each other and exhibit their social clouts to gain political mileage from ruling Trinamul Congress. Sunday being the traditional Hat bar or the day for weekly marketing, smartphone-toting youths were used for swelling the rank of outraged Muslims apart from the words of mouth. Some places of religious congregation were also used to incite boys.
Muslim agitators’ slogans like ‘Arya Jaati Bharat Charo’, in response of RSS claim of Hindus being descendents of Aryans, indicated a parallel hate campaign. We had found its votaries active in other troubled areas including Dhulagarh that suffered communal violence last December. Local Muslims there told us about some bigoted Mullahs who had exhorted them to form ‘Nabi sena’’ or ‘Allah’s army’ to fight against Shiv Sena, Ram Sena of Hindu supremacists.
In Baduria-Basirhat, some Muslim politicians and local religious leaders including those close to the ruling dispensation had tried to pacify the community mob after the administration had sought their help. But they mostly failed, partly because of their disconnection to the youth and partly because they were trying to be politically correct both to the administration as well as their enraged coreligionists.
Baduria-Basirhat suggests a pattern of increasing Muslim restiveness and assertiveness in Bengal in the wake of countrywide persecution of the minority by the Sangh Parivar inspired cow-vigilantes and other manifestations of majoritarian supremacy. The arrest of offending boy and overall protection to the community by Mamata Banerjee government notwithstanding, the prolonged display of pent-up anger on the street also points to the rise of minority hawks in the vicious cycle of competitive communalisms. Though saner voices among the community clerics in Bengal had warned against falling in the Hindutva trap, their failure to reach out to the youths who are vulnerable to social media disinformation and provocations has created room for rabble-rousers.
Role of police and government
Mamata Banerjee’s order to police for maximum restraint in using lethal force against rioters, in contrast to police brutality to assorted opposition like her predecessors, apparently was aimed at avoiding casualty. But this restraint coupled ruling party’s failure of political management of the situation due to infighting among local Trinamul leaders and sidelining of opposition, facilitated the protracted rampage. Bengal’s big sis who has attained power after decades of violent street-smart politics still cherishes to occupy the anti-BJP opposition space on roads. But she did not visit the troubled areas to douse the flame or to dare the law-breakers, as she did against the Gorkhaland agitators in Darjeeling hills few months back. This could have disarmed BJP campaign.
Role of criminals
Local criminals including cattle smugglers, latter being affected by recent crackdown on their business had availed this occasion to grind their axes. Mamata has complained about influx of armed Jamati fanatics from Bangladesh, courtesy BSF leniency at the nod of the BJP-led Centre. While both communities held ‘outsiders’ responsible for violence, Muslims dismissed the role of trans-border gangs in their agitation.
We will enumerate the macro social-political factors in next episode.
Images – Debashis Aich