Bengal stares at a new, divisive communal equation

Coinciding with the BJP’s rise, a détente between Hindus and Muslims is fraying at the edges

October 23, 2016 01:58 am | Updated December 02, 2016 11:01 am IST - Hazinagar (North 24 Paraganas):

Members of the Muslim community in Hazinagar look for the names of those injured in a newspaper .  — Photo: Suvojit Bagchi

Members of the Muslim community in Hazinagar look for the names of those injured in a newspaper . — Photo: Suvojit Bagchi

His ancestors settled down here 90 years ago, but fifty-four-year-old Sheikh Abbas is planning to leave Hazinagar after bombs were hurled at his home last week on the town’s eastern fringes.

Mr. Abbas’s house was ransacked as well. Jewellery and household appliances “worth Rs 13 lakh were looted” and the family was threatened, he said. As he contemplates moving to a Muslim neighbourbood, Mr. Abbas, who works for the local municipality, sounded calm. “I think it is what we call ghettoisation, but we have to survive.”

Residents of the town — which falls in the industrial belt north of Naihati station in Bengal’s North 24 Paraganas district — are stunned by the intensity of violence that broke out in at least four other towns in north and south Bengal, and what Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee called “communal terrorism.”

The violence was triggered when people in a procession heading for the immersion of Durga idols allegedly hurled stones at the local Manik Peer’s mazar (shrine). That night, a Moharram procession was scheduled. Before it took off, a bomb was hurled near the residence of Md. Jiaul Haque, a Trinamool Congress leader and municipality chairman.

“Following the incidents before the Moharram’s Akhara [where stunts with weapons are performed], we decided to cancel it,” said Abdul Gani Khan, head Khalifa of the Akharas. Mr. Khan is accused of “communal activities” by some members of the Hindu community, an allegation he denied. Eventually, however, the Akharas were brought out at the insistence of the police, Mr. Khan said. But bombs were hurled at the procession and some youngsters from the Muslim community “went out of control,” damaging a temple railing and some properties belonging to Hindus.

Within hours, in the three-kilometre stretch between Garur Phari (north of Naihati station) and Marwarical — which lies further north — houses were ransacked, residents beaten up, and bombs hurled randomly, forcing thousands to flee.

A silver lining

The silver lining was the resistance put up by Hindus to protect their Muslim neighbours. “The women came out from a nearby building, led by an electrician. They told the armed rioters that to attack Muslim colonies, they would have to first kill the Hindu families,” said Md. Samad (name changed) of Nayabazar. CPI(M) member Bhola Majumdar also gave shelter to a Muslim co-worker in the jute mill. “It was impossible to leave colleagues behind when their houses were torched,” Mr. Majumdar told The Hindu .

Following a flare-up many decades ago, the relationship between the communities turned sour. However, back then the problem was resolved amicably, with Muslims promising not to slaughter animals and Hindus agreeing not to take out processions through the Nelson road, adjacent to the shrine.

“But with the rise of the Bharatiya Janata Party, Hindu outfits initiated a process to lead processions through the Nelson road and tension grew,” said CPI(M-L) district secretary Subrata Sengupta.

Sandeep Banerjee of the BJP denied the existence of such an agreement. “Every community has a right to fulfil its religious duties,” he said.

Videos accessed by The Hindu show a group of men with saffron headbands and flags of various Hindu outfits hurling stones even as the police watch on as mute spectators. Many who led the mob allegedly belong to the Trinamool Congress (TMC) while some are associated with the Vishwa Hindu Parishad.

Local TMC leader Pradeep Pashi, according to every account, led the mob. He was arrested. But Mr. Pashi, who was close to the CPI(M) and now officially works for the ruling party and maintains ties with Hindu outfits, managed bail. A local journalist said the police had little option but to “lightly charge Pashi as he is too close to TMC leaders.”

As things got hot, Ms. Banerjee asked Arjun Singh, TMC MLA of the adjacent constituency, to step in. Mr. Singh, the “strongman” in this industrial belt, is feared by the Hindi-speaking Hindu and Muslim working class. For two nights, he criss-crossed Hazinagar, lecturing his followers and threatening BJP activists. His efforts were successful and peace was restored.

Sitting in his sprawling office, Mr. Singh refused to answer why the tension could not be defused earlier. The area where the clashes began is not part of his constituency, he said. “But now I promise to make both sides talk to each other to resolve the dispute amicably and permanently,” he added. Curiously, the list of rioters features as many names of TMC activists as those from the BJP and the VHP.

Maintaining peace, however, could be difficult, feels Piyush Ghosal, a former zonal committee member of the CPI(M). “There were serious crises during our time but now it is more complex as it is not restricted to non-Bengali Hindus and Muslims. The Bengali Hindus and Muslims have also got polarised. A new communal equation is evolving,” he warned.

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