February 21, 2020
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And The Hyena Laughed

Though ringed with swathes of hope, communalism is slow poisoning Bengal, as politicians fight over the spoils of hatred

And The Hyena Laughed
Police and central paramilitary forces march in Baduria
Photograph by Sandipan Chatterjee
And The Hyena Laughed

As evening desc­ends on the rem­ote village of Rudrapur in West Bengal’s North 24 Parganas district, fear grips the household of a local schoolteacher. He lives across the street from the house of Kaustav Dey (name changed), the 17-year-old whose Facebook page depicting an obscene cartoon denigrating an Islamic place of worship triggered communal clashes and spread to the nearby town of Baduria.

“For my family, it was like being in the epicentre of the violence,” he tells Outlook. Just inches away from his yard, on the front lawn of the Dey residence, a huge mob had gathered on the afternoon of July 3, the day after the Facebook post appeared. “They were calling out for him, asking him to come out,” he says. “Soon, we heard the sound of bombs exploding. Then we saw fire. They had begun to burn down houses owned by our community.... Would they enter our home and attack us? We feared for our lives. We feared for the honour of our women. The mob was unpredictable.... We left everything behind and just slipped away silently through a side door hidden from view because of large trees, even as the rampage continued.”

Returning only after the administration declared a curfew and sent in police and paramilitary forces, the schoolteacher and his family, who had stayed with relatives during the time that the riot raged, say that they “live in constant terror”. He speaks as the first flares of the fire, after consuming Baduria  and Basirhat, had spent itself, and then were fanned again by the allegedly ‘selective’ arrests of ‘rioters’ by the police, prompting enraged char­ges of Trinamool ‘appeasement’. That too has run its course, aided by effective policing, the spread of persuasive messages of amity on Facebook, and a muscular show of force on the ground by secular-minded citizenry. Yet, the fear lingers, if only mixed with the bitter aftertaste of violence.

For a nation that is inured through cliched newspaper headlines and flashy television broadcasts to its citizens, especially in strife-torn areas, it is perhaps difficult to fathom the depth of this man’s elemental fear.

The teacher is only too willing to put it in perspective: “Imagine living in the knowledge that at any time, mobs armed with weapons can break into your house,” he says. Pointing out the vulnerability of religious ‘minorities’ in the area, he adds, “We live in a secluded spot and only six or seven houses belong to our community. There is no police station close by. Since the violence, police and paramilitary are patrolling during the day. But with nightfall, we are on our own.” In a mark of extreme fear, he refuses to reveal his name or the number of members in his family. And he is not alone.

Outlook’s travels in areas of North 24 Parganas that are licking their charred wounds after a week of communal violence and tension, reveal that fear, distrust and hatred have stealthily crept their way into the hearts and minds of some on both sides of the Hindu-Muslim divide. A trend that marks a shocking departure from what members, especia­lly elderly members, of both commu­­nities claim was “the earlier reality of Bengal”. That ‘reality’, says Mujib-ur-Rahman, a 79-year-old far­mer of predominantly Muslim Baduria, was marked by “a harmonious co-existence between the two communities since India’s Independence”.

A visibly disturbed Rahman tells Outlook, “This is the first time that Muslims and Hindus of Baduria have fought. I was a young boy in 1947. Baduria and surrounding villages like Rudrapur always had more Muslim households than Hindu ones. It rema­ined so even after Independence. This is because our families did not go to Pakistan. We considered ourselves Indian. Muslims and the Hindus here have lived peacefully for 70 years.”

Travels through the communally-hit areas reveal the fear and distrust that have crept into people’s hearts.

Not every member of the Muslim community in Baduria is so forgiving; they claim that the offensive FB post that sparked the riots has ripped the bond apart. Abdur Naib, a 30-year-old shopkeeper tells Outlook, “I saw the FB post and was incensed. We have never shown disrespect to the religions of others. How did this boy have the audacity to insult our religion? We want him punished. We demand that he be hanged.” Another man, who said he was part of a ‘protest rally’ and wanted Kaustav lynched, said, “He deserves to be stoned to death.” The news of the offending FB post, followed by the decision to take action against Kaustav, spread quickly through social media. “It was not difficult to track him. His FB page had details such as his address and phone number. From his photo some of us recognised him. We knew him.”

Interestingly, Kaustav’s neighbours, both Hindu and Muslim, are surprised that “a meek boy such as him”—as one acquaintance des­cribes him—“could do som­e­thing so horrible as to post that obscene picture”.

Shankar Roy, one of the few Hindus living in Rudrapur, knew Kaustav’s father well. “It is unthinkable that he would do such a horrible thing. He is well-brought up. His mot­her died and his father wanted to give him a good education and sent him here to live with his elder brother. Kaustav lived here with his uncle,” Roy points to the one-storey house, its iron grilles locked from the outside, the green shrubs surrounding it burnt to ashes by rioters. “By the time the mob arrived he had already been arrested by police and taken away,” says Roy, adding that the uncle and the father also fled the scene. According to him, some elder and mature members of the community had advised the furious agitators that since the boy had been arrested the matter should end, but were roughly over-ruled in favour of vigilante justice.

It has been suggested that when Kaustav’s uncle, a low-ranked police officer, got news that a mob was on its way to his house, he whisked him away and that his arrest has saved his life. “Otherwise, he would have been stoned to death after being tried under Sharia law as the mob demanded,” says a neighbour.

And yet, lingering doubts remain whether Kaustav himself had uploaded or even forwarded the offensive post, or if his account had been hacked and he was made a scapegoat. Even the young Muslim men of Baduria and Rudrapur don’t deny that possibility. “It could be that there are others involved,” said a Baduria local. “But we don’t know that. Since it appeared on his FB page, he became the target of our anger.”

Baduria’s young and old are divided

Photograph by Sandipan Chatterjee

Considering the boy’s upbringing and surroundings—he lived in a Muslim area just across from the local mosque, had Muslim friends and would have been aware of the imp­lications of such a post—it is indeed difficult for many in Baduria to blame him. The boy himself is understood to have told police that he did not do it.

“We are not ruling out the possibility that there was vested political interest behind the offensive post with a view to create trouble,” said a Bengal politician.

These are serious allegations. Yet the speculations refuse to die down, especially when seen with the fact that in recent years communal disharmony has spread throughout Bengal, especially in districts—like Malda, Murshidabad and now, N. 24 Parganas—that border Bangladesh. So, is someone ‘introducing’ communal tension in famously ‘secular’ Bengal, the past bastion of the Communists, where Hindus and Muslims supposedly live as “bhai-bhai, behen-behen”, as Baduria’s Mujib-ur-Rehman put it?

A few amateurish attempts to whip up ‘retaliation’ during the Baduria-Basirhat violence have already been made. Calcutta police booked BJP spokesperson Nupur Sharma on July 10 for allegedly posting pictures of the 2002 Gujarat riots on Twitter and linking it to the violence in N. 24 Parganas. A Haryana BJP leader also allegedly used a disturbing image from a Bhojpuri film to show the ‘plight of Hindus’ in Bengal.

As the usual attendant to unrest of this sort, political parties have accused each other with unflagging gusto.

The Trinamool Congress and its sup­remo, Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee, have time and again accused the BJP of inciting communal tension with the purpose of gaining power in the state. “The only chance the BJP has to capture power in Bengal is to pit the Hindu vote against the Muslim vote,” explains a Trinamool leader. “But in Bengal, Hindus don’t vote as a whole and the basis of their vote is not religion. It is not a ‘united’ vote. So the BJP is trying to create a ‘Hindu’ feeling by fanning religious sentiments,” he adds.

The BJP, on the other hand, has accused Trinamool of failing to contain violence against Hindus in Bengal, of appeasing Muslims to secure their ‘Muslim votebank’ and thus, by default, catering to Islamic fundamentalism.

For all the solidarity of the secular on social media and on the ground, a strategy of ‘arousing religious sentiment’ appears to be working.

“Under the present regime, if you belong to this community, you are given certain unstated privileges that the other communities don’t enjoy,” Dilip Ghosh, BJP’s Bengal state president, tells Outlook. “The chief minister has created financial grants for Imams, the money for which comes out of the state exchequer. Have religious heads of other communities received such undue favours? Isn’t such overt favouritism driving a wedge through the secular fabric of the state?” he asks. The BJP, says Ghosh, “wants unified laws for everyone, without any special favours. In Bengal, Hindus have lost their voice because of ‘appeasement’ of Muslims by successive state governments. We want to return that voice to them.”

For all the solidarity of the secular in Facebook and that on the field in places like Deganga, near Basirhat, where the two communities stood guard to quell any vicious rumour, the BJP strategy of “arousing religious sentiment” amongst Hindus seems to be working.

A resident of Malda—the north Bengal district close to the Bangladesh border, where communal riots had taken place last year—tells Outlook, “For many years now, during different pujas, we have been barred by community members from practising such religious rituals as blowing conch shells or giving ‘ulu’ (auspicious ululation). We have never had the courage to protest. It has been like living in an Islamic country.” The banker says he will vote BJP in the next state elections.

‘Hindu’ sentiments were also successfully aroused in Howrah district’s Dhula­garh, where communal riots had broken out in December 2016. A group of boys playing carrom in a local club, tells Outlook, “We are all Hindus. Earlier, we had a lot of Muslim friends and they too came and played with us. But not since the riots. How can we share the same space with boys who looted our houses and dishonoured our mothers and sisters?”

Ashta Khanra and his elder brother, part of the local panchayat, narrates the way the riots played out in their village. “Mobs of men charged down the street, marking all the Hindu houses. Then, groups of them broke in and entered the house, looting. They entered in large groups and took away everything-gold jewellery, cash, gadgets, utensils, children’s bicycles.... Then they set fire to furniture and other merchandise that they couldn’t take with them. It was horrific.” Khanra says he is shocked that the same men who had been like his brothers had turned into enemies overnight. “For years, we lived harmoniou­sly. They attended our Pujas and we attended their Eid ceremonies. So we don’t understand how it could all change so suddenly.”

It’s this sense of dazed bafflement that seems to have permeated dozens of these remote riot-hit areas. The question that both Hindus and Muslims are asking is, “What suddenly happened to turn us into enemies?” And the answers aren’t blowing in the wind.

In Dhulagarh, says Kha­nra, “their community eld­ers inexplicably decided to take out a religious procession which they had never done. When the police ­den­ied them permission they started attacking us.” It is the same story across Bardhaman, Birbhum, Hoo­­­ghly, How­­rah, Malda and Murshidabad.

In Baduria, a Muslim youth comes up and says, “I want to tell you something. Actually, we only wanted to take out a protest rally. Suddenly, there were ‘outsiders’, people whom even we, the local boys, didn’t recognise. They started the rampage, setting fire to police vehicles, dem­anding that the boy be handed over. Then, some local youths joined in. We are confused.” The only certainty is that both communities are gripped by an unknown ‘fear’ of the other, a horribly downward spiral that has caught them unawares and pulled them in its folds, and which they fail to comprehend.

Night has already descended over Baduria and through the sound of the lashing rain one can hear the crunch of boots on the wet streets. Police and paramilitary personnel march for one last round. An initiative started by the new SDPO of Baduria police station Anil Kumar Roy, it is apparently an exercise in “confidence building”.

“We never lacked confidence earlier,” says the teacher. The welcome drumming of rain would once be enough to lull the villagers into sleep. Now, they need the firm reassurance of boots on the ground.

By Dola Mitra in North 24 Parganas

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