POLITICS

The Truth Behind The Riots In Bengal That The Media Doesn't Report

Groups of Hindus and Muslims are living in fear, many are homeless.

27/12/2016 10:27 AM IST | Updated 27/12/2016 10:52 AM IST
Swati Sengupta

"How did you manage to come here?" Dr Amalendu Das asked me, as I walked into his medicine store at Howrah's Dewanghat, approximately 37 km from Kolkata.

"Journalists were not allowed to enter this place all this while," he says, surprised. The air around us smells of burnt rubber and cloth. This is where violent clashes erupted between groups of Hindus and Muslims on December 12, the day the Milad-un-Nabi was observed by the Muslims.

The clashes, ransacking of shops, and looting and burning down of houses continued for three to four more days, and, according to official figures, a hundred houses and shops were ransacked, and completely or partially damaged or gutted. Fifty one persons were arrested.

Swati Sengupta

Muktoram Bagui, Rabin Das, Samir Das, Ashok Paramanik and several other shopowners in the area begin to walk in as they see me inside the only place in this 200 metre stretch that is open, perhaps because it is a medicine store-cum-doctor's clinic. They all want to show me how Muslims rampaged through their shops and houses for three days. These are sweets shops, bicycle and medicine stores.

"It all began here. Right in front of my eyes. They (the Muslims) had come prepared with bombs and stones."

Dewanghat and Dhulagori villages – under Sankrail police station – have a mix of poor and upper middle class residents. A large number of people here run small scale businesses – of imitation jewellery, hand or machine embroideries, tea packaging and so on – from their homes. Those who have done well have built two or three storied houses, but these continue to stand cheek by jowl with homes of the very poor that have not done so well in their businesses.

The houses belong to people of both communities – Hindus and Muslims – who have continued to live as friendly neighbours so far, they all admit.

"Never has such a thing happened here before," they all say.

"It all began here. Right in front of my eyes. They (the Muslims) had come prepared with bombs and stones," said Amalendu Das, pointing out to the 20 feet road through which buses and trucks, private vehicles ply to the interiors of Sankrail. "They wanted to take the procession through the lanes dotted by Hindu homes. When they were asked to not go inside, they began to hurl bombs," Das said.

It is only a few seconds later that I realise Rabin Das' neighbours are all Muslims who have been forced to flee the area as the Hindus charged at them and drove them away.

Now, a police picket has been posted about 10 feet away from the clinic. As I walk up to Muktoram Bagui's shop, closer to where the police are camped, one or two constables walk in our direction and ask me to stop taking photographs. The area is still tense, with police teams of eight to ten constables and a few seniors posted every few feet – outside markets, inside lanes and bylanes. A huge contingent of police is camping in an open ground, where a fire services vehicle is also parked.

Swati Sengupta

I accompany Rabin Das to his home. He shows me burnt frames of bicycles destroyed by Muslims at his shop. But the houses all around are eerily silent. What's wrong? Where are his neighbours?

It is only a few seconds later that I realise Rabin Das' neighbours are all Muslims who have been forced to flee the area as the Hindus charged at them and drove them away. A small factory for imitation jewellery and a few homes around were all set on fire. Some clothes hung in the rooms, and everything from pots and pans to exercise copies lay burnt. No residents could be seen around.

Close by, I also visit the damaged homes of Prasenjit Khanra, Raju Mollyo, Debu Mollyo, Rampada Manna (whose pet bird was killed in the rampage) and Dipak Mondol.

Electricity repairs are on, as damaged television sets, beds, AC machines, burnt books and exercise copies lie scattered around. I hop into the car again and after turning a few lanes, visit the home of Dr Sowgat Laskar, whose house was among the few Muslim homes, he says, that was spared in the rampage.

"We have always been treated as second class citizens in this country. I have heard that the Hindus disrespected our religion the day the religion processions were taken out, and then they charged at our men without provocation," Laskar said. "They hurled bombs and stones at our procession."

"We have always been treated as second class citizens in this country. I have heard that the Hindus disrespected our religion the day the religion processions were taken out, and then they charged at our men without provocation."

Now, the women in the house allege that the Hindu men are constantly hurling abuses at them and threatening them all day. "It is difficult to step out of home," says one of the women in Laskar's home.

Some of their relatives and neighbours have fled their homes, including the owner of the imitation jewellery factory I had seen. The house of Anisur Rahman Middey has been ransacked – broken doors, almirahs, refrigerator - their homes looted. The floors are filled with shards of glass.

"Now they are saying we have to leave this country. Why? Aren't we second class citizens?" This time, Sowgat Laskar stresses on the word citizens. There's no way I miss the biting sarcasm, and the immense hurt with which he says those words.

***

The media has reported little of the communal clashes that have been taking place from time to time in West Bengal in recent times. There were clashes in Mograhat of South 24 Parganas, Rampurhat, Mayureshwar in Birbhum, Kharagpur in West Midnapore, Chinsurah, Chandannagar in Hooghly district, among other places in the state.

"One Would Rather 'Miss' A Story Than Aggravate Violent Clashes"

Anirban Choudhury, Editor, 24 Ghanta, a 24 hour Bengali news channel, said that there is a school of thought – mostly dominant in West Bengal – that believes reporting on communal clashes may lead to further flare-ups.

"So one would rather 'miss' a story than aggravate violent clashes," he said. "The media reports on political clashes even if these are violent. But in case of religious clashes, it is avoided by some media groups because hoodlums get the licence to do anything from rapes to rampaging homes in the name of religion."

Swati Sengupta

24 Ghanta did not report the clashes at Dhulagori, but Ei Samay, a Bengali daily of the Times of India group, did.

Suman Chattopadhyay, Editor, Ei Samay, said: "We mentioned names of those whose homes and shops were attacked, but avoided saying it was a communal clash. It has somehow been ingrained in us that if we report communal clashes, it may aggravate. But times have changed, and the time has come to report these."

The Mamata Banerjee government had a tough time handling the situation on the ground – given that the Kolkata Police's Rapid Action Force (RAF) had to be rushed to Howrah, an adjoining district, to bring the situation under control. That itself is being considered unprecedented.

The Howrah Superintendent of Police, Sabyasachi Raman Mishra was transferred and the Deputy Commissioner of Howrah Police Commissionerate (traffic), Sumit Kumar, was brought in his place.

While senior officers in the state say that it was a matter of police's failure that led to the situation going out of hand, others feel that this is just a matter of Mamata Banerjee's alleged "appeasement" of the minorities that is turning out to be counterproductive.

The Mamata Banerjee government had a tough time handling the situation on the ground – given that the Kolkata Police's Rapid Action Force (RAF) had to be rushed to Howrah, an adjoining district, to bring the situation under control. That itself is being considered unprecedented.

On 24 December, the BJP had sent a team from Delhi comprising MPs Jagdambika Pal, Satpal Singh, along with BJP's Bengal president Dilip Ghosh to get a report from the spot. But the team was prevented from going into the area by the West Bengal Police by implementing prohibitory orders under Section 144 of CrPC.

Swati Sengupta

More than ten days later, the situation is far from peaceful. Groups of Hindus and Muslims are living in fear, many are homeless (and are staying at relatives' homes in adjoining villages). Others are unhappy with the state government compensation of Rs 35,000 for damaged homes and shops.

The BJP is backing those who are still fuming over the compensation amount. "People's homes were ransacked, their jewellery looted. How can they do with only Rs 35,000? They have lost property worth few lakhs," said Dilip Ghosh.

The Trinamool Congress MLA Sital Sardar is jittery about things going out of control. While the local Hindu shop owners have formed a forum and are planning processions and meetings in the area, yet another political delegation, this time the CPM general secretary Sitaram Yechury and MP Mohd Salim is scheduled to visit the area on Tuesday.

Dhulagori is still on the edge.

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