POLITICS

Why Pointing Fingers At Each Other Would Be The Worst Thing Politicians Can Do In Violence-Hit Bengal Right Now

No matter how offensive a Facebook post, no mob has a right to run wild, just as no man should be lynched for the food he eats.

06/07/2017 4:50 PM IST | Updated 06/07/2017 4:50 PM IST
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Heavy Police and Paramilitary deployment in Baduria after protests over an objectionable social media post on July 5, 2017 in North 24 Parganas, India.

What's uncontested is that violence did happen in Bengal's North 24 Parganas, that logs were piled on roads, police vehicles were burned, internet services were blocked, storefronts smashed. What's also uncontested is that the ostensible trigger for the communal flare-up was a derogatory post by a local teenager about Mecca.

What is less clear is the backstory. That changes depending on your political ideology.

For those who back the Trinamool government this is the BJP trying to fish in troubled waters, attempting a Hindu-Muslim polarization in Bengal especially in the border districts where changing demographics and stories of cattle trafficking are hot button issues. Telegraph's state government source thinks the hidden agenda is to buttress the local BJP's demand that President's rule be imposed on the state. It certainly helps the BJP garner the main opposition space in Bengal from the moth eaten Congress and the browbeaten CPM.

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Vehicles torched in violence in Baduria after protests over an objectionable social media post on July 5, 2017 in North 24 Parganas, India.

Those opposed to the Mamata Banerjee government position this as one more example of pandering to minority communities to shore up votebanks. The accusation against her is her police remain inactive while the mob runs amok and releases its energy and the government tries to impose a news blackout on the conflagration. It feeds into a narrative of Hindus under attack coupled with stories of stipends for imams and there are plenty of videos circulating out there to fan the flames.

One thing is obvious. What happened in Baduria is not to the Trinamool government's benefit. In the Times Now video, residents in Basirhat insist that they did not recognize the perpetrators, that the police were MIA. Both sides can seize on those accounts for their own purpose.

For those who back the Trinamool government this is the BJP trying to fish in troubled waters, attempting a Hindu-Muslim polarization in Bengal especially in the border districts where changing demographics and stories of cattle trafficking are hot button issues.

Trinamool can insist it proves that these are outside forces meddling in Bengal to create polarization. The BJP can insist it proves the state government are so beholden to votebank politics it is unable or unwilling to crack down on law breakers.

And now the Governor of West Bengal and the Chief Minister are having a public spat. Mamata Banerjee lashed out at the governor for having given her a dressing down over the phone and humiliated her. Trinamool leader Partha Chatterjee demanded an "expression of regret". Raj Bhavan reminded the CM rather tellingly that the state government's job is to "maintain peace and law and order without making any distinction on the basis of caste, creed or community". If only this precept was universally applied in all states across the country.

Coming on the heels of the nationwide #NotInMyName protests this can become an exhibit in the BJP-led gripe of liberal double standards — eager to protest the lynching of Hafiz Junaid but not the riots in Baduria so much.

It also plays into another narrative. Coming on the heels of the nationwide #NotInMyName protests this can become an exhibit in the BJP-led gripe of liberal double standards — eager to protest the lynching of Hafiz Junaid but not the riots in Baduria so much. But it merely proves that when it comes to violence, one side is never permanent victims. It's a vicious cycle that feeds upon itself. And it's a sad commentary when the ugly reality of communal breakdown is almost overshadowed by the whataboutery.

But all of this blame game distracts us from one far more unsettling reality that affects everyone in the state. The ulterior motive might have been to stoke communal polarization or it might be sheer religious sensitivity but neither is reassuring for our long term future. And it's no use pointing fingers at one community or the other.

Both are happy to use social media to flex political muscle. In this case a teenager posts blasphemous comments about Islam and triggers a firestorm. Not that long ago two young women wondered why Mumbai had to shut down for Bal Thackeray's funeral and found themselves facing police action while the hospital belonging to the uncle of one of them was vandalized by a mob.

Instead of apologizing, Shiv Sena spokesman Sanjay Raut coolly said: "The bandh was spontaneous and not forced by Sena. It was because of love and respect for Balasaheb. Shiv Sainiks were naturally upset at the misuse of the social media to post provocative comments."

The fact remains that incidents like this prove that we live in a country where a Facebook post by a teenager is enough to mobilize a rioting mob just as a Whatsapp forward is enough to galvanize a lynch mob of cow vigilantes. We live in a country whether the police are seen as feeling forced to temper their response to a mob depending on the political masters they answer to. In a country as diverse as India, it's easy to be affronted on a daily basis. Taking offence is not unusual.

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Vehicles torched in violence in Baduria after protests over an objectionable social media post on July 5, 2017 in North 24 Parganas, India.

What's noteworthy is the way we do so. There should be no doubt that no matter how offensive a post, the answer to that is never a mob running wild on the streets, burning cars and smashing windows. Nor can a country of law ever countenance a demand that a teenager be stoned to death for a blasphemous post just as a country of law should never allow an ironsmith to be lynched to death because of the kind of meat he might or might not have in his refrigerator.

But the preferred and easiest mode of protest is too often vigilantism and mobs whether it's an Islamist mob on a rampage or gau rakshaks on midnight patrol.

But the preferred and easiest mode of protest is too often vigilantism and mobs whether it's an Islamist mob on a rampage or gau rakshaks on midnight patrol. We see this violence even at the local college where students not allowed to sit for examinations because they do not have enough attendance ransack offices and gherao principals with the help of a sympathetic student union.

The West Bengal government has announced the formation of Shanti Bahinis with members and local leaders of all communities to preserve the peace. But in a time when people believe WhatsApp forwards and doctored photos more than the evening news they have their work cut out for them. Building trust is difficult. And when political parties turn a blind eye to violence or even orchestrate it for short term gain, it has long term consequences for the rest of us. Governors and governments come and go but the precedents they set bedevil us for much longer.

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