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Mainstream, VOL LV No 30 New Delhi July 15, 2017

West Bengal: Communal Flare-up in Basirhat - Not Spontaneous but Planned

Sunday 16 July 2017, by Barun Das Gupta


Widespread communal violence broke out in Basirhat and its surrounding areas on July 4. Apparently, it was a ‘spontaneous’ outburst of Muslim anger against a highly objectionable and provocative Facebook post by a boy in his teens. The boy, a resident of Baduria, some fifteen kms from Basirhat town in the North 24-Parganas district of West Bengal, is known to be a member of an organisation that subscribes to the Hindutva ideology. The whole area is close to the Bangladesh border and communally sensitive. The post was deleted and the boy arrested but instigators on both sides fanned the communal flames that engulfed the whole area.

But before July 4, something happened on Sunday, July 2 that prepared the ground for the explosive communal charge. A local newspaper, published from Basirhat town, carried a tendentious and false story that alleged that the Pakistani flag was hoisted on the Id day by some local Muslims. Ostensibly the story was a planted one because taking it as the cue, local Muslims began to be targeted. So, by the time the Facebook posting appeared, the whole area had turned into a veritable tinderbox.

Soon it became apparent that there was nothing ‘spontaneous’ about the violence. It was well-planned and had been in the making for quite some time. Local Muslims of Baduria were unanimous in blaming ‘outsiders’ who, they alleged, came in droves and started indulging in arson and looting. The same was the story in Basirhat. ‘Outsiders’ came and started the violence, targeting one community.

For about a decade, the Jamaat of Bangladesh has been very active in the area. As the Sheikh Hasina Government started acting against communal organisations in Bangladesh, many of their activists crossed the border and took shelter in West Bengal. The Jamaatis were holding meetings and spreading communal poison.

This paved the way for the Hindutva brigade to enter the scene. They concentrated on the Hindu refugee population who had come from the then East Pakistan and settled here. One of their dominant themes was that the Hindus were about to be outnumbered by the Muslims. Riding on this Hindu sentiment, BJP candidate Shamik Bhattacharya won the Basirhat Assembly seat in a by-election in 2014 as a lone BJP legislator.

What was remarkable, however, was that the local Muslims refused to be swayed by the communal propaganda of the Jamaat. The resisted the Jamaat and the conflict between the local Muslims and the Jamaatis from Bangladesh sharpened. But the stark fact was that communal elements from both sides were active in the area.

When the trouble actually broke out on July 4, the police and local administration were caught unawares. This was surprising because they knew of the communal situation in the area and should have well anticipated trouble after the provocative post appeared in Facebook. Why no immediate action was taken and no preparations were made for handling the developing situation beats comprehension. Perhaps the truth will come out when the one-man Judicial Commission set up by the West Bengal Government to inquire into the Basirhat violence starts working.

Light may be thrown also on the provocative Facebook posting. Did the teenager did it on his own or was he instigated by others to do it? If so, what was their motive?

While the print and electronic media in the State have been covering the Basirhat violence with remarkable restraint, caution and objecti-vity, highlighting the unity of the local Hindus and Muslims, the so-called ‘national’ media channels in Delhi are playing a highly partisan role that violates every norm of objective reporting.

Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee has com-plained that video clips of old incidents that took place in Comilla in Bangladesh and scenes from a Bhojpuri film were telecast by these channels purporting to be the riot scenes of Basirhat. She has warned that the State Govern-ment would take action against two national TV channels for showing ‘fake’ video clips claiming them to be related to the Basirhat clashes. She was all praise for the people of Baduria and Basirhat for ‘not falling into the BJP’s trap, despite provocations’.

The Kolkata newspapers are daily carrying reports and photographs that highlight the traditional unity of the two communities in the troubled area. There are instances of panicky Muslim families being given shelter to and protected by the Hindus, or the resolve of the leaders of both communities to isolate the trouble-mongers and frustrate their designs.

Basirhat, however, may be a portent of the future. The BJP, which was a marginal force in West Bengal politics, has suddenly become very active after the party’s victory in the general elections in 2014. It is making a determined bid to win over different sections of the people— from intellectuals and former bureaucrats to artists and people from other walks of life. Many former Left activists, especially those of the CPI-M, have joined the BJP. With their experience in fighting elections, they will be of great help to the BJP in fighting the 2021 Assembly elections. The number of RSS shakhas has significantly increased in West Bengal since 2014.

The BJP is actively pursuing its strategy of communal polarisation of the electorate. Political observers fear that more Basirhat-Baduria type of violence may break out in different parts of the State. The party is taking advantage of the public perception that Mamata Banerjee is ‘soft’ towards the Muslims and has taken known communal elements among them in her party and even in the State Cabinet.

Indeed, it cannot be denied that under the surface calm there is a strong undercurrent of communal feeling prevailing in the State. It would be unwise to believe that the police and administration will remain totally unaffected by the prevailing atmosphere.

The BJP has already upped the ante against Mamata and the TMC Government. It has raised a strident demand that the State Government be immediately dismissed for failing to maintain law and order. The Baduria-Basirhat incidents apart, the widespread violence that the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha has unleashed in Darjeeling for a separate Gorkhaland is being cited as another valid reason for applying Article 356 of the Constitution in the State. If trouble breaks out in more areas, the BJP will mount more pressure on the Centre.

The State BJP leaders are in constant touch with the Raj Bhavan. They are keeping Governor Keshari Nath Tripathi posted with up-to-date information on the troubles and demanding his intervention. Once recently, after a BJP delegation met him, the Governor rang up the Chief Minister and wanted to know what steps the State Government was taking to control the situation and restore law and order.

What actually transpired between them is not known but the very next day Mamata held a press conference where she accused the Governor of ‘humiliating, insulting and threa-tening’ her. She alleged that the Raj Bhavan had become a BJP office and the Governor was talking like a ‘BJP block committee secretary’. The charge was immediately refuted by the Raj Bhavan which said the Governor had been dumbstruck by the absurd nature of the allegations. The Governor was only discharging his constitutional duties, it was claimed. [One is not aware if the Governor was also dumbstuck by the statement of the former State BJP chief, Rahul Sinha, that Keshari Nath Tripathi was a ‘devoted soldier of the Modi brigade’. According to party insiders, Sinha was in this way trying to settle scores with the current State BJP President, Dilip Ghosh.]

Disturbed by the public spat between the Governor and the Chief Minister, the Centre intervened. Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh called up Tripathi and Mamata and asked them to stop making charges and counter-charges in public. Soon, the Governor said he was ‘satisfied’ with the steps taken by the State Government to deal with the law and order situation. Some senior Ministers of the State Cabinet also joined in the controversy on the side of the Chief Minister.

Some observers believe that the BJP is deliberately trying to create a law and order situation to make a case for dismissing the State Government and keeping West Bengal under President’s Rule till 2019. The BJP wants both the Assembly and Lok Sabha elections to be held simultaneously in 2019. Press reports have appeared suggesting that the Centre is examining the constitutional provisions to find out if there is any scope of bringing the State under PR.

What is tragic is that in the face of the communal challenge and the Centre’s attempt at weakening the federal structure, the Congress and CPI-M are carrying on a constant anti-Mamata propaganda regarding the current situation. As both parties have greatly lost their support base and been marginalised in State politics, their propaganda is not helping them but the BJP. The CPI-M is continuing its old propaganda line that Modi and Mamata are in cahoots with each other and the war between the BJP and TMC is a mutually arranged ‘show’ to fool the public. This is the CPI-M’s understanding of the present situation. Even God cannot save them!

The author was a correspondent of The Hindu in Assam. He also worked in Patriot, Compass (Bengali), Mainstream. A veteran journalist, he comes from a Gandhian family and was intimately associated with the RCPI leader, Pannalal Das Gupta.

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