Bengal burns: Competitive communalism takes its toll on Asansol

There was hardly any communal tension in Bengal earlier till the increasingly belligerent and demonstrative Ram Navami processions started being taken out

Getty images
Getty images

Biswajit Roy

A solitary Muslim sitting with Hindus around him and in peace was a rare sight in Asansol. Following the communal frenzy in the wake of Ram Navami processions on March 26, the few Muslim families in ‘Depot Para’ had left for safer sanctuaries. Mohammad Salauddin too prepared to leave two roadside shops belonging to Muslims and a Mazaar close to the settlement were vandalised. But his Hindu neighbours stopped him.

He was now sitting with his neighbours, recounting their losses. Joginder Mahto, Maharaja Prasad, Ashok Paswan, Amit Rajak and Durga Verma among others pleaded with him to stay back. “I decided to trust them with my life,” recalled the middle aged Muslim. “We have stayed together for generations here and sweat it out together to earn a living. We don’t really have the time to care for politics or religion. Will these leaders compensate our daily income of at least two hundred Rupees that each one of us has been losing over the past several days,” asks an agitated Paswan. The youngest in the group, Amit, is a rickshaw puller. “I ferry passengers of both faiths. But now they look at each other with suspicion and are scared to venture into each other’s area. I am also worried about the risk. So, my income has also declined sharply,” he says with a shrug.

Asansol on the Jharkhand-Bengal border is an industrial town fed by the adjacent coal belt of Raniganj. It is a ‘mini India’ with people from all corners of the country flocking here in search of a living. There are Sikhs, Christians, Muslims and of course Hindus, who have lived together for a century. One can hear Punjabi, Urdu and Hindi being spoken on the streets along with Bengali. Tapas Bhattacharya has a coal dump and his neighbour Achintya Banerjee is a corporation employee. Old residents, they nostalgically recalled the good, old days. “Our procession during Durga Puja used to start from Sukur Mian’s place. Local Muslim youth would enthusiastically participate in the display of martial arts and ‘lathi khela’, exhibiting their skill. This was such a regular feature," they tell each other and nod sadly. “We participated in Eid Milan programs. Interfaith social mixing was part of daily life. But the growing influence of religious politics has spread mutual fear and distrust. Now these fanatics have burnt the tailoring shop of Sukur Ali’s descendants this time,” Bhattacharya recalls pointing to the vandalised kiosks and shops around Dhadka and Depot Para.

Despite the growing distrust in Asansol, there is a silver lining. The local Kali temple has taken the initiative to rebuild vandalised places of worship and shops

"Fire does not distinguish between Hindus and Muslims”

The demolition of the Babri mosque was the turning point. Muslims and Hindus began leaving mixed localities. Safety was in numbers and the fear was fueled by the land mafia from both communities that enjoyed political patronage. “We hardly ever had any communal tension over Muharram and Durga Puja processions earlier. But the increasingly belligerent and demonstrative Ram Navami processions over the last few years rang alarm bells,” says Joginder Mahto. “Sooner the government stops all religious processions, the better it is for all, he exclaims before adding, “truly devout people can worship Ram or Rahim at home or in their mandir and mosques,” the cart-puller says sagely. Others are not so sure.

“If Ram Navami rallies are stopped, will Muslims accept the ban on Muharram processions? That will create more trouble,” Durga Verma argues. Despite the growing distrust, however, there is a silver lining, they agree. The local Kali temple has taken the initiative to rebuild vandalised places of worship and shops. Imam Imdadullah Rashidi, who leads the prayers at the Noorani mosque close to OK Road, lost his teenaged younger son who had appeared at the secondary board examination. Haji Nasim Ansari, a councillor, recalled that it was on March 28 when the body of the teenaged boy was identified. “We wept together at the mosque that night and prayed for peace. Imam Sab told me to get the body released from police while he would arrange for his son’s burial the next day.”

“At my child’s Janaza, I appealed for peace. Further bloodshed wouldn’t bring my son back and I didn’t want other parents to suffer like me and my wife. I told the mourners that I would leave Asansol If any of them even think of avenging my son’s murder,” the middle-aged Imam said. His soulful words brought tears in the eyes of assembled people and calmed down the frayed nerves, Ansari recalled.

Not everyone lost their lives in the hands of rioters. Pratima Raut actually came under the wheels of a police vehicle. She contributed to the family income by making chapatis at a railway canteen. She had gone out in search of her sons after rioting started. But blinded by tear gas shells, she was run over by a police vehicle which was retreating from the scene. The two boys seemed more resentful of the fact that they had not been visited by any politician. After having denied the incident initially, the police announced a compensation and the city’s mayor belonging to the All India Trinamool Congress (AITC) assured one of the boys a job. In Raniganj, 20 km away, Mahto’s demand for a ban on religious processions found some resonance. Raniganj now comes under the same Nagar Nigam and the same Police Commissioner as Asansol in the newly created district of Paschim Bardhamman.

The worst hit were the traders in the Rajbadh-Hatkhola area where more than 200 shops at a municipal market and around it were looted and reduced to ashes. Vegetables, fish, rice, fruits and gadgets were plundered from shops. Crestfallen traders do not try to hide their bitterness even as they slowly begin to take stock of their losses. “Fire does not distinguish between Hindus and Muslims. Once some of them set fire, it spread to the adjoining shops,” says a bitter Benchan Pandit, a grocer who is mainly a rice dealer. Other traders like Hillu Khan, MD Alauddin, Ramesh Jaiswal and Paresh Das nod in agreement. Processions, especially religious processions and the armed ones, are better banned, they say in unison. “It’s better to stop all such rallies whether it is Ram Navami or Milad-Un Nabi,” says Qaiyyum Khan emphatically.

Others echo the sentiment. All-faith meetings are being organised by traders and other civil society groups reminding people of the city’s tradition of offering sharbat to the participants in Muharram and Ram Navami rallies as well as on Guru Nanak’s birthday. Both Hindu and Muslim women complained of police inaction and the all pervasive sense of insecurity. Swaraswati Sharma and Yasmin Khatun, Bhasani Badyokar and Husna Bibi were all in tears while narrating how jewellery meant for weddings and household goods such as refrigerators and washing machine were looted or destroyed. Rita, a teenager, who is appearing at the ongoing higher secondary examination, cried as vandals torched her home, burning everything including her examination admit card. In Dompara, Dalit slum dwellers Nandini Badyokar, Basanti Badyokar, Jyotsna Dom and Kabita Dom, all of them working as domestic help in middle class homes, took us to their dilapidated houses. “Neither police nor fire services men listened to our plea to save us claiming that they did not have orders to move into our slums. No government officer or political leader has turned up since then, Jyotsna lamented.

“We could not save each other’s homes despite being neighbours for generations. This increasing communalisation of politics and war cries like ‘Jai Sri Ram’ and ‘Allahu Akbar’ during the clashes brought back the horror of the Partition days,” Sudhakar Mandol, an octogenarian former school teacher recalled

“We are extremely scared to move out but have no money to feed ourselves. Our employers may not retain us if we do not report for work… we are at our wit’s end,” they wailed. Muslim women and men pointed to the boys of Dompara and their accomplices from other localities who have become converts to the cause of the Sangh Parivar and its heady politics of hatred. “One of the boys who had attacked my home threatened to rip open my body with his sword like what they did to Muslim women in Gujarat,” an elderly Noorjahan Bibi said. Dompara women blamed local Muslim boys. “Billi, Kallu, Sagra and Taj were among those who had beaten us up and set our homes on fire,” Kabita complained. Some Dompara youths, rickshaw pullers and daily wage workers, admitted that they had attended the VHP-organised Ram Navami rally on 26 March and clashed with local Muslim boys close to Trinamool Congress.

“They opposed our slogans and loud music near the mosque and attacked us with brickbats and bombs. We fought back. After Muslims put our homes on fire, we paid them back in the same coin,” said Shambhu Choudhury. Muslims, both AITC and Left supporters, described the Dompara as the ‘den of VHP- Vajrang Dal’ and accused them of inciting the clash by raising provocative slogans against Muslims and amplifying them through high-decibel ‘DJ’ boxes, now an essential part of Bengal’s competitive communal campaigns as well as religious festivals, before a local mosque.

“They carried sharp weapons as well as bombs on small trucks in the processions and used them to attack our locality. We had to defend ourselves,” Khalid Ansari, a resident, said. “These political competitions between BJP-VHP and AITC over Ram Navami and Milad-Un-Nabi rallies are destroying peace and harmony in the area. Why did VHP raise provocative slogans against Muslims and Islam in the name of Ram? The government must ban the cassettes and CDs of songs which are offensive to other religions. Our boys too made the mistake of taking law and order in their own hands. Hindu and Muslim boys burnt and looted each other’s homes. What are the benefits they and their political masters have brought to their own community,” asked an upset Abed Irbil. “We could not save each other’s homes despite being neighbours for generations. This increasing communalisation of politics and war cries like ‘Jai Sri Ram’ and ‘Allahu Akbar’ during the clashes brought back the horror of the Partition days,” Sudhakar Mandol, an octogenarian former school teacher recalled.

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