Investigation into Asansol riots (Part two): Police failure and party infighting escalated the riots

  • April 16, 2018

The communal fire in the coupled cities of Asansol and Raniganj, the largest industrial hub of West Bengal has been doused for now. But the embers are still glowing. Who turned this ‘mini India’ into a hotbed of hatred in the name of Ram? How and why? A two-part investigative report by Biswajit Roy unravels the method in the madness of the politics of polarization. This is Part Two. (Click here for Part One).

Role of the Police

Police response in Asansol-Raniganj pointed to a pattern that the state had witnessed in other hotspots earlier. From Kaliachak to Basirhat, Dhulagarh to Asansol-Raniganj, prolonged police passivity has only increased time and space for the dance of death and destructions as investigations by this correspondent as well as fellow travelers have pointed out. Aariz Jalees, the CPM councilor from Raniganj’s Hill Basti area recalled how they tried to keep the rioters from both sides apart from each other for more than two hours while asking for reinforcement for the small police team that was clearly outnumbered and shaken. Three senior IPS officers and a contingent from Kolkata police were rushed to Asansol to control the situation two days after the initial clash, apparently in response to the BJP’s clamor for deployment of central forces and home ministry’s offer of assistance.

The police, seldom known as the paragon of patience to Opposition rallies, resorted to ‘maximum restraint’ even after police stations were attacked by frenzied mobs or top cops were badly injured. An ACP of Asansol police who had almost lost his right hand after a bomb hit him at Raniganj was the latest example. Police officials either confided their helplessness in the wake of ‘order from the top’ to avoid police firing that would invite larger trouble for the government in case of casualties or blamed meddling of ministers from districts and ruling party leaders. The absence of political determination and police professionalism to handle the rioters of all hues with iron hands has only helped the Sangh.

Ruling party infighting

That the TMC infighting had helped BJP last time is an open secret. Mamata’s chosen candidate, Dola Sen, Naxalite-turned TMC labor leader, lost following her tussle with state minister and Asansol north MLA Malay Ghatak and Mayor Jitendra Tiwari, who is also a MLA from Pandabeswar. With the ‘outsider’ Sen being dispatched to Rajya Sabha, Tiwari is being now touted as the next TMC Lok Sabha candidate in 2019. Ghatak’s camp is not exactly happy with the prospect. According to the ruling party workers as well as local journalists, Tiwari hobnobs more with the Hindu leaders as he eyes the Lok Sabha seat now. The civic body led by him has doled out funds to the organizers of the 146 sanctioned processions, Rs 5000 to each in pursuance of the state policy of balancing favors to Hindu and Muslim religious organizations.

Hindi-speaking Tiwari maintains a soft-Hindutva image which TMC needs to counter BJP. He was seen visiting Hindu mahallahs with a saffron scarf around his neck and removing it at Muslim localities. Last year he had attended the Ram Navami rally with a sword in hand. In contrast, Ghatak’s support base is mostly among the Muslims who dominate the area that comes under his constituency in north Asansol. The loyalists of both camps blamed each other for queering their leader’s pitch in the coming polls by their acts of commission and omission during the riots.

Communal division in TMC

Many of the ruling party men who have rubbed shoulders with BJP-VHP leaders in the Ram Navami processions have upheld the ‘Hindu cause’ at Asansol-Raniganj and Kankinara this time. This has divided Hindu and Muslim supporters of TMC along the communal line further as it happened earlier in riot-hit industrial areas including Hazinagar, Chandannagore as well rural areas like Basirhat and Nakasipara. That the factional feud has turned communal in the TMC rank and file became evident in Chandmari-Nawapatti-Kasai Mahallah-Quereshi Mahallah in north Asansol’s Rail Paar area. The BJP turned TMC civic councilor CK Reshma and local TMC leader Banti Chakroborty were among the ruling party men who had joined the Ram Navami rally in trouble-prone Chandmari along with the BJP-VHP supporters on 27 March. The procession that started from the Bajrangbali Mandir at Hindu-dominated Nawa Patti later clashed with Muslims at Gulzar Basti, Azad Basti on BC Roy road triggering the riot that engulfed almost entire north Asansol the next day.

The Hindu TMC supporters close to Chakroborty said that they had been organizing Durga Puja and Ram Navami celebrations at the social level for many years. “But the party asked to organize and lead a bigger Ram Navami rally this time and we moved accordingly. We were told that some of our Muslim TMC councilors have organized roadside receptions to distribute sherbet to participants in our procession to mark the communal amity. However, we faced a hostile mob near Reliance mall who asked us to go mute though there was no mosque closer by. They attacked us with brickbats following an altercation and beat up many of us badly, including Shyam Narayan Rabidas, a boy who had dressed up as Lord Ram on a vehicle,” one of them complained.

Humein bali ka bakra banaya gaya. We were betrayed by some of our Muslim party men. Police protection to our rally was minimal and the unarmed cops fled fast. We kept calling the police for hours next day when the riot spread. Police did not turn up till late afternoon. The cops faced the ire when they came but tried to stop the protests by Hindus. There was no substantial BJP-VHP presence here but TMC supporters on both sides. It was no more a political fight against BJP but a communal clash that includes our party men at both sides,” the TMC cadre said sitting near the Ram Navami Akhara and Hanuman temple in Chandmari.

Muslim leaders and supporters of the ruling party, on the other hand, accused their Hindu counterparts of playing into the hands of BJP. They accused sections of Ram Navami rallyists of raising anti-Muslim slogans with mosques at stone’s throw away that gave the ‘hotheads’ among the Muslim youth an opportunity to score a point. They admitted that conservative Muslim organizations like Tablighi Jamat and Jamiat-e-Islami are active in the area in organizing religious congregations like Ijtema. Their indoctrination focuses on strict monotheism and separate identity of Muslims, opposed to Hindu-Muslim composite beliefs manifested in many mazars and dargas in the zone.

Another mid-level TMC leader at Kalyanpur in Asansol who took initiative to run a relief camp for affected Hindus, complained of ‘pro-Muslim bias’ of the administration and party leadership that dismayed Hindu party workers. However, as police started picking up some TMC men, both Hindus and Muslims, following orders from the top, he felt Ghatak’s men were booked more than Tiwari supporters. “May be I will be rounded up. Ask your people to lie low or leave your areas,” the man advised a party colleague over phone before scurrying out, making it clear which camp he belongs.

Economic factors

It seems that clash of economic interests of ruling party apparatchiks and mafias was also instrumental to the riots, local sources said. The infightings among dons like Joydeb Mondal, Haji Nanhe and Imtiaj Khan who have switched sides from the left to TMC after the change of guards in the state have also contributed in the communal divide. One of the big bones of contention is the one km long encroached government land that belong to the railways and Asansol-Durgapur Development Authority (ADDA). The epicenter of the riot in north Asansol was in and around the area. Hindu TMC leaders complained that illegal settlements of Muslims, mostly new arrivals from Bihar and UP had come up in Gulzar Basti, Azad Basti and Kismat Nagar while Hindus got a “raw deal” from the party and government. They voiced same complaints about the lopsided communal ratio in accommodations in a BPL colony run by the government. The colony too was hit by the riots. Their Muslim counterparts denied the charge and maintained that these Hindu leaders were only echoing BJP slurs on them as some of them were real estate promoters.

Local civil society and political leaders pointed to the soaring land prices in and around the slum areas. It is not coincidental that the riot started in Asansol at a place where a Reliance Mall has come up by filling up farmland surrounded by clusters of dingy slums. The towers of middle class apartments at Shuvam Park nearby mark the new skyline hitherto dotted by dilapidated worker’s colonies. New government buildings that are coming up to create administrative infrastructure after Asansol has been made headquarters for the newly created district, also increased the demand for land and its price.

Further, the land sharks are eying the prime area following the constructions of bypass and feeder roads that have made the low-lying and curvy Rail Paar zone accessible from highway ends. Earlier, Raj-era railway bridges, culverts and tunnels as well as warehouses had made this pre-dominantly working class area relatively inaccessible and unattractive to middle class and high-end real estate developers.

The political and social fallouts

The riot took place mainly between Hindi-speaking Hindu settlers who dominate the urban demography and Urdu-speaking Muslims. In Raniganj, it was between predominantly Hinduised Dalits and Muslims who looked down upon the former as did the caste Hindus. While in Asansol, it was mainly Yadavs and other middle caste Hindus and sections of Dalits, versus Muslims of same caste backgrounds. Hindus are largely divided between the BJP and TMC supporters in this former Left bastion, Muslims now have veered around the ruling party. Post-riot, BJP and rest of the Sangh Parivar is busy in harvesting the discontent of TMC’s Hindu supporters, particularly the Dalits and other oppressed castes.

A section of the Muslims are also upset with Mamata for her enthusiasm for celebration of Ram Navami and Hanuman Jayanti, purportedly to offset the impact of BJP’s charges of Muslim appeasement. Even local TMC leaders admitted that the political game is now ‘advantage BJP’, primarily because of police failure to either prevent communal clashes or to protect victims from both communities and party infighting that turned communal. “With the government brazenly favoring Muslims, BJP is likely to win the parliamentary seat in 2019 by a margin bigger by 70000 votes, than that in 2014,” one of them said on the condition of anonymity, in Asansol’s Chandmari – one the worst-hit areas at Asansol’s Rail Par, called ‘Mini Pakistan’ by Hindutva groups and lay Hindus.

On the other hand, their Muslim counterparts feared an erosion in the support to TMC among the minority as a section of minority are unhappy with the party’s enthusiasm for Ram Navami et al. “They are accusing the TMC for running with the hares while hunting with the hounds,” one of them commented.

Role of the Left and Congress

Lefts and Congress which have been losing base both to BJP and TMC have nothing to rejoice in this increasingly bipolar situation. Unless, as their ground level leaders in the constituency pointed out, these parties make concerned efforts to ‘harvest’ the Muslim discontent with the TMC and anti-BJP Hindu votes. “We maintained vigils in our areas but failed to intervene effectively in the entirety of the riot-hit zone. Communal polarization has become stark as class politics has taken a backseat since long. Both TMC and Lefts held peace rallies outside the troubled areas. Unless we rekindle popular movements on poor peoples’ everyday issues, communal divide would lead us to lose grounds further. Hindus would veer around BJP more while Muslims would be compelled to vote for BJP despite their unhappiness,” Owasimul Haque, the CPM councilor from ward 24 in Asansol and leader of the opposition in the civic body admitted.

With all the stakeholders busy taking stock of partisan political dividends and risk factor before the 2019 general polls as well as assembly election in next two years, the common people in the affected areas are keeping their fingers crossed about the future. The social and psychological effect of wounds of the riots would take a long time to heal as the manufacturers of hatred and mistrust, fear and canards are still busy. Fortunately, no major crimes against women has been reported but mothers and wives from both communities are scared of sending children to schools outside their Mahallah. Civil society initiatives are few and far between. The glimmer of hope comes from individuals mainly.

The rays of hope at the dark hours

The voices of sanity and humanity came from exemplary individuals like the Imam Imdadullah Rashidi of Noorani mosque in Asansol. He had called for peace and love even after losing his teenage son in the riot. The boy had appeared for Madhyamik examination this year. “Mayne beta khoya, magar imaan nahi khoya (I have lost my son but not my beliefs in basic tenets of Islam). We are the children of the same ancestors and share our humanity. We must learn to live together and work to bond the broken hearts. May be my words of love and peace would soften the hearts of those who killed my son. There are many people like me who stand for mutual love and oppose hatred. Let their message reach to larger communities instead of those rubble-rousers who divide us for their narrow ends,” the middle-aged Imam said to stream of visitors from across the country. He, however, declined to entertain any ‘siyasi sawaal (political questions)’.

The family of Pratima Raut, a middle-aged mother of two sons, who died reportedly under the wheels of a fleeing police vehicle after being tear-gassed on 28 March also blamed the merchants of mutual hatred for their loss. “Had there been no Ram Navami rally, I would not have lost my wife”, her husband said, sitting at their one-room home in a narrow by-lane of Ramakrishna Dangal. Her elder son Sandip lamented the fact that his mother had gone out looking for him during the clashes. “I had joined the Ram Navami rally earlier. But my mother had asked me not to go this time fearing trouble. I would not have lost my mother if there was no riot,” the youth said.

Sourabh, his younger brother was empathetic in his condemnation of religious politics. “These leaders would never know the pain that we are suffering. The country belongs to people of all faiths and we must stay together to survive. Otherwise, more people like us would lose their near and dear ones,” the student of class XI said.

(Photo credit: Author and Swatilekha Mandal)

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