Bhatpara, is one of the most prominent names in the existing map of communal conflicts in West Bengal. Over the years, through various published and unpublished studies, AAMRA has noted that settlements near the Jute-mills along the river Hooghly are quite prone to communal polarisation and identity-led conflicts. This is a study of exploring identity consolidation in and around Bhatpara region through a series of fieldworks. This study unravels the complex politics-identity interface through intensive study of facts and artefacts. We have intentionally kept some of the raw data in the report, as there are more inconclusive questions than answers, as to what actually happened in Bhatpara over the years. There are multiple narratives, perspectives and dimensions to each of the conflicts that have rocked the political and everyday spectrum of West Bengal. This is part 3 of the report. To read Part 1 click here and to read Part 2 click here.
Conversation (and journey) with Bijay Rajak, a local activist
Rajak: Although I am Hindu by birth but I have participated in namaz with my Muslim friends at Kankinara Masjid. Later on, when I thought about this, I was unable to conceal my laughter. Now I can’t even imagine doing such things. We were then kids! We regularly used to do exercise here. The maulavi of this Mosque (the mosque adjacent to the jute mill) loved me. He used to give me jackfruits from the tree on the Mosque’s land. The relationship was like this.
AAMRA: When did this situation started to change?
RAJAK: See, this riot has nothing to do with Hindu or Muslim, this is a result of criminalization of politics.
AAMRA: Why do we find criminals here?
RAJAK: You know the factory owners, shareholders have a covert understanding with the local dons. These ‘dons’ actually allocate work among the labourers and get a percentage of money from both the labourers and owners. The owners can get cheap labour and labourers can get some work to earn a wage. It is like a win-win situation. The extortion money is quite large and for this reason we have goons everywhere. They are actually the middlemen.
Since Mr. Rajak has grown up here, he knows a lot about the place. There are two large grounds one is Tina Gudam ground and the second one is Pani Tanki (named after a water tank, water means paani) ground. He showed us the ground and said “you can even find a few bombs here hidden for future use!” Later when we interacted with a person who called himself a ‘professional bomber’, he disclosed a lot. (An interview with him is added here in this report)
As we were walking with Vijay Rajak to meet different people and continuing our discussion, local people joined us in our chats, like on the topic of Jute Mill Unions. These unions were never under the ruling party, opined a contractual worker, Ram Kumar, in front of a trade union office, which was closed then. Vijay continued, it has always been like this, even during the heyday of Left Front politics. Sometimes, the ruling left captured the union but that was only a capture, not any change in the way they operated. Ram Kumar also added, ‘the reality is nobody, no union struggles for our interest, we are deprived by all’.
We continued our walk; then we stopped at a tea shop. Vijay was telling us the local history. Here the tea vendor and other people in the shop also joined the discussion. Vijay added, ‘there is a hidden disgust among the local BJP people because Arjun Singh has now joined BJP. Both the mill owners and labourers were unhappy with this decision. I have even heard people directly saying “Why are you taking him? He will destroy everything.” The BJP persons will respond like “What he has done earlier, he cannot repeat here, BJP has its checks and balances.” Now the tea-vendor joined in, ‘but the situation has not changed, now Bhatpara means — riot, fire and bombing’
AAMRA– This bad name hurts you, doesn’t it?
Tea vendor: Why will it not? We feel ashamed, even our relatives from other parts of West Bengal laugh at us, they tease us saying, ‘Bhatpara means Vatpara, vat of bombs’.
AAMRA– In your shop people from all faiths come, have you noticed any change after this riot?
Tea vendor: Division, division and only division, they have divided us to rule us, Vijayji can give you details.
Vijay Rajak puts emphasis on the nature of religion based polarization. He argued that since the conflict both BJP and TMC is consolidating their support base according to religion. BJP among the Hindus and TMC among the Muslims, this is local arithmetic. This is enhancing the social fissure. If someone is Hindu, he has to join BJP, and same with the Muslims, they have to join TMC. Otherwise they cannot survive. TMC is using police in a very wrong way. There is no doubt that the police are torturing the local Hindus. “If you go to the Darma line, you will see that they are constructing houses by using the iron sheets used in transporting edible oil. No one can stay inside such construction. If you are doing something, do it properly! Actually they want to keep this disturbed condition alive!”
AAMRA: Tell us, how much arms are in stock here?
Rajak: During the conflict one of the boundary walls of my house collapsed because of repeated bombing. If BJP hurls two bombs then TMC in response will hurls at least eight. It happened at our house. I know they are goons, but my family members are looking for Hindu and Muslim divide among such goons. I know they are plain and simple goons. I have seen that till late night around 4:00 to 5:00 am, the conflict and violence continue. I have seen that while the conflict is happening at one end of the street, the police are purposefully patrolling at another end of the street where there is no conflict. No one have faith in the police any more. Youngsters are asking ‘uncle what to do’. We have to do something (to counter the problem). I am trying to convince them that this violence is not needed. They are younger, and they are not listening to me. They are collecting and storing arms. I went to a household. They do not have any men in their household. I said are not you afraid? She said she has stored a couple of bombs on her roof. If they come and try to break the front door they will be able to put up some resistance.
AAMRA: How do they perceive the ‘others”? As goons or as Hindus and Muslims?
Rajak: No, they do perceive it as the Hindu-Muslin division. This has not happened overnight. Arjun Singh used to use Muslim goons quite effectively. During his association with TMC he was so close to the Muslims that he earned the nickname of Arjun Khan. Ward No. 8 here represents a Muslim area. It is a place which the common Hindus usually avoid. I can tell you there is a dangerous degree of criminalization in this area. Even kids hurl bombs here. The fate of the Municipality election depends on who has the control over ward no. 8. But in the Assembly or Parliamentary election you really do not have much of a dependency on them. Sometimes police show a figure of surrendered goons to the media. Who surrenders? These people are made to surrender, to only come back and start all over again. If Arjun Singh was given a TMC ticket, nothing would have happened. Local BJP workers do not like Arjun Singh. Even there are people who wrote letters to the BJP office not to give candidature to him. Frankly, TMC has played the Muslim ‘card’ for quite some time now, but Modi is showing them that Hindu ‘card’ is much bigger!
AAMRA: This area was always a problem zone. Earlier there were conflicts between TMC and CPIM? Do you remember that? Has there been similar stockpiling of bombs then?
Rajak: Earlier the conflicts were localized and much smaller. CPIM used to control these problems by using their party machinery, especially through the Local Committees, if they wanted to. TMC doesn’t have such a machinery or people.
AAMRA: To whom did the Bengali Hindus voted for?
Rajak: Many people have voted for BJP here. There is no shortage of illegal money here. None of the corrupt persons has any problem with Arjun Singh. Even many Muslims would have happily joined him if the party in which he joined was not BJP. Arjun Singh was happily sharing the booty with the goons and feeding everyone. Problem started with his joining the BJP and the party’s aggressive Hindutva ideology. There is no shortage of personnel to start a conflict. The problem is, many started to think that the Muslims are overdoing things. But they were overdoing things for a very long time, but now they are making the Hindus think along this line.
We left the tea shop. We were on the way to visit victim’s houses, meet families who lost their members. We continued our discussion with Vijay Rajak. He was saying that the post-election conflict and violence has not completely ameliorated. This could not be pacified primarily because of the continuation of violent incidents, one after another. Whenever there is a bombing in a masjid, immediately there is violence in a nearby temple, common people are distancing themselves from one another. The kind of Hindu-Muslim divide they have created will not disappear overnight. Capturing of the area is going on. TMC is using administration and professional goons to capture different areas. This is a clear case of using fear and terror to extend political control. We know BJP politics. They are rioters, but most people do not understand that TMC too is doing the same kind of politics.
While we walked past several settlements, we observed flags which indicated which religious community area we were passing by. For example, in the Muslim majority areas there were no flags, but in each of the Hindu dominated areas there were saffron flags everywhere. The flags made it clear which area we were passing through.
(To be continued …)