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Mainstream, VOL LIV No 6 New Delhi January 30, 2016

Behind the Kaliachak Violence

Saturday 30 January 2016, by Barun Das Gupta

Large-scale violence broke out at Kaliachak, a small town in Malda district of West Bengal, about twenty kms south-west of Malda town, on January 3. Several thousand Muslims (Malda is a Muslim-majority district) had gathered to protest against an objectionable remark against Prophet Muhammad allegedly made by one Kamlesh Tiwari, the working president of the Hindu Mahasabha in Uttar Pradesh. (Reportedly, Tiwari said Muhammad was the first homosexual in the world. The communally provocative remark, made deliberately, was, on the face of it, patently false because homo-sexuality was widely prevalent in ancient Greece, long before the birth of the Prophet.)

A little known organisation—Anjuman Ahle Sunnatul Jamaat—had given the call for the rally to protest against Tiwari’s remarks about the Prophet. The angry mob attacked the Kaliachak Police Station and vandalised it, setting fire to police and private motor vehicles and looting some firearms. Some houses and shops in the area were also burnt down. Why was the mob so infuriated as to attack the police station ostensibly because someone in faraway UP had said something about the Prophet? Thereby hangs a tale. And the tale provides the background to what happened that day.

Before going into the background, one fact should be mentioned. The media—print as well as electronic—in West Bengal reported the Kaliachak incident with great caution and restraint. But the so-called ‘national’ TV channels operating from Delhi are still keeping the Kaliachak issue alive and making an unceasing political propaganda against the ruling party in the State, the Trinamul Congress, and its leader and Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee. The theme of the propaganda is that under Mamata, the communal elements in the minority community are being given indulgence and protection and because of this the police are afraid to take strong steps against them. The motive is obvious: to polarise the voters of West Bengal on communal lines before the coming State Assembly elections.

Now about the hard facts. Malda is a district bordering Bangladesh. Four types of crime are thriving here: first, cattle smuggling; second, racketeering in counterfeit notes printed in Pakistan and smuggled into India through Bangladesh; third, illegal cultivation of poppy that yields opium; and fourth, trafficking in women. (Bangladeshi women are lured into India. Some of them go back after ‘doing business’ for some time, while some others do not return. They stay back with local support.) Both Muslims and Hindus are involved in all the four types of crime but Malda being a Muslim-majority district, more Muslims than Hindus are engaged in the illegal business.

Lately, the police in Malda have become active against the criminals. Just a day before the Kaliachak incident, the local police arrested a group of people who are involved in all types of crime. So, anger was building up against the police, not for any communal reasons but simply because the police were making it difficult for the criminals to operate freely and make money—lots of it. The Hindu Mahasabha leader’s remarks about the Prophet came in handy to ignite passions. Naturally, the police were the main target, though others did not escape, too. Police contingents from other areas were rushed to Kaliachak to bring the situation under control. The police dispersed the crowd but did not arrest anyone for fear that this would make the situation worse. By then, however, the situation had taken a communal turn.

Local people believe that the police’s decision not to arrest anyone was taken under orders of the State Government. It seems plausible. This being an election year, the ruling party also does not want to antagonise the minorities. But in all fairness to the Trinamul Congress, it has to be admitted that after the violence, there were large-scale transfers of police personnel from the Kaliachak Police Station. The police were instructed not to allow anything that might lead to escalation of tension. Accordingly, the police did not allow a ten-member BJP delegation led by Shamik Bhattacharyya, MLA, to enter Kaliachak on January 7.

The communal divide brought the political parties into play. The BJP has a traditional base in Malda district. The RSS also has a strong presence and is very active in the district. In the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, the BJP polled 19 per cent votes in Malda against the average 17 per cent for West Bengal as a whole. The Congress, too, has a strong support-base in the district. In fact, Malda, Murshidabad and North Dinajpur are now the only three districts where the Congress has a presence.

Earlier, the Muslims of Malda were divided in their political support for the parties. Some supported the Congress while others supported the CPI-M and the RSP. But for the past one year, as the election approaches, there has been a steady desertion of Muslims (also Hindus) from these parties to the Trinamul Congress. But the TMC in Malda district is sharply divided into two warring camps—one led by Sabitri Mitra and the other by Krishnendu Chowdhury. Both of them are Ministers in the Mamata Cabinet. The new entrants are also joining one or the other faction.

Anti-social elements of both the communities have taken shelter in the ruling party which has no control over them. The CPI-M during its heyday in power also used the criminal elements in their own interest but it kept them under strict control. For the last six months crimes in the district have been on the rise.

Both the BJP and the Congress are dead against the TMC. The Congress attitude is that the TMC must be defeated at any cost, even if it means victory of the BJP candidates. The BJP policy is to polarise the electorate on communal lines. It believes that if its poll strategy succeeds, then the party will bag at least three of the eleven Assembly constituencies in the district. That would be a big gain for it. The Congress, which is pathologically hostile to the TMC, will not mind.

With the police trying to curb the narcotic trade, trafficking in women, cattle-smuggling and the business of forged currency notes in a district where the electorate is being sought to be divided communally, the situation is indeed tense. Political observers apprehend that organised efforts would be made in the coming months before the elections (scheduled for April or May), to instigate communal conflicts in Malda, Murshidabad, North Dinajpur and South 24-Parganas.

The BJP and the Congress are trying to whip up feelings against the Trinamul Congress and its leader, Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, alleging that she is giving indulgence to the minority community. For instance, the allowance for the Imams that she has introduced may not have won great support for her among the Muslims, but it has been used by her opponents to antagonise the Hindus.

The CPI-M is following a different strategy. In order to protect its traditional Muslim base it is harping on the propaganda that there is a ‘secret understanding’ between Narendra Modi and Mamata Banerjee. CPI-M leader Mohammed Selim has coined a catchy slogan: ‘Didibhai (Mamata) and Modibhai’. The party is peddling the line that Mamata and Modi are engaged in ‘match-fixing’. Modi needs Mamata’s support to get some urgent Bills passed in Parliament while Mamata needs Modi’s help so that the CBI goes slow in the Saradha chit fund scam probe. For all that, however, the majority of the Muslims will stick with the Trinamul Congress.

There is no gainsaying the fact that the undercurrent of communal tension is there in West Bengal and this is being sought to be exploited by interested political parties to improve their electoral prospects. Mamata Banerjee, who recently earned kudos from all sections of democratice and secular public opinion for having organised the Ghulam Ali concert in Kolkata, the first to be held anywhere in the country, will have to handle the situation cautiously and firmly. She must not let the impression grow that she is doing undue favour to a particular community.

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