Birbhum has been no stranger to violence. Before the communal violence that left one dead at Illambazar last week, the district had over the last two years seen political leaders killed in violence, bomb attacks and the unearthing of an “illegal bomb factory” at a Trinamool Congress worker’s home — this in the week before the Illambazar clashes.
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The recent violence was triggered by a Facebook post that local Muslims found objectionable. The youth who wrote it is not known to have any political connections, but the BJP has used the violence to target the TMC government.
The two parties have been engaged in a bitter, sometimes violent contest since the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, when the BJP multiplied its vote share nearly three times. Later that year, a three-hour-long clash left a BJP leader and two TMC workers dead at Makra. Last year, a police officer was killed by a crude member that, BJP leaders allege, was thrown by goons close to a local TMC leader.
“This has been a TMC stronghold. But in the 2014 elections, the TMC found itself with a much smaller victory margin than it had anticipated. On the streets, this has translated into violent attacks, bomb attacks,” said a police officer.
The BJP finished third in that election, miles behind TMC winner Satabdi Roy, but its vote share jumped from 5.5 per cent to 18.5. Key to the BJP’s gains was its district president Dudh Kumar Mondal’s network of cadres and sympathisers. Mondal had led a relentless Hindutva campaign in the district, whose Muslim population is over 30%. He once resigned over differences with former state party chief Rahul Sinha, but Sinha has since been replaced with former RSS pracharak Dilip Ghosh and Mondal is back.
The day after the clashes in Illambazar, Dilip Ghosh came to the district and launched an attack on the TMC for failing to control anti-social elements and “making the state a haven for criminals”. He warned that those who “speak against the nation” should be “shortened by six inches”. But it was a pamphlet that the party began circulating alongside his arrival that has the police worried. This pamphlet alleged that Hindu houses had been selectively targeted during the violence and made an impassioned call for “Hindu unity”, saying that while the BJP is not opposed to “difference of opinions”, they are demanding that Hindus have the right to “live in peace”, “without losing self-respect”, “without suffering humiliation and assault” and “without losing safety”.
“What the BJP is saying is anti-national,” said Fisheries Minister and Bolpur (Birbhum) sitting MLA Chandranath Sinha. “All they want to do is to divide Bengal into two camps — Hindu and Muslim — ahead of the polls.”
Over a third of the district’s residents are Muslims, their concentration ranging between 26 per cent and 99 per cent across its 13 blocks. In Illambazar, Muslims make up one-fourth of the population.
Mohd Ikbal, former zonal secretary of the CPM, was arrested for allegedly trying to incite communal passions. Former CPM MP Ramachandra Dome alleged vendetta, saying that “Ikbal has been targeted by the ruling party to gain political mileage”.