At the heavily guarded Trimohini crossing in Basirhat, a small crowd has gathered around Md Noor Islam Gaji and Ajay Pal. They are standing outside Pal’s ransacked paan bidi shop — one of many in the area that were vandalised and looted during Tuesday’s communal violence. Gaji and several other Muslim men are talking to Pal, urging him to reopen his shop, pressing him to accept Rs 2,000 from them to get started again.
Muslims in this patch of North 24-Parganas on the Bangladesh border, where tensions erupted at the beginning of the week after a teen’s objectionable post on social media, are pooling money to help Hindu neighbours rebuild their gutted shops and businesses. Nearly a hundred shops and homes were vandalised in Basirhat.
“Even after the demolition of the Babri mosque, our town remained peaceful. What happened since Tuesday was not right. Some outsiders and some of our local boys are to blame. But now we are pooling money for our Hindu neighbours. We want them to forget the losses and start afresh,” Gaji, a local businessman, said.
“I lost goods worth over Rs 15,000 when hundreds of people came and ransacked my shop on Tuesday. They took away everything. I do not know why. My neighbours and Muslim friends are now offering me money to restart my business. I will take a decision soon,” said Pal.
Like him, Ruma De, who owns the next shop, too, has been offered Rs 2,000 for a start. Similar initiatives have been taken by Muslim residents of Masjidpara, Bhyabla, Chapapara and other areas of Basirhat. “We are all linked in one way or another. I have Hindu friends whom I have known from childhood, and business associates who are Hindu. We have told them that we will do our best to help them start their businesses, and even repair their damaged homes,” said Ershad Ali Gazi of Masjidpara.
It was because of Ershad that his childhood friend Binay Pal and his family escaped the mob that rampaged through the neighbourhood on Tuesday night. “Everyone told me to leave my home and flee to save myself. Hundreds of people were swarming the street in front of my house. I called up Ershad, who told me to stay put and rushed to my house. He stayed with us and ensured that we were safe,” said Binay, who has a wife and two children. His pharmacy downstairs was, however, ransacked.
“It is not a hollow promise. We have told local shopowners that we will give as much as it takes, Rs 2 lakh or Rs 5 lakh. We will help you, whether by pooling money or by collecting subscriptions to cover your losses. Whatever has happened has happened, do not worry anymore, or have any hard feelings. The tradition of Basirhat has been tarnished. This has never happened before,” said Ershad.
Continuing latent tension, shut businesses, schools and colleges, and a heavy presence of police and security forces notwithstanding, Basirhat and Baduria have been calm since Thursday. Two peace meetings have been held in Basirhat, at which leaders of both communities and police were present.
“It was decided that Hindu-Muslim joint groups will keep vigil at night not only in neighbourhoods, but also at religious places. Outsiders will not be allowed in the area. Outsiders of both communities played a key role in the riots,” said Babu Gaji, councillor of ward number 14 in Basirhat.
Both Hindus and Muslims have accused police of not taking action as the tension spread and violence began.
“We called police when hundreds tried to attack our neighbourhood, but they did not come. We were forced to defend ourselves. Our women came out in thousands and thwarted the mob. Police later lobbed teargas shells at us,” said Shyamal Biswas of Mandirpara. Haji Muhammed Ali Gaji said, “My medicine shop was set on fire. All the papers which were kept in the shop for GST were damaged. Even cash in the shop was partially burnt.”