How did a protest against a Hindu leader’s inflammatory remark turn violent in Malda? Esha Roy visits the border district of West Bengal and finds the fault lines run deep — through poppy fields, a fake currency network and an underground arms market that thrives in Malda’s mango orchards.
It took an entire month for Akhil Bharat Hindu Mahasabha leader Kamlesh Tiwari’s remarks against Islam to reach Bengal’s border district. It wasn’t from the news channels or from Tiwari’s arrest in Lucknow on December 2, 2015, that Muslim organisations that work in and around Malda town came to know of what happened. “It was through the internet,’’ says a member of a local youth club at Ghariyalichak, the Muslim colony that is now considered the epicentre of the January 3 violence that broke out in town.
On January 2, on the eve of the protest rally, small tempos fitted with mikes inched through Muslim colonies in and around Kaliachak, about 23 km from Malda town, calling people to attend the rally. A week earlier, the Edara-e-Shariya, the main organising body, had distributed pamphlets on the proposed rally in nearby villages — Sultanganj, Churiwala, Dariyapur, Kasimnagar, Sujapur and countless others.
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“So we knew we had to assemble at the taxi stand at Kaliachak,’’ says the Ghariyalichak youth who participated in the rally. The state administration has said that there were at least 1.5 lakh protesters who had gathered that day.
The taxi stand, located on National Highway 34 that connects the town with the rest of Malda, is now packed with Kaliachak’s white Ambassador taxis. On the morning of January 3, a Sunday morning, the stand was cleared and empty. A stage was set up, a mike installed. From eight in the morning, hordes of protesters started streaming in to Kaliachak, some from far-flung villages, many carrying effigies and boards tied to rickety sticks, demanding Tiwari be hanged for his comments.
“I went around nine, a good hour after everything had started. People were still coming in. There were thousands and thousands of them. I was shocked. I don’t think the organisers expected so many people to turn up. That’s why, in the middle of their speeches, they kept making announcements to keep calm, kept reminding people that this was meant to be a peaceful rally and that there should be no violence or untoward incident,’’ says the youth.
Within the next hour, chaos descended on Kaliachak. The mob quickly became agitated and violent. Despite warnings from the organisers that the rally would be called off, effigies began to be burned. Sensing that things were about to go awry, a group of local boys surrounded the three Hindu temples inside Gharialichak, encircling them so that they could be protected.
And then, a BSF vehicle, a Bolero, sped into the crowd from nowhere. “The protesters got really angry then. People felt that the BSF had endangered their lives driving at such speed into the crowd. They surrounded the vehicle and started hitting it, breaking the windows,’’ says an eyewitness. The BSF refused to comment on the matter.
The vehicle moved forward and a BSF jawan fired into the air to disperse the crowd, he says. Hearing the firing, all hell broke lose. Thousands surrounded the car and forced the jawans off the vehicle, they were beaten up. “It was only after they apologised that they were allowed to go,’’ says the eyewitness.
Seeing that matters had gone completely out of hand, the organisers announced that the rally had been called off. They asked people to disperse and head home. But tempers had been fanned to a pitch by then and the mob headed toward the Kaliachak police station, a stone’s throw away from the protest site.
The Kaliachak police station faces a row of shops that form the heart of the town’s main bazaar. Being Sunday, the market was shut. The mob, armed with rods and guns and cans of kerosene and petrol, proceeded to burn down the police station compound. The police barracks were set on fire, as was the main building, the rooms for the Home Guards and most importantly, the maalkhana which housed records of the criminal activity and the criminals of the area. Many in Kaliachak and Malda say that it was these records that were the target of the mob. Subabrata Ghosh, the inspector in charge, was beaten up. Poppy seeds seized in various raids by the police and kept at the station were stolen, as were arms and ammunition.
“I’m sorry but I can’t talk about that incident,’’ says Ghosh, turning his face away. Eleven constables from the thana have since been transferred and another seven sub-inspectors have been placed in the reserve force. The police station now stands freshly painted in white and blue to cover the scars of that Sunday.
Work of repairing the station began the next day and was completed within 48 hours, say locals. Skeletons of burnt bikes have been hidden away in one corner of the compound, the bigger vehicles that had been burnt have been shifted to a border police station to keep them out of sight, tucking away memories of the humiliation of that day.
But 78-year-old Chittaranjan Saha has not forgotten. The double-glazed black glass windows which he had installed in his four-floor building, which serves both as a commercial establishment as well as his residence, remain broken.
He sold all his land to live in front of the Kaliachak police station, thinking the location would keep him safe. But it did not. The ground floor houses furniture shops run by two of his sons and clothing and utensil stores that he has rented out to others. He has rented out the first floor to a bank and other offices. He lives on the second with his family. The third he has rented out to three families, including a Muslim family.
“When the mob came, I pleaded with them with my hands folded to not damage my building. They kept asking if I was a Hindu. I told them yes, I am, but there are Muslims living and working here as well. But they did not listen. There were thousands of them. I was standing downstairs, watching people rush into the colony when this happened. Something like this has never happened in Kaliachak before. This has never been a communal town,’’ he says.
By 1 pm, it was all over. Residents had locked themselves inside their homes. From rooftops and windows, they say, spirals of thick black smoke rose to the sky. Near the Paanchtala masjid in Kaliachak, a three-storey building is home to the offices of the Edara-e-Shariyah, the organisation that held the rally. The office now has its shutters down. There is much speculation in Malda regarding the organisation and its members. “We hadn’t even heard of this organisation before this incident,” said the member of a political party who didn’t want his name or that of his party to be revealed.
Some say that CPM leader and retired school teacher, Abdur Rauf, is one of its leaders and the main organiser of the rally. Rauf’s is the first name in an FIR registered by the Malda police. He is now on the run. His wife Shefali Khatoon, herself a CPM leader, flatly denies that Rauf had anything to do with the Edara-e-Shariyah. “This is a conspiracy. He was not a member. He had gone to the rally out of curiosity,” she told The Sunday Express.
The silt from the widening of NH-34 hangs in clouds, clinging onto buildings and cars in Kaliachak. Hills of large white sacks stand bound on either side of the national highway, filled with plastic and garbage waiting to be melted down and recycled in factories. Lines of trucks with West Bengal, UP, Andhra Pradesh and Jharkhand number-plates crawl past Kaliachak on their way to the Bangladesh border to deliver goods — onions, wood, chipped stones.
Kaliachak is notorious as the “criminal den’’ of this border district. “This is the centre of the ‘Fake Indian Currency Network’. Fake notes are printed in Bangladesh and then cross the border to Kaliachak from where it is distributed across Bengal and then across the country,’’ says Ambar Mitra, secretary of the CPM’s Malda district committee.
On December 12, police arrested 25-year-old Salim Sheikh. Sheikh, who dropped out of school, works as a labourer in a nearby brick kiln. Sheikh had agreed to carry Rs 1 lakh in fake Indian currency notes to Kaliachak and then to Farakka station, a major transit point in West Bengal for such notes. He was given Rs 5,000 to do the job.
A police officer in Malda who didn’t want to be named says that in recent months, the BSF has been recovering fake notes worth Rs 3-4 crore a day. Around 30 km from Kaliachak lies Golapganj. Golapganj falls under the jurisdiction of the Kaliachak police station. Even by Kaliachak’s abysmal standards, Golapganj has a notorious record. The road from Kaliachak to Golapganj is flanked by fields of sunshine-yellow mustard, gold-tipped corn and quiet villages. Today, 10 days after the January 3 attack, a cavalcade of officials — excise, police, BSF — accompanied by earth diggers, are on their way to raid poppy fields in Domaichak Mouja under the Shahbajpur gram panchayat.
“Last year, we destroyed 4,000 acres of poppy fields. We later came to know of another 8,000 acres but couldn’t conduct the raids on time,” says an inspector with the Malda police.
Heroin, made from the resin of poppy plants, sells here for Rs 70 lakh a kg. “Earlier, poppy cultivators would extract the resin and sell it to manufacturers or to middlemen. We have heard that the buyers are refusing to take the raw material now. They want the finished product. So heroin labs have started coming up — in Kaliachak, Malda, Nadia, Bahrampur. We have heard that the filters for making heroin are also being produced in Malda now,’’ says the inspector.
The villages here are abjectly poor. Poor farmers, who can’t afford to grow cash crops, rent or sell their lands to bigger poppy cultivators. “The poppy cultivators give the farmer anywhere between Rs 15,000 and 30,000. Sometimes the same farmers are employed to till the land. Most of the time, the land is not even properly demarcated and there are no records with the Bengal Land Revenue Office. Arrests then become extremely difficult,’’ says the inspector.
Officials both in the Malda administration and the police as well as the political parties, including even the BJP, point out that the January 3 incident was tied to Malda’s dark record. “It was an attempt to burn the records. Especially since the BSF had been coming down hard on smugglers over the past year and numerous arrests have been made. We know for a fact that there was nothing communal about Sunday’s rally. The violence was just a pretence to carry out their actual intention of destabilising efforts to clamp down on these illegal trades,’’ says Mitra.
Fear and anger
For the past ten days, the colony of Baliadanga has been cordoned off. Rusty tin sheets block two of the main entrances to the colony. According to the 2011 Census, Kaliachak Block I has 89.3 per cent Muslim population. In neighbouring Sujapur, the Muslims make up 98 per cent of the population. Baliadanga is one of its few Hindu-dominated colonies and was often used by many as a thoroughfare. It is located right behind the Kaliachak police station.
Subodh Singh Ray, 75, owns a paan shop at the entrance of Baliadanga. At 11 am, he had gone home for lunch. “Then I got a phone call from someone in the colony saying my shop had been burnt. I had goods worth over a lakh. I used to keep my bank books and other documents in the shop. It’s all gone. My wife and I are old. I don’t know why the Muslims did this. We never had any trouble before,’’ says Ray, who has now set up a kiosk selling cigarettes and gutka right next to his old shop.
A number of homes in Baliadanga have broken windows, shop entrances and boards have been broken and pulled down. “They came armed. They had guns and lathis. When we saw them enter the colony, all of us locked our gates and hid inside and waited for them to pass. Have you seen what they have done to the police station? And the police didn’t do a thing. This is because (Chief Minister) Mamata Banerjee has been protecting the Muslims. I was myself a member of the CPI(M) before but I will vote for the BJP this time — as a matter of fact, I will campaign for them. The Muslims here identify us (Hindus) with Modi whether we support him or not. If that is the case, then we might as well vote for him,’’ says a resident. He points out that a number of RSS supporters live in the colony — and the numbers are growing.
The atmosphere of fear and suspicion does not belong to Baliadanga alone. In Asirhaji, the police broke into the home of 40-year-old Ekhlasur Rahman and took him away in the middle of the night. Like most Muslim villages in the area, this one too is poor. Most villagers work as labourers, carpenters or sell scraps of timber. Rahman’s 60-year-old neighbour Rab Momin says the village now lives in constant fear. “We heard about the rally only the evening before. They told us that someone had insulted Islam. But we have nothing to do with that. We just want to earn our living. None of us, including Rahman, attended the rally. He was our village chief. So if they can take him, who knows who the police will take next,’’ says Momin. “It wasn’t us. It wasn’t anyone from the Muslim villages around. We are peaceful, law-abiding citizens. We think people from outside came and did this,’’
The fight for MaldaMalda is Bengal’s mango country. Mango orchards cover large swathes of the land. But these groves harbour another of Malda’s dark secrets — its illegal arms trade.
In the past three years, the Kaliachak police station has raided six arms factories. “These factories were hidden away in the mango groves. They were makeshift factories, shacks not larger than 10×10 feet where men were making country-made pistols and bombs,’’ says a police official.
With such a reputation, it has been difficult for Malda’s administration to attract investment. “There were a number of small industrialists who had initially wanted to invest in Malda. But they withdrew because of the law and order situation. The administration had set up a food processing complex which is now lying empty because no one wants to start manufacturing here. So it’s a vicious cycle — till the time employment is generated, the poor will keep getting sucked into criminal activities, but as long as crime exists, investors would not want to come,’’ says a government source.
The owner of Malda’s biggest hotel, Golden Park, has bought land to build the town’s first mall, but is hesitant to start, he says. But there has been a few positives. The West Bengal government has pumped money for the development of infrastructure in the district. Twenty nine new nursing homes have opened over the past few years. The Malda medical college was established in 2012 and its first batch of resident doctors are to graduate next year.
“We are trying to expand health facilities even more. We have a huge footfall at the medical college, which caters to patients and students not just from Bengal but also from Bihar and Jharkhand,” says Additional District Magistrate Malda Debatosh Mandal.
The Gour Banga post-graduate university was also set up in 2012, besides three new government colleges in south Malda, Manekchand and Gajour. A hundred new madrasas have been set up since 2012. The number of teachers and para-teachers in schools across the district have gone up. Besides, Mamata’s cycle scheme for girl students holds promise. With barely months to go before the elections, trucks full of cycles with the Trinamool symbol are being driven in.
Political insiders say the fight for Malda will be Mamata’s toughest. With the legacy of Congress leader and former Malda MP AB Ghani Khan Choudhry still running strong, the district remains a Congress stronghold. Choudhry, popularly known as Barkatda, was Malda MP for 26 years before he died in 2006. “There has been a number of defections to the Trinamool, including of Congress MLAs A N Khan Choudhry (Ghani Khan Choudhry’s younger brother) from Sujapur and Sushil Ray from Gajal and Forward Block MLA from Harishchandrapur Tajamul Hussain,’’ says Malda Trinamool Congress (TMC) president Moazzam Hossain.
But things don’t look good for the TMC just yet. While political analysts admit that the party has been gaining ground, a Congress-CPI(M) tie up, which is likely in Malda, may spoil the TMC’s plans. The factional disputes within the TMC don’t help the party either. TMC leader Bakul Sheikh was expelled from the party two months ago and another TMC leader, Surjan Sheikh, was taken into police custody after a police raid at his home recovered a huge cache of arms and ammunition.
While the BJP had gained ground in the last election, cornering a little over 19 per cent of the vote share, they have
since lost steam. “This is why they are raising the Kaliachak incident. They are desperate to regain some ground,’’ says a TMC worker.
BJP Malda district general secretary Ajoy Ganguly admits that the Kaliachak incident is important for the party.
“This is an important issue for us and will be our main platform for the elections. Of course, it was not a communal incident, everyone knows that. It was a criminal activity. But what on earth was Mamata Banerjee’s police doing? Why are their hands tied,’’ he asks.