One person died and at least three others were critically injured in clashes between police and members of the Muslim community Tuesday in Illambazar area of West Bengal’s Birbhum district. The tension stemmed from an alleged objectionable Facebook post against Prophet Muhammad, which was put up Saturday. In incidents that followed the post, a police station was ransacked and a mosque was allegedly targeted in a police crackdown.
The police identified the deceased as Rezaul Islam (30), who was one of the protesters attempting to block the arterial NH-60 Tuesday evening. According to police, shots were fired to disperse the unruly mob. Islam was allegedly hit in the head, and died on the spot.
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While the person behind the post, Sujan Mukherjee, was arrested Monday, violence exploded the next day while he was being held at the Illambazar police station. “The mob was demanding that we release Mukherjee to them. They were baying for blood. We had to fire teargas shells to control the mob. This continued till late in the afternoon,” said a senior police officer.
According to SP Mukesh Kumar, Mukherjee — who is a third-year student of computer technology at an engineering college at Durgapur and a resident of Illambazar — was “arrested on Monday night and was taken to Illambazar police station” where he was charged under “ sections of the IT Act and Indian Penal Code”. He added that a Bolpur court later “remanded him to 14 days’ judicial custody”. But by the time of his arrest, his post had been shared extensively, leading to protests in the area.
But Abul Kalam, a member of the local Panchayat Samiti, denied that a police station was ransacked by the protesters. “Outsiders attacked the police station in a deliberate attempt to polarise ahead of elections,” he said.
Meanwhile, afraid of further violence, the police deployed its personnel to disperse crowd at the Illambazar madrasa and around the Bhagabatipur Bazaar mosque, during the Asar Namaz at around 4pm. Muslim villagers at Bhagabatipur, however, alleged that the police entered the mosque, while people were praying, and thrashed them. The allegations were denied by the police.
“The police entered the mosque while the prayers were going on. This is a sacred space where violence can’t be condoned but they entered the mosque, dragging out those praying within and beating them up,” said Monirul Islam, principal teacher of the madrasa.
The alleged police crackdown sparked two more incidents of violence — the protest at the NH 60, which claimed Rezaul Islam’s life, and a second incident that saw a Muslim mob surrounding Mukherjee’s house and vandalizing parts of the property.
“We didn’t even know what was happening or why the violence was taking place. But a mob had gathered and they started throwing stones at the house, and brought down the gates. At first we were afraid that our houses will also be targeted, but no other house was touched. Just this one, which was already empty,” said Anirban Mukherjee, Sujan’s uncle and neighbour.
Meanwhile, the police have claimed that the situation is now under control. “Huge force has been deployed in the area. We are keeping a vigil,” said SP Kumar. While one battalion of the CRPF was brought to the district, police added that another battalion was on standby. Prohibitory orders have also been imposed in the area.