Nearly 17 months before the communal violence at Basirhat claimed the life of a 65-year-old man, there was the clash at Birbhum.
The similarities: In both cases, the violence was triggered by a Facebook post that allegedly made derogatory remarks about Prophet Muhammad. In both cases, the post was allegedly made by a student: in the Basirhat case, a 17-year-old boy from adjacent Baduria; at Illambazar, a third-year computer science student. In both cases, police stations were torched by protesters angry with police inaction over the post.
The differences: in Baduria, the deceased was Hindu while in Illambazar, the deceased was Muslim, allegedly killed in retaliatory police firing, something police have consistently denied. Second, although Illambazar remained tense, the violence wasn’t allowed to spread, unlike Basirhat, to nearby areas. The Illambazar violence would be the first in a series of communal incidents in the state.
Almost all of these incidents had two specific triggers — a derogatory post on social media and secondly, attacks or challenges on religious processions. Besides, the government’s response to these incidents — clamping down on social media, prohibiting opposition leaders from visiting the affected areas — and the BJP’s chorus of the Mamata government “harboring anti-social elements” have remained consistent.
There have been three deaths in the clashes.
Illambazar, March 1, 2016
Death: Rejaul Islam (30), van driver, shot in head by ‘stray’ bullet The clash at Illambazar broke out months before the Assembly elections. A day later, BJP state president Dilip Ghosh tried to visit Illambazar. Stopped from going there, he headed to the district headquarters at Siuri and, attacking the Trinamool government, said “anti-nationals should be beheaded”. The BJP’s call for “self respect”, positioned against Mamata “preferential treatment” of Muslims, would become the party’s key strategy in the poll campaign.
Dholahat, Sept 11, 2016
Death: Salam Laskar (28),
Kerala-based mason, shot by a ‘stray’ bullet. A mob attacked the Dholahat police station, in West Bengal’s South 24 Parganas, days after the mutilated body of a cattle trader was discovered. Forty-nine people were arrested. In the violence that followed, the police station was ransacked and officers later said key evidence was destroyed. At the time, the BJP had been making noise about cattle slaughter in Bengal. Mamata had accused the party of attempting to communalise the state, where beef remains legal. In its report to BJP national president Amit Shah on the incident, the party state unit, that visited the site, said the issue was “less communal” and more akin to a “jihadi attack”.
Hazinagar and Halishahar, Oct 12, 2016
Clashes between Hindus and Muslims left several injured, and homes and shops gutted. The trigger was attack by a low-intensity bomb on a Muharram tazia (procession). The Muslims alleged the bomb was thrown by Hindu groups, something the BJP denied. The Hindu families alleged the bomb was a ruse to allow “a prepared Muslim mob” to attack Hindu homes.
There was already communal tension at the time over a government ‘verbal’ order prohibiting immersion of Durga idols on the day after Vijayadashami as it coincided with Muharram. The order was partly struck down by the High Court, which deemed it an “endeavour” to “appease the minority section”. While police said the area had always been “communally sensitive”, it was the first time Hindu majority areas targeting Muslim homes and vice versa.
Dhulagarh, Dec 16, 2016
The violence at Dhulagarh in Howrah was triggered by an attack on a religious procession to mark Prophet Muhammad’s birth anniversary. Police later concluded that the attack was conducted by an “organised, politically motivated mob” that deliberately used “low intensity bombs” to minimise loss of life “but maximise confusion”, while “using social media” to ensure “select photographs were circulated.”
This incident saw the BJP issuing its most emphatic criticism of the Bengal government, alleging that “Hindu homes” had been destroyed, and that “jehadi Muslims” harboured by the TMC had attacked temples and shops, forcing Mamata to transfer several senior police officers.
A visit to Dhulagarh revealed, however, that contrary to the BJP’s narrative, two neighbourhoods in Dhulagarh — the Muslim-dominated Haishar Para and Hindu-dominated Munshipara — had both been attacked. As the police investigation would later reveal, the “violence had taken place in waves”, one attack leading to further retaliation with both Hindu and Muslims homes targeted.
Further, police also said that a local club, Annapurna Club, had become the nucleus for right-wing outfits in the area, including Bajrang Dal and Shiv Sena.