A state regarded as “one of the last secular bastions” of the country, West Bengal saw a spurt in incidents of communal tension in 2017. While celebrations and processions on Nabi Divas, Ram Navami, Muharram and Hanuman Jayanti kept the police and administration on their toes, clashes in Baduria and Basirhat and several such minor incidents were reported from areas like Birbhum, Howrah and Nadia. Amid this, the Mamata government maintained that BJP was misusing social media to spread rumours, leading to communal riots. The Indian Express takes a look at the major incidents of communal tension in Bengal in 2017.
On January 30, Tehatta High School at Uluberia in Howrah was shut down after school authorities denied students permission to observe Nabi Divas — Prophet Muhammad’s birth anniversary — on the campus. The school then approached the police, which also refused permission for the same. The incident sparked unrest, which escalated on January 27, when preparations for Sarawati Puja on the campus on February 1. School property was allegedly vandalised, forcing the police to impose Section 144 (unlawful assembly) of CrPc. The school was reopened later.
In April, tension erupted in Muslim-dominated Khidderpore area over Ram Navami celebrations, but a flare-up was nipped in the bud due to swift intervention by local Hindus and Muslims. The two communities went on to form a ‘Khidderpore peace community’.
Bengal saw its biggest riot of the year at Baduria in North 24 Parganas in July, when a Class XI student posted an “objectionable image’’ linked to the Prophet and Kaaba Sharif in Mecca on Facebook. The tension eventually spread across the Basirhat sub-division, claiming a 65-year-old man. While two minors were sent to juvenile homes, several were arrested for their posts on social media.
The flare-up also triggered a verbal spat between Mamata and the Governor. The CM accused Keshari Nath Tripathi of “threatening” her over phone and said that he was acting like a “BJP block president”. Taking on the BJP then, Mamata had said: “Social media is being misused. They (BJP) are spreading rumours through social media. This is a trend of the BJP. A modern design of the party. That is why we are trying to caution common people…”
With the state home department facing a tough time mobilising forces during the riots, the police proposed that North 24 Parganas — spread across 4,000 sq km — be split into Barasat and Basirhat divisions. The proposal is pending with the government.
Special Public Prosecutor Bivas Chatterjee, who represented the state in the Basirhat case, said: “Social media is highly penetrative… it goes viral within seconds. We need to be mature. The nature of the post should not be provocative, deliberate and planned. The person shouldn’t have a deliberate intention to hurt a religion or a specific community and shouldn’t be a habitual offender. If the person is merely expressing his mind, he is free to do so. Constructive criticism can never be charged under criminal offence.”
Since 2015, riots have been witnessed at Kaliachak and Chanchol (Malda), Dhulagarh (Howrah), Samudragarh (East Burdwan), Jalangi (Murshidabad), Chandannagar and Bhadreshwar (Hooghly), Bhagabanpur (East Midnapore), Kharagpore (West Midnapore), Hajinagar, Kanchrapara and Deganga (North 24 Parganas), Sankrail and Dhulagarh (Howrah) as well as Katwa, Jamuria and Kanksha (Burdwan). In most cases, social media was the trigger.
Tapan Ghosh, president of Hindu Samhati, a Hindutva outfit, maintained that the crackdown on cow smuggling and infiltration is behind such riots. “In the Kaliachak riots of 2016, a police station was attacked. No common man was attacked. While Kalichak is in Malda, a border area, Basirhat too is a border area… Riots take place when one community wants to boast of its strength to keep the government under its toes,” he said.
A senior police officer claimed attempts have been made to disturb the law and order situation throughout the year. “We have taken several steps to prevent such situations… Police will no more allow armed processions. Also, we will keep extra vigil on the social media… so that we can directly communicate with the people.” Bypoll will be held to the Uluberia Lok Sabha seat in January, next year, following the the demise of Trinamool Congress MP Sultan Ahmed. Congress leader O P Mishra said the Tehatta High School incident will have an impact on the bypoll.
“There are fault lines in Uluberia just as in Basirhat and Baduria and many others such areas. This is nothing new. However, these fault lines have always existed within the broader ambit of communal amity. From time to time, there have been ugly manifestations of tension such as what happened in Uluberia and in Basirhat. But after what the BJP has done over the past one-and-a-half years, such incidents this time round are more orchestrated. The communal tensions have been more about political posturing,” he added.
Mishra said the only way to counter this politically is for the Left and Congress to come together in an alliance. “The main issue behind BJP’s polarising forces and its right wing allies gaining force is not that communal tension has increased, but that in the absence of an unified Opposition, people are now seeing BJP as an alternative to Trinamool,” he added.