A fortnight after violence and arson brought nondescript Dhulagarh, at the heart of Howrah’s micro small and medium enterprises (MSME) growth story, to national discourse, locked doors, shuttered windows and burnt walls unite the neighbouring localities of Pollepara and Munshipara. They are dominated by Hindus and Muslims, respectively. Of many families that fled after the clashes on December 13 and 14, some Hindus returned this week. Most Muslim neighbourhoods still remain deserted. District officials said more than 100 houses and shops were attacked over those two days.
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“More Hindu homes and shops were attacked, but the financial damage done to Muslim-owned factories is far more,” an administration official said. Superintendent of Police, Rural (Howrah), Sumit Kumar said, “There have been 56 arrests. Violence took place on December 14 and since then it’s been peaceful. Investigations are on.” About 30 km from Kolkata, Dhulagarh’s MSMEs focus on embroidery and garment-manufacturing. Already dealt a big blow by demonetisation of Rs 500 and Rs 1000 notes, many units in the area have now downed shutters following the violence. According to local officials and unit owners, equipment averaging around Rs 5 lakh per unit has been destroyed, raw material burnt, and workers left unemployed.
The economy of Dhulagarh has been crippled. State government statistics say there are 350 functional units in the Howrah clusters, of which locals estimate about 100 are in Dhulagarh. The Howrah units employ more than 9,000 people, and the average investment in each plant and machinery is calculated at Rs 5 lakh. “I have seen at least 10 factories gutted in the last few days,” said Zakir Sardar. “Most units were owned by Muslims, and were in areas where people from both communities lived in equal numbers. These have been targeted.” Zakir’s factory, which employed 40 people, was destroyed, along with parts of his house. Sheikh Allaudin claimed his factory, surrounded by homes of Hindu families, was targeted on December 14. “We had got new machinery from abroad with loan amounting to Rs 18 lakh per unit. We were hoping to start exports from next year. We have now taken a loss that could touch Rs 1 crore. That essentially puts us out of business.”
Alima Begum, another factory owner, said, “With demonetisation, we suddenly didn’t have cash to pay workers, and they understandably left. Most work in the garment sector is done in cash, especially with traders from Gujarat and Maharashtra. They stopped buying from us. And then the violence…” On December 13, a religious procession on the occasion of Milad-un-Nabi was attacked. That is what many people from both communities in Dhulagarh agree on — and where their divergence starts. While the Muslim community alleged that their procession was stopped and Muslim youths were forced to chant names of Hindu gods, and then attacked, people from the Hindu community blamed “outsiders” for the attack. They alleged Muslim youths came prepared with weapons.
The spark began near Annapurna Club at Dewanghat. Sheikh Narul Alam, one of the elders in the procession, said, “We had loudspeakers in our procession, and some people from the Hindu community objected to that. We turned off the loudspeakers. But some youths demanded that we chant names of Hindu gods. We refused. They started throwing stones.” The Hindu community has a different version. Rabin Das, whose house at Banshtala in Dhulagarh was a few metres from the spot , said many youths in the procession were carrying “swords and bombs”, and then a crude bomb was hurled at his house. “We fled,” he said.
Das said — and several locals concurred — his house was one of the first to be burnt. An embroidery factory abutting the house, owned by brothers Kamal and Jamaluddin Sheikh, was also gutted in the attack. “Who knows whether they (attackers) were Hindus or Muslims…. They were just out for blood,” Das said. Ujwal Das, a local worker, said: “The violence began outside the Allahabad Bank branch, where people had been in queue for long to withdraw cash. Tempers were already frayed,” said. It started with a stray fight, and became big, he added.
On December 14, violence spread to hitherto unaffected areas — the primarily Muslim-dominated prosperous area of Haishar Para and Munshipara, and Hindu-dominated areas of Banerjeepara and Pollepara. The BJP has alleged that the whole incident was made worse by the TMC. Last week, BJP MP Roopa Ganguly alleged that a TMC legislator was behind the arson and looting, and that “minority appeasement” politics of TMC was responsible for the violence. TMC has denied the allegations.