By Partha Dasgupta
WEST BENGAL’s reputation as a secular bastion is at stake. Deganga, a Muslim-dominated block in North 24 Parganas district, 60 km from Kolkata, is on the boil after Muslim mobs went on a rampage, looting Hindu homes and shops, early in September.
What started off on 6 September as a dispute over a puja pandal on a plot adjacent to a Muslim cemetery and a Hindu shrine, assumed alarming proportions the next day. Armed Muslim mobs ransacked over 100 Hindu establishments. They torched trucks and a police jeep, and desecrated two temples.
Sahabuddin, a Muslim youth from neighbouring Falti, was shot dead and several policemen, including the officer in-charge of the Deganga Police Station, were injured in the rioting that followed. The block, which stayed calm during the two most trying times in recent history — the 1992 Babri Masjid demolition and the 2002 Gujarat riots — has become communally charged.
Sukumar Ghosh, who proudly recalls saving his Muslim teacher, Yusuf Ali Mandal, during the 1964 Habra riots, is in shock. “The shops of my sons Shyamal and Debashis have been ransacked and torched. They have lost everything,” he says.
The trauma is echoed in the voices of Sutapa Karmakar, a college student, and her 82-year-old grandmother Kalidashi. They fled after their houses in Beliaghata were torched by a mob that was looking for Bachchu, Kalidashi’s youngest son, who allegedly shot Sahabuddin. The two women were saved by tea-seller Fazlul Haque and his wife Saira Bibi.
How is it that not a single house or shop owned by Muslims was touched if it was a communal clash? Haji Md Abul Hossain, the 73-year-old president of the Bazaar Committee of Beliaghata, one of the worst hit in the rioting, is clearly on the backfoot. “These were miscreants, they do not have a religion,” he says.
He even points out how he and Tarapada Ghosh, his long-time Hindu friend, took the initiative to restore peace in the villages of Beliaghata, Benapur, Dogachhia, Tona, Falti, Baidyapur and Arjullahpur. But the villagers are still spending sleepless nights, in constant fear of being picked up by the police, for having a Muslim surname. Most of the men, who work as helpers in trucks, are now unemployed.
While most political parties have distanced themselves from the incident, an outfit called Hindu Samhati (HS) has appeared out of nowhere and taken up cudgels on behalf of the Hindus. Led by former RSS pracharak Tapan Ghosh, the HS has blamed Trinamool Congress MP from Basirhat, Haji Nurul Islam, for orchestrating the atrocities. HS has launched a tirade on its website, claiming that 500 houses were ransacked, many Hindus tortured and women molested.
TEHELKA travelled extensively in the affected areas to corroborate the claims and did not find a single woman who alleged molestation of any sort. When asked, Ghosh said, “The body language of the women while deposing before the various fact-finding teams clearly suggests that they were molested.”
HOWEVER, FORMER state BJP president Tathagata Roy disagrees. “I have seen no such reports of atrocities,” says Roy, who claims the BJP has nothing to do with the HS. The Hindu outfits are equally angry with the media, with local leaders issuing regular threats to Doinik Statesman’s Sukumar Mitra, the only journalist to chronicle a blow-byblow account of the incident.
Posters by the HS and the VHP have come up in the affected areas, demanding the arrest of Nurul. Interestingly, they have the same handwriting and use a style and red ink that bear a striking resemblance to CPM campaign material that is so common in West Bengal. Rumour has it that the incident was a CPM ploy to gain Hindu votes in a region where Muslims have overwhelmingly rejected the Left Front in elections over the past two years. HS and ‘outsider Muslims’, drawn mainly from the neighbouring area of Shashan, are suspected to be CPM pawns.
SKM Meerza, the additional SP (North), smirks when asked about the political link. “We have arrested seven Muslims and four Hindus, but we don’t know about their affiliations,” he says.
TMC’s Islam, who is just back from Haj, rubbishes the allegations against him. “The episode is designed to malign my secular credentials. I have information that CPM goons Yakub and Netai led the loot and arson,” he says, a claim seconded by several villagers who didn’t want to be named.
‘Many Hindus affected by the riots celebrated Eid at my house,’ claims TMC MP Islam
“I am not a newcomer. I rose through the panchayat ranks. I have been involved in most of the pujas here over the years. Many Hindu victims celebrated Eid at my house,” says Islam. “Thank God no one lost their lives. Property can be compensated, but not life,” he says.
But 35-year-old Sahabuddin did die of a bullet injury on 7 September in Beliaghata and nobody bothers to visit his family. Islam sounds suspicious. “I have no clue why he came to Beliaghata from Falti on the day of a Bharat bandh,” he says. With all political parties shunning Sahabuddin’s house for fear of being branded ‘Muslim sympathisers’, his family does not know where the next meal will come from.
As of now, an uneasy calm prevails in the area. The usual hectic political parleys and peace marches by mainstream parties have helped. But, the communal genie is out of the bottle. And it will be long before the wounds heal. As Deganga panchayat deputy chief Usha Das says, “It will be difficult for Hindus and Muslims to look each others in the eye again. The trust is broken forever.”
Photo: Koushik Saha