The riot-hit Basirhat, some 50 km from Kolkata in West Bengal’s North 24 Parganas district, may be limping back to normalcy, but with the “secular” fabric of the area destroyed, the mood here is sombre, even as a sense of despair and anger prevails. Internet services have been restored and schools, colleges and banks have reopened in the Basirhat sub-division, which comprises three municipalities and 90 village panchayats, after a spate of week-long communal violence earlier this month, but the scars of the riots will not be forgotten easily.
Raju Dey, who is a Hindu, sits in a makeshift paan shop at Basirhat town’s Moila Khola bazaar (market), one of the epicentres of the violence. He does not have any money to reconstruct the small shop he owns, as it was ransacked by an angry mob, allegedly belonging to the minority community. Speaking to The Sunday Guardian, he says, “On the day of Ulta Rathyatra, an angry mob belonging to the minority community, attacked several shops in this market in the evening, and one of those shops was mine. They ransacked my shop, while I ran for my life. I lost my shop and all my belongings. I have a family of five to feed, but no one came forward to help, not even the West Bengal government.”
A fruit vendor next to Raju’s shop quickly adds, “Nothing will remain the same here in this area after what they have done to us. They have destroyed the secular fabric of the area.”
Moila Khola is one of the prominent markets in Basirhat, and had turned into a battleground when communal violence broke out in the area. The rioters vandalised and torched several shops, small shacks and a 200-year-old temple in this market, and this, according to the locals, led to a backlash from the Hindu community. However, on the rainy Sunday afternoon this newspaper visited the marketplace, it was empty, with most shops closed and people staying indoors.
Rana Mondal, secretary of the Moila Khola market, tells The Sunday Guardian, “Many shops here were affected in the riot. We are trying to help rebuild the shops. We have managed to repair most of the shops. We have also identified a few from this market who were part of the mob that attacked the market. We have asked the administration to take appropriate action against them. But there is still a lot of communal animosity here. It will not be easy to erase such feelings, for a riot like this had never happened in Basirhat’s history.”
Shopkeepers at the marketplace say that they have not received any help from Mamata Banerjee’s government, and that not a single government representative has met them.
Basirhat town has around 1.43 lakh people, as per the 2011 census, with Hindus comprising 75% and Muslims 23% of the population.
Travelling around Basirhat town and the adjoining areas, the magnitude of the destruction can be assessed from the many charred and broken shops and houses. The common refrain here is, “Basirhat will never be the same again”.
Roads in the town are still deserted, with not many people venturing out of their houses. Paramilitary forces are still seen patrolling the streets. Mass gatherings are still prohibited, and some paramilitary personnel have been posted outside religious establishments to keep an eye on “lumpen elements”.
The owner of a motorcycle showroom in Basirhat, Abhijit Biswas (name changed), who is in his mid-20s, says his showroom was vandalised, stoned and partly torched. “I was born and brought up here, but I never imagined that I would see something like this. Even my grandfather or my father had never seen anything like this before. We always lived like friends and brothers, but the aggression that we saw in them at the time changed my perception completely. They vandalised our shop, burnt at least five motorbikes and looted Rs 4.5 lakh,” says Biswas.
“The secular and peaceful fabric of Basirhat has been destroyed. We will never forget the scars that have been left behind. It was a sad chapter in the history of Basirhat,” he adds.
When The Sunday Guardian drives down to one of the biggest madrasas of Basirhat in the minority-dominated area of Teen Mohni, entry to the school is denied. However, Muslim community members from this area say that the communal violence was the result of a “minor misunderstanding” between the two communities and “all have been sorted now”.
Mohammad Riaz, the owner of a small eatery in Teen Mohni, tells this correspondent, “We are very unhappy with what happened in Basirhat. This place was never like this; the people who created the ruckus were not locals, but outsiders who had come here to break the unity and bond that the two communities shared here. In Basirhat, people from both the communities have always lived like brothers and sisters. There is no problem now and everything is peaceful.”
Abdullah Gazi, another shopkeeper from the area, echoes his sentiments. “We are like brothers and sisters. A misunderstanding between the two communities had happened and everything is all right now,” says Gazi.
However, reactions are different in the Hindu-dominated areas. While many say that the “bruises left behind are too deep to forget”, others just want to forget it as a “bad dream”.
A middle-aged lady from the neighbouring Choto Jiragpur para (colony), who does not wish to be identified, fearing backlash, says, “How can they say it was a misunderstanding? It was a well-planned attack. I have seen it with my own eyes. I had to run for my life along with my two small children, and they say we should forget it. We will never be able to forget the anger and aggression that we saw on these streets. They threw stones, petrol bombs and ransacked houses in our area.”
According to the locals, many families from the area had to leave their homes during the violence and take shelter at their relatives’ place. Some are yet to return, while others are busy repairing their houses that were ransacked.
One such family, whose house was stoned and windowpanes broken, speaks to this correspondent. Suresh Pal, the head of the house, says, “Young boys aged between 14 and 25, charged into our house, with the intention of killing us. How we survived, only we know.”
“They wanted to kill all the Hindus in this area. They were shouting slogans and throwing stones. It was traumatic. We are scared and we want assurances from the (Mamata Banerjee) government that we can live safely here,” says his wife.