The communal riots in West Bengal’s coal belt towns of Asansol and Raniganj bordering Jharkhand over Ram Navami processions got aggravated because of ruling Trinamool Congress’ vote-bank politics and internal factionalism, local residents and political leaders told this newspaper over the phone. The supply and use of arms and ammunition by the coal mafia and hard-core criminals made the situation go from bad to worse. Residents alleged that the faction fight between two Trinamool leaders, a corporator and an MLA, was the reason why things went out of hand.
The MLA, they said, has been cultivating the minority community as a vote bank and it was his men who played a major role in instigating the Muslim community, which comprises 20% of the area’s population. On the other side, the corporator’s faction tried to polarise the Hindu vote in their favour by instigating Hindus to vent their communal passions. Residents said that the corporator has lost his grip on Asansol’s non-Bengali speaking Hindu vote—there is a substantial chunk of non-Bengali voters in the Asansol-Raniganj belt—to the Bharatiya Janata Party and it was this section that his faction hoped to bring back to their fold.
However, this charge was denied by the Trinamool Congress (TMC). Polarisation, which already existed on the ground, has got aggravated with the rise of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and Bajrang Dal in this belt. Communal clashes too have been taking place in the area, although intermittently. Some clashes were reported from Asansol during Durga idol immersion and Ram Navami procession last year, but were soon brought under control. But the situation got escalated this year, with local politics adding fuel to the fire. As an elderly villager from near Asansol said: “There have been communal clashes in the area even in the past, but those were small and mostly defused by elders from both communities. It never took this shape.”
Reports of violence from Asansol were still coming in until Thursday morning. Some 300 families, accounting for around 1,200 to 1,500 individuals—most of them belonging to the majority community, while some others belonging to the minority community—have been forced to flee the riot hit areas as their houses have been burnt down or vandalised by the rioters. A majority of those displaced have been given shelter in community centres, schools and in relief camps set up by various organisations and the Bharatiya Janata Party. Fearing further clashes, many families have sent their female members out of town. The official death toll in Asansol is five, while in Raniganj it is one. But residents claim that the actual number of people killed is much higher.
It all started with the procession taken out on Ram Navami day last Sunday in Raniganj. Residents claim that it was a non political procession, but had a sprinkling of VHP and Bajrang Dal supporters. The procession came under attack from the minority community while passing through a minority dominated area. Avdesh Sharma (name changed), a resident of Raniganj, told The Sunday Guardian over phone, “The Ram Navami procession was a non-political procession and, like every year, even this year, people made huge arrangements. However, while they were passing through a minority dominated area, they were asked to stop chanting ‘Jai Shri Ram’ and mute the loudspeakers. Soon after, stones started raining down on them and before long, they were attacked with guns and bombs. What followed was sheer mayhem that resulted in much bloodshed.”
It was while trying to stop this violence that an IPS officer, Arindam Dutta Chowdhury was hit by a bomb hurled at him and lost a hand. The VHP alleges that one of its members was killed in the clash.
Violence in parts of Asansol erupted soon after news spread of the incident in Raniganj. But rioting in Asansol spread faster and grew bigger in scale, allegedly because of instigation by political leaders. An Asansol businessman, Rajat Tiwari (name changed), told this correspondent, “The riots in Asansol were politicised for the sake of vote banks. To a large extent it was TMC factionalism playing out on the ground. Why weren’t there enough police personnel when the Ram Navami procession was passing through sensitive areas? That is because while one faction was giving patronage to one community, the other was busy supporting the other community. Who will the police protect from whom? They (TMC) used politics to let communal clashes flare up.”
The worst riots in Asansol took place in the Railpar (the other side of the rail track) area. Railpar is considered to be a den of hardened criminals, with many of them comprising the coal and iron ore mafia. According to sources in Asansol, the mafia has enough arms and ammunition to fuel such riots. In fact, they possess the most advanced forms of arms, residents claimed to this newspaper. Railpar is a communally “mixed” area.
Clashes broke out in Railpar when some members of the minority community protested the use of loudspeakers by the Ram Navami procession, which was passing through a minority dominated pocket. Sources in the local administration say that this Ram Navami procession comprised men who had come armed to retaliate in case of an attack. The rallyists were angry and wanted to avenge the death in Raniganj. The clashes then spread to other areas like Sagum Par, Chandmari, Chetladanga of Asansol. Some houses were burnt down, some were ransacked, shops were looted and men and women were beaten alike, locals said. While Hindu dominated areas such as Ram Krishna Dangal, Chandmari and Shreenagar were affected in the rioting, Muslim localities such as DC Roy Road, OK Road and areas in Railpar too were affected by the violence.
An Asansol political leader alleged, “The violence, mainly in the Railpar area, was allowed to go out of hand by the MLA’s faction, which wants to secure the vote bank there by polarising a particular community. They let the violence continue. Worse, they even participated in it. Arms and ammunition were supplied by the local mafia.” The corporator’s faction instigated the majority community in Railpar to indulge in violence, the leader alleged. No attempts were made by either faction to stop the rioting.
However, Moloy Ghatak, a minister in the Mamata Banerjee government told The Sunday Guardian, “The lie about factional and vote bank politics is being spread by the BJP. We did not have any role to play in the clashes that broke out. Instead we were trying to pacify the angry mob. It’s a conspiracy against us. It was the BJP and the VHP that conspired to spew communal venom in the area. This will become evident when the investigation report is out.”
The complete failure of the state administration in controlling the violence has angered the residents of both Raniganj and Asansol. The police was just not there when violence started. As Rajat Tiwari of Asansol told this newspaper, “The police failed in its intelligence gathering. How couldn’t they foresee such an incident? There should have been heavy deployment of police personnel along with the Ram Navami procession (when it entered Railpar), but only a few policemen were present. After clashes broke out in Railpar, even those policemen present there fled the scene, leaving behind their vehicle, which was later set on fire by an angry mob. The police did not turn up for another two hours. What was the police doing? Why didn’t they have any information that there would be violence, when people from both communities were armed?”
The local administration struggled hard to control the situation, even as it refused the Centre’s offer of paramilitary forces. When asked why his government refused the Centre’s offer of paramilitary forces, Moloy Ghatak said, “The situation has been under control and the West Bengal government has enough force and we do not need any other additional force. We are capable enough.”
The VHP spokesperson of Bengal, Sourish Mukherjee told The Sunday Guardian, “We were organising peaceful processions and there was no provocation from our side at any point of time. Our processions were attacked first by the people from the minority community. The government here has been giving shelter to jihadi elements or else how did they manage to get guns and bombs so fast? The attacks on the Hindu processions were pre-meditated.”
Section 144 of the CrPc (Unlawful Assembly) has been imposed in the areas affected by the violence, while internet services and cable TV broadcast in the whole of Asansol were restricted until Friday midnight by the local administration to stop the spread of rumours.
The police officers in Asansol that this newspaper spoke to, said, “The riots that took place in Asansol were pre-planned. We are investigating the matter. The guns and bombs that were used in the riots were not something that the local population could easily lay their hands on. Miscreants and anti-social elements were involved in this entire clash.”
The police has arrested more than 70 people from different areas after identifying them through video footage and with the help of the local intelligence. The police is also believed to have mentioned the involvement of the coal mafia in the report that it has submitted to the Ministry of Home Affairs in New Delhi.
The BJP has accused the TMC of polarising the situation through the TMC’s “politics of appeasement”. Sayantan Basu, general secretary of West Bengal BJP, told The Sunday Guardian, “The TMC has converted Bengal into a state where Hindus are being treated as second class citizens, because of the ruling party’s appeasement politics. They have given shelter to extremist outfits in the name of vote bank politics. What happened in Asansol and Raniganj is unfortunate and those who initiated the violence, mostly from the minority community, were under the patronage of the TMC.”
Basu also accused the police of not taking appropriate action. “Even after all this, the culprits are not being arrested; instead, some members of the BJP and the VHP have been arrested by the police. Though a senior police officer has been grievously injured, this is the government’s attitude towards arresting the main culprits,” Basu said.