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Bengal turns communal tinderbox, thanks to CM Mamata Banerjee

West Bengal is slowly, but steadily, heading back to its gory past when Hindus and Muslims were at daggers drawn and communal clashes and riots were frequent.

Trinamool Congress supremo Mamata Banerjee’s blatant minority appeasement is not only causing acute heartburn among Hindus, but has also emboldened attacks against them at many places. These have been mostly unprovoked with the motive of driving away Hindus from their hearth and homes.

Her administration has been playing the role of a passive onlooker and the state police have been venturing into riot-torn areas only after the damage is done.

In the latest such riot that broke out in a village at Howrah’s Dhulagarh area last week, according to reports, a procession complete with loudspeakers blaring Hindi film music was taken out on 13 December to celebrate Eid-e-Milad (the birthday of Prophet Mohammed), which fell on 12 December, a public holiday. On 13 December, Hindus at Dhulagarh village were observing Margashirsha Purnima.

Hindus requested that the volume be lowered since the music was interfering with some rituals. This incensed a section of those in the procession and they started attacking Hindu homes and shops. According to local people, the attackers were non-locals. Hindu houses and shops were looted and then set ablaze while, as the Zee News report says, police who reached the village were attacked by bombs and prevented from stopping the rioters.

Locals and leaders of Hindu Samhati (a Hindu social organisation) claim the attack on Hindus at Dhulagarh, like many others are increasing with regularity all over Bengal and were pre-planned. “Why would people participating in a procession to celebrate the birthday of the Prophet carry sticks, choppers and other lethal weapons as well as bottles filled with acid (which they hurled at shops), kerosene and diesel (which were used to set Hindu houses and shops ablaze after they were looted) and country-made bombs (that were hurled at the police)? Why was the procession taken out a day after Eid-e-Milad? And why were non-locals in the procession?” asked Hindu Samhati leader Prashanta Sen.

In October this year, communal riots broke out in 12 places all over the state over Durga Puja immersions and Muharram tazia processions. The seed was sown by Banerjee when she banned immersion of idols of Goddess Durga on Dashami on the ground that the immersion processions would coincide with Muharram processions. She wanted immersions to take place before 4 pm on the day of Dashami or two days after that.

The Calcutta High Court came down heavily on this and said: “There has been a clear endeavour on the part of the state government to pamper and appease the minority section of the public at the cost of the majority section without there being any plausible justification… the state government has been irresponsibly brazen in its conduct of being partial to one community, thereby infringing on the fundamental rights of people worshipping Ma Durga.” The High Court also warned the state that it would be dangerous to mix politics with religion.

But by the time the Calcutta High Court delivered its stinging criticism, the damage had already been done. The state government’s restrictions ignited anger among the Hindus of the state and triggered tension between the two communities. This ignited into full-scale riots when those in the Muharram processions attacked the Durga immersion processions.

“At all the places, the immersion processions or Durga Puja mandaps were attacked by those taking part in the Muharram processions. And there seemed to be a clear intention to create trouble. Some mischief makers burst a firecracker in the midst of a Muharram procession at Malda and shouted that the procession had been attacked with bombs. In no time, swords, daggers, choppers and lathis came out and Hindu homes, shops and temples were attacked. It was pre-planned,” a state home department officer who did not want to be named said.

Hindus were angry because of unreasonable restrictions on Durga Puja immersions, and also over other such anti-Hindu and pro-minority actions of the government. For four years, her government has been denying permission to 300 Hindu families of a village in the state’s Birbhum district to organise a Durga Puja because 25 families would be offended.

In 2012, she started giving monthly stipends of Rs 2,500 and Rs 1,000 to imams and muezzins of the 32,000-odd mosques in the state. This is perceived as blatant minority appeasement. She has also allowed hardline Muslim organisations a free hand. The hanging of 1971 war criminals in Bangladesh triggered massive protests in Kolkata and rallies calling for Bangladesh premier Sheikh Hasina’s death.

Last month, a massive rally that brought Kolkata to a halt demanded a steep hike in the stipends to the imams and muezzins to Rs 20,000 and Rs 10,000 per month respectively. A few months ago, another massive protest rally against preacher Zakir Naik brought the city to its knees. Another against the Uniform Civil Code (the biggest such in the country till date) was held last month in Kolkata. Kolkata is emerging as the hub of hardline Muslim activism.

West Bengal has also become a safe haven for Islamists hounded out of Bangladesh. “Hundreds of Jamaat-e-Islami leaders and activists accused of heinous crimes like killings of secularists and bloggers have taken shelter in West Bengal. The Mamata Banerjee administration has turned a blind eye to their presence. The Khagragarh blast was an eye-opener. Many such Bangladeshi criminals and terrorists sheltered in West Bengal have been planning attacks on targets in Bangladesh,” said a Central Intelligence Officer.

The fallout is steady Hindu-Muslim polarisation. “This polarisation has been triggered by what Hindus perceive is the blatant appeasement of minorities… anger has reached tipping point,” warns sociologist Dibyajyoti Goswami.

West Bengal is no stranger to communal riots: more than 5,000 were killed and tens of thousands displaced in the Calcutta riots of 1946. The 1964 riots were a reaction to the pogrom against Hindus in erstwhile East Pakistan, the 1992 riots, the 2013 riots in Canning, and many more.

Whatever be the failing of the erstwhile Left Front government, the lid was kept firmly on communal tensions.

This article is reprinted with permission from Swarajya magazine.