By Rajat Roy
The clinching reason behind the violent eruption in Kaliachak block of West Bengal's Malda district has come to the forefront 15 days after the unrest. It seems increasingly clear now that it was not merely a clash between the BSF and locals, as claimed by the administration. The unrest was triggered by a complex power play of inter-mafia rivalry and intra-party turf war.
To understand the context of the violence, one must take a look at Malda's socio-economic milieu.
Malda, along with Murshidabad, North and South Dinajpur, are some of the poorest districts in Bengal from where a large number of unskilled and semi-skilled labour migrate every year to other states.
With Bangladesh border just 2 kilometres away, the economy in these districts, especially Kaliachak, is mostly driven by cross-border smuggling or trafficking. Even though barbed wire fencing has been erected at most places, high grassland has made it a porous border where people come and go almost freely, resulting in a flourishing trade of smuggled goods including but not limited, to small arms, drugs and fake Indian currency notes (FICN).
In recent times, smuggling has grown exponentially with the mafia culture taking its root in this border area. Manufacturing of small arms has become a veritable cottage industry in remote villages with parts smuggled from across the border. And with proliferation of illegal arms and flow of ill-gotten money, turf war erupted between gangs on a regular basis with killings and kidnappings becoming rampant.
Lack of political stability, too, has added to the problem.
Malda, for decades, was the fiefdom of local Congress strongman ABA Ghani Khan Chowdhury. After his passing away, and with the rise of Trinamool Congress, the hold of India's grand old party over this district has weakened, resulting in defection of district-level leaders.
Many of the gangs, too, who earlier owed allegiance to Congress and/or CPM, increasingly moved towards the ruling party.
And as TMC gained in strength, it inevitably became afflicted with factionalism. With the state Assembly elections due in April-May this year, war between rival factions gave the mafia turf war a political overtone. In the last four months of 2015 alone, at least 50 killings have taken place at Kaliachak.
Narco-trade and police action
Amid this politico-criminal nexus, a recent new dimension was added with the mafia turning its attention to cross-border trade in narcotics. Local farmers were enticed to illegally cultivate poppy. What was initially done in remote areas soon became rampant with huge tracts at Mojampur (5 km from Kaliachak) being brought under poppy cultivation.
Following a district administrations meeting held last November which noted an alarming trend in shrinking areas for paddy cultivation, police started regular raids on poppy fields. Farmers, expectedly, turned to the mafia for help.
Mafia leaders conduct smooth business through two ways. One, they instill fear of god among people working under them. Two, they also cultivate the trust of local political leaders for protection.
The raid on poppy fields were a red flag. At the heart of January 3 violence lies the fact that the mafia needed to do something to restore the eroding confidence in them. And one way of instilling confidence is to demonstrate that their writ still runs large.
It is in this context that we must place the daring attack on Kaliachak police station when irate mob burnt piles of documents but didn't harm female police constables who couldn't flee like their male counterparts and had locked themselves in a room in the thana.
An undercurrent of radicalisation
The violence that made headlines all across India also exploited the very recent undercurrent of radicalistion in Malda. Malda, which has a heavy Muslim population, has no history of communal violence.
Shubhro Moitra, a journalist and resident of Malda for years, has observed that in the last 20 years there has been some visible change in Muslim community.
"More and more women are wearing hizab as they come out of their homes.
"Jalsa, a religious convention, are now being held on a regular basis where firebrand preachers try to radicalise locals."
Thus on January 3 when a Muslim religious organisation arranged a rally to protest against a Hindu Mahasabha leader's derogatory comments against Prophet Muhammad there were no dearth of people who thronged to Kaliachak from even far off places like Sujapur and other areas.
What really happened
Since the rally ground could at best hold around 10000 people and over a lakh had gathered, NH34 — the only major road — was choc-full with traffic.
The immediate friction arose from a BSF bus carrying the family members trying to wriggle its way past the hundreds of vehicles. It didn't escalate. But crucially, a rumour went around that BSF jawans had fired upon the crowd.
Eyewitnesses claim that a number of speakers from the stage tried to pacify the crowd by declaring that no such firing had taken place. Unable to restrain the crowd, the organisers ended the meeting immediately, but by that time a mob had taken control and after torching over 30 vehicles and ransacking shops, it attacked the police station.
Despite the violence and arson though, the Kali temple in the police station precincts was untouched and both Muslim and Hindu-owned shops were destroyed.
It seems likely that instead of a spontaneous communal violence, what happened in Malda was a calculated attack against the police, seeking to send the message that the mafia, and not the administration, is in control.
The writer is senior journalist