By Gouri Chatterjee
The curious thing about what happened in West Bengal on the 3rd of this month is the unusual silence surrounding the incident that happened in the state’s northern district of Malda. From all accounts it was not something to be brushed under the carpet or dismissed as a routine law and order problem. After all, thousands of people (over 2 lakh according to some reports) converging on a godforsaken place like rural Kaliachak, to protest an insult to the Prophet that happened a month ago not here but in Uttar Pradesh and who had since been arrested, without any apparent backing of any political party is strange, to say the least, even by Bengal’s volatile standards.
Worse followed, the mob went berserk, the police station was burnt, buses and trucks were torched, a few Hindu shops and RSS activists were attacked though stopping short of flaring up into a full-scale communal conflagration. Yet, the state government is absolutely mum, the media coverage is perfunctory, the opposition parties are limiting themselves to mild fulminations against the state’s deteriorating law and order situation, but the Centre is interested enough for the Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh to schedule a visit to distant Kaliachak on the eastern border when Pathankot on the far west is still on the boil.
The media in Bengal has always hesitated going to town with communal incidents, worried that they may do more harm than good by laying bare the truth, detailing precisely who did what to whom, placing blame where it falls. Maybe it has something to do with memories of the pre-Partition Great Calcutta Killings being embedded in the collective DNA of the people of this state. Whatever, the C word is still a no-go area for journalists here who continue to describe a Hindu-Muslim riot as a “clash between two communities”.
But then, without proper investigation who’s to say it was a communal conflict at all? It was a communal incident for sure, as was the violent demonstration against Tasleema Nasreen that led to her being forced out of Kolkata in 2007, i.e. people from one religious community protesting about something to do with their religion. But was that what happened in Kaliachak on 3 January, a Hindu-Muslim riot? You would think the BJP would be the first to say yes, what with an RSS activist being shot at and other RSS members injured and polarisation being often the name of their game.
Yet, the visit to Malda led by the state’s lone BJP MLA, Samik Bhattacharya, ended up with a statement in which Bhattacharya said there was no point in dragging religion into this, it was wholly a law and order problem, “the writ of Nabanna [the state secretariat],” he said, “does not run in Kaliachak.” The VHP and fellow travellers on the social media though have been quick to point the finger at Mamata Banerjee’s policy of “Muslim appeasement” so that nothing much is being done to bring the culprits to book.
Either way it suits Mamata to ignore the whole thing and wish it would go away as quickly as possible. There has been no official statement so far from the government or the Trinamool Congress or anyone of any standing on this incident. And that is not surprising. Because this is a case that ties together the way law and order is collapsing in the state under Didi and the dangers of her overt and crude wooing of the minorities.
Kaliachak, according to the 2011 Census, has a population of a little over 3 lakh, 89 percent of whom are Muslims. It is wholly rural, yet only 18 percent of the population are involved in agriculture. The only other means of gainful employment is to be found in sericulture but that is hardly big enough to serve all. No surprise therefore that criminalisation is a way of life here. Kaliachak has long been known for more than its fair share of dacoits, everyone, even Panchayat Pradhans, carry country-made pistols tucked into their dhoties or trousers. Robbing, smuggling, counterfeiting, no criminal activity is unknown here. Recently, the district administration, surprised at the sharp decline in the output of vegetables and cereals in the area, conducted an investigation and found large areas had been given over to poppy cultivation, the first step in the manufacture of opium.
The age-old crimes received a fillip when Kaliachak found itself next to an international border with two border checkposts with Bangladesh within its ambit. The Border Security Force is kept very busy here, they have even to be alert to stuff being simply thrown across the border, as happened last November, when they apprehended a sizeable packet of 1,000-rupee and 500-rupee fake Indian currency notes that landed like manna from heaven on our side near the Sasani Border Outpost under the Kaliachak police station. Note: one of the buses burnt that day at Kaliachak belonged to the BSF.
Add to this Mamata’s khullam-khulla cultivation of Muslims as a vote bank and it is understandable why Kaliachak is a law unto itself. It will be no surprise if there are, as is being suspected, an international connect behind the events of 3rd January at Kaliachak. We know what happened in Burdwan when a bomb blast brought into the open an illegal bomb factory and a madarsa providing militant training operating right under the nose of the local police and in a house belonging to a Trinamool leader, as well as laying bare links with Islamist groups in Bangladesh.
Didi will of course protest vigorously if the NIA is brought in to investigate what happened in Kaliachak that day, as she did in the case of Burdwan too, but she has only herself to blame for not doing what she is supposed to be doing: providing responsible governance. Helping the minorities is of course important, the Sachar Committee report paint an abysmal picture of Muslims in this state, but turning the state into cowboy land or endangering its communal harmony will help no one. But if she was disposed that way, she would have learnt her lesson in 2014, when Burdwan blew up. With the 2016 elections round the corner, there is little hope she will learn it now.