Basirhat: Media's overblown reports belie deep Hindu-Muslim amity in violence-torn West Bengal region

Basirhat: On the afternoon of 6 July, Probasish Ghosh’s 65-year-old father lay in a hospital bed in West Bengal's Basirhat town, critically wounded and bleeding. Doctors said that his only shot at survival was to be taken to a better hospital in Kolkata, 75 kilometres to the east. As Probasish wheeled his father into an ambulance for the two-hour journey, the hospital superintendent came up to him and asked, “Would you please take along another seriously wounded man? His family is not here and he might not survive here.” Probasish rode the ambulance alternately checking on the wounded men.

Probasish’s father, Kartick Chandra Ghosh, passed away the next morning, becoming the only fatality in the sectarian violence that broke out in and around Basirhat following an anti-Islamic Facebook post on 2 July put up allegedly by a Hindu teenager of a nearby village. The other wounded man — Fazlul Sardar — a Muslim, survived. “I am sad that my father died, but grateful that the other man survived,” Probasish told Firstpost. Despite his grief, Probasish makes it a point to call Sardar's family and check on his health.

The death of Kartick, who eked out a living by selling dead chicken meat as fish feed, has already become a rallying cry for right-wing Hindu groups. The RSS-BJP in West Bengal have portrayed the violence that has occurred since 3 July in the region as an extremist Islamic response from radicalised Muslims.

Copy-paste reportage and the commentary it has begat, especially on social media, has built the narrative of a sharp, bitter and perhaps unbridgeable divide between the Hindus and the Muslims. But the emotions on the ground, barring a few, are more like Probasish’s response, reflecting a singular lack of hatred or intense dislike in the two communities for each other. In fact, there is a clear sentiment of Hindu-Muslim amity and brotherhood which clearly predates the controversy.

17-year-old Sauvik Sarkar's house in Magurkhai. Photo courtesy: Ajit Sahi

17-year-old Sauvik Sarkar's house in Magurkhali. Photo courtesy: Ajit Sahi

Take the case of Sauvik Sarkar, the 17-year-old Hindu teenager, who allegedly put up the offensive Facebook post that triggered the strife. Until his arrest, Sarkar had lived with the family of his father’s older brother, a police sub-inspector, in a village 15 kilometres from Basirhat. It has been claimed that hundreds of Muslims descended on their house and set it on fire. But this reporter found their house intact and untouched, flanked by palm and other trees, next to a field of standing crop swaying unconcernedly under a cloudy sky. Its external visage betrayed no signs of arson.

The neighbourhood is a mix of Hindu and Muslim homes. Right across is a Hindu household; diagonally, 15 feet across the narrow pathway, a mosque. “The Sarkar family has never had any trouble with anyone, Hindu or Muslim, in our area,” Maulana Muhammad Yaseen, the mosque’s imam, told Firstpost. “It is difficult to imagine that this boy did something like this.” The incredulity is evident among other men and women in the village. Their refrain: We have always lived together as Hindus and Muslims without any trouble.

“We don’t even lock the mosque,” its caretaker said. “The Muslims partake in our religious festivals,” a Hindu man said. Both Hindus and Muslims vouched that those who attacked the Sarkars’ house were not locals but outsiders.

Sauvik’s classmate, a Muslim, who was struggling to accept that Sauvik had put up such an offensive post on Facebook, said, “We have played cricket together since we were children. We are both backbenchers in the same class,” said the boy, whose father, fearing for his safety, didn’t want him identified. “Sauvik never got into any trouble. He never made one remark against the Muslims.”

Sauvik Sarkar's school near Bashirhat. Photo courtesy: Ajit Sahi.

Sauvik Sarkar's school near Basirhat. Photo courtesy: Ajit Sahi

Amirul Islam is a 47-year-old municipality clerk in the village of Magurkhali where Sauvik lived. Islam and Sauvik’s uncle, sub-inspector Bablu Sarkar, have been friends for years. According to Islam, Sauvik lost his mother a few years back. He came to live with his uncle after his father got married again. Sauvik used to regularly come to Islam’s house to play with his nephews in the evenings. “His uncle’s family and I are so close that I can walk into their bedroom and kitchen,” Islam said. “I have never even remotely heard any anti-Muslim or anti-Islamic rants from any one of them.”

On 3 July, a day after Sauvik had allegedly put up the Facebook post, Islam was visiting a nearby village on work when he received a frantic call from Bablu Sarkar’s Hindu neighbour, who lives opposite Sarkar’s house. “Come quickly,” the Hindu neighbour told Islam. “There are many Muslims here and they could set the Sarkars' house on fire.” Islam immediately left for his village but found groups of Muslims blocking roads at various places. He recognised none of them and is certain they did not belong to his or the nearby villages. When Islam asked them who are they and what were they doing in his village, whether they can recognise Islam, they pushed him and warned him to “go home”.

Islam — who some news reports have wrongly identified as having whisked away Sauvik’s family to safety — also got a call from Sauvik’s cousin, Bablu Sarkar’s son, John. He told Islam that the family had already abandoned their house and implored him to save their house from being vandalised and burned down. Islam bought three locks and reached the Sarkar household nearly two hours later. Together with the Hindu neighbour who lives across the lane, Islam locked the doors and gave the police the keys. “I saw some smoke but I heard that the fire had been put out,” Islam said.

The Sarkars' Hindu neighbour fully corroborates Islam’s version. Speaking on the condition of anonymity, he said he could not recognise any of the Muslims that had surrounded the Sarkar household that evening. “Magurkhali is a small village and everyone knows everyone,” he said. “All those faces were new.” This Hindu neighbour, too, vouches for the Hindu-Muslim relations in his village. “You will be surprised to know that the mosque next to my house stands on land that I donated,” he said. “The property is still in my name and the tax notices still come in my name.”

Was the Sarkars’ house set on fire by the mob? “Perhaps at the back of the house, but even if there was fire it was put out quickly” without causing substantial damage.

Both Islam and the Sarkars’ Hindu neighbour attested to good Hindu-Muslim relations. In his life, Islam has known of only two incidents of Hindu-Muslim tension. He was 10 years old when the Hindus objected to the installation of first-ever loudspeakers at a mosque, the dispute was resolved and the decision went in favour of the Muslims.

Around eight years back, a Hindu boy sprayed coloured water on an imam on the day of Holi, which too was resolved as Hindu elders admonished the child and apologised to the imam. “Hindus and Muslims have never come to blows here,” Islam said. Surprisingly, the local BJP agrees. “Hindus and Muslims have always lived here happily and still do,” said the BJP’s Manisha Ghosh, a municipal councillor from the village.

The Muslims too condemn the violence that occurred, like the attack by local Muslims at the police station and the burning of their jeeps. “Muslim leaders, especially the clergy, tried their best to pacify the crowd but they were angry at police inaction as they wanted Sauvik arrested but the police prevaricated,” said Rafikul Islam, a local lawyer and an activist of the Welfare Party of India, which is affiliated with the Jamaat-e-Islami Hind. According to him and several others, the violence at the police station occurred after the police refused — and wisely so — to bring Sauvik out and show him and assure the crowd that he has indeed been arrested. “That was absolutely wrong behaviour and every Muslim organisation has condemned it,” he said.

The scale of violence, however, appears to have been overblown in the news and social media echo chambers. Kartick's death is the only fatality. Apart from the jeeps burnt at the police station, two or three other four-wheelers are reported to have been set on fire. No firearms are reported to have been used by the mobs. The shops vandalised or burnt have been mostly roadside stalls rather than concrete structures.

Much has also been written about the Hindu temples being attacked in and around Basirhat town. This correspondent sought to locate a place of worship which was vandalised but no one could direct him to any. Tapan Debnath, a BJP municipal councillor in Basirhat, too made a similar claim but failed to provide the address of any temples.

At least one Kali temple, in the heart of Basirhat, that was believed to be vandalised, did not appear damaged at all. The evening prayers were in full swing when I visited. Also, Hindu victims of the violence, of whom certainly there may be a few, have been hard to come by. When asked about them, Debnath insisted many Hindus had been injured in the attacks, but once again, he could not or would not provide any details. Other inquiries made to reach out to Hindu victims also drew a blank at Basirhat.

What has found very little coverage in both social media and the news is the counterattack on Muslims by Hindu mobs. I met seven victims of such attacks, two of them at their homes in Basirhat and five of them at Kolkata’s SSKM Hospital, where, they claimed, were brought by the Rapid Action Force (RAF), pressed into service to contain the violence.

Abdar Gazi, a victim of the Bashirhat violence. Photo courtesy: Ajit Sahi.

Abdar Gazi, a victim of the Basirhat violence. Photo courtesy: Ajit Sahi

Rejaul Mollah, 24, a fish hawker from near Basirhat, was attacked allegedly by a Hindu mob when he was on his way home. They nearly broke his skull, which had to be stitched up, and his leg, too. “They appeared to be students,” he said from his hospital bed. “They stopped hitting me only after I pretended to be dead.” Twenty-eight-year-old Shahanur Alam, a house painter, had a similar encounter but was lucky to escape with a couple of deep wounds to his head and a broken arm. Both Mollah and Alam said their attackers forced them to chant “Jai Sri Ram” as they attacked them.

In Basirhat town, conflicting claims were typically made by the Hindus and Muslims about a single incident of violence. On 3 July, a Jagannath rath yatra was scheduled to be taken out but, in view of the sectarian tensions, the police decided to change its route. “This made the Hindus angry and they pelted stones on the RAF,” Mohammad Karuzzaman, a local Muslim, claimed. Not true, said Debnath. “The Muslims fought a pitched battle with the RAF, not the Hindus.” The police arrested four Muslims but no Hindus, which has left the Muslims unhappy. They are busy preparing a list of shops and vehicles that were set on fire during the violence.

In keeping with its national position, the local BJP too has blamed the Mamata Banerjee-led TMC government for the violence and for “encouraging” Islamic extremism. The TMC MLA from Basirhat, footballer-turned-politician Deependu Biswas, was enraged that his home and office was attacked by a mob chanting “Jai Sri Ram” (see interview). He alleged that the RSS-BJP had engineered the violence as he had defeated the BJP’s incumbent MLA Samik Bhattacharya at last year’s Assembly election.

As of now, peace prevails in the region but it is tenuous and vulnerable, not because of the communal divisions but because of lack of political will. Both the TMC and the BJP continue to spin the incident to suit their respective agendas. Both the Hindus and the Muslims are clear that the politicians are bent on dividing them.

“While I want those who attacked and killed my father to be arrested and punished, I don’t see them as Muslims but as criminals with no humanity,” said Probasish. “Because a few were violent don't make all Muslims bad.” After a pause, he added, “If Hindus and Muslims become each other’s enemies this country won’t survive.”​

Updated Date: Jul 13, 2017 06:36 AM

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