Riots in Basirhat has nothing to do with religion, it's a Hindu-Muslim fight over controlling cow smuggling

India's clamping on the eastern border to check the burgeoning cattle and gold smuggling with next door Bangladesh was the biggest trigger for the communal violence that rocked Basirhat in West Bengal’s North 24 Parganas.

Reports reaching New Delhi claim the trigger for the violence was a bitter, constantly brewing tussle between the Hindus and Muslims to take charge of the illegal border trade. Cow smuggling across the border is pegged unofficially at Rs 4,000 crore, half of the business is generated through the Basirhat border, the rest from the Malda-Murshidabad.

File image of a charred vehicle during the riots in Baduria, West Bengal. PTI

File image of a charred vehicle during the riots in Baduria, West Bengal. PTI

A report submitted to the home ministry by the state government — claimed a senior home ministry official — indicated how the riots were used to settle scores between the two communities. For almost a year, the government has stepped up vigil across the 4096-km border, half of which has been fenced.

The state government report said there was a serious economic angle to the riots, and it revolved around the communities involved in smuggling across the Bangladesh border. And that it will continue till the border is totally fenced. According to sources, the report from the state home department to the Union home ministry has also raised questions about the "efficacy" of the Border Security Force. The elaborate report from the Trinamool Congress government in the state was sent to the Centre after the home ministry sought detailed reports on the violence in Badurai and Basirhat regions. The state government — under attack for not being able to handle the situations that led to communal clashes — has also protested the lack of cooperation from the Centre when the crisis erupted.

"Land acquisition is a major challenge to completing the work by the 2019 deadline and there’s constant tension between the two communities over control of the smuggling business," said the official, speaking on conditions of anonymity. The border runs along West Bengal for 2,216.7 km, Assam 263 km, Meghalaya 443 km, Tripura 856 km and Mizoram 318 km.

"Besides cattle and gold, liquor and fake Indian currency notes are routinely smuggled across the border, the fight is over its control, the Facebook post by a teenager and the subsequent violence is just an excuse, a trigger," says Samik Bhattacharya, former BJP legislator from Basirhat.

Bhattacharya said the crisis will continue till fencing is complete and that the work was being hampered because — according to him — the state government was not cooperating in land acquisition despite forming a committee for the same. There are logical problems as well. A large part of the border in Bengal is riverine, approximately 70 kilometre of the south Bengal frontier — from South 24 Parganas to Malda — is riverine and fencing is not possible. “The Muslims want a total grip on the smuggling business," says Bhattacharya.

Cattle smuggling is one of the most lucrative business across the border, rates ranging from Rs 12,000 to Rs 15,000, even Rs 24,000 for the cows brought from Jharkhand, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, even Rajasthan and Gujarat. In October, the Supreme Court found that around 17,000 heads of cattle had already been smuggled in 2015 — over five times as many as the year prior and, in total, worth around $2 million. The number was much lower than many experts and reports say. The Bangladesh government has been on the record saying over two million cows pass across the border each year.

"It's about strength, it's about numbers. If your numbers are high, you control the district and do not have to depend on the law,” Ram Prasad Thakur, 35, who is BJP in-charge in Rudrapur and a member of the Basirhat Zilla Parishad.

RPS Jaswal, DIG (Eastern India), BSF said cattle smuggling has been largely controlled but it remains a major bone of contention in the border states. “Everyone wants to take control and there are sparks that constantly fly from across the border. We have been able to contain cattle smuggling to a great extent but tensions are constantly brewing in Basirhat between the two communities,” he said. Jaswal said four platoons of the BSF are currently patrolling the borders in Basirhat where the "situation is still not normal".

In May 2016, home minister Rajnath Singh had claimed the BSF had reduced the number of cattle smuggled each year from 2.3 million to around 300,000 since the BJP came to power.

The illegal cattle trade is a sprawling industry, stretching from the border to the tanneries in Bangladesh, the cash meaning something different to each person along the supply chain. There are some who gather the cattle after purchase, some who travel with the cattle, and some to help the cattle cross the border, guiding the cows through rice paddies and across the water. At times, the smugglers are seen striding along naked so that villagers are embarrassed to interfere.

Both Hindus and Muslims are involved in the trade, and there is fear the trade will end in two years flat. What happens then?

“So it's better to mop up whatever you can in this two-year period," said Kaji Abdul Rahim, the Rudrapur legislator belonging to the CPM-Congress combine. He says people are making most of it by pushing a record number of cattle across the border, new sheds have come up in Satkhira town in Bangladesh that lie on the border. “So, to dominate the trade, someone needs to be in total control of things in Basirhat. The riots were inevitable,” Rahim said in a telephonic interview.

Rahim said the current shape of the trend is clear to those living in Basirhat: The Indian government has become more protective of many elements of traditional Hinduism, including violence against cows. "This awareness about cattle has spilled over to the border. These are incontrovertible dangerous times. There are routine clashes between vigilante cow-protecting mobs and the smuggling rings. BSF officers are routinely injured by the smugglers."

Bangladesh needs as many cows India can smuggle, no one in the neighbouring country — claim home ministry officials in Delhi — has the capacity to purchase full cows for prices ranging $500 to $2,000. Bangladesh is barely 7 km from the epicentre of the riots. Satkhira, the nearest Bangladesh town and a hotbed of Jamat politics, does not have any industry, any manufacturing plants. Poor villagers, naturally, resort to smuggling.

A report on border security tabled by Parliament Standing Committee on Home Affairs in Rajya Sabha in the just concluded budget session talks about a 'deep and wide' cattle smuggling nexus at the India-Bangladesh border.

The committee, headed by former home minister P Chidambaram, said despite several measures taken by the BSF, the problem of cattle smuggling persists along India-Bangladesh border. "The West Bengal state government has failed to implement its own order in 2003 that outlaws existence of any cattle haats within 8 kilometre of border area,” said the report. The committee recommended that the state government should cancel licenses of cattle haats and prosecute officials who illegally issue licenses to these haats.

The committee wanted the state government to ban mass movement and trading of cattle within 15 kilometre of border and prevent cattle smugglers from buying cattle from auctions organised by custom officials of seized cattle.

“There is a wide and deeply entrenched nexus due to which this menace has proliferated and the government needs to strike at roots of the nexus if it has to completely curb this problem," the report said.

Along with cattle, gold is smuggled from across the border. Intelligence officials claim the smugglers in Bangladesh get the yellow metal from Dubai and smuggle it across India, which vies with China as the world’s top gold consumer. This May, India saw a four-fold increase in imports of the precious metal as traders stocked up fearing that the government would fix a higher rate for jewellery under the new goods and services tax (GST) regime to be implemented from 1 July.

Overseas purchases advanced to 126 tonnes in May from 31.5 tonnes a year earlier. Demand is projected to rise to between 850 tonnes to 950 tonnes by 2020 from an estimated 650 tonnes to 750 tonnes in 2017 buoyed by the new tax regime, claimed the World Gold Council last month.

The bulk of gold smuggling happens through the Bangladesh and Myanmar border, claim Directorate of Revenue Intelligence (DRI) officials in Delhi and Kolkata. Last month, the DRI officials in Kolkata seized 105 kg of gold being smuggled into India from Bangladesh and Myanmar.

"Tensions are on a high between the two communities to take control over cattle and gold smuggling," said the home ministry official.

The Facebook post was just a trigger, even the state government now admits it.

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Updated Date: Jul 13, 2017 00:27:45 IST

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