Last Sunday morning, even as the country’s attention was focused on the terror attack on the Indian Air Force base in Pathankot, another drama was unfolding in the Kaliachak area of Malda district in West Bengal. A mob, whose numbers are estimated at anything between 50,000 and over a lakh, first attacked the local police station, drove out the small police force, set fire to all the records in the thana and then proceeded to attack shops and set fire to as many vehicles it found in the vicinity. Although no one was killed in the mob violence — it can hardly be called a riot since there was no retaliation — the damage to property was considerable.
The Muslim mob had gathered at the call of an obscure organisation, was apparently protesting against some disgusting comments by a Hindu extremist made a month ago in Uttar Pradesh, for which the culprit had been promptly arrested and jailed. Offensive as those comments undeniably were, there was no reason why the Muslims of Malda — one of the many Muslim majority districts of West Bengal — should feel exceptionally aggrieved, enough to direct their ire at the local administration. But then there was no reason why a Muslim gathering in Mumbai’s Azad Maidan in August 2012 should have felt so particularly agitated over the fate of the Rohingyas in Myanamar to go on the rampage in an Indian city. On that occasion too — when a martyr’s memorial was vandalised — the mobilisation had been at the call of an obscure organisation, albeit one with a history of promoting radical Islamism.
Subsequent police inquiries have suggested that the violence in Kaliachak had been masterminded by criminal elements — particularly those involved in contraband drugs trafficking and the distribution of counterfeit currency — that have made the area its centre. It would seem that the area has increasingly become a no-go area for the local police because the criminal groups have taken full advantage of the West Bengal government’s known reluctance to do anything that could be interpreted as offending minority sentiments. This is the same logic that explains the ease with which criminal networks thrive in some Muslim ghettos in Kolkata and neighbouring South 24-Parganas. In the 1980s, a diligent police officer was lynched by a criminal mob in Kolkata for daring to take his law enforcement job a bit too seriously. And Kaliachak had witnessed open-air gunfights last year as criminals waged quasi-political turf battles.
The immediate aftermath of the Kaliachak violence has been two-fold. First, the local police and administration have been so totally intimidated that it is unlikely there will be any meaningful action against those who engineered the violence last Sunday. The fact that the organisers took shelter behind a religious cover has only served to drive home the administration’s helplessness, and more so because the West Bengal Assembly elections are due in May this year. With the Congress, which still has a large presence in Malda district, trying to drive a political bargain with two courtiers — the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and the Trinamul Congress — the Muslim politico-criminal elements chose an opportune time to flex their muscles.
Secondly, while the violence in Kaliachak was not a riot in the accepted sense of the term, it was also tangentially directed against the Hindu minority. There are media reports that Hindu-owned shops in the bazaar bore the brunt of the organised vandalism. This targeted violence has meant that the Hindu population in Malda, as well as neighbouring Muslim-majority districts, now live in a state of intense insecurity. Although it may be rash to suggest that what we are witnessing is the creeping creation of autonomous Islamic enclaves along the border with Bangladesh, it is important to recognise that such threats exist in the long term, particularly if the state government turns a blind eye to the problem.
It is worth acknowledging that the authorities in Bangladesh have repeatedly alerted the Indian authorities of the dangers posed by Bangladeshi extremists who have taken refuge in West Bengal ever since the Awami League government turned the heat on them.
It is entirely possible that chief minister Mamata Banerjee does not endorse the growing militancy among a section of West Bengal’s Muslim population. Unfortunately, she has done precious little to tackle the problem. Maybe she is mindful of the disaster that struck her predecessor Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee for his attempts to counter an incipient Islamist threat. She must also be aware of the dire political predicament of Assam chief minister Tarun Gogoi who has to enter into either a formal or informal understanding with Badruddin Ajmal of the United Minorities Front of Assam to compensate for his loss of support among the Assamese Hindu population.
However, Ms Banerjee cannot be singled out for her cynical capitulation to organised communal politics. What the Kaliachak incident also demonstrated — as has many other unpublicised incidents in West Bengal involving abductions and denial of religious rights — was the increasing reluctance of the Bengali intelligentsia to raise awkward questions centred on Muslim politics. Just as Taslima Nasreen found little support for herself among the bhadralok intellectuals of Kolkata, the embarrassed silence over Kaliachak has exposed the double standards of secular “group-think”.
No two incidents are alike but even if a fraction of the outrage over the Dadri lynching in Uttar Pradesh had been showered on the vandalism in Kaliachak, it would have sent a salutary message.
Alas, the resounding silence, including that of the “national” (meaning Delhi) media has served as an encouragement to some of the more extreme communal elements in the Muslim community. They will not be mistaken in believing that they can get away with just about anything.
(The writer is a senior journalist)