Kolkata: The Covid-19 lockdown was not able to prevent instances of communal violence in West Bengal over the last two days in the suburban town of Bhadreswar in Hooghly district.
The clashes were triggered by heated altercations over the use of a public toilet in a slum by a group of outsiders, who had come from a containment zone, according to police.
Crude bombs were used, the police were pelted with stones and their vehicles torched, and houses were vandalised. Initially, the situation was brought under control Monday, but violence erupted again Tuesday, when gas cylinders were used as improvised explosive devices and a dozen houses were set on fire, according to the police.
A senior police officer told ThePrint that while the Monday violence was “spontaneous”, there was instigation behind what unfolded Tuesday.
Two cases have been registered at the Chandannagar police commissionerate, and local political leaders have been slapped with charges including rioting, arson, attempt to murder, and under the Explosive Substances Act.
“The clash that took place Monday was spontaneous and turned communal due to demographic reasons. But there was instigation Tuesday. Political persons are involved. We are probing into this,” the officer added.
The Hooghly district administration Tuesday imposed Section 144 (unlawful assembly) in the area, and temporarily shut internet services in two sub-divisions of the district — Serampore and Chandannagar.
Another incident of violence took place Monday at Harishchandrapur in Malda district when an altercation between a local “quack” and a group of youths later triggered tension between two communities. Local residents told ThePrint that some houses were ransacked, but the police immediately arrested a few men and registered a case.
A senior police officer in Malda said two more cases were registered by the communities against each other, but the situation is under control now.
“We have arrested some people and raids are still on. Cases were lodged. We are investigating,” said Malda SP Aloke Rajoria.
What led to Bhadreswar flare-up
The trouble began with a heated altercation at Bhadreswar’s Telinipara over a common toilet. A group of residents resisted when some outsiders, coming from a containment zone, tried to use the toilet. They started pelting each other with stones, ransacked houses and hurled bombs at each other, said a local councillor, who did not want to be identified.
The police rushed to the spot in huge numbers, but were beaten up and their vehicles torched, a local shop owner told ThePrint. The police resorted to baton charge and lobbing tear gas shells to bring the situation under control.
Following the incident, many BJP leaders including the party’s state president Dilip Ghosh posted about the incident on social media.
When police tried to take the Covid-19 infected people belonging to a particular community, in Malda (Harishchandrapur) and in Hooghly (Chandannagar),they were vehemently opposing such action. On the other hand, the houses of the Hindus, their shops, temples are being demolished pic.twitter.com/NQ6GlLfqfy
— Dilip Ghosh (@DilipGhoshBJP) May 11, 2020
Locket Chatterjee, BJP MP for Hooghly, visited the affected area Tuesday to assess the situation.
According to eyewitnesses ThePrint spoke to, the situation went out of hand Tuesday afternoon, and the communities clashed again.
Around a dozen houses were gutted as around 10 cylinders were detonated there, a huge numbers of bombs was hurled, and 10 police personnel sustained splinter injuries, the first senior police officer quoted above told ThePrint.
Police force has been deployed in large numbers, and senior officers are camping in the area, to maintain law and order.
Accumulation and use of explosives
The police seized at least 14 petrol bombs and a dozen socket bombs with around eight gas cylinders that were readied with detonators for being used as explosives Tuesday.
Chandannagar Police Commissioner Humayun Kabir said: “We had arrested 67 people yesterday, and 35 people were picked up today. We have also seized huge quantities of explosive substances. Our bomb squads are there. As of now, we have recovered petrol bombs and socket bombs. They have also used cylinders as explosives. Further investigation is on. Anybody who had incited violence will be booked.”
The fact that the entire country has been under a strict lockdown since 25 March has led to questions over how the explosives were accumulated and used in Bhadreswar.
This this is the third instance of explosives use in Bengal during the lockdown, after two factions of the ruling Trinamool Congress clashed at Garden Reach in Kolkata in late March, followed by a clash between police and inmates at Dum Dum correctional home.
In all three cases, police called the incidents “planned”, but there has been no explanation for how the alleged perpetrators managed to gather so many arms and explosives.
In both the Hooghly and Malda incidents, a number of disturbing videos and pictures have been shared on social media platforms, which according to another senior West Bengal Police officer, may “foment more trouble”.
“We have already issued 12 notices to people who have shared such video footage or pictures they may affect public tranquillity,” the officer told ThePrint.
Political blame game
The incidents have led to a political blame game, with a group of BJP leaders and MPs led by Mukul Roy meeting state Governor Jagdeep Dhankhar and submitting a petition seeking redressal.
Dhankhar has appealed for peace in Hooghly and Malda, and put out tweets asking the police and administration to take action.
Concerned at incidents at Telinipara in Hooghly Dist. and at Chandipur in Malda Dist-appeal people to observe utmost restraint and maintain communal harmony.
Police and administration @MamataOfficial to be extremely watchful to contain situation. (1/2)
— Governor West Bengal Jagdeep Dhankhar (@jdhankhar1) May 12, 2020
Worrisome incident at Chandipur, PS Harischandrapur, district Malda calls for utmost restraint by all.
Administration and police @MamataOfficial must act detached with no political overtones and tone intelligence.
Community leaders must come forward for promoting peace.(1/2)
— Governor West Bengal Jagdeep Dhankhar (@jdhankhar1) May 10, 2020
Dhankhar also said: “Time for all to be in solidarity in Covid-19 combat. Community leaders should be involved in peace making/confidence building. Intelligence be toned up so that disruptive activities could be pre-empted. State cannot afford communal virus.”
Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee echoed these thoughts Tuesday when she said: “I have asked the police to take stringent action. None will be spared. We are fighting the coronavirus and there is no time to fight the communal virus now.”
Meanwhile, Hooghly MP Locket Chatterjee and Barrackpore MP Arjun Singh tweeted that they had gone to meet the Hooghly DM, but were turned away, indirectly blaming the Mamata Banerjee administration for “politicising the bureaucracy”.
Hooghly DM has refused to meet me and Barrackpore MP @ArjunSingh about the Telenipara riot. This is nothing new – complete politicisation of the bureaucracy in West Bengal. They take orders from Nabanna only and don’t work neutrally. The result is Telenipara, Malda and Tikiapara. pic.twitter.com/r31fvRYMAL
— Locket Chatterjee (@me_locket) May 13, 2020
Went to meet DM of hooghly, requesting action on TMC leaders and police for providing support to Muslims in riots,to stop atrocities against Hindu.
But he denied meeting me and @me_locket MP of hooghly.
Sitting on dharna, this kind of politics over riots is shameful.@amitmalviya pic.twitter.com/EbmrTIWTcv
— Arjun Singh (@ArjunsinghWB) May 13, 2020
However, Trinamool Congress MP for neighbouring Serampore, Kalyan Banerjee, accused the BJP of instigating communal tension.
“The BJP MPs are instigating people and fuelling communal tension. Several areas of my constituency overlap with Hooghly, and internet services were snapped there too. My constituency is also suffering for them. Locket Chatterjee was not seen there for months and now she has gone there to reap political mileage,” he alleged.