Howrah: On any other Sunday, the Panchla market in West Bengal’s Howrah would be bustling with people. But today, it stands abandoned. All you can see are vandalised shops, charred motorbikes and columns of police personnel equipped with tear gas shells and shields.
Violence that broke out on 10 June over remarks made by former BJP spokesperson Nupur Sharma ripped through this area, just off National Highway 6, like wildfire.
The West Bengal police have arrested 100 people on charges of causing road blockades, arson, rioting and spreading communal hatred. Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee ordered a reshuffle of the top brass of Howrah police Saturday for not being able to control the violence for two days.
Alam Sheikh, who was standing outside his medicine shop in Panchla, told ThePrint, “On Friday, after the namaz, there was a peaceful protest called against Nupur Sharma for her crass comments against our Prophet.
“But the police suddenly fired three rounds of tear gas shells and the protesters got agitated, they ran inside the lane and vandalized the shops. Few shops got saved as they were shut in the afternoon.”
As he was speaking to ThePrint, a police officer walked up to Sheikh and told him it was safe to reopen his shop — a suggestion he declined politely.
Like him, there are many other shopkeepers who decided not to open their shops on Sunday.
On 10 June, the West Bengal government had imposed a curfew till 13 June in four Gram Panchayats, including Panchla, prohibiting the assembly of more than five persons to maintain law and order. A curfew is still in place in Howrah, while internet services have been snapped in Murshidabad.
“Despite curfew being ordered, violence couldn’t be stopped. So many shops have been destroyed for no fault of the owners. Hundreds ran amok through the market all because of the comments made by the BJP leader,” said Alam Sheikh.
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Spiral of violence
After the namaz on Friday, violent demonstrations erupted in parts of the country, including in pockets of West Bengal with the demonstrators calling for the arrest of former BJP national spokesperson Nupur Sharma over her controversial remarks on the Prophet Muhammad.
Reacting to instances of violence in West Bengal, CM Mamata Banerjee Friday held an emergency news conference at the State Secretariat and appealed to the protesters to maintain calm. “Imams and everyone are sincerely requesting the protesters not to fall for provocation. If riots happen, then we will have no answers to give because some political parties just provoke and run away,” she said.
But the situation remained tense in Panchla where locals pelted stones at police personnel Saturday.
As he was locking up his daily supply store Sunday, Manik Das (48) told ThePrint, “The administration was helplessly standing when violence broke out. We touched their feet to stop the mob so that our shops weren’t looted but they didn’t move.
“In front of the police, their vehicles were being set on fire. The officer-in-charge was only standing and watching, they said we can’t take any action.”
Uttam, another shop owner in Panchla, said: “If the administration had acted on time, this violence wouldn’t have occurred. Politicians sit in air-conditioned rooms and give orders but on-ground it’s the common persons that suffer.
“What was our fault? Why were we targeted? The administration has failed, I have never seen anything like this before,” he said.
Police appeal for calm
Howrah Police Commissioner IPS C. Sudhakar was transferred to Kolkata and IPS Praveen Tripathi appointed in his place. Superintendent of Police (SP), Howrah district, IPS Saumya Roy has also been removed and IPS Swati Bhangalia posted in his place.
Furthermore, the state Home Department Saturday deployed 10 senior police officials from the CID and Intelligence Branch to contain the situation in Howrah district.
West Bengal Police, in a statement Saturday, requested cooperation from all citizens to maintain “religious brotherhood and fraternity which is a hallmark of Bengal culture”. The statement added that nobody found indulging in criminal activities will be spared.
However, as the state administration strives to maintain peace and calm in areas that witnessed violence over the last two days, many shop owners like Sanath have already incurred losses that run into lakhs.
Sanath’s garment shop has been reduced to ashes, black smoke still bellowing from behind the shattered collapsible gates. “I saw men running in with rods, bamboos; before I could shut the shop, they set it on fire. Because it was clothes, I couldn’t save anything as the flames spread across the shop. I saved my life, but my shop was dead,” Sanath told ThePrint.
Located at the junction of the National Highway and Panchla, the premises of Netaji Sangha club – a local non-charitable organisation – weren’t spared either.
“This club was established decades ago; the doors were broken, 50 men stormed in with iron rods. They vandalized everything inside, eight policemen who were standing on the road, we had to give them security. Our club’s ambulance, which was used to provide service to patients free of cost in and around 3 kilometres in this area, was burnt down. I have never witnessed anything like this since my birth here,” said Palash Parui, who works as a volunteer at the club.
On the other side of the highway stood a BJP office that was also vandalised when violence broke out Friday. President of the BJP’s Bengal unit, Dr Sukanta Majumdar was on his way to this office when he was stopped at a toll plaza and detained by the police Saturday for disobeying curfew orders.
“Very soon, Paschim Banga will become next Bangladesh. The police-administration are mere spectators to the vandalism and arson that is taking place for two days in a row,” BJP national vice president Dilip Ghosh said in a tweet, referring to the violence.
Meanwhile, West Bengal Governor Jagdeep Dhankar has sought a report from the state’s Chief Secretary over the prevailing law and order situation. Dhankar has also appealed to citizens to maintain peace.
“Since June 09 in particular there has been an awful administration failure that took no preventive and precautionary measures. Law breakers were allowed to have free for all. Only prompt exemplary action can be a deterrent,” the Governor said in a tweet Saturday
(Edited by Amrtansh Arora)
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