Over the past two years, communal and political violence has divided the electorate and claimed several lives in Barrackpore. Shiv Sahay Singh reports on the attempts by the Trinamool Congress and the BJP to polarise the electorate
The 2019 Lok Sabha election in West Bengal is a traumatic memory for Ali Hussain Mansuri, a resident of Barrackpore, about 50 km Kolkata. From a few days after the polls in 2019 till weeks before the Assembly polls of 2021, Mansuri went knocking on the doors of the Bhatpara police station with two complaints: one against the vandalism and looting of his shop and the other against his house being set on fire. In both the complaints, addressed to the officer-in charge of Bhatpara police station, which have been stamped as received, Mansuri mentions “violence and danga (riot)” in May 2019.
Almost a month after the riots, which erupted on the day the by-polls to the Bhatpara Assembly seat were held in Barrackpore, on May 19, the people of Darba Line returned home under police protection, but Mansuri did not. He chose to live about 500 metres away from his earlier residence near Choti Masjid. Since then, he has been going around distributing copies of the police complaints to whoever he thinks might be able to help him.
The riots killed at least seven and injured dozens of people. The causes of the deaths and violence are contentious and differ depending on which family or political party you speak to. Some attribute it to political violence, others to communal strife. But what is evident is that since then, Barrackpore has emerged as a centre of conflict. It is, like many other places in West Bengal before the polls, a region on edge.
Riots along the banks of the river
Hindus and Muslims, largely Hindi- and Urdu-speaking, have worked in the jute mills along the banks of the Hooghly river in Barrackpore for nearly two centuries. They have survived on meagre wages producing yarns of jute. These areas are dilapidated and the economic distress of the inhabitants conspicuous. But it is not only talk of job loss and lockouts that dominate conversations today, but also the creation of political and communal divisions.
Darba Line, located in the Kankinara Jute Mill complex on the banks of the Hooghly, is a cluster of low-roofed homes. The houses lie on both sides of a lane that is so narrow that two people cannot cross it at the same time. There is fresh paint on the doors and new plaster to hide the vandalism that occurred in May 2019. The people talk in hushed voices while recollecting the harrowing memories of the bloodshed and chaos. They know very well who the masked men were who looted their belongings and set their houses on fire.
Before the turn into Darba Line lies a common bathroom where, under a large iron pipe, mill workers bathe in the open. “Have you ever seen a toilet in the jute mill quarters,” asks Subha Protim Roychowdhury, a civil rights activist. In the Kankinara Jute Mill and the adjoining Reliance Jute Mills, the common toilets for mill workers look identical: they are two-storey structures with handwritten signs in Hindi pointing to separate staircases for men and women. These toilets are rows of compartments not higher than four feet. They have no doors. “In the jute mills, on both sides of the Hooghly, such structures are not uncommon. These common bathing spaces and common toilets are reminiscent of what was once a composite mill culture,” he says.
Roychowdhury lives on the other bank of the Hooghly in similar quarters that witnessed the Telinipara riots in May 2020 in the midst of the COVID-19 lockdown. The riots happened on two days: May 10 and May 12. On May 10, several shops were attacked on Ferry Ghat, largely a Hindu-dominated region. On May 12, people from the community came out in large numbers with weapons alleging that the members of the other community were not maintaining COVID-19 norms. Several houses were attacked and ransacked. Roychowdhury says these riots were manufactured; that rumours regarding the spread of COVID-19 triggered them. Social media was used to heighten the campaign and Internet was suspended for days in parts of Hooghly after the riots.
About 11 km from Telinipara is the Chinsurah Dunlop ground. This is where Prime Minister Narendra Modi landed in a chopper for a large public meeting on February 22, 2021. At the meeting, for which several trees were cut, he accused the Trinamool Congress of appeasement and alleged that Durga Puja was not allowed to be held. He promised the crowd, comprising workers of the jute mills who have been grappling with frequent lockouts and job cuts, of “development for all and appeasement for none” if the Bharatiya Janata Party is voted to power in the State Assembly elections to be held from March 27 to April 29. The crowd burst into applause on hearing this promise.
On the other bank of the river in Barrackpore, Roychowdhury and his associates Sandip Sinha Roy and Bijay Kumar Rajak gathered testimony of those affected by the violence. The outcome is a report by civil rights and research collective group AAMRA and is titled ‘West Bengal: Post Ramnavami Communal Violence; Bhatpara Riot 2018-2020’.
The communal and the political
It is difficult to point out when these fissures started appearing in the social fabric of Barrackpore, but there were instances of communal flare-ups even before the 2019 explosion. The Hazinagar riots of November 2016, triggered by an attack on a Muharram procession, and the unrest following attacks on Ram Navami processions in 2017 and 2018 were alarms that were ignored.
Seven people were killed in the communal riots in 2019 — Ram Babu Shaw, Dharmendra Shaw, Rajesh Shaw, Prabhu Shaw, Lala Chowdhury, Mohammed Mustak and Mohammed Halim. According to the family members of these victims, some of them died in a crude bomb explosion and some were killed in police firing. Three of them, including 17-year-old Ram Babu Shaw, were puchka sellers (street vendors). All the deaths were reported within a 2-km radius in the Kankinara-Bhatpara area.
While the families of the victims are united in their grief, they are divided in their opinions about political parties. This is because the Trinamool Congress and the BJP leadership have reached out to the families in different ways. Mustak’s son, Parvej, and Halim’s son, Tabrej, got jobs as contractual workers in the West Bengal Fire and Emergency Services Department. For at least three of the five Hindus killed in the violence, the BJP MP from Barrackpore, Arjun Singh, arranged a compensation of ₹5 lakh each. Some like Shyamali Devi, Prabhu Shaw’s widow, have failed to meet the criteria of compensation from either side. Shyamali, who has to take care of three daughters after her husband’s death, was appointed as a contract worker in Bhatpara Municipality. But she lost her job and has not got a salary for four months after Singh lost control of the municipality following defection to the BJP.
The violence which started in May 2019 continued to rage for the next 20 months. Activists like Roychowdhury point out that it is becoming difficult to separate the communal from the political. As communal passions subsided, the area was gripped by a bloody feud over area domination, and political murders became a regular affair. While there are definite numbers on how many have been affected in the communal riots, it is difficult to point out exactly how many people have died in the political violence. By some estimates the toll could be more than a dozen.
Even the supporters of the ruling party were not spared. In June 2019, a local Trinamool Congress leader from Nimta, Nirmal Kundu, was shot dead by men on motorbikes. The incident was captured on CCTV cameras. Among the other Trinamool Congress workers killed in the political violence was Akash Prasad in November 2020. Earlier, in September 6, 2020, two people died while allegedly manufacturing crude bombs at Kamarnati in the southern fringes of Barrackpore.
From October 2020, the Barrackpore subdivision was flooded with posters of a young, bearded man, a 35-year-old BJP youth leader. Manish Shukla was gunned down by semi-automatics on October 4, 2020, not even 100 metres from the police outpost in Titagarh. While most political murders have not created much of a ripple except for the customary tweets by political parties, the murder of Shukla, which was again caught on CCTV cameras, shocked the entire State.
But this has become more routine now. In the last week of January 2021, 35-year-old Trinamool Congress worker Rumani Khan was shot dead in Ward Number 18 of Barrackpore. Only a month earlier, on December 12, 2020, Saikat Bhawal, a 28-year-old BJP worker, was beaten to death in Halisahar area of the subdivision. Bhawal was distributing party posters when he was killed. The political strife has not only created divisions across families but also within families. Sagar Bhawal, Saikat Bhawal’s 23-year-old brother, says that while the BJP leadership has offered monetary compensation, a local Trinamool MLA approached his sister-in-law and offered her a job in the Fire Department. “She does not stay with us anymore. We would never have accepted such an offer,” he says. “My brother was the only earning member in the family. After his death there is no one to take care of me and my mother. And now the family too is divided,” he laments.
There is also friction between the Bengali and non-Bengali populations. Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee addressed her first political meeting from the Naihati Muncipality building on Ghoshpara Road on May 30, 2019. She had met family members of the supporters of the Trinamool Congress who were driven out of their houses after the polls. “I remember parts of her highly charged speech,” Rajak says, “including her reference to a dialogue from a Mithun Chakraborty blockbuster, ‘marbo ekhane (will beat you up here)’”.
Banerjee was enraged after locals had chanted ‘Jai Shri Ram’ at her convoy in Bhatpara area. She vented her anger against the non-Bengali speaking people of the jute mill belt saying that they were indulging in hooliganism while the State was providing them food and shelter.
Defections and cases
Long before defections became commonplace in West Bengal politics, Barrackpore saw Arjun Singh, a four-term Trinamool Congress MLA, defect to the BJP. Singh wanted to contest the Lok Sabha polls from Barrackpore but the party decided to favour Dinesh Trivedi. Singh switched to the BJP and defeated Trivedi by a margin of over 14,000 votes in a contest marked by violence.
Following Singh’s defection, a number of civic bodies slipped out of the Trinamool Congress’s grip, but after a few months, the legislators returned to the ruling party. Political violence in the region has been marked by area domination, capture of party offices, wresting control of civic bodies, and killings.
Singh’s office-cum-residence ‘Majdoor Bhawan’ stands at the intersection of two jute mills, the Meghna Jute Mills and the Auckland Jute Mills, on Ghoshpara Road. By 10 a.m, more than 50 visitors gather at his place. This house was in the news a few days ago when it was attacked by crude bombs. The video was tweeted by the State BJP leadership. The house has been in the news earlier too, with the police conducting frequent raids.
At Majdoor Bhawan, on a winter morning last year, Singh was in a hurry to visit an injured party worker, but still made time to meet the people. “The lockdown has left me with no money. Can you ask my landlord to consider my request,” a woman pleaded. Another visitor wanted him to pressurise his employer so that he could retain his job. Before leaving his office, Singh also chided a party worker who had beaten up a technician. “What will you people do when we come to power,” he asked.
A few days later at Dalhousie, with a smaller group of people at his lawyer’s office, the Barrackpore MP talked about the criminal cases against him. “I may hold the record of having the highest number of cases against me. It had reached 96 at one point, now it has come down to 66,” he said. Emphasising his century-old family connection to the jute mills, Singh said, “Barrackpore was made a prestige fight by Mamata Banerjee. If it was Singur and Nandigram that brought down the Left rule, Barrackpore will be the Waterloo for the Trinamool Congress.”
Communal overtones in campaign
The campaign before the Assembly election has not only got shriller, but the communal overtones too have become more pronounced. At a rally organised on January 9, 2021, at Barrackpore, senior Trinamool Congress leaders including MP Kalyan Banerjee and Municipal Affairs Minister Firhad Hakim raked up the issue of the riots and warned that there could be riots again during the next Ram Navami. The TMC MP went a step further and referred to the Hathras gang-rape in Uttar Pradesh and Sita in one line, triggering outrage on social media.
In mid-February, Singh welcomed Trivedi, his political rival, into the BJP after the latter resigned as a Rajya Sabha MP from the Trinamool Congress. The BJP began making plans for its Rath Yatra (or Parivartan Yatra), which was expected to pass through Ghoshpara Road in Barrackpore.
On February 15, at a well-attended meeting at Naihati, not far from where Banerjee had addressed the 2019 meeting, Trinamool Congress leader Omprakash Mishra referred to the harmonious coexistence of Bengali and non-Bengali-speaking populations of the region. “Fifty per cent of the people here are Hindi speaking and the remaining are Bengali,” he said.
Around the same time, when the political campaign was gathering pace, activists under the banner of the Association for Protection of Democratic Rights, under the leadership of Debasish Paul and Sandip Sinha Roy, rallied about 150-riot affected victims including Mansuri to the office of the Sub Divisional Officer, demanding compensation. While the development brought some hope to Mansuri, who was called by the local authorities to submit his police complaint along with his bank account details, he decided not to return to his old home and handed over the keys of the Darba Line quarter to the jute mill administration.
On February 25, 2021 the BJP president J.P. Nadda visited Mangal Pandey Park in Barrackpore, had lunch at the home of a family of a jute worker at Gouripur Naihati, not far from Gouripur Jute Mill, which has been closed since the late 1990s. He also participated in the conclusion of the Parivartan Yatra.
A few weeks ago, Mansuri reopened his quilt and pillow shop in Kankinara after taking a loan of about ₹50,000. While business has started trickling in for the first time since May 2019, fears of a fresh communal flare-up continue to haunt the 64-year-old jute mill worker.
On February 25, Mansuri opened his shop with a lot of hesitation as the Parivartan Yatra was supposed to pass by his shop. Later in the day, he heard from Sandip Sinha Roy that the Parivartan Yatra had been denied permission on Ghoshpara Road because of violence in Kanchrapara further north. Mansuri heaved a sigh of relief and said, “Whatever has to happen will happen. I have opened the shop today. But how can we live in constant fear?”