Communal tension reared its ugly head in West Bengal yet again—the backdrop being anxiety and temper brought on a knife’s edge by the COVID-19 pandemic. Yet, significantly, the flare-ups at Telinipara in Hooghly district and Harishchandrapur in Malda didn’t materialise out of existing tension—an organised hate campaign allegedly fomented the trouble. Ever since the Tablighi Jamaat meet in Delhi emerged as a hotspot of the coronavirus outbreak, a narrative was created to link COVID-19 with all Muslims. One politician in UP called for a boycott of Muslim vegetable vendors; still more accused Muslims of spreading it deliberately. The canards were especially vicious on social media. All this had a direct bearing on the recent communal cases in Bengal.
At Telinipara, a local, Sheikh Anwar, tested positive for the coronavirus, leading to rumours that Muslims were spreading the pathogen. To maintain social distancing, the police relocated a market from the congested locality to an open place, but Hindus barricaded the road to the market in a way that would prevent Muslims from the neighbourhood access. Muslims retaliated by blocking the entry road to a public toilet facility used by both communities. The tension that gripped the area on the night of May 9-10 was defused within two days. On May 12, a BJP delegation led by MPs Locket Chatterjee and Arjun Singh, Mukul Roy and others called upon governor Jagdeep Dhankhar and complained that the police failed to prevent the hostile situation at Harishchandrapur and Telinipara. Chatterjee told mediapersons, claim some, that armed bands of Muslims were engaged in looting and arson, targeting Hindus. Yet, according to local sources, when the delegation was meeting Dhankhar in Calcutta, BJP supporters allegedly crossed the Ganga from Barrackpore, entered Telinipara and lobbed petrol bombs on the area. The situation was controlled after police sealed the ferry stations and made a few arrests. Altogether, 134 people from both communities were arrested; crude bombs and weapons were recovered from them. Significantly, police did not have to resort to firing to calm matters. Rubber bullets, tear gas and lathi charges were enough to disperse the crowd. Also, no one was killed in the violence.
At Harishchandrapur in Malda, the immediate cause of tension was the return of migrant workers. Malda district recorded its first coronavirus infection on April 27, when a worker returning from Barasat, North 24 Parganas, tested positive. On April 29, a patient who returned from Mumbai tested positive; on May 3 another case emerged. Matters rested there till May 7, when suddenly it spiked to seven cases. All new patients came from Ajmer and they are from Harishchandrapur—part of a Muslim-majority district where thousands earn a living in distant areas, most coronavirus-positive migrant workers in Malda are also Muslim. Though there was negligible participation in the Tablighi congregation from the district, a rumour campaign against Muslims vis-a-vis the outbreak gained ground. In such an environment, returning workers were treated with silent resentment. That and the mandatory quarantine irked them. The situation was ripe for a flare-up, which broke out on May 10-11. In the event, the fire was doused quickly; four people from both communities were arrested. Though the situation in Harishchandrapur and Telinipara is normal now, one may surmise that the situation in the state—with tens of lakhs of migrant workers about to pour in from across the country in the coming days—is primed for tense situations like these.
Governor Dhankhar’s patient hearing of the BJP delegation’s complaints—that the cases were a handiwork of Muslims—was significant too. However, facts indicate an extant, pandemic-related anti-Muslim sentiment allegedly fanned by some. It is clear that while the Narendra Modi government is trying to push forward its long-awaited labour reforms during this pandemic, the BJP is allegedly pushing to extract political mileage out of the existing tension brought about by the disease. Indeed, all political parties have an eye out for the 2021 assembly polls in West Bengal.
By Rajat Roy in Calcutta