Basirhat is a small district town in West Bengal less than 60 km from the State capital of Kolkata. Largely unknown to the rest of India in general until now, Basirhat has nonetheless been a place of strategic significance for the security agencies of the country. This is because it is at a distance of hardly 25 km from Satkheera in Bangladesh with about an hour of travel separating the two places. The prime reason behind the recent riots is precisely the geographical location of Basirhat. You might have heard that the riots were provoked by the Facebook post of a 17-year-old. However, let us consider a few points at the beginning, aspects that we can connect once we delve into them deeper. Once connected, these apparently disconnected aspects will paint a rather coherent reason behind the recent communal riots. Here are some incidents, in chronological order:
- Political movement in Nandigram
- Deganga communal riots in 2010
- Fall of the Communist bastion in Bengal and rise of Mamata Banerjee
- Mamata’s decision to start financial allowance for imams & muezzins
- Huge victory of Narendra Modi-led BJP in Loksabha elections 2014
- Riots at Kaliachak, Malda in January 2016
- Decisive victory of BJP in Assam in 2016 and starting of NPR & NCR schemes
- Mamata’s comprehensive victory in Bengal in 2016 followed by the inclusion of hardline Muslim leaders in her cabinet
- Communal riots in Dhulagarh in December 2016
- Widespread Ram Navami celebrations in Bengal
- Basirhat riots in 2017
These apparently unconnected events have a deep thread that connects them to each other and the plot emerging from this chain of events is no less than a real-life thriller.
A large section of the India-Bangladesh international border is unguarded — it is mostly like a railway crossing. There is virtually no strict vigil in these areas, sometimes no barbed wire fencing either. Until recently, there used to be numerous enclaves in these areas. The enclaves in the intermittent areas between India and Bangladesh dated back to the Partition, areas whose residents were not citizens of either India or the erstwhile East Pakistan. After Modi became PM of India, the treaty signed between India and Bangladesh ensured citizen exchange between the two countries, with the residents of these enclave areas choosing to be citizens of either India or Bangladesh. A formal registration of these people had been done at that time. However, it must be noted that in addition to these registered citizens there is a humongous number of illegal migrants from Bangladesh who have been consistently encroaching into India ever since the 1980s, settling in West Bengal and spreading to other parts of the country. In pursuance of vote bank politics, the constituents of the erstwhile Left Front government — primarily the CPI(M) — had allocated to these people rations cards, voter cards and even passports. The biggest pitfall of this indiscriminate policy has been that this has left no way to have a count of the number of illegal Bangladeshi migrants in India. And it is these illegal Bangladeshi migrants who have imported Wahabism and Salafism into India.
Traditionally, the Muslims of West Bengal have been followers of Peers. As late as the 80’s, it was the Peers who used to influence them, with the mosques and madrasas having very little role in their lives. This is exactly why districts like Hooghly and Bardhaman, even with sizeable Muslim populations, did not witness any major communal riots until recently. Thanks to the illegal Bangladeshi migrants, this pattern started changing from the 1980’s.
With an increasing number of madrasas coming up in the areas close to the international border, their influence also started to increase. At the same time, Muslim extremism also started to spread and increase in Bangladesh with the aid of petrodollars. This influence was felt on this side of the border too. The issue had become so severe that even Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, the then Chief Minister of the Communist government, had been forced to acknowledge the growing menace of terrorist bases in the madrasas on the India-Bangladesh border which were inimical to both countries. He was later forced by the Communist party to retract his statement. But the truth remained unaltered despite the retraction.
The influence of these terror groups continued to increase and one of the factors they harnessed was the poverty of the local Muslims. From their traditional loyalties to the Peers, the allegiance of the Muslims of Bengal also kept shifting increasingly to the Wahabi ideology. This has been a long and gradual process. The example of Malda will make the methods in question clear.
Today, the name of Malda is known across India for all wrong reasons like counterfeit currency, poppy cultivation and the Kaliachak riots. Anyone familiar with the politics of West Bengal would know that it is also one of the two lifelines of the Congress party in the State, the other being Murshidabad. Congress has been winning in Malda for decades for two main reasons: the personal image of Ghani Khan Chowdhury and secondly, the influence of the Chowdhury’s family on the local peers.
There are two chief fakirs in Malda, with Ghani Khan’s own family and that of his sister being the patrons of the two respectively. The hold of these faqirs or Muslim holy men on the people of Malda has contributed to the local people voting Ghani Khan’s family consistently. The situation started changing due to the serious influx of illegal Bangladeshis since the 1980’s. Taking advantage of the general poverty of the Muslim families, many Muslim organisations started sending boys aged 10-12 to different madrasas of Kerala under the pretext of education, indoctrinating them instead into Wahabism. These boys returned to their homes in Malda after 10-15 years and spread the influence of extremism towards the end of the 1990’s.
This has been done primarily in two aspects. On one hand, they spread their influence socially and next, use that social influence in the political sphere. For example, they might install some deep tube wells in an area or establish a madrasa for educating the children of local Muslims. The purpose of these madrasas, however, has been little more than religious education and indoctrination of children into Wahabi ideology. The role of numerous unaffiliated madrasas has been clearly exposed during the Khagragarh investigation. This is the general modus operandi followed in West Bengal as well as Bangladesh.
At present, it is difficult to predict whether the Congress would retain their traditional bastion of Malda even in the next election. These peers and faqirs of Malda are getting increasingly isolated. In fact, even the age-old qawwali festivals in the region have been forcefully stopped by the new extremist elements under the pretext that music is haram in Islam.
The erstwhile Communist rulers of Bengal had been a mute spectator to all this. The situation has deteriorated to such an extent that these extremist Muslim organisations are now in control of the local politics. Until a certain point, the CPI(M) party had used these fundamentalist Muslim groups through their own organisation at the grassroots to gain political mileage. However, the constant influx of illegal extremists from Bangladesh has meant that now they have grown in number and strength and thus the roles have now reversed. It is these extremist groups that are now the dominant partner in this evil nexus. Their power had grown so much that they could issue diktats to the CPI(M). A manifestation of this was the riots in Calcutta in the last decade following the demands of extremist Muslim leader Siddiquallah to evict Tasleema Nasreen from the State, an event that forced then-CM Bhattacharjee to use the Army on the streets of Calcutta to restore order.
A cursory glance at the census data will give a clear indication. The total Muslim population in Malda district was 43% in 2001. In 2011, this increased to 54%. If you consider just Kaliachak, you will find that apart from just 4 villages lying on the border, all other areas are having a Muslim majority today. The other districts of West Bengal, too, have seen a similar increase of the Muslim population at the same accelerated rate. How else could Imam Barkati openly declare at a Trinamool Congress public meeting, “Remember, we are 35% now.”
With the CPI(M) growing weaker in the wake of the political movements in Nandigram and Singur, the Islamist groups in Malda had grown closer to the TMC, starting to grow their influence within the party. They were also responsible for the TMC’s victory in most of the seats in the North and South 24 Parganas. One of the electoral winners was Haji Nurul Islam who became a TMC MP in 2009. One of his electoral promises was donating loudspeakers to all mosques of the area. These very loudspeakers had been used to make announcements prior to the riots in Deganga in 2010. The Deganga riots were so terrible in nature that it had taken almost 5 days even for the army to bring things under control. Even Mamata Banerjee was forced to change her candidate in 2014 as a result of these riots. Similar to the Basirhat riots, it was alleged back then that Bangladeshi outsiders had led the others in the mayhem.
It must be noted that it is not exactly appropriate to dub the events of Basirhat and Deganga riots. In a riot, both sides lead attacks on each other. In both these cases, however, it was the Muslims who had led one-sided attacks on Hindus, taking advantage of their majority of numbers. So, these are better referred to as one-sided attacks, falling just short of pogroms.
By 2009, the vote bank that the CPI(M) had gradually cultivated over decades of appeasement of illegal migrants has all but totally moved over to the TMC. Whatever remained made the transition after the huge TMC victory in the State Assembly in 2011. Other than in the two districts of Malda and Murshidabad, where the Muslims have been traditional followers of peers, the Muslims of the rest of Bengal, especially those influenced by Salafism and Wahabism, have converted into faithful vote banks of the Trinamool. In some cases, they actually control and run the local units of the TMC. It was to placate this group that Mamata Banerjee started the stipend for Imams and Muezzins actually ignoring the Calcutta HC directive.
Until now, these militant groups were continuing with their agenda, in connivance with local political leadership and the administration. Terrorist outfits like the Jamat-ul-Mujahidin Bangladesh, Huji, etc. were growing in power, even implementing a type of sharia law in widespread areas of Malda and Murshidabad, where the Hindus are in minority. They had even organised processions of thousands of supporters in support of implementing a permanent sharia rule. In many areas in Malda and Murshidabad Hindus have been forced to perform puja and decorate their homes with alpana.
The leader of various terrorist groups and extremist imams have propagated their extremist agenda in a clandestine manner in districts like Malda, Murshidabad, North and South 24 Parganas and even in Birbhum. It is not credible that the local police and political leadership were unaware of these activities all this while. This had continued without any interruption for a long time and had enabled militants to have numerous safe houses like that in Khagragarh. Post-Khagragarh incident, one of the raids in an illegal madrasa had led the investigative team to discover a packet of Pakistani khaini, something that indicated the presence of illegal Pakistani migrants, in addition to Bangladeshis.
However, the status quo was challenged after the Narendra Modi-led BJP stormed to power at the Centre in 2014. The central investigative agencies became a lot more active and awake to the situation in Bengal after this, with the NIA opening an office in Malda. The Khagragarh blast occurred during this time. It should not be forgotten how the Mamata administration had tried to brush this under the carpet. The central agencies can tell whether this was driven by merely the compulsion of vote bank politics or whether some local leaders were also directly associated in this. It is not credible, however, that the police had no whiff of a matter as grave as an entire bomb manufacturing unit in the area.
After this incident, the central agencies became a lot more alert about the situation in West Bengal. The widespread poppy cultivation in Malda was disrupted and numerous dealers of counterfeit currency were arrested. The names of many political leaders also surfaced in this connection. This was when Kaliachak happened. The event was sparked allegedly by the speech by Kamlesh Tiwari. It is extremely suspicious, however, that such a disconnected incident would lead to close to 2 lakh people would gather to attack a police station in West Bengal and burn down the shops of Hindus in Kaliachak bazaar. Burning down a police station can be anything but a spontaneous reaction.
Another striking feature of the Kaliachak riots was that the prime target of the attackers was the record room of the police station, which was completely burnt down. The neighbouring ammunition room was left alone. This proves beyond doubt that the attack was pre-planned and it actual target was safeguarding the dealers of counterfeit currency, poppy traders and leaders of various militant organisations. After this incident, both the administration and mainstream media of West Bengal worked overtime to cover this event up. However, national media brought focus on it. In the aftermath, investigative agencies like NIA increased their presence in Malda. BSF made its border checks even more stringent. All this resulted in an almost shutdown of the illegal activities like smuggling, poppy trade and exchange of counterfeit currency. Demonetisation dealt a body blow especially to the last. A regular reader of Bengali newspaper will have noted that post-demonetisation there has been a significant increase in bank robberies in this area. These heists are a direct result of the counterfeit traders losing their flourishing trade. A similar reason that can be directly linked to the recent Basirhat riots is the stringent measures on the international border which led to a sharp decrease in smuggling of cow and gold. Cow smuggling is, after all, an illegal trade involving thousands of crores.
The 2016 Assembly elections in West Bengal were conducted against this backdrop and it saw Mamata Banerjee win by a huge number of seats. Prior to this, the TMC had already sent to the Rajya Sabha someone like Hasan Imran Ali, a founder secretary of the banned organisation SIMI. Imran Ali’s alleged involvement with terrorists and militants have been cited in the media on multiple occasions. He has also been allegedly involved in the Canning riots. To add on to this background, 2016 saw the addition of an extremist leader like Siddiqullah Chowdhury to the Cabinet of West Bengal.
Political leaders start giving such importance to religious leaders only when they actually exhibit considerable influence on the particular religious community in question, despite the attempts of our intellectuals to prove to the contrary that people like Siddiqullah do not actually represent the Muslim community. A humble question to these intellectuals would be — why do the leading politicians give so much importance to such religious leaders if they indeed held no sway on their community? The source of their importance stems only from their actual influence on a particular community. For this very reason, someone like Imam Barkati can claim from the open dais at a TMC meeting that politicians bend down before him for votes. This sheer hypocrisy of so-called secular parties is one of the chief reasons behind the rise of intolerance in society.
The extremist Muslim leaders joining the Bengal cabinet in 2016 directly cause excitement for the militant sections of Muslim society. They realised that while the earlier government had granted illegal migrants the status of legal Indian citizenship and voting rights, the current government would go a step further to actually concede their demands.
In fact, the current Bengal government is reaching new heights of appeasement in even modifying the Bengali language. The age-old Bengali word ‘Ramdhanu’, meaning rainbow, has been changed in school textbooks to ‘Rongdhonu’! Following this same pattern appeasement, there was earlier a demand of stopping Saraswati Puja in several schools in Bengal and conducting Nabi Divas instead. These demands led to trouble in Tehatta in Howrah district, as well as a village in Bankura where, interestingly, Muslims constitute only 8% of the population! The State government’s decision of postponing the immersion of Durga Puja idols from the normal schedule on Vijaya Dashami to accommodate Muharram also occurred during this time.
All these have encouraged the extremist Muslim groups on the one hand and led to discontent among Hindus on the other. In the aftermath of the Durga Puja last year, even places like Chandannagar and Naihati that are otherwise not known for trouble saw violence. Indeed, today’s West Bengal is sitting on a pile of gunpowder waiting to erupt.
Another event that played a role in the current communal situation in the State was the humongous victory of the BJP in UP State elections and the swearing-in of Yogi Adityanath as CM. This event, coupled with the general disunity among the opposition has led experts to agree that a Modi victory in 2019 is most likely.
Earlier, West Bengal used to be the only place of refuge in India for illegal migrants from Bangladesh. At present, however, the dysfunctional economic condition of the State has made them spread all over the country. There has been news of illegal Bangladeshis being caught from distant places like Kerala and Goa. It is more common for them to settle in North East Assam, Tripura and pockets of West Bengal. After the implementation of NPR and NCR schemes by the new BJP government of Assam, many such illegal Bangladeshi migrants have lost their Indian citizenship. Modi’s likely re-election in 2019, now looking even more likely after the results in the UP elections, has got these illegal migrants worried. If NPR and NCR are started in West Bengal in the near future, the citizenship of quite a number of such illegal residents of India would be in jeopardy.
In truth, numerous illegal residents of West Bengal have failed to register themselves for Aadhar. This way, they have already lost the benefits of many official schemes that had been made available to them by some political parties. Added to this, the BJP has grown in strength in the State, along with the organisational spread of social groups like the Hindu Samhati in rural Bengal. The rise of Hindutva in Bengal has been proven in the open and mass celebration of Ram Navami this year. In fact, the influence of Hindu Samhati has now grown so much, that if their meetings are cancelled by the Mamata government, then as a counterbalance, she becomes compelled to also ban the public meeting of Owaisi’s organisation, a virtually non-existent entity in Bengal.
It is due to these growing fears of losing their Indian citizenship that the illegal residents of Bengal and their political godfathers are trying to create an environment of terror in the State. The riots of Dhulagarh and Basirhat are therefore meant to preserve their interest in the future. In both cases, the riots had been pre-planned. Some extremely small and irrelevant incident has been portrayed as the trigger. The Dhulagarh riots broke out after a religious procession, the events in Basirhat after the Facebook post of a teenager. It must be remembered that a large number of miscreants were suffering after the smuggling of cattle and gold had stopped in that part of the border area. The spontaneous reaction to an incident can lead to temporary tension but can never cause an enduring series of riots. Many eyewitnesses in Basirhat have said that although the locals participated in these riots, the leaders giving directions were all outsiders. This version got corroborated later by the news that 8 Bangladeshis had actually been apprehended. Earlier, there had been troubles in Calcutta as a backlash to the cartoon controversy in France, but they had lasted only a short while. Such is the nature of spontaneous reactions: they never last beyond a day or two. An enduring problem always has a pre-planned agenda.
If the nature of the riots in both Basirhat and Dhulagarh are observed carefully, there are certain aspects that emerge. The geographical location of Calcutta is such that there are six primary gateways to the city. There are ways through Basirhat-Barasat in North 24 Parganas, through Bhangar in North & South 24 Parganas and also through Diamond Harbour on the other side. You can also enter the city using the Second Hooghly Bridge or the Howrah Bridge; that is through Dhulagarh and via the G.T. road. Else you can also take the Bally Bridge and enter the city through Dakshineshwar Kamarhati. The last of these is through Barrackpore in North 24 Parganas. A careful look at the population of these areas tells us that these have a heavy concentration of the minority section. In some parts, Hindus are actually in the minority. This is true with the exception of the G.T. Road area. The first of the recent riots was at Dhulagarh, followed by one at Basirhat. There had been a vicious riot in Canning earlier in 2010. During the last Durga Puja, a riot-like situation had been created in and around Barrackpore. Thus we see that the regions that serve as the major gateways to Calcutta have been the settings of severe riots or riot-like situation in the last few years. If any riot breaks out over the next six months in Bhangar of South 24 Parganas, this hypothesis will have a definitive proof. Similar efforts of creating trouble have also been made in the areas adjacent to the GT Road, i.e. the Jute Belt, where the population distribution is rather mixed.
All these bear a grave indication: that these riots are but a precursor to a much larger riot. We should bear in mind that there has been no such recent riot in the area proudly dubbed ‘Mini Pakistan’ by a minister in the Bengal cabinet, or in similar areas with a Muslim majority. However, these areas had seen trouble when there was a cartoon published in far-off Paris. This reinforces the possibility that something much bigger and more sinister is in the offing. The present riots could, therefore, be a practice for something graver and also an effort to test the waters. The masterminds are checking out how the administration as well as the local Hindus respond. This is necessary for their future plans.
If 2019 sees another huge BJP victory at the Centre it is possible that NCR and NPR are started in West Bengal. These will then be implemented in the Census 2021. As a consequence, the illegal residents of different areas in Bengal will stand to lose the various benefits they have enjoyed due to the policies of appeasement by certain political parties. They might even lose their ill-gotten citizenship of India. A huge natural reaction can be therefore expected. The riots of Canning, Dhulagarh and Basirhat are a mere preparation for this. The demands of observing Nabi Divas and stopping Saraswati Puja are efforts to break the confidence of Hindus, and at the same time to test the reaction of the local Hindus. There has been an abnormal rise in crimes against women in these areas. Such incidents force peace-loving people to leave the area en masse, which naturally would aid the miscreants to get a firmer grip on the region. The aim in such cases is to spread terror in the mind of people and carve out tracts of land where they would have unbridled power and the rule of law will not exist.
The extremists have another target. If at a time when Kolkata is under siege, the border areas of North 24 Parganas, Malda and Murshidabad face riots, too, it will be impossible for the residents of the districts to come to the aid of the residents of Kolkata, especially if there is unrest in the areas adjacent to the GT Road. This will finally lead to the jihadi dream of a Greater Bangladesh.
Another aspect that needs to be discussed is, therefore, this jihadi demand of Greater Bangladesh and the support of some ultra-Leftists to this demand. It might appear that the Leftists are merely acting out of passion. But this has a pattern. It has been noted in the recent past that whenever there is a celebration of a Hindu festival, the ultra-Leftists start spreading despicable write-ups on Hindu gods and goddesses on social media. They have also indulged in obnoxious pornography involving Hindu icons like Ramakrishna and Vivekananda.
Apparently, this might be the result of an atheist ideology. However, if you think about it deeply, it becomes clear that this is a deliberate intention to attack Hindu sentiments. This too is a way of testing the waters. Riots are a means to test how clearly and how soon the Hindus of rural Bengal respond to the threat. Similarly, it is an ultra-Leftist ploy to test the magnitude of reaction of the urban middle-class Bengali Hindu society.
It is not unknown to anybody that the different Naxal groups receive foreign aid. The infamous slogan “China’s Chairman is our Chairman” during the Indo-China War of 1962 is still quite real in certain ultra-Left sections. The vast ammunition that the Maoists possess would not have been possible without direct foreign aid. It is well-known that China and Pakistan are the two principal rivals and enemies of India. Kashmir in the north has been witnessing jihad aided by Pakistan for a long time. Similarly, there had been a longstanding presence of jihad in the Northeastern States aided by China. Following Sheikh Hasina forming the government in Bangladesh and especially after the different activities of the Modi government in India, there has been some ebb in the jihadi activities in the North East. Peace in the North East is inimical to China’s interest. Additionally, they want a resurrection of the Naxal insurgency in East India, especially in Bengal, something they had successfully done earlier. Unrest in India would ensure that the government remains busy with foreign threats and domestic insurgency and that developmental works suffer. This would invariably throttle the growth story of India.
The ideological lapses within the Naxal movement have been the cause of its failure. The war of attrition on the ground is now the responsibility of the jihadis. The series of riots in different crucial rural areas in Bengal is a part of their action plan. In the urban areas, this job is being done by the ultra-Leftist intellectuals. The urban middle-class may not be numerically strong, but they do have a great influence on rural Bengal. If the self-esteem of the former class can be systematically lowered through consistent potshots, the task of systematic jihad becomes easier. This jihadi network is, in turn, directly sponsored by entities in Pakistan and China.
It is an irony that the Naxal movement actually lost its credibility by partnering with jihadis. The incident in Pakur in Jharkhand proves this. Pakur is a tribal area on the borders of Jharkhand and Malda. The main profession of the local tribals was working in stone quarries. However, at present, this entire area has been captured by illegal Bangladeshi migrants. The inertia of the Naxals towards these illegal immigrants led to the complete disenchantment of the tribals with the Maoist ideology and loss of support for the Maoists.
Those who are trying to explain the Basirhat riots with factors like the BJP and RSS have failed to see the present issue in its proper perspective. On one hand, there is the utter bankruptcy of the leaders of most political parties in West Bengal which has led them to petty vote bank politics. This has made them indulge in continuous appeasement of extremist religious leaders, which has led to extreme discontent among the Hindus. However, it should not be forgotten that despite the steady increase of a Hindutva wave, the BJP vote percentage is still lower than 20% in the State. It is, therefore, an unrealistic oversimplification that a political party with such a minuscule percentage of supporters will succeed in getting people to riot all of a sudden. Even if the consequence of the riots benefits the BJP or RSS, it does not make them responsible for the genesis of the riots. This oversimplification does not explain the riots at Deganga and Canning either.
A slight contemplation on this issue will show that these serial riots are the preparation for something larger. Reasons are being manufactured, riots started on those artificial reasons and these riots are being used as a base to build on something much more sinister. If we look at the population distribution of Kolkata, we note that the so-called minorities are actually the majority at present. There are places like Rajabazar, Topsia, Tangra and Khidderpore, where even a policeman gets killed in the broad daylight, following which certain politicians get busy in trying to save the killers, and finally, the miscreants go scot-free. A major leader of the ruling party turns out to be a spy for another nation. Arms and ammunition are more easily available than pure water at such places. Any riot breaking out at such a place creates grave terror in the mind of the urban middle-class Hindu.
With BJP coming to power in the UP and Assam — Kerala is not too conducive for illegal migrants due to its geographical location and linguistic issues — the only place that is left for illegal migrants to further their agenda of terror is West Bengal.
The policy of relentless appeasement by the State government has led to a festering angst among the Hindus in West Bengal. The BJP getting stronger in the State in such a scenario is cause enough for alarm among the illegal settlers. What should be noted here is that, unlike Delhi and Mumbai, there has been no open terrorist attack in Bengal. One reason for this is that the jihadi network wants to use the State as a ‘safe house’ in the backdrop of the continuous lackadaisical attitude of the political administration. Secondly, an open terrorist attack can create a strong reaction in the mind of the middle-class Bengalis in general, which might be inimical to their long-term agenda of jihad. It must not be forgotten that several modules of IS terrorists have been arrested from West Bengal. For these elements, these riots are a manner of creating a long-term impression of fear and domination in the psyche of the people.
Secularism is indeed something positive, but an ostrich-behaviour in the name of secularism is not sensible. We still have time to protect our future generation by averting a grave potential danger lurking in the coming days. The sensible way forward will be, therefore, not to look for the real reasons, and not merely the ‘political reasons’ behind the recent communal riots in Bengal. This will help us to prepare and protect ourselves, as well as prepare and protect the common people of rural Bengal. The sword of Damocles looms on the head of these people in particular.