On Riots in Basirhat

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The unfolding
situation in Basirhat in North 24 Parganas, West Bengal, where
communal tensions have surfaced and which is currently under
para-military occupation, inexorably leads to certain grim
observations. In a sense, this riot is a microcosm of a subcontinent
historically torn by religious strife, a compressed zone of ideas,
strategies, actions with echoes of the colonial past and bleak
ramifications for the late imperialised present.


A brief ‘outline’
of events is useful in this context: Souvik Sarkar, a 17 year old
student with rabid communal convictions, made face-book posts which
swung the Jamatis into violent action. The boy’s exact connections
with the old men in the Tree of Nagpur are yet to be investigated and
may not be too hard to decipher. The Jamat on the other hand is
fighting a war of position, to secure the status of a minor
beneficiary in the area with TMC’s help. Having killed many in
Bangladesh (secular muslims/ dissenters/ atheists/ leftists/hindu
minorities/women) the Jamatis know how to mix the politics of
neoliberal accumulation with the politics of hatred, utilising latent
insecurities and anger among segments of the population.
When they began
disrupting normal life in the area, several secular, left and Muslim
organisations active among the local people appealed for peace and
unity. This is not being reported in the mainstream media. The work
done by the local MLA, Rafikul Islam and ordinary people ignored by
‘polite society’ has been crucial in resisting the communal
forces. In the face of this counter-movement, the Jamat has withdrawn
from Baduria and then re-surfaced in neighbouring areas which had so
far remained peaceful. In the meantime, the RSS, having played the
usual role of ‘agent provocateur’ has entered the scene. Indeed,
they have been prepared for this. They realise their hour has come
given the climate of world-wide Islamophobia launched by the United
States and NATO, the daily stereotyping of all Muslims as terrorists
and riot-prone fundamentalists. Having attacked Muslims, chiefly the
poorest and the most vulnerable, in towns like Chandannagar during
Ramnabami and Pakistan’s victory in the world cup, they are
confident of emerging as major beneficiaries from any communal clash.
As an old fascist
organisation of experienced pogrom-makers, the RSS knows the value of
when to wait and when to strike. The state government has allowed the
violence to escalate (disruption of life, road-blocks, setting fire
to vehicles including police jeeps, destruction of public and private
property). This is because the affected area has remained an
opposition stronghold-carving out and transferring the Hindu vote to
the BJP will help the TMC. This is the narrow calculations of its
leaders, many of whom at the local level are actively engaged in
violent disruption.
This brings us to
some of the related issues: is this about free speech as many
liberals claim? If the boy had attacked all religions, one could have
considered him to be a militant atheist liberal, victimised by bigots
for upholding free speech. Since he attacked only one religion it is
impossible to dissociate him from a general pattern with past
precedents-the strategy of the RSS in West Bengal to use young
recruits for certain purposes on facebook and other social media in
Muslim-majority areas to foment riots. Given the fact that such
incidents have occurred before and many under-age young people are
being mobilised by communal forces each day, his state of mind is not
difficult to comprehend. Hate Speech is qualitatively different from
Free Speech and this is recognised, one hopes, by the upholders of
secular liberalism. Then there is the question of the safety of the
‘immature individual’ involved. It is being reported that his
Muslim neighbours collectively protected him from a mob prior to his
much-delayed arrest for promoting communal enmity. One must remember
that the boy, who clearly carries the kind of communal baggage being
handed around generously, has not been killed-he is safe in police
custody. Given the current climate in India, had he carried nothing
except an Arabic name, he could have been stabbed multiple times and
thrown out of a train compartment.
Second, the
character of the TMC: is it a secular party? While claiming to be
secular, its rule has seen sponsorship, bracketing and division of
people along religious lines through an avalanche of community-based
festivals. The net result has been communal consolidation, a route
which the TMC leaders believe will benefit them. It is clear from the
rising communal incidents in West Bengal in the course of the last
three years that communal identity-politics has only helped those who
are major or minor beneficiaries of direct or refracted state-power
and processes of exploitative accumulation in society: the TMC which
operates through all communal organisations, the RSS and the Jamat
(in pockets).
Just when democratic
movements led by leftwing parties are again becoming visible, from
Bhangar to College Street, addressing concrete questions of
dispossession and democratic right of protest, and the College
admission related corruption and Goods and Service Tax (GST) are
respectively making the TMC and BJP unpopular, the Jamat-TMC action
has diverted public attention in a different direction, enforcing and
deepening the politics of communal identities inherited from the
colonial era. This is the master-plan of civil-war, partition and
genocide which benefits, as history shows, only the masters and never
the people.
The Author Teaches History at Jadavpur University