Bengal violence
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Bengal violence organic or orchestrated? What the patterns suggest

As violence-hit Rishra in Bengal’s Hoogly district limped back to normalcy on Wednesday (April 6), it is worthwhile to look back on the events that kept the state on edge for the past few days.

On the face of it, these clashes involving Ram Navami processions in Bengal may appear communal but politics are writ large over them, calling for a deeper scrutiny of the role of political parties which are intent on keeping the pot boiling.

Distinct patterns

For instance, clearly there are certain distinct patterns that are emerging from the incidents, which make them appear to be more orchestrated than organic.

Both the clashes of March 30 in Howrah and April 2 in Rishra were of brief duration, limited to small areas, and with no fatality. Spontaneous flare-ups, on the other hand, tend to spread to larger neighbourhoods, and fester for longer periods resulting in casualties.

This time, targets were primarily parked vehicles and hand carts, which were set on fire creating massive visual impact.

The fresh violence that had erupted in Rishra on the night of April 3 slightly deviated from the others in the sense it lasted for several hours and was more intense. But, even that incident, was free of casualty despite reports of continuous hurling of petrol bombs and pelting of stones near a rail gate area that forced trains to be suspended from around 10pm to 1am. This left one wondering who was the target of the attack.

Also read: WB: Prohibitory orders still in force in Rishra, but no more violent incidents

Flash-clashes for videos

Perpetrators appear to be more interested in creating a sense of panic and chaos rather than indulging in a full-scale rioting.

“These incidents stood out for their controlled aggression, as if they were being remote controlled by forces with vested interests. The ploy clearly was to create a narrative without scaling up the violence beyond a certain degree,” political commentator Shikha Mukherjee told The Federal.

Another journalist Probir Pramanik, who has covered several riots and ethnic clashes, pointed out that had there been no deliberate hold back, the violence could have gone completely out of control because police were outnumbered and were reduced to virtual bystanders.

Social activist and political commentator Md Saddudin too dubbed the incident as “flash-clashes intended more to make videos so that certain political theories can be peddled to polarise the society.”

BJP’s confrontational brand of Hinduism

When it comes to polarisation, the usual suspect is the BJP. The party’s role expectedly again came under scanner in the aftermath of the latest cases of violence. More so, for the suggestive speeches delivered by its leaders before and after the incidents.

A day before the Hindu festival that celebrates the birth of Rama, BJP leader Suvendu Adhikari had almost predicted what would happen when he ominously said to ‘watch out tomorrow’ (March 30). “We will take out 1,000 mega rallies and 10 thousand small rallies to commemorate the festival,” he had announced.

The BJP though does not directly organise these religious rallies, its leaders make no qualms about their association with the events that promote an aggressive and confrontational brand of Hinduism alien to Bengal’s culture even five to six years ago.

Also read: BJP unleashes violence in West Bengal; rioters will not go scot-free: Mamata

Blaming the minority community

Once the violence broke out, the BJP leaders immediately launched a systematic campaign to vilify the minority communities.

Adhikari said the state government has failed to rein in “anti-national forces,” pointing fingers at the minority community for the violence. Other BJP leaders such as Locket Chatterjee, Smriti Irani, Anurag Thakur echoed the same views, overtly playing the divisive card.

Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee singling out only Hindu groups for the violence and police’s inactions helped the BJP leaders to build the narrative that the state government was “anti-Hindu” and “biased” towards a particular community. She even went to the extent of giving a clean chit to the minority groups saying that during the month of Ramazan, Muslims do not indulge in improper behaviour.

No political will by TMC

The TMC government not only administratively failed to prevent the incidents but also did not show political will to contain them. Unlike in the past, when party supremo and West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee promptly hit the streets to lead harmony marches to promote communal amity, this time she did not even visit the affected areas.

During the CAA-induced communal violence of 2019, she had led all-religion processions to promote peace. This kind of an initiative was notably missing this time.

Her detractors alleged that she’s deliberately allowing the tension to simmer hoping that the fear of the rise of Hindu supremacists would prevent the erosion of her party’s minority support base.

The sign of the slide in minority votes was noticed in the TMC’s defeat in the recently held by-poll in minority-dominated Sagardighi Assembly constituency. The TMC is accused of trying to shift the political scene in West Bengal into a TMC versus BJP to stem the further shift in their minority vote base to the Left Front and Congress.

“There is a reason why these riots took place after the Sagardighi by-poll results. Both Mamata (TMC) and Modi (BJP) want polarisation,” affirmed Congress leader Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury.

CPI(M) state secretary Md Salim alleged that TMC wanted to create insecurity among the minorities so that it could project itself as their protector. “First make the minorities feel insecure and then offer them security, which is what the TMC wants,” he pointed out.

Polarisation on party lines did help the TMC and the BJP in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections and 2021 Assembly polls. Chowdhury further alleged that the state government had deliberately tied the hands of police or else the situation would not have simmered for several days.

Severe shortage in police force

Deliberate or otherwise, there was no denying that the police were caught napping in all the incidents. Privately admitting that they were outnumbered, many police officials cited severe shortage of manpower as one of the reasons for failing to act promptly.

“Reinforcements had to be brought in from neighbouring districts and commissionerate,” said an official. Over 44 per cent constable posts are lying vacant in the state, according to India Justice Report of 2022. The report, an initiative of the Tata Trusts, had noted around 31 per cent vacancy in 2019. There are over 25 per cent officer posts to be filled as yet.

On an average, a police station caters to a population of around 3.26 lakh people in rural Bengal and 1.23 lakh in urban areas. The population pressure on the police stations in the state is one of the highest in the country.

Avoiding trouble on Hanuman Jayanti

The shortage becomes a serious disadvantage when thousands of armed rallies are to be supervised and regulated across the state. Keeping this major constraint in mind, the state government on Wednesday (March 5) decided to deploy three companies of paramilitary forces to assist the state police during Thursday’s Hanuman Jayanti celebrations.

One company each would be deployed in sensitive areas under police commissionerates of Hooghly, Barrackpore and Kolkata, the official said. Not more than 100 people would be allowed to participate in the rallies and all the participants would be given identity cards by the police, he added.

Organisers of the rallies would have to submit lists of participants to the police stations prior to the event. Around 2,000 applications have been submitted to the police seeking permission for holding Hanuman Jayanti rallies in the state.

This was conveyed by advocate general S N Mookherjee to the Calcutta high court, which then directed the government to requisition central forces for assisting the state police in maintaining peace during Hanuman Jayanti celebrations. The court also banned Hanuman Jayanti celebrations in areas where Section 144 has been imposed. The prohibitory order is still clamped in Rishra though the town is slowly returning to normalcy.

The court further ordered all political leaders to refrain from making any statement on the Hanuman Jayanti festival.

“Considering the sensitivity of the problem, this court directs that no person either a political personality or a leader or even a common man shall make any statement in public or to the media concerning the festival to be celebrated tomorrow,” ordered a division bench of acting Chief Justice TS Sivagnanam and Hiranmay Bhattacharyya, while hearing a PIL filed by Suvendu Adhikari on recent clashes.

The court orders tried to address both political as well as administrative aspects that contributed to the violence.

But will these measures be sufficient to ensure a violence-free festival? Concerns remain as BJP national vice-president Dilip Ghosh told a TV channel that if section 144 was imposed preventing these rallies from being held that would trigger massive protests and that remark had an ominous ring to it.

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