Kaliachak is a small town in West Bengal’s Malda district, not far from the Bangladesh border. A bus entering Kaliachak from the north will hit Chowringhee, the main road that cuts through the town. It is lined with shops selling shoes, fabrics, sweets, guns and fried snacks. On a Friday, the marketplace is flooded with the muezzin’s call for prayer. This is interrupted at times by snatches of Bollywood song and by traffic, endless, lowing traffic that kicks up clouds of dust but never seems to go anywhere. Lottery stalls are scattered across the market.

Great hunks of earth have been gouged out on the main road and mounds of sand are piled in front of shops. There are a lot of “works” going on in Kaliachak; roads being dug up, houses being hammered down. Two passengers on a bus talk about the roads being widened.

Five days after a mob ran amok in Kaliachak, police squads patrol these roads. Rapid Action Forces teams pass through them in gusts of steel blue. One of the roads off Chowringhee leads to the Kaliachak police station. Here, men in khaki stand guard every few metres while people smoke in sullen tea stalls. This town stands accused of communal violence.

Mohammad Rahman, ophthalmologist and a resident of Kaliachak
Mohammad Rahman, ophthalmologist and a resident of Kaliachak

The rally

Last Sunday, a protest rally was organised in Kaliachak. The object of protest: Hindu Mahasabha leader Kamlesh Tiwari’s comments on the Prophet Mohammad, which many Muslims consider derogatory. The comments had been made in Lucknow on December 1, but news had taken a month to travel from distant Uttar Pradesh.

Now this border town was incensed. A leaflet circulated by the Idara-e-Shariya, a religious group, relayed the news with “great grief and pain”, though it did not repeat Tiwari’s comments. The Hindu Mahasabha leader had been arrested, the leaflet said, and Muslims across the country had marched in protest, asking for Tiwari to be hanged. It was proposed that Muslims in the area also gather for a similar meeting. There was a date and a time: January 3, 9am.

“They took permission from the police,” said Mohammad Rahman. “We had hoped the police would send some protection to regulate the crowd.”

No protection came. According to some estimates, about 1.5 lakh people gathered in Kaliachak’s Chowringhee area. Then things turned ugly. Protesters blocking the highway got into an altercation with a Border Security Force vehicle. Shots were fired in the air. “Everyone thought it was the police shooting,” said Mohammad Rahman, an ophthalmologist who also runs an optical store in the Kaliachak market.

By all accounts, an angry mob broke away from the rally and made for the police station, where they set fire to about two dozen vehicles and ransacked the thana. The mob swept on to Baliadanga, a quiet locality behind the police station, inhabited mostly by Hindu families. A few shops were burnt and some houses stoned. Nineteen-year-old Tanmoy Tiwari, returning home from the market, took a bullet in a leg. Another Baliadanga resident claimed his 13-year-old daughter had been punched when she tried to stop the mob from burning a motorcycle parked in their portico. Suddenly, a religious protest seemed to take on an ugly communal hue.

Kaliachak police station, all spruced up after Sunday's violence
Kaliachak police station, all spruced up after Sunday's violence

“No one dreamed that such an incident would happen,” said Rahman. “If the organisers had known, they would never have arranged such a meeting. It was an accident, it happened by chance.”

Residents of the town are still struggling to make sense of it. Going by the 2011 Census, in Kaliachak Block I, where the violence took place, Muslims form 89.3% of the population. Yet people from both communities agree that there had been no major clashes before. “In my 65 years here, I have never seen anything like this,” said a Muslim shopkeeper who did not want to be named. “We are still trying to understand why it grew so agitated.”

How could a town with no record of communal violence erupt in such sudden hatred? Sunday’s violence is not adequately explained by well-worn formulations of Hindu versus Muslim, majority versus minority. The reasons may lie elsewhere, in the town of Kaliachak itself, which is many things at once: a hub for cross-border criminal rackets, a hotbed of political violence, part of a fiercely contested constituency in a state poised for elections, and an administrative nightmare, where the local authorities went missing when they were needed the most.

A shop torched in Baliadanga
A shop torched in Baliadanga

Scent of an election

Malda district is one of the last strongholds of the Congress in Bengal. This was the fiefdom of the legendary AB Ghani Khan Choudhury, commonly known as Barkatda, who lent his name to several schools and hospitals in the area. Choudhury was member of Parliament from Malda for 26 years until his death in 2006. Before that, he was member of the legislative assembly from Sujapur, the constituency where Kaliachak is located, for 13 years.

After Choudhury’s death, the mantle has been shared by various members of his family, who have secured both Lok Sabha seats in the district. The Congress also commands a majority of the assembly seats in Malda. In 2011, when the Trinamool Congress was fighting the assembly polls in alliance with the Congress, the Sujapur seat went to Abu Nasar Khan Choudhury.

Since then, it has not gone so smoothly for the Congress in Malda. Over the last couple of years, the party has been hit by high-profile defections to the TMC. Abu Nasar Khan Choudhury himself joined the TMC in 2014. With the decline of the Congress, other parties have scented blood.

The TMC, bolstered by a large-scale exodus from the Left and the Congress into the party fold, sees its chances improving in the assembly elections of 2016. “Our chances are good,” said Mozahar Hosain, TMC block president in Kaliachak. “If the main Congress leaders come to TMC then people will vote for us. The Congress and the Left are shrinking, the TMC is growing.”

If the waning of the Congress and the rise of the TMC has triggered one political contest, there are two other significant parties in the mix. One of them is the Bharatiya Janata Party, whose vote share has steadily grown over the last few elections; in the Lok Sabha elections of 2014, it went up by 15%. Interestingly enough, while the party’s candidates are still far from winning assembly seats, the Baliadanga locality has a BJP pradhan. Then there is the Communist Party of India (Marxist), a dwindling force in Bengal. In the 2014 elections, the BJP and CPI(M) were almost tied at third place in Malda South, notching up 19.79% and 19.80%, respectively, in terms of vote share. Both now compete for the role of chief opposition party in the state.

Which minority?

This changing electoral map has had two effects. First, the Khan Choudhary family had traditionally cornered the Muslim vote in Malda district, where the community forms about 50% of the population. Now that this constituency is no longer assured to the Congress, both TMC and CPI(M) will be vying for it more keenly than ever before. Kaliachak seems to fit neatly into this trend and political parties have come up with theories that suit their needs.

“This was a political conspiracy by the Left and the Congress to split the Muslim vote,” said Hosain of the TMC.

“This was a vote polarisation conspiracy by the TMC. They want to unify the Muslim vote,” alleged Manabendra Chakraborty, district general secretary of the BJP.

Second, with the advent of the BJP, the threat of communalisation has entered the politics of this volatile border town. It could work to the advantage of parties on either side of the secular divide. While the BJP accuses the TMC of appeasing minorities, the state’s ruling party uses the threat of polarisation to keep the BJP away. Days after the incident, BJP member of Legislative Assembly Samik Bhattacharya was arrested at Rathbari in Malda town when he tried to visit Kaliachak. This Monday, a BJP fact-finding team sent by party chief Amit Shah was detained and sent back to Kolkata.

The Congress and the Left would seem to be in sympathy with this move, if not approving of it. “It is fine if BJP leaders go, it is their democratic right,” said CPI(M) district secretary Ambar Mitra cautiously. “They should not have been stopped, but the government could have monitored the visit and prevented them from saying anything provocative.”

Now the TMC’s peremptory ways have given the BJP fresh ammunition against the state government and the chance to allege that Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s response to the incident has been coloured by the politics of appeasement. “It is your duty as a government to stand beside the minority, but the minority in Kaliachak is Hindu,” said Chakraborty. “When Dadri happened, all of India spoke against intolerance. Where are these people now?”

But this rhetoric soon merges into the paranoias of a border state, the threat of being overrun by the neighbouring country and of “anti-nationals” working to destabilise the state. “Mamata Banerjee’s government has turned Kaliachak into a mini-Pakistan,” he said. “We have information that people from Bangladesh attended the rally. They were part of the mob. She is appeasing minorities but if Malda becomes part of Bangladesh then where is the territory to govern?”

Turf wars

The underbelly of these political contestations is a vicious bout of violence. The CPI(M), Congress and TMC have always had turf wars in Malda district. But over the last year, many of the killings have occurred in factional wars within the TMC, where criminality seems to be entrenched. Last year, police raided the house of Sarjan Sheikh, joint anchal president of the TMC in the Naoda-Jadupur area, and recovered five long-barrelled guns, a 9mm pistol as well as 350 rounds of live ammunition. Barely a week before the Kaliachak incident, TMC leader Pabitra Roy killed two teenagers while fleeing in his car in Malda. Reports speak of rival TMC gangs shooting at each other across a national highway.

When asked about the factionalism within his party, Hosain shrugged: when people vie for the same posts, there is bound to be trouble. But political turf wars may well lie behind the Kaliachak violence.

Two political figures have been accused of being directly associated with the mob violence: Abdul Rauf, a CPI(M) leader and the husband of Shefali Khatoon, former CPI(M) sabhapati in Kaliachak, and Asadullah Biswas, a local TMC muscleman. Both leaders are now missing.

Rauf was framed, says his party colleague, Mitra, he did address the gathering, but his message was one of peace. Rauf was merely counselling the crowd to keep calm, according to Mitra.

But then it gets more complicated. A TMC party leader who did not want to be named has also alleged that Rauf was framed – by a member of the TMC. “Asadullah Biswas was earlier with the CPI(M) and very active in Mojampur village,” he says. “He and Rauf had a falling out so Biswas left the CPI(M). After TMC came to power, he joined the party. Since then, there have been a lot of disturbances in the TMC here. Biswas knew that Rauf had helped organise the gathering so he took his goons and launched an attack to incriminate Rauf.”

Anti-social elements

But the favourite theory, cutting across parties, is that the mob violence was the work of “anti-social elements” within the crowd. “In my personal opinion, it was not a communal riot,” said Isha Khan Choudhury, Congress MLA from Baishnabnagar constituency in Malda. “There was no clash between two communities. It was just one community trying to express its religious sentiments. Some elements within the crowd took advantage of it and turned it into a clash with authority figures. And I don’t think any party would want a big incident.”

The real targets, according to this theory, were the criminal records piled up in the police station. The mob is said to have a destroyed a substantial portion of those. Anti-social elements made it look like an incident of communal violence to cover their tracks.

In a place like Kaliachak, that sounds quite plausible. According to reports, 80% of the fake currency injected into the country passes through the border along Malda. The villages in the three Kaliachak blocks, spread across an area of 12 square kilometres, account for 40% of the total amount. The trade has reached the scale of a “cottage industry” in some villages. Last year, the police arrested the kingpin of the fake currency racket, one Shahjahan Sheikh, from Kaliachak.

But the area has a diverse basket of crimes to offer. Kaliachak is also a hub for the trade in illegal weapons and for opium poppy cultivation. And January is a crucial time for the cultivation of the seed. The violence, some surmise, could have been meant to scare the police away from the poppy fields.

Police under fire

All opposition parties agree that the law and order problem in the area has been compounded by a state government that appears to shield criminals and undermine the police force. And residents from both communities in Kaliachak testify that the local authorities went missing during last Sunday’s violence, though there is heavy police presence now.

First, they failed to provide a force to regulate the rally. Then, once the mob attacked they failed to turn up. Even if the Kaliachak police station was under attack, reinforcements were slow to arrive.

Shitesh Sarkar, whose tea shop in Baliadanga was attacked
Shitesh Sarkar, whose tea shop in Baliadanga was attacked

“We were sitting outside our shop when the mob arrived,” said Shitesh Sarkar, who runs a tea stall in Baliadanga. “They broke one wall of my shop and dropped kerosene into the milk. The incident happened at noon but it was 5 pm before the police arrived.”

The abdication of the local authorities does not end there. “The police won’t even take complaints,” said another Baliadanga resident. “We were told that they were under orders from the chief minister not to take complaints against members of a certain community in the four months leading up to the elections.”

Days after the incident, the district administration was tight-lipped. Nine officers were transferred out of the Kaliachak thana and eight new men brought in, but officials denied that it had anything to do with the incident. “If it happened, it’s just the normal process of transfers,” said additional district magistrate general Debatosh Mandal.

When asked about what happened that day, the district’s additional superintendent of police was dismissive: “What happened? Nothing happened. There was some trouble but now it’s all under control.”

Fear

For now, Kaliachak seems to be free from the charge of communal violence. On Saturday, Banerjee asserted that the incident was not communal and other parties seem to be taking her cue. For good measure, TMC MP Derek O’Brien blamed the BJP and the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh for communalising the incident. But the incident has created two shades of fear in the two communities in Kaliachak.

Police marches through the town have created a tense environment, especially among the Muslim community. “Ten people have been arrested for the violence and we feel that is the constitutional process,” said Rahman. “But the police conduct nightly raids here. People are afraid to sleep at night, for fear that they will be rounded up and caught.”

Residents of Baliadanga
Residents of Baliadanga

For the families who live in Baliadanga, it is the lack of security that is worrying. “If the police are not going to protect us, who is going to ensure our security?” asked one resident. There are murmurs of “defence strategies” among the younger residents of the area and outsiders are regarded with suspicion.

And the fear created by the mob violence has a communal tinge to it. The attackers had tried to burn down a local temple, residents allege. And no, such an incident of violence had not occurred before, but past offences, real or imagined, are now remembered: Hindu shops are the first to be attacked during Muharram, they have shut down rath melas, they don’t let us play kirtan on the loudspeakers. Some youths claimed to have armed themselves and protected a local rath mela.

Among the many loose ends of the Kaliachak episode is the curious case of the disappearing RSS. Tanmoy Tewari, the boy who was shot in the leg, was reported to be an RSS activist. When asked about it, Tewari’s sister said he had no affiliations with the group. Residents of Baliadanga also affirmed that there had been no RSS presence in the locality since 2008. “They used to have a sports camp for kids earlier but that wound up long ago,” said a resident. “Children these days are too busy with homework and social media to pay attention to sports.”

But Chakraborty claimed the RSS had a strong organisational presence in the district and a shakha near that very locality. Why, then, had the local residents denied any association with the group? The reason, he said, was fear.