Dhulagarh, a small town 25 kms west of Kolkata, is sectioned off between parties. At the Shiv Kali temple on the Puratan Chowrasta, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and other Hindu groups are organising “traan” or relief for people who lost their homes in the communal violence that broke out two weeks ago. This is an arterial road, leading into the Dhulagarh bazaar. A flurry of Congress, Forward Bloc and Shiv Sena flags jostle for attention when you enter the road. Then they give way to Shiv Sena flags, planted at regular intervals.

Muslim leaders from the Trinamool Congress will not venture here. To find them, you must travel a few kilometres down the road, into the bylanes of Dewanghat and Jairampur, localities bordering the main town. The tricoloured flowers of the Trinamool start appearing in these parts.

Last Saturday, a team from the Bharatiya Janata Party was barred from visiting the area, leading to angry accusations that the state government was trying to cover up incidents of communal violence. On Wednesday, Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee told reporters “nothing has happened” in Dhulagarh.

Indeed, at first glance, this nondescript town in West Bengal’s Howrah district appears calm, with autos juddering down the road and shops in the main market open for business. But then they catch the eye – the groups of security personnel and police vans stationed on the road to enforce Section 144, the charred remains of what were once shops – signs of a place that has recently seen violence.

Forward bloc and Shiv Sena flags jostle for space near the Dhulagarh crossing.

Past the Annapurna Club

Both communities tell the same story, with a few significant differences. Around 11 am on December 13, the annual procession to celebrate Milad un Nabi, the Prophet’s birthday, was passing through the town. Trouble began when it reached the Annapurna Club, a local landmark.

According to Shamsher Ali Lashkar, Panchla block secretary of the Trinamool Congress and a resident of Jairampur, the clubhouse is controlled by the Bajrang Dal. People gathered at the Shib Kali temple say it is a regular community club.

“About 15 to 20 boys towards the end of procession were caught by the boys at the Annapurna Club,” said Lashkar. The boys in the procession were asked to chant the names of Hindu gods and when they resisted, a scuffle broke out. “The club boys threw bombs and bricks, people were injured and the rally dispersed,” claimed Lashkar. “Then they burnt and looted Muslim shops in Dewanghat.”

Local RSS leaders have a different explanation for the fight. “There was a funeral near Annapurna Club and the procession was playing loud songs, misbehaving with girls,” said Subhendu Sarkar, a district leader of the RSS. “When they were stopped, a fight broke out. An hour later, they started throwing bombs, targeting Hindu houses in Jairampur and Dewanghat.”

Later, in the heat of the moment, a few Muslim shops were burnt, Sarkar admitted. By afternoon, the police had moved in.

Shops in Dewanghat burnt in the violence

Both communities knew there was trouble by the sound of the crude bombs. In Banerjeepara, Kanchan Mallya heard them going off in the bazaar. “I was in the garden,” she said. “I saw the neighbour’s house was on fire and went out into the street.” But as she went out into street, she saw her own house attacked with bricks and then set alight.

In Jairampur, Nasrin Mridha was home with her mother; her father had gone out of town on work. “I knew things were heated so I locked the house and sat inside,” she said. “It was at 2 pm on December 13. They came and asked if anyone was inside. When they could not get in, they smashed things outside. The RAF [Rapid Action Force] did it. There were two Bajrang Dal people with kerchiefs around their heads. They were pointing the forces to the houses.”

Lashkar echoed accusations against the RAF. “That night, they came and beat up people, took pictures of the girls, broke the houses that were already pillaged.”

Sumit Kumar, Howrah superintendent (rural), said the police were only trying to arrest the culprits. “On December 13, many shops were burnt,” he said. “‘The police had gone to raid and to arrest. If the ladies at home claim it is harassment when we go to make arrests, you can interpret it as you wish.”

The next day, the rioters returned in large number. According to Sarkar, there was a rallying call at the local mosque and soon crowds attacked the Dhulagarh bazaar with bombs. “Then Hindu boys ran out to protest,” he said. Lashkar alleged they were Bajrang Dal workers. He also alleged that, as they looted and plundered for four hours on the morning of December 14, the police stayed away. In separate reports, Dhulagarh residents claimed the police gave them a few minutes to leave their houses rather than warding off the vandals.

The police, on their part, say they were outnumbered and unable to contain the violence. “There was heavy bombing, DSP [Deputy Superintendent of Police] was injured and several constables were also injured,” said Kumar.

Empty houses

Dhulagarh and its surroundings are now strewn with empty houses, both Muslim and Hindu. In Jairampur, Anis ur-Rahman’s house lies deserted. Doors have been ripped off and shattered glass lies on the floor of rooms that have been stripped bare.

Most of the men from Muslim households there had fled after violence broke out on December 13, Lashkar said. The next day, the women left too, taking refuge in relatives’ houses in neighbouring villages. Only in the last three or four days have people started returning. But the area is deserted in the evenings, as people clear off the streets and move into areas of safety for the night.

The shops in Dewanghat, just down the road, are still shut. Zari work is the main source of livelihood in Dhulagarh. In recent years, many have shifted to machine embroidery. The rioters ransacked workshops and destroyed equipment worth lakhs of rupees, residents say.

Meanwhile, at the Puratan Chowrasta, the RSS has gathered Hindu families at the Shib Kali temple. “The VHP [Vishwa Hindu Parishad] and the RSS have arranged relief,” announced Sarkar. “Many Hindu families are now staying at the temple.” Meals are also being served here.

Kanchan Mallya, whose husband is a zari worker, sits at the temple, her belongings gathered in a bucket. Over the past fortnight, she has been living with her sister in Nimtala. “They took my gold and all the utensils,” she said, tears streaming down her face. “All our documents were destroyed in the fire. We had Rs 600 in cash, that was also burnt.”

The government, she said, had given her a cheque for Rs 35,000 as compensation, but the money was held up because the cheque was in her husband’s name but the account was in hers.

Ransacked room in Anis ur-Rahman Midday's house.

Men from outside

Both communities now tell stories of violence that seem to draw from old cultural stereotypes. The Hindu attackers used arrows, say Muslim families. The Muslims came with swords, say Hindus.

“The house was on fire, we took the children and hid under the bed upstairs,” said Lakshmi Mallya. “They came up, and said ‘everyone’s here’. Then they held a sword to my daughter’s throat, said nobody speak a word, just go downstairs and stand quietly.”

Changing politics have worked a certain bitterness between communities, Lashkar claimed. The RSS has had a presence in Dhulagarh for decades, he elaborated, but over the last two or three years, organisations such as the Bajrang Dal had come into the picture, training armies of young boys. “If anything happens, they turn it into a communal matter,” he said.

Yet, in the temple on the main road, local residents claimed this was “Trinamool para (Trinamool country)”, suggesting the ruling party held sway. Sarkar, for his part, claimed the attacks were planned by “desperate” men and large quantities of eplosive RDX were found in Muslim households.

Hindu groups arrange for relief at a local temple.

For all the political bitterness, residents cannot remember any major incident of communal violence in these parts. A few speak of trouble over an auto that had overturned in the market, some 30 years ago. Others dimly recall a minor scuffle around a puja, maybe 10 or 12 years ago. But most say that in their area, at least, relations have always been good. Most localities are mixed, with Hindus and Muslim houses standing close together.

“We had [Muslim] neighbours,” said Lakshmi Mallya. “They are good. When we did not have water, we would drink water from their taps. We used to go to their house, they used to come to ours.”

The violence of December 13 and 14 is seen as a disruptive force, quite out of character with their locality. “They came from elsewhere,” said Archit Mallya, Lakshmi Mallya’s husband, of the mobs that attacked his house. “They hired people from outside.”