He was an ordinary student who did not stand out, said one of his teachers. He lost his mother when he was he was still a child, said one of his neighbours. His father was a daily wage earner. Two of his uncles work in the police. He lived with one of them in Magurkhali village, in West Bengal’s North 24 Parganas district, and studied in Class 12 of the government high school about a kilometre away.
When the police took him into custody on Sunday, many in his village expressed disbelief that the 17-year-old boy could have created and posted a Facebook image that scores of Muslims found so deeply offensive, they had taken to the streets in rage. In the ensuing violence, they burnt several homes and shops belonging to Hindus, and also torched police vehicles.
The village, which falls under the Baduria police station in the district’s Basirhat sub-division, is home to both Hindus and Muslims.
The trouble began on Sunday when Muslim protestors, angry about the image that was posted on Facebook from the student’s account on Friday, gathered in Rudrapur, where the boy’s school is located. They demanded that the police arrest the student immediately and asked for him to be given the death sentence.
A senior Muslim cleric, Maulana Matin, who attended the protest, urged the crowds to remain peaceful. In the presence of local Trinamool Congress leader and chairman of Baduria municipality, Tushar Singh, the police assured the protestors that the student would be arrested within 24 hours.
But the protestors turned violent. They attacked the home of the student, causing some damage. A section of the mob set ablaze vehicles at the Baduria police station.
At the end of three days of communal violence, however, both Muslims and Hindus in Baduria town claimed that the student could have been a tool in the hands of people who wanted to benefit from the polarisation that had resulted from the riot.
Singh, the municipality chairman, said for the past three years there has been a sustained effort to create a communal divide in the area. He echoed comments made by West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee on Tuesday, when she alleged that the Bharatiya Janata Party was using social media platforms to spread rumours and misinformation.
In Rudrapur, the BJP offices stood only a few yards away from the school where the student studied. Several office-bearers of the party, who requested not to be identified, alleged that the police was threatening them with arrest, accusing them of instigating the student’s Facebook post.
Ratan Biswas, an activist of the Sangh Parivar, the network of Hindutva organisations of which BJP is a part, condemned the student’s Facebook post as an “unpardonable crime”. He emphasised that the student had never been part of the Sangh activities.
Who created the post?
In Magurkhali village, the student’s Muslim neighbours do not believe he had created the the Facebook post.
Some Hindu residents of the village alleged that someone had hacked into the student’s Facebook account. “We have to come to know about this from his friends,” said a man named Niranjan Mondal. “It is up to the police now to find out.”
A senior officer at Baduria police station said that the police have not had a chance to question the student. “He is in our custody but we would be able to examine him thoroughly only once the law and order situation improves,” he said. “At the moment we are all running to keep things under control and restore normalcy.”
Under the Juvenile Justice Act, juveniles accused of crimes should be produced by the police in front of the Juvenile Justice Board and placed in an Observation Home.
But given the threat of his life, the student is being kept in police custody in a secret location.