The Big Story: Iron fist

Communal riots erupted in the town of Baduria in West Bengal on Sunday evening over a cartoon depicting religious figures that was shared on social media. Angered by the portrayal, Muslim mobs rampaged through the area, attacking Hindu shops and homes. Various roads were also blockaded and even police vehicles were set on fire. This violence happened even though the West Bengal police had arrested the boy – currently studying in Class 12 – who had allegedly posted the cartoon on Sunday.

In the face of this sudden violence, West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee held a press conference on Tuesday, bizarrely blaming the governor for speaking rudely to her – and then went on to announce that anyone who has damaged police property will be made to pay monetary compensation. As a threat from the person responsible for maintaining public order in the state, it was a singularly weak response to rioting mobs that were so large that they had forced West Bengal to ask for paramilitary forces from the Union government in order to quell the violence.

The Baduria riots are one in a long line of communal disturbances that the state of West Bengal has seen. This includes the 2010 Deganga riots, 2013 Canning riots and riots in Dhulagarh and Kaliachak last year. While these riots are low intensity in the Indian context – given that they resulted in no deaths – the frequency of their occurrence is a dark portent for Bengali society.

The response of the West Bengal government to these clashes suffers from political biases of the people in power. Given that the Trinamool government enjoys considerable support from the state’s Muslims, the Bharatiya Janata Party often accuses it of appeasing the community.

There is considerable truth in this charge. The Trinamool has often taken help from the Muslim Right in West Bengal. It is, for example, rather egregious that Idris Ali is a Trinamool Lok Sabha MP – Ali was given a ticket after he was accused of inciting violent demonstrations in Kolkata in 2007 over Taslima Nasreen’s stay in the state. Ali accused her of blasphemy. The Trinamool has also taken the crutch of highly regressive and incendiary schemes like giving out stipends to Muslim clerics.

This latest friction comes after West Bengal has enjoyed a golden spell of communal peace. Since the 1960s, large-scale communal riots – once a regular feature of Bengali life – have been absent from the state. Even today, West Bengal is a relatively calm place compared to other states in the Union. In 2015, for example, while Uttar Pradesh saw 155 communal riots and Madhya Pradesh, 92, the number for West Bengal was 32. Incidents such as the 2002 Gujarat pogrom or the 2013 Muzzafarnagar riots in Uttar Pradesh, where state-complicity led to mass killings, are unthinkable in Bengal.

Yet, the fact that the state is unable to control law and order without help from Union government forces is a very worrying trend for the future. Moreover, rioting on the ground is immediately followed by intense communalisation on social media, further vitiating the atmosphere. At least in one case, prominent supporters of the BJP have been seen spreading false rumours of communal rioting in Kolkata city.

It is clear that Mamata Banerjee needs to move on this communalisation with an iron fist without thinking of her own party’s short-term political calculation. She needs to clamp down on rioters as well as people fanning the flames of polarisation in order to keep West Bengal’s social fabric intact.

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In the West Bengal area where communal riots broke out, BJP officials claim a surge in membership, reports Subrata Nagchoudhury

Biswas said: “That the BJP has become a headache for the Trinamool Congress here was evident when the Baduria municipality chairman, Tushar Singh, while addressing Muslims on Monday said: ‘We will not do anything here that gives the BJP some oxygen.’ It is obvious that such words are to appease the minorities.”

In the past, the BJP has repeatedly accused Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee of “pandering to Muslims”.