Husna Begum, 45, trembles at the memory of the afternoon when she thought death had come knocking on her door. The resident of Raniganj in West Bengal’s Paschim Bardhaman district was at home on March 26 when communal clashes broke out in the town.

“We live in a joint family of 50 people with our relatives also living in the same compound,” she said. “We were seven women present inside the house as all the male members and my children had gone out for work. The women were busy cooking food and completing their household chores when suddenly we heard people banging on our door and screaming, ‘maro, maro’ [beat them]. We were petrified.”

Peeping through the window, Begum saw a large crowd of men armed with sticks, rods and cans. “Filled with liquid, presumably, kerosene,” she said. The women prised out the red roof tiles at the back of the house and climbed out to safety.

Since then, they have been staying with relatives in Rajbandh, which is a predominantly Muslim area. Their house in the Hill Basti locality stands gutted. The mixed locality, which is home to both Hindus and Muslims, has about 200 houses. Around 20-25 houses belonging to Muslims were looted, damaged and set ablaze that morning. The families have fled to other areas.

Husna Begum's house has been reduced to burnt rubble. Photo: Gurvinder Singh
Husna Begum's house has been reduced to burnt rubble. Photo: Gurvinder Singh

Twenty kilometres away, Gita Devi, 32, has a similar story to narrate. Devi is a resident of the Chandmari area of Asansol, West Bengal’s second-largest city, which includes the former mining town of Raniganj. It lies 200 km north of Kolkata.

On the evening of March 27, Devi’s husband had not returned from work yet. She was at home, with her five-year-old child, who was asleep. Around 5.30 pm, all of a sudden, she heard loud sounds – stones were raining on her home. As she looked outside, she realised a mob was attacking houses in her locality. “I took my small child and rushed out for safety,” she said. Most other families in Chandmari, which is predominantly Hindu, did the same. Some of them found refuge in a community hall.

A few days later, when Devi returned to the neighbourhood, she found 50-60 houses, including hers, had been ransacked and burnt down. “I had saved around Rs 20,000,” she said. “The money was gone. Nothing was left.”

Gita Devi, in the middle, holding her son. Photo: Gurvinder Singh
Gita Devi, in the middle, holding her son. Photo: Gurvinder Singh

What sparked the violence

Since March 25, when Ram Navami celebrations began, West Bengal has seen a series of communal clashes. The festival has emerged as a flashpoint in recent years after Hindutva groups began to organise large-scale rallies with men wielding swords and tridents marching through towns. Hindutva groups have defended the display of weapons as tradition, but the unprecedented scale of the rallies has led many to see them as a form of aggression. This year, the administration in Asansol prohibited the display of weapons.

“Such rallies only began four years ago,” said Mohamed Mashooq, who runs a small light decorations business in Rajbandh, the area in Raniganj where the Ram Navami procession came into conflict with Muslims. “For over 60 years, the Hindus have been bringing out large processions called Mahaveer Jhanda on the day of Lakshmi Puja and no violence has happened.”

The violence on March 26, he claimed, was planned. As the Ram Navami procession passed through Rajbandh around 11 am, “the people participating in it began to chant inflammatory slogans. They were also playing an audio CD of anti-Muslim songs which were quite derogatory for our community.”

He added: “We were still patient and urged them to stop playing the songs but they refused to listen and instead began pelting stones at us.”

The leaders of the Hindutva organisations that had organised the rally denied this. “The clash broke out when Muslims attacked the procession,” said Sourish Mukherjee, spokesperson of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad. “Bombs and stones were hurled at us.”

The deputy commissioner of police of Asansol-Durgapur, Arindam Dutta Chowdhury, almost lost his right hand when a bomb exploded near him. He has been transported to Coimbatore for plastic surgery.

The same afternoon, barely half a kilometre from Rajbandh, Mahesh Mondal, a worker from Bihar, was relieving himself when he was attacked by a sharp weapon and killed.

Rajbandh crossing where the clashes started in Raniganj. Photo: Gurvinder Singh
Rajbandh crossing where the clashes started in Raniganj. Photo: Gurvinder Singh

How the violence spread

On March 27, even as the police was trying to control the violence in Raniganj, violence erupted in Asansol North, as another Ram Navami procession wound its way through a Muslim neighbourhood.

“I heard people from the procession shouting ‘Pakistan jao, Pakistan jao’ [Go to Pakistan],” said Mohamed Khalid, a resident of Asansol North. “Soon the stone pelting began from both sides leading to communal clashes.”

Most residents blamed the police. Given that tensions were expected around Ram Navami, they said it should have been better prepared to control the violence.

“Nobody came to our rescue,” said Madhuri Devi, a resident of Chandmari area. “The attackers vandalised our houses and set them on fire. Vehicles were also torched. We were left to fend for ourselves.”

On the evening of March 27, the teenage son of the imam of the Noori mosque in Rail Par area went missing. His half-burnt body was found the next day.

Another death took place on March 29. As the police sprayed tear-gas to control mobs in Bhadka area, in the ensuing chaos, a vehicle hit Pratima Devi, a 45-year-old woman who was standing on the street. She died of the injuries.

On March 31, when West Bengal Governor N Tripathi visited Chandmari, the residents ran after the policemen accompanying him – they wanted an explanation for why the police had failed to protect them.

Laxmi Narayan Meena, the police commissioner of Asansol-Durgapur, insisted the police had acted swiftly to contain the violence. “The allegations of negligence by the police are completely false and baseless,” he told Scroll.in. “It is due to our efforts that the situation is under control.”

Internet services in Asansol remain suspended till April 4. Parts of Asansol continue to be under Section 144, which prohibits more than four people gathering in a public place.

Both Hindu and Muslim residents said they continue to feel insecure.

The losses

Not only have homes been lost in the violence, a large number of commercial establishments have been looted and burnt.

The worst hit is Hatia municipal market, a few meters from Rajbandh where the clashes erupted first. Around 500 shops here were ransacked.

“We were conducting business as usual last Monday when suddenly we heard a commotion,” said Biswanath Sahu, a rice wholesaler. As he saw a mob rushing in the direction of his shop, he fled. “We didn’t get time to close our shop and collect the cash,” Sahu said, showing his burnt cash box. The day the clashes broke out, it contained Rs 5 lakh, his earnings over an entire season, he claimed.

Biswanath Sahu showing the burnt cash box. Photo: Gurvinder Singh
Biswanath Sahu showing the burnt cash box. Photo: Gurvinder Singh

In the same market, Naushad Siddique, 35, burst into tears as he stood amidst the ashes of the five bangle shops owned by his family.

“Political leaders are trying to portray it as a communal flare-up for their own vested interests,” he said. “But I strongly believe that it was a pre-planned crime with the sole intention to loot. Both Hindu and Muslims doing business here have been equally targeted.”

Naushad Siddique in Hatia Bazaar. Photo: Gurvinder Singh
Naushad Siddique in Hatia Bazaar. Photo: Gurvinder Singh