On March 26, communal clashes broke out in Asansol, West Bengal, after a Ram Navami procession in the Raniganj neighbourhood turned violent. In the following days, the violence spread across the city, claiming the lives of at least three persons. Curfew was imposed, prohibiting the assembly of four or more persons. The prohibitory orders were finally lifted on Monday.

A close look at the incidents of violence and conversations with people who were witness to them – including those who organised or participated in the processions – shows that the police and administration were late in responding to the rioting and in their attempts to arrest its spread. Many of them told Scroll.in that it took the police several hours to arrive at the trouble spots, despite several of these places being located within minutes of police stations.

They also accused the police of not deploying sufficient personnel in areas that had seen clashes during Ram Navami celebrations in the past.

Fight over loudspeakers

The violence that engulfed Raniganj and other parts of Asansol on March 26 and March 27 broke out largely over the use of loudspeakers in Ram Navami celebrations, despite a ban on their use because of the ongoing board examinations.

The first clash was reported in the predominantly Muslim locality of Rajabandh in Raniganj over a procession. “The rally comprised several pick-up vans and mini trucks, each with a stack of [sound] boxes that were playing religious songs and provocative slogans,” said Mohammed Anwar, president of the Anjuman Imdad-e-Bahmi school.

Video footage of the procession taken by onlookers also showed several mini trucks stacked with sound boxes.

Several people Scroll.in spoke to said they heard the loudspeakers blare out provocative slogans such as “Hindustan mein rehna hai toh Jai Sri Ram bolna padega”, “Musalman ka jagah, ya Pakistan ya kabristan”, and “Hum ailan karte hain danke ki chot par, mandir banega har mod par”. (If you want to live in India, you must chant Jai Shri Ram; The only place for Muslims, Pakistan or the graveyard; and We declare the temple will be built).

The fighting started after some Muslim boys took offence to the slogans and confronted the participants in the procession.

The same story played out on Bidhan Chandra Roy Road in Asansol, as recounted by Mohammed Khaliq Khan. “When the rally was passing by Reliance Market, calls for aazan [prayers] started emanating from mosques in the area,” he said. “Some youngsters approached the rally organisers, asking them to turn down the loudspeakers till the aazan was over. Fighting started within minutes of this altercation.”

Procession organisers and Right-Wing groups defended the use of loudspeakers and sound boxes. Sashi Bhushan Yadav, president of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad’s Asansol district unit, said the police ought to have confiscated them if they were not allowed. “In Raniganj as well as Asansol, police teams were present during the rallies,” he said. “Why did they not confiscate the [sound] boxes?”

Yadav added, “In fact, we asked the police and the administration to show us the written circular barring rally organisers from carrying DJ boxes or weapons, but to no avail. We even filed an RTI [right to information] application and asked for a response within 48 hours, but the government did not bother to reply.”

Jitendra Tiwari, mayor of the Asansol Municipal Corporation, said there was no written circular barring rally organisers from carrying sound boxes and weapons, but added that there was no need for one. “What was the need for written circulars when it was made clear to all organisers when they came to us to seek permission for rallies that loudspeakers and weapons would not be allowed,” he explained.

There were reports of people brandishing swords during Ram Navami celebrations in several parts of West Bengal despite strict orders against the use of weapons.

Tiwari added, “In all, we gave permission for 146 rallies within the Asansol corporation limits [which includes Raniganj], and all organisers had agreed to the precondition of not carrying weapons and loudspeakers.” Asked if the organisers had accepted these conditions in writing, he replied in the negative.

The Ram Navami procession route in Raniganj.

A heads-up, but no police action

The violence in Asansol was not unexpected. The administration was well aware of the belligerent mood of the organisers and of sensitive spots along procession routes that had seen altercations in the past three years, several people told Scroll.in.

A week before the procession in Rajabandh, the area’s municipal councillor, Aarij Jalees, was invited to a meeting convened by the officer in charge of the Raniganj police station to plan for the event. He said that when the police informed the organisers of the government’s decision not to allow DJs, loudspeakers and weapons, several of them protested. “They said they would not abide by the conditions and carry on with their programmes as per their own plan,” Jalees said. “The officer in charge tried to reason with them, but they responded with slogans of Jai Sri Ram within the police station itself.”

Despite this open show of defiance, the police failed to make contingency plans, said Jalees. “They should have stationed adequate numbers of police personnel to ensure no untoward incident took place, but chose not to do so,” he said.

Madan Trivedi, the Bharatiya Janata Party general secretary in Raniganj, also blamed the violence on police failure. “The area where the trouble started is sensitive,” he said. “Since 2014, the police would place a picket at the Hill Basti junction during the rally and police personnel would assist rally participants in making their way through barricades erected specifically to ensure there was no trouble.” Trivedi said this arrangement was withdrawn this year with no good reason given.

BJP leader Madan Trivedi at his bookstore in Raniganj.

Asansol’s Chandmari area, where a Ram Navami procession turned violent on March 27, is also sensitive to communal flare-ups. Haji Nasim Ansari, the councillor of the neighbouring ward, said the area witnessed verbal exchanges and skirmishes during Ram Navami processions last year and the year before. In this backdrop, several residents, including Ansari, got together and set up booths along the procession’s route this year to ensure it went off peacefully. These booths were manned by both Hindu and Muslim volunteers.

Sashi Bhushan Yadav of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad said his organisation had received information about possible trouble in Chandmari and shared it with the police. “At around 1.30 am on the night of March 26, we met the officers in charge of Asansol South and North police stations and gave [them] a list of sensitive spots along the rally route, which included Chandmari,” he said. “We also shared whatever inputs we had regarding anticipated trouble in these areas the next day. In both police stations, they assured us of adequate steps, including the deployment of senior officers at the sensitive spots.”

But the senior police officers were nowhere to be seen in and around Chandmari on the day of the procession, witnesses claimed. “The rally was accompanied by 12-15 policemen in two small vehicles,” said a resident of Gulzar Mohalla. “Although the rally participants were armed with guns and bombs, the policemen were unarmed.”

‘Made constant calls to police’

When clashes broke out in Raniganj, several residents called the police and were told that help was on the way. Two young boys who live in nearby Hill Basti and were part of the procession recalled huddling with other participants on one of the four roads branching out of Rajabandh junction as they faced off against a large group of residents.

The fighting raged for close to three hours while the handful of policemen accompanying the procession stood as mute spectators, the boys as well as residents who watched the clash from their terraces said.

A few elders from the locality, including councillor Aarij Jalees, reached the spot and tried to intervene, physically dragging away many of those engaged in fighting. “We would separate the two sides and make calls to the police, only to be told they were on their way,” Jalees said. “Meanwhile, some people from both sides would begin pelting stones and engaging in street fight again, and we would try separating the two sides all over again.”

The Asansol-Durgapur Police Commissionerate, where additional forces are stationed, is 20 km and a 30-minute drive away. Yet, it took the police close to two and a half hours to reach Rajabandh.

“We were also making repeated calls to the police,” said the BJP’s Madan Trivedi, who was part of the main Ram Navami rally that the Rajabandh procession was on its way to join. “We were in touch with people in the Rajabandh area and knew about the clashes that had erupted there. Clearly, the police arrived at the scene three hours after fighting had broken out to allow mobs to run riot.”

As the street fight raged, several homes in Hill Basti – belonging to both Hindus and Muslims – were set on fire. In the time it took the police to get there, close to 50 homes were also ransacked and looted.

A burnt house in Hill Basti.

It took the police even longer to respond to clashes in the Haji Nagar-Ram Krishna Dangal area on March 28. Young boys from both religious communities who clashed during the Ram Navami procession there told Scroll.in that the fighting started at 11 am and went on sporadically for over seven hours till the police arrived. In the neighbouring Chandmari-Srinagar area, clashes occurred in fits and spurts for over three hours. Like in Raniganj, houses were looted, ransacked and set afire in both localities.

But unlike Raniganj, the police were even closer. The Asansol North police station is at a distance of less than two to three kms from both localities. Residents said their calls to the police largely went unanswered.

Sashi Bhushan Yadav of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad said no help came from other administrative authorities either. “By 12 noon, as calls from our people in the area were becoming more frantic, we constituted a five-person committee and went to meet the district magistrate,” he said. “The DM made assurances of swift action, but did nothing.”

Yadav added, “The CP [commissioner of police] was not in his office, so we approached the divisional railway manager, as the Chandmari area comes under the Railways’ jurisdiction. The DRM asked us to give him a list of railway quarters from which people needed to be rescued and sent some railway police personnel for the same.”

Residents said adequate police force was deployed only at around 4 pm, after which the situation was gradually brought under control.

The Ram Navami procession route in Raniganj.

‘Beggars, drunks arrested’

Commissioner of Police (Asansol-Durgapur) LN Meena rejected the allegations of police negligence and delay as false and baseless. “The police acted swiftly to contain the violence,” he told Scroll.in.

However, the police continue to face flak, not just for their response to the clashes but also because a casualty of the March 28 violence was a woman who was crushed under the wheels of a police vehicle. “I had gone to the area where the fighting was going on that morning, and my mother left home in search of me,” said her son Sailendra Raut. “She was accompanied by a few other women, who were also looking for their sons. When the women reached the clearing in front of the now defunct Rupkatha cinema hall, the police fired teargas shells,” he said. “A few of the women fell down in the melee, and my mother, who fell by the side of the road, was crushed by the police vehicle.”

The police have arrested over 80 people for rioting, but here too they have been accused of sparing the guilty and going after soft targets. Several residents of Railpar said some well-known neighbourhood goons had taken a lead in the violence but few of them had been apprehended. One of them was arrested but released the very next day, they alleged.

“The police have gone and rounded up the drunkards and beggars from the railway yard and are trying to pass them off as rioting Hindus,” one Muslim resident said. Others around him agreed and rattled off the names of those they claimed were innocent but were now behind bars.

Vishwa Hindu Parishad leader Sashi Bhushan Yadav, meanwhile, accused the police of going after the volunteers of various rally organising committees. “This year, the police asked for a list of 15 volunteers from each rally organising committee,” he said. “Now, they are swooping down on these volunteers and putting them behind bars. Already, 25 of our activists have been arrested in Raniganj.”

“We have no option but to be on the run,” Yadav added. He explained that he had not gone home since the clashes broke out and was constantly on the move.

All photographs courtesy the author.