Railpar in Asansol is ground zero of the riots that broke out in West Bengal’s second largest city in the wake of Ram Navami processions on March 26-27.

Situated just north of the Howrah-Delhi railway line, much of Railpar is generations old and the residents have historically earned their livelihood working, often informally, in the railway network and coal industry established by the British. They are largely lower middle class, with pockets of poor population. In contrast, the part of Asansol south of the railway line is middle to upper middle class and houses important government offices. To its north, Railpar is bordered by the Kolkata-Delhi NH19, which runs almost parallel to the railway tracks in this stretch. BC Roy Road, where the clashes first broke out on March 27, cuts through the middle of Railpar, joining Dhadka Road in the east. The area between BC Roy Road and NH19 emerged as a real estate hub around 15 years ago, and largely comprises townships planned by the Asansol Durgapur Development Authority, private residences, international schools, and new administrative buildings.

The rioting in Asansol through March 28 was confined to old Railpar, the area between BC Roy Road and the railway tracks. For over two weeks following the violence, there was heavy police presence in the area and Section 144, which prohibits unlawful assembly, remained in place until April 13, unlike in most other parts of Asansol city. Police pickets in fact still guard several places, especially around temples, mosques and road junctions.

This reporter travelled extensively in Railpar over many days to understand the extent of communal polarisation and the impact the violence has had on the people.

In private conversations as well as discussions at tea stalls, many residents hinted at or spoke directly about “vested interests” in the area who trying to foment communal polarisation. But everyone, cutting across the boundaries of religion, class, caste and gender, spoke about the amity and brotherhood among them and the socio-economic ties with the other community going back generations. The riots in Asansol, they insisted, did not acquire a communal character. A closer look at the incidents of rioting, loot and arson, and visits to the areas they were reported from lend credence to this view.

Comparing the maps from 2001 and 2018 shows Railpar has grown dense over the last 15 years after emerging as a real estate hub.

Resisting together

In 1992, rioting had broken out in several parts of Railpar after Hindu mobs demolished the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya. Residents of Railpar, both Hindu and Muslim, said the violence in 1992 was far worse and indeed communal.

“Inflamed passions are at work during communal riots which draw common people into rioting,” a Hindu businessman said during a conversation at a tea stall in Tari Mohalla. “But this time the fighters fought and the looters looted; there was no communal rioting.”

Tari Mohalla is one of the few Railpar neighbourhoods with an entirely Hindu population. The residents are traders, mostly Biharis, Marwaris and some Sikhs. Small saffron flags flutter from ropes strung from pole to pole along the roads in the neighbourhood.

“In Jhingri mohalla,” the businessman said, “Muslims stopped Hindu shops from being set afire.” Those present in the tea stall expressed surprise over his revelation. “Why should I lie,” he responded. “I live there and I saw the mian log standing guard with sticks and chasing away rioters who came to attack shops in our area.”

Asked for his name, he requested anonymity. “Some people here would not like us saying such things, about brotherhood and amity,” he explained.

The conversation then veered towards how only select shops, not all Hindu shops, had been attacked elsewhere in Railpar.

In many places, residents confirmed what the businessman had said. At Safi More, a key junction near the railway station, local shopkeepers and other residents resisted two rioting attempts on March 27. That evening, all shops had closed after people heard of clashes breaking out during the Ram Navami rally at Reliance Market on BC Roy Road. “Three separate Ram Navami rallies were to pass through this junction before they joined the main rally near Asansol market,” said a Hindu railway employee who lives in the Railway quarters at Safi More, asking not to be named. “Around 12 of us, Hindus and Muslims, were sitting outside my quarter, talking about keeping our area free of trouble. Around 8.30 pm, a mob of 100-150 men arrived via KT Road. Their faces were covered with saffron cloth and they were carrying cans of petrol and janeu [the ritual thread worn by Brahmins]. They were dousing janeu in petrol and trying to throw them inside shops or pass them under downed shutters.”

Shakeel Ahmad, listening to this conversation at a tea stall at Safi More, joined in, “I was also there that day. We picked up whatever we found – bamboo from makeshift shops, sticks, and ran after them. Once about 20 of us were on the road, they fled, but they had managed to set fire to several roadside shops, owned by Muslims.”

The railway employee added, “Shortly after this, another mob of 100-150 Muslims, from neighbourhoods around here, came down Station Road. Many of them had swords. Again, we stood in their way. Young Muslim men from among our group took position in front, since the Muslim mob would likely not attack fellow Muslims, and we stood behind. We held off the mob for close to 30 minutes till police arrived.”

'The fighters fought and the looters looted; there was no communal rioting,' a Hindu businessman at a tea stall in Tari Mohalla. Photo credit: Aritra Bhattacharya

Communal elements

The rioting on March 28 was confined to two parts of Railpar – the western Chandmari-Srinagar and the central RK Dangal-Haji Nagar – which are highly segregated along religious lines, with a road or a nullah separating Hindu and Muslim settlements. In the rest of Railpar, neighbourhoods are largely mixed.

Residents of RK Dangal, all Hindus, largely belong to Scheduled Castes and Other Backward Classes. “VHP and Bajrang Dal have been working among these population groups for the last 20 years,” said Sashibhushan Yadav, district president of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad in Asansol. “They are a primary part of our family here.”

According to the residents, around 40% of RK Dangal’s population comprises migrants, primarily from Bihar. No Muslims reside in RK Dangal. Most people make a living hawking goods on trains and the streets of Asansol. It is a congested neighbourhood, with narrow dark alleys and buildings that share walls and boundaries.

People in several other neighbourhoods claimed that young men from RK Dangal were involved in the rioting. “Several boys from Dangal were part of the mob that came to attack shops here but were chased them away,” a young man who runs a shop at Safi More said. “They were all drunk and had covered their mouths with handkerchiefs. But we see them every day, so we recognised some of them.”

Three weeks after the violence, this reporter found few boys and men in RK Dangal. They had fled, the elderly and womenfolk in Ambagan, part of RK Dangal, explained, fearing arrests and harassment by the police. A few young men who stayed admitted to attending Vishwa Hindu Parishad and Bajrang Dal events and said they knew the local Bajrang Dal organiser. They said men from the neighbourhood have been participating in Ram Navami rallies ever since they started three years ago.

“RK Dangal, Chandmari are strongholds of the BJP-VHP,” said a former leader of the Congress’s women’s wing. “In fact, the BJP put up its first candidate in Asansol from RK Dangal around 20 years ago.”

Chandmari, on the eastern periphery of Railpar, is neatly divided into Hindu and Muslim areas. The Hindus, mostly belonging to Other Backward Classes, came to Asansol from Bihar three-four generations ago to work as porters or some such. They live in Chandmari Group D railway quarters and a part of Srinagar BPL quarters. The Muslims live in the other part of the BPL quarters and slums around it.

The rally that turned violent near Reliance Market on March 27 had started from Chandmari. “I, Bunty Prasad, Sonu Thakur and others were leading the rally that started from Chandmari’s Bajrang Bali temple,” said Ajay Kumar, a local leader of the ruling Trinamool Congress, referring to fellow partymen. “Our councilor CK Reshma was also present.” Reshma won the corporation election on the BJP’s ticket but moved to the Trinamool later.

“There is no overground VHP presence in this neighbourhood as we do not allow opposition forces in our area,” another Trinamool leader said on the condition of anonymity.

Who then caused the rioting the next day? “On the morning of March 28, some local Trinamool leaders and others picked a fight with Muslims, firing several rounds and throwing bombs towards the Srinagar BPL quarters,” said a Muslim man who participated in the fighting, which lasted nearly two hours before the police managed to bring calm. “We retaliated with stones, trying to keep them away, and kept calling the police.”

Haroon Rashid, a former independent councilor from Railpar, alleged that “several leaders are Trinamool by day and RSS by night”. “For years,” he added, “they have been organising Hindus through festivals, rallies and by vitiating minds of local people while wearing the Trinamool identity on their sleeve.”

Many other residents echoed Rashid’s view. “On the night of March 27, after the violence during the rally, I had a conversation with some local leaders in Chandmari,” said a Trinamool leader who is Muslim and spoke on the condition of anonymity. “They were angry about the violence during the rally and were talking of retaliating, teaching the Muslims a lesson. I pleaded with them not to do so, and they said they wouldn’t. The next morning, they went back on their word.”

Rioting broke out in RK Dangal-Haji Nagar after news of rioting in Srinagar-Chandmari reached there. It was during the rioting in RK Dangal-Haji Nagar that the son of Noorani Masjid’s Imam, Imdadullah Rashidi, was captured and killed.

Nunia nullah almost neatly separates Hindu and Muslim settlements in one part of Railpar. Photo credit: Aritra Bhattacharya

Targeted attacks

Railpar’s biggest market in in Nauwa Patty, near the Qureshi Mohalla junction on New Rifle Range Road. There are over 500 shops, selling everything from groceries to gold, and belonging to traders from across Railpar and beyond. “This market is the hub of trading activity of the neighbouring seven-eight wards, serving the daily needs of people living in the area,” said Haider Imam Ansari, a member of the committee that manages the market. Its importance in the social and economic life of Railpar is similar to that of the Hatia municipal market in Raniganj, which was burnt down in rioting on March 26.

In Nauwa Patty, though, only one shop – Sonu Super Masala, owned by Shyam Thakur – was looted and burnt on March 28. The attack was presented in the local media and among traders in Asansol as a case of a Hindu business being attacked by Muslims, but local shopkeepers insisted this was not correct. The shop was targeted, they explained, after several people saw Shyam Thakur’s son Sonu, after whom the store is named, open gunfire during the rioting at Chandmari’s Chowringhee junction on the morning of March 28.

“If it was a case of Hindu businesses being attacked, our shops would have been looted and set afire too,” said the owner of a nearby jewellery shop. The market has 10 jewellery stores, all owned by Hindus.

The shopkeepers also claimed that Sonu had harassed them for hefty donations for the Ram Navami rally and taken the lead in taking out a rally from the market this year, without the police’s permission. “Sonu is TMC by day and VHP by night,” a shopkeeper said, referring to the Trinamool Congress.

Nauwa Patty market on New Rifle Range Road. Photo credit: Aritra Bhattacharya

Repairing relations

Despite the polarisation at work, people are affirming old social ties between the two communities. Mohammed Moinuddin, a resident of Powerhouse slums opposite Reliance Market, said Hindu residents of Chandmari contacted people in the neighbouring Muslim areas of Okay Road and Powerhouse after the violence to address any misgivings. “Hindus and Muslims came together after Friday namaaz on March 30 on their own, without the involvement of any party or organisation,” Moinuddin said.

Ajay Kumar, who is associated with the Trinamool Congress, was part of the group that organised the meeting. “We have them to thank for giving us safe passage to our homes after the rally turned violent on March 27,” Kumar said, referring to Muslims of Okay Road and Powerhouse. “We thanked everybody at the meeting and vowed to maintain peace in the area.”

Muslims constitute the majority in most neighbourhoods in Railpar, barring RK Dangal and Chandmari. But almost every locality has Hindu residences and businesses. Many of them said they did fear for their safety. “My sons wanted to send me away to some safe house in the aftermath of the violence but I stayed put,” said an elderly resident of Bairagi Talab, Karuna Singh. Hers is a mixed neighbourhood of Hindu and Muslim households. “I trust these people as much as I trust myself,” she said, pointing towards two Muslim men she was sharing an evening conversation with.

One of the men, Mohammd Firoz, said the residents met soon after the clashes broke out in Chandmari on March 27. “A group of youngsters from both communities volunteered to stand vigil on the main road,” he said. “Later that night, they managed to chase away rioters who were attacking Muslim businesses.”

Such “peace meetings” were held in many neighbourhoods of Railpar, including KT Road, Shiv Mandir, NRR Road, Nauwa Patty, Powerhouse, Sitla Dangal and Okay Road. In almost every case, the meetings served to reassure people, Hindu and Muslim, of their safety.

In wards 24, 25 and 26, the councillors took the lead and deployed volunteers from both communities to keep vigil or assure the residents and business owners. Traders raised money for those whose businesses were destroyed, irrespective of their religious identity.

“We have been living and working together for generations and we cannot think of attacking each other,” said Tarique Anwar, who owns a shop in Asansol’s main market. “These riots were engineered. In areas where violence and arson happened, people from other places were brought in to inflict damage on people they didn’t know. The riots weren’t spontaneous; they were made to happen.”

Governor Keshari Nath Tripathi, Babul Supriyo and a BJP delegation led by Shahnawaz Hussain only visited Hindu neighbourhoods such as Chandmari. Photo credit: Aritra Bhattacharya

Partisan narrative

Several residents of Railpar wondered whether their MP, Babul Supriyo of the BJP, represented only Hindus. “Most of our local leaders, whether from Trinamool or CPM, have come and asked after us,” said Moinuddin, referring to the Communist party of India (Marxist). He added that even Moloy Ghatak, Trinamool’s tallest leader in the Asansol industrial belt, visited both Muslim and Hindu neighbourhoods.

Supriyo, on the other hand, has not set foot in the Muslim localities despite visiting Railpar at least three times after the violence, limiting his tours to RK Dangal, Chandmari and a relief camp for Hindus. Governor Keshari Nath Tripathi as well as the BJP delegation led by Shahnawaz Hussain that visited Asansol to assess the situation following the riots also gave the Muslim neighbourhoods a miss, choosing to go to Chandmari and RK Dangal.

Some residents also complained that the media has been talking much more about the suffering of Hindus than that of Muslims. “That Hindus from Chandmari were fleeing the violence was all over the media, but all of us fled to our relatives’ places,” a Muslim woman in Babu Talav slums said. “Why don’t you show how Muslim families in Srinagar are still staying elsewhere fearing violence? Why don’t you show the innumerable bullet marks on buildings in Srinagar where Muslims reside? Why must one side, one set of sufferers, enjoy more visibility?”

Police guard a junction near a mosque in Railpar. Photo credit: Aritra Bhattacharya