On Thursday, more than 40 personnel of the Central Reserve Police Force were killed in Jammu and Kashmir’s Pulwama district when a teenaged member of the Jaish-e-Mohammed rammed explosive-laden vehicle into their bus. Over the next few days, the tragedy sparked a violent reaction in West Bengal.
In a string of remarkably similar incidents across the state, mobs in at least four places branded ordinary people as “anti-national” based on their social media posts and proceed to accost them in their homes. The crowds abused and assaulted their targets, forcing them to chant patriotic slogans and apologise for their posts. Videos of the assaults were uploaded onto social media.
In all the cases, the mobs claimed to be unaffiliated to any political party or group. But at a press conference on Monday, West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee blamed the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Sangh Parivar for orchestrating the attacks.
Among the first of the assaults occurred on Saturday, when a person named Sarbajit Saha posted a Facebook “live” video with the caption, “We are the house of another anti-national.” The video showed a mob forcing its way into a home in West Bengal’s Cooch Behar district. The crowd accosted a young man named Anik Das and accused him of writing an “anti-national” social mediapost. As it dragged him into the street, one person said, “Whatever will happen will happen out in the street.”
Das denied that he had posted anything anti-India in the first place but was shouted down. The video ended with Das being forced to march down a road, waving a flag and shouting patriotic slogans.
A similar series of events followed for school teacher Chitradeep Shome, where a crowd confronted him at his home in Bongaon on Sunday, forced him to apologise for a post related to Pulwama and to chant “Bharat mata ki jay”, victory to mother India. Later in the day, Shome received news that another mob was gathering to attack him. He fled to Kolkata by train, even as his home was vandalised. As a result of the controversy, Shome was fired from his job as a teacher in a city school, reported the Indian Express Bangla.
In north Bengal’s Siliguri town, Sunday night saw a mob land up at the door of a college student named Debi Biswas. The mob was angry with her for a post on Pulwama. The encounter started with Biswas attempting to explain the political situation in Kashmir before elements in the mob became even more angry. The thousand-strong crowd hurled stones at her home before she and her family were rescued by the police, reported the Anandabazar Patrika.
In Habra, a crowd surrounded college student Arpan Rakshita’s house on Sunday for a Facebook post in relation to Pulwama. Rakshita refused to delete the post and the police arrested him, reported Anandabazar Patrika.
In most cases, the assaults were filmed on mobile phone cameras and the videos uploaded on social media. One Facebook page called “Banglar Sera Byango” collected videos of such assaults under the heading “deshdrohi hatao, Bharat bachao” – eliminate anti-nationals, save India. Its most most-watched mob video showed the attack on Anik Das. It had 27 lakh views before the page was abruptly deleted early on Tuesday. It is unclear whether the page had been removed by its adminstrators or by Facebook following complaints that it was spreading rumours.
At her press conference on Monday, West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee bought up the assaults. “Suddenly, for the past two days late night at 12-1 am some RSS-BJP-VHP workers are taking out processions with the Indian flag and trying to create panic,” she said.
She specifically mentioned the attack on school teacher Chitradeep Shome. “There was an attack in Bongaon yesterday. He came to the police station but even the police did not act,” said Banerjee. “I am strictly instructing all police personnel: No riot can be encouraged in any way; the police cannot look askance when a riot is developing. We will not tolerate it. The police has to handle the situation strongly.”