Basirhat riot: What went wrong and how to set it right

It's to be remembered that forces hostile to India, especially the Pakistani ISI, are always on the lookout to capitalise on vulnerable areas.

 |  6-minute read |   11-07-2017
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The recent communal riots in West Bengal's Basirhat district have left behind a trail of unanswered questions. If the questions are not addressed immediately, West Bengal is likely to face serious challenges on the law and order front, gradually eroding the state government's credibility and raising a sense of insecurity among the Hindus who allege that the Mamata Banerjee-led Trinamool government is partisan and practising communal politics for electoral reasons.

Muslims, on the other hand, charge that Hindus engineered the riots and the happenings were staged and exaggerated. Assuming that they were self-calibrated, there is no denying the fact that a 67-year-old man lost his life and there was wanton destruction of property, arson and attack on a police station.

The government stood like a mute spectator as Basirhat went up in flames and there was a “free for all' by the miscreants who took Baduria and adjacent places hostage, rendering the police as bystanders.

The point to ponder is that, has the state government taken the intelligence wing of its administration to account for its failure to warn the government about the brewing tension and for not taking preemptive measures?

Conceded that there was perhaps not enough time to react as things were so sudden - one Facebook post triggered off the flash riots. Yet, if those concerned were watchful and alert, the ugly incidents could surely have been avoided.

Basirhat, like other districts near the border with Bangladesh, including Malda, Murshidabad etc, is communally sensitive, meriting close watch by intelligence agencies. It is expected of the intelligence machinery to gather information through its “sources” on the likelihood of communal violence.

Agencies could perhaps have been more alert as not very long ago, the district of Malda had witnessed riots (January 3, 2016) . In the case of Malda, it was known that someone in UP had shared a post on social media in late 2015 that had led to disturbances in early 2016.

Kaliachak police station was set aflame with fundamentalist outfits like Idara-e-Shariya and Anjuman Ahle Sunnatul Jamaat coming on the streets and protesting. If Malda was a case in point, a lesson could have been learnt from it and preventive steps taken. But that was not to be.

It would appear from these occurrences that the police in West Bengal don't enjoy a free hand to deal with disturbances strictly. The political resolve seems to be missing. At least this is visible from Basirhat and Malda, both in the proximity of Bangladesh.

Without digressing, another incident in Kolkata refuses to disappear from public memory. On February 11, 2013, a sub-inspector, Tapas Choudhury, of the special branch of the Kolkata Police was shot dead point blank in the Garden Reach locality.

Those in power let that incident pass without taking any action against the known goons who had targeted the police officer in full public view.  

It was well established then that the assailant enjoyed the political patronage of then urban development minister Hakim. The local musclemen were emboldened by the support of those in power. And the result was a thoroughly demoralised police force.

Today, we see a clueless police force, dispirited due to political interference and no support whatsoever. If such a trend continues, the police would be toothless in dealing with any challenge threatening the lives and property of the general population, emanating from communal riots. The spirits of the force should actually be at an all-time high to meet exigencies like a riot.

It's common knowledge that India’s border with Bangladesh is porous and fragile. There have been infiltrations and the Bangladesh Police suspect that many members of the country’s militant outfit Jamatul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB) are hiding in the districts of Bangladesh merging with the Muslim population. If this is true, it's alarming.

It must be reiterated that investigations in the Burdwan blasts of October 2014 (with two casualties) led to the JMB linkages. Many JMB cadres were suspected to be in hiding in Murshidabad too. It was reported that in Burdwan, one of the modules of JMB operated outside Bangladesh. They have their presence in the bordering district of Nadia as well.

It's, therefore, evident that these elements, with material support from the extraneous forces, wait for an opportunity to strike, maybe in a communal riot if a terror attack is not feasible. And that's exactly what's happening.

Here comes the role of intelligence agencies. If they are allowed to function without prejudice or interference, they are capable of delivering. Against this backdrop, a communal riot or a terror attack can't be seen in isolation.

Riots of communal nature should be exceptional (ideally not happening at all) than routine. But in West Bengal it looks the other way round. This needs to be curbed to instill confidence among the people, particularly among those who suffered in the recent riots. The formation of shanti vahini’s must be seen on ground to be effective. Their job should not be cosmetic.  

They can perhaps collaborate with the local police and prevail upon the population to not get incited by provocative Facebook posts. Pacifists can play a constructive role here towards harmony.

mamata1_071117040441.jpgIt is imperative that the TMC government in West Bengal takes all on board to ensure that there are no recurrences of riots. Photo: Reuters

It's to be remembered that forces hostile to India, especially the Pakistani ISI, are always on the lookout to capitalise on vulnerable areas. If West Bengal doesn't contain the trend, then it will be a cakewalk to the enemy trap. Special hawkish eyes need to be fixed on bordering districts.

Malda had come in focus not very long ago for being “host” to the syndicate of Fake Indian Foreign Currency (FICN) as a major hub. And it's the ISI which is thought to be behind such subversive activities.

It appears imperative, therefore, that the TMC government in West Bengal takes all on board to ensure that there are no recurrences of riots. There is huge presence of the BSF in bordering areas and the BSF has its own dedicated intelligence wing. The state should take them into confidence to address concerns.

Newspaper reports indicated that state government refused to accept central forces. If true, then it's preposterous. It's a fight to defeat communal forces and it's believed to be operating from across the border sponsored from our western frontiers.

This calls for more vigilance amid some media reports that Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) is responsible for sharing morphed pictures on social media, resulting in communal violence of such ferocity  in Basirhat.

CM Bannerji may be popular in her constituency for her integrity and popular schemes. A state like West Bengal with a rich cultural and intellectual past needs effective governance too, which is glaringly missing. And that too on priority.

The bhadralok lot in West Bengal seems to have gone on long leave and that's lamentable. People, not very long ago, did not use the words like Hindu or Muslim. They whispered H or M whenever any reference was made to Hindus or Muslims. 

This was a self-imposed usage. Today, they say unabashedly that so many Hindus or so many Muslims were killed or injured. This pattern looks unhealthy. Or things have come to such a pass, transcending all norms, as if communal riots have become a part of life.

Any sign of eruption of communal violence must be crushed without bias. It's a law and order problem and very much part of the governance. It's incumbent on those at the helm to use their authority and might to enforce law for maintenance of order.

Any laxity will cost dearly. We have come a long way from the days of the “Great Calcutta killing”. It's now time for West Bengal to be hard-hitting towards communal forces to keep the state peaceful and free of disturbances. There should not be any hesitation to seek help from the Army.

Also read: Basirhat riot: How Bengal is different and why it still gives hope

Writer

Shantanu Mukharji Shantanu Mukharji @shantanu2818

The author is a retired IPS officer who has held key positions in the Government of India handling sensitive security issues within and outside India.

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