Communalism in the time of Covid-19

Subha Protim Roy Chowdhury

'The Gods are under trial last night
Their homes in my city were torched yesterday'

- Gulzar, Raat Pashmine Ki, page-17

For the first time in human history, a pandemic terrorizes global populace and introduces some brand new features. A failed capitalism is now confronting with a cruel virus. Unprecedented global experiment and experience on lockdown and social distancing had already showed us how it has widened inequality and exacerbated communal tension. We won't have a full picture of their impact until this pandemic is over.

Yes, this pandemic is giving us death and death threat and we see how it had widened inequality. We are now observing death tally, comparison among different states became our daily feature and also our cause of depression. But it is another fact that after disobeying required precautionary medical steps, allowing international flights in an 'adventurous' mood, now our government is showing it's 'down to people' policy by imposing lockdown. State kept us under custody. Presence of state with relief, ambulance, health service is less visible but more visible with mike, media, baton and arms. Despite all such obstacles faced by common people no such agitation is noticed. But the social impact of lockdown is visible everywhere. From sex workers of Sonagachi to migrant labourers of Swarupnagar, from contractual Beedi workers of Dhuliyan to Jute Mill daily labourers on both sides of Hooghly river; Pandemic-State nexus trigger social unrest, inequality and communalism.

Historian Peter Turchin wrote in a blog recently, 'now it looks like our age of discord got its own Pandemic'. Yes this new age Pandemic already delivered us newly edited version of communalism; communal hatred in soft and hard variation became a common feature in media (corporate big media and social media) and mind. If you are in danger and fail to overcome it, the easy way to cover your failure is, 'search a person (or community or a country), defame him and show him as a culprit for your failure. From Nizamuddin to Bhatpara, Chandannagore, ‘witch-hunting' is continuing.

Bhatpara update
Bhatpara, North 24 Paraganas, the recent hub of communal violence and battlefield for political tournament once again get into ambience of hatred and hype. Here communal forces are plotting to commit another violence.

AAMRA EK SACHETAN PRAYAS FORUM as a part of its decade old research on Conflict and Co-existence, conducted an inclusive field-study in Bhatpara and its adjoining localities since 2018. Detailed fact-finding report on Bhatpara (with update) will be placed in its publishable comprehensive report, -'Post-Ramnavami Violence: West Bengal'.

This lockdown phase triggered inequality to ill-fated Jute Mill labourers, among them a large number are badly affected by riot in last year. Riot took life of their own person, displaced them from labour colony. Lockdown stopped their daily wages; they are now struggling with starvation.

With the support of Bhatpara Nagorik Adikar Rokkha Samiti, we surveyed in the riot-torn colonies.

People in lower socio-economic group got havoc pressure by loss of income, major portion of them are daily wage labour of Kakinara Jute Mill. Our team reached three labour colonies, Darba line, 4 number line and 6 number line. Under ward number 8 of Bhatpara Municipality 387 household are badly affected by communal violence in 2018-2019. Among them majority household had lost their ration cards and also other cards like Voter card, Aadhar etc. when rioter looted and burnt their houses, furnitures. We are informed that 587 families had no ration cards, among them riot victims are major portion. They applied for new cards at Bhatpara Ration Office, but they are told that due to shortage of computer operator their applications are not processed yet. Announcement of West Bengal Government on food coupon (food for those who have no ration card) seems to be a ray of hope for them. But 'understandably' here food coupons were distributed from TMC party office. So, riot victims are still waiting here with empty dish.

Typicality of Bhatpara is that, here religious and political identity merge with each other. Both ruling parties of center and state divide people in accordance with their religious identity to gain electorally. Manufacturing riot, constructing hate campaign and other blueprints are planfully designed from different pro-Nagpur groups. In this part Arjun Sing of BJP became flag bearer of Bhagwa since his victory against Madan Mitra of TMC.

After first phase of lockdown, floodgate of posts and shared news/ articles was opened in different Facebook and WhatsApp groups. Social media group controlled by local BJP supporters even spread fake news that some Muslims of Bhatpara-Kakinara returned after attending Tablighi Jamaat Markaz in Nizamuddin, Delhi and spreading Corona virus. Arjun Sing in a video massage directly attacked Muslims for not obeying lockdown. He also predicts that to give passage to Muslims, Chief Minister will withdraw lockdown in Ramzan time. In a communal tone, he addresses Chief Minister as 'apa' not 'didi'. By using newly opted 'social distancing' policy the old RSS guideline is rejuvenated here in Bhatpara.

For today's net fed generation abusive and misinformative messages, posts became an important culture of mediatised politics (and political religion) in this digital time. These not only propagate political and communal hatred but also shape many satanic conspiracies in accordance with their will. From 'Don't believe Muslims', 'Muslim cannot be your friend', 'Don't give them any shelter' to present version 'Prohibit their entry in your neighborhood, they are bearer of virus' like propaganda- yes, is happening in this part of India.

Democratic rights group in Bhatpara raised the issue and urged local administration to take lawful step against those who spread tension in public life by using social media. They also demand for appropriate step to stop hatred against any particular religious community. On 10 April, 2020 AAMRA sent a letter to the Chief Minister of West Bengal urging economic and hygienic support for Jute Mill daily labourers and Riot victims.

In the opposite river Bank of the river Hooghly, communalism also had its route in Jute Mill colonies. Telinipara-Gondolpara area is infamous for communal violence. In its published fact-finding report, 'Communal violence, 2016: West Bengal' AAMRA depicted Post-Ramnavami violence in Chandannagore. Here in this lockdown phase Hindutva forces started propaganda as a part of their national network, but with local tone by mentioning same Nizamuddin and local participants story.

Ward number 12 and 13 of Telinipara under Bhadreswar Municipality and 26 number ward of Gondolpara under Chandannagore Municipal Corporation became epicenter of tension. On 19 April, 2020 Gondolpara Jute Mill area wake up with a spark of riot like situation. At about 3.30 am someone broke the lock of Malapara Mosque, destroyed furnitures and distorted Quran. Local people caught that person, beat him and handed over to Police. On 20 April Rapid Action Force was deployed.

Rajesh Jaiswal, councillor of ward number 25 (adjoining with Gondolpara), also a resident of Gondolpara, elected as a candidate of Forward Block opined- 'You know that Chandannagore Corporation was dissolved. TMC hegemony destroys all democratic spaces here. Political scenario of Chinsurah, Chandannagore, Bhadreswar was changed drastically before Parliamentary election, 2019. Propaganda, polarization and violence was adopted as strategy by BJP leadership as they targeted Chinsurah Parliamentary seat.

Gondolpara Jute Mill was closed since 2018. Political parties used unemployed Jute Mill workers and youths of their family for vote politics. Incident of 19 April was a part of Communal politics. A blueprint was designed to tear social fabrics. It was reported that arrestee of the incident is a mentally challenged person. But I think he was used by others.
In fact, Chandannagore Police station gave no reply to the queries on that incident, didn't disclose the identity of accused person. Right activist, Abhishek and his associates gave their maximum effort to provide relief to the families of lockout factories in this lockdown phase. Local administration provides nothing for them. Abhishek comments, -'religious card is playing here, where rice should be the first priority'.

People in both sides, whether directly affected or not fled in the wake of violence, continue to live in slum like conditions without basic services. When we talked with affected populace at Bhatpara, we viewed permanent divisions between Hindus and Muslims, once who lived together peacefully. And now when post-Covid-19 situation requires more economic and hygienic support from administration and political parties, they got hatred only.

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May 1, 2020

Subha Protim Roy Chowdhury

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