Why Asansol is still on edge: Hindus terrified to return home, Muslims scared to step out

Standing alone outside his home in the Railway Colony at Chandmari, Akhilanand Singh points towards his neighbour’s house, which has been broken into and looted. His own son, he says, is in police custody. And, he doesn’t know what to do.

Singh, a Railway guard with two years left to retire, is just one face among the hundreds struggling to pick up the pieces in Asansol, where two people died and hundreds fled their homes after the violence that followed the Ram Navami celebrations.

Here, the pain cut across the religious divide. Those who left, mainly Hindus, were too scared to return. Those who stayed back, mostly Muslims, were too scared to step out.

“I dialled 100 and any number I could find to call police. No one answered. Then I called my friend who came with some Hindu youths to our help. On Sunday afternoon, I took my wife, son, daughter-in-law and grandchild to my friend’s house in Burnpur about 6 km away. Today, I returned with my son to check on my home, and police arrested him,” said Singh, his house standing amidst ransacked houses and a burnt vehicle.

A 10-minute drive away, 50-year-old Sumitra Devi and her family say they have “lost everything”, from money to jewellery to important documents such as ration cards, after their home in Ram Krishna Dangalpara was set on fire by a mob.

Another 15 minutes down the road, 16-year-old Nadim Reza stands near Noorani mosque with a blank look on his face. He is convinced that he will lose a year in school after failing to turn up for the ongoing higher secondary examinations — at least 200 youths from the area failed to appear for the exams. “I am too scared to even step out of this neighbourhood,” said Reza.

On Friday, with police conducting patrols, no further incidents of violence were reported from Asansol, which has a large Hindi-speaking population of mostly migrants from Bihar and UP who have settled here for generations. According to the 2011 Census, this town in West Burdwan district has a population of 5,63,917, with 75.18% Hindus and 21.26% Muslims.

“The situation is under control. We are using loudspeakers to spread awareness against rumours. In sensitive areas, there is a heavy deployment of police personnel. Over 60 people have been arrested,” said L N Meena, Police Commissioner.

At the heart of this town, some shops opened shutters but the areas most affected by the violence — Rail Par, OK Road, Chandmari, Ram Krishna Dangalpara, Shreenagar — wore a deserted look.

“The day after the Ram Navami rally, at around 10 am, some youths with their faces covered barged into our neighbourhood with lathis and rods. I locked my house from inside but could hear gunshots outside. I covered the mouth of my one-year-old grandchild, so he would not cry out and give away our location. They broke open the doors of my neighbours and looted everything. They set fire to some shops, too,” said Singh, who hails from Bhojpur in Bihar.

Another resident, Joy Debnath, was out on his motorbike, returning to “safety” after providing food to his 70-year-old grandmother. “My brother, mother and father are all at Burnpur, at my aunt’s place. But my grandmother is sick, and can’t sit on my motorbike. So everyday, I sneak back home and give her food. I don’t know how long I can continue,” said Debnath who owns a cellphone recharge shop in Chandmari market.

At Noorani mosque in Chetladanga Nadi Par, Imam Imdadulla Rashidi, who lost his 16-year-old son in the clashes, warned followers against falling for rumours. On Thursday, the Imam had warmed hearts across the country by warning that he would leave the mosque if there was any attempt to “avenge” his son.

But the anger was palpable. “The MP (BJP’s Union Minister Babul Supriyo) comes to see only a particular community. He makes inflammatory statements against us, which is shown live on TV channels. Is he not our MP? We cannot leave our houses,” said Mohammed Imran, a local resident.

“Police just stood there for a while and then vanished as we were attacked. Our house was completely burnt down. We lost everything from beds to our TV and our Scooty. I lost whatever little jewellery I had. Our ration cards, birth certificates, all have been reduced to ashes. What did we do to anyone?” said Pinky Devi, daughter-in-law of Sumitra Devi, in Ram Krishna Dangalpara.

“One of my daughters-in-law is pregnant. On that day, while fleeing, she fell down,” said Sumitra Devi, the wife of a furniture maker. The political fallout, meanwhile, continued to play out in a war of words.

“The BJP is trying to fuel tension by bringing in leaders and MPs from outside. Everything is getting back to normal slowly. But it will take some time,” said Jitendra Tiwari, the Mayor of Asansol and Trinamool Congress leader.

On Friday morning, refugee camps set up by the BJP were abandoned as some tried to return home and others left to take shelter with friends and relatives elsewhere, some in Jharkhand. “A majority is scared and has left Asansol. We are trying our best to help them. Since police are conducting raids on us and our followers are being arrested, many prefer to hide. There is no help from the administration,” claimed Laksman Gorui, BJP state president.

In Delhi, the BJP formed a four-member team to visit Asansol, look into the circumstances that led to the violence and submit their report to party president Amit Shah. The team comprises national vice-president Om Mathur, national spokesperson Shahnawaz Hussain, and MPs Rupa Ganguly and B D Ram.

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