West Bengal hit the headlines again before Ram Navami. Public space was flooded with media reports that West Bengal was all set to see around 2000 Shobha yatras across Bengal. While a politically motivated slugfest continued between the people of Kolkata on whether or not Ram Navami was ever a part of Bengal, the administration reportedly stayed alert for observing the festival.
A festival that painted West Bengal saffron. The same saffron that was attacked during post-poll violence in 2021. Bengal took almost 2 years since then to organise Ramnavami 2023 on such a large scale.
It was expected that the West Bengal administration would create impediments in front of concerned organisations to celebrate Ramnavami across the length and breadth of the State. However, no significant objection came from the administration. Instead, West Bengal CM, from her Dharna Mancha in esplanade, rang a loud warning bell against those who were celebrating Ramnavami.
She said, “Celebrate, but don’t go to the ‘Muslim areas’ & ‘don’t get provoked'”. This appeared enough of an indication for ‘rioters’ to provoke Rambhaktas as if she asked them to provoke Shobha yatra-goers. She duly expressed her objection about the religious festival celebrating Janamatithi of Shri Ramchandra and her words appeared signal-in-code.
Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) rally through Howrah Shibpur was planned long before, an application for police permission was sought, and the receipt of such an application by the Howrah Police Commissionerate was there in the public domain. However, the yatra was yet attacked by people belonging to a certain community. Stones were pelted, people were badly injured, and some bled profusely & had to get admitted to hospitals.
Yet, the yatra continued from the starting point to the end destination, and there was only a single available route. Had the Shobha yatra had to go, it had only a single path to the specific destination as mentioned in the letter of application for police permission. The communal conflict escalated to a level when people’s shops and houses were being rampantly attacked, police cars and hawkers’ carts were arson, and acid and bombs were hurled while police stood like ‘mute spectators’.
Watching violence break out, West Bengal police had repeatedly assumed silent, deactivated mode from long before this incident. As per reports, the police could have prevented violence by using drones etc., as people pelted stones from the rooftops of the houses on both sides of the road.
The fact-finding report mentioned that an MLA, Biman Ghosh, also suffered multiple injuries despite having CISF protection. This indicated the “intent & conduct of state police which appears to be no less than tacitly supporting illegal and communal elements….”
This is what the ACJ Calcutta High Court, too, had stated. “It is impossible to collect stones within 10-15 minutes”, said the Court, unambiguously indicating West Bengal’s administrative failure. While the yatra was attacked spontaneously and many got injured and hospitalised, people attending the Shobha yatra started retaliating against the rioters, which gave West Bengal police scope to arrest them. Howrah SP Praveen Tripathi said they arrested 38 persons, of whom 31 were Hindus, including innocents who didn’t even participate in the yatra but were returning home from the office. Innumerable Muslims who pelted stones and attacked the yatra in groups in the afternoon were not booked by the police. However, the retaliation was not taken in a good light by the West Bengal administration and the CM.
After large-scale violence in Howrah, West Bengal CM said, “you followed an unauthorised route deliberately to scare a community, to attack a community”. She added, “I have heard today they’d carried swords and bulldozers in their rally at Howrah. How dare you? Deliberately to push a community?” She meant the mere passage of Ramnavami yatra appeared scary to a specific community. In reality, it might have appeared scary to Mamata Banerjee herself, as a Hindu resurgence is the last thing she & other left parties would look for in West Bengal.
Reverberating Mamata Banerjee’s words, West Bengal’s Islamic power centre Furfura Sharif’s clergyman Twaha Siddiqui didn’t make any delay in putting blames on the participants of the Ramnavami Shobha yatra for violence in Howrah. He said, “…after Nupur Sharma’s incident in June 2022, police had been arresting Muslims rampantly. Muslims couldn’t sleep peacefully at night. Now that they (Hindus) have vandalised our properties, carts, and shops, why aren’t the police arresting them?” It was after this statement that Howrah police arrested 38 persons, including 31 Hindus.
Mamata Banerjee also threatened Hindus with a “befitting reply” post in which the Ramnavami shobha yatra was also attacked in the adjacent Hooghly district’s Rishra. She said, “after a hamla, even if you do a mamla (lodge a case), you won’t be spared. Janta ka adaalat would settle all scores”. Following such words of the West Bengal CM, violence in Rishra on April 2 was of a larger scale. Instead of stones, massive brickbats, acids, petrol bombs & other explosives had been used in plenty. Locals were bewildered as most of them saw such communal flare for the first time in Rishra.
The Governor of West Bengal rushed back to Kolkata from North Bengal & stated, “Hooligans and thugs will be crushed with an iron hand. They will be made to curse the day they were born. Democracy can’t be derailed. State is determined to put an end to this arson & looting. Lawbreakers will soon realise that they’re playing with fire.” It seemed as if the Hon’ble Governor was playing the role of the Home Secretary of the State as the state administration abstained from doing the due. Arsonists were indeed playing with fire, as visible in various media files available in the public domain.
BJP’s Amit Malviya tweeted implicating Mamata Banerjee behind all these. Malviya said after her defeat in Sagardighi by poll, Mamata Banerjee went desperate to garner Muslim votes at any cost. However, trying to defend a failed administration, West Bengal Governor added, “Reinforcement rushed to the spot, and culprits will be booked tonight itself and put behind the bars. We’re determined. This kind of hooliganism thwarts democratic processes”. But violence in Rishra didn’t stop thereafter. An incident of stone pelting happened on April 3 again at Rishra Railway Station, following which train services were suspended on the affected section for a while.
People started saying that TMC was deliberately taking refuge in violence to manipulate the Governor into imposing Article 355 to be duly followed by Article 356. As TMC is blatantly failing to cover up their all-around corruption, some said they’re looking for their Government to topple. Home Minister Amit Shah called up BJP’s State President Sukanta Majumdar on March 31 and spoke to the Governor of West Bengal, taking into account the measures taken to bring things under control.
TMC people, however, were forwarding a narrative, “Violence was pre-planned by Rambhaktas, we see no violence in Durga idol immersion procession.” The riot-preparedness of the miscreants in Howrah and Hooghly baffled people across the country. Rioters’ elaborate preparedness appeared similar to that of the Delhi Riot 2020. Demand for an NIA probe was raised thereafter by the leader of the opposition of West Bengal, Suvendu Adhikari. He filed a PIL in the Calcutta High Court appealing for CBI or NIA probe for Ramnavami violence. The High Court, too, asked for video records of the places of violence along with the State’s report thereon.
While violence happened and police remained in inaction mode, people were looking for the arrest of the accused persons. Kolkata police, however, had a track record of arresting 20 persons after the Mominpur violence that happened on October 10, 2022. Later, after taking over the same probe, NIA said all 20 were unrelated to the incident, arrested 16 other persons, and named them in their chargesheet. Kolkata police had antecedents of arresting innocents leaving the real culprits free. No wonder ex-CJI of Patna High Court L. Narasimha Reddy of the fact-finding team who came to visit post-riot Rishra and Howrah reportedly marked West Bengal administration as ‘the real culprit’. To build up people’s confidence, the Governor of West Bengal appeared on the ground after violence in Rishra and said, “…We will never allow miscreants to take law in hand; police will come down heavily on them. Bengal has been suffering for long time, we’ll put a final end to it.”
MHA GOI, on April 4, sought a report from the State’s Chief Secretary, Harikrishna Dwivedi, on communal violence in West Bengal during Ramnavami. The ‘mute spectator’ mode of the state police was first noted during the post-poll Bengal violence 2021 under Harikrishna Dwivedi as ACS Home. In the meantime, TMC supporters and leaders were busy narrating that one person called Sumit Shaw was found brandishing a pistol in the Ramnavami procession of Howrah, and the police had arrested him.
SP Howrah Praveen Tripathi spoke to the media to State that “…with the help of CCTV footage, we arrested a 19-year-old youth Sumit Shaw who was seen carrying the firearm….” While an uncountable number of rioters hit the streets and recklessly attacked the shobhayatras, police arrested only Sumit Shaw who, according to his mother, habitually goes to different rallies wherever he is paid. His mother added that Sumit Shaw kept in touch with the local TMC MLA Gautam Chowdhury of Howrah Uttar.
Howrah police’ arrest list was accessed by a news channel, which revealed 31 out of 38 total arrests were Hindus leaving hardly any scope not to suspect pro-Muslim bias of the police. No one, however, was surprised by the bias of the state police. Howrah police even arrested one Silpi Kanta Das, who never participated in the Shobha yatra but was returning home from his office in uniform. Silpi Kanta produced several irrefutable evidences showing his presence in his office the whole day. Yet, even SP Howrah refused to consider them & didn’t release Silpi Kanta. Later, a social worker organisation wrote to the President of India for his release.
2000 applications had been submitted to the State Police for permission of Hanuman Janmotsav sobhayatras, too, indicating another spell of a saffron surge in the city of Kolkata, which perhaps disturbed the CM again. As a result, on April 4, Mamata Banerjee addressed a public meeting in Purba Medinipur, saying, “what say my minority mothers, brothers and sisters, by praying to Allah, can’t you decimate (khatam korte) the rioters?” The fact-finding team that came on April 8 & was resisted by the state police strongly marked Mamata Banerjee’s acts of inciting violence “by calling upon the members of a particular community to take law and order in their own hands in order to counteract the ‘dangabaaz'”.
Keeping in view such statements of the CM & the performances of the state police in Ramnavami, the Calcutta High Court, on April 5, ordered the mandatory deployment of CRPF on the day of the Hanuman Janmotsav celebration on April 6. As a result, there were no law and order problems on Hanuman Janmotsav, proving further that riots were caused indirectly yet predominantly by the state administration. West Bengal Governor, on April 6, travelled across Kolkata and made sure that nothing went wrong. Ex-IAS CV Ananda Bose carried out the legitimate function of Chief Secretary Harikrishna Dwivedi IAS. It appeared to be an indirect message to West Bengal’s high-ranking administrative officials.
A fact-finding team consisting of civil society members headed by ex-CJI, Patna High Court Justice L Narasimha Reddy (Retd.), ex-IPS, Haryana Cadre Shri Rajpal Singh, Advocate and Former Member of National Commission for Women Dr Charu Wali Khanna, Advocate & Former Joint Registrar Law, NHRC Shri O P Vyas, Senior Journalist Shri Sanjeev Nayak and Advocate and Former Consultant NCPCR Mrs Bhaavna Bajaj came to visit riot-affected areas in Rishra on April 8 and those in Howrah on April 9 to meet victims at their homes and hospitals to assess and redress the incidents of human rights violations during the communal riots.
CM Mamata Banerjee also threatened Hindus with a “befitting reply” post in which the Ramnavami shobha yatra was also attacked in the adjacent Hooghly district’s Rishra. She said, “after a hamla, even if you do a mamla (lodge a case), you won’t be spared. Janta ka adaalat would settle all scores”
The visit of such a team met sarcastic taunts from not only Mamata Banerjee but also West Bengal media. While the CM said, “are they heroes or zeroes” (kanchalanka naki lobodonka), Bengal media took a dig that MHA GOI was not happy with the report given by the Bengal Governor, hence, sent another committee for fact-finding. Legislature, Executives, Media— none of these 3 components of democracy was happy with the fact team’s visit.
The fact team opined that the riots on the day of Ramnavami and its aftermath were “pre-planned, orchestrated and instigated”. They marked the incendiary speech of the West Bengal Chief Minister as ‘the trigger’. The fact-finding committee stated in their report that “the rioters were exhorted to stop and target the procession”. They also refuted the claim of Mamata Banerjee that the procession had taken an “unauthorised route”.
By speaking to riot victims and participants, they came to know that the route was not changed & was intimated to the police well in advance & was also approved by the police. “In fact, due to prior apprehension in Howrah and violence on a particular stretch in previous years, the organisers of the procession had also sought special police security in a 100-meter stretch in a highly sensitive area because of the past history of communal violence. The state police failed to provide such security in advance and also failed to secure the life and property of procession takers knowing fully well the sensitive nature of the area,” stated the report.
Hence, they inferred the State’s utter failure & the state police’ “functioning in a partisan manner” “apparently under political compulsion” to be the prime cause of the suffering of the procession-goers as they faced heavy stone-pelting. The report also mentioned that the Chief Minister continued to comment in “a prejudicial and biased manner” as she directly blamed Hindus for violence in Howrah on Ramnavami openly certifying a community as “…they cannot do any wrong during the time of Ramzan, thereby blaming the Hindus for the entire chain of violence…” “Chief Minister in the view of this committee was a continuous trigger for violence and riots,” the report reads.
The report also mentioned that an MLA, Biman Ghosh, also suffered multiple injuries despite having CISF protection. This indicated the “intent & conduct of state police which appears to be no less than tacitly supporting illegal and communal elements….”
“The common people appear to be under continuous threat from the state machinery and its sponsored miscreants…” as “…the victims did not register a complaint against the state-sponsored miscreants due to constant threat of security to them and their family.” Police slapped false cases on the victims themselves. “… Police has been trying to hide their inaction under the garb of Section 144 of the CrPC & sub-judice subject matter before the Hon’ble High Court.”
The committee’s report implicates state police as the real perpetrators of large-scale communal violence. The committee mentioned that the role of Amit P Javalgir, IPS, CP Chandannagar & Praveen Tripathi, IPS, and SP Howrah was lacking in the control of violence and riot. Not allowing the committee to visit riot-affected Rishra showed the complicity of these senior police personnel in appeasing communal elements creating violence of unprecedented scale. The committee report elaborately described how state police thoroughly tracked the vehicles of the committee members and planned precisely to stop them at various points. IPSs were in action to stop the fact-finding team.
The state police did not register FIR in the case of Vijay Mali, whom the committee members met at SSKM Hospital, where he was admitted with grievous injuries. Denial of permission to the committee was described as a “denial of fundamental rights envisaged under the Constitution of India” for not only the committee members but also the violence-hit people who could have shared their pain with the fact-finding committee.
The rioters and their backers appear to have acted with the active support of the state Government machinery. The extent of the damage could not have been so much widespread and could not have been on such a big scale without the support of the State Government
On April 9, 2023, the committee proceeded towards Howrah and was stopped again. “The IPS officers acted in complete disregard of the law, as no prohibitory orders under Section 144 CrPC promulgated at that present location and normal movement of persons and traffic continued.” Writes the report. The report added that “The Committee proposed to proceed to the Police Commissionerate, however the Police Commissioner, Howrah denied to either meet, or establish any contact even after continued efforts of the committee. The committee further proposed that the state police may accompany the committee while proceeding towards Howrah, and even volunteered to move in state police vehicles to assuage any concern by them. However, the officers were prejudiced to not co-operate in any manner…”.
The following 8 points are mentioned almost verbatim in the report of the fact-finding committee:
1. Since the committee was stopped from entering the areas of violence, an open offer was made to the victims that they were free to meet the committee at their convenience. 24 victims of the communal riots volunteered to meet the committee in a private and cordial interaction. The fear of violence and retribution was apparent as they feared retribution in case their identities became public through media or other sources. The victims indicated that most of them were either part of a peaceful Shobha Yatra in the Shibpur locality in Howrah on the occasion of Ram Navami or had volunteered to provide them with water and refreshments along the route on the side of the streets, and they were unarmed and peace-loving citizens. They stated that such Shobha Yatra had been organised regularly on Ram Navami for many years.
They further stated that heavy stones were piled up on the rooftop of the buildings, and at the moment the procession was passing through, heavy stones were pelted, which they suspected had been pre-planned and hideouts arranged from buildings from the opposite side, and police failed to act in any manner. Thereafter, when residents moved towards their gated societies, the threat persisted, and violence was being continued causing injury to peaceful residents, including women and children.
2. It was informed separately that the state police lathi-charged and tear-gassed residents inside their gated societies while not acting at all against street rioters. Some victims complained that the state police played a concerted role and submitted that in another incident, the police outside their buildings could be seen dispersing and immediately thereafter, in a few minutes, a violent mob running and entering the gated areas to cause damage.
3. Police did not respond to victims’ frantic calls for protection or take any action to control the communal mob, despite being only a few hundred metres from the scene of violence.
4. During interaction with the victims, it was apparent that fear of persecution and implication in false cases was rife amongst all. Almost all victims requested that their identities be kept confidential. However, they still described the scenario during the troubled times, including that the state police were complicit in the violent acts that continued for a prolonged period, and they deliberately backtracked at instances that contemporaneously led to mob attacks within a span of few minutes in the same spots where the police scattered away from.
5. The rioters and their backers appear to have acted with the active support of the state Government machinery. The extent of the damage could not have been so much widespread and could not have been on such a big scale without the support of the state government. The above evidence point to the role of the state police which seems to have allowed the unlawful elements to take law and order into their hands.
6. The state police were aware that the procession was being taken out in the areas where similar riots had happened last year. Still, adequate arrangements and sufficient police arrangements and protection were not taken. This is more evident from the fact that after central forces were deployed, no violence took place on the occasion of the Hanuman Jayanti on April 6 2023.
7. The actions of the state police seem to have been motivated and guided by the political advantage that could come by due to the appeasement of a particular community, albeit at the command of their political masters.
8. To meet the ends of justice, keeping in view the totality of facts, circumstances and evidence abovementioned, the committee seeks appropriate police action by filing FIRs against the culprits behind the riots to achieve the ends of justice for the victims. The committee also seeks that the investigation of the riots be handed over to the National Investigation Authority (NIA) to ensure that the investigations are being carried out in a fair, impartial and independent manner; protection be provided to persecuted and fearful victims so that their life can return to normalcy, including withdrawal of false cases against innocent persons, and deployment of Central Forces may be extended as a confidence-building measure for the victims who have lost faith in the state police.
NIA probe seemed required as the report mentioned in an earlier section that “the Chief Minister may prejudice any probe by labelling particular communities as rioters. Added to this her earlier statements when she had called peaceful procession provocative and the fact that police has shown complete inaction in investigation and ensuring safety, the Hon’ble Chief Minister appears to be influencing the course of investigation.”
The question that prevails yet is whether West Bengal Chief Minister would be charged for hate speech by the High Court? Would she be made answerable for violation of human rights along with a pack of fundamental rights of common citizens as envisaged in the Constitution of India?