How Politics Robbed Barrackpore of Its 'Alag Mazhab, Ek Biradri' Legacy
The Chasma Baba’r Mazar used to be a symbol of syncretism. All that changed in the Muharram versus Durga Puja violence of 2016.
The Chasma Baba’r Mazar at Hajinagar.
Barrackpore (WB): At 4pm, Subrata Bagchi’s car was stuck in an open drain in the narrow lane opposite the Chasma Baba’r Mazar at Hajinagar. Syed Anwar, a 65-year-old flower seller, got up and helped Baghchi guide the car out.
“Turn the wheel slightly to the right and reverse,” he said. The car now free, Bagchi thanked Anwar before quickly bowing his head before the Mazar and drove off.
“Ye sabka hai. Yahan sabka bhala hota hai,” said Anwar, summarising the importance of the sacred site, till recently a symbol of syncretism.
Yosuf Kamal, popularly known as Chasma Baba, was a pir believed to have supernatural powers and the Dargah is open to both Hindus and Muslims. It was also the epicentre of a series of communal incidents at Hajinagar and Halisahar in the Barrackpore Lok Sabha seat, culminating in violence and arson in October 2016 that left at least 24 homes gutted and nearly 20 injured.
The CPI(M) often cites the three decades of Left Front rule as evidence that Hindutva is antithetical to Bengal, that under its rule ideology had trumped identity. But the fact remains that Bengal — which, unlike the rest of India, was partitioned twice between 1905 and 1947 — has witnessed both conflict and cohabitation between Hindus and Muslims.
The Mazar, built by a Hindu businessman from Gujarat, ensured peace by operating on the basis of unwritten traditions and agreements. But with a rapidly declining Left and with both BJP and TMC banking on the politics of identity, it was a matter of time before these were broken.
The agreement: that only Hindu family rituals would be allowed on the road outside the Dargah and the sacrifice of cows or sale of beef was prohibited in the area. On June 2016, this was broken, alleged the police, when a family took out a Gayatri procession through the streets.
“Muslims gathered in large numbers to protest, and a curfew was enforced to ensure that the situation didn’t worsen,” said a senior police officer, adding that a Ram Navami rally was also conducted. In response, the Muslim community conducted Muharram rallies, which also turned aggressive.
“The rallies by both communities got more and more aggressive; they were meant to project strength,” said Anwar, whose shop was gutted during the violence in 2016. “There were sword fights at Muharram rallies, there were Bengalis chanting ‘Jai Shri Ram’ and flashing weapons. Political leaders were present…it was all calculated,” he said.
Processions and Polarisation
On May 5, Mamata Banerjee attacked Prime Minister Narendra Modi at a rally in Dantan. “He only comes to Bengal and spreads falsehoods. He claims Durga Puja is not celebrated in the state. This is an absolute lie,” she said, referring to Modi’s claims at a Midnapore rally last year that Bengal’s Durga Puja was in danger due to Mamata Banerjee’s alleged Muslim appeasement.
Hajinagar, a traditionally Muslim-dominated area, has isolated Hindu-majority pockets, where organisations like the VHP, Bajrang Dal and Durga Bahini have been active since 2013.
An ethnographic account published this year by Suman Nath and Shubhoprotim Roy Chowdhury in the International Journal of Conflict and Violence found that “religious sentiments (were) fuelled since 2013, when Bajrang Dal organised a large-scale Ram Navami procession” and sword-fighting classes that it argued were “needed to protect Hindus from possible Muslim attacks”.
This binary of competing processions, of Hindu festivals versus Muslim festivals, of Muharram versus Durga Puja first entered political conversations in 2016, after the Banerjee government made it mandatory to immerse idols on the day of Vijay Dashami itself. In doing so, the government went against convention, but argued that this was to prevent any “untoward incident” since the period coincided with Muharram. The BJP protested and accused her of Muslim appeasement.
In Laxmiganj Market at Naihati, Bipin Rawat, a trader, said, “Overnight, she had become ‘Mumtaz Begum’ for us… We have all seen images of her in the hijab,” he said, referring to photographs of Banerjee offering Namaz while donning a hijab, including in a 2010 Railway Ministry ad while she was minister.
A symbol of secularism for her supporters, Rawat said, “It scares us. It is hard for us to live here now. They (Muslims) get everything, we suffer.”
Barrackpore has a way of finding itself embroiled in key historical moments. It was here that the first military cantonment in India was built by the British and the ‘first war of independence’ kicked off by Mangal Pandey.
‘Rashtraguru’ Surendranath Banerjee, a pioneer in Indian political empowerment, lived and died here. And on the day he died, Mahatma Gandhi wrote in his writing exercise book, “Bhairab’s home is in Naihati.”
Once the “chief seat of commerce in India”, the booming jute trade attracted workers from across India, especially Bihar and eastern Uttar Pradesh. But with the decline of the jute industry and weakening of worker unions, many turned to crime and, today with Barrackpore’s dream deferred, communal tension festers. “It didn’t happen in a day, it didn’t happen without intention. It was manufactured,” admitted Imran Ali, who works at a jute mill.
With tensions, violence broke out after someone, purportedly from the immersion procession on Vijay Dashami, threw a stone at a Mazar, said the police. “This triggered the next Muharram rally to be larger, with people being heavily armed. A bomb blast followed, with a few goons targeting Hindu houses and shops. In Hindu-majority areas, Muslim homes and shops were targeted,” said a police source.
Politics and the Poll
Arjun Singh, a former Trinamool Congress MLA and the son of a Congress leader from the area, was among the first to call for peace during the violence. Singh joined the BJP recently and is squaring up against TMC’s incumbent lawmaker, Dinesh Trivedi. The voting on Monday was marred by violence, with Singh alleging an attack by TMC workers.
But as per one TMC MP, the fate of the election in the seat would have a ripple effect across south Bengal. “The Naihati violence isn’t just one incident. It is a model that the BJP perfected in the seat. Arjun Singh has a strong hold on Hindu non-Bengali population there and he figured it’s in his best interests to switch over to the BJP in this time of polarisation.”
The 56-year-old son of three-time Congress MLA Satyanarayan Singh started out as a contractor, supplying labour from the Hindi heartland to factories and mills. As businesses waned here, he switched to other businesses, with the opposition accusing him of having a finger in the lucrative smuggling pie in the river-town.
Singh, TMC insiders point out, was key to Dinesh Trivedi’s victory here in 2009. In 2014, when the TMC didn’t fare well in the Bhatpara area, he was accused of sabotage.
The bid to defeat Singh, a close aide of Dinesh Trivedi told News18, was a matter of prestige and a prerequisite for Mamata Banerjee. “She has to send a message to the party that leaving her fold will not benefit anyone. Singh has to be made an example,” said the leader, adding that his exit had triggered a series of defections which bode badly for the TMC with municipality and assembly polls coming up.
But What About Barrackpore?
“Alag mazhab, ek biradri,” Mohammad Saad Ansari, a businessman in his 60s in Hajinagar had told this reporter after the violence in 2016. He had explained that the area had a “rivaaz”, an awareness of the communal tensions that political parties often attempted to exploit. That it was a “matter of izzat” that no one has been hurt during religious celebrations. Last month, he refused to comment about the elections and said, “Things have changed irrevocably.”
(The story is part of News18’s special series on the rise of identity politics in post-Left Bengal)
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