Raniganj: Police personnel patrol after a clashes and incidents of arson over Ram Navami procession at Raniganj in Burdwan district on Monday Image Credit: PTI

Dubai The West Bengal government on Wednesday advised Governor K. N. Tripathi not to visit injured a Deputy Commissioner of Police, who was injured in a bomb attack during violence at a Ram Navami procession in Raniganj. The police officer, Arindam Dutta Chowdhury,  lost a hand in the bomb attack.

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Over the past week cultural celebrations for Ram Navami have turned bloody in Bengal. Allegedly politically motivated, we look at what’s been happening in the state and how communalism that was never part of the ethos in Bengal suddenly is.

What’s happening?

The ruling Trinamool Congress (TMC ) and its political rival the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) had organised several processions to celebrate Ram Navami in the state, with the saffron party dubbing the rallies as a first step towards "uniting the Hindus" of Bengal. Things turned bad when these people in these ‘celebratory rallies’ got armed.

On Monday, a Ram Navami procession allegedly armed with swords and tridents, tried to enter a police station in the Kandi area of Murshidabad district. At least 10 people were injured when the members of the Ram Navami Utsav Committee came to blows with police personnel in the area, a senior police officer said.

The committee, also comprising BJP and VHP activists, had organised the rally from the Kandi bus stand to the Radhaballav temple around 11.30 am. "A clash ensued between the two sides as a few participants of the rally hurled stones at the police station and the vehicles parked outside. The police had to baton-charge the agitators," he said, adding that no one was arrested so far.

One person was also killed and five police personnel were injured on Sunday in a clash between two groups in Purulia as sword-wielding BJP supporters defied the state government's ban on armed rallies on Ram Navami.

In the Raniganj area of Burdwanh, two police officers were seriously injured when two groups attacked each other during a rally. One of the Ram Navami processions allegedly tried to enter an area where members of the minority community lived in large numbers, a senior police officer said. The members of the two communities got into a fight even as the police tried to intervene. A temple in the vicinity was also attacked during the clashes, he said.

"Asansol-Durgapur Deputy Commissioner of Police Arindam Dutta Chowdhury was injured in the incident. He lost a hand when the agitators hurled a bomb at him. He has been admitted to a private hospital," the officer said.

Officer in-charge (OC) Pramit Ganguly also received head injuries in the violence, he said.

Union minister and Asansol MP (BJP) Babul Supriyo, who was supposed to participate in one the rallies in Raniganj but backed out at the last moment, alleged that it was a "premeditated attack, meant to hurt me". State Labour Minister Moloy Ghatak, who rushed to Raniganj last evening, said Mahesh Mandal, a man in his mid-50s was hacked to death during the clashes. He, however, assured the local people that the situation had been largely brought under control by the police.

“We didn’t know!”

State BJP president Dilip Ghosh said it was an age-old Hindu tradition to conduct "astra puja" (worship of weapons) on the day of Ram Navami and that he was not aware of any ban on armed rallies.

"Where is the government order banning arms in Ram Navami processions? Where is the circular?" he asked.

A case was also registered against BJP West Bengal Mahila Morcha president Locket Chatterjee for allegedly participating in an armed Ram Navami procession in Birbhum district, Superintendent of Police (SP) N Sudheer Kumar said.

Police said the video footage of state BJP president Dilip Ghosh purportedly carrying arms while participating in a Ram Navami rally is also being verified. A senior police officer said they were verifying the video footage of the procession, adding that cases would be registered under unbailable sections against Ghosh if the contents of the reports were found to be true.

Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee said she had directed the director general of police (DGP) to instruct all the SPs to take strong action and not to spare anyone.

"The law will take its own course. I will not tolerate this," she said at a public meeting at Pailan, near Kolkata. If the police failed to take action, steps would be taken against them, Banerjee said.

She also called those, who allegedly carried swords and other weapons in Ram Navami processions, "hooligans".

What is Ram Navami?

Ram Navami or Rama Navami celebrates the birth of the Hindu god Ram. Ram is considered the seventh avatar or reincarnation of Vishnu, and the festival is largely celebrated in the northern parts of the country with major roots in Uttar Pradesh. Ayodhya, long believed to be the birthplace of Ram, is in Uttar Pradesh. The festival is also celebrated in states such as Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka.

Ram Navami was celebrated on March 25 this year, dates vary year to year.

Ram Navami in Bengal?

The suspicion of political manipulation in the Ram Navami celebrations in Bengal is the fact that Ram Navami is not a celebration native to the Bengali culture.

Durga, the Hindu goddess, is the most popularly worshipped deity along with Saraswati (the goddess of knowledge) and Lakshmi (the goddess of wealth). In short, Bengal has been known to celebrate female-centred powers. Festivals are celebrated by Bengalis from various religious and cultural backgrounds. Ram Navami is celebrated by some.

Bengal has been known for the importance of the deep-rooted respect and love for the female power even in its socio-economic system. The state is also well known for its secularity, cultural richness and the importance given to education.

“Uniting Hindus in Bengal”

This was the slogan of the arm-wielding Ram Navami rally members in Bengal – uniting Hindus in Bengal. What is unclear now is when or why this unification was deemed necessary.

A majority of the population in West Bengal are Hindus (almost 70 per cent), but they vary from other Hindus in northern and central India largely because of ideologies, deities and most importantly, language.

Bengali Hindus have their own cultural identity and ideologies that are focused on Durga and the female centre of power – Shakthi. They’re different from the largely Hindi-speaking Hindus of the north in that they don’t heavily worship or celebrate male deities.

The BJP is pushing for ‘Hindutva’ or the ideology that aims to push the ‘true’ Hindu way of life forward. The attempted sift to Hindutva is led by the Narendra Modi-led BJP party which is in power in India.

The insertion of large scale Ram Navami rallies carrying weapons are being seen as ways used by Hindutva-touting parties to change what Bengal stands for. 

- Inputs from agencies

Bengalis react

- As told to Anupa Kurian-Murshed, Social Media Editor

Ishita Saha, 44

Dubai-based culinary blogger – Ishita Unblogged

“Everybody knows me as a proud Bengali. And that Bengaliness in me has been nurtured by the amazing environment I grew up in Bengal, not only in Kolkata but outside Kolkata … as in Asansol, where I had my first schooling… and many other places.

I had friends from different walks of life and religions, and as much as I loved the five days of Durga Pujo, I would also look forward to the five days of Christmas, wherein I would wait for the midnight mass in St Paul’s cathedral and also savour the special haleem made during Ramadan. I had Chinese friends from Chinatown in Tangra, and we would celebrate the Chinese New Year. So, that for me has been the essence of Bengal, and it pains me, any type of intolerance or disturbances that affects the sensibilities in Bengal… pains me.

That is what I write in my blog and many people from around the world come to it looking for Bengali recipes... not necessarily Muslim recipes or Hindu recipes. So, I think that has been the essence of Bengal.

Historically speaking Bengal has always been a melting pot for different cultures, religions and that’s what makes me feel so proud, even the words and works of different personalities from Bengal reflect that, starting from Tagore to Satyajit Ray. I am hopeful that the current scenario is a one-of and all this energy can channelised into making Bengal a safer place, which will help creativity to flourish and positivity to flourish. Because as the very popular phrase goes – Bengal thinks today, India thinks tomorrow. So, let Bengal lead the way in spreading that way of tolerance that Bengalis are proud of.”

Tanuka Gupta, 47

Clinical psychologist based in Dubai

“Kolkata is home. I am a psychologist, and I look at the collective mob psychology. It is very easy to manipulate a mob at the slightest trigger. So, based on a political strategy, it is easier to manipulate a group rather than an individual.

There is much more strength or intensity as a mob, wherein your individual rational process gets suppressed when part of that mob. It’s more of an emotional response – and this works both ways, the positive and negative can work in a collective group format.

As a Bengali, as an individual who knows her hometown and the people there, what is happening is completely unexpected. Kolkata is one of the most tolerant places in the world, and that is how I have grown up and have seen my state. And when such things happen, people shift from a place of being a path finder to becoming victims, there is a shift in the value system.

It is important that now, the leadership has to be sensible, to bring back the stability because people of Bengal are a very tolerant and resilient people, so coming back to the state of peace is going to be very easy for them –  and that is our essential belief.”

Rohit Gupta, 35

Lead vocalist of the band Raaga Factory, based in Dubai

“There was a concept called dupure ghoom or siesta in Kolkata, which was very prevalent. People would shut shops in the afternoon and not that interested in making money. I think it is still there and overall people coming in from other cities would think Kolkata was a very relaxed city, a happy place.

So, when you hear of something like this, so much unrest, I cannot comment on the trigger, but people need to realise that they are losing out on their ethics and morals. Spreading hatred is easy. So, we need to start the change from within themselves.

Politics is manmade. We get to read and hear what the media reports, we are not there on the spot. We may not know the full reality but I think that this is completely unheard of.

Kolkata has an influx for people now from various other cities, perhaps those influences have a role to play here… not sure of that. But, the fact is that Kolkata is for Bengalis and they need to unite, and they can unite, especially if they want to work towards peace and spreading love."

Esha Nag

Gulf News Property Weekly Editor

"Growing up in Bengal I was not aware of the fanfare surrounding the festival of Ram Nabami. It was never a popular festival in the state, nothing compared to the autumnal festival of Durga Puja. Faint news of the celebration came from a place called Janbazar in central Kolkata where labourers from Bihar celebrated by singing the praises of Lord Rama, a folklore hero, who fought against the demon Ravana. There were no processions, no brandishing of arms and certainly no fanfare surrounding this festival. The industrial labour colonies of Kharagpur, Asansol, and Ranigunj in Bengal and mostly the neighbouring state of Bihar celebrated the festival and with Rama, his bows and arrows were also worshipped. In Kolkata where I grew up, the festival spread slowly to other pockets in the city, but it was a festival always associated with the non-Bengali Hindus, a personal or closed-group activity sans the present pomp and fanfare of ‘public’ functions. At the most there was a fair ground that sold bangles for women, ribbons for little girls and bows and arrows for the boys.

A visit to Bengal during the week of Ram Nabami is a very different story today. The festival has boiled into processions brandishing swords, street fights where the Trinamool Congress and the BJP want to prove their love for Lord Rama, social media posts fanning religious sentiments before and during the festival, a planned organized fanfare to raise the stature of Rama from a folklore hero to a God.

Earlier this week life in Raniganj and adjoining areas in West Bengal's Paschim Burdwan district was disrupted, following clashes over the recent Ram Navami rallies. While both the Trinamool Congress and the BJP have been quick to blame each other for the unrest and disorder in the state, there is still no clear indication as to who fanned the fire.

The violence has vandalized homes, shops and police vehicles. Police have arrested 19 people so far for fomenting trouble. For many families in Bengal celebrating Ram Nabami at home, this kind of violence and display of arms by rogue groups comes as a shock. The traditionally peaceful and low-key event never invited such hostile and aggressive behavior from any religious groups or minority communities. For these families, it has always been a silent and solemn affair, held strictly within the four walls of their home.

To find that it had taken a political colour was very disheartening for them. The people of Bengal, no matter where they came from, were always proud that the state protected their cultural and religious interests. The state gave them the space to spread their wings and voice their feelings. Today they feel threatened even singing the praises of their hero who fought for right over wrong."

Comment Piece - The Bengal I never knew

Sanjib Kumar Das, Senior Pages Editor

It was the autumn of 1986. Kolkata, my place of birth, and the rest of Bengal was resplendent in the spirit of Durga Puja – one of the biggest Hindu festivals on the calendar in India. And like the other years, my pandal-hopping spree had brought me to the nerve centre of Central Kolkata, where Mohammad Ali Park, on Chittaranjan Avenue, happened to organise one of the biggest celebrations and observances of the autumnal extravaganza that had, over the centuries, transcended from being a mere ‘Hindu’ festival to something more esoteric and universal in its appeal, verve and tenor.

Coming back to Mohammad Ali Park. I was quite surprised to see about a dozen bearded youths in their ubiquitous prayer caps, managing the crowd and some of them even helping the priest on the podium in arranging the paraphernalia. “Baba, aren’t those men Muslims? So, do they also celebrate Pujo?” I asked my father. Bemused by my astonishment, pat came the reply: “That’s the beauty of Bengal. There’s no ‘us’ and ‘them’ when it comes to celebrating Pujo, you see!” And he had this to add: “Have you ever wondered why Zakaria ‘uncle’ [one of my father’s colleagues] brings those delectable mutton delicacies for us every Eid?”

I had had my answer.

Having been born and brought up in Kolkata, I have had the good fortune to experience what communal harmony means and what mutual respect for one another’s religious beliefs stand for -- in its most rudimentary and unorthodox sense. As I grew up, the full import of the significance of those youths in prayer caps helping the priest on the podium or keeping the queue in order at Mohammad Ali Park dawned upon me with all its idiosyncrasies and honesty.

Decades later, standing outside The Statesman House – the office of the venerable colonial-era English newspaper that had very kindly offered me my first job – I watched a Muharram ‘tazia’ pass by, with traffic on that same stretch of Chittaranjan Avenue having come to a complete halt. No one complained. None honked. Not one vehicle moved an inch. A spontaneous show of respect for a religious event observed by members of a minority community.

That’s the Kolkata and Bengal I have always been proud of. That’s the Kolkata and Bengal that has been baked into my DNA, ever since I heard all those horrifying tales of partition from my father.

Born and brought up in what is now known as the sovereign entity of Bangladesh, my father and all the other 15-odd members of his joint family left the suburbs of Dhaka within a night’s notice as the marauders came baying for the blood of the members of a specific community in the aftermath of the 1947 Partition of India. “For an entire night, our immediate Muslim neighbours were our saviours, protecting us from those unsheathed daggers and swords – sometimes even at great personal loss. Weeks later, as we took shelter at a refugee camp in the southern Kolkata neighbourhood of Dhakuria, the tables were turned. Some hoodlums from the majority Hindu community were on a door-to-door hunt for Muslim men or women who might have gone into hiding. We stood on their way and offered our lives instead. Confronted by unarmed souls with fire in their eyes and the threat of an imminent do-or-die, the scums of the earth retreated,” my father said.

Those are the kind of tales I have grown up with. I have been fortunate enough never to have experienced the trauma of partition, but I have been born into a family that has had to deal with the scourge first-hand. And the tales I were told were enough for me to understand one basic truth: Hatred and bigotry can and should never be tools to assert one’s religious or ethnic identity.

And Bengal, in these seven decades since partition, has very zealously maintained the spirit of that truth. Bengal’s determination to not let the fabric of communal harmony be damaged by the vitriol of divisive politics and shameless opportunism has been phenomenal.

That is why when I am confronted with reports of violence leading to even deaths over something as innocuous as Ram Navami processions in Bengal, I am hurt and ashamed. Deaths in Kakinara, Raniganj and Purulia over the observance of a Hindu ritual that didn’t even warrant a mention on the inside pages of many newspapers until recently, are now front and centre! Brandishing of weapons, chanting of inciteful slogans and provocative postures during recent Ram Navami celebrations tell the tale of a social discourse that has gone terribly wrong and bear the stench of a brazen and shocking political opportunism that seeks to polarise communities along religious lines. This is certainly not the kind of Bengal or Kolkata I had grown up in. This is not the Bengal that comes to a standstill to let a Muharram ‘tazia’ pass through with as much patience and spontaneity as the smile on the face of that unknown passer-by who has just been sprinkled with the colours of Holi by a truant child.

The Bharatiya Janata Party and all its cohorts, who have suddenly felt the need to paint Bengal in the monochrome of cultural rigidity and communal obscurantism, take note: Bengal can never be won over by fear-mongering and a language of majority-appeasement. Try reinventing the wheel at your own peril!

Comment Piece: Why Indians should care about this right hand

Bobby Naqvi, UAE Editor

I keep my Facebook timeline ‘sanitised’ by avoiding people who post gory images of injuries and deaths. These images disturb me and keep my mind occupied for days. One such picture popped up on the timeline a couple of days ago – of an injured police officer being assisted by his colleagues during violent clashes in Asansol in the eastern state of West Bengal.

I could not ignore this picture as there was something very cruel about it. It was gory, it was bloody and it was shocking. The officer, victim of a bomb attack, barely managed to stand on his feet. His expressionless face surprised me because he should have been in severe pain. But the intensity of the blast apparently left him stunned and he didn’t seem to be feeling anything. He should have felt it, the blast tore through his hand, a chunk of forearm muscles were gone, exposing bones and cartilages. 

The image had shaken me and kept me awake till later hours on Sunday. The following morning, I discovered his name - Arindam Dutta Chowdhury, Deputy Commissioner of Police. A report said his hand was gone, doctors had to amputate it. 

Chowdhury lost his right hand to mob violence.  

Think about it. 

An officer who was simply doing his job lost his limb to madness fuelled by politicians. The incident happened on a day considered holy by Hindus in north India. Ram Navmi, the birthday of Lord Ram is celebrated with processions and Pujas in most states of northern India. However, for the last two years, the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party, aiming to get a foothold in West Bengal, is sponsoring processions of worshippers carrying weapons, including swords and tridents. 

Thanks to the BJP, the festival is now celebrated on a scale that was not seen just two years ago. Early this week, these marches were held in several cities of the state, once a stronghold of the Left and now ruled by a feisty woman leader. Cadres of the BJP and affiliated organisations held weapons and shouted provocative slogans in violation of official orders.

Over two days, violent clashes broke out in several towns, leaving people dead and injured. 

Chowdhury was one such casualty. His job was to ensure that peace is not disturbed and official orders were followed. Instead, someone threw a bomb at him. 

I don’t know Chowdhury’s age but in the picture he appeared to be in his early forties. He belongs to Indian Police Service, a cadre of officers selected through a tough national selection process. Successful candidates spend years preparing for this exam and only the best of the lot manage to crack it. 
It is not clear what happens to such officers who lose their limbs in the line of duty but Chowdhury is now forced to stare at the stump and spend months of rehab. 

A bright young officer lost his right hand for what and why -- questions that are haunting me since March 24. 

I wish I could extend my right hand to help him in any way.