Indian Elections: Both Muslims and Hindus Become Victim of Political Violence over ‘Transformer Dispute’ in a West Bengal Village
The simmering religious tensions transformed a dispute about broken electric equipment into a conflagration, as the supporters of two rival parties – Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and All-India Trinamool Congress (TMC) – resorted to violence in a village in the Indian state of West Bengal, The New York Times reported.
Violence occurred in Bogakhali village where 17 homes and six shops were torched earlier this week on Monday. Seven of were owned by Hindus and 10 belonged to Muslims. The victims accused local leaders of the two competing political parties of being involved in the attacks.
The incident occurred earlier week, as the final batch of India’s 900 million eligible voters, including those in Bogakhali, will cast ballots on Sunday (tomorrow) – completing the six-week-long election exercise. All the votes will be counted on Thursday.
Because of the failure to fulfil the promise to create jobs, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has increasingly turned to his party’s roots in Hindu nationalism, pledging to give the religion’s precepts a greater role in government and civic life.
On the other hand, West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s TMC enjoys strong support among Muslims who make up more than one-fourth of the state’s population.
And amid these circumstances, the residents of Bogakhali experienced violence – in a country where violence, voter intimidation and sectarian politics that typically accompany the elections.
The NYT reported that it all began as a transformer serving the village conked out around 10 days ago. As the villagers pressed the electric utility for a faster replacement, a local TMC leader Ajan Shah Molla, a Muslim, told them that they would have to wait a week in the sweltering heat for a new one.
The angry mob, which was mostly Hindu, began to beat Molla, and forced him to chant “Jai Shri Ram” which means “Hail, Lord Ram”.
The next day, Molla returned with a gang of men and blocked the main road through the village. In front of a large crowd, Dinesh Mondal, a BJP leader and former TMC official who lived in the village, confronted Molla and the two men exchanged heated words’
On Monday morning, Molla’s men returned and burned seven of the homes, as well as an ambulance and a car parked in front of Mondal’s building supplies shop.
Muslim villagers were also attacked on Monday morning, according to interviews with about a dozen people in the community. Masked men, shouting Jai Shri Ram, warned Muslim voters that if they did not vote for the BJP, they would be deported to Pakistan.
At sunset, when the Muslims were preparing their evening meal to end fasting, the men threw flaming bottles into four homes. Several witnesses, including Meher Ali Shekh and his brother, both of whose homes were destroyed, said they saw Mondal watching from not far away.
Later, both Molla and Mondal have reportedly fled the area. Meanwhile, the police, in a swift action, arrested 32 people, almost all of them Muslim.
A police official said that officers had been present during some of the attacks and several were injured, but he declined to provide more details.
News reports on the violence have been almost nonexistent. Two local officials begged journalists not to report the story, saying that it would disrupt the peace, as the state does not want anyone to talk about it. Later, the TMC officials urged the Muslims not to speak to any news outlets about what had occurred.
A senior TMC official initially claimed that no homes had been burned in Bogakhali and said there was nothing to see there. Confronted with evidence of the attacks, the official privately admitted that the party was worried about setting off more communal violence if word got out.
Photos and videos of the attacks on the Hindus slowly made their way to right-wing Facebook and Twitter users. Many of the posts were puffed up with false information. None of them mentioned what had led to the attacks, or that Muslims had also been victims.
Derek O’Brien, who leads the TMC’s delegation in Parliament, said the party had asked Facebook to remove inflammatory posts related to the incident. “We want peace,” he said in an interview on Friday. “We’ve got 48 hours to go before the elections.”