Beldanga — a Bengal town on the boil amid CAA protests

Abhishek Law Beldanga (Murshidabad) | Updated on December 31, 2019 Published on December 31, 2019

The ticket counter at Beldanga railway station is covered with black soot, a reminder of the anti-CAA violence   -  Debasish Bhaduri


It was supposed to be a protest against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) on December 13, after the Friday prayers. A few people had gathered to voice their opinions. “The crowd swelled. Many unknown faces joined in,” says an eye-witness. Some protesters assembled near the rail station. Slogans were raised. Within moments, a handful went berserk and started vandalising the building and surrounding areas. Things deteriorated further with an attack on the police station, barely 200 m away.

This is Beldanga — located some 250 km from Kolkata in Murshidabad district, and ground zero of the anti-CAA protests in the State. For a Muslim-majority town (78 per cent Muslim population, per Census 2011) that has no record of communal violence since Independence, there were at least two days of vandalism before calm returned, thanks to community meetings and police action.

This otherwise busy town, located along National Highway 34 and well connected by rail, still bears witness to the violence nearly two weeks after that fateful Friday the 13th.

Placed along side the rail track is a completely charred rake. The station’s façade is covered with soot — a grim reminder of the inferno that it witnessed. Also visible is the burnt down station master’s room, ticket booking counter and broken sheds and control panel.

Tubewells have been uprooted, water taps broken and toilets practically bulldozed. The fire at the oil shed — where 2,600 tonnes were set ablaze over two days — was still visible on December 24.

Of the three long-distance trains (express trains, as they are called) that pass by Beldanga, two remain suspended. One resumed service on December 24.

Friends no more

Mohtaz Hasan, who runs a lottery franchise, was part of a “gang of six friends” who would “catch up” at the market place every evening for tea and cigarettes. This was till December 13. Since violence erupted, only four of them are now catching up. His two “friends” (read Hindus) behave indifferently and have avoided meeting in the evenings, says Hasan. “We grew up together, and now they are afraid of us. I can’t believe that this has happened,” he says, breaking down in tears.

Hasan, a graduate from the local college, regrets the turn of events. “Protests were fine. But the violence was uncalled for. They were outsiders or people from nearby villages who joined in the melee,” he points out.

Beldanga’s market place is located along the town’s largest road stretch that leads to the now ill-fated station. Located at its heart is a bank. On the day of the violence, the bank manager and other staff members shut themselves in to prevent vandalism. When the shutters were opened by 40-year-old Yaseer, a local businessman, and some other people from the nearby locality, they saw fear in the eyes of the people there. “The normally cheerful and friendly people here were afraid of us. There was some hesitation before they believed us,” he says.

But the bank manager and others had every reason to worry. Protesters were planning to set ablaze a bus in the chowk area. This was till the veteran Kabir chacha, the most popular tea stall owner in the locality, stepped in. He, along with some of the seniors, managed to dissuade the protesters.

The much-famed and once bustling market-place may not bear a deserted look now. But shops close down early. By 8 pm, it’s shutters down here.

Bhoy lage (I’m afraid),” says Sartaaj, who runs a pan shop and grocery store near the station. Protesters had threatened to vandalise his shops when he tried to reason on that eventful day. “Support us. We are protecting you,” that’s what he was told, he claims.

Sartaaj has company in Sanjay Pramanik, a local resident who now finds “an atmosphere of fear” in Beldanga. Sanjay’s friend, a local photographer with a vernacular daily, was roughed up by protesters when he went to take pictures of the vandalism at the station. “They abused him for being a Hindu. Thankfully, seniors in the mob stepped in saying not to hurt locals. I know that NRC (National Register of Citizens) will never happen. But, why this fear mongering,” he says.

The oil storage godown at Beldanga railway station was set ablaze by a violent mob   -  Debasish Bhaduri


Post the violence, police have initiated eight different cases while the Railway Protection Force has initiated six; 10 arrests have been made so far, say senior officials. Initial reports say the mob consisted of youths aged between 16 and 25. Some of them are being identified from CCTV footages.

Looming uncertainty

The uncertainty over the NRC and confusion over the CAA have been accentuated by WhatsApp forwards in the area. Not to mention the communal overtones that some of these forwards have.

“We want all communities to live together. There is fear that minorities may be targeted,” says Waqar Sheikh, a local trader. To justify his arguments, Sheikh shows a WhatsApp forward that says post CAA and NRC, Muslims will be deported or sent to detention camps. The forward is from a “reliable source”, he insists.

That the Prime Minister has tried to allay fears over NRC is immaterial to him.

If that was not enough, clips of different political leaders, especially from the ruling BJP, and their varying statements on NRC have only led to further fear-mongering. Hate speech of leaders and similar “insidious” forwards have further led to fear and anger across communities.

It does not matter what Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee says, either. Unlike Kolkata, there are neither posters of Mamata with her “No CAB, no NRC” slogan, nor are there graffiti against NRC and CAA visible across the town.

Beldanga is amongst the last Congress strongholds of West Bengal. Local MP and leader of Congress in Parliament, Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury, has tried to allay fears. “It is a Congress dominated area. So naturally their political opponents will go slow when it comes to calming nerves here. Some politics has to play out,” a political analyst says on conditions of anonymity.

But, despite all this, people have managed to get their “documentation” done.

Rush for papers

Kabir’s forefathers had served Nawab Siraj ud-Daulah (the last independent Nawab of Bengal). Happy with their services, the Nawab had gifted them land. Now he is making trips to various government offices to get the farmaan (government order and land deeds). “Our family is over 200 years old. But without these land deeds from the Nawab, how do we even prove the same?” he wonders.

Yaseer, who runs a toto (e-rickshaw), has applied for papers such as birth certificate and property registration from the local government agencies. Someone told him having an LIC policy helps to prove his citizenship. He has quickly got one done.

Beldanga may be limping back to normalcy now. But the CAA protests have drawn a set of communal scars whose marks are yet to go away.

(Most names have been changed to protect their identities.)

Published on December 31, 2019
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