How lives were destroyed under cover of lockdown in a small Indian town
Under the cover of lockdown, they came. Armed with petrol bombs, acid bombs, gas cylinders, molotov cocktails and explosives, the men, numbering around 100, piled stealthily into small boats to cross over the Ganges river. Reaching their target, the banks of the small town of Telinipara, they climbed ashore. And then, they pounced.
The violent onslaught that began at midday of 12 May was the pinnacle of the worst outbreak of religious violence in India since the riots that ripped through north-east Delhi in February, killing over 50 people. Over three days in this small town in West Bengal, which, like the rest of India was under a strict nationwide coronavirus lockdown that confined everyone to their homes, Hindu attackers burned and decimated Muslim homes and shops and vandalised two mosques and a Muslim shrine. According to multiple accounts given to the Guardian, the perpetrators also exposed themselves to Muslim women and made rape and death threats as they carried out the brutality. In retaliation, local Muslims then began setting fire to Hindu homes. Of the 55 buildings eventually destroyed, around 45 belonged to Muslims.
“We are ruined, they reduced everything to ashes,” recalled Rubina Khatun, 22, who was with her four-year-old son when her home came under attack on 12 May. “They threw petrol bombs into our room and set it on fire. All nine Muslim houses in our row were attacked and four of them, including ours, were burned or destroyed completely.
Speaking through shuddering sobs, Khatun continued: “The attackers stood on the roof next door and started shouting unthinkably vulgar abuses at me. ‘Are you having sex with your son? He cannot satisfy you. Wait, I am coming to your room …’ one said and then pulled down his shorts. Another shouted, ‘We will rape all the Muslim women here’.”
“Why are the Hindus attacking us so cruelly?” she said. “Do we have no right to live in India just because we are Muslim?”
Since Narendra Modi’s far-right Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata party (BJP) took power in India in 2014, with an agenda to make India a Hindu rather than secular nation, India’s Muslims - who make up 14% of the country – have faced increasing persecution, often state-sponsored. Already socio-economically disadvantaged, Muslims have faced discrimination, boycotts and fatal lynchings and a recent amendment to the citizenship law, introduced in December, ruled that refugees from all religions except Islam could have Indian citizenship.
Modi’s landslide re-election win in May last year marked an escalation in the Hindu nationalist agenda, and with that came more brazenly anti-Muslim rhetoric from BJP leaders and politicians. It was the provocative comments of a BJP leader that are widely acknowledged to have sparked the communal riots in Delhi in February. And as coronavirus began to take hold across India in March, it was the comments of BJP politicians and public figures that helped fuel the widely-adopted conspiracy theory that it was a “Muslim virus” and that Muslims across the country were on a mission of “corona jihad” to infect innocent Hindus.
The scapegoating of Muslims as coronavirus “super-spreaders” was followed by everything from the boycotts of Muslim businesses to refusals by hospitals to take in Muslim patients. But in Telinipara, it manifested as an all-out anti-Muslim riot. This week, the police filed cases against two BJP MPs for their role in triggering the violence.
The trouble began for Telinipara when it emerged that five Muslims had tested positive for coronavirus in early May. Within hours, in many Hindu majority localities of Telinipara, the residents set up blockades on roads and lanes to bar Muslims from entering.
“Muslims were banned from using public toilets and collecting food provisions from ration shops,” said Mohammad Hashim, a local municipality councillor. “In the neighbouring town of Chandannagar, using loudspeakers, some Hindus made public announcements, asking people not to let Muslims from Telinipara enter the area. Hindu youths even threatened to beat up Hindu shopkeepers if they sold anything to Muslims.”
It was also on 10 May that things began to turn violent. The first reported incident was that night when a gang of young Hindu men from the village who, armed with sticks and metal rods, attacked a group of Muslims living in a labourer colony and demanded they leave the colony. In retaliation, local Muslim men began attacking Hindu shops and homes, burning some to the ground.
On 11 May, West Bengal BJP MP Locket Chatterjee spoke to a local TV channel, claiming that Muslims in Telinipara were violently refusing to comply with coronavirus quarantine. “In Telinipara, Muslims have vandalised and set fire to Hindu households,” she said. “Those who attacked the Hindus are all corona positive. They do not want to go on quarantine. They are moving around freely in the Hindu localities. They want to infect all Hindus. Even police have not taken any action against them.”
However police, health officials and those who tested positive have since confirmed to the Guardian that this statement was false and all five reported to the police station as requested and had been peacefully taken to a local quarantine centre.
Another Bengal BJP MP, Arjun Singh, also waded in, posting a photo of one of the Muslim labourers who had been injured in the first attack. But Singh claimed the man was an injured Hindu, beaten by Muslim mobs, and posted on Faceboook: “How long will the blood of Hindus flow on in Bengal … we will not stay quiet if they [Muslims] attack ordinary people. You are playing with fire. Bengal will burn to ashes.”
The next day, on 11 May, Singh posted: “If police and [West Bengal] government are not protecting the Hindus, we will come out and fight to the last drop of our blood, to save our own people.”
Humayun Kabir, local commissioner of police, confirmed that after an enquiry, the police had filed two cases against Singh and one against Chatterjee accusing them of inciting rioting and a cybercrime investigation was being carried out into Singh’s social media posts.
However, Kailash Vijayvargiya, BJP national general secretary, denied the BJP had any involvement in the riots and insisted it was caused by Muslims violating lockdown who “attacked Hindu dominated areas”. He accused police commissioner Kabir of being biased and said he has “instigated crimes against the victims, ie Hindus.”
“Our MPs had been there [in Telinipara] to protect Hindus,” he added. “They were there to stop the riot but have been slapped with riot cases. I demand an enquiry against the accused police officials.”
Yet as Chatterjee and Singh’s words began to be shared widely on social media, it appears that Hindus in the surrounding area began to mobilise. “Go ahead, Arjun Singh. We are with you on your mission,” one comment read. The next day, the armed mob of 100 men boarded boats to Telinipara and launched their attack.
Mohammad Sajid, a 22-year-old Muslim resident of Telinipara who witnessed the men descend, said that most of the Hindu attackers were outsiders, not from the village, and most carried guns with them.
“They were around 100 young men,” said Sajid. “Almost all of them used gamchha [a thin towel] to mask their faces. Some of them carried iron rods, crowbars and hammers. Some carried bombs and Molotov cocktails. As soon as they appeared in the Muslim area they started throwing the bombs and Molotov cocktails targeting the Muslim houses and many Muslims started screaming for help. Most Muslims, including women and children, latched up their front doors from inside and slipped out through their back doors.”
Police allegedly ignored the frantic calls from victims. Sajid added: “The rioters broke open the front doors using heavy tools and entered the houses carrying jerry cans, apparently filled with petrol. Gas cylinders exploded inside most of the houses and within moments they burst aflame.”
In the aftermath of the attack, the Muslim and Hindu communities, many of whom had lived in small shacks which were now destroyed, surveyed their respective losses in grief and disbelief. 140 people, both Hindus and Muslims, have been arrested in connection with the riot.
“Muslims attacked my house in retaliation,” said Kanchan Chowdhury, a Hindu victim of the violence. “But they did not do right by attacking us. My family is innocent.”
Meanwhile Zubaida Khatun, 48, a Muslim resident, sifted through the ashes and debris with her bare hands. In the midst of her destroyed home lay the blackened gas cylinder which had been thrown through a hole smashed in her roof.
“Everything is burned and destroyed,” said Khatun, as she desperately searched for the gold jewellery she had bought for her daughter’s wedding using all her savings. “I had saved some cash for the wedding, too. That is burned also, along with all I had in this room. I am ruined.”