‘Muslims Get Corona’: How Stigma Burnt Down A Bengal Locality

The stigma against Muslims, post Tablighi Jamaat, seems to have manifested in communal violence in Telinipara.

Updated
Coronavirus
7 min read

Video Editor: Deepthi Ramdas

On Sunday, 10 May, the locality of Telinipara in West Bengal's Hooghly district saw massive clashes between its Hindu and Muslim residents. Soon after, videos of the violence in the locality, which is a part of the Bhadreswar municipality, went viral on social media, and the police raided the area to bring the situation under control.

While police say the the situation was calm on 11 May, Tuesday, 12 May, saw a fresh spate of violence. Internet services in the area remained suspended as the forces conducted raids and routine marches to nab the miscreants.

Meanwhile, the viral videos claimed that the clashes took place as Muslims in the locality, some of whom had tested positive for COVID-19, were not isolating or adhering to lockdown.

To investigate, The Quint visited Telinipara a day after the second round of clashes, on Wednesday, 13 May.

As of 14 May, the police had arrested 129 people for the clashes.

‘Muslims Caused This Trouble To Hush Up Corona Cases’

As The Quint's team entered Telinipara, the area didn't seem to give away too many signs of destruction. Right at the entrance to the road that leads up to the affected localities, we were met with huge police presence and large, jostling, agitated crowds. Clearly, social distancing wasn't of utmost priority at that point.

At the centre of the crowd, BJP MP from the area, Locket Chatterjee, and another Bengal BJP MP, Arjun Singh, were sitting on the pavement, listening to people's grievances.

The crowd (evidently all-Hindu, and largely women) complained about how the Muslims beat them up, not even sparing small children, as the police watched.

Locket Chatterjee, MP of the Hooghly Lok Sabha constituency, had tried to make her way to the area on Monday, 11 May, a day after the first round of violence, but was stopped.

Since then she, and the rest of the BJP-right wing cadres, have trained their guns on the Trinamool Congress-led West Bengal government, explicitly and implicitly saying that the state had turned a blind eye to the violence as the perpetrators were Muslims.

As the leaders left, the crowd burst into chants of Jai Shri Ram. The Quint spoke to some of the locals.

While it was difficult to record their names in the hustle, all of them claimed that they lived in the localities where Muslims had burnt down houses. There was also a palpable anger against the police, who, they alleged, were picking up men and even minors from their homes on charges of rioting.

"The Muslims have started this," screamed one woman at this reporter when asked what triggered the violence. "The Muslims are throwing bombs at us, burning our houses. Our kids are being arrested," she added.

"The police are picking up school-going kids!" shouted another woman next to her.

Another woman, who seems to be head of the group, offered to take us away from the crowd and explain the situation.

"How will we know why Muslims are getting corona?" she asked. "If they are getting corona, then it is their prerogative – who are they hanging out with, whose house are they going to, who are they touching. That they will know. That is their matter," she added.

A majority of the Hindu locals were of the belief that Muslims, who were tested positive for corona, did not want to isolate during Ramzan, and allegedly got violent when asked to isolate by them.

"I will not be able to confirm how this started, but 5 people on that side (the Muslim side) have been found corona positive and after that when the police picked them up, they started this communal clash to hush up the corona cases," one of the few men in the group told The Quint.

"The police are with them," he added.

The quibble with the cops also came up often in these conversations with the Hindu locals.

Another lady said that the police lathicharged a pregnant Hindu woman who had gone to the public washroom in the area. They also said that the police was picking up innocent Hindu men and boys to prove a point.

‘They Keep Taunting Us Wherever We Go’

As the Hindu crowd dispersed, they asked our team to visit their locality so that we could document the destruction first-hand.

While they left, two men on a bike approached The Quint’s reporters and asked to trail after them. They led the reporters to the main area where the clashes took place.

Clusters of small houses, some with thatched roofs and some pucca houses stood across a small bridge that goes across a naala.

The road that led to the narrow, winding lanes that housed the destroyed homes were covered with broken bricks and shards of glass – standing testimony to the battlezone that the quiet neighbourhood was, a few hours back.

All the houses in these lanes were deserted. Further inside, a cluster of burnt houses stood. After speaking to the people there, our team realised that it's a Muslim-dominated area.

All its inhabitants were fasting for Ramzan. All of them were also unsure where they will stay for the next few days as their houses – attacked with petrol bombs – were razed to the ground.

Of those looking helplessly at their burnt homes was Jahangir Ansari. Jahangir's sister was scheduled to get married this month, but they had to postpone the date due to the lockdown. The one lakh rupees that they had saved for the wedding, along with the wedding jewellery, was kept safely in a wooden almirah. On 10 May, as his house was doused in petrol, the almirah was burnt to a crisp, as was the money and jewellery.

"I was going to the market with my sister, and someone taunted from behind saying, ‘Look, look, corona is here’. By the time I turned back, they had fled," he said. "I went and complained to the police saab at the thana. He said it was wrong but also said that they were trying to purposely agitate us", he added.

The taunts didn’t end there. He says that since the news of the Tablighi Jamaat in Delhi broke, Muslims in the locality have been subjected to constant stigmatisation. All other communities in the locality believe that the Muslims in the area are either infected or are prone to being infected by the COVID virus.

Next to Jahangir's house is Nazneen Begum's. She lived there with her three sisters. The sisters break down down as we inspect the rubble that used to be their house, but Nazneen stays composed, fighting back her tears.

"All this ‘corona corona’ is a game. The imam and muezzin here were told that one of them will read the namaz and one of them will give the azaan. Without provocation, whether it is in the morning or evening, whenever they go to the mosque, these guys say ‘corona is coming, corona is coming’. The imam is a blind man. He can’t see but even then they couldn't leave him alone", says Nazneen.

"They threw bombs and bottles from that building", she says, pointing at a three-storey building that overlooks the settlement. The top angle of the attack explained why the roofs of all the houses in the area where completely burnt.

Another local, 60-year-old Kamrunnisa, said her children ran away to escape the violence. She and her 70-year-old husband were left behind. Debris fell on her husband's leg and he has been unable to walk since. With no support, no money and no food, she asks how she's expected to break her roza.

"They were all fighting. They were throwing bricks and everyone was running away. We couldn’t run and in the process he got hurt and his foot was fractured. He can’t walk at all. What do I do? There’s no food. Who will cook? Where will we stay?” she cries.

The presence of The Quint's crew was slowly piquing the interest of most families in the area. Soon the police reached the spot and asked them all to go inside. Scared by the sight of the police, some of the younger boys climbed on the roof of a house and ran across to flee from them.

Our team tried to make its way to the Hindu localities after this but we were asked to vacate the area by the police who claimed that our presence was causing people to come out of their houses. The reporters were also asked “why we were shooting” and “whose permission we took” by some senior police officials who were doing rounds of the area.

What the Police Said

While the police was unwilling to divulge details, sources say that the genesis of the violence was indeed the stigma around coronavirus and Muslims which took a diabolical shape after four or five people from the Muslim locality tested positive for COVID-19 last week.

Soon after, some elements from the Hindu areas allegedly blocked the common washroom in the locality and allegedly said that Muslims will not be allowed to use it.

"If they had approached the administration and asked us to find a solution for this, we would have done it. But, of course, if you disallow a certain community from using basics like a washroom, it is highly insulting for them," said a senior police officer of the Chandannagore sub-division, of which Telinipara is a part, on condition of anonymity.

The situation escalated when some members from the adjoining areas decided to create their own barricade around the Muslim locality.

"That was the flashpoint. To be honest, there was violence and retaliation from both sides. There was destruction on both sides as well," said the officer.

Speaking to The Quint, Subrata Gangopadhyay, DCP Headquarters of the Chandannagore sub-division said:

“This incident started at night (on Sunday, 10 May) as there were problems between the two communities. From there we had controlled the law and order situation. Monday was fine, then again it started yesterday (Tuesday, 12 May). There were sporadic incidents in various places. Some houses have been burnt of people from both communities. There was some planning because we took control over the incident on Sunday night itself, but again it happened on Tuesday so we think that it was a planned attack.”

Meanwhile, internet continues to remain suspended in Telinipara and various parts of Hooghly. As the sun set on the area, the reporters had to make their exit. The locals, both Hindus and Muslims, said they were staring at more nights of uncertainty and fear. "What if violence breaks out again? What will we do?" a lady said, as the reporters turned to leave.

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