On 20 September 2018, West Bengal Police was called by the administration of the Daribhit High School, located in Islampur subdivision of West Bengal’s North Dinajpur district. The police were called to control students who were protesting against the unavailability of adequate teachers in the school, however, the police, as alleged by the local residents and aggrieved students and denied by the administration, opened fire on the agitating students when the latter started pelting stones. The arbitrary police firing killed two youth, Rajesh Sarkar and Tapas Barman, both former students of the school.
This gory atrocity committed by Mamata Banerjee’s government irked the people of the whole state and the chaotic situation in Islampur was capitalised by the Hindutva fascist RSS and the BJP to built-up mass opinion in its favour by using rumours, slanders and Islamophobia. The student organisation of the RSS – the notorious ABVP plunged into the fray of Daribhit High School movement and turned it into a Hindu-Muslim binary by using vitriolic propaganda. This involvement of the RSS and its affiliate organisations to communally paint an incident of a mass movement against the Trinamool Congress (TMC)-led government’s indifference towards the students point towards a greater peril that awaits Islampur and West Bengal.
Daribhit is a small locality, few kilometres away from the sub-divisional town Islampur; it’s actually in the midst of a process of evolving into a town from a village. There are few thousand people living in this small town that never made it to the news earlier. In this small town, Daribhit Higher Secondary School is the largest and the sole co-educational school. For years, the school is deprived of adequate number of teachers. There have been no teachers for political science and mathematics at the 10+2 level, for which the students and their guardians have been constantly complaining to the school’s management board, to the district education office and elsewhere. The position of a Bengali teacher is also claimed to be vacant and isn’t filled as there is a court stay on filling the vacant positions of Bengali teachers.
After they protested demanding adequate teachers for their school, the district education office informed the school that they will deploy two teachers in the school. When the students and the guardians were happy about the decision, they came to know in the month of September that the two teachers that the Education Department has assigned to Daribhit High School are teachers of Urdu and Sanskrit, two languages for which there are no students at the 10+2 level. It irked the students and guardians, who started protesting vehemently against the appointment of these two teachers. It resulted into a skirmish at the school on 17 September, when the students and the guardians came to know that the two teachers will be appointed on that day in the school.
The school principal, Abhijeet Kundu and vice principal Nurul Huda sealed the decision of employing these two teachers in the school, whose subjects have no taker. When the protest against the school authorities became intense on 17 September, the principal called the police and requested protection. Upon seeing the police the protest turned intense and the police had to retreat. When they found themselves cornered, the principal and the school management committee accepted the demands of the students and guardians by giving written assurance that the school will immediately roll-back the appointment of the two teachers and send them back to the School Service Commission, asking for teachers of political science and mathematics instead.
Upon getting the assurance in written, the protest subsided and normalcy returned to Daribhit High School. There was a football match played by the students on 18 September in Daribhit and no one anticipated what was to come in a few days in the small town then engulfed in a ominous normalcy.
On Thursday, 20 September, the students of Daribhit High School were shocked when they came to know that principal Abhijeet Kundu and vice principal Nurul Huda have reinvited the two teachers, Sanskrit teacher Tourang Pradhan and Urdu teacher Sanaullah Rahmani, to take charge in the school. They rushed to the school in hundreds and started protesting, the school gates were locked and the students and guardians demanded immediate scrapping of the decision. Their anger was multiplied due to the fact that the school authorities and the district Education Department had earlier given them written assurance that they will roll-back the decision of appointing Tourang Pradhan and Sanaullah Rahmani.
As the protest grew militant and many outsiders too poured in, Tourang Pradhan and Sanaullah Rahmani were taken to the staff room. Suddenly, at this point, violence erupted in the school premises as a crowd of outsiders started pelting stones and carried out vandalism in the school campus. Though the students of Daribhit High School were protesting against the school management’s decision intensely, it wasn’t them who started the violence, rather, it came from outside.
Citing the incidence of violence as an excuse, the school administration called the police to suppress the students’ movement in the school. Due to the presence of several TMC leaders in the school management committee, the police acted swiftly to crackdown the students’ movement.
Upon reaching the Daribhit High School, the police started baton charge and didn’t spare young boys and girls. Hearing about the police atrocity, more local people and outsiders reached the school campus and started stone pelting targeting the police. The police lobbed tear gas shells and fired rubber bullets at the beginning, then the Rapid Action Force, or the RAF, too joined them and unleashed a new wave of violence on the protesting students.
It was then that the police took Sanaullah Rahmani and Tourang Pradhan in its jeep while many people came out on the road protesting. The mobsters who earlier started vandalism also reappeared in the crowd and took part in the stone pelting. When the police vehicles were moving out, the police fired at the crowd from inside their vehicles’ last seat, hitting Rajesh Sarkar, who instantly died and injured Tapas Barman, who was overseeing the renovation work at his shop near the school. Tapas Barman later succumbed to his injuries in the hospital.
Police atrocity against the school students, who were raising a genuine demand to have adequate teachers in a school that’s neglected by the government is a very ghastly act of state violence. Spraying bullets on student protesters with an intention to kill and adopting a violent standpoint, instead of meddling to settle the discontent, show how the TMC-led West Bengal Government has taken the path of naked fascism to deal with the very people who have voted it to power. This police atrocity not only fuelled a large-scale mass movement in Islampur against the TMC regime, it also opened the alley for the Hindutva fascist camp to penetrate into a genuine people’s movement and derail it with communal overtones.
While other opposition parties like the CPI(M) and the Congress remained disarrayed, the BJP and the ABVP occupied the central stage of the Islampur student’s movement by hijacking its leadership through muscle-flexing. The ABVP called out the Islampur police firing as a Muslim appeasement attempt by the Mamata Banerjee-led TMC regime. The propaganda over denial of appointment to a “Bengali teacher” and the forceful imposition of Urdu on “Hindu students” were intensely amplified to polarise the culpable people of Islampur, which has a mixed population of Bengali Hindus, non-Bengali Hindus and minority Muslims. The ABVP or the BJP didn’t mention the students’ anger against appointment of a Sanskrit teacher and the story of that teacher was cast to the backburner to keep the majority of the people hyperactive in the discourse of Urdu vs Bengali.
The Urdu language, which has already faced backlash all over the country for its stigmatisation as a “Muslim language”, has some foothold in West Bengal as the Urdu-speaking Muslims can still speak and use the language freely in the state without the fear of being persecuted. All over West Bengal, only 2 per cent of the population are Urdu-speaking, while in Islampur subdivision, due to its close proximity with Bihar’s Kishanganj, 9 per cent of the people speak Urdu. Still, as the decision to appoint the Urdu and the Sanskrit teacher was solely taken by the school management despite promising otherwise to the students, it’s an absurd claim that the government was attempting to impose Urdu on the students. Rather, the West Bengal Government had already declared Bengali as a compulsory subject to be taught to all children of all schools.
Ironically, the RSS-run Shishu Mandir and Gujarati Society schools have vehemently refused to impart Bengali lessons to their students and holds Hindi, the language of the Indian ruling classes, superior to Bengali and other languages spoken by the non-Hindi people.
Not only did the BJP and other RSS affiliates rake up this Urdu vs Bengali discourse, a Bengali ultra-chauvinist organisation, Bangla Pokkho, which plays the role of a docile tool of the TMC due to its founder’s affiliation with the party, also took up the issue from the BJP and used it to vilify the minority Muslims living in West Bengal. Their chauvinist ranting and xenophobic propaganda didn’t benefit the Bengali people, who are facing a gradual aggression upon their language, culture and way of life due to the aggression of the neo-liberal economy, which is Hindifying the Hindus of West Bengal and their Hindu culture, rather such tirade against a purported Urdu aggression actually strengthened the propaganda of the RSS. The Bangla Pokkho, despite ranting against the BJP occasionally to keep itself floating as a relevant organisation, actually have a strong Brahmanical leaning and is gradually snowballing into a “Bengali Shiv Sena” through its words and actions.
An all-Bengal strike called by the BJP resulted into severe violence, loot and rioting throughout West Bengal and mostly in Islampur, where the outsiders from Bihar, who came in motorcycles wearing saffron attire, burned public transport vehicles, looted shops and thrashed local people. Throughout the state, the BJP flexed its muscle and created a communal menace, which the Mamata Banerjee-led government silently watched.
The police, which would otherwise crack whip on protesters from the democratic and secular camp, remained mute spectators when the RSS and BJP goons were vandalising West Bengal. These RSS men kept propagating in Hindi that Bengali is in danger due to aggression by Urdu and silently concealed the fact that the students were not protesting for Bengali or against Urdu, rather they were protesting for relevant teachers. There was absolute silence over the issue of the Sanskrit teacher Tourang Pradhan because that would have punctured the entire Sangh propaganda.
Gradually, the movement that started over the recruitment of improper teachers, snowballed into an RSS-driven movement that called for changing the name of Islampur to Ishwarpur and banning Urdu as a subject in the West Bengal school curriculum, even when a large number of people speak the language in the state.
The RSS also propagated an apocryphal tale about a gang of Muslim men attacking the students of the Daribhit High School for protesting against the employment of the Urdu teacher. This sheer lie fell apart when the people of Daribhit and the students of the school vehemently rejected it and called out the BJP as a culprit for fuelling communal tension. Even the claim by the ABVP that Rajesh Sarkar was their cadre, using which it hijacked his funeral procession, was rejected by the family members of the victim. The BJP’s violence and its attempts to politically capitalise the issue didn’t go well with the local people, who have fought together against the injustice done by the school management committee.
Why did the TMC and its government allow the BJP to capitalise on such an unfortunate incident at the first place? There seems to be a conspiracy in play in this incident as the BJP entered the fray with the support of the TMC itself when the trouble started brewing on 20 September. The RSS men knew beforehand that the Urdu and Sanskrit teachers will be asked to join by principal Abhijeet Kundu and vice principal Nurul Huda. The audacity shown by these two in discarding an agreement they have entered with the students and guardians just few days back also highlights the presence of a deeper political conspiracy behind the entire episode.
It’s said that the principal and the vice principal (whose daughter happens to be a sitting judge) are associated with two warring factions of the ruling TMC and using their factional feud as a weapon, the BJP was keen to foray into the Daribhit locality. Controlling the schools, Durga Puja clubs and major trade union bodies are key to success in West Bengal’s politics, something that Mamata Banerjee has learned from her bete noire, the former Left Front regime, and utilised it to strengthen her organisational presence and domination. The BJP is simply following her footsteps and by hacking into the management system of the crucial schools, the party is trying to yield immense influence in regions where it has been a weak entity organisationally.
An important question that remains unanswered is – how could the BJP utilise the factional feud within the TMC to benefit itself in Daribhit? It’s not a question merely of Daribhit but entire West Bengal, where the BJP has grown strong by exploiting the prevailing inner-contradiction for power and fair share of booty of loot between different factions of the TMC. How could it exploit the situation with unprecedented show of political acumen and confidence when the ruling party has repeatedly called the BJP a non-existent threat in West Bengal?
The answer to these questions lie in the induction of the TMC strongmen like Mukul Roy into the BJP. Roy, who had once built the entire TMC organisation in West Bengal single-handedly and was positioned number two in the party, made his debut in the BJP with a promise of eroding the TMC organisation. Mukul Roy knows the nitty-gritty of the TMC structure in West Bengal and it’s very easy for him to find out the problem areas, especially those regions where factional feud within the party is at the peak. Islampur, or for that matter the entire North Dinajpur district, is infamous for the intense antagonism between different factions of the TMC.
By using his networking skills and organisational connections, Mukul Roy helped the BJP state unit president Dilip Ghosh to find a breaching point in the state’s ruling party’s courtyard. The TMC, which is now following a no-confrontation approach with the BJP and the Modi regime in New Delhi, didn’t pay much attention to its often embarrassing factional feuds in North Dinajpur and elsewhere, which helped the BJP and the RSS to use the Daribhit High School police firing as a Trojan’s Horse to enter the volatile political arena of North Bengal.
The TMC took major steps after the Islampur police firing to consolidate its fortress in Islampur and North Dinajpur, where hitherto the ailing Congress Party had been its chief competitor. As the RSS and the BJP has already eaten up a large portion of the traditional Congress vote bank among the Hindu community of the region, the TMC is scared of its shrinking space.
This is a reason that the party didn’t take a confrontationist approach regarding the student movement in Daribhit High School like it did in Bhangar, Bhava Dighi and elsewhere. Showing a shift from its confrontationist and audacious standpoint, the TMC and the West Bengal Government denied the involvement of the police in the murder of the two students. It directly laid the blame on “anti-social” elements within the “crowd”, trying to push the ball into the court of the RSS and reverse the tide of public sentiment. However, the attempts of the TMC to regain its lost ground didn’t fetch any result as the people of Islampur witnessed the brutal murders committed by the police, allowing the BJP to triumphantly celebrate its maiden political victory in North Dinajpur by capitalising on the tragic death of two young men.
It’s time that the politically-aware, self-cocooned and highly educated Bengali Bhadralok, who at least despise communalism in thoughts and action, look outside their windows to see how the situation of the state has worsened at the grassroots and how West Bengal is no more “immune” to communal riots, how it’s no more the “oasis” of communal harmony and unity due to the rabid communal polarisation drive undertaken by the RSS and its progeny under the patronage offered by Mamata Banerjee’s government.
Instead of vehemently opposing and resisting the communal aggression of the RSS-led Hindutva camp, sponsored by the upper-caste elite Marwari and Gujarati Hindus, Mamata Banerjee and the TMC fell into the very trap laid by the RSS. By competing for the Hindu vote bank by organising the non-Bengali Hindu festivals like Hanuman Jayanti, Ram Navami, Ganesh Puja, etc., the TMC has not only compromised Bengali ethos and secular values, which Mamata Banerjee utters on each occasion, it has also fuelled softcore Hindutva officially and took West Bengal on the path that was traversed earlier by Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat, Maharashtra and other BJP-ruled states.
The Daribhit High School incident and its violent aftermath is an eerie alarm that is signalling towards a darker future for West Bengal when the BJP and the RSS will ascend to power in the state officially. The position of the TMC has weakened considerably due to rising tides of anti-incumbency, while the CPI(M)-Congress combo, already rejected by the people for their anti-people character, is nowhere close to matching the firepower and velocity of the BJP. Thus, the BJP is filling the vacuum that no political entity is able to fill in West Bengal, and it’s doing so without facing any stringent challenge from its official foes. This situation needs a drastic change for the betterment of the Bengali society and to defeat the evil designs of the RSS that aim at subjugating the Bengalis, tribal people like Santhals, Mundas, Bagdis, Kochs, Nepalis and other sections of the society under the Hindi-Hindu-Hindusthan juggernaut.
To prevent the recurrence of incidents like Daribhit High School, where the state kills young people with utmost impunity and then shows the audacity to deny its involvement, a situation where a genuine mass movement is turned into a communal carnage by the Hindutva fascists, an alternative political force, a truly democratic opposition force, needs to be developed from the grassroots, which will build up massive struggles on behalf of the working class, the peasantry, the toiled people and lead them to defeat the Hindutva fascist camp and the ruling classes that support Hindutva fascism. Only then, such heinous murders of citizens by a fascist state can be ended and a democratic, representative and answerable system can be built.
Neeladri Mukherjee is a former high school teacher and a Rabindra Sangeet lover. An M.A. in Political Science (not entire), Neeladri is a close observer of West Bengal politics, South Asian affairs and the trade union movement.