The police allowed the Ram Navami processions without formal permission in West Bengal’s Howrah despite letters by the organisers suggesting their refusal to comply with at least one crucial guideline. The processions eventually saw several violations, be it music, weapons, motorcycles or the rally schedule, according to video clips and documents reviewed by this reporter.
While one procession was organised by the Vishva Hindu Parishad, another was by local Hindutva outfit Anjani Putra Sena. The guidelines were sent to them by the Howrah police on March 21, days after they sought approval for the rallies – which left behind a trail of in Shibpur on March 30 and 31.
According to documents reviewed by this reporter, the VHP had informed the police on March 3 of its plan to carry out a procession, scheduling it from 4 pm to 8 pm. The Anjani Putra Sena gave a similar letter. On March 21, the Howrah police commissioner wrote to both the organisations, laying out a set of guidelines.
The rallies had to start at 2.30 pm and end by 5 pm “strictly”, no participant was to “show provocative gesture and posture or use malicious slogans aiming to people of other community”, and no member of the rally “should carry weapons, use any motorcycle, DJ in any way”.
However, on March 23, the Anjani Putra Sena again wrote to the police, saying that their rally would start at 3.30 pm, without specifying when it would end. On March 28, the police wrote to both the organisers, seeking details such as the exact timing, route, the number of participants and list of volunteers.
The VHP responded on March 29, informing the police that their rally would start at 3 pm and end at 7 pm. The Anjani Putra Sena did not submit a fresh response. The police eventually allowed the organisers to take out the rallies even though there was no formal permission or ‘no-objection letter’.
But both the rallies – the VHP’s rally came after the ’s procession – started behind schedule, had processionists on motorbikes, played DJ music with songs like , and featured participants with swords and firearms, according to police sources and videos reviewed by this reporter.
Asked why the rallies were allowed despite the organisers stating in advance their refusal to comply with the schedule, several police officers in Howrah refused to comment on the issue. “The matter is being heard in Calcutta high court and the state government’s standpoint regarding permission and subsequent actions will be elaborated in the court,” said an IPS officer posted at Howrah police commissionerate.
The police had made arrangements to ensure the rallies could conclude peacefully. The Howrah police commissioner and other senior officials had arrived at the starting point of the VHP’s procession before 2.30 pm. But the VHP and Anjani Putra Sena rallies started after 3 pm and 3.30 pm, respectively, and moved at a pace slower than what the police had expected.
As a result, while the administration wanted the procession to conclude by 5 pm, it reached the Muslim neighbourhoods of Priya Manna Bastee – the site of – after 5 pm, with another two km left for the destination.
The Anjani Putra Sena’s rally “DJ songs” their rally. The featured traditional Bengali dhak and dhol and also DJ music, several people who saw the rally confirmed. As per video clips reviewed by this reporter, participants were seen carrying not only and sticks but also firearms ( and ). This reporter verified the authenticity of these videos with the police.
A senior police officer at the Howrah commissionerate told Newslaundry that the strict time schedule was to ensure the processions could end before iftaar time. “We know how these DJ songs have triggered riots in the past in our state as well as outside and therefore we prohibited its use in advance.”
While the exact trigger for the fresh violence is unknown, several video clips online show saffron-clad rally participants and Muslim mobs clash.
Man in disputed video held, say cops
While the BJP and the VHP on Monday that the footage – of a youngster at a Ram Navami rally holding a revolver – by Trinamool Congress leader Abhishek Banerjee was not from the Shibpur rally, the police claimed to have arrested the suspect from Munger in Bihar on Tuesday. He has been identified as 19-year-old Sumit Shaw, a resident of Salkia in Howrah district.
A senior police officer had earlier claimed that the police were looking for the man. “It [the video] is from the Shibpur rally, but whether from the VHP’s rally or the Anjani Putra Sena’s remains to be confirmed,” the officer told Newslaundry.
A close look at the shows the Calcutta Heart Research Centre’s Shibpur unit on the GT road, which is located on the route of the procession and barely 400 metres ahead of the Priya Manna Bastee where trouble broke out, in the background of the tableau carrying the suspect with the firearm. A reverse image search using video fragmentation and thumbnail did not lead to any past existence of the footage on the web.
Bengal TMC spokesperson Kunal Ghosh hit out at the BJP over the arrest on Tuesday. “The BJP called the video fake. What would they say now that the culprit has been nabbed?” he on Facebook.
In another clip of a man dancing with a firearm in hand, the Bank of Baroda’s branch at Chaura Bazar on the procession’s route is visible, local police said. A reserve image search using video fragmentation did not show past existence of the footage.
Bid to defame, says VHP
Anjani Putra Sena’s founder-secretary Surendra Verma could not be reached for comment as his phone numbers have remained switched off since Saturday.
Indra Deo Dubey, the convenor of the VHP’s rally, denied any provocation from the procession. He said the rally moved slowly but it could happen when thousands of people participate. He said that the few people who were on motorbikes were for crowd control and there was nothing wrong in the delay.
“Ramzan happens for a month. Our Ramji’s puja is for a day only. Even for namaaz or iftaar, they do not need the road. Why can’t they leave the road for our festival even one day?” Dubey told Newslaundry, adding that these were signs of “West Bengal transforming into West Bangladesh”.
“We were moving peacefully. In the Kazipara area, Muslims even offered us refreshments. However, the moment the procession reached PM Bastee, Muslims started pelting stones and glass bottles from rooftops of multistoried buildings. The police did not enter a single of those buildings to nab the culprits standing on rooftops,” alleged Dubey.
About participants brandishing weapons, he said, “Why did the police not arrest those carrying weapons then and there? We suspect these persons were made to infiltrate our rally to defame us.”
A senior officer of Howrah police, however, said that the police had identified most of the participants who carried weapons and they will be arrested soon.
Speaking to Newslaundry, organisers of the VHP rally and Howrah police officers claimed that the last time a formal permission was given out to the two organisers was in 2019.
Sudden media focus
A local journalist claimed that while there was little media presence in Shibpur, a significant amount of media attention was drawn the same day by leader of opposition Suvendu Adhikary’s and BJP national vice president Dilip Ghosh’s visit to Ramrajatala – a locality about four km from Shibpur named after a century-old temple. Representatives from various media houses flooded the Shibpur area soon after the clashes broke out.
However, in a rerun of what happened in the area during Ram Navami last year, residential complexes, shops and vehicles were vandalised this time as well in Howrah’s Shibpur, barely 2 km from the state secretariat and a stone’s throw from the local police station, on March 30 and . Around 40 have been reportedly arrested so far and two cases filed.
While the BJP and VHP have approached the Calcutta High Court seeking a central agency probe, chief minister Mamata Banerjee has ordered a CID investigation while the BJP and Sangh affiliates. The CID made their first spot visit on Sunday.
The route map shared by VHP with the police.
The route actually taken by the VHP. Red marks where trouble broke out.
As news about the violence trickled in on March 30, the chief minister , “Why did you change your route? Why did you move into an unauthorised route? To intentionally hurt one community and attack them?” But Newslaundry has independently verified that there was no difference in the route map submitted before the police and the actual route taken by the two processions.
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