Police Firing at Islampur, 1984

While I was District Magistrate of Murshidabad, there was a very serious breakdown of law and order over an illegal attempt to build a mosque on government land. This case describes what happened.

Islampur village is situated in Raninagar-I Development Block of Lalbag Subdivision in the district of Murshidabad, West Bengal. While the Muslim population in the Block is high, Islampur is more or less a Hindu dominated village. There is no mosque in this village. However, the surrounding villages like Nashipur, Nashihat, Hadhadia, Natempara are all Muslim dominated and have mosques too. The Muslims of Islampur offer their prayers in the nearby mosques, which are at walking distance from the Islampur bazar.

The Islampur market is an important bi-weekly market of the area. The market or ‘hat’ is held every Monday and Thursday. Lots of people visit the ‘hat’ on the ‘hat-bars’ (days on which the market is held) for business. Some Muslims of Islampur and the neighbouring villages were of the opinion that visitors to the ‘hat’ as well as the shopkeepers faced a lot of difficulty in offering their five daily prayers. They felt that constructing a mosque somewhere near the ‘hat’ would make it convenient for them to offer their prayers. They identified a vacant land behind the Public Works (Roads) Office [PWR] beside the Katlamari Road for the purpose. This plot was a vested land (i.e. ceiling surplus rayati land which had vested to the State under the WB Land Reforms Act) measuring 1.01acre and had been transferred to the local Panchayat Samity in March 1979.

In November 1982, the Officer-in-charge (OC) of the local Police station (PS) received a letter from the Sabhadhipati (Chairman) of the Zilla Parishad (ZP) that some persons had encroached upon the land intending to build a mosque on it. The matter was diarised with the police on 20.11.82 and the OC enquired into the matter the same day. He found that a group of Muslims under the leadership of one Rezaul Hossain, son of Mokin Mondal of Nashipur village and others had encroached upon the land and started raising a ‘kutcha’ (temporary) structure with bamboo poles and thatched roof with the intention of using it as a mosque. The police stopped the construction and posted a picket at the place to ensure that no further construction took place. The situation was tense but under control. There was apprehension of breach of peace. The next day, the OC submitted a prayer to the Sub-divisional Executive Magistrate (SDEM) for promulgating prohibitory orders u/s 144 of the Criminal Procedure Code (CrPC). The SDEM, on being satisfied with the report on the ground situation, promulgated an order u/s 144 CrPC prohibiting any further construction on the land.

Having failed in their attempt to construct the mosque at the desired place, the organisers were perturbed and decided to approach the ZP on 27.11.82 with a request for donating the land for building a mosque. At their instance, a meeting was held by the local Muslims at Islampur on 27.11.82. The local MLA, A.Rahamatullah, heard the entire deliberations in the meeting where many of the speakers presented their views in favour of building a mosque on that land. However, the MLA suggested that such a mosque could be constructed on a better plot instead of the one chosen by them. But the organisers were bent on constructing the mosque at the same place where the kutcha structure stood. As such, it was decided that a deputation would meet the District Magistrate (DM) in order to obtain permission to construct a mosque on the concerned land. The local Opposition party and some constituents of the ruling Left Front coalition in the State supported their stand.

On 6th December 1982, information came to the District Intelligence Branch (DIB) of Police that Smt Chhanda Ghosh, an MLA of the ruling coalition, was encouraging the local Muslims to construct the mosque on the same plot. The local Hindus kept silent. The situation was kept under close watch by the police and the District Administration.

In October 1983 the Sabhapati of the Panchayat Samity had received a complaint from the Branch Manager, United Bank of India, Islampur Branch, that fish-mongers had shifted the fish market and blocked the entrance to the Bank on the PW Road beside plot no.1593 leading to difficulties to commuters and office-goers besides creating a foul smell. He also approached the district authorities for shifting the fish market from the entrance of the Bank to the plot encroached upon for convenience of all. The Panchayat Samity planned to start a cooperative market on the plot and shift the fish market there. On 17.12.83, the district authority forwarded the prayer of the Manager to the Executive Engineer, PWD to look into the matter.

One year after the attempt to build a mosque at Islampur ‘hat’ in Nov. 1982, there was a renewed attempt to do so on the same plot. The OC, PS, applied to the SDO through the CI of Police and the SDPO for again promulgating prohibitory orders u/s144 CrPC at the place on 21.11.83. Routed through proper channel, the application took time to reach the SDO and the order was promulgated on 3.12.83. In the meantime, on the night of 30.11.83, the organisers of the proposed mosque and others constructed a kutcha structure on the encroached plot for using it as a mosque for the time being. Further construction was stopped on the basis of the prohibitory order. Unhealthy tension was building up in the locality. On 22.11.83 the SDO suggested to the DM that the unauthorised structure should be removed to settle the matter once and for all and that the Panchayat Samity should take the initiative in this matter as the land belonged to them.

The DM wrote to the Sabhadhipati, ZP on 26.12.83 requesting him to take steps for removing the unauthorised construction from Panchayat land. The ZP as well as the Panchayat Samity were controlled by the ruling party. The Sabhadhipati wrote to the Sabhapati of the Panchayat Samity to remove the unauthorised construction in consultation with the Block Development Officer (BDO) in order to contain the tension in the locality. The SDO instructed the Junior Land Reforms Officer (JLRO) of the Land Reforms Circle on 31.01.84 to file a case under the West Bengal Public Land (Eviction of Unauthorised Occupants) Act, 1962 [Act XIII of 1962] in the court of the SDO in consultation with the BDO of the block, if the Panchayat Samity had not taken any action till then. The Panchayat Samity requested the organisers of the mosque to remove the unauthorised construction, but they took no action. As no further action was taken by the Panchayat Samity to remove the unauthorised construction, on 13.2.84 the JLRO filed a complaint under Act XIII of 1962 to the Collector (i.e. SDO) under the Act, giving details of the land encroached upon. The area of the plot was 1.01 acre out of which 0.04 acre was encroached upon.

The Collector (i.e. SDO) under Act XIII of 1962 issued show cause notice u/s 3 of the Act on 12.4.84 to one Rahel Seikh, the person leading the organisers, giving him seven days’ time to file his reply. Seikh kept silent. Seven days after the date fixed, one Abdur Rezzaque appeared on his behalf and filed a written reply which stated that Seikh did not have any interest in that plot. The Collector rejected the reply on 15.5.84 and issued orders u/s 4(1) (a) calling upon the encroachers to vacate the public land in question, to dismantle the temporary structure on it and hand over possession to the JLRO within seven days. Thereupon, they applied to the Sabhapati for issuing a ‘patta’ (title deed) for construction of a mosque on that plot. They also collected building materials like bricks, brickbats, stone chips etc. at the spot. The Sabhapati rejected their application on 17.4.84 stating that no patta could be issued under the rules for the stated purpose. The Sabhapati and the OC, PS, held meetings from 17.5.84 to 20.5.84 with the organisers of the unauthorised construction, requesting them to remove it and to set up the mosque on an alternative plot. They refused and heckled the Sabhapati for not issuing the patta. Some stated, “We will never remove the stumps that we fixed with our own hands and if anybody tries to remove them, we will protect it until the last drop of our blood”. The organisers were being actively supported by at least one Opposition party. The deadline fixed by the SDO passed without any action from the encroachers to comply with the court’s orders.

As the previous order was not carried out, the Court i.e. the Collector under Act XIII of 1962 directed the Superintendent of Police (SP) to provide necessary police help to enforce delivery of possession of the encroached public land to the JLRO immediately. The district administration decided to remove the unauthorised construction at dawn on 1st June 1984. Orders u/s 144 CrPC were promulgated by the SDEM. Two Executive Magistrates proceeded to the spot with a police force commanded by the Additional SP. Trucks and labourers were arranged from the district headquarters as local labour at Islampur would not be available. Removal of the unauthorised construction was completed peacefully without any obstruction before sunrise on the chosen day.

At about 5AM, when a portion of the police force led by the CI (Circle Inspector) of Police was on its way back, it was surrounded and attacked by a violent mob armed with deadly weapons including pipe guns, bombs, lathis, spears etc. coming from Islampur and the adjoining villages. The CI’s right arm was fractured, three constables were injured and four police vehicles were heavily damaged. Subsequently, the trucks of the PWD carrying the contractor and labourers were also heavily damaged and some of the workers injured too. The 2nd Officer of the PS and the OC of another PS who was present with his force for the operation had to retreat in the face of severe attacks as there was possibility of their being overpowered. The whereabouts of the Additional SP were not known.

On receiving this information, the DM and the SP immediately contacted the nearby Commandant of the BSF battalion requesting for a show of strength and a flag march by them. The Commandant pleaded his inability to move without orders from the headquarters. So they got in touch with the IG, BSF over telephone. He refused to render any help at that moment without clearance from Delhi. The DM then rang the Chief Secretary who told him to manage with whatever police force was available. The DM decided to rush to the spot without further delay. Before leaving, he rang up the Home Secretary, told him about the problem, that he and the SP were leaving with whatever few policemen they could round up and that he and the SP may not return safely. Rushing to the police lines, the DM and the SP roused the few policemen there (about 22) from sleep and left for the spot with arms and tear-gas equipment.

On their way to Islampur they had to clear many road blockades. Crowds armed with lathis, spears, bows and arrows and brick-bats were seen rushing towards Islampur. At one place, the DM asked the people where they were going. They replied that they were going to offer ‘namaz’. The DM asked them then why they were carrying lathis but got no reply. They reached the place at about 7.45 AM and faced heavy, continuous brick-batting and bombing. About 5000 people armed with weapons had already gathered around the market place. Violent sentiments were whipped up by the agitators over loudspeakers. The crowd, which had degenerated into a mob, attacked the DM, the SP and the small police force. Attempts to draw them into discussion by announcements over microphone failed. The brick-batting steadily built up. Seeing that the situation was going out of control, the crowd was repeatedly warned by DM and the SP to disperse as it was an unlawful assembly in violation of the orders promulgated u/s 144 CrPC. The crowd renewed the attack and started breaking the roadside shops. One Head Constable and four constables were injured by brick-bats in the attack. The mob was then warned that if they did not disperse immediately force would be used to disperse them. They did not comply and continued their attack. The situation became extremely grave. As it was pointless to use lathis in view of the crowd showering brick-bats from a distance and from behind huts, tear-gas shells were fired. Only two shells burst out of the ten fired. This emboldened the crowd further to renew the attack with greater violence, including firing from improvised fire-arms and throwing bombs at the police force.

In view of the grave risk to their lives and property—both private and public—the DM decided to use fire-arms as a last resort to disperse the unlawful assembly. The mob was warned that if they did not disperse they would be fired upon. The mob continued the attack unabated. The DM ordered firing and found the first shot whizzing past his ear from behind. In shock, he turned round to find an embarrassed constable explaining that since on principle they had boycotted firing practice, he had no idea of the prescribed drill.[1]

The DM then made five constables kneel down in front of him facing the crowd and ordered firing of one round each by them from service rifles at the violent mob, aiming below the waist. No one was hit as the hands of the policemen were trembling and they failed to take proper aim. The crowd continued the attack. The DM found some people about to throw brick-bats at him and took a rifle from one of the constables to fire in self-defence when a Deputy SP came to his rescue and shot at the assailants from his service revolver. The DM then ordered the constables to take careful aim and fire another round and then yet another. The mob retreated and dispersed. The DM then ordered firing to cease. Nine persons injured by the firing were immediately sent to the Islampur hospital. One of the persons was declared brought dead by the Medical Officer, Islampur Hospital. Another injured person died in the District Hospital, where he had been referred.

Soon after this, the BSF rolled up in trucks and was advised by the DM to go round the area as a show of force to ensure that peace was maintained. Later, the DM found out that the Home Secretary had intervened, leading to the arrival of the BSF. Subsequently, the Special IG of Police arrived to take stock of the situation and asked the DM to persuade the shopkeepers to reopen their shops and start normal business. This was done.

The DM asked the SDO to lodge an FIR regarding the incident, but he pleaded that if he did so, his service career would be doomed and requested the DM to relieve him of that responsibility. So the DM himself lodged the FIR with the local Police Station. A case was started u/s 147/148/149/427/341/342/353/325/307/333 IPC, Section 9B of the Indian Explosives Act and Sections 25 and 27 of the Arms Act. Thirty persons were arrested in the police raids on the spot including the Muslim League Secretary and his workers with pamphlets and some deadly weapons.

The DM sent a detailed report regarding the incident to the Home Secretary with copies to the Divisional Commissioner and the SP. The SP also sent a detailed report to the DIG of Police with copies to the Special IG of Police and the DM.

The raids continued for some days. On 3rd June the 2 Executive Magistrates on duty reported that six truck-loads of bricks and other articles of the demolished structure were removed in their presence from the spot and sent to the Zilla Parishad compound for storing.

Local newspapers as well as all the major dailies like Ananda Bazar Patrika, The Statesman, Jugantar etc. reported the incident on the following day in different ways stating the incident of an armed clash between a mob and the police at Islampur leading to the death of one person and injury to 8 or 9 others. All the reports indicated that the incident followed the illegal act of some people to construct by force a mosque on government land.

Subsequently, the Opposition party approached the parents of the deceased in the firing asking them to lodge cases u/s 302 IPC (Murder) against the DM and the SP. The parents refused, saying that their sons had committed serious wrongs and the DM and the SP had no alternative but to open fire.

Tension continued in the locality for quite some time. A deputation from the West Bengal State Muslim League Committee met the Additional DM (General Administration) at the district headquarters on 5.6.1984 and demanded compensation for the firing victims as applicable in the case of air-crash victims. They mentioned that 11 (eleven) copies of Koran had been damaged and in all 18 (eighteen) persons were killed and buried secretly. They demanded a judicial enquiry and compensation to the owners of the shops allegedly looted by the police. They stated that they wanted to ask a few questions of the DM and, if not satisfied with the answers, threatened to launch a big agitation. The ADM (G) tried to dispel their misgivings and requested them to exercise complete calm and restraint particularly in the context of the holy month of Ramzan. The DM asked the SP to enquire into the allegations. The SP reported that the allegations were baseless and there was no corroboration from any other source. Leaflets containing distorted version of the happenings and tending to vitiate the communal atmosphere of the district were circulated by the District Muslim League particularly among the Muslims.

The District Magistrate got news that some persons were spreading extremely dangerous rumours regarding communal tension and this was demoralising the local people as well as government staff. He instructed the SDO to camp at Islampur with adequate security and undertake extensive tours into the interior areas as the best corrective step in case there was any such tension in the locality. On the DM’s suggestions, the SP also directed the SDPO to take similar action.

The DM instructed the Executive Engineer, Highway Division-I, PWD, to enclose the plot with a boundary wall and also to take steps to get this plot transferred to PWD so as to overcome the space constraint in their office. This had the approval of the Minister of State for Primary Education who was a Muslim and the Minister-in-charge of the District.

The SDO requested the DM to consider constructing a rest-shed for the community on some other plot near the ‘hat’. He also stated that the MLA and the Sabhapati wanted that the plot should be enclosed by a boundary wall immediately as some persons were trying to incite communal feelings in connection with removal of the unauthorised structure.

On 22.6.84 the Imam of Sarulia Mosque, at the time of Namaz, asked the Muslims to perform Namaz to Allah so that the Hindus including the DM, who had dishonoured the holy Koran and demolished the mosque, may be punished by Allah. The DM sent a proposal to the Home Secretary for setting up a TOP (Thana Outpost) at Islampur as soon as possible for maintenance of law and order and prevention of crime.

The DM became the Commissioner of the Division in 2000. He found that no enquiry by an Executive Magistrate into the incident of police firing had been done in the 16 years, as mandatory under the Police Regulations of Bengal, 1943.

[1] The CPI(M) party had a union of the non-gazetted police officials which flouted such colonial hangovers as regular parades, firing practice, checking equipment etc. Unquestioning obedience of orders of superiors was abandoned.


More by :  Dr. Pradip Bhattacharya

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