Squatting in the middle of her badly charred room, its tiled roof blown off, Hena Tabassum described how on May 12 a Hindu mob launched a fiery attack on her brick-and-tile shack.
“We were fasting for Ramadan. It was around 12:30 p.m. Suddenly the mob attacked. They threw bombs, petrol bombs, and also dropped a gas cylinder into the room, before setting it aflame. I was inside the room. I was rescued by some neighbors before I got burned,” said Tabassum, 20.
“Everything in the room turned to ashes,” she told VOA.
While all of India was under strict coronavirus lockdown, a rumor spread in the town of Telinipara, 45 km north of Kolkata, that "hundreds of Muslims" had been infected with COVID-19 and were infecting members of the town’s Hindu majority.
The rumor triggered violence between the Hindu and Muslim communities. Over three days beginning on May 10, Hindu mobs set fire to 45 Muslim households. In retaliation, Muslims vandalized nine Hindu houses and shops.
Now, members of a fact-finding team sent to the village by the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) are charging that India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party contributed to the strife.
“BJP leaders spread a rumor that hundreds of Muslims had been infected with COVID-19 in the town and they were spreading the infection among Hindus,” said rights activist Malay Tewari, a member of the fact-finding team. “The fake news whipped up a strong anti-Muslim sentiment and sparked the communal violence.”
The BJP did not comment on the allegation, despite numerous requests from VOA.
The discord in Telinipara began in the second week of May as soon as it became known that five Muslims there had tested positive for the coronavirus. Within hours, blockades went up in many Hindu-majority neighborhoods to prevent Muslims from using local roads.
“Hindus stopped Muslims from using some public toilets and bathrooms. Hindu shopkeepers were told not to sell goods to Muslims. In some Hindu-majority areas, Hindus threatened to beat up Muslims if they were spotted there,” said Gulshan Ara, a resident of Telinipara.
Anti-Muslim passion spread quickly after Arjun Singh, a BJP parliamentarian, posted a photo of a bloodied Muslim man on Facebook and claimed that he was a Hindu who had been beaten up by Muslims.
“How long will the blood of Hindus keep flowing in Bengal? Muslims are attacking Hindus ... we cannot remain quiet. Bengal will burn,” Singh wrote in the post.
Another local BJP MP, Locket Chatterjee, said on national TV that Muslims in Telinipara were flouting coronavirus quarantines. “Hindu households are being set aflame by Muslims. Corona-positive Muslims are attacking Hindus. They refuse to go on quarantine,” Chatterjee said.
“They want to infect Hindus in the area,” she said.
The next day, 300 Hindu youths, armed with guns, bombs, Molotov cocktails, cleavers, crowbars, gas cylinders and other makeshift weapons, attacked dozens of Muslim households in the town.
Police disputed the charges by Chatterjee.
“It is not true that the COVID-positive Muslims refused to follow quarantine rules. We sent all of them to mass quarantine centers,” the local police commissioner told VOA.
"Our cybercrime cell has sent a notice [to Singh] and we are looking into whether he spread fake news and incited people. On the basis of public complaints, two cases have already been filed against Arjun Singh,” said the commissioner, Humayun Kabir.
Tewari, the communist party activist, charged that Singh’s Facebook posts — which included a claim that Muslims had attacked Hindu temples in Telinipara — “were undoubtedly aimed to incite Hindus against Muslims.”
Whipping up anti-Muslim passions will ensure more Hindu votes for the BJP in next year's crucial state election in West Bengal next year, Tewari said.