After Farmland, Nandigram Now On The Boil Over Faith

Nandigram is witnessing tension over children wearing skullcaps to a government sponsored school.

Nandigram, West Bengal: Nandigram, where political turmoil in 2007 played a large role in the end of three decades of communist rule Bengal and the ascent of the Trinamool Congress, is on the edge once again. In February, trouble had erupted at a school over holding Saraswati Puja. Now, tensions have flared at another government-sponsored school over wearing skullcaps and on the heels of that, a clash over holding a kirtan.

Ten years ago, Nandigram was on the boil over farmland. This time, it is faith.

The Samsabad Dhannyashala School, built in 1950, has around 1,350 students. Sixty per cent are Muslims. On March 16, around 400 students were taking the work education exam when two students arrived with skullcaps on their heads.

Headmaster Dr Pradip Dhar objected. "I said the school has a uniform. The caps are not part of it. I asked the students to take off their caps outside the exam hall and then come in," he said.

The students did not do that. They left and returned a short while later with hundreds of parents and other people. They nearly beat up the headmaster and completely vandalised the boys' washroom "because toilets can't face west", Mr Dhar said.

"There was chaos and I could have been beaten up if the police had not come. The police asked why I had objected to the caps. I told him, to maintain discipline. I have nothing to do with religion. The same rule applies to all," Dr Dhar added.

Next day, 46 people submitted a list of demands to the headmaster: allow students to wear skull caps, allot one hour break on Friday for prayers, build new toilets not facing west and celebrate the Prophet's birthday.

The headmaster has not agreed to the demands. He will submit it to higher authorities.

Local resident Sheikh Sanwar Hussain Tullah, said, "The headmaster said some odd things, so the protests. What's wrong with the cap? The person wears a cap for his faith. That faith should not be hurt."

A teacher at a nearby Madrasa, Sheikh Obaidullah, said, "Caps and hijabs are allowed in many schools. So why not here?"

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But a Hindu father waiting outside the school to pick up his son did not agree. "What has happened was not right. There should be no religious issues in an educational institute," he said.

The other trouble spot at Nandigram is a 10-minute drive away - Saraswati Bazar, where a religious function was to be held on March 18. Hindus Samhati, one of the organisers of the kirtan, pulled down a stall owned by a Muslim man to put up this pandal. As unrest flared, police charged at the crowd with batons, arrested five and allegedly thrashed a youth so badly, he is now in a Kolkata hospital.

"Ayan Pattanayak's shop had a Hindu Samhati banner, so they beat him up the most. Threw him to the ground and hit him in the stomach," a local resident said.

Local Trinamool Congress leaders tried to say both incidents were one offs. And failed.

Sudhin Khanra, Gram Pradhan, Nandigram, first said, at the school, the headmaster should not have told the cap-wearing students they wouldn't be allowed to set for the exam if they did not take the caps off.

On Saraswati Bazar, Mr Khanra said, Sheikh Rana had gone off to a religious function so was late in removing his stall. And Mr Pattayanak was "abnormal" and fell down while running from the police.

"We know the RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh) game plan. After UP, Bengal is their target. They are looking to create trouble and move in. RSS prepares the ground. BJP moves in. And that's what they are trying in Nandigram," he said.

Local BJP leaders were not available to comment but the RSS has already accused the Mamata Banerjee government of turning a blind eye to what it called "jihadi activity".