So far I had only heard from my grandparents of their agonizing experience of terror while fleeing their homeland in undivided Bengal; I had heard from Kashmiri Hindus of their plight while fleeing the valley for dear life; I had heard how Hindus, persecuted at the hand of the Pakistan Army and their Razakar accomplices in 1971, fled East Pakistan – their home, for countless generations – in order to protect their women. I had also read numerous accounts written by eyewitnesses of the massacre and horror in each of these cases; but today for the first time in my life I got to experience, first-hand, what Jihadi terror unleashed by a mob united in the name of religion entails. The incident unfolded at Akra Railway Station, which is situated on the Sealdah-Budge Budge subsection and comes under the South Section of the Sealdah railways network, one of the two principal nodes of the railway network in the city of Kolkata, the other, being Howrah. This eyewitness account is of the anti-CAA riot that erupted in Bengal.
It was 12:45 PM on the 15th of December, 2019. I was travelling with my wife on the very first compartment of the 12:30 PM up Budge Budge – Sealdah local train, a compartment which shares a wall with the driver’s cabin. We were to get down at Tollyganj, from where we had planned to take a cab to my in-laws’ for a visit to my ailing mother-in-law. It will be pertinent to mention here that only the previous night we had taken another local train in the same route to commute further up in order to attend a relation’s wedding reception party and had returned home late at night using the same means of commuting, on the same route. There was no visible trace of any unrest or anything out of the ordinary at that time.
I have been using this mode of commuting via local trains on the Sealdah-Budge Budge route all my life to attend my school, college, universities and workplaces before moving out of West Bengal for professional reasons. And I cannot recall, at least from my experience of commuting over fifteen years, any significant incident of disruption of train services due to dharnas or protests on this route. Therefore, despite the news of sporadic acts of disruption, violence and even vandalism coming from a few districts and certain specific areas of the city, we took that up Budge Budge – Sealdah local train without a second thought. We also got up into the first compartment considering it’ll be a shorter way to the street outside the station which was our destination.
The train started at about 12:40 PM. It takes about five minutes to reach the Akra station from Nungi, the previous station. The train slowed down considerably just before reaching the platform at Akra. And at that very moment, I heard the blaring noise of loudspeakers from a nearby place of worship of a certain community. It was an announcement, a call – following which the train stopped hard on its tracks just metres away from the said place of worship. This was a mere hundred metres from the platform at Akra. As soon as the train stopped, I noticed hundreds of people running towards the train and the railway tracks. Many of them came roaring from the direction of the place of worship which was on one side of the tracks, while many others came from the dense residential area on the other side.
Restless aggression and a distinct lack of reasonable behaviour – both characteristic features of a fanatic mob – marked them. Most of these fanatics reached for the platform, which houses the ticket counter and the station superintendent’s office. Some remained packed outside the doors of the driver’s cabin on either side of the train. That meant our compartment too got surrounded by a small crowd, which consisted of boys aged between 10 to 15 years and young men – all armed with stones picked from the railway tracks. They were yelling, hurling abuses and making wild, gleeful noises. I could see the smiling faces of the boys and the shockingly bright colours of their hair dye from one corner of a windowpane that wouldn’t get shut.
It seemed to me that they had come to witness some sort of violent, barbaric tribal carnival. It was a celebration of violence for them, a thoughtless unleashing of the animal instincts dormant in humans, instincts which are kept suppressed by layers of culture and civilisation. Bereft of these valuable possessions, the constituent members of the present mob showcased the baser qualities of the human species, true to the characteristics of fanatically monotheistic cults which have razed to the ground the great monuments of our overwhelmingly polytheistic, poly-ethnic Indic civilisation.
Panicked, the passengers in our compartment started trying to shut the window panes and doors. Some jumped off the compartment and onto the tracks and started running in the opposite direction. I was warily looking out one window to take stock of the situation. I could see an overcrowded platform in the distance, and I could hear wild roars rising one after another from that direction. Coming back to my seat, I tried connecting with the helpline of the GRP, but to no avail. I immediately called home, briefed them about the situation we’d found ourselves in and asked them to contact the local police station or GRP, whichever they could connect to. The Akra station area fell under the same police station’s jurisdiction as my family residence.
I got a call from home within minutes. They’d managed to connect with a GRP number. I noted the same and dialled it. Upon connecting, I narrated the situation in a manner so as to convey the gravity of the matter and impress upon the personnel the fact that the situation already seems to have gone out of control and the lives of countless innocent passengers were at stake. The response I received was crisp and by no means assuring: “We got the news. We will see.” I had a feeling that the personnel had failed to grasp the seriousness of the matter. So I gave it another try – telling him how helpless we felt as passengers caught in an unanticipated crisis, having no way for escape; that there were women and children among the passengers and how unsafe it seemed to even get off the train, considering those waiting outside seemed unfriendly, to say the least. The response was constant: we know it, we’ll see. To hear that forces had been dispatched for rescuing the passengers or to disperse the mob would have been highly assuring in this situation. At that moment, I felt utterly helpless.
By then the crowd outside had started banging wildly on the walls and tightly shut doors and windows of our compartment. Some of the passengers started discussing whether it would be wiser to remain shut inside or try to seek the assistance of those outside, in escaping from the scene. I myself felt clueless as to our next course of action. I sought my wife’s opinion, as well as that of my parents back at home via phone calls. Both urged me to stay inside the compartment and wait. I felt like we were waiting for our end to greet us. I remembered my Lord’s name as I muttered: “Jai Sri Ram, Jai Bajrang Bali”.
They started pelting rocks at the compartment. The noise of the rocks hitting the metal walls, doors and windowpanes of the train compartment was terrible. The end seemed near. To put things into perspective: even a small chip of the basalt rocks which are usually strewn on the railway tracks, if thrown with sufficient force, can cause a life-threatening injury. What of the large rocks then, each one of which weighs about two to three kilos! Such rocks were being incessantly pelted at the driver’s cabin with vengeance, many of which struck the walls, doors and windows of the compartment we were in, for, remember, it was the very first compartment of the train. Every one of us in the compartment got down on all fours, desperately trying to shield our heads, ducked beneath the seats for cover. Any number of those pelted rocks could have mortally struck the passengers. Thank God they didn’t – or at least they didn’t strike anyone within the range of my vision. Apart from children and young men and women, there were a few senior citizens among the passengers in that compartment, about forty passengers in all. I couldn’t keep track of the time during which the stone-pelting continued full-on. Perhaps at moments of such grave crisis, when humans fear for their lives and the lives of their near ones, the sense of time gets blurred. It could have been two to three minutes or perhaps much more than that. But the duration did seem to me like an eternity. And I couldn’t think of a way out of this plight.
At one point, the intensity of the shower of rocks softened a bit, and as soon as it lowered one of the compartment doors were thrown open; and some four-five men got up into the compartment. Wearing a seemingly casual attitude, they straightaway asked us, passengers, to get off the compartment. We hesitated. How could we trust these men, who may well have been a part of the mob pelting rocks at our compartment a moment ago? We would be left with no choice but retreat following the railway tracks on foot, and walk all the way back to the previous station (which was situated at a distance of about eight km from that place) if we detrained now. And what was the guarantee that we won’t be harmed by the same mob once we detrain? The question of advancing towards the platform on foot doesn’t even arise. The beastly roars from the direction of the platform had trebled by now, and as I put my head out of the now-open door I spotted pitch dark clouds of smoke rising from numerous points on the railway tracks and the platforms ahead. The station had been put on fire. The unrestrained mob was on a rampage.
Meanwhile, these men who had broken into our compartment kept directing us to get off. I had a suspicion that they were planning some mischief either with the carriages, or with the passengers, or with both. Perhaps they wanted to avoid serious trouble for themselves by putting the carriages on fire while the passengers were inside and thus wanted us to vacate them. This seemed more credible to me as they were insisting on us getting off the compartment as the stone-pelting continued, albeit with somewhat lower intensity. Or they might have humbler intentions to simply loot the electrical appliances and metal fixings from the compartment after we had vacated the place. It occurred to me that they might get mad at us passengers if we didn’t detrain as they suggested, and consequently, they’d want to remove this one obstacle on their path by harming us. And so, with Sri Ram’s name on my lips, I decided to get off.
But then I remembered the senior citizens among the passengers. I looked at them. They appeared to be petrified, fixed to their seats out of sheer terror. Addressing the men directing us to get off the compartment, I pleaded with them: “Dada, we can try jumping off the compartment from this height as we are young; but please think of these old women and men – how will they manage this feat? It’s impossible for them!” Those men acted as if my words didn’t penetrate their ears. They kept on repeating one phrase: Get off! Get off!
As I prepared to get off, I saw another group of young men standing outside our compartment on the railway tracks beside the train, laughing and cracking jokes amongst themselves, and making those meaningless, primitive, gleeful noises through their parted human lips, while capturing our ordeal on their mobile phone cameras all this time. The gap between the pedestal at the compartment door and the landing below – which was nothing but rocks strewn on an uneven bed between railway tracks – was at least seven feet. This is no exaggeration, considering the train was far from entering the platform area, which was still about a hundred metres away. Attempting a jump from this altitude and onto such terrain might throw even an athletic young man off balance, resulting in some serious injury. Add to that the fear of getting struck by the rocks being hurled from time to time, amidst roars of beastly cheering and laughter, and the dark clouds of smoke rising skyward from the conflagrations up ahead. I could my hear my own heart pounding wildly as I jumped off the pedestal and landed on the tracks. The terror was compounded as the concern for my wife’s safety was gnawing at me.
I helped my wife get down and together we stepped off the railway tracks onto a parallel muddy path. As we did so, another spell of terrifying roars reached my ears and I saw a hundred men running towards us from the direction of the station. For a few seconds, we were transfixed to the ground. We were fearing the worst in those passing moments. Those momentary fears got quelled when I realised that the men were headed not toward us, but past us. It surprised me when I noticed that even this mob, which was rioting on the platforms at the station, consisted mainly of teenage boys and young men, almost all of whom would be aged 10 to 20 years old. The two of us joined them and ran, not knowing where we were headed. While running, I caught up with one of these boys and asked him why they were fleeing. He said the RAF had been deployed at the station, that’s why.
This piece of information made me heave a sigh of relief. But the very next moment a thought occurred to me: what if the angry mob, incensed at the actions taken by the RAF, decided to take it all out on us? Also, if the RAF fires tear gas shells at this mob, even we might get caught in the crossfire. Lacking a better plan, we started running towards the residential area on the opposite side of the place of worship mentioned earlier. After minutes of running, we reached a narrow lane where some curious local women were trying to see what’s going on. Upon enquiry, they told us that we could reach the Budge Budge Trunk Road (the principal connecting roadway between the suburbs and the city proper) if we walked on for around fifteen minutes via the Akra Station Road.
The narrow lane consisted of a swampy, muddy path and it also had open drainage on one side, which made it all the more difficult to walk through it. And we were forced to run through the same! After traversing myriads of such narrow lanes – an attempt which felt like finding one’s way out of a maze – we could finally see a glimpse of the Akra Station Road through a small gap between two houses situated on one of the lanes. This was the road that connected the Akra station and the Budge Budge Trunk Road, ending into the latter at a juncture known as the Dakghar More. And this road now seemed to be our best bet to escape the rioting mob. We also noticed a number of motorcycle riders from the Akra Station Road trying to get through the small gap to the lanes. Must be the fear of the patrolling RAF.
My wife and I were standing at one end of that lane, accompanied by three-four passengers from the train who, like us, were desperately trying to reach Dakghar More. The scene in the lanes brought an image in my head: that of a rat trap, and at that moment the indignity of our situation as Hindus living in this state, in this country, hit me. Nobody except we were to be blamed for what was happening to us today. The lack of self-awareness about our position in this subcontinent’s history, the lack of willingness to organise as a nation, a self-effacing attitude and the resultant apathy for the present and the future were to be blamed. In this scenario, finding faults with other communities would be a mere escapist stance. Others are only working towards fulfilling their respective religious and communal goals. They have fixed goals. And what about us, the Hindus? Far from having a fixed goal, we were determined to resist any attempt to work out a common goal.
A few more tensed moments passed. Then we saw that the motorcyclists were fleeing the scene, taking whatever route they could find. We saw a small company of RAF walking past the narrow gap of the lane. Evidently, the bullies on motorcycles were now busy saving their own necks. My wife and I decided that we must risk taking the station road in order to reach Dakghar More on foot. We approached the road, advancing carefully through the lane. The other passengers accompanied us. The houses on either side seemed deserted except for the women – were the men and kids out rioting?
Reaching the end of the lane, I stuck my neck out to check what was happening on either direction on the road. On my left, the road had ended at the station; there was nothing to be seen except for flames and dark clouds of smoke constantly rising from them. On my right were some people, scattered here and there on the road. They wore expressions of curiosity and tension. I saw some young men standing on top of a huge four-storey house, recording the scenes of destruction and rioting down below. They appeared to be really enjoying their activities on what seemed to be just another leisurely winter afternoon for them. They were jocular and curious, and in them, there was no trace of the terror that had engulfed us.
We hit the station road. The road seemed deserted after the patrolling RAF had passed through it. Some local men were trying to test the waters before assembling again. We carefully avoided them and walked along. They were abusive, roaring from time to time and had an aggressive body language. But not one of them dared to advance towards us. Such was the fear instilled in them by the patrolling RAF. It was clear that they were awaiting a chance to get back to the station and resume vandalising and arson. Perhaps one spell of rioting could not satiate them. Advancing further, we saw a bus standing across the road. It had been vandalised, its windscreen and windows bearing the marks of stone-pelting.
With anxieties and uncertainties of all sorts in our hearts, we continued walking down the station road. After several minutes of walking, we reached a neighbourhood where there was hardly any minority household. The air seemed less troubled, and there was no trace of vandalism or violence anywhere. People sneaked out of their windows and doors to understand what was going on outside. I asked one of them if we would get any conveyance from Dakghar More. The response wasn’t satisfactory. We walked on for five or seven minutes more. Finally, we reached the junction on the Budge Budge Trunk Road. It had little resemblance with what I remembered of it from my last visit during the Durga Puja just two months ago. Obscured by smoke, littered with burnt remain of tyres and logs, it resembled an abandoned war zone. It was clear that the mobs had unleashed utter destruction here as well. There was no sign of buses, autos or cabs. After a rather long wait, we saw an e-rickshaw. We stuffed ourselves into it, along with three more passengers from the train.
Ever since we reached our home, we have been haunted by the nightmarish memories of that incident. The things that had happened to us on that day, and the things that could have happened to us – reflections of these sorts kept conjuring horrible images inside our heads, even when we were wide awake. I believe it was through sheer grace of God that we had managed to escape from the fanatic mob in one piece. But this incident had once more exposed the widespread apathy of the Hindu fold towards protecting its dignity, lives, culture, property and dharma, and the consequent unpreparedness to meet the monstrous challenges it faces at this juncture in history.
(The Bengali version of the article was first published in Bangodesh)
Sreejit Datta teaches English and Cultural Studies at the Amrita Vishwa Vidyapeetham University in Mysore. Variously trained in comparative literature, Hindustani music and statistics; Sreejit happens to be an acclaimed vocalist who has been regularly performing across multiple Indian and non-Indian genres. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org