Prayers at the Roman Catholic church in Begopara. (Source: Express photo by Partha Paul)
At day break on March 14, Anton Kumar Biswas, a convent schoolteacher in Ranaghat town, woke up to the sound of church bells tolling. But unlike other mornings, these weren’t slow and distant but urgent, coordinated peals from both the churches in Ranaghat. Biswas instinctively recognised this as an alarm calland rushed out of his home to his schoolthat was already teeming with people when he reached.
And then, he stood in the crowd, dazed, as a nun broke the news— there had been a night-long raid on the school armed men had moved from the schoolbuilding to the sisters’ residence and then to the chapel, they had desecrated the Holy Communion and “raped” the 71-year-old Sister Superior. The criminals, the sister said, had also decamped with Rs 7 lakh that had been set aside for renovating the school. That morning, Biswas says, “I thought itwas the darkest moment of my life. I still haven’t come to terms with what has happened. Howcould this beautiful institution have been ravaged in such a manner? Who would want to do it?” he says.
For the firstcouple of days after the attack, people had spilled onto the streets of Ranaghat, angry and in pain. There were demonstrations and blockades and people gathered in the town’s two main churches to pray for the nun. Less than a week later, Ranaghat, a town in West Bengal’s Nadia district that is 200 km from Kolkata and which sits plumb on NationalHighway-34, is slowly getting back to being itself.
On the Thursday after that attack, the protesters at the schoolgates are a motley bunch — a few Jadavpur University students, smallNaxalite factions and a group from the SUCI. Holding placards that read ‘Hang the Rapists’, they no longer attract much attention. But today the few TV cameras at the gate have something to linger on: rebel SFI leader Prosenjit Bose saying howhe was there to express “solidarity” and howthe accused “shouldn’t be allowed to get away”.
Classes have resumed at the Sisters of Mary Immaculate, one of the main missionary schools in Ranaghat, after a day’s shutdown in solidarity with the schoolthat was attacked. Outside, parents, mostly mothers, stand in groups and talk. But these days, even their gossip is tinged with fear. Pratima Kirtania is here to pick up her son. “I am Hindu, but this is not aboutreligion. Look at the sisters, they are here, having given up everything — their families, homes — just to help our children. When even they are not spared, what securitycan we hope for?” she asks angrily.
It’s this anger that erupted when Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee visited Ranaghat 48 hours after the incident. An impromptu blockade, mostly by youths of the town, saw the CM stranded on the nationalhighway for morethan an hour.
Oddly for a Bengal town, Ranaghat has never seen strident politics. This time, too, during protest rallies after the attack on the school people held placards that said: “No politics we want justice”. The protesters decided soon after the incident that they would not allow any party to exploit the situation. BJP leader Rahul Sinha, the Congress’s Adhir Chowdhury and Surya Kanta Mishra of the CPM were allowed into Ranaghat only on the condition that they put down their party flags.
In the years that the Left held their sway over the state, the town was a Congress stronghold. But since 2011, when Mamata won the Assembly polls, the area’s Congress leaders have been crossing over to the Trinamool Congress. The BJP though has its pockets of influence in Ranaghat and other partsof Nadia district. Asked if there were tensions between Hindu groups such as the VHP and RSS and Christian missionary groups, a Christian priest said on condition of anonymity, “At times there is some tension, but things have not gone out of control yet. They are busy with their work, we with ours.”
NH-34, which connects Kolkata with Siliguri, and the Sealdah Main (North) railway line run through Ranaghat, its two lifelines that meet once in the town, at Mission Road-Rail Gate. The schoolthat was attacked lies on one sideof the highway, along with a few “stalls”. Agencies that run out of these stalls offer“security to interested parties, protection, permanent/temporary jobs” in a town where mushrooming of schools has created a huge demand for securityguards, teachers and non-teaching staff. On the other sideof the highway is the Don Bosco para. The settlement gets its name from the Don Bosco orderthat was once active in Ranaghat. Those who livehere are predominantly newChristian converts. It’s a colony of women and children; the men mostly work in countries in the Gulf.
Prabir Gomes, who runs a catering institute in Ranaghat, came back from the Gulf two years ago. “Most of the men work abroad. Ithas been this way for decades. We use our contacts among the Christian missionaries to seek jobs in foreign countries, mostly as managers, caterers, cooks, medicalattendants and carpenters,” he says.
Jolly Biswas and her daughter livein a single-storey housein the Don Bosco para. Their home is barely 50 metres from the convent schoolthat was vandalised on the night of March 13. Jolly’s husband Anik Biswas works in the Gulf. A worried Anik has been making frequent callssince the tragedy. “Our nights are no longer peaceful. As soon as itgets dark, my daughter and I get into a huddle. The faces of the robbers (captured on the school’s CCTV cameras) are everywhere— newspapers, television channels… Now we can’t shut our eyes without seeing them,” says Jolly.
About a kilometre from the Don Bosco para is Begopara. This is a settlement that has come up around the grandiose Roman Catholic Church. The Roman Catholic community, according to recorded history, began to come here in the 1930s when Italian missionaries stepped up their activities with schools, hospitals, shelter and charitable organisations. According to Saroj Biswas, the priest of the Roman Catholic Church, Ranaghat has a population of around 6,000 Roman Catholics, higher than any other sub-divisional town in Bengal.
About 500 metres away from the Roman Catholic church, with its beautiful facade facing the nationalhighway, is the Protestants’ St Luke’s Church. Pastor Kishore Mondal says there are about2,000 Protestants in Ranaghat. The missionaries arrived here in the late 1890s and early 1900s, setting up healthcare centres dispensaries and schools.
Ranaghat and Krishnanagar, the district headquarters that’s 40 km from here, formed the core of a region called ‘central Bengal’ in what was then undivided Bengal. Those days, the Krishnagar diocese’s influence spread as far as Jessore and Faridpur, districts in present-day Bangladesh.
At his office in Krishnanagar, District Collector P B Salim, who has been credited with taking up several initiatives in Nadia district, ranging from women’s education to sanitation, says, “This one incident in Ranaghat has set us back, robbed us of allthe goodefforts we had been putting in to the raise the district’s human development index. As a district magistrate, I feel ashamed. Ranaghat’s Christian community is very progressive. That also makes them morevisible though they are in a minority. Hindus make up 70 per cent of the population, Muslims 26 per cent and Christians 4 per cent.”
The district shares a long borderwith Bangladesh and was a major refugee settlement after the 1971 Bangladesh war of liberation. Millions of refugees, mostly Hindus, crossed over to Ranaghat through the India-Bangaldesh borderat Gede — now the last major checkpoint on the Indianside — and through other porous points on the border. Cooper’s camp in Ranaghat is one such refugee settlement with 10-15,000 residents, who now have full citizenship status. The camp is now one of the mostbustling partsof town with its residents running many smallestablishments.
At 7 pm on Thursday, the nearby marketroad comes alive as people head out of the railway station. Hawkers push out headless mannequins in shimmery kurtas onto the narrow road and cycle-rickshaws jostle to queue up at the stairs of the station. But in tea stalls and little addas outside the shops allconversations revolve around the incident that pushed their town into a searing spotlight. They allnod their heads and agree abouthow the “police have done nothing so far”.
Sadhan Biswas, a panchayat member of Baidyapur-II in Ranaghat, says, “The rape and robbery at the schoolhave shadowed everything else. Maybe itwill take some moretime before we can get back to our lives,” he says.