Communal Politics Gaining Ground in West Bengal
The steady decline of the left and the Congress has created a political vacuum in West Bengal. While the Trinamool Congress government consolidated its support base with important populist measures, some of its pro-Muslim policies drew flak from a section of the Hindus. The Bharatiya Janata Party is trying to enter into Bengal politics by attacking the TMC on its appeasement policy and is trying to whip up pro-Hindu sentiments. With the weakening of secular democratic forces, the polarisation of the society on communal lines is taking place with much vigour.
After the landslide victory in Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand and forming the government in four states after the assembly elections of 2017, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is now focusing its attention on West Bengal. The recent move to send 40 of its national leaders to lend support to its political activities in Bengal is part of that initiative. Led by Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh, these leaders will tour various parts of the state and try to mobilise people in support of their party. BJP is aiming at securing around 12 of the total 42 seats in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. In 2014, the BJP had won three seats in Bengal. But, in a state, where the opposition parties (Congress and the left) are steadily on a decline, a situation has arisen where BJP might come up as a powerful opposition. Buoyed with its spectacular performance in the recent elections, the BJP now wants to seize this opportunity.
The BJP’s political offensive in the state has put Mamata Banerjee in a quandary. The chief minister and the ruling TMC supremo, who does not let go any opportunity to attack the BJP to protect her party’s non-communal credentials, is now tentative in her approach towards the BJP. Earlier, before the five states went to poll, Mamata went into an overdrive to form an alliance at the national level against the BJP. Though the ostensible reason was to oppose the Modi government’s demonetisation policy, she was using the opportunity as a testing ground for forming a broad alliance against the BJP before the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. But the move backfired badly. Arvind Kejriwal’s Aam Aadmi Party, which joined Mamata’s campaign against the BJP, backed out of it immediately after the arrest of Sudip Bandyopadhyay, a senior Member of Parliament (MP) of the TMC, allegedly involved in a Ponzi scheme (Rose Valley case). Moreover, Mamata’s campaign in her home state also failed to mobilise people around demonetisation. A diffident Mamata maintained silence for some days once the Uttar Pradesh election results were out.
At the core committee meeting of her party, she ordered her party leaders to start a campaign against BJP’s politics of extreme Hindutva. But at the same time, she cautioned them to moderate their voice of protest and not attack the leaders personally. The TMC went into the poster campaign—“Modi Hatao, Desh Banchao” (overthrow Modi, save the country). The poster was issued in the name of Idris Ali, a TMC MP, and the party president of the TMC Minority Cell, presumably with the endorsement of Mamata.
Reasons for Concern
Although Mamata and her party colleagues are putting up a brave front saying that the BJP’s effort to create a serious dent in TMC’s support base will come to naught, they know there are reasons for concern. The pressure on the TMC is growing on two fronts: first, the Modi government has started squeezing the fund flow of various central projects. Until now, the Mamata government has been diverting funds from central projects to many of its populist schemes, for example, giving monthly allowances to around 12,000 imams in the state, stipends to artisans, annual grants to hundreds of youth clubs, and so on. The Modi government has now stopped releasing funds pending proper audit of their utilisation. Also, the central investigating agencies like Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), Enforcement Directorate, etc, have accelerated their investigations of the chit fund scam of Saradha and Rose Valley leading to arrest of two TMC MPs. The Calcutta High Court also handed over the Narada sting probe to the CBI around the same time. The state government’s desperate bid to get a stay order on the CBI probe was promptly rejected by the Supreme Court.
Second, the BJP continued their Hindutva campaign attacking the Mamata government’s pro-Muslim measures as blatant appeasement of Muslims. The Modi government in Delhi in an unprecedented move deployed central paramilitary forces to protect the BJP workers in Kolkata against the attacks of the TMC supporters. When a group of TMC workers attacked the BJP state headquarters in Kolkata, engaging with BJP workers in a violent clash, the union government quickly sent central force to guard the party office. The message to BJP cadres is loud and clear: the Modi government is with you in your battle against the ruling party in the state; if situation demands, central forces will be there to protect you.
The active intervention by the centre in matters related to the law and order situation in the state, has taken the ruling TMC aback. Till now, the TMC leaders and cadres alike, in their bid to overwhelm the opposition parties, got unabashed support from the state police and administration. Ever since they came to power in 2011, the ruling TMC took the initiative to capture the local bodies (panchayat and municipality) by intimidating or bribing the elected members of opposition from the Congress and the left parties. The partisan role of the police and administration helped the TMC. The intervention of the central force in support of the state-level BJP workers is a new thing that can play havoc in the minds of the TMC workers when they engage with BJP workers. In the same core committee meeting, Mamata expressed concern that with the BJP mounting its pressure, disgruntled elements within the TMC might leave and join BJP.
Muslim population in Bengal is around 28%, and that of Scheduled Castes is around 23%, a majority of them peasants. These peasants successfully resisted the erstwhile Left Front government’s bid for land acquisition in Singur and Nandigram, thus paving the way for the TMC coming to power. After coming to power, the Mamata government took some steps to bring benefits to these socio-religious sections of the society. Though some of the steps—for example, provision of a monthly allowance to imams and muezzins—were symbolic, the administration was forced to turn a blind eye when there were incidents of a serious breakdown in law and order that involved Muslim population.
The incident at Magrahat in South 24 Parganas, is a case in point. In December 2011, the state Power Minister Manish Gupta announced a decision to start an intensive drive against power pilferage. This was after Mamata called for reduction in losses without burdening the customers with increased tariff. At Magrahat, anti-hooking operation turned into a bloody confrontation between the villagers and the police. The police force was hopelessly outnumbered by a violent mob, forcing the police to fire in the air to disperse the mob. The chief minister publicly reprimanded the officials from the electricity distribution company as well as the police for the incident.
The government’s decision to pay monthly allowance to imams and muezzins was challenged before Calcutta High Court. The court scrapped that government order on the ground that it was discriminatory by nature. But the government continued with the allowances circumventing the high court order by routing the fund through the Wakf Board. The inclusion of a prominent leader of the Jamiat-Ulema-e-Hind, Siddiqullah Chowdhury in the TMC ministry and sending Idris Ali (from the Basirhat constituency) to Lok Sabha are also indicative. Both are known for their extreme right-wing line of thinking. In 2008, a demand for the expulsion of Taslima Nasrin (a liberal author from Bangladesh) from Kolkata turned into a violent riot where Idris Ali and Siddiqullah Chowdhury were allegedly actively involved in fomenting the unrest. The TMC and the state government tried to distance themselves from the controversy of triple talaq claiming it to be an exclusively internal matter of the Muslim ulema. After such occurrences over a period, a perception gained currency that the TMC government and the ruling regime in West Bengal are trying to play favourite with the minority community.
Allegations were flying from the BJP camp that the ruling TMC is appeasing the minority community. The riots in Kaliachak, Malda in January 2016, Naihati–Barrackpore, North 24 Parganas in October 2016, and Dhulagarh, Howrah in December 2016 added to vitiate the atmosphere. The police and the administration’s effort to clamp down on the rioters was at best tentative, giving more handle to the BJP’s campaign against the TMC. After the BJP’s massive election victory in Uttar Pradesh and the party’s renewed effort to garner support in Bengal, the TMC is trying to change its tack a bit. It is heard that the administration (that includes the police) has been asked to balance its act. But there is every chance that while the Hindus might think it is too little, the Muslims might take it as an act of betrayal.
Ram Navami and TMC’s Response
On the political front, the TMC’s ambivalent attitude is visible. Unlike previous years, this year, the Hindu Jagran Manch, an affiliate to Vishva Hindu Parishad, has observed Ram Navami, hitherto not a big festival in the state, in a big way throughout Bengal. In Kolkata alone, they brought out 22 rallies, totalling around 150 in the state. For the first time, “Ram bhakts” (devotees of Lord Ram) were seen marching on the streets carrying swords and sticks. To test the TMC on their stand on the question of Hindutva, the organisers had sent invitation to a number of TMC leaders and elected representatives to attend the procession, thus putting them in a fix: if the TMC leaders accept the invitation and attend the Hindu Jagran Manch’s Ram Navami festival, they might look mingling with the right-wing Hindu political forces, thus risking the alienation of Muslim voters. On the contrary, if they refuse to attend Ram Navami, then BJP will try to brand them as anti-Hindu. The TMC’s response indicates that they have stepped into the trap set up for them by the BJP and the Sangh Parivar.
Mamata publicly attacked the BJP for trying to appropriate Ram Navami and position themselves as the sole custodian of the Hindu religion. Taking a cue from her, the TMC leaders tried to position their party as the real Ram bhakts without questioning the political motive of the BJP behind these initiatives. In Birbhum district, the all-powerful TMC leader Anubrata Mondal, in his bid to outdo the Sangh Parivar in their game, instructed his party colleagues to observe Hanuman puja in all the blocs. Similar festivities have been reported from Burdwan and Nadia districts. Since this initiative of the Birbhum leader has been publicised without any hint of reprimand, it is presumed that he has got approval of Mamata.
Perhaps, Mamata is testing the ground. If it generates sufficient response then similar ventures might be taken to other districts. However, if that happens, and Mamata decides to tread on the path of soft Hindutva, then the TMC will be in real crisis. For the BJP and the Sangh Parivar, it is easy to play the Hindu card because that is their core constituency. But the TMC’s vote bank is not formed of Hindus alone. Like any other secular party, they are dependent on various sections of the society. For the TMC, Muslim support in a number of districts in south Bengal is crucial. With such heterogeneous composition of its vote bank, the TMC will be on slippery ground if it wants to take on the BJP on their home turf. Still, if it persists, it will be of advantage to the BJP.
How strong is the chance of the BJP coming in a big way in Bengal? Is BJP poised to become a major political force in Bengal in the near future? The ground reality is definitely not against it.
A Political Vacuum
It is true that ever since partition, the politics of the left and the left-of-centre dominated the political scene in Bengal, and the politics of the Hindu rights never got many takers. However, the decline of the left and Congress in the state has created a void. Instead, caste and community-based identity politics have started raising their heads. Because of a history of partition, West Bengal had a sizeable number of Hindus who had come from the eastern part of undivided Bengal. While the middle class had resettled themselves in Kolkata and other urban areas, the lower class, mostly peasantry and artisans, were settled in rural areas, many in the districts bordering Bangladesh. The loss of livelihood, coupled with the lack of proper rehabilitation programme taken up by the government made them angry and frustrated.
The refugee movement was co-opted by the left and they gave vent to their anger by supporting the left in successive elections. With the passage of time, the refugee movement lost its steam, yet the sense of loss for their lost home and livelihood remained strongly in their mind. The bitter memory of partition had left an indelible mark in their minds that made them hostile to Muslims when fomented by communal politics. The refugees’ disenchantment with the left grew as they got little succour even after the left came to rule the state for more than three decades.
The rise of the BJP at the advent of the Ram Janmabhoomi movement came in the 1990s and drew the refugees to that politics. The vote share of the BJP started increasing steadily in the bordering districts. Dumdum and Krishnanagar, two Lok Sabha constituencies where the refugee voters are a dominant force, saw BJP winning in the 1990s. In the last assembly elections of 2016, the BJP got three seats, of which, two are in bordering districts. In November 2016, in the Lok Sabha by-election, the BJP came second leaving the left and Congress far behind.
The acceptability of Hindu right politics was not restricted to the refugees alone. Even people known to be leftists are seen to be abandoning their ideology to join the BJP. The left and the Congress are hopelessly outmanoeuvred by the communal and religion-centric politics. Unlike in the past, when they used to take a bold anti-communal stance in times of communal strife, they now prefer to remain silent, leaving the ground to communal forces.
In the last few years, the number of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh shakhas (branches) in the state has grown from 256 to more than 1,200. However, this is not sufficient to provide dedicated workers to all polling booths (numbering 74,000) in Bengal. So, they need to expand fast, and attracting people from other political parties is faster and easier. In 2018, rural Bengal will take part in panchayat elections. The BJP’s performance in panchayat elections will be an indicator as to what might take place in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.
Bengal, which was once the cradle for many a nationalist movements during the British rule and left movements in post-independent India, was by and large, known for its liberal sociopolitical thinking. That liberal atmosphere was occasionally vitiated by communal politics during and immediately after partition. The riots of 1950 in both (the then) East Pakistan and West Bengal was one such event that yielded to communal passion on both the religious communities—the Hindus and the Muslims. But since then, despite a number of communal riots that took place in the next six decades, the political establishment did not yield to communal pressure. With the weakening of secular democratic forces, polarisation of the society on communal lines is taking place with much vigour, with the implication that communal and religio-cultural politics might occupy centre stage for the time being.
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