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Ram Navami to Ram Mandir

Clashes in eastern India aim at polarising territories anew to influence the polls and beyond.

In the run-up to the 2019 general elections, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) seems to be falling back on its old trick for quick returns—communal polarisation—as witnessed in the recent clashes in Bihar and West Bengal. A spate of low-intensity communal attacks against Muslims, especially centred on Ram Navami celebrations, has taken place in these two states. Social media and the party’s organisational strengths were cleverly deployed to this effect.

Ram Navami celebrations this year have been marked by belligerent rallies of young men on motorbikes, waving swords, and saffron flags. Typically, these well-planned processions start from a Hindu neighbourhood accompanied by religious songs and slogans. They then proceed towards Muslim neighbourhoods, where the songs and sloganeering become blatantly communal and the aim is obvious. Several such rallies were led by local Sangh Parivar leaders/cadres and joined by their counterparts from neighbouring Uttar Pradesh and Jharkhand.

In March 2018, in Bihar, communal incidents began with the BJP’s loss in the Araria bypolls to the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) and continued up to the Ram Navami celebrations, affecting 10 districts, resulting in one death and injuries to around 65 people. In West Bengal, the clashes were concentrated around Ram Navami, leaving four dead in Asansol. The party’s state and national leaders violated prohibitory orders in Bengal and toured the affected areas selectively, visiting only Hindu pockets, and a BJP union minister’s son was arrested on rioting charges in Bihar. The prudence and responsibility expected of the political leadership was shown, however, by the victim’s father, Imdadulla Rashidi, a Muslim priest. While addressing the media, Rashidi lamented the brutal death of his young son by rioters and appealed to his community for peace, not revenge.

Traditionally, Bihar and West Bengal have been bastions of Lohiaite and left politics, respectively. The Hindu right-wing and upper-caste-centric BJP has never managed to establish a strong foothold there, except in alliance with the Janata Dal (United) (JD[U]) in Bihar. In fact, both states are known for fostering strong sociopolitical opposition to the BJP in national politics, ruled as they were by the RJD and the communist parties for considerable periods. However, the BJP has managed to put these erstwhile ruling parties as well as the incumbent ones—JD(U) and All India Trinamool Congress (TMC)—on the defensive with its aggressive political machinations at the state and national levels.

The two eastern states have had a long pluralist religious history and have also not witnessed any major communal flare-up in the past few decades. Ram Navami has hitherto almost always been a relatively low-key celebration. This has been changing swiftly, backed by militant street processions, and is showcased by the BJP as a show of strength. This latter phenomenon is increasingly being seen in several other states too.

The BJP has found a powerful and potent icon in Ram for the political mobilisation of disparate Hindu masses towards a Hindu rashtra. This also dovetails with its demand for the construction of a Ram temple at Ayodhya, a central plank of Hindutva politics. Accordingly, the Sangh Parivar has been systematically working towards building up Ram-bhakti (devotion) in Bihar and Bengal through campaigns like Beti Bachao, Bahu Lao (save a daughter, bring home a daughter-in-law) against the so-called “love jihad” phenomenon and portraying Muslim male youth as modern-day predatory Ravanas. Hindu women are seen as naive, infantilised Sitas who must be rescued by “honourable” Hindu men who are ostensibly emulating Ram.

In the 2014 general elections, the BJP’s vote share in Bihar and Bengal was 29.9% and 17%, respectively, which fell to 24.4% and 10.2% in the subsequent state polls of 2015 and 2016, respectively. Given that the spiralling farm crisis and caste tensions are leading to increasing opposition to the ruling party across states, the BJP is hoping to capture new ground in this region bolstered by its recent victory in the North East. Its defeat in the two by-elections in Uttar Pradesh, engineered by the Samajwadi Party–Bahujan Samaj Party alliance, has only propelled it to resort to its tried-and-tested propaganda. The sizeable Muslim populations in these states (17% in Bihar and 27% in West Bengal) offer an opportunity to whip up anti-minority hysteria.

Bihar and Bengal, the third- and fourth-most populous states, together account for nearly 16% of India’s population. This is also a relatively underdeveloped belt with low levels of industrialisation and high rates of poverty. The BJP had been voted to power in 2014 riding on the popular backlash against the Congress’s corruption, and the popular demands for employment and development. Having failed to make any significant progress in improving the material conditions of life for the vast majority in India, the BJP is busy engineering caste cults and fuelling communal tensions to appeal to the baser instincts of the masses.

Ordinary people in Bihar and Bengal have expressed outrage against such violence and communal propaganda. However, some opposition parties such as the TMC and Congress, far from decrying this violence, have been trying to outcompete the BJP with their own versions of soft Hindutva. Whereas other parties, such as JD(U), which has failed to rein in its own alliance partner (BJP), have been passive. If opposition parties fail to seize this moment and provide a strong electoral and ideological alternative for voters to defeat this sectarian agenda, it will be a huge setback for the nation.

Updated On : 13th Apr, 2018


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