Even amidst the pandemic, Hindu-Muslim polarisation is, by far, the biggest factor in the ongoing Bengal Assembly election.
Amidst Covid-19 fire, Hindu-Muslim polarisation is Bengal's biggest poll factor
Even amidst the pandemic, Hindu-Muslim polarisation is, by far, the biggest factor in the ongoing Bengal Assembly election.
Meghnad Bose KolkataApril 27, 2021UPDATED: April 27, 2021 13:35 IST
Even amidst the pandemic, Hindu-Muslim polarisation is, by far, the biggest factor in the ongoing Bengal Assembly election. (India Today)
In Asansol, 18-year-old Rakesh Prasad will be voting for the first time this election. “Corona ke cases bohot badh gaye hai (corona cases have increased a lot),” he says. But will the handling of the Covid-19 pandemic determine his vote? Not really. “We have to unite the Hindus - and that is why I will vote for the BJP,” says the young student.
Jayanta Choudhury, a schoolteacher and a BJP worker in Malda, says in a similar vein, “There are people dying in Malda town due to the coronavirus and there is a massive fear of the destruction this virus is wreaking. Urban voters will consider the Covid response to be a factor in how they vote. But, the bigger election factor is definitely the appeasement done to the minority community and the need to vote against this politics of appeasement.”
“If Mamata Banerjee comes back to power, she will convert West Bengal into Pakistan,” remarks Toton Pal, a 30-year-old driver in Purulia. Md. Ibrahim Sheikh, a 60-year-old resident of Sujapur, counters “It is the BJP whose agenda is to communalise - they know that if they cultivate communalism, then they can come to power.”
Even amidst the pandemic, Hindu-Muslim polarisation is, by far, the biggest factor in the ongoing Bengal Assembly election. IndiaToday.in travelled across the state to get a pulse of why the communal question is key to how this election has played out, and why it could determine the victors on 2 May.
DIVIDED OVER ALLEGATIONS OF APPEASEMENT
While it’s true that Bengal has seen incidents of communal violence in recent years in places such as Malda in 2016, Basirhat in 2017 and Asansol in 2018, the phenomenon of increasing communal polarisation in the state is far from being limited to such incidents alone.
Basirhat was hit by communal violence in 2017.
According to the 2011 Census, Muslims form 27% of West Bengal’s population. However, the districts of Murshidabad, Malda and Uttar Dinajpur have more than 50% Muslim population. Districts like Birbhum, Nadia, and South and North 24 Parganas also have a considerable Muslim population, ranging from 25% to 37%.
This makes the Muslim vote a significant factor in around a hundred of the 294 seats up for grabs in the Assembly election.
While the Muslim vote has largely been with the Trinamool Congress in recent elections, the BJP alleges that this is so because Mamata Banerjee’s government has practised the politics of minority appeasement in Bengal, a charge the TMC denies.
On the ground in Bengal, this has proven to be the biggest issue determining whether people vote for the BJP, a party that won only three seats in the 2016 Assembly election but is the primary challenger in 2021 to the TMC’s bid for a third term in power.
Ajay Verma, a 45-year-old RSS worker in Asansol, tries to explain this highly polarising issue with an analogy, “Imagine you have two sons. One son gets all the love, the other gets scoldings and beatings for even the slightest of mistakes. Won't there be some resentment between the two?”
Ajay Verma feels that the TMC has indulged in “minority appeasement” during its ten years in power.
Verma’s analogy of Muslims getting preferential treatment from Mamata is backed up by Laltu Mal, a BJP worker in Birbhum, “Didi will not decide that we cannot immerse our Durga idols on Dashami.” Mal is referring to the Mamata government’s decision in 2017 to restrict immersions of Durga idols on the day after Bijoya Dashami because it clashed with Muharram. The BJP had created a furore about the issue at the time, alleging it was a perfect example of Mamata’s Muslim favouritism.
Laltu, a convert from the CPM to the BJP whom you might recall from an earlier election dispatch of ours, further asks, “Mamata is a Brahmin woman but she is going to do namaz. Why? What is she thinking?”
The TMC’s announcement that a monthly stipend would be provided to imams through the Wakf Board of West Bengal continues to rankle Hindu voters in the state, especially given that the BJP has made it a key plank of their campaign against “minority appeasement”.
In 2020, Mamata also announced free housing and allowances for Hindu priests, but the BJP was quick to call it a damage-control move by the TMC enacted due to the saffron party’s meteoric rise in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls.
The antagonism over Muslim appeasement on one side, and the fear of Hindutva politics on the other - across the board, voters and commentators alike agree that politics in Bengal hasn’t been this communally polarised in a long time.
REMEMBER RIZWANUR? PROOF OF BENGAL’S HEIGHTENED POLARISATION
File image of Rizwanur Rahman and Priyanka Todi.
In 2007, the death of a 30-year-old computer teacher in Kolkata named Rizwanur Rahman had made headlines across the country.
Rahman, who hailed from a relatively low-income family, had married Priyanka Todi, the daughter of wealthy industrialist Ashok Todi. Less than a month after their marriage, Rahman was found dead next to a railway track. The needle of suspicion had pointed towards Ashok Todi, who had disapproved of the marriage. He and three others were later arrested on charges of abetment to suicide.
The outrage that had followed Rizwanur’s death, especially in Kolkata, was immense. Mohammad Reyaz, a Kolkata-based professor and political analyst, recounts, “In Kolkata, the outrage was not because a Muslim man died. It was not about Hindu-Muslim, it was more that a poor man died because he had married a woman from a wealthy family.”
Reyaz points to how this case is a marker of how much more communally polarised Bengal is in 2021 than it was in 2007, “Now, if such a case takes place, it would be called love jihad.”
In a Hindu-majority locality in Malda’s Baishnabnagar, Gautam Tiwari, a 54-year-old RSS worker who has been associated with the Sangh ever since he was a child, proves Reyaz’s point. Tiwari says, “The Rizwanur-Todi case would be seen as love jihad now. Even then, in reality, it was definitely love jihad. Ashok Todi was absolutely right in getting his daughter back. Rizwanur’s death is sad, but what Ashok Todi did in getting his daughter back is definitely good.”
RSS worker Gautam Tiwari believes that the Rizwanur-Priyanka case was an instance of ‘love jihad’.
In Tiwari’s village in Baishnabnagar, we meet a 26-year-old worker of the Hindu Jagran Manch. “I work primarily on the issue of love jihad,” he says. “I had attended a 4-day training session on love jihad organised by the Hindu Jagran Manch in Indore, and am now a Beti Bachao Pramukh of the Manch.”
What is the kind of work he does, I ask him.
“We get the Hindu girls back to their families. We find the couples, and we beat them up.”
“You beat up the women as well?”
“Yes. But after rescuing them, we provide them counselling - we show the Hindu girls videos about the terrible things that Muslims do. We try to put cases against the Muslim boys but the police are mostly in their favour, so it is difficult.”
A BJP worker who was sitting nearby chirped in, “If the BJP wins on 2 May, it will become much easier to file these cases.”
MUSLIMS WARY OF BJP VICTORY
Noor Mohammad reminisces the time he spent living with a Hindu family, and rues the rise of communalism in Bengal.
“What is happening in Bengal is the same as what is happening all over India”, says Noor Mohammad, a 58-year-old contractor in Sujapur. He adds, “The BJP has created this atmosphere of communalism. But a section of Hindus is liking it, because they think or they know that they will be saved and protected by the BJP. Look at the talk of CAA-NRC, for example - in which Muslims are called infiltrators, but Hindus are called refugees.”
Noor says he is wary of the BJP coming to power in Bengal on 2 May. “The fear will increase obviously. We are safe here (in Sujapur, which has an overwhelming majority of Muslims) but will we be safe in Malda, or Kolkata? We will be scared wherever we go.”
I pressed him on the point, “You mean you will be fearful when you go out of Muslim-majority areas?”
“Definitely,” he replied.
But it wasn’t always like this, Noor rushes to explain. “Hindus and Muslims coexist so peacefully here that even though I was born in a Muslim household, I spent two decades living in a Hindu home. My parents were poor, and a Hindu family in Malda who lived next to us would help look after me.”
“I would go and buy the materials for their pujo”, Noor reminisces. “But in the coming days, given the kind of politics being done on Hindu-Muslim lines, I don’t think such an environment will exist anymore.”
Even as Noor was making this point to me outside a marketplace in Sujapur, another person joined the conversation and concurred, “This is a peaceful place. Hindus and Muslims live here as brothers, with love and in peace.”
I asked him his name.
“Nobokumar Gupta”, he replied. He is a 50-year-old Hindu voter who works as a driver in Malda, and his vote, he said, would go to the Congress in 2021, as it had in the past as well.
But Nobokumar agreed, “This time, there is more talk about communalism than ever before.”
Manwara Khatun, a 32-year-old Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) worker says, “It is wrong to say that Didi works only for Muslims. This is an electoral ploy to hurt Mamata, but we want her to stay in power. Communalism is not increasing because of Mamata, but because of Modi. We will not let him win Bengal.”
“We feel fearful even for our kids.” says Manwara Khatun, holding her baby daughter in her arms.
She adds, “They haven't come to power in Bengal yet, but already they are talking about things they will do in Bengal, like NRC. Of course, this strikes fear in our hearts. Innocent Muslims are jailed where BJP govts are in power in other states. We see all of that and are fearful.”
Sabina Yasmin, a 28-year-old homemaker, concurs, “This communalism is not good. We want Hindus and Muslims to stay together peacefully. Society will suffer if communalism increases - there will be violence and riots, and we don’t want any of that.”
Sabina, too, was fearful of a prospective National Register of Citizens (NRC) exercise in Bengal, like the one that took place in neighbouring Assam. “We feel scared of NRC. If BJP wins, they could implement NRC here. We don't want that, because we are scared they will send us away to detention camps, where people will live in such conditions that it will be akin to dying, or they will die there.”
After the passing of the Citizenship Amendment Act in December 2019, Mamata Banerjee had taken to the streets to agitate against the CAA and a prospective nationwide NRC. Her pitch to the people had however relied on the central theme that if an NRC were to be implemented, the poor of all religions would be the ones worst affected.
West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee leading a march against CAA in Kolkata.
Whether it was due to the strength of Mamata’s persistent campaign against the NRC or due to fears that a section of Hindu voters might get spooked by talk of an NRC exercise, the BJP has chosen to clarify that it will only implement CAA, not NRC, if voted to power in Bengal.
“We are only looking forward to implementing the CAA after the elections, as promised in the manifesto. We do not have any plan of conducting the NRC exercise, even if we win the elections,” said senior BJP leader Kailash Vijayvargiya.
IS THE MUSLIM VOTE TAKEN FOR GRANTED - AND WILL IT SPLIT THIS ELECTION?
Beyond the narrative of “Muslim appeasement” in Bengal, there is also a resentment among some Muslim voters who say that not enough has been done on the development front. “They come for our votes, but no work is done for us” says Moiuddin Khan, a 54-year-old former transmission line worker who resides in Manikchak.
Moiuddin Khan feels that not enough has been done for Muslims on the development front.
Moiuddin’s home district of Malda witnesses a huge amount of out-bound migration, especially among the youth, due to what locals claim is the scarcity of employment opportunities in the district.
Moiuddin adds, “The Sachar Committee report showed that Muslims lag in employment and education. The government changed from Left to TMC hoping for vikas, but vikas didn’t come.”
Yet the fear of the BJP coming to power ensures that Muslim voters like Moiuddin continue to choose between the Congress and the Trinamool Congress. In fact, in Malda, this very dynamic might pave a path for the BJP to go past the victory line, as it did in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls.
In the north Malda seat in 2019, there was a significant vote split between the TMC (which secured 4.25 lakh votes) and the Congress (which received 3.05 lakh votes). Combined, their vote count of around 7.3 lakh votes was far greater than that of the BJP, who won the seat by polling 5.08 lakh votes.
In the 2016 Assembly election, one of the three seats that the BJP managed to win in Bengal was in Baishnabnagar in Malda, which has an almost equal demographic composition of Hindus and Muslims.
The seat was won by the BJP’s Swadhin Sarkar after what locals say was a consolidation of the Hindu vote in the region following the communally charged violence in neighbouring Kaliachak in January 2016, just months before the election.
A local reporter in Sujapur says that the TMC could be tactically avoiding a split of the Muslim vote in Baishnabnagar in 2021 by fielding a Hindu candidate Chandana Sarkar while the Congress has fielded Muslim candidate Azizul Haque again, who lost the 2016 election by less than 5,000 votes to Sarkar. “The TMC candidate will aim to split the Hindu vote, and Congress could win the seat,” says the reporter.
Across the state, the fear of the Muslim vote splitting up is underplayed by Trinamool Congress leaders, even after the Left and Congress joined hands with the newly formed Indian Secular Front (ISF), led by Furfura Sharif cleric Abbas Siddiqui. Yet, the impact of the ISF in drawing Muslim voters to the jot (as the Left-Congress-ISF alliance is colloquially called) is still unknown.
On the issue of communalism in Bengal, the Left has chosen to blame both the TMC and the BJP. Speaking to IndiaToday.in on the campaign trail in Jamuria, CPM candidate Aishe Ghosh remarked, “The problem is Mamata Banerjee just went to the minority community and didn’t talk about their development, education, work challenges that they are facing, didn’t talk about those areas where Muslims are staying and they don’t have development, and only went and told them that just because you’re Muslim, you have to stop BJP, you vote for us.”
But what about the fact that the Left and Congress have joined hands with the ISF, in what seems a clear attempt to gain inroads into the Muslim vote?
Ghosh responds, “We have discussed and had a lot of debates on this. I just want to say that somebody wearing a teeka or having a beard or wearing a hijab doesn’t make them communal. The problem is when you are bringing your religion into your political framework and you’re seeking votes - that because of your identity, you need to vote for either of these parties, that becomes a problem.”
THE ROLE OF THE RSS IN THE BATTLE FOR BENGAL 2021
“The TMC is using the 'lungi bahini' (lungi army) against us,” says 59-year-old RSS worker Tarun Banerjee, using a derogatory reference to Muslims.
Since 1975, Tarun has been an RSS worker in Asansol, an area that has had a long-standing Sangh presence. In recent years, just like in the rest of Bengal, the Sangh has expanded its presence in Asansol too.
This election, RSS workers have been involved in a full-scale campaign. Speak to the karyakartas though, and they will all tell you the same thing - that they are not campaigning for the BJP, but rather to raise voter awareness about the pressing issues of the day.
What are these issues that they are speaking about?
Tarun replies, “The main mudda (issue) is toshan (appeasement).
Sachindranath Singha, a 66-year-old VHP leader elaborates, “Hindu asmita (pride) has been injured. It feels like 1946 again. That is the type of environment being created. We have to stop the tushtikaran (appeasement) of the minorities.” Singha is referring to the large-scale communal violence that shook Calcutta in August 1946, sparked off by the call for a Direct Action Day by Muhammad Ali Jinnah, to further the demand for the creation of a Muslim-majority nation of Pakistan.
Singha is currently a VHP All-India Assistant Secretary and is based in Delhi. But he had earlier been based in Asansol for two decades and helped the Sangh grow in the region. He is back to Bengal to supervise the outreach efforts of the VHP and affiliated Hindutva groups during this election campaign.
Singha says, “We are going to villages and various maths (holy places) and mandirs, telling people about the situation in our society. We are meeting caste-based organisations as well. We have to explain to the people the kind of appeasement of minorities that this TMC government has been doing.”
On the occasion of Poila Boishakh (Bengali New Year), the RSS workers in Asansol distributed orange juice to passers-by on the road. Along with the juice, they also handed out copies of a campaign flyer.
RSS worker Aditya Paswan distributing orange juice to passers-by on Poila Boishakh.
The flyer, which did not feature the name of any group, organisation, or political party, asserted that the demography of Bengal is changing due to the continuous entry of ‘infiltrators’ and warned that Muslims are already in a majority in three districts and that they are on their way to becoming a majority in four other districts. The flyer then listed out the benefits of the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and asked, why should Bengalis be ashamed of chanting ‘Jai Shri Ram’?
The message was clear - if the “future of Bengal” is to be saved, the people must vote for the party that is campaigning on these issues. And though the flyer itself didn’t ask voters to support the BJP, that it was soliciting votes for the saffron party was evident enough.
“The Sangh and politics are different,” stresses Aditya Paswan, a 32-year-old RSS worker and computer repair professional, who was involved in the juice-and-flyer distribution drive.
“But the leaflet is both Sangh and politics,” I counter-question.
Aditya admits, “Yes, so that no one's vote is wasted.”
Whether the TMC likes it or not, the issues mentioned on the flyers that Aditya is handing out are the ones that have defined this election campaign and fuelled the BJP’s rise in Bengal.
Counting day on 2 May may yet swing either way but as Subhro Maitra, a local journalist in Malda, puts it, “The BJP may or may not win the election, but they have definitely won the narrative.”
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