Seven days after Basirhat, a town bordering Bangladesh in West Bengal’s North Parganas district, erupted over a 17-year-old’s Facebook post in adjoining Baduria on July 2, its lanes are lined with rows of ransacked houses and shops, their walls black with soot. But there’s one defining feature: the offices of the ruling Trinamool Congress —small, one-room structures along the main road — are all either locked or vandalised.
West Bengal has seen a string of communal incidents since Mamata Banerjee began her second stint in power in 2016, but this was probably the first time that public anger was directed at the Trinamool. In this state with its history of political violence, the locked party offices came with their share of symbolism: forcing a rival to shut office is considered as much a sign of political assertion as rallies or protests.
“Go see for yourself the condition of the MLA’s house and that of the party offices,” says 29-year-old Roopa, who gave only her first name, referring to how the Hindu mob had vandalised the house of Dipendu Biswas, footballer-turned-TMC MLA from Basirhat South, apart from a number of Trinamool offices.
Roopa is among several women who have gathered in the Kalibari area, armed with brooms and lathis. Shouting expletives at the policemen, the women vent their ire at the government and the ruling party over the attack by a Muslim mob on their homes and shops, following the Facebook post.
If the locked party office and the angry faces sent a message, the Trinamool wasn’t the only party listening. So was the BJP.
If communal tensions in West Bengal have been on low heat for more than a year now, much of the blame has been laid at Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s door, with critics blaming her policies and open wooing of the minority votebank. With the Left and Congress fast losing their grip over the new Bengal, she has left the ground open for the BJP, they say.
It was after 2007 that Muslims, traditionally voters of the Left, first turned towards Mamata.The land agitations in Nandigram and Singur that year and later, the Rizwanur Rehman case (in September 2007, the 30-year-old computer graphics trainer who had married a Hindu girl, the daughter of a hosiery baron in Kolkata, was found dead on the railway tracks) steered the minority vote, especially that of the Muslim peasantry, away from the Left.
When Mamata first stormed to power in 2011, riding the ‘Paribartan (change)’ wave, Muslims played a key part. Except for the Congress bastions of Malda and Murshidabad, Trinamool won from all other areas of the state where the Muslim population is more than 25%.
Since then, Mamata has strengthened her position as the undisputed leader of West Bengal by betting on a simple math: getting the community, which accounts for 27 per cent of the population (according to Census 2011), on her side.
In April 2012, her government took a series of decisions that were dubbed “affirmative action” by the government and ruling party, but slammed as “appeasement” by critics. The Trinamool government announced stipends for imams and muezzins, and free land and education for their children. Hoardings with photographs of the CM and other leaders of Trinamool with their heads covered and hands raised in prayer came up in prominent places in Kolkata and elsewhere. An example is the massive hoarding on the EM Bypass in Kolkata, about a kilometre into the city, which features Mamata in one such photograph.
While the TMC has consistently argued that the poster represents her secularism, not her “preference for Islam”, a state committee BJP leader says on condition of anonymity: “It is symbolic. Whenever you enter the city, you see that photograph. That one poster did her more harm than anything we could have done.”
The Trinamool dismisses the “appeasement” charge as baseless. “The development ushered in by Mamata Banerjee since 2011 was all-round and for everyone: Hindus, Muslims, Christians and others. Better roads, infrastructure, rice at Rs 2 per kg for the poor, ‘Kanyashree’ initiatives for the girl child, and many more. It is the BJP and RSS that are harping on Muslim appeasement to divide Bengal on communal lines. This is for the first time that real development has taken place, even for Muslims, majority of whom belong to the poorest sections of society,” says Idris Ali, Trinamool Congress MP from Basirhat.
The BJP has also accused Mamata of pandering to conservative sections among Muslims, targeting her for backing Noor-Ur-Rehman Barkati, the former chief cleric of Kolkata’s Tipu Sultan mosque, who is known for his fatwas against Prime Minister Modi and state BJP president Dilip Ghosh.
That the BJP was gaining traction was clear by 2014. That year, riding on the Modi wave, the party won only two seats from West Bengal but its vote share touched 17.02%. That was a big jump from its vote share of 6.14% in the 2009 Lok Sabha and 4.06% in the 2011 Assembly elections. In the 2016 Assembly polls, in which Mamata stormed back to power with 211 seats out of 294, the BJP won only three seats with a vote share of 10.7%, but in the Coochbehar Lok Sabha bypoll later that year, the BJP’s vote share touched 28.5% and in the 2017 Assembly bypoll in Kanthi Dakshin, the BJP managed 31% of the votes.
The BJP’s rise has coincided with a series of low-scale communal clashes across Bengal. In October 2016, soon after Mamata came back to power with a huge majority, clashes were seen in Jalangi (Murshidabad), Chandannagore (Hooghly), Bhagwanpur (East Midnapore), Kharagpore (West Midnapore), Hajinagar, Halisahar and Kancharapa (all three in North 24 Parganas). In December that year, a mob torched the police station and vandalised vehicles at Kalichowk in Malda, bordering Bangladesh. The same month, clashes broke out in Dhulagarh and Sankrail in Howrah, apart from Katwa, Jamuria and Kanksha in Burdwan.
“Wherever there is communal tension, the BJP does well in the polls. Keeping in mind the Bengal situation, I won’t be surprised if it emerges as the main opposition party. In Uttar Pradesh, the party reaped dividends after the Muzaffarnagar riots. Now in Bengal, community and religion, rather than development, are becoming the talking point,” says Shibaji Pratim Basu, professor of political science at Vidyasagar University.
In October 2016, Mamata also angered many by imposing restrictions on immersion timings for Durga Puja so that they didn’t clash with Muharram. The BJP and Sangh Parivar were quick to cry “appeasement”.
Later, in a state where Durga Puja is the biggest mass festival, Hindu groups organised unprecedented Ram Navami celebrations in April this year. Men, women and children took out marches during the festival armed with swords and other weapons.
There were other controversies: for instance, the government changed Ramdhonu (the Bengali word for rainbow, also Ram’s bow) to Rongdhonu in school textbooks. There was tension over a school in Tehatta, Howrah, not letting its students celebrate Saraswati Puja allegedly amidst protest from Muslims groups, furthering the divide. Again, the BJP was quick to cry foul.
It’s no secret that Bengal figures high on the Sangh Parivar’s agenda. In March this year, the Akhil Bhartiya Pratinidhi Sabha, the highest decision-making and policy formulation body of the RSS, met in Coimbatore and adopted a special resolution on West Bengal, expressing “grave concern over unabated rise in violence by jehadi elements in West Bengal, encouragement to the anti-national elements by the state government due to its Muslim vote bank politics and declining Hindu population in the state”.
According to sources in the RSS, from 580 shakhas in West Bengal in 2011, the number rose to 1,280 in 2014 and 1,492 in December 2016. In Basirhat, after the clashes, the BJP launched its ‘Bistarak Yojana’, a campaign to reach out to people, and claimed to have got nearly 10,000 fresh recruits, taking its membership in the subdivision to 25,000.
“The people of Bengal are with us. It has been clear as daylight that Trinamool Congress is allowing jehadis to rule in the state. There are so many instances. We have become the main opposition in the state against Trinamool Congress. We will not allow this lawlessness to prevail along with appeasement of Muslims,” says Dilip Ghosh, state BJP president and a former RSS pracharak.
“We survived the division of Bengal, pain of Partition. It is not easy to break the people of Bengal. Communal people have no religion, like terrorists. They have no place in this state,” responds Sukhendu Shekhar Roy, Trinamool Rajya Sabha MP.
Mamata’s handling of the situation after each of the clashes over the last year has come in for criticism, with the Opposition, particularly the BJP, accusing the police of not acting effectively enough against the perpetrators. She has also prevented leaders of Opposition parties from entering the affected areas.
However, in Bashirhat, the CM was prompt in calling Central forces and even transferred a number of police officers. The government also swiftly clamped Section 144 in affected areas and, on July 6, announced ‘Shanti Committees’ or a system of neighbourhood watch at the block level. Opposition parties, however, say these measures are too little, too late.
Political observers say the structure of the Trinamool is also an impediment when it comes to spotting that first hint of communal trouble.“The Trinamool is driven by a single person, Mamata Banerjee. The Left had a strong organisation at the grassroot level. Their local and zonal committees controlled and nipped communal tension in the bud. However, there was no social media then. No one knows how the Left would have accepted this challenge,” says Basu.
Amal Mukhopadhyay, political science expert and former principal of Presidency College, however, says the problem in Bengal goes “beyond spotting the first signs of trouble”. “One the one hand, the government gives stipends to imams. On the other, it creates pressure and stops seminars on Kashmir and Balochistan in Kolkata (a reputed club of Kolkata withdrew permission allegedly under pressure from the state government to hold a seminar where Tarek Fateh was scheduled to speak in January 2017) saying it would create communal problems. Miscreants and radicals are taking advantage of the situation,” says Mukhopadhyay.
“Appeasement” or otherwise, the Muslims of Bengal continue to be among the poorest in the state, says Sabir Ahmed, a senior researcher at Pratichi Institute. “If you see the figures, you will know that Muslims are still among the lowest wage-earners, the most trafficked victims, with dismal access to education, especially higher education. Their presence in government jobs also remains poor. The so-called ‘appeasement’, which was necessary because Muslims are the most backward, actually never happened,” says Ahmed, who is part of ‘Know Your Neighbour’, an initiative to promote bonhomie among communities.
“Granting sugar through PDS during Ramzan or stipends to imams is not what Muslims want. We want proper education, participation in governance, employment, higher education, among others. All these populist measures have created a rift among Hindus and Muslims of Bengal,” he adds.