Communal clashes have jumped in rural Bengal, police records show. Such incidents, annually between 12 and 40 for five years until 2012, peaked at 106 last year. Government officials fear that in an election year, the growing conflict could lead to polarisation of the electorate.
West Bengal has always been considered a peaceful state in terms of communal amity. But the pattern that has been emerging over the last couple of years has worried police. Government records reveal that West Bengal is one of the top ten communally sensitive states in terms of such incidents.
While minority communities blame the ‘vote bank politics’ of different political parties, the Trinamool Congress has particularly been criticised for several steps taken in dealing with minorities. “Steps like allowances for Muslims clerics, the images of Didi wearing a burqa and offering namaaz, and a slew of projects and schemes targetted at the minority Muslims have only enhanced the polarisation,” says a government official.
State police records reveal that between February and August last year, there have been 42 major incidents of communal clashes, a majority of these in South 24 Parganas and North 24 Par-ganas — both adjacent to Kolkata. Some of these include the rioting in Canning, South 24 Parganas, which resulted in a huge flare-up. The riot started after the murder of a Muslim cleric.
The retaliation was virulent with the administration watching from a distance. At least 150 houses were set on fire in a village close to the murder spot. Clashes spread to several other villages in the area with houses being looted and set on fire.
The ruling party leaders say communal violence has seen low causalities. While loss of life may have been limited, the large number of incidents have left a deep impact on local areas.
In the past two years, and after the Mamata government came to power, there has been a mushrooming of Muslim organisations, many of them in the form of NGOs. According to a senior official of the state minority affairs department, there are over 400 all-Muslim NGOs working in the state, while there are 597 madrasas recognised by the government.
Several all-Muslim political parties are equally active in Bengal. The two-year old Welfare Party of India has decided to field candidates in 18 seats in the state while the newly-formed Bengal unit of All India United Democratic Front of Badruddin Azmal of Assam is likely to field at least 10 candidates. According to Dr Raisuddin Baidya, president of WPI, “We are a new party. But our party did well in the Jangipur by-election in Murshidabad in 2012. We are fielding candidates in 18 seats and believe that the time has come for Muslims to be a part of the parliamentary system.”
Siddiqullah Chowdhury, chief of the Bengal unit of AIUDF, said, “We have decided to field candidates in ten Lok Sabha seats. We have noticed an increase in communal incidents and many villager have lost everything due to these flare ups. There are certain political parties who want to reap advantage through communal politics and we will fight this.”
Muslim intellectuals claim that the polarisation and communal clashes will come down if the youth get higher education. “The gap between the minority and the majority in term of higher education is still very wide. The situation has improved slightly and madrasa education has been restructured to fit into the modern day education. In Alliah university we have facilities for research in 27 departments. I believe these things would help curb polarisation in the society,” said Samsul Alam, vice-chancellor of Alliah University.
Nurul Islam, TMC MP from Basirhat in North 24 Parganas, said, “Mamata Banerjee has warned that no one indulging in communal riots will be spared. This is the CPM brand of politics.”
Anisur Rahman , senior leader of the CPM minority cell, criticised the Mamata government for portraying a Muslim-friendly face. “They have started bhata (doles) for Muslim clerics, which creates polarisation. In rural areas people fight over these issues,” he added.
Tathagata Roy, BJP national executive member said, “In two major riots in Bengal — Deganga and Canning — we have seen how the members of the ruling party created communal tension. In the last three years, there were more than 400 such communal incidents in Bengal. Most of them were neither reported nor recorded in government official date base too. That is one reason we see near zero casualty.”
Jishnu Bose, Prant Prachar Pramukh, (regional chief) RSS, south Bengal said: “Communal issues were never handled neutrally in Bengal.”