If the record surge in the BJP vote share — from 6.14 per cent in 2009 to 17.5 per cent in 2014 — was the headline from elections in West Bengal, another story is quietly unfolding away from the media glare: the induction of Muslims into the BJP especially in areas where the party dramatically improved its vote share.
Over a week, as The Indian Express travelled across a swathe of rural West Bengal covering Jalpaiguri, Alipurduar, Coochbehar Lok Sabha seats and also parts of Raigunj, Balurghat and Nadia where the BJP gained the most, the story is the same: hundreds of Muslim families in village after village are signing up with the BJP at what are called “Yogdaan” ceremonies held almost on a daily basis since results came on May 16.
No cumulative numbers are available yet but according to lists offered by the local BJP units in these places, the number would have crossed 50,000 in Jalpaiguri alone.
Their reasons are a blend of political confidence, inducement, fear and the vacuum created by the local Left leadership, all riding on an aggressive hardsell by local BJP leaders who are using Narendra Modi’s name to underline that “development,” (jobs, protection and money) is on their agenda, not Hindutva. In a region where 30-40 per cent of the population is Muslim, this rhetoric comes with constant references to a Modi-majority Centre.
So after namaz, as New Delhi was preparing for the swearing-in ceremony, Samiruddin Mian and over 150 families, comprising over 500 voters of Banglarjhar and Patkakhocha villages under Domohoni Village II Panchayat in Jalpaiguri district joined the BJP. The venue of this Yogdaan ceremony was a patch of farmland next to a Durga temple, teeming with about 3,000 new BJP supporters.
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Aliyar Rahaman, an elected village panchayat member of Domohoni Block-II, was with the Revolutionary Socialist Party, a constituent of the Left Front, but this election, he says, has changed equations. “Eight village panchayats in this area belonged to the RSP and two to the CPM, most of these have now switched to the BJP,” says Aliyar.
Asked why, he says: “In the villages, we can’t live without politics. For generations, our fathers and grandfathers have been with the Left. Even in this Lok Sabha polls, we voted for the Left. But we lost miserably. Our top leaders have disappeared. They are not to be found. We want to be with a powerful party. BJP is the most powerful party,” says Aliyar.
Says his colleague Azizul Haque: “Muslims have always been safe and secure in this state, either under the Left or now in the TMC. Here, they form nearly 30 per cent of the population, this gives us the confidence to test a new political formation and see how that plays out.”
There is a set pattern in these Yogdaan ceremonies. Assembled BJP leaders read out a “pledge” before officially accepting the new entrants. The oath reads: “I fully and wholeheartedly announce myself as a nationalist…I believe in national integrity and secular state principles…I am inspired by the ideals and principles of the Bharatiya Janata Party…I pledge to abide and live by the Indian Constitution.”
At one ceremony as the oath is being read, Azizul, an elected panchayat member of Singimari-Chandrabad village in Jalpaiguri, says many Muslims in his village do not buy the CPM’s line that a Modi victory would endanger their lives. “We know what happened in Gujarat but that was 12 years ago,” says Azizul, “he never said anything anti-Muslim in his speeches.”
There are three steps to membership. Step One: Before the pledge, each application is vetted, said Shyamal Barman, BJP general secretary (Organisation), Jalpaiguri. “We weed out those who have misused development funds or have been booked for crimes like rape,” he says. Step two: a cooling-off period for two months and, three, signing up primary and active membership forms.
Under Barman’s jurisdiction in Changrabandha near Mekhliganj — close to the India-Bangladesh border — Asekar Rahaman, a 24-year-old graduate tells an assembled crowd in one Yogdaan ceremony: “From today, we are BJP’s soldiers. I was born a little before Vajpayeeji’s government. If the Muslims are to be deported from India to Pakistan and Bangladesh under the BJP’s dispensation then by now I should have been in Pakistan, Dhaka or Barishal. We have come to realise that the BJP is not a communal outfit,” says Asekar. The local BJP leader, Shyamal Saha, visibly elated at Asekar’s speech offers him a “gairik” (saffron) salute.
“The magnitude of the BJP’s victory has certainly overwhelmed a majority of these Muslims and this is behind their shifting loyalty,” admits Deepen Pramanik, district president of Jalpaiguri BJP. “The Left is defunct in almost all local bodies. They don’t find the Trinamool a viable political choice and so they are coming to us,” says Pramanik.
There are some Muslims who admit that fear is a factor, too. “The fear and panic of living in the extreme margins of a new power structure drove us to this transition. In the highly politicised rural environment, we need an umbrella of protection from a mighty party. Or else, we are in danger,” says Azizul Haque, a former elected panchayat member of Moynaguri who has joined the BJP.
Asked about Muslim induction in BJP, Bijoy Krishna Barman, the newly elected TMC MP from Jalpaiguri, denies any knowledge. But when told about specific examples, Barman says: “Yes, some people made mistakes. But they are now coming to the TMC. What does the BJP have to offer them?” asks Barman. Gautam Deb, Minister for North Bengal Development, is more cautious. He says he is yet to get detailed reports from the field. “If it is true, we will have to look deep into it,” Deb says.
Speaking to The Indian Express, Rezzak Mollah, the veteran estranged CPM former state committee member and an important leader of Muslims, confirms that “thousands of Muslims” are joining the BJP not only in North Bengal but even in South Bengal districts. “It is a massive wave now. This is primarily because the CPM and other political parties have failed to give the sense of security and protection to Muslims. It’s a choice born out of compulsion. The moment an alternative platform can be offered to these sections, the Muslims will return,” said Mollah who is now building up a Social Justice Manch aimed at Muslims and Dalits.
At the Alimuddin Street party headquarters in Kolkata, the top brass shrugs it off. Says Biman Bose, politburo member and the state secretary of CPM: “Let detailed reports come to us for scrutiny. Till then we are not paying any heed to such rumours.”
Sukhovilas Verma, a retired IAS officer and the defeated Congress MP nominee from Jalpaiguri, doesn’t take this as lightly. “This (Muslims joining BJP) is a most natural and spontaneous transition in the absence of Congress and a declining Left. The Muslims who had been with either the Congress or the Left have little option now but to go for the BJP,” says Verma.
Rahul Sinha, the state president of the BJP denies there is any coercion. “These people (Muslims) have tried all options and have only been cheated and exploited through their lives. They are now falling for a new option in BJP and hoping to get a better deal from a party that has come to rule the country. We welcome them.”
Amid the conflicting claims, one thing is clear, however. The most visible political mobilisation post-election is in the BJP camp and the Yogdaan ceremony is a key element of that.