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Tuesday, May 18, 2021

Welcome to Asansol, city of brotherhood now riven by a new divide

With voting due in the penultimate phase on April 26, all of Asansol is akin to a poster and flag competition, with BJP and Trinamool markers fighting for space.

Written by Dipankar Ghose | Asansol |
Updated: April 25, 2021 7:31:03 am
The 2018 Ram Navami violence has left its mark. (Express photo by Dipankar Ghose)

The massive blue arch runs right across the road, it is unmissable. “Welcome to Asansol, The City of Brotherhood.” One of West Bengal’s key cities after Kolkata, being on the edge of coal fields and industry has meant brotherhood: Hindi speakers, local Bengalis, and a 25 per cent Muslim population. Until April 2018, when beginning in Raniganj on the outskirts and spreading across the city, communal clashes across Asansol during Ram Navami processions left two dead and cleaved fault-lines in the city.

Three years later, the board still stands, but tension over religious conflict has been weaved into the political fabric.

Ashok Kumar Mondal, who lives near BC Roy Road, that was hit hard in the violence, says the word “brotherhood” means memories of 2018. A car mechanic, Mondal said he knew that Ram Navami celebrations that year were larger, more aggressive. “There were lots of outsiders. But what I saw, I cannot unsee. I saw my family’s house being burned down. I saw hatred among the two communities. Now we still live together, try and work together. Even make small talk. But when another crisis comes, I want a government that will stand with us, and that is the BJP. That is just how it is,” Mondal said.

While Asansol elected Babul Supriyo of the BJP as its MP even in 2014, when he defeated Dola Sen of the TMC, the violence had an effect in 2019. In 2016, in the two seats in Asansol city, for instance, the TMC won both but come 2019, the BJP swept all seven Assembly segments and Supriyo’s victory margin almost tripled to two lakh votes.

Mohammad Shabbir, who lives in the Chandmari area of Asansol, which also saw violence, said not much has changed in the election campaign from 2019 to now. “Even then, the BJP brought up the issue of clashes and even now, right in front of us, their workers go door to door saying a Hindu government should come. We are scared because the venom has only increased. Even we lost a lot during the clashes, our homes and shops were burnt,” Shabbir says.

With voting due in the penultimate phase on April 26, all of Asansol is akin to a poster and flag competition, with BJP and Trinamool markers fighting for space.

In many areas, the BJP has put up flags which do not show the lotus, but are bright saffron, and have the letter “Om” on them. A BJP worker in Asansol said: “See, this is the TMC’s problem. What is their issue with Om? We are putting it up to show people what we believe in. People will not vote for this Muslim appeasement party anymore.”

For the TMC, the hope is to undercut the larger polarization narrative with local factors like the strength of their candidates and the belief that the divide exhausted itself in 2019. One TMC worker in Asansol North said, “Look, there is a one-fourth population of Muslims that are firmly behind us. If you look at Asansol North, we have Moloy Ghatak, the Labour Minister who is very popular. In his seat, even in Lok Sabha elections, we were behind by a margin of 20,000. In 2019, there was Modi, Pulwama, Balakot, Ram Mandir and a host of factors.”

There are interesting footnotes, too. In Jamuria, where the BJP led the TMC by 19,000 in 2019, the Left candidate is Aishe Ghosh, former president of the JNU Student Union. Ghosh has been campaigning door to door for several weeks at a pace that has impressed her political opponents.

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