In July 2017, Basirhat, a town bordering Bangladesh in West Bengal’s North Parganas district, saw communal clashes over a 17-year-old’s Facebook post in adjoining Baduria. Following the clashes, public anger was directed at the Trinamool Congress (TMC), whose offices were vandalised.
The communal fault lines ran deep on Sunday as Basirhat went to polls. Amid sporadic incidents of violence, the BJP alleged that Hindu voters were being prevented from voting, while the TMC alleged that central forces were harassing voters and asking them to vote for the BJP.
Around 10.30 am, villagers of Mouli, under Malancha block, complained that they were not being allowed to go to the polling booth at the local primary school. After central forces, accompanied by state police, rushed to the spot, the villagers started coming out to vote.
“Last night, they came to our neighborhood and warned us not to go near the polling booth. In the morning, my husband tried to go to the booth, but he was beaten up. The entire neighbourhood got scared then. Now, since the central forces as well as the media are here, we have come to vote,” said Lakkhi Mondol, a villager.
“The central forces are at the polling station, but they are not there in our village. When we tried to reach the polling booth, the goons standing on the road threatened us. They said we don’t need to vote. What can we do,” said Sefali Mondol, another villager.
It was the same story in Gayenpara and Daspara, about half-an-hour’s drive away from Mouli. “In Gayenpara, there are 1,300 voters, mostly Hindus. But we are not being allowed to vote,” said Prabir Das, a youth.
“TMC goons are trying to thwart Hindu voters. In village after village, voters were complaining about not being allowed to leave their homes… The central force should be more proactive, they are coming when we inform the authorities, but the incident is already over by that time,” said BJP candidate Sayantan Basu.
But Jyotipriyo Mullick, State Food Minister and TMC district president for North 24 Parganas, blamed the BJP. “The BJP is trying to divide the country on religious lines and Basirhat is an example… But it will not work in Basirhat, we will get Hindu votes… We will win with a huge margin… Like in other parts of Bengal, the central forces acted brutally. They were asking people to vote for the BJP and harassing the voters… they were acting like BJP agents,” said Mullick.
Pallab Sengupta, the CPI(M) candidate said: “I will say that people are not being allowed to vote. We want free and fair polling. That is all.”
While the TMC’s Idris Ali won the seat by a margin of 1.09 lakh votes in 2014, the party has fielded Bengali actor Nusrat Jehan this time. The Congress has fielded Qazi Abdur Rahim.
At the ground level, the BJP has roped in former Left leaders and workers, who joined the party in the last five years, for booth management in most areas. Santanu Chakraborty, son of former CPI(M) MP from Bashirhat Ajay Chakraborty, and Tapas Ghosh, CPI(M) branch secretary in Basirhat, are among them.
“In this seat, Muslims constitute 54% of the population. We are confident of getting Hindu votes as well as Muslim votes… Here, it is about Hindu survival… Our skills in booth management helped the party today,” said Tapas Ghosh.
Meanwhile, both Hindu and Muslim residents of Basirhat and Baduria — which reported BJP-TMC clashes today — as well as the surrounding areas of Haroa, Minakhan, Sandeshkhali expressed their concern over the deepening fault lines.
“Our candidate will win for sure. But everything is not alright here. The communities are divided… we have accepted that Muslims will vote for TMC while the Hindus will primarily vote for BJP. The division of votes between the CP(M) and Congress will be a deciding factor,” said Md Faiyaz, a TMC worker at a makeshift camp near Bishnupur Primary School, about 10 km from Basirhat town.
“There is a clear and distinct wall between the communities, and the BJP is fanning the flames. The party depends on consolidation of Hindu votes. That is why they are concentrating on areas which are dominated by Hindus,” said Mohammed Noor Islam Gaji, a local businessman in Basirhat town who was instrumental in raising funds for Hindu residents whose shops were vandalised in 2017, “It is sad, the situation was never like this in Basirhat. Our next generation will suffer for this. Most of my neighbours behaved like strangers today,” he said.