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Will communal polarisation in Bengal, Assam elections aid BJP’s win in the east?

In West Bengal’s Howrah, the Annapurna Club of Dhulagarh, a nondescript two-storey building by the roadside, has emerged as an unpleasant reminder of the two days in December 2016 when the sleepy town turned into a battleground with stones and crude bombs disrupting peace and leaving behind a fragile calm.

“There was a procession and when it reached the club, the people on the mini trucks threw bombs and set houses and shops on fire,” said a resident whose house is in proximity to the club.

The procession was a convoy celebrating Milad un Nabi that passed through Dewanghat in Dhulagarh and its neighbouring areas on December 13. Residents claim that violence erupted near the club and the trigger could have been a personal rivalry or disagreement over a business deal, but within hours, houses and shops had been set ablaze. Whatever the reason, the violence paved the way for a Hindu-Muslim clash that saw properties of both sides destroyed.

“Houses and shops were burnt down, but luckily no one was hurt; people had to run for cover. Starting that day, for the next one month, we would lock up our houses at dusk and spend the night in the nearby forest,” said Sanat Naskar, also a resident and a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) worker.

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A little distance away from the club, in the Hindu-dominated Pollepara, there are few reminders and many memories of the violence. Residents show charred remains of their homes, some bring photo albums to show the destruction.

“The government paid ₹35,000 for repairs; we had to bear the bulk of the costs. What is worse is that we have been named as culprits; we have cases against us. I spent a year in jail and now have to make appearances in court every week, the lawyer charges ₹300 as appearance fee apart from the transport and other costs. How is it fair?” asks a shopkeeper, asking for his name to be withheld. The Hindu community in the area is also angry that had it not been for a private TV channel that first reported the violence, the “news” would not have been reported.

The Muslim community in the area, for its part, blames “outsiders” for the violence and some even hint it could have been the handiwork of the BJP to “tarnish the image” of the Muslims. “We have been living here without problems. Who gained from the violence?” said a Muslim shop owner, again reluctant to disclose his identity.

Though residents in Dhulagarh that will go to polls in the third phase on April 6 say there has been no violence since 2016, there is a latent fear of recurrence.

Naskar said Hindus in the town worry that if riots break out again, they will not be protected by the police and the administration. “When Kaliachak happened, the police were also not spared. What did the state government do? The Trinamool Congress (TMC) has not been able to protect the protectors,” said Naskar.

In January 2016, a protest in Kaliachak, Malda district, against a remark by right-wing politician Kamlesh Tiwari turned violent and a mob attacked the police station.

The violence and the fault lines that have been drawn in Dhulagarh are illustrative of the polarisation across West Bengal. In a different form, the religious polarisation is also visible in Assam. Is this a bottom-up sentiment or a top-down sentiment propagated by the BJP? How are its rivals coping with it? And will a strategy of deepening the communal divide to consolidate respective vote banks work in the two eastern states?

Consolidating the Hindu vote

Apart from Dhulagarh, the 2017 communal riots in Basirhat sub-division of North 24 Parganas district that were a response to a Facebook post by a teenage boy; and the May 2020 violence in Hooghly’s Telinipara that erupted in the midst of the pandemic between the Hindus and the Muslims, have given the BJP the handle to blame the Trinamool Congress (TMC) for “appeasing” one community (read Muslims) for vote bank politics while turning a blind eye to the sensitivities of the other community (read Hindus).

For full coverage of West Bengal assembly elections, click here

“The clashes depict the vulnerability of the Hindus in the state,” said a Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) functionary, requesting anonymity. He said that despite pictures and videos from the riots there is “reluctance to acknowledge that Hindus have been mistreated by the TMC”. “While some Hindus are scared of the TMC and try to distance themselves from the BJP, many in the rural areas particularly are familiar with the appeasement that happens. The BJP is promising not just jobs and better living conditions, but also the assurance that our customs and Hindu traditions will be protected. After all it was the TMC that preferred Muharram over Durga visarjan,” he said.

On his phone are WhatsApp messages that are posted as reminders of the West Bengal government’s decision in 2017 to withhold the visarjan or the immersion ceremony that coincided with Muharram, which led to an uproar in the state; changes such as replacing ramdhenu or rainbow with rongdhenu in the textbooks and pictures of chief minister Mamata Banerjee with her head covered in Hijab.

While anti-incumbency against the TMC is palpable on the ground, the BJP sees an opportunity to woo the voters upset with the ruling party by underscoring the communal divide which, they allege, was perpetrated by Banerjee.

Shirish Bajoria, a BJP state executive member, said the party has exposed TMC and particularly Banerjee’s Muslim appeasement. “She has publicly said she will appease Muslims…as there is no harm in taking kicks from a cow that gives you milk,” he said.

The TMC’s pushback

The TMC announced a monthly assistance of ₹1,000 for Hindu priests and the CM’s attempted to woo the Hindus by chanting the Chandipath — but this has largely failed to cut ice with a section of the Hindus.

“It is still less than what she (CM) pays the Muslim clerics. And it is only after the BJP highlighted the difference in treatment has she started referring to herself as a Brahmin,” said Anil Biswas, a trader from Ranihati. In 2012, the TMC announced an allowance of ₹2,500 for each Imam and ₹1,500 to muezzins.

The TMC, for its part, has blamed the BJP for using law and order issues to fan the communal flame. The party alleges that it is the BJP’s playbook of drawing communal faultlines to get a toehold in states where it lacks the organisational strength.

On Monday, the CM, while addressing a rally in Nandigram, said she is anticipating a communal flare up.

“I have been observing since yesterday that four or five associates of the gaddar (traitor) are sitting outside local temples. Their plan is to drop animal meat inside the temples and blame the Muslims. That would lead to a fight between Hindus and Muslims. Protect these places. Be on your guard. I am asking my Muslim brothers and sisters not to fall for any provocation,” she said.

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TMC’s Sougata Roy also pinned the blame on the BJP for creating communal faultlines. “It is the BJP that has been trying to create a divide,” he says.

BJP’s Lok Sabha MP Menkashi Lekhi however disagrees. She said the BJP has focused on the lack of development in the state along with the state’s patronage to the anti-social elements.

“We only have development in mind. Nearly 5,800 MSMEs have shutdown in the state. It is the TMC that has given protection to goons, not the BJP. In Sunderbans, there is a class of widows known as Bagh-widows (women whose husbands were killed in tiger attacks) since the state did not look after them; the Centre, through the Khadi Gram Udyog, had to intervene and offer them support,” Lekhi said.

On the charge that the BJP is eyeing communal polarisation to consolidate the Hindu vote across class and castes in the state which has a Muslim population of about 30%; Lekhi said, “We are saying that the Bengalis, including the deprived sections, are being neglected and attacked. She (Mamata Banerjee) came to power promising to provide social welfare, but has only empowered the caucus of the corrupt and the criminal forces.”

Will communal polarisation yield dividends?

West Bengal, as per Census 2011, has a Muslim population of 27.01%; the BJP’s vote share in the state has steadily risen. From a little over 10% in 2016 assembly polls, it managed to garner about 40% in the last general elections.

A senior BJP functionary, not wishing to be named, said, “The issue of TMC’s blatant appeasement was the reason why the party began to emerge first as a prime opposition after the 2016 elections and subsequently as the alternative to the TMC.” He cited the example of the by-election in Kanthi, considered a TMC bastion.

“In 2017, when by-elections were held, the BJP’s vote share increased from 8% to 30%, making it the number two party in the area. Kanthi has never been a BJP stronghold, but the by-election showed that the issues raised by the BJP have found resonance on the ground,” he said.

Bengal based political anthropologist Adil Hossain however does not see communal polarisation having a uniform impact on the ground.

“In Malda and Uttar Dinajpur, The BJP won all the Lok Sabha seats because it was totally polarised; this time, they can’t keep up the polarisation because local people and the local units are not well connected with the MPs. A communication gap exists and government schemes such as Duare Sarkar have worked. However, in certain parts of North Bengal, polarisation remains strong,” he said.

Prof. Kingshuk Chatterjee of the Calcutta University also said the impact of communal polarisation will be felt in certain pockets but is not the only reason by BJP is gaining ground.

“Banking on communal polarisation would help, but it would not be the clinching factor if the BJP were to do well. It will help in certain pockets where the demographic balance is not overwhelmingly in favour of the Hindus. Elsewhere, it will be useful, but it is not the reason why the BJP is gaining ground,” he said.

Turning tables in Assam

In Assam, which is yet to have its second and third phases of elections, issues of communal polarisation and infiltration are at the centre of the political discourse.

While the fight for “Hindu identity” is at the core of its campaign in the neighbouring West Bengal, in Assam, the BJP has been careful to overstate that the issue of protecting the “Assamese identity” trumps all else.

Here, the BJP has accused the Congress of mainstreaming Badruddin Ajmal’s All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF) by aligning with it. AIUDF, as per the BJP, represented the “inimical forces” that are a threat to the Assamese identity and culture. The opposition alliance, called the Mahajot, comprises of the Congress, Bodoland Peoples’ Front (BPF), the All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF), Communist Party of India, the Communist Party of India (Marxist), the Communist Party of India (Marxist Leninist) Liberation, the Anchalik Gana Marcha (AGM).

For full coverage of Assam assembly elections, click here

“Ajmal is the symbol of a civilisational conflict,” said Himanata Biswa Sarma, the finance minister of Assam told HT in an interaction.

Dubbing Ajmal as “Indian but not Assamese”, Sarma said the Muslims, also referred to as Miyas, who came to Assam from Bangladesh have not been able to assimilate with the Assamese culture. “They have to change their mindset…They go to madrasa, we go to normal school. Assamese language is accepted by everybody, you cannot create your own language. By fighting (for their identity) the Assamese people are getting their living space; if we don’t fight, they (Muslims) are 35% (of the population) they will swallow us up,” he said.

In December 2020, he moved the bill to convert all state-run madrasas into regular schools.

The mix of Hindutva and regional identity, analysts believe, has helped the BJP gain popularity. In 2016 assembly polls, it won 60 seats but it vote share was 29.51%. In 2019 Lok Sabha polls, the party bagged 36% vote share and won 9 of the 14 seats.

The Congress however is quick to blame the BJP for dubbing Ajmal as communal or secular for their political gain. Congress spokesperson Pawan Khera said the BJP should clear its view on CAA; an issue that has contributed to sharpening the polarisation. “Instead of commenting on our Mahajot – which is an alliance of 10 parties – the BJP should clarify its stand on CAA to the voters of Assam,” he said.

Whether Bengal’s Hindus vote as Hindus, persuaded by the BJP’s message that the current ruling party is only “appeasing Muslims”, and whether Assam’s Hindus vote as Assamese Hindus, persuaded by the BJP’s message that a Mahajot win will see Ajmal, and by extension Bengali-speaking Muslims of the state, gain power at the cost of indigenous interests, is the key variable that will determine the prospects of the BJP in the communally-surcharged electoral environment of two of India’s biggest eastern states.

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DS News Service