Brand and evict

Print edition : November 29, 2013

In Patna in 2009, Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad activists protesting against illegal Bangladeshi immigrants. Photo: Ranjeet Kumar

Chief Minister Nitish Kumar. He virtually gifted the Seemanchal region to the BJP, which went on to win most of the seats in the region in subsequent Assembly elections on the plank of evicting illegal Bangladeshi immigrants. Photo: Manvender Vashist /PTI

Narendra Modi, Gujarat Chief Minister and the BJP's prime ministerial candidate, consoling a family member of a serial bomb blast victim, at Kamarji village near Patna on November 2. Photo: PTI

By Ajoy Ashirwad Mahaprashasta in Purnea and Darbhanga

EVER since the Janata Dal (United) and the Bharatiya Janata Party split up in June in Bihar, there have been 16 communal riots in the State and an alleged terrorist attack in Bodh Gaya. The bomb scare grew further with minor explosions at Gandhi Maidan—the site of Narendra Modi’s Hunkar rally—on October 27. As a result, the BJP has been whipping up communal passions with an unprecedented intensity in a State which prided itself in being riot-free through the tense 1990s. At the heart of the communal debate is the Bangladeshi “illegal” immigrant.

The “illegal infiltration” of Bangladeshi Muslims is a political issue that has been close to the BJP ever since it formed a coalition government with the JD(U) in 2005. After the split with Nitish Kumar and the simultaneous elevation of Modi in the party as the prime ministerial candidate, it has become one of the BJP’s primary campaign issues, specifically in four districts—Purnea, Araria, Kishanganj and Katihar. These districts together are known as Seemanchal, or the border area. Muslims form a significant population in these districts. According to political observers, Nitish Kumar almost gifted the whole region to the BJP. In the coalition governments of the last eight years, the BJP contested 90 per cent of the Assembly constituencies in Seemanchal while the JD(U) focussed its attention elsewhere. In the last two Assembly elections, the BJP managed to win most of the 29 seats in Seemanchal on a single-point agenda—evict the illegal Bangladeshi immigrant.

Seemanchal shares its borders with West Bengal, Nepal and Bangladesh and it is also an area where Muslims are bilingual—they speak both Maithili and Bengali. BJP leaders frequently invoke this ability of the region’s Muslims to speak Bengali to brand them as Bangladeshis. In doing so, they also brand them as terrorists. “The borders are porous in Seemanchal. The mobility from one part to another is relatively easy. Such movement of people has been there for centuries. People have relatives on both sides [of the border with India]. But to say that Bangladeshi Muslims are infiltrating our country for terrorist activities is a political campaign of the BJP to polarise votes,” said Kunal, State secretary of the Communist Party of India (ML-Liberation).

The branding of Muslims started in Seemanchal about 10 years ago and completely polarised the region along religious lines in the last few years. The BJP’s campaign is carried out in two stages. Firstly, it specifically targeted landholding Muslims in the region. Land is a sensitive issue in Bihar, and more so in Seemanchal. Here, the traditional landlords were those who worked under the zamindar of Darbhangha, one of the biggest beneficiaries of the colonial Permanent Settlement scheme. Since the land was flood-prone because of the continuously shifting river Kosi, it took a lot of effort to make the land fertile. Over the years, however, those farmers who stayed on, though reluctant, became big landlords. The Bandhopadhay Commission for land reforms that Nitish Kumar instituted mentioned two districts where zamindari was still alive—Champaran and Purnea. Out of this group of zamindars, a section of Muslims, called Bhatia Musalmans, hold huge tracts of land. These Muslims claim that their forefathers settled in the region since the time of Sher Shah Suri and cultivated the arid lands.

The BJP’s campaign of illegal immigration specifically targets this group. In the last 10 years, many Bhatia Musalmans have been driven out of their lands after being branded Bangladeshis by the BJP. With such hate campaigns, Muslims of the region have been insecure as they fear being branded terrorists or Bangladeshi immigrants.

There are complaints that even the agencies of the state have been scaring Muslims. The 2010 firing on Muslims in Batraha village in Araria district is still fresh in memory. The Sashastra Seema Bal (SSB), a paramilitary unit, opened fire on a group of Muslim men when they tried to protest against two SSB personnel who, in an inebriated condition, had allegedly molested a woman in their village. The firing claimed four lives and injured many. “This was an act of overconfidence. The SSB kept calling us Bangladeshis and threatened to book us as terrorists if we agitated,” Mukhtar Ansari of Batraha told Frontline.

Mobilising EBCs

The BJP’s second strategy is to mobilise sections of the economically backward classes (EBC), Dalits and Adivasis against Muslims. The EBC is an official category instituted in Bihar during Karpoori Thakur’s tenure as Chief Minister in the 1970s. The EBCs, in the last Assembly elections, voted for Nitish Kumar but have begun to support the BJP in recent times.

Seemanchal is also the only region in Bihar where Adivasis such as Santhals and Mundas stay. The Sangh Parivar has been mobilising them against issues such as cow slaughter and illegal occupation of land by Bangladeshi Muslims.

The BJP has found new possibilities among the EBCs and Dalits in the last two years. “The BJP is specifically working among caste groups of Dhamuks, Rajbhors and Sahnis, all EBCs. Among Dalits, they are working among Musahars and Malahs. In most minor communal clashes in Seemanchal and Mithilanchal, these caste groups represented the Sangh Parivar. The BJP clearly has a strategy in place. It hopes to break into the support base of Nitish Kumar before the 2014 elections,” said Dhirendra Jha, a political activist in Darbhanga.

The communal frenzy that the Sangh Parivar is whipping up seems to resolve around the central issue of land. In a feudal system, where most land is occupied by upper-caste people, lure for land is paramount. Since upper-caste people in Bihar already support the BJP, the party is luring the landless with the promise for land. “BJP activists promise them that if they drive away Muslims, their lands will be distributed to them. It tells them that all Muslims are Bangladeshi immigrants who have come here and grabbed their land,” said Md. Islamuddin, a resident of Purnea. He narrated a BJP campaign in 2012 against the Millia Education Trust in Purnea. The party mobilised people against the trust by saying that it produced terrorists, and then grabbed its land.

“Most of the communal skirmishes in the last few months have also happened over Masjid land or Kabristan land. Masjid land is being pitted against temple land. We all know that building Hanuman temples in Bihar is a great way to grab land. Thousands of Hanuman temples, big and small, have been built in the last 10 years. In recent times, the BJP has started the anti-Bangladeshi immigrant campaign in three other districts, Darbhanga, Sitamarhi and West Champaran. Incidents of loot and vandalism in Muslim households have also been reported. Here the Muslims are relatively affluent. Perhaps, the idea is to drive them away from their property,” said Arshad Ajmal, a member of the Aman Ekta Manch, a group that raises awareness against communalism.

Clearly, the Sangh Parivar has read the pulse of this agrarian State well. It has planned its political strategies carefully and is executing them systematically. Its growing popularity among the lower castes and Adivasis— who are generally apathetic to the landed upper castes in a feudal system—reflects the thought behind its communal campaigns. The growing incidence of communal clashes in Bihar sets a huge task upon secular forces to counter the communal frenzy with equally sound programmes.

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