Divisive agenda

Print edition : April 27, 2018

Armed participants in a Ram Navami rally in Purulia district. Photo: By Special Arrangement

Major communal flare-ups during Ram Navami celebrations point to a paradigm shift in the essential nature of West Bengal’s politics.

Until recently, politics in West Bengal was dictated by ideology, development issues and muscle power. But the latest trends show a paradigm shift, with religion and identity increasingly taking centre stage. The recent communal violence in different parts of the State following Ram Navami celebrations, in which at least four people lost their lives, is a clear indication of this trend. Until last year, Ram Navami was not a major festival in West Bengal; at most, it was celebrated in pockets and almost went unnoticed. But today it has become a rallying cry for Hindutva forces and a symbol of the new political and social dynamics that has emerged in the State. Fuelled by last year’s success, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and other Sangh Parivar organisations held bigger rallies all over the State. Not to be outdone by one that has recently emerged as its main, albeit distant, rival, the ruling Trinamool Congress brought out its own Ram Navami rallies. Thus, what was once a low-key personal religious affair in the State became the central issue of a major political battle.

The minor communal skirmishes during last year’s Ram Navami celebrations had already given ominous signs of more serious outbreaks to follow; yet, the State government failed to pre-empt the violence that followed the celebrations this year. In fact, there are many who feel that the Trinamool’s strategy of taking on the Hindutva agenda of the BJP and the Sangh Parivar with its own brand of “soft Hindutva” may have aggravated the situation, encouraging greater polarisation between Hindus and Muslims in the State.

Communal clashes started breaking out in Purulia district, Raniganj and Asansol in Pashchim Bardhaman district, and Kankinara in North 24 Paraganas district, following Ram Navami celebrations on March 25. Four people, including a minor, were reportedly killed in the violence, which continued for three days. Hundreds were injured in the clashes, including a large number of police personnel. Arindam Dutta Chowdhury, a Deputy Commissioner of Police, had his arm almost ripped off by a bomb that was hurled in his direction. There was widespread damage to public and private property as miscreants went on a looting and plundering spree. The areas remained tense for days after the unrest had abated. Sporadic flare-ups took place in other parts of the State as well, particularly in Hooghly, Birbhum and Murshidabad districts. In a large number of Ram Navami rallies, the participants were seen brandishing weapons such as swords and tridents (trishuls); some were even allegedly carrying firearms.

On March 28, the administration shut down Internet services in two of the worst affected areas, Asansol and Raniganj, “in the interest of maintaining public order”. Prohibitory orders were issued, and leaders of political parties were barred from visiting the riot-hit areas. Even Governor Keshari Nath Tripathi was advised by the State government to not visit Raniganj as the situation was still tense there and it would be “difficult to provide adequate security” to him. On March 31, with the situation under control, though still tense, the Governor was “permitted” to visit the riot-torn areas of Pashchim Bardhaman. The following day, a team of the BJP’s national leaders, comprising the party’s national spokesperson Shahnawaz Hussain, Lok Sabha member Vishnu Dayal Ram, and Rajya Sabha members Om Prakash Mathur and Rupa Ganguly, visited the disturbed areas of Raniganj and Asansol. Both the BJP and the Trinamool have been accusing each other of precipitating the communal flare-ups. The National Human Rights Commission also issued notices to the State government over the issue of “reported unabated violence in the Asansol-Raniganj area”.

Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee may present herself as one of the main opponents of the BJP and pro-Hindutva forces at the Centre, but it cannot be denied that under Trinamool rule, West Bengal has seen an alarming rise in communal flare-ups and polarisation of society on religious lines. The most immediate cause for the growth of right-wing Hindutva forces in the State is the perceived “politics of appeasement” pursued by the Chief Minister. To ensure that she does not lose the crucial minority vote that has been instrumental in her political victories since 2011, she has made certain decisions that have been interpreted as being partial to a particular community. She announced an honorarium to the imams and muezzins of the State, a decision that the Calcutta High Court called “unconstitutional”. During Durga Puja, the biggest festival in West Bengal, she ordered that the immersion of the idol be deferred for a day as it coincided with Muharram. This decision too was slammed by the Calcutta High Court, which said: “There has been a clear endeavour on the part of the State government to pamper and appease the minority section of the public at the cost of the majority section without there being any plausible justification.”

Her public proximity to Muslim religious leaders and the latter’s repeated interference in political matters also served to alienate a section of the people of the State. “Increasingly, people have been shifting away from the Trinamool to the BJP, as more and more people are perceiving the Trinamool to be a Muslim party, thanks to Mamata Banerjee’s policies and actions,” said BJP leader Abhijit Roy Choudhury.

The BJP and other forces of Hindutva themselves acknowledge that the Trinamool government’s policies served as a catalyst for their growth. “Mamata Banerjee has had a lot to do with the rise of the BJP in West Bengal; nobody knows that better than us,” said a senior BJP source. The exponential growth of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) in West Bengal since 2011, after the Trinamool stormed to power ending the 34-year rule of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led Left Front, speaks for itself. As of March 2018, the RSS had 1,279 shakhas in West Bengal.

Since 2013, when the total shakhas stood at 750, the number has been increasing by around 110 every year, an increase of 70.53 per cent. At present there are 910 shakhas in south Bengal and 369 in north Bengal. According to RSS figures, 757 saptahik milon (weekly conventions) and 144 masik mandoli (monthly conventions) take place in various parts of north Bengal, and 335 saptahik milon and 82 masik mandoli in south Bengal. The organisation runs 462 seva prakalpa or charity projects in south Bengal, 159 of them in north Bengal, and a large number of schools in the State.

It is not just the RSS that has expanded its base in Bengal. Several organisations under its umbrella have been establishing their presence here. The Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) under different platforms such as the Joy Bharat Mata Seva Committee, the Durga Bahini, the Hindu Seva Dal, and the militant Bajrang Dal, has been spreading its base in different parts. The activists of various Hindutva groups almost unanimously agree that the best thing that had happened for their cause was the defeat of the CPI(M). “Organisationally, the Left was so strong, particularly at the grass-roots level, that they did not even give us the scope to set up base anywhere in the State,” said a VHP source.

As to how the previous Left Front government was successful in containing the rise of communal sentiment in the State, CPI(M) Polit Bureau member and West Bengal State secretary Surjya Kanta Mishra said: “We never allowed communal forces to raise their heads, as we would counter them politically. When we were in power, whenever there was any sign of trouble, we would take prompt action, in fact, we used to get prior information. The Trinamool and the BJP have now entered into this competitive communal programme with the common agenda of decimating the Left’s secular democratic space and divide the space between them here as well as at the Centre.”

With the increasing polarisation along religious lines, there has been a substantial rise in the incidence of communal flare-ups. In 2014, the year the BJP came to power at the Centre, 16 incidents of communal violence were reported in the State in which six persons died and 32 were injured. In 2015, as many as 27 incidents of communal violence took place; five persons died and 84 were injured. In 2016, the number of incidents increased to 32, in which four persons died and 252 were injured. In 2017, there was a significant increase, with 58 incidents in which nine persons died and 230 were injured.

Though the BJP is still a distant second in the political hierarchy in the State, Mamata Banerjee has enough reason to worry about the growth of Hindutva forces. However, whether it is a wise strategy to take them on with her own brand of “soft Hindutva” is a matter of debate. “We had to adopt this strategy as we were being seen as too pro-Muslim, and the BJP was using that against us,” said a Trinamool source.

According to the well-known psephologist and social scientist Biswanath Chakraborty, Mamata Banerjee’s strategy of using soft Hindutva will ultimately pay her political dividends. “Unlike parties such as the Congress, the Samajwadi Party or the RJD [Rashtriya Janata Dal], she has not adopted a secular stand against the BJP. She has not resorted to the old cry of secularism being threatened. Instead, she is using the very weapons of the BJP against them. This way, she is not only assured of the votes of the minority, who see her as the main adversary of the BJP, but [she is] also ensuring that those disillusioned by her policy of Muslim appeasement do not stray to the BJP side,” he said.

However, this political ploy does not bode well for the secular fabric of society, as was evident in the escalation of communal violence during the Ram Navami celebrations. Interestingly, some of the Hindutva groups, including the RSS, welcomed the Trinamool’s decision to celebrate Ram Navami this year. “It is a positive step by the ruling party in West Bengal. We consider this as our victory,” Jishnu Basu, general secretary of the south Bengal chapter of the RSS, said.

According to Surjya Kanta Mishra, the Trinamool’s strategy is “aimed at political polarisation through communal polarisation”. “The Trinamool has allowed the situation to take such a turn. In most of the cases the BJP and the Trinamool were celebrating Ram Navami together. The Chief Minister is at once pushing a Hindutva agenda and indulging in minority appeasement in a most blatant manner. This is very dangerous,” he told Frontline.

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