The recent communal clashes in West Bengal during Ram Navami hardly came as a surprise. It had happened last year as well, and, in fact, has been a regular annual occurrence since 2018. Everyone, from the Chief Minister to the common people, appear to have been expecting it. Mamata Banerjee spoke of its impending approach days before the violence took place and warned the people about it. However, the flare-up still happened as little seemed to have been done to either prevent it or to snuff it out quickly.
Though localised, the repeated occurrences of clashes between two communities are a disturbing indication that not just religion, but communal disharmony may have also become a part and parcel of mainstream politics in Bengal, with both the ruling Trinamool Congress (TMC) and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) playing a dangerous game of “competitive communalism”, each with its own calculations about the dividends of religious polarisation.
On March 30, violence broke out at Shibpur in Howrah district, the same place where there was a clash last year. There were subsequent clashes reported at Rishra in Hooghly district, and Dalkhola in Uttar Dinajpur district. Video footage showed armed youth taking part in the Ram Navami rally and prompted the allegation that the violence may have been planned well in avance. Mamata Banerjee said, “In the name of Ram Navami, they are carrying guns and swords to incite violence. The person who was dancing with a gun in the procession, did Lord Ram tell him to carry weapons in a Ram Navami rally?” Mamata was referring to 19-year-old Sumit Shaw, who was subsequently arrested from Munger in Bihar. State intelligence sources confirmed that the Chief Minister’s allegation that “outsiders” were brought in to participate in the Ram Navami celebrations was not unfounded.
The recent flare-up between two communities appeared to have been orchestrated. An informed source said mostly people from Bihar and some from Jharkhand were brought over to take part in the violence. “At the same time, it was not as though the government did not have intelligence about what was going to happen,” the source added. The government said that processions were taken out in certain areas without permission from the administration, an allegation the BJP denied.
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The BJP struck back at Mamata and claimed that the government had allowed the violence to take place in order to consolidate its support among the minority population. The BJP’s Suvendu Adhikari, Leader of the Opposition, said, “The situation was allowed to go out of control only to save her [Mamata’s] vote bank.” He sought a probe by the National Investigation Agency.
Even the Calcutta High Court had observed orally that the flare-up appeared to be “pre-planned”. A bench comprising Acting Chief Justice T.S. Sivagnanam and Justice Hiranmay Bhattacharyya, while hearing a public interest litigation petition from Adhikari, observed on April 10, “Reports prima facie show they [violent incidents] were all pre-planned. There is an allegation that stones were pelted from rooftops. Obviously, the stones could not have been taken in 10-15 minutes to the rooftop... there was an intelligence failure.” In an earlier order, to avoid further incidents, the court had directed the government to deploy Central forces during Hanuman Jayanti on April 6. The festival took place peacefully.
Although there was widespread criticism of the government’s inability to prevent the violence and of the police’s role in failing to put an end to it quickly, Mamata backed the police. “At namaz time, they [the BJP] deliberately went there to victimise the people... why should people take arms to a religious meeting?... they had come out with so many weapons that if the police had stopped both sides... then many would have lost their lives from firing,” said the Chief Minister. “So, for one hour, the police tactfully, I would not call it foul play, but tactfully made its move. Then slowly, both communities settled the matter amicably.”
It is not just the opposition that has raised questions on the government’s role in the communal violence. Political observers and academics voiced suspicions of an ulterior political motive. Political observer and professor of sociology Surajit C. Mukhopadhyay observed, “If the State doesn’t want it, there cannot be riots. The Indian state is powerful enough to stop any kind of riot immediately; if it does not, then there is some kind of political interest at work. The BJP makes no bones about its politics of polarisation, so its actions come as no surprise. However, such violence was not witnessed earlier in Bengal, simply because the then State government did not allow it to happen. With panchayat elections around the corner, and the Lok Sabha elections due next year, it is very clear why such events are taking place.”
- The recent communal clashes in West Bengal during Ram Navami were not a surprise but little seemed to have been done to either prevent it or to snuff it out quickly.
- The ruling Trinamool Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) are playing a dangerous game of “competitive communalism”, each with its own calculations about the dividends of religious polarisation.
- The Calcutta High Court had observed orally that the flare-up between communities appeared to be “pre-planned”.
- The BJP has admitted that it was more the government’s policies that have fuelled the party’s growth in the State than any major effort on its part to boost organisational strength.
A surge in popularity
Ram Navami and Hanuman Jayanti were not major festivals in West Bengal. They were observed in pockets where the non-Bengali speaking population was relatively higher, and the events would pass peacefully without untoward incidents. The rise in popularity of the festival has been directly linked to the growth of the BJP in the State. Ram Navami as a festival first came into prominence in the State in 2017, when pro-Hindutva organisations led armed processions to the chants of “Jai Shri Ram, an unseen sight in Bengal. Any skirmishes were localised and not serious, but they paved the way for serious outbreaks in the days to come. The following year, Ram Navami clashes broke out in Asansol in Paschim Bardhaman district, and in North 24 Parganas, Purulia, Birbhum, Hooghly and Murshidabad districts. The violence was more prolonged and four people, including a minor, were reportedly killed. The Trinamool government, instead of emphasising secular principles to counter the Hindutva forces, chose to take on the BJP’s “aggressive Hindutva” with its own brand of “soft Hindutva”. As a result, a culture alien to Bengal quickly became a part of mainstream politics.
Explaining the cultural shift in the State, senior Communist Party of India (Marxist) leader and former Lok Sabha MP Sujan Chakraborty told Frontline, “Earlier, Rabindra Jayanti [celebration of Rabindranath Tagore’s birthday] was a big occasion in Bengal society. Today, we are seeing Rabindra Jayanti losing out to Hanuman Jayanti. Ram Navami and Hanuman Jayanti were hardly visible in Bengal before the BJP brought it into the political space. Remember it was the Trinamool that first countered the BJP’s Ram Navami by publicly announcing the celebration of Hanuman Jayanti. Anubrata Mandal, who is now in prison, was the one who organised it in a big way. Today, the Trinamool has left itself with no other alternative but to indulge in the politics of division.”
Interestingly, when Ram Navami celebrations first came to the fore in 2017, a large number of Bengalis were seen taking part in the rallies. This was seen as a knee-jerk reaction to the Trinamool’s perceived politics of Muslim appeasement. In the 2014 Lok Sabha election, the BJP’s vote share, which hardly ever exceeded 6 per cent, suddenly shot up to 17 per cent. With practically no organisational base in the State, the saffron party’s rise was largely attributed to Mamata’s policies regarding minorities. The Muslim population, standing at over 30 per cent in the State, is a deciding factor. Muslims also make up over 27 per cent of the population in about 130 of the 294 Assembly seats. In fact, the Muslim population stands between 40 and 90 per cent in 74 seats.
From the time it came to power in 2011, the Trinamool has been securing the lion’s share of Muslim votes, and Mamata has been perceived as extending special privileges to the minority community—from granting honorarium to imams and stipends to muezzins to sharing the dais with influential Muslim religious leaders and allowing them to intervene in political matters. In 2017, the Calcutta High Court even admonished the government when, during Durga Puja, it suspended the immersion of the idol by a day as the date coincided with Muharram.
Even the BJP has admitted that it was more the government’s policies that had fuelled the party’s growth than any major effort on its part to boost organisational strength. As a result, the Trinamool received a jolt in the 2019 general election when the saffron party won 18 of the 42 Lok Sabha seats and secured 40.25 per cent of the votes.
Desperate to win back the Hindu votes she had lost, Mamata changed tack, spouting Sanskrit slokas from the stage and extending huge grants to clubs for the celebration of Durga Puja—last year, it was Rs.258 crore. Although the 2021 Assembly election saw Mamata return to power for her third consecutive term and the BJP emerge a distant second, subsequent developments and issues relating to corruption at the grassroots level have led to an apparent disenchantment among Muslim voters. The Trinamool’s loss in the recent byelection to the predominantly Muslim constituency of Sagardighi—a seat it had won the last three times—is seen as an example of the growing disillusionment with the ruling party among minorities.
“In the 2021 election, we won because more than 90 per cent of Muslims had voted for us. Losing even a small percentage of their support does not augur well,” a Trinamool leader, who did not want to be named, said. On the other hand, RSS sources claim that their organisation has been growing rapidly since the Trinamool came to power. Between 2013 and 2021, the number of its shakhas increased from 820 to 1,600, and, according to sources, by another 25 per cent over the last year.
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According to the findings of Biswanath Goswami, Right to Information (RTI) activist and socio-legal researcher, there have been as many as 65 incidents of communal violence in Bengal between January 2021 and June 2022. Goswami said the RTI replies revealed that 19 people (eight in 2021 and 11 in 2022) had lost their lives in communal violence.
The well-known psephologist Biswanath Chakraborty also feels that the “competitive communal politics” in the State is responsible for the increasing number of communal clashes. “This recent flare-up is a result of such competitive communalism,” Chakraborty told Frontline. “Following the 2021 election, the minority population appears to be getting disenchanted with the Trinamool, particularly after the death of student leader Anis Khan allegedly at the hands of the police, and the massacre at Rampurhat (in which nine Muslim women and a child were burnt alive as a result of intra-Trinamool clashes). These culminated with the Trinamool losing in the Sagardighi by-election—a constituency with more than 65 per cent Muslim population. Today, Mamata is insecure and seems desperate to win back the Muslim vote. She wants them to believe that she is the saviour of the minority.”
With the Panchayat elections in the State happening soon and the Lok Sabha election next year, communal politics in Bengal is more likely to intensify than abate. While religious polarisation bears advantages for both the Trinamool and the BJP, the common people are now getting tired of the strife. “An important part of our job is also to know how the common people are reacting to the prevalent situation,” a government source told Frontline. “The political parties may indulge in their high-sounding rhetoric, but the fact is, people at the grassroots level are fed up with repeated clashes and the disruption in their daily lives.”