Add to this the growing – and deepening – levels of joblessness in the two formerly industrial belts, which for some years have turned desolate, and you have a near-perfect recipe that any political party seeking to make inroads in Bengal’s politics could stir in a communal cauldron.
Kolkata: BJP workers participate in a bike rally organised on Ram Navami in Kolkata, on March 25, 2018.
When the Bengal Sangh Parivar organised Ram Navami processions in 2017 in Kolkata and a few adjoining places, the participants, including school-going children, were armed with tridents, swords and an assortment of other sharp-edged weapons. This was unseen and unheard of in Kolkata, leave alone other sub-divisional towns of Bengal. It was a “dry run”, a mere testing of the waters.
Last year’s bellicosity of the Sangh Parivar, which has been slowly but surely seeking to get a foothold in the state since the BJP national leadership made it absolutely clear in 2014 that it will take to its characteristic politico-religious programmes to challenge the ruling Trinamool Congress, there was no doubt whatsoever that it would marshal all its resources to keep the communal pot boiling.
It was a signal – and a warning – to the Mamata Banerjee-led TMC that not only would the Sangh exploit its Hindutva programme(s) across Bengal to make electoral capital, but it would also unabashedly unleash its characteristic brand of communal politics, for which the state was primed once the Left had been dislodged from power and reduced to a rump grouping incapable of keeping its flock of cadres together.
Branded as a chief minister who had bent over backwards to appease Bengal’s nearly 30 percent-strong Muslim minority, and faced with the BJP’s imminent threat, Mamata resorted to her own brand of communal politics. She first coaxed, then cajoled, and then began to openly woo the caste Hindus who had begun to flirt with Hindutva.
The communal violence in Kakinara, Asansol and even in the tribal district of Purulia was waiting to happen as both the BJP and the TMC resorted to competitive “ethnic outbidding” in which both parties have now begun to adopt ever more extreme positions over a range of issues.
For a state that never cared for Ram Navami, this year, the smallest pockets saw young and old gather to celebrate. These issues include so-called Muslim appeasement, illegal immigration from Bangladesh, defence of Hindus, celebrating Hindu socio-religious functions, etc, that are perceived by political elites to have some bearing on elections. While the BJP has strong incentives to “demonise” the religiously homogeneous Muslims, who are perceived to be captive voters of the TMC, the ruling party has sensed that in order to offset the gains by the former it must do all it can to wean away potential Hindu voters from swinging right.
Now that the process has begun in earnest, with all the usual rhetoric in place, both the BJP and the TMC will try to outdo each other in competing for both Muslim and Hindu votes. The BJP’s high levels of anti-Muslim rhetoric is matched by the TMC’s pro-Hindu flirtations. Needless to say, competing hostilities and defence could reach a tipping point and unleash the communal genie in ways that could prove disastrous for Bengal.
Why are demographic data for Raniganj and Kakinara important from an electoral perspective? While Raniganj, which is on the Howrah-Dhanbad section of the Indian Railways, has about 22 percent Muslims, Kakinara (on the Sealdah-Naihati line) has upwards of 13 percent of people belonging to the minority community.
The Muslims in both Raniganj and Kakinara are Hindi-speaking and both places have a sizeable population of Hindi-speaking Hindus who, years ago, formed the labour force in sundry factories, paper mills and coalfields in these two distinct belts.
Over the last 20-25 years, as factories and other small-scale industries in these two thickly-populated belts ground to a halt, every available square metre of land, especially along the railways tracks, was occupied by Hindu immigrants from Bangladesh.
A giant Hanuman murti at a BJP-organised Ram puja in Bengal’s Rampurhat.
These Bengali-speaking Hindus and the bulk of the Hindi-speaking Hindus, especially in towns easily accessible from Kolkata, have today turned ardent admirers of the BJP’s brand of politics. The rapid inroads of the RSS in these areas has been matched by its target groups’ growing interest in communal politics. In other words, communal politics has found traction among sections of the Hindu population in these belts – a polarising phenomenon that will certainly creep into Kolkata over time.
Another view that has emerged is that the fomenting of trouble in Raniganj, which is part of BJP MP Babul Supriyo’s Lok Sabha constituency, was partly an outcome of the leader’s sagging popularity. Some political observers believe that party functionaries owing allegiance to Supriyo, who is Union Minister of State for Heavy Industries and Public Enterprises, “engineered” the violence using the occasion of Ram Navami and the attendant parades as a means to bolster Supriyo’s image. Supriyo went a step further: as groups battled on the streets with swords, bombs and fire, the minister posted a torrent of tweets and graphic-content videos on social media, which he explained away by claiming to be his version of the “truth”. Reports from Kolkata indicate that not just in Raniganj, Kakinara and Purulia, but the Sangh and the BJP organised Ram Navami parades at Kandi in Murshidabad and Chandannagar in Hooghly area.
The growth, extent and the violence engendered in the name of Ram has been characterised as “people’s enlightenment” by Bengal BJP chief Dileep Ghosh. His colleague in the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, Sachindranath Sinha, has claimed that the Sangh will organise a series of rallies, marches and parades till 31 March when different units of the political right will observe Hanuman Jayanti.