Biswajit is a journalist and associated with democratic movements.
‘Part I. The Dynamics Of Communal Polarization In Bengal: A Probe Into Baduria-Basirhat Flare Up’ can be read from here.
Demographic tension and trans-border competitive communalisms
The politics of Demographic domination that thrives on mutual fears and prejudices of Hindus and Muslims has been the fountainhead of latent communal tension in Indo-Bangladesh border for long. Even as the impacts of post-partition forced migration are absorbed fully, waves of new Hindu migrants from Bangladesh after its liberation war in 1971 became substantial in the nineties when both the countries witnessed the surge in communal forces. When West Bengal recorded a decadal population growth of almost 18 per cent in 2001 census, North 24 parganas registered almost 23 per cent increase to its 1991 figure.
Significantly, it happened in the aftermath of widespread Islamist persecutions of Bangladeshi Hindus, mainly during BNP-Jamaat-e-Islami regime in 1991-96 when India too witnessed the surge of the Hindutva forces that culminated in the demolition of Babri Mosque in 1992 and beginning of BJP’s electoral fortune. This is another example of mutual strengthening of competitive communalisms across the border. They are out to complete their unfinished agendas of the Partition. Persecution of Hindus picked up again during second term of BNP-Jaamat rule in 2001-06 following post-Godhra killings of Muslims in Gujarat in 2002. Hindus suffered during Awami League (AL) rules too, particularly 2013 onward after Jaamati-Hefajati Islamist forces clashed with government sides over the hanging of Jaamat leaders of early seventies for their war crimes as Pakistani collaborators.
The minority in Bangladesh are being targeted largely because of their support to the AL as Indian Muslims are at the received end of BJP-RSS wrath because of their support to Congress and other secular parties. Though, both AL and Congress profess composite nationalism, their homegrown critics have rightly pointed to their wobbling commitments to secularism.
The decadal increase in 1991-2001 (and subsequent decrease) in West Bengal population were not the district-specific as adjoining south 24 parganas, Nadia as well as Muslim-majority districts of Murshidabad, Malda and Uttar Dinajpur also witnessed the same pattern, though 5 per cent increase in N-24 parganas was highest. Perhaps it can be attributed to its proximity to Kolkata. It’s still the most populous district of the state even its growth rate came down to 12 per cent in 2011 census which was lower than state average of around 14 per cent.
Hindus and Muslims comprised roughly 70 and 27 per cent respectively in the state in 2011 while ratio was little over 72 per cent and 25 per cent in earlier decade. Post-partition Muslim population in the state has increased around 7 per cent over its 1951 share, in contrast to little higher rate of decline of Hindu population in the intervening period. But that’s far away from the Sangh-invoked specter of demographic deluge to inundate Hindus, notwithstanding the facts of Muslim ‘ínfiltration’, mainly in search of better economic opportunities in India. According to census projection, Muslim population in Bengal will reach around 30 per cent in 2041, close to its pre-partition share. The main religious ratio of N-24 parganas population was around 74 and 26 per cent respectively in the last census. Both the communities have showed certain decadal growth in the district since 2001 but nothing phenomenal at the expense of the other.
Nevertheless, communal fault-lines in both sides of the border have been widened and deepened. One of the reasons is the mixed factor of caste-religion and its pressure on predominantly rural economy. In contrast to post-partition refugees, majority of newly displaced Hindus from today’s Bangladesh are lower caste farmers, fishermen and artisans, mostly Nomos or Namashudhras and Pods or Poundrokhatriyas. Apart from Rajbangshis (18.4 per cent) in north Bengal, Namashudhras( 17.4 per cent) are the largest caste group in south Bengal and together they constitute 35.8 per cent of total scheduled population in the state. Pods, Bagdis, Bauris and Chamars, each have more than 10 lakh populations mostly in South Bengal. In consonance with the national trend, SC population in Bengal was 23 per cent in 2001 which recorded around 2 per cent decadal increase. In contrast, N-24 parganas registered almost 15 per cent increase over its 1991 SC population leaving it only second to south 24 parganas as the host to most concentrated SC populace in West Bengal.
Unlike the earlier generations of caste Hindu refugees who had the social capital to move towards the urban areas in search of livelihood and shelter, the efforts of post-nineties lower caste Hindu migrants to settle on land close to their old home and hearth have made traditionally Muslim-dominated Basirhat subdivision uneasy. Though most of the Muslims here are the descendents of lower caste Hindus and share the same socio-economic background with their Hindu counterparts, they resent the ‘aggressiveness’ of newly arrived, mostly ‘nomos and pods’ and complain about the complicity Hindu-dominated bureaucracy to the new refugees in obtaining voter and aadhar cards as well as land rights. Similar complaints are being voiced by the other side regarding Muslim politicians and panchayat hierarchy.
The mutual fight over increasingly fragmented land, uneconomic agriculture and other meager resources in absence of alternative livelihoods has deepened the communal divide. Reciprocal bitterness has been sharpened by the Hindutva camp’s stoking of memory of religious persecution in Bangladesh and Muslim hawks asking their coreligionists not to lose one of the last areas of the community’s demographic domination. Basirhat violence, preceded by Deganga riot in 2010 and other low-key skirmishes are the outbursts of the latent heat generated by the communalized contest for limited resources. But the reality check by non-communal minds reveals that lower castes across the faith line who mostly belong to the same classes too are hit by same problems of survival and sustenance.
A study by the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta in 30 villages in north 24 pargansas including Basirhat II, sponsored by the Ministry of Minority Affairs in the wake of Sachar Committee report on Minorities in 2006 found ‘disguised unemployment and acute underdevelopment’ among both the communities. Neither side is better placed as small and marginal landholders as roughly 20 per cent of both communities possess some land while Muslims(19 per cent) are more among landless laborers. Land can’t provide jobs to the rest even if the villages under survey were better irrigated than many parts of the district. More than 50 per cent of both the communities migrate outside Bengal in search of livelihood as even Kolkata and other cities can’t absorb them. Muslims migrate more for long-term tenures. Both sides suffer from indebtedness to private moneylenders, Hindus (37 per cent) more than Muslims (44 per cent) for buying agricultural inputs, medical expenses et al as banks do not cater to them. Both sides suffer from myriad problems of access to government welfare schemes and ability to afford health care, sanitation, safe drinking water, primary and secondary education and consequent unsatisfactory human development indexes despite the zone being close to Kolkata.
BJP-RSS roadmap: from borderland to inland
While Jamati and Hindutva forces are active at both sides of the border for decades, advent of BJP as the central ruling party in India and its recent aggressive moves to bag Bengal has turned the ground politically charged. Apart from strong emotive appeal of Saffron campaign on persecution of Hindus, its relentless harping on silent waves of Muslim infiltration — allegedly facilitated by vote-bank politics of successive Congress, Left front and Trinamul governments– has created social echo chambers.
Narendra Modi himself campaigned in Basirhat and some other bordering areas during 2014 parliamentary polls welcoming Hindus as refugees while assuring to give citizenship rights to all of them who came after 1955. In contrast, both he and Amit Shah declared war on Muslim infiltration and blamed them for usurping Hindu land and jobs. The BJP vote-share in Bengal had gone up to 17 per cent in 2014 and the party won Basirhat south in a subsequent assembly by-election. It also bagged three assembly seats in 2016 though its vote percentage came down to 10 per cent. Even if the saffron party lost Basirhat south, the results of Contai by-election this year underlined the fact that BJP is fast occupying the main opposition space to Mamata Banerjee government, at the expense of Left front and Congress.
The steady rise in BJP’s electoral fortune has made the Hindutva forces aggressive. With most of the recent communal flashpoints being Muslim-majority areas the Sangh Parivar has drummed up its campaign against Mamata’s ‘Muslim appeasement’ and BJP’s role as the savior of Hindus. Muslims comprise more than 27 per cent of Bengal population while holding key to 59-odd assembly seats, though the state has only three Muslim-majority districts out of 23. Trinamul bagged 32 in 2016 while 18 went to Congress and rest to the Left Front.
Social engineering focusing lower caste Hindus
To consolidate its gains, BJP has launched a drive for social engineering eyeing Hindu lower castes, a la UP, by demanding 27 per cent reservation in state government jobs for Hindu OBCs and special care for Hindu Dalits on the ground that their Muslim counterparts have taken away all the benefits of current quotas. The official websites of Bengal units of both BJP and RSS host video recording of the state party chief’s speeches and RSS national resolution at its Coimbatore meet early this year respectively that complained about attacks on Hindus at both sides of Bengal border, mainly scheduled castes. Mamata has been accused of neglecting the plight of poor Hindus while turning the state into a safe haven for Islamic fundamentalists and Jihadis as revealed by Khagragarh blast.
Mamata’s appeasement of Muslim conservative males at the community’s cost
Basirhat violence has strengthened the general Hindu perception of Trinamul and its government, both at local and state level, as partisan to the Muslims. Trinamul MLA in Basirhat south was attacked by Hindu mob and its party offices were ransacked in and around the Hindu-dominated town. In fact, Mamata Banerjee’s acts of omission and commission have given credence to Sangh campaign. The state administration’s postponement of immersion of household Durga idols to avoid clash with the routes of Muharram processions last October was lapped up by the Hindutva brigade as a proof for her Muslim appeasement. However, moderate opinions across communities are more concerned about Mamata’s appeasement of community conservatives.
Her vow to protect constitutional secularism and syncretic tradition of Bengal notwithstanding, the Trinamul supremo’s realpolitik motives are clear from her choice of mostly orthodox males as minority representatives, both in government and the party. Her selected men included a loudmouth fatwa-giver, MPs who were either instrumental in fanning street violence in Kolkata demanding the ouster of feminist writer Taslima Nasreen or in opposing Pulse Polio immunization as an American conspiracy to depopulate Muslims. The latter one was even accused of having relations with trans-border Jihadis. Ironically enough, Trinamul MP from Basirhat, Idris Ali who had anti-Nasreen frenzy a decade ago tested the mob ire in Baduria when he tried to pacify the Muslim mob. Trinamul support to Muslim male’s right to triple talaq which is highly contested by Muslim women speaks volume of Mamata’s social-political imperatives.
Her penchant for symbolism like public prayer with her head covered in Muslim style and tokenism like allowance for mosque imams were only aimed at wooing conservative male opinion without caring for substantial and long-term community welfare. Almost none of her chosen people are from the emerging educated middle class within the community including professionals in different fields. Despite the visible regeneration of the class which had depleted its rank following the migration of a large number of them after Partition, they hardly enjoy political representation under current dispensation that had begun with Left Front rule but got stymied by narrow politics of the ruling Marxists.
During Basirhat violence, Mamata obliquely chided zealots among Muslim religious and political leaders for overreacting to ‘fakebook’ hate campaign and landing her in trouble at the height of BJP campaign for president’s rule and her spat with the party’s UP stalwart-turned Bengal governor on law and order situation. Earlier, she cautioned two of her Howrah MLAs whose factional feuds had facilitated communal violence in Dhulagarh over the extension of route for a procession in celebration of prophet’s birthday last year. But in her speech at annual party rally on 21 July, she kept mum against the instigators who had incited the Muslim youth and in turn played into the BJP hand willy-nilly. Evidently, she does not want to chastise minority hawks, at least in public, fearing loss of crucial chunk of the community votes.
Worst of identity politics gripping Bengal
Mamata and her minions have been courting religious clan leaders of Hindu lower caste Matua sect and Phurphura Sarif among Muslims whose followers have large concentration in north 24 parganas and adjoining districts. CPM and Congress too have made the same overtures to such social authorities in a desperate attempt to claw back to power. But she has outsmarted them. However, Modi’s party is likely to pose a far serious challenge to Mamata in coming polls pertaining to social equations as it plays religious card openly. Being in power at the Centre, BJP is better placed to woo Matuas and other lower caste Hindus by dangling the baits of citizenship rights and benefits to border communities.
Despite her recent balancing acts of celebrating Ram Navami and Hanuman Jayanti as well as exhibition of her Hindu background to checkmate BJP, Bengal politics and society is fast getting absorbed in the swirls of nationwide religious politics. The rise of communalisms in Basirhat, one of the main hubs of food movement and peasant movements in the sixties, is the latest pointer to the sordid change. An increasingly anemic Left front and Congress, hamstrung by CPM centre’s veto to its Bengal unit’s bonhomie with Sonia Gandhi’s party against Mamata while all are opposed to Modified BJP has added confusions in opposition ranks and offered advantage to BJP.
Mamata’s megalomania no less than Modi
Moreover, Mamata’s relentless poaching into opposition ranks, particularly Congress and Left front reveals her penchant for absolute political control, a la Narendra Modi- Amit Shah duo. Coupled with ruthless use of police against assorted dissidents while dangling carrots to civil society, she has aped the ruling party at the Centre and helped it to attract to all protection-seekers apart from the usual weathercocks.
The next post can be read from here.
Those who are interested in the details of our local interactions and findings may follow our next posts. Third part of our report deals with role of digital technology and the facebook generation and politics of polarization in escalating the violence and hardening the youth mindset. The fourth part deals with changing social-political equations in the Baduria village that the accused Hindu boy belongs to. fifth part is on the composition of minority mob and role of deliberately mushroomed rumors of destructions or damages to religious places that spread the violence to Basirhat. Sixth part delves into factional fighting among religious and political leaders that added fuel to fire. Seventh part is on the Hindu backlash and roles of the Sangh Parivar, police – administration and media. Eighth part is on the controversy over the role of Bangladesh nationals. The last part highlights local voices of sanity from the family of slain Hindu elder and others.