Communal Polarisation of West Bengal: An Effort Fraught With Danger
KOLKATA: The otherwise quiet and little known hamlet of Baduria, and the small sub-divisional town of Basirhat in West Bengal have suddenly caught all India attention for all the wrong reasons.Analysts are trying to get to the genesis of the communal eruption, especially because such incidents are relatively rare in Bengal.
The discussions are learned and informative, but are generally viewing the recent violence merely as an offshoot of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)'s endeavour to fill the void created by the effective disappearance of the Left from Bengal's political arena by orchestrating its own version of 'divide and rule'.
Whether this will work in Bengal or not only future will tell, but the dangers involved in stoking the communal fire in a bordering state may outweigh the political gain.
Bengal is one of the last few bastions in the country that are yet to come under the Hindutva spell. Bengal suffered some of the worst communal riots before and after independence. It also has a huge population of Hindu refugees from erstwhile East Pakistan. Yet, Bengalis have so far not used religion as a political tool.
BJP's brand of narrow nationalism has much less takers in Bengal than in the rest of India. This is true for both HIndus and Muslims in Bengal. It is natural for the BJP to try to surmount this steep hurdle on its course to the avowed goal of turning India into a Hindu State.
The reason why Bengal is "differrent" lies in its intellectual, religious, cultural and political heritage. The ideals and ideologies propagated and propounded by giants like Ramakrishna Paramhansa, Swami Vivekananda, Rabindra Nath Tagor, Kazi Nazrul Islam, C.R. Das, Subhas Chandra Bose and many others have for ages encouraged the Bengalis to think rationally, and originally, without blindly swimming along the tide.
Later, the Marxist emphasis on a broad unity among the working class of the entire world, with no reference to race, religion or creed appealed to the psyche of educated Bengalis. This promoted a strong secular and liberal outlook among Bengalis in general.
During the post-independence Congress era in the state, mass movements, based mainly on economic issues generally kept the common men - both Hindu and Muslim - away from communal politics.
The credo: "Hinduism is in danger" hardly struck any chord in Bengal. While Hindu politico-religious parties and groups like the Hindu Mahasabha, Gau-Raksha Samity, the Rashtriya Swayam Sevak Sangha (RSS) and the BJP did exist in Bengal, their support base was too thin to be of any significance in Bengal politics. This tradition continued under the Left Front, which ruled Bengal for more than three decades.
It is not that the State was entirely free from communal tension and strife during all this period. The difference was that the governments in power did not dither when it came to taking strong measures to control the violence, while remaining neutral in such conflicts. This gave no chance to the rightist groups to exploit the 'hurt' sentiment of the majority community.
In 2011, when the results of the Bengal Assembly elections were declared, an internationally acclaimed, veteran Indian film director told me that there was no problem with the Trinamool Congress (TMC) winning the polls. What worried him was that whenever the leftist forces became weak, rightist elements of all hues grew in strength. This, he added, was potentially dangerous for a bordering state like Bengal, with a volatile demographic mix. Looking at the developments in Bengal today, the observation seems almost prophetic.
In its bid to wrest power from the Left Front, the TMC joined hands with several Muslim fundamentalist outfits, giving them an element of acceptability. On being elected to power, the new Government announced several measures - clearly to placate the Muslim community - that irked even the most rational and liberal Hindu.
The announcement of allowances for the muezzins and imams of mosques (subsequently annulled by the High Court), huge bill boards showing the Chief Minister participating in Muslim religious festivities, and propaganda about her government's schemes to "improve the lots of the poor Muslims" may or may not have any positive influence on the target community, but there is no denying it that such actions did not go down well with a significant section of the majority community.
The seed of communal politics was sown through these ill-conceived actions of the Chief Minister. An element of doubt crept into the mind of liberal Hindu about Mamata Banerjee's true intention.
People also observed that the Police were behaving differently towards law breakers from different faiths. In Muslim majority pockets of Kolkata, wearing a skull-cap became a sure enough licence to break the law. I won't have believed it had I not myself seen this happening. An average, liberal Bengali Hindu is not amused by such behaviour of the law enforcement agencies.
The BJP and its sister organisations have taken full advantage of the growing apathy of a section of the Hindus towards the TMC's minority policy. Every little incident - in which the religious minorities are involved - is being highlighted, sometimes distorted, and spread over the social media to reach the widest possible audience.
The venom - injected slowly, but steadily - has affected even sane and sensible people among the Hindus. They have begun to believe in such half-truths, lies and canards. However much the TMC may try to deny it, communal harmony in the state has suffered a serious damage, for which the party can only blame itself. As the Bengali proverb goes, "the crocodile has been brought home by digging a canal!"
It will be wrong, however, to blame the BJP and TMC alone for the present situation.
Bengal's intellectuals, who used to hit the road in protest at the drop of a hat anywhere in the world, were conspicuous by their silence when the communal atmosphere in the state was being vitiated by fundamentalist elements of both the Muslim and Hindu kinds, as well as by short-sighted actions of the state government. Some of them condemned, and rightly so, the display of weapons in Ramnavami processions, but remained mum when the Imam of the Tipu Sultan Mosque was inciting Muslims by issuing insane fatwahs - including one against the country's Prime Minister.
Such selective actions do not endear them to the masses - whether Hindus or Muslims. Even the Kolkata Police, once reputed for its professionalism and deft handling of difficult cases and situations, has been made totally subservient to the ruling party, and hence ineffective in maintaining law and order with any degree of impartiality.
While the RSS, the BJP and other so-called Hindu outfits were trying to gain ground in Bengal, the Islamist fundamentalist and terrorist groups were spreading their tentacles within the Muslim community, by using much the same strategy as the BJP's, viz. fanning superstitions, hatred, half-truths and outright lies to influence the gullible.
The sudden spate of Islamic religious congregations in remote Bengal villages, at which fanaticism and hatred were being spread by 'preachers' from outside should have set the alarm bells ringing. There is no indication that any action is ever taken to stop such activities. At another time, the secular political parties could have tried to counter this evil at the grassroot level, but the TMC has driven them out, and their mass base has been all but destroyed.
One of the most serious aspects of the growing communalism in Bengal is its possible links with the Islamist fanatical and terrorist groups in bordering Bangladesh. Numerous such groups are active across the border, despite the strong action taken by Sheikh Hasina's Government to curb their activities. The Jamaat-e-Islami (JEI) of Bangladesh is the most prominent politico-religious party in Bangladesh. Among the other groups the most dreaded is the banned terrorist outfit
"Neo-Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh" (Neo-JMB), as the Bangladesh Government calls it, which was responsible for several deadly terrorist attacks within Bangladesh. There is no immediate indication of a linkage between JEI, JMB and other Islamist outfits, but one cannot rule out this possibility, with its ominous portent for India.
There are media reports suggesting that the JEI's aim is not only to capture power in Bangladesh, but also to establish what it calls a "greater Bangladesh" encompassing much of India's north-east and West Bengal. And for achieving these objectives the party has been working at various fronts, including - it is alleged - within the Muslim community in various parts of West Bengal. Their preaching and propaganda obviously prepares the ground for fanaticism and hatred to boil over at the slightest provocation - real or perceived.
It must also be remembered that the dividing line between being fanatic and joining terrorist groups to realise the 'ideal' is ultra-thin and, often, just a step across. The Muslim majority areas are therefore easy targets for those looking for radicalised youth to join their ranks.
It is learnt from friends in Bengal's Muslim majority districts that some Islamic "charitable" organisations are offering financial assistance, hostel and coaching facilities to poor but highly meritorious Muslim students apparently to enable them get good education and improve their economic condition. In itself this is a laudable project. The only point of worry is that it has an uncanny similarity to the modus operandi of the JEI Bangladesh, which spread its tentacles in all walks of Bangladeshi life by educating and even providing such students with jobs in the enterprises it ran or funded. In return, it got a pool of potential future leaders, a dedicated band of foot soldiers to actively spread its ideology among other 'faithfuls', and even to take to violence when the necessity arose.
The Chief Minister of West Bengal's penchant for wishing away all communal incidents as "small matters" has merely weakened the Police and emboldened the criminals. Instead, if she had allowed the Police to firmly enforce the law even-handedly, she would have earned kudos from the peace-loving citizens. It would also have blunted the criticism that she is playing the minority card for narrow political gains. She failed to learn anything from Dhugalagarh. It is to be seen if Baduria and Basirhat finally makes her perform her "Rajdharma".
The BJP on its part should perhaps adopt a different strategy for its "capture Bengal" campaign. It would find more support from the people of Bengal if it highlighted and organised movements against the lapses of the TMC government at various fronts, the rampant corruption among politicians and bureaucrats, the lack of jobs among the youth and numerous other issues which have a direct bearing on the bread and butter of the people.
The strategy of winning an election by polarising the voters on religious lines is not likely to succeed in Bengal. On the contrary, that path is fraught with danger, and may prove disastrous not only for Bengal but also for the country as a whole.
(Sandip Mitra is retired from the Indian Foreign Service. His last posting was at the Indian Mission in Bangladesh)