The toll of post-poll political violence is rising alarmingly in West Bengal. At least 10 people have lost their lives and dozens have suffered grievous injuries in clashes between the resurgent BJP and ruling Trinamool Congress (TMC). True, the state is no stranger to gory political turf wars since independence. But the latest bout of mob violence is taking an ugliest turn to communal conflagrations.
The result shows that the Hindutva camp has succeeded in engineering communal polarization through approx. 40 sectarian clashes in pre-poll years, particularly in areas bordering Bangladesh and industrial suburbs with mixed population. TMC supremo and chief minister Mamata Banerjee’s opportunist courtship with Muslim orthodoxy has only created space and legitimized saffron upsurge. The post-poll sectarian overtone of political wrangling is fast becoming a new normal for the state, once known as the citadel of Left-liberal ethos and politics.
The saffron camp led by Narendra Modi-Amit Shah duo is smelling blood after wresting as many as 18 parliamentary seats out of total 42, a meteoric rise from two in 2014 in contrast to TMC’s reduced tally of 22 from 34. Gaining 40 per cent of the vote-share against TMC’s 43 per cent, an aggressive saffron brigade is now hellbent to dislodge ‘Didi’ from power, if possible, even before assembly polls in 2021.
On the other hand, the hegemons of Bengal politics for three decades, the CPM-led Left Front (LF) now stands decimated at the hustings as their candidates lost deposits except in one seat while country’s grand old party, Congress has managed to retain two out of four seats. The transfer of lion’s share of Left-Congress votes to BJP has now boiled down to a direct duel between Bengal’s big sis and her friend-turned bete noire.
The BJP game-plan
Backed by Shah-led union home ministry, BJP’s multi-pronged strategy appears to be focused on further communalization of everyday conflicts of interests along with armed Hindutva mobilizations during religious festivals. The latest example of first kind is the reaction of the party stalwarts to the ongoing cease-work by doctors in hospitals following an attack on some junior doctors by a deceased patient’s family and neighbors who complained medical negligence at NRS Medical college and hospital in Kolkata. Though the patient party-doctors clashes point to deep-rooted maladies in healthcare system, Dilip Ghosh, the state BJP president and Mukul Roy, once Mamata’s number 2 and now BJP linchpin for breaking the ruling party ranks blamed Muslims and their ‘protector’ Mamata, simply on the ground of religious identity of the deceased’s family.
Another means for continued unrest is provocation to street-fights over its victory rallies in hitherto TMC strongholds and combative anti-government demonstrations. The consequent violence is making room for central intervention on the ground of the state’s failure to maintain law and order. Already, the possibility of President’s rule is being discussed as the pivot for political initiative on all-party peace meet has been moved to state governor Kesrinath Tripathi, a veteran RSS man and former UP speaker.
Ironically, life seems to have come to full circle for Mamata as she is now a victim of her own brand of politics in opposition and ruling avatars. Reneging on her big promise for ‘Paribartan’(change) to the Left legacy, she has neither allowed any electoral space to rivals nor she has tolerated independent civil society voices.
Since she has stepped into the CPM’s shoes by awarding government doles to party faithful and denying it to dissenters, a sizable section of disgruntled rural voters has switched to saffron camp this time, not necessarily out of ideological shift but to teach a lesson to highhanded and corrupt TMC satraps. Many a local toughs and other weathercocks too have changed their colors as their new masters have deeper pockets and more power berths to offer. Although, she has reprimanded her minions for their greed and factional feuds, no sincere self- introspection has come from her on her own policies and practices. Instead, she expressed her anguish over voter’s ingratitude to her despite availing the benefits of welfare schemes for tribals, poor and women as well as rural development projects.
Her impulsive outbursts and police action against BJP’s provocations like raising the battle-cry, ‘Jai Sri Ram’ in front of her and other TMC biggies were not expected from an astute politician. On the other hand, she publicly thanked Muslims for supporting her. Her comment – ‘it is better to suffer the kicks of the cows which give us milk’— a Freudian slip over betraying her attitude to the minorities would only help her challengers.
The boiling communal cauldron
Muslims comprise around 30 per cent of the state population and have sizable presence in approximately 100 assembly constituencies out of total 294. The community votes were divided between Congress and Lefts In earlier decades. After being a member of Vajpayee government in her initial post-Congress years, Mamata left the BJP bandwagon and joined hand with her parent party to unseat the LF.
Before and after assuming office, Mamata courted Muslim clergy and other conservatives to maximize her minority votes rather than nurturing the emerging educated Muslim middle class while endeavoring for jobs and education for the community youth. Her populist but opportunist personal identification with the community’s religious affairs have only helped the Sangh Parivar to foment the Hindu backlash. Sensing trouble, she tried to outsmart the Sangh by promoting Ganapati and Vajrangvali worships in addition to more extravaganza during annual Durga Puja festival at state expenses. But the election result has outwitted her.
The Parivar has been spreading its wings in Bengal since the Ram Janambhoomi movement but found political legitimacy after Mamata joined NDA in late nineties. Cross-border situation has also helped it greatly. Not only the victims of Partition riots and Pakistan era, waves of persecuted Bengali Hindus have taken shelter in west Bengal even from post-liberation Bangladesh. Aimed at tapping the latent anti-Muslim anger and hatred of Hindu refugees of different generations, the saffron camp raised a specter of ‘silent but steady’ demographic deluge by Islamists from Bangladesh while accusing rivals of vote-bank politics. The BJP has also harvested the dividend of Modi-Shah’s promise to make distinction between Hindu refugees and Muslim infiltrators and proposed changes in citizenship laws to welcome non-Muslims from neighboring countries.
Hindutva forces have succeeded in making huge dents in one of Mamata’s support base among one of Bengal’s Dalit communities, the Matuas. This influential sect which had begun as an anti-Brahminical socio-religious movement in undivided Bengal is popular among Nomo Shudras, largest scheduled caste group in south Bengal. Mamata courted the sect’s ruling clan and garnered support till BJP succeeded in dividing it and making hay with citizenship promises. Undivided Bengal had proponents of Dalit-Muslim unity against Brahminism and biggest of them, Jogendranath Mondol joined Jinnah government only to leave Pakistan during riots in 50s. Mamata’s Muslim-Matua joint base too has been fractured by Hindutva onslaught. T
To be historically honest, the communal narrative is not at all alien to Bengal given the contest for power between peasants-dominated Muslim majority and Hindu Bhadroloks in undivided Bengal. Both Muslim League and Hindu Mahasabha flourished here before the Partition. It was also home to Shyama Prasad Mukherjee, Hindu Mahasabha and Jana Sangh leader and Nehru’s minister whose death in Kashmir made him the first martyr-hero of Hindutva pantheon after 1947. However, the post-independence mainstream politics here had remained largely secular for decades after suffering the Partition horrors including the Great Calcutta Killings. But the increasing communal tension is resurrecting the memories of Partition years to many a member of civil society and other saner minds.