Bengal is sitting on a tinder box. According to those who follow the news emanating from the state, it appears on the brink of a major communal conflagration. Comments in the social media ominously recall horrific details of the Great Calcutta Killing of 1946 in which thousands were slaughtered during the carnage triggered by Muslim League leader MA Jinnah’s call to observe August 16 that year as “Direct Action Day” for attaining Pakistan. The violence spread rapidly from Calcutta to other parts of undivided Bengal, especially Noakhali. Even Mahatma Gandhi’s personal intervention in this town (now in Bangladesh) failed to douse the flames of communal frenzy.
Why are such grim reminders of a carnage that happened over 70 years ago recurring in the social media? This is mainly on account of regular incidents of communal clashes in towns big and small, particularly in South Bengal. Such incidents have been reported almost every week from districts like 24 Parganas, Howrah and Hooghly. Significantly, these districts are all close to the border with Bangladesh. And in the last few years, waves of regugees have been pushed into West Bengal, following systematic rioting aimed at evicting minority Hindus who now account for a mere 8 percent of that country’s population (compared to 37 per cent at the time of Independence).
It is widely believed that Ms Mamata Banerjee’s undisguised appeasement of minorities has emboldened hardcore elements among them to push the envelope further. Incidents of land-grabbing and attacks on temple property have been rampant. A controversial Muslim cleric, Abdul Barkati, Imam of the Tipu Sultan Mosque in Calcutta, recently provoked people by threatening not to obey Indian laws; to begin with, he refused to dismantle the red beacon on his vehicle – something he had been permitted to use by the West Bengal government. Similar statements by Muslim religious leaders purportedly close to Ms Banerjee appear to have added fuel to the simmering fire.
This is ironic for a state like Bengal which, despite the pain of Partition, has a proud record of communal harmony. Although the population of Muslims has gone up significantly (accounting for 27 percent of the total), especially in border districts like Murshidabad, Malda, North and South Dinajpur and Nadia, some of which are Muslim-majority districts), social harmony has rarely been disrupted till now. But the recent actions and assertions by Ms Banerjee have altered the situation. Clearly in a bid to solidify Muslim electoral support to upstage the CPI(M), Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress (TMC) government has resorted to gimmicks like paying a monthly stipend to Muslim clerics (Imam batta). Last year the state government curtailed the time traditionally permitted for the immersion of Durga idols to allow a break for Eid. Although many were riled by these decisions, opposition parties did not protest vigorously so as to retain some semblance of their own Muslim support.
Perhaps as a reaction to Ms Banerjee’s overt policies, the BJP has been able to surge in a big way in the last two years. Its share of the vote jumped to 17 per cent in the 2016 assembly election and in a prestigious by-election last year the BJP came in second, overtaking the CPI(M), traditional challenger of the Trinamool. This year’s Ram Navami processions, organised by the RSS and its affiliates, were an eye-opener as huge crowds marched down the streets of almost every district headquarters town, carrying traditional arms. Ram Navami has never been a major religious festival in Bengal, where Durga Puja along with Kali and Saraswati Pujas have always held sway. But evidently peeved by the state government’s policies many ordinary citizens joined the Ram Navami processions, probably as a mark of protest.
Bengal politics, therefore, is now at a crossroads. The earlier Communist/non-Communist divide is giving way to a Trinamool vs BJP battle for the state’s heart, soul and votes. It is in this background that one needs to assess the latest row between Governor Keshari Nath Tripathi and the Chief Minister. It is impossible to ascertain Ms Banerjee’s claim that she was called by Mr Tripathi and insulted at the instigation of a BJP delegation which met him shortly before she did. Mr Tripathi is a learned and experienced politician, not known to lose his temper, especially when talking to a woman. But the Chief Minister’s callous dismissal of the serious rioting in Basirhat on Calcutta’s outskirts may have aggravated him to ask her why she had not considered requisitioning central forces. Basirhat is known to be the nerve centre of cow-smuggling operations to Bangladesh which continues despite the ban on sale of cattle for slaughter. That appears to be at the root of the violence that gripped the town last week. The reported protection given to the rioters by the authorities resulted in the situation getting out of hand.
In other words, a series of such incidents is adding up to turn a potentially explosive communal confrontation into a reality. Ms Banerjee’s transparently insincere attempt to run with the hare and hunt with the hound is no longer paying the kind of dividend it did earlier. Donning a headscarf at a Muslim event and posing as a Hindu devotee during a Rathyatra procession, hides a deeper agenda. If she insists on pursuing it, she will only help then BJP to grow to a point where it may become the party-in-waiting to form the next government.
The Bengal government has been ignoring the communal build-up in the stare for long. Various militant outfits like HUJI have spread their tentacles deep into the countryside. In fact, some of them have sought refuge in West Bengal following a crackdown on extremist elements by Sheikh Hasina’s government across the border. With unemployment skyrocketing in Bengal, jihadi militancy is often seen as an attractive proposition to many jobless and hapless youth. If Ms Banerjee is unable to demonstrate that she can focus on development instead of handing out doles to local clubs, thereby building up an army of unruly Trinamool cadre, Bengal’s law and order scenario could become unmanageable. As it is, Darjeeling and adjoining hill areas are already burning as a result of the violent agitation for a separate Gorkhaland. With all these issues piling up, Mamata Banerjee will have to pay full attention to administering the state instead of indulging only in vote-catching gimmicks.
By Dr. Chandan Mitra
(Dr. Chandan Mitra is a journalist, currently Editor of The Pioneer Group of Publications. He is also former BJP MP, Rajya Sabha.)