Talk Point: How did some pockets of West Bengal become so communally polarised?

 

 

A controversial Facebook post about Islam recently prompted angry Muslim mobs to go on a rampage setting buildings on fire and clash with the police in West Bengal, killing a 65-year-old Hindu man. Retaliatory Hindu mobs burnt down the dargah and shops owned by Muslims. Who is responsible for this communal tinderbox? We ask experts Shishir Bajoria, Sitaram Yechury, Mahua Moitra, Sujato Bhadra, Sugata Marjit, Samantak Das and Rajat Roy.

West Bengal is sitting on a volcano ready to erupt — SHISHIR BAJORIA, senior BJP leader, West Bengal

West Bengal is sitting on a volcano ready to erupt. Today we see Darjeeling, Uttar Dinajpur & North 24 Parganas (Baduria & Basirhat) burning.  Just few weeks back it was Hooghly, Howrah, Nadia, earlier Burdhaman, and Maldah.  The difference is that the earlier ones were ‘media censored’ on the pretext of not risking communal violence.

Maldah deserves special mention.  In Kaliachak, a police station was burnt, but no action taken by the police to even defend their property as the culprits were from the ‘protected community’. It is the best kept secret that Maldah is full of opium fields, with tall sugarcane ‘curtain’ around them. These places are hubs of drug, counterfeit currency and human trafficking.  Some months back, a madarsa teacher was beaten mercilessly for committing the crime of making the students sing Jana Gana Mana. The police looked the other way. Was this not polarization?

The earlier government for decades welcomed infiltration from across the border and now blatant minority appeasement policies followed in the last 6 years have reached such proportions that the majority is now being threatened. Recently in a procession the main slogan was “Aryans (Hindus) leave India” in Baduria.

A favoured imam in Kolkata even said that the writ of the Indian law does not run in west Bengal, in the context of lal batti removal. The common thread in the series of communal violence is the change in demography all along the border with the active connivance of the state. Even Bangladesh complained that their most-wanted fundamentalists find shelter in West Bengal in illegal madrasas.

The biggest worry is we do not know how many more riots will take place before real change comes.

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Both TMC and BJP act in tandem to communally polarise West Bengal today — SITARAM YECHURY, CPI(M) General Secretary

The impact of partition of India on Bengal is often underestimated, thanks to the post-Independence political domination of the Gangetic belt. Recollect that on 15 August 1947, Gandhiji was not at the Red Fort in Delhi when the national flag was unfurled. He was on an indefinite fast in Calcutta seeking a cessation of communal mayhem in the backdrop of the ghastly Naokhali communal riots.

Given this background, for over half a century in post-Independent India, West Bengal has remained an oasis of communal harmony because of the political dominance of the Left.

By the end of the first decade of the 21st century, the religious minorities in Bengal, particularly the Muslims, did not suffer the same sense of insecurity that was felt by them elsewhere. Their concerns were more about their economic prosperity whose conditions were articulated by the Sachar Committee report.

Capitalising on this sentiment, the Trinamool Congress began a Muslim appeasement policy for electoral benefit. This got reduced to Muslim fundamentalist appeasement.

This found the natural corollary in the Hindu communal consolidation drawing upon the partition legacy. Fundamentalism and Communalism feed each other.

Both the TMC and BJP act in tandem to communally polarise West Bengal today shattering its stature of being the oasis of communal harmony and the syncretic advance of Indian civilization.

This is a tragedy, all for the sake of petty political benefits. While the CPI(M) and the Left remain steadfastly committed to defeat this communal monster the people of Bengal shall surely rise to uphold and further strengthen their track record of social harmony.

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The so-called communal incidents were small and criminal, but were fanned and flamed by BJP — MAHUA MOITRA, MLA of Trinamool Congress Party

West Bengal has a 27 per cent Muslim population, which is almost double that of the national average of 14 per cent. The state always has and continues to remain a beacon of communal harmony. The aftermath of the 1992 Babri Masjid incident did not spill over into Bengal like it did in many other places.

Bengal’s leadership is vociferously defending the rights of minorities and the underprivileged (be it the cattle slaughter ban or making Aadhaar mandatory for social schemes) which are under severe threat from a rabidly right-wing and dangerously polarising BJP government at the centre. Ever since the BJP failed miserably at its electoral test during the recent 2016 assembly elections, winning only 3 seats out of a total of 294, the party has fallen back on its time-tested formula of venomous divide-and-rule. Each of the so-called communal incidents were small, criminal incidents, which were fanned and flamed by BJP cadre from outside the affected area, with incendiary speeches by leaders and the social media onslaught of fake videos, photos and posts. The BJP alone is responsible for this, and finally the truth is out for the nation to know.

Vijeta Malik an executive member of the Haryana BJP, Nupur Sharma a spokesperson of the BJP and Tarun Sengupta, the Head of BJP’s IT cell in Bengal, are all criminally liable under various sections of the Indian Penal Code for spreading hate and communal tension by spreading fake news.

The solution to this is simple- Bengal will enforce the law strictly when dealing with attempts by the BJP to use fake news to fan communal tension. The people of Bengal have continuously rejected their policies of hate at the ballot box and will undoubtedly continue to do so.

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The violence is the result of an intense hate campaign by one “school of ideology” — SUJATO BHADRA, human rights activist

Recent eruption of violent incidents in certain areas in North 24 parganas of West Bengal are a consequence of an intense hate campaign by one “school of ideology” against another community in the past decade, particularly in the last 3-4 years. Demographically, the region is predominantly Muslim. The economic activities – legal and illegal — are evidently cross-border in nature. Despite the flow of people of both communities from neighbouring country, fundamentalists could not succeed in tearing the social fabric until now.

The urban voters in Basirhat constituency helped the BJP win for the first time in 2012. The RSS and BJP groups through their “bistaraks” launched a tireless pernicious hate campaign against Muslims through social media, books, group meetings, pamphlets. They raised the issue of ‘infiltration’ (Muslims as converters of this land into dar-ul-Islam) and of ‘refugees’ (Hindus as victims of religious persecution in Bangladesh), love jihad, conversion, banning of cattle trade (mostly illegal). They stoked fear — however imaginary – that the region would soon become the place of the “other”, and would make Hindus’ life and property precarious.

In Basirhat, the local TMC leadership not only failed to control both communities but even joined the Hindu community in violence and arson. The arrest of “the instigator”, and the police’s justified refusal to hand him over to the huge aggressive, violent Muslim crowd, and surprisingly almost total withdrawal of law-enforcing agencies from the troubled areas for three days led to escalation of violence, and deaths. Right now, the sense of siege in the area should be lifted.

There has to be a continuous campaign against hate speech, inter-faith interaction, exposing falsification of history and abandonment of politics of appeasement.

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We need neither the sword-wielding Hinduism on the streets, nor the ‘Islam khatre mein hai’ syndrome — SUGATA MARJIT, Professor, Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Kolkata, and Former Vice-Chancellor Calcutta University.

Communities are not polarized, some elements are. It’s the same everywhere. It’s well known that minorities form clusters, (my dear Muslim friend could not get a house for rent in a mainstream area!!) and border areas are more vulnerable because of clandestine business activities in which even government agents are also involved. Once clusters are formed, and given the fact illegal acts are remunerative, miscreants start dominating the areas. Overall, West Bengal is communally far more tranquil than any other place in India. That’s why peace initiatives by locals in affected areas have borne fruit in no time.

With the Congress and CPM removed from the seats for the opposition, the spot is up for grabs and communal episodes will be attempted to unsettle the TMC government. Skirmishes will occur as elections, panchayat, Lok Sabha and Bidhan Sabha will be around, like upswings of a business cycle.

Law-and-order implementation must be strong and careful, independent of political and communal color so that apparent communal appeasement does not become a political issue.

Continuous public vigil against communalism of all kinds is warranted. After all, we hail from lands of Ramakrishna and Vivekananda, Rabindranath and Nazrul. Majority and minority should protect each other. Sword-wielding Hinduism on the streets of Kolkata is generally treated as spiritual mockery, even by a strongly religious Hindu such as me.  An erudite Muslim Vice Chancellor of a state university once told me that the society has to get rid of the ‘Islam khatre mein hai (Islam is in danger)‘ syndrome by empowering young people with education and training.

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The question is: “Why did West Bengal not become communally polarised earlier?” — SAMANTAK DAS, literature professor, Jadavpur University, Kolkata

For me, the question would be, in a state where the majority of Muslims – who make up over 27 per cent of the population – are the bottom of the social, economic and every other ladder, “Why did West Bengal not become communally polarised earlier?”

The answer lies in a bundle of factors, not always separable from one another, which have prevented communal violence from baring its venomous fangs. Among these would be traditions of syncretism and accommodation at the local level, from the Baul/Fakir phenomenon and the worship of Bon Bibi in the Sundarbans, to the employment of Muslim dhakis (drummers) during Durga Puja. Add to this, the memories of Partition and the Bangladesh War. In short, neither did people want to repeat the ghastly mistakes of the past, nor was there sufficient separation between communities (a precondition for distrust and suspicion) to create communal polarisation. This was in clear evidence following Babri Masjid in 1992, where incidents of communal violence were swiftly brought under control.

Things are different now. Political parties, central and state, are brazenly using the rhetoric of “us vs. them”, of “one nation, one religion, one culture” and seeking to cash in on the political dividends (read votes) accruing from such polarisation.

The only solution to this is for us, ordinary citizens with no affiliation to any political party, to realise that democracy is not to be confused with the casting of one’s vote every half-decade or so; that democracy consists of bearing witness, shouting out truth to power, of actively fostering communal amity instead of passively bemoaning its loss. That is the only hope in these otherwise dark and dismal times.

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Hindu-Muslim ties are so vitiated now that a mere poster can trigger a violent outburst – RAJAT ROY, member, Mahanirban Calcutta Research Group

The riot in Basirhat subdivision of North 24 Parganas district is the latest in a series of incidents of communal violence in West Bengal — in January 2016 at Malda’s Kaliachak, in October 2016 at Barrackpore, North 24 Parganas, in December 2016 at Dhulagarh, Howrah. The Hindu-Muslim ties are so vitiated now that a mere poster can trigger a violent outburst and disrupt the communal harmony, as it happened in the case of Basirhat riots.

Contrary to the claims made by the political establishment in the state, Bengal had all the factors present for a protracted communal strife. After the partition of Bengal, more than 10 million Hindu refugees came from erstwhile East Pakistan, majority of them were forced to resettle in rural areas in the bordering districts of Bangladesh. Lack of proper rehabilitation left them bitter and time and again they vent their anger on the Muslims.

Besides sporadic communal clashes here and there the post-independent Bengal saw major riots in 1950, 1964 and 1992-93. The efforts of the Left and secular forces to uphold the value of secularism were often flawed as the political parties showed more interest in wooing the Muslims (27% of the total population) for electoral considerations.

The Mamata government’s initiative to give monthly allowances to more than 12,000 imams in the state and some other moves irked a section of the Hindus. Now that the Left and Congress are in decline in Bengal, BJP is trying to occupy the space. Riots, followed by virulent campaign in social media claiming victimhood for the Hindus are logical consequences of that.

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