Asansol: In the last few years, Asansol, the second largest city in West Bengal, has undergone subtle changes that have even taken locals by surprise.
The city, which prides itself on its cosmopolitan character, has suddenly seen idols of Lord Hanuman crop up beneath trees across its length and breadth. Religious fervour is on full display every Tuesday, with devotees offering prayers to these idols.
“It’s not as though there were no Hanuman temples in Asansol earlier. But their numbers have suddenly shot up,” said a local resident who wished to remain anonymous, because he said talking about religious matters could have consequences.
But this is not a phenomenon restricted to Asansol. In many of West Bengal’s districts and towns like Purulia, Jhargram and Birbhum, there is a pattern of overt religious assertion by the Hindu community, fuelled by organisations like the Vishva Hindu Parishad and Bajrang Dal, and supported by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
Trinamool’s Muslim ‘appeasement’
Political analysts say the rise in the BJP’s influence in West Bengal has grown parallel to, and possibly as a consequence of, the Trinamool Congress’ (TMC) appeasement of Muslims.
Asansol has a 75 per cent Hindu population, of which about half are Hindi-speaking non-Bengalis. Today, Ram Navami has become as important as Durga Puja, if not more. But political analysts say this surge in religious fervour around Ram Navami and Hanuman Jayanti is unprecedented in Bengal. Following the BJP’s lead, the TMC too has begun celebrating Ram Navami and Hanuman Jayanti.
Subhanil Chowdhury, a West Bengal-based economist and political analyst, said Ram Navami processions where “young men play loud music and brandish swords” has today become an “assertion of Hindu identity”.
He said the TMC has no answer to this rise of Hindutva politics since it has very little ideological commitment towards secularism.
“Rather, it has pandered to both sections by organising Ram Navami and Hanuman Jayanti on the one hand and giving stipends to imams and muezzins on the other. This has further created the polarisation we are witnessing in West Bengal.”
In 2012, Chief Minister and party supremo Mamata Banerjee announced an imam bhata (monthly stipend) of Rs 2,500 for each imam and Rs 1,500 for each muezzin at mosques.
Then, in 2017, Banerjee’s government curtailed the time allowed conventionally for the immersion of Durga idols because Muharram processions were supposed to be taken out the same day.
“All this has added to a tremendous communal feeling. Her appeasement of Muslims has polarised the Hindu voters,” said an Asansol-based BJP leader who did not wish to be identified.
Chowdhury said the failure of the TMC government to arrest those accused in various incidents of communal violence has only added to the resentment. “This is what led to polarisation in Bengal. The communal campaign is going to help the BJP more than the TMC,” he said.
The BJP leader quoted above concurred. “There is a general feeling that the police will look the other way if, for instance, a Muslim breaks a traffic rule. A Hindu committing the same violation will be booked. It is this kind of behaviour that has made the Hindus apprehensive and they are rallying behind the BJP.”
Last week, violent clashes broke out during a Ram Navami procession at Barakar on the outskirts of Asansol, near the Bengal-Jharkhand border. Ten people were arrested and Section 144 of the CrPC was imposed.
This happened almost exactly a year after Asansol had witnessed violent clashes between Hindus and Muslims during Ram Navami celebration in which a 16-year-old boy, son of the imam of the Noorani mosque, was killed.
Maidul Islam, assistant professor of political science at Kolkata’s Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, said this Lok Sabha election campaign is one of sharp polarisation.
“More religious festivals are on display today. The West Bengal CM does not believe in the old Left and liberal models of secularism, which believed in the separation of religion and politics and negation of religion,” Islam said.
“The TMC started organising a Durga Puja carnival at the historic Red Road, a boulevard built in the 1820, which till then was used for holding only namaz on Eid-ul-Fitr. The symbolic message she wanted to send was that Red Road was not only for holding namaz. It was a kind of balancing act instead of appeasement.”
However, TMC MP Sougata Roy had denied the charge of “appeasement” in a conversation with ThePrint.
“Instead, TMC’s policies towards Muslims are all about righting a wrong. Any development that happens in the state has to take Muslims along. Taking them along is not appeasement,” Roy had said.
Meanwhile, speaking to ThePrint at Malda, West Bengal BJP president Dilip Ghosh had said that Hindutva is BJP’s national ideology, so there was nothing wrong in propounding it in the state.
“We can talk about Hindutva, there is nothing wrong in it. Whatever we are doing is within the constitutional boundary,” he had said.
But experts say the TMC and BJP playing the religion card is a dangerous trend.
Possible electoral outcome
The clearly visible polarisation could impact 14 Lok Sabha seats with a sizeable Hindu population. In Asansol, Birbhum, Purulia, Burdwan, Hooghly, Howrah and Bolpur, the BJP is expected to have an upper hand.
It can also play spoilsport in constituencies with a sizeable Muslim population, such as Malda, Murshidabad and Jangipur. For instance, in Malda, which has over 50 per cent Muslim population, there will be a three-cornered fight between the TMC, Congress and the BJP. The district, which has two seats, has been a traditional Congress stronghold but if Muslim votes get divided between the TMC and Congress, the BJP could gain.
“BJP will not win in the two Malda seats, but will cut into votes of both the TMC and the Congress,” said a Congress leader.
In the last general elections in 2014, the BJP won two of the 42 seats in West Bengal, while the TMC won 34. Outwardly, the BJP says it’s target is to win 22-23 seats, but insiders say a more realistic assessment will be around six to eight seats.
“We might not end up being number one, but our footprint will definitely expand. This will stand us in good stead in the assembly elections due in 2021,” said a senior state BJP leader who did not want to be named.