As Elections Come Closer, the Communal Pot Bubbles in West Bengal

Charred remains of vehicles after violence in Malda, West Bengal. Credit: PTI

Charred remains of vehicles after violence in Malda, West Bengal. Credit: PTI

Politics in West Bengal is suddenly communally surcharged. On one side is the Bharatiya Janata Party, defending the outrageous, and on the other the Trinamool Congress, which, as the ruling party, chose to ignore the danger signals when two communally volatile organisations – the Anjuman Ahle Sunnatul Jamaat and the Akhil Bharatiya Hindu Mahasabha – chose to stage a face-off in Malda district’s Kaliachak last weekend.

The continuing tension in Malda has rippled out in waves of apprehension across the state, prompting political parties to go on high alert for different reasons: to fish in troubled waters or attempt to restore calm and reassure the communally vulnerable. Election season 2016 has begun, but on an ominous note.

The background is the contest to carve up the Congress fiefdom of Malda and adjacent Murshidabad between the Trinamool Congress as the ruling party and the BJP, which sees in the border districts with Muslim dominance an opportunity to mobilise Hindu votes that are in a minority in many of the constituencies of the two districts. The trigger for the mobilisation, and the almost predictable clash, was neither mint fresh nor of local origin; the very large mob that torched a dozen vehicles and the Kaliachak Police Station, injuring one apprentice Hindu priest, had been organised by AASJ to protest the blasphemous remarks against Prophet Muhammad made by Hindu Mahasabha activist Kamalesh Tiwari in Uttar Pradesh over a month ago.

In a state where the opposition, especially the Communist Party of India (Marxist), struggles to get permission to hold a rally, organise a meeting and rent space to do so, the ease with which AASJ mobilised a very large crowd implies that it had tacit approval from the district administration and its political handlers, the Trinamool Congress. The fact that six of the rioters out of the nine who were charged are out on bail underscores the implicit backing of the ruling establishment, because there are enough precedents in West Bengal to support the opposition charge that bail is a gift from the Trinamool Congress to its loyalists.

Changed political scenario

The issue that sparked the riot in Malda would have had limited resonance once upon a time in West Bengal, when organisations like the AASJ and the Hindu Mahasabha had limited appeal, and political control over communally sensitive locations was very different. 

Back then, the political consensus by the CPI (M)-led Left Front and the Congress on maintaining communal peace held firm, even under very difficult circumstances, like the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992. The Malda incident points to the death of the political pact to keep communally explosive issues out of the competition for votes. The reasons are simple and connected to the overall decline of the Congress in West Bengal, and the mounting pressure from the Trinamool Congress in Murshidabad and Malda for people to switch loyalty from the Congress and join up with the ruling party.

Earlier efforts to wean Murshidabad and Malda by the CPI (M) and now the Trinamool Congress as well as the BJP have not worked out well. In the two districts, especially where family and personal loyalties bind the voters to the Ghani Khan Chowdhury clan or Adhir Chwodhury or the Sinhas, it has been difficult for the Left and the Trinamool Congress to sweep the polls. However, that firm attachment of voters to the Congress via the Ghani Khan Chowdhury family has recently become loose, after his younger brother, Abu Naser Khan Chowdhury, finally drifted into the Trinamool Congress.

Kaliachak, which is part of the Sujapur assembly constituency, is at the heart of the Congress fiefdom of the Ghani Khan Chowdhurys in Malda. An incident like the riot in Kaliachak pulls the insecure and those in need of patronage to seek out the powerful, that is, the ruling party in the state or the BJP, which is in power at the Centre and believes it is the party of natural allegiance for the numerically weaker Hindus in the border belt of North Bengal.

The stakes in the contest have been upped by the open letter from the Congress general secretary, Om Prakash Mishra to the party President Sonia Gandhi in which he has argued that a Congress-Left Front alliance could defeat the Trinamool Congress. In his carefully calculated estimation, the Congress-Left Front alliance could win at least 161 seats against 126 by the Trinamool Congress, restricting the BJP to four seats. If the two parties could unite to actualise on their separate vows to oust the Trinamool Congress and re-establish the rule of law and end communally divisive politics, the key to victory would lie in the 46 seats of Uttar Dinajpur, Malda and Murshidabad, where the rivalry has historically been between the Congress, which enjoys an edge, and the CPI (M)-Left Front which is the challenger.

The expectations of the group within the Congress that advocates a tie-up with the CPI (M)-Left Front is based on the premise that the BJP will not retain the 17% of votes it picked up in 2014.  Voters who opted for the BJP in 2014 are clearly anti-Trinamool Congress. Therefore, these votes need to be mobilised by a front that is anti-Trinamool. Since that front does not exist as yet, Mishra has proposed the joining of forces of arch political enemies – the Congress and the Left led by the CPI (M) – to defeat the Trinamool Congress as well as arrest the growth of the BJP.

The possibility of this improbable combination has also been voiced within the confines of the Left by sections of the CPI (M). Their voice has grown stronger, prompting the CPI (M) to hold consultations with its Left Front allies on the possibility. The threat to the Trinamool Congress has, therefore, jumped from negligible to real, because any combination of opposition votes would technically work to its disadvantage.

The Trinamool’s handling of the Kaliachak incident – i.e. allowing the very large and aggressive mobilisation by AASJ at a time when maintsream opposition parties are refused permission to hold rallies – is suspect in CPI (M) Polit Bureau member Muhammad Salim’s eyes. His worry is the Trinamool Congress may be encouraging volatility to gain political ground in an area where the party has a weak presence. Malda, Murshidabad and Uttar Dinajpur have been Congress strongholds where the Left has been the principal challenger. As the MP from North Bengal’s Raiganj constituency in Uttar Dinajpur, one of the places where the Congress and the Left have been locked in eternal rivalry, Salim has kept a close watch on the Trinamool Congress’s tactics of brokering defections and spreading its net of patronage.

Dangerous and reckless

In Salim’s view, the decision of the Kaliachak police and Malda district administration in allowing, or failing to restrain, the AASJ rallyists from turning violent on an issue that was neither local nor immediate went against the precedents of past administrative response in the potentially communally volatile border areas and was politically masterminded. It was a dangerous and reckless move to stir up communal emotions. Subsequent events indicate that the Trinamool Congress is in the thick of it, working overtime to spook the opposition, gain ground and establish itself as the dominant party that can keep the communal situation in control.

The decision by the Trinamool Congress government to stop BJP’s MLA, Samik Bhattacharya from visiting Kaliachak was clearly a message that the turf was now under the ruling party’s occupation. It was also a challenge. If the BJP intends to make headway in the border areas then it will have to do more than roll in Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh, who is expected to visit West Bengal on January 18. For, earlier in the week, Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, speaking in West Midnapore, issued a command to her troops via a challenge to the opposition : “If you can fight, then fight. If you can develop, then do it. If you can accept the challenge then do it. But if you can’t, then shut up and let us carry ahead with development.”  

Shikha Mukherjee is a Kolkata-based commentator

  • Sangram Sahoo

    This is usual in West Bengal. Yechury Saab should have 50 specific questions for Didi to answer. The left party has already done a blunder by walking out on Nirbhaya bill in RS.They need to change the public perception about their party. As the intellectuals with the awards in kitty get ready to debate, BJP guys MUST be careful this time about the comeback of intolerance issue. Need to speak reasonably as the development agenda should be back on top and only priority.