Dumka (Jharkhand): While students protesting the Citizenship (Amendment) Act in Jamia Milia Islamia and Aligarh Muslim University had to bear the brunt of police violence on Sunday, Prime Minister Narendra Modi decided it was the right time to ignite communal sentiments and suggest only Muslims were protesting the new law.
Speaking at a Bharatiya Janata Party rally in Dumka, Jharkhand ahead of the upcoming polls, Modi said that those who were protesting violenlty against the new Act could be recognised by their clothes. The Congress and its allies, he added, were adding fuel to this fire.
“Yeh Congresswale aur uske saathi… halla macha rahe hain, toofaan khara kar rahe hain. Aur unki baat chalti nahin hai to aag janee phaila rahe hain. Jo aag laga rahe hain, TV pe unke jo drishya aa rahe hain, yeh aag lagaane vaale kaun hain, woh unke kapdon se hi pata chal jaata hai (The Congress and its allies are making a noise, creating a storm. And if that doesn’t work, they are spreading a fire… From the visuals on TV, those setting the fire can be identified by their clothes),” Modi said.
On cue, BJP-friendly media and BJP social media handles quickly amplified the ‘Muslim’ and ‘anti-Hindu’ aspect of the protest, including through the circulation of fake or misleading videos.
While the Muslim community across India is apprehensive about the new law and has been taking part in peaceful protests in many states, the greatest unrest since the citizenship amendment was first approved by the Lok Sabha has been in Assam, where it is not led by “Muslims”.
While Modi has made oblique remarks against Muslims in recent years – most notably during the 2019 Lok Sabha election campaign when he described Wayanad, the seat Rahul Gandhi chose to fight from, as one where ‘the minority is the majority’ – his Dumka statement is arguably his most direct act of finger-pointing against the community. The Guardian’s Randeep Ramesh described it as a “blaring foghorn” rather than a dog whistle:
Blaring foghorn from Modi. No dog whistle needed. https://t.co/paxkoYXkn4
— Randeep Ramesh (@tianran) December 15, 2019
After the Jamshedpur East constituency, from where chief minister Raghubar Das is contesting, Dumka is the biggest hot seat in upcoming assembly elections. The Congress-Jharkhand Mukti Manch-Rashtriya Janata Dal alliance’s chief ministerial candidate, Hemant Soren, is contesting from here.
Dumka was traditionally a JMM bastion, but had been wrested away by the BJP in the last assembly elections and is currently represented by Louis Marandi. The region is the centre of Adivasi politics in the Santhal Pargana, and people here continue to respect JMM patriarch Shibu Soren. In this election, apart from a bulk tribal vote, the minority Muslim vote is expected to go to the JMM.
The JMM accused the prime minister of inciting communal tensions ahead of the elections.
“The prime minister wants to create communal tensions between the tribal and non-tribal voters on the one hand and the minority Muslim population on the other. It does not suit the position of a prime minister,” said Supriyo Bhattacharya, JMM general secretary. “Why is he not speaking about growing unemployment? Why is he not speaking of the closing industries and business, the growing job loss? Why is he not speaking of the lynchings in the state?”
The JMM leader said the BJP is afraid of the coalition’s strong position in the Santhal Pargana. Since he is not able to counter with anything concrete, Bhattacharya said, Modi is using his old tactic of communal divisions.
Hemant Soren is contesting from two seats. The other is Barheit, from where he is the sitting MLA. Modi will be addressing another election rally on December 17 in Barheit, carefully chosen by the state BJP to gather support against Hemant.
The venue for Modi’s rally was barely two km away from Shibu and Hemant Soren’s residence. While the state BJP managed to bring a huge crowd, largely Adivasis and the poor, most motorcycle-born Modi supporters stopped at Soren’s gate to shout slogans like ‘Bharat Mata ki jai‘ and ‘Narendra Modi jindavad‘. Hemant, incidentally, was out campaigning in Barheit. JMM supporters, too, took out motorcycle rallies in the city, while Modi criticised the coalition in his speech.
Traditionally, Adivasi tribes have been with the JMM. The minority Muslim community has supported either the Congress or the JMM. Now, with the coalition in place, the entire minority Muslim community stands with the JMM. A good chunk of the non-tribal vote too appears to be concentrated with the JMM this time. But as Modi well knows, even though there is no history of communal riots between the tribes and Muslims, communally divisive statements do play their polarising role during elections.
Muslims in Dumka appeared lukewarm about Modi’s rally in their city. Several had gone to the venue just to take a look at the gathering.
“It is disappointing. We thought the prime minister would address the situations of the people,” said Afroz Alam, a voter who went to the rally to listen to Modi.
Dumka and other constituencies in the Santhal Pargana will vote in the last phase of the Jharkhand elections, on December 20. In the last two years, chief minister Raghubar Das has been holding numerous programmes in the region, giving the call for a ‘JMM-mukt Jharkhand’. But given Modi’s polarising and incendiary comment, it appears the BJP is not confident of having built a path into this JMM stronghold.