Bengal: How the Sangh Parivar Created a Hindutva Wave in East Midnapore District

Hindutva outfits like the Hindu Jagran Manch and Vishwa Hindu Parishad had started their public activities in the district in March 2020, gaining momentum and creating a polarised environment in which the BJP could thrive.

Tamluk: In 2017, just four days before the by-election in Kanthi Dakshin assembly constituency the seat of the Adhikari family that had the last word in East Midnapore district since the Lok Sabha election of 2009 Ram Navami processions with unprecedented crowd and enthusiasm caught the town by surprise. Ram Navami was on April 5 and the election on April 9.

From the Adhikari family, apart from Sisir, his sons Suvendu, Dibyendu and Soumyendu also entered politics. Sisir, who was Kanthi’s municipal chairman since 1980 for over three decades, and got elected as an MLA in 1982, furthered the family’s influence after leaving the Congress for the Trinamool Congress (TMC) in 1999. He got elected from Kanthi Dakshin again in 2001, and in 2006, he left his ‘safe seat’ to his son, Suvendu, and went to contest from the Left bastion of Egra, and won.

In 2008, following the Nandigram land agitation, the TMC, under the leadership of Sisir and Suvendu, swept the district of East Midnapore in the panchayat elections, and in 2009, the two won both the Lok Sabha seats in the district – Sisir from Kanthi and Suvendu from Tamluk. The Kanthi Dakshin seat went to Dibyendu, and Soumyendu was given charge of the Kanthi municipality.

In the 2016 assembly elections, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) got only 8.76% of the polled votes in Kanthi Dakshin lower than the party’s state share of 10%. The 2017 by-election is significant as Dibyendu got elected from Suvendu’s seat, Tamluk Lok Sabha, after Suvendu got elected to the assembly from Nandigram to become a minister.

Home minister Amit Shah with Suvendhu Adhikari as the former joins the BJP. Photo: PTI

But in the April 2017 assembly by-election, which was held less than a year since the May 2016 assembly general elections, the BJP’s vote share jumped to 30.97%, while the Left’s share dipped from 34.22% in May 2016 to 10.21% in April 2017.

TMC leader Chandrima Bhattacharya won the Kanthi Dakshin seat comfortably, but a change in the political equation in the district had been marked. Kanthi town, where the Adhikari family lives, became one of the first places in the state to see the ‘Baam thekey Ram’ (from Left to saffron) trend. Over the next two years, this trend helped the BJP’s exponential rise in Bengal.

“Hindu organisations, such as the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, Bajrang Dal and Hindu Jagran Manch, increased their activities in Kanthi since the end of 2016, after Dibyendu got elected from Tamluk Lok Sabha in the by-election, necessitating the assembly by-election in Kanthi Dakshin. At that time, we did not give much of a thought to the activities of these Hindu organisations. But later, we realised that they were preparing the ground for the BJP,” said a neighbour of the Adhikari family, who did not want to be identified.

A hint of the changing equations could be seen in the Tamluk Lok Sabha by-election itself, held six months after the assembly general elections, with the BJP’s vote share (15.06%) reaching close to that of the Left (21.62%). Thereafter, Hindutva activities peaked at the end of March 2017 over the preparations for the Ram Navami celebrations – this included tableaus and bike rallies touring the roads and alleys – with ‘Jai Shree Ram’ chants renting the air in different parts of the town. The by-election results had made the new equations clear.

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No looking back for the BJP

Uttar Kumar Pradhan, a high school teacher, who contested from Kanthi Dakshin on a Communist Party of India (CPI) ticket in 2011, 2016 and 2017, had no qualms about blaming the local CPI(M) leaders and workers for the BJP’s rise in Kanthi in 2017. According to him, after the 2016 assembly election debacle of the Left-Congress alliance, the Left workers were deeply demoralised.

“The BJP, by virtue of being in power at the Centre, stood by their workers who were facing the TMC’s atrocities and police cases. The BJP provided significant legal support to their supporters who landed in jail on false cases. In the 2017 by-election, local CPI(M) leaders and workers shifted their votes to the BJP in a planned way to take on the TMC,” said Pradhan, who himself joined the BJP in November 2020.

Besides these political developments related to the TMC’s alleged atrocities, Pradhan said, the increased activities of Hindutva organisations helped build mass acceptance of the BJP.

Since the 2017 by-election, there was no looking back for the BJP, not only in Kanthi but also across the district.

In the 2016 assembly elections, the BJP polled only 6.2% votes in East Midnapore district, compared to 25.5% polled in favour of the Left parties and 50.8% in favour of the TMC. Of the 16 seats, the TMC bagged 13 and the Left won the rest.

But after the morale of the BJP workers got a boost in the Kanthi Dakshin by-election, the party put up many more candidates than the Left parties in the 2018 panchayat elections, ending with a tally higher than that of the Left and the Congress. Though they stood a distant second, it was still significant. This was sufficient to ensure anti-TMC polarisation under its banner.

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The tale of Nandigram

The extent of communal polarisation Nandigram witnessed ahead of the assembly polls had drawn the attention of the whole of the state, as Suvendu Adhikari, who joined the BJP in December 2020, kept repeatedly referring to Mamata Banerjee, who was contesting against him, as “begum” and “khala and fufa of the Rohingyas” and the TMC supporters as “Pakistanis”.

The scene outside the polling booth at Boyal panchayat area in Nandigram, where Mamata Banerjee went to protest against alleged rigging by the BJP, and faced agitation from BJP supporters, had also drawn the attention of many. Senior journalist Biswajit Roy wrote in a Facebook post that he was shocked to see how the BJP supporters who were protesting Mamata Banerjee’s presence at the booth were referring to “TMC supporters as Muslims”.

Local residents told this journalist that the ground for such intense polarisation in Nandigram, as also at Boyal, was being created since March-April 2020.

West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee at a polling station at Boyal in Nandigram on April 1, 2021. Photo: PTI

At Boyal, the TMC’s panchayat pradhan (chief) Pabitra Kar, a Suvendu-loyalist, started participating in social work – mostly distributing relief materials during the COVID-19 lockdown – under the banner of Sanatan Sena, an organisation for the Hindus. On August 5, Kar, under the banner of Sanatan Sena, also organised a puja of Ram at Boyal to celebrate the laying of the foundation stone of the Ram temple in Ayodhya, Uttar Pradesh. Kar joined the BJP, following Suvendu’s path.

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In Nandigram, where the opposition allegedly lived in fear since Mamata Banerjee came to power, Hindutva organisations started public activities even before the BJP. The Hindu Jagran Manch and Bajrang Dal stepped up their activities right from March-April 2020 when Suvendu Adhikari’s growing distance with the party started gaining media attention.

“We got the green signal from the higher leadership, who said that the time was right, as we were not going to face any resistance and opposition either from Adhikari or the TMC leaders opposed to him,” said Manilal Bera, a resident of Tengua area in Nandigram.

The Hindu Jagran Manch organised pujas of Ram in temporary pandals at several places in Nandigram on August 5, 2020. Among the places where a puja was organised was Tengua More and Nandigram bazar.

On December 20, 2020, a day after Suvendu Adhikari joined the BJP, the Hindu Jagran Manch organised a street corner meeting at Tengua area in Nandigram to observe Rashtra Suraksha Divas in memory of the parliament attack of December 13, 2001.

On December 31, 2020, Hindu Jagran Manch staged a demonstration at Nandigram police station seeking action against those accused in the alleged attack on a rally celebrating Bajrangbalis puja on December 29, 2020 that was attended by Adhikari during his first visit to Nandigram after joining the BJP. The Hindu Jagran Manch, thereafter, carried out a high-voltage campaign against “jihadi attack on Bajrangbali’s devotees”.

The Hindu Jagran Manch conducted a meeting of all its organisers in Nandigram on March 21 at Santosh Villa to discuss how to intensify the communal polarisation over the days leading to the elections.

A hoarding in Nandigram inviting people to join the worship of Ram on August 5 to celebrate the laying of the foundation stone of Ram Temple in Ayodhya. Photo: Snigdhendu Bhattacharya

A series of events

Kanthi and Nandigram were not exceptions. The activities of these Hindutva organisations had gained momentum all over the district since March-April 2020.

According to a leader of the saffron camp in the district, who did not want to be identified, the BJP and the Sangh parivar organisations had assessed the pros and cons of the induction of Suvendu Adhikari and came to the conclusion that a section of Left supporters who gathered under the BJP’s flag may return to the Left camp seeing Suvendu becoming their boss.

“Our assessment revealed that those who joined us from the Left camp were largely looking to destabilise the hold of the Adhikari family. In a bid to ensure they did not dessert the BJP seeing Adhikari, it was decided that Hindu consolidation needed to be intensified, and supporters be called to vote as a Hindu for anyone who agreed to work for popularising Jai Shree Ram’,” said the saffron camp organiser, a BJP leader with a background in the RSS.

One of the slogans popularised among Hindutva supporters was “Lakshya jakhan rashtra joy, prarthi niye bibad noy”, meaning there should be no quarrels over candidates when the aim is to win state power.

Towards the end of November, the Hindu Jagran Manch started holding meetings of their block-level committees. In Nandakumar, Mahishadal and Sutahata areas, the Hindu Jagran Manch had already had its block-level committees, and from November-December 2020, they started forming panchayat-level committees. The Hindu Jagran Manch’s committee at Shahid Matangini community development block was formed in January, and at Kolagaht in March. In some areas of Nandakumar, the Hindu Jagran Manch also has village-level committees.

On January 12, 2021, rallies were held in different parts of the district to celebrate Swami Vivekananda’s birth centenary, highlighting the 19th century Hindu monk’s oft-repeated quotation: “Gorber sathe bolo ami Hindu,” the Hindi version of which, “Garv se kaho hum Hindu hain” (Say it with pride, I am a Hindu) has been popular in northern and western India over the past several decades.

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The following is a list of programmes that the HJM carried out since February 2021 throws some light into their activities:

  1. Hindu Sammelan and Bharat Mata’s puja at Khejuri on February 2
  2. Agitation in Kanthi town against alleged tearing of a Saraswati puja banner by ‘jihadi aggressor’ on February 4
  3. Bike rally in Nandakumar area on February 14 commemorating the Pulwama terror attack in 2019
  4. Agitations demanding capital punishment for the murderers of Hindutva activist Rinku Sharma, who was killed in Delhi, held in different blocks and towns of the district between February 13-20
  5. Hindu Sammelan at Patashpur on February 26; Hindu Sammelan at Egra on February 28
  6. Bike rally at Panskura area demanding ‘Akhand Hindu Rashtra’ and protesting ‘atrocities on Hindus around the world’ on March 1
  7. Foot rally at Shahid Matangini block on March 20
  8. Bike rally and youth conference at Haldia demanding ‘Akhand Hindu Rashtra’ and protesting ‘atrocities on Hindus around the world’ March 23
  9. Bike rally at Sutahata block on March 28.

Note that these activities were organised only by the Hindu Jagran Manch, while organisations such as the Bajrang Dal and Vishwa Hindu Parishad had their own set of events. They also engaged in social work and relief work during the COVID-19 lockdown and cyclone Amphan.

The Hindu Jagran Manch also roped in a retired CRPF officer and organised karate training centres for girls in many areas where the participants were also informed about ‘love jihad’.

The RSS itself has formed its block-level committees called khand in the district over the past three years.

Standing outside the Hindu Jagran Manch’s office in Brajalalchak area in the industrial town of Haldia, one of its supporters, Sontu Bera, informed The Wire that the office was inaugurated on December 6, 2020, in celebration of the pulling down of the Babri mosque. During the event, the organisers also distributed blankets to the poor.

For the record, the BJP’s state unit president Dilip Ghosh was the key Hindu Jagran Manch leader in West Bengal before being deputed to the BJP state unit by the RSS at the end of 2014. Since then, Hindu Jagran Manch workers across the state have been seen working in close coordination with local BJP leaders and often doubling as BJP workers.

“When these Hindu organisations started organising social or religious events from 2017, they did not talk about politics. They only tried to spread Islamophobia, branding Muslims as ‘born criminals’ and accusing them of having a very high birth rate. That they were ploughing the ground for the BJP to harvest dawned upon us quite late,” said Bidyut Gucchait, a veteran CPI(M) leader of the Chandipur area.

He added, “My personal understanding is that the intensity of communal consolidation stands higher in East Midnapore district than many others.”

Triangular saffron flags with “Jai Shree Ram” written on them had covered both sides of major roads in many parts of the district by mid-March, ahead of the polling in the district in two phases, on March 27 and April 1.

Perhaps as a result of this Hindutva campaign, there was a section of BJP supporters – erstwhile Left supporters – who despised the Adhikari family, and Suvendu in particular, but still worked to ensure their victory because “Suvendu accepted ‘Jai Shree Ram’ as the slogan of his life.”

Snigdhendu Bhattacharya is an independent journalist and author based in Kolkata. This field visit was conducted in association with People’s Pulse.