The eruption of sectarian antagonism in West Bengal has come as a great surprise to those who have an idealised image of the state as a bastion of so-called ‘progressive’ thinking. The surprise is unwarranted. The first half of the 20th century marked Bengal as a communal hotspot. Between the collapse of Mahatma Gandhi’s Non-Cooperation movement and the Muslim League’s Direct Action Day and the subsequent Noakhali riots, communal conflict was endemic in West Bengal. Why this pattern was abruptly reversed after the late-1960s, despite the unending trickle of Hindu refugees from East Pakistan, is a worthwhile subject of research. Whatever the reasons—and the parallel charms of radical politics among the Hindu population is a possible explanation—the image of West Bengal as being indifferent to identity politics has persisted. Even after the demolition of the disputed shrine in Ayodhya in 1992, there was relative peace in West Bengal, apart from a few stray incidents that seem minor compared to the much larger disturbances in the Hindi belt.
This month’s riots in the Basirhat-Baduria belt of North 24 Parganas, not far from the Bangladesh border, led to only one death. But since the disturbances happened in the wake of incidents of rioting in Kaliachak, Dhulagarh, Deganga, Samudragarh, Hajinagar, Bhagabanpur and Kharagpur over the past two years, there is a growing impression that West Bengal is regressing to the pre-1965 days. The impression has been bolstered by some shrill political grandstanding involving both Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee and the BJP which is making a determined bid to fill the void in the opposition space created by the collapse of the Left.
The state government has suggested that the furore resulting from a gratuitously insulting Facebook post was also exploited by troublemakers from across the international border. A recent crackdown on cow smuggling into Bangladesh has also been identified as a cause of disquiet among cross-border smugglers. In the process, the state government has also admitted to a similarity with the Kaliachak disturbances of January 2016 when a tendentious Facebook post originating in Uttar Pradesh was exploited by counterfeit currency smugglers to attack and even destroy a police station.
That many riots have an underworld subtext is common knowledge. But the reason why the Basirhat-Baduria riots appear to have unnerved the political establishment in West Bengal is different. From all accounts, the initial rampage of a Muslim mob rampaging through the streets of Basirhat, attacking and destroying the properties of local Hindus, was greeted the next day by a mobilisation of local Hindus in Baduria and a few adjoining places. There was recriminatory violence and attacks on the shops and houses of Muslims by a Hindu mob—a phenomenon hitherto not seen in West Bengal. This counter-mobilisation, more than the intemperate reaction to the Facebook post, has prompted accusations of a saffron conspiracy.
In all this talk of a pincer movement by the underworld and the Hindu nationalists, relatively little attention has been paid to the stirrings inside the Muslim community. After 1947, the Muslim community of West Bengal had taken a backseat in politics, having been orphaned by the Muslim League. There was an interplay of forces between those who sought refuge in an Islamic identity and those, arguably a minority, that sought a greater measure of identification with the rest of Bengali society. The confusion persisted with the Bangladesh war, a struggle that wasn’t greeted with all-round Muslim solidarity this side of the border.
The creation of Bangladesh resulted in a curious development. While the Bangladeshi intelligentsia developed links and a mutually beneficial relationship with their (largely Hindu) counterparts in Kolkata, the more religiously-inclined Bangladeshis (and not least those who sought to give the country an Islamic face) developed links and began influencing a large section of Muslims in West Bengal. The Sheikh Hasina government has complained to Indian authorities that many of the minor functionaries of Islamist organisations have fled across the border to escape the crackdown in Bangladesh. The belief that Mamata Banerjee has colluded in this is unsubstantiated. However, it is undeniable that the electoral support of the Trinamool Congress has swelled considerably thanks to the active support of Muslims whose sectarian agenda has never been concealed.
Unlike the CPI(M) that made inroads into the Muslim community but never allowed Islamists to wield power, the TMC’s political management has been more accommodative. Independent Muslim parties, such as the ones led by Badruddin Ajmal in Assam and the Owaisi bothers in Telangana and Andhra, have not struck roots in West Bengal because the identification of those with an Islamist agenda with the TMC is complete.
It is apparent that the Chief Minister has taken both symbolic and real steps to keep alive the impression that she owes the Muslim community a special debt of gratitude. Just as the Yadav and Muslim communities felt they had a special status in Uttar Pradesh under Samajwadi Party rule, a similar impression now runs through the Muslim community in West Bengal. If there is evidence of organised Muslim high-handedness in parts of West Bengal, it owes to this perception. Certainly, the mobs that went on the rampage in Basirhat and earlier in Kaliachak, Dhulagarh and Kharagpur believed that they enjoyed a special protected status.
Whether out of conviction or calculation, Mamata Banerjee has fuelled the impression that she is putting into practice former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s formulation that the minorities will have first rights over the state’s resources—a contentious principle of public policy at the best of times. Her calculation that this approach would not upset the political applecart was warranted on account of the absence of anything remotely resembling a Hindu vote bank in West Bengal. Maybe now there are indications that this assumption may not be entirely valid. Assam has indicated that the politics of veto generates a slow but real backlash.
The author is a senior journalist and Member of Parliament, being a Presidential Nominee to the Rajya Sabha