Bengal votes: Asansol is beachhead of BJP's advance into state, but voters say CPM was better, 'didn't play Hindu-Muslim card'
Asansol with its Masjid, its Hanuman Mandir, and its Sacred Heart Church has become the beachhead for BJP's advance into Bengal. But the stakes are high this election. Suraj Singh, my Ola driver, predicts if Trinamool wins they will make life hell for all the local 'BJP boys'. The Babul Supriyo win is still a raw wound here for Trinamool.
Editor's note: This is a multi-part series of reports from West Bengal's smaller towns and cities. It examines how young urban voters view elections 2019, and what they expect from the political process. Read more articles from the series here
"Asansol as it is hai."
There is a touch of weariness in Maulana Imdadullah Rashidi’s smile as he speaks. Another day. Another journalist. Another microphone stuck in his face.
Everyone knows it’s not the same. It can never be. In March 2018, a riot broke out during a fight over a Ram Navami procession in Asansol. Rashidi’s 16-year old son, Sibghatullah, trying to rush back home from his board exams took a wrong turn. His battered body was found a day later. Rashidi made national news when he appealed for calm, not vengeance, saying “I want peace. My boy has been taken away. I don’t want any more families to lose their children.”
Sitting on a black sheet with large pink roses, in his little room with its grubby green walls, Maulana Rashidi remembers, “Some boys did bring two Hindu boys to me and said we will hold them till they arrest your son’s killers. I told them if you love me, let them go. I am bearing this. You also must bear it.”
“That boy is still in my heart,” says schoolteacher Tarique Anwar. Anwar had taught young Sibghatullah mathematics for three months. Anwar was also the one who wrote the first general diary when the boy went missing. Anwar says “People call it the Ramnavami danga. I say no. Imam Rashidi stopped it before it became a real danga.”
On April 29 2019, Sibghatullah Rashidi would have still been too young to cast his first vote in a Lok Sabha election. He would not have made it into all the first-time-voter stories. Yet his shadow hangs over the election in this industrial town close to the Bihar-Bengal border.
Asansol made national news when Babul Supriyo won the seat for the BJP in 2015. It was no mean prize, Bengal’s second-largest city, on the storied Grand Trunk Road. There are still British-era bungalows and churches tucked away on streets with names like Drysdale. The defunct Atwal Hotel, once the playground of sahibs and memsahibs, now strangulated by the dense bazaar clings to its magnificent façade. But the city is dusty and chaotic, filled with cows and dogs nosing through garbage vats. A fetid canal runs through the Muslim ghetto. Women sit in the scorching sun beside it sorting through piles of used plastic bottles.
Asansol with its Noorani Masjid, its Mahavirsthan Hanuman Mandir with a giant conch shell perched on its roof, and its red-brick Sacred Heart Church has become the beachhead for the BJP’s advance into Bengal.
The BJP has been growing in strength here since Supriyo's victory. Next to the Hanuman temple is a BJP office. The street is lined with Jai Shri Ram flags. Many bikes fly orange Hanuman flags. That perturbs Arpita Dutta, a young student from Purulia now studying in Asansol. "Saffron is the colour of sacrifice," she says. "Why should it be the colour of only Hindus? Why is one party for this religion and another party for that religion?"
But the stakes are high this election. Suraj Singh, my Ola driver, predicts if Trinamool wins they will make life hell for all the local "BJP boys". The Babul Supriyo win is still a raw wound here for Trinamool.
Narendra Modi understands this. He took time to come to Asansol to plug "ladaku neta" (fighter leader) Babul Supriyo and rake up Mamata Didi's Saradha-Narada scams. During a rally in the baking heat of the Polo Ground, thousands chant full-throatedly "Modi, Modi" as his helicopter whirrs into view.
Ei Trinamool Aar Na, Supriyo’s catchy campaign song, disallowed by the Election Commission, is on at full blast. Occasionally someone leads a chant of BJP Zindabad, Zindabad sounding for a moment like old Communists on the march. But the slogan with the greatest bang for the buck is Jai Shri Ram. Purno and his friend Bubai are sheltering under a purple umbrella. They reel off Babul Supriyo’s achievements – hospitals, water tanks, bridges, a passport office. Whatever he has not done can be blamed on the Trinamool-controlled city corporation. "But the biggest thing is he comes at a moment’s notice when we need him," says Purno.
"But he did not come to my son’s funeral,” says Maulana Rashidi. “He did call but that’s all. It’s a small thing but isn’t he my MP too?"
At Rail-paar, the Muslim ghetto near the rail lines where some 4 lakh families live, all one sees are posters of Trinamool’s Moon Moon Sen (overshadowed by images of her legendary mother Suchitra Sen) and the CPM's Gouranga Chattopadhyay. When asked about her priorities for Asansol, Sen talks soothingly about pollution, trees and hospitals. "It was her birthday that week. And there are so many fans of my mother and I am looking for their aashirvaad,” she says when asked why Suchitra Sen has been dragged into the fray.
"If I were to actually vote in this election for someone who really deserves to represent Asansol, I would vote for Gauranga Chattopadhyay, a local person, a clean person," says Vishal Bhattacharya. Vishal is 17, a state-level badminton player and an avid fan of Narendra Modi. He’s come to the rally to see the prime minister but he does not like the BJP or the Trinamool and what they have done to his city.
"Asansol as it is" nahin hain.
The Ram Navami riots changed the way Asansol views itself. An industrial city, with Bengalis and Biharis, Sikhs and South Indians, people of all faiths, it had always prided itself on being different. A few years ago city leaders erected a gate at the entrance of Asansol which read “Welcome to Asansol – The City of Brotherhood.”
But the brotherhood feels shaken despite the promise of that gate. Though this year Ram Navami was calmer, the fear has taken its root. The Internet was shut down. Colleges closed early. "We have had Ram Navami before and Muharram processions with weapons," says political science student Arunima Chatterjee at the new Kazi Nazrul Islam University. “But we would go out for both. Now, we cannot.” “My mother does not feel safe to even let me go to the shop across the street,” complains Paromita Choudhuri from the Asansol Girls’ College.
This is not to say Asansol had some kind of utopian unity-in-diversity existence till the Ram Navami riots of 2018. The gang-rape of a minor Hindu girl on her way to school in Raniganj in 2013 led to violent Hindu-Muslim protests and highway blockades. Choudhuri remembers a severed head of an animal left in front of her local temple. “I don’t know why they target our festivals,” she rues. Even during the CPM years, communal flare-ups during festivals were not unheard of.
The CPM did not bring much development here. They did not bring jobs. But many Asansol residents say at least the CPM also did not play the Hindu-Muslim card for votes. Communal tension is now a political weapon. Many Hindus feel it’s hard to get even an FIR filed when Hindus are victims of crimes allegedly by Muslims. Muslims tell stories of marchers shouting slogans of “sar jhookake, Jai Shri Ram bolega” to intimidate them.
Sitting outside a pharmacy, Zubair Ahmed says “Now in Asansol political parties are asking for votes by fear mongering. The BJP is scaring us in one way. And the TMC is scaring us in another. They are really both doing the same thing.” They are promising protection, not jobs which the area desperately needs. Hindustan Cables, one of the few remaining big factories, recently downed its shutters. Sitting at the canteen at Kazi Nazrul Islam University, Riya Roy, a fourth semester student of Bengali, is vociferous. “Trinamool’s infighting and BJP’s religious politics. None of it is good for Asansol. Asansol was meant to be for the people of Asansol not for the BJP and the TMC.”
Imam Rashidi hopes that old Asansol is coming back. The Hindu milkmen who serviced the Muslim families of Railpaar are back in business. The bazaar outside is still very mixed. Recently a Ram temple was inaugurated in Pandaveswar, just outside Asansol, where Brahmins led prayers, Muslims contributed bricks and Sikhs and Christians helped raise funds. It came with the blessings of Jitendra Tiwari, the Mayor of Asansol and a Trinamool leader. The BJP dismissed it as a “lollipop” to woo Hindu voters. It’s like an attempt to rebuild an old Asansol.
In search of that old Asansol, Anwar takes me to meet one of his Hindu friends. They’ve grown up in the neighbourhood together, playing cricket. Anwar now teaches in a Kendriya Vidyalaya in nearby Durgapur. His friend has a vegetable shop and is sitting on a bike while waiting to open it for the evening. There is an easy camaraderie between them as they swap news about an ailing local leader who has just died. Both agree he was a good man. As we start talking about communal tensions, he says “Look, Muslims are drinking tea at the shop there. Abhi koi jhamela nahin.” Anwar wanders off. When Imam Rashidi’s son’s name comes up his friend says quickly “I don’t want to talk about that. We just want peace.” Even though he has said nothing incriminating, he says “Please don’t use my name. I talked to you because you are Tarique’s friend.”
Those old ties of friendship still have some currency here. But as we leave Anwar says quietly “I have non-Muslim friends but there is a difference now. I feel it. The mentality has changed. Thoda sa kami hai."
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