Bengal's Dalits reduced to political pawns as BJP, TMC play caste card ahead of 2019 Lok Sabha polls

Identity politics was not allowed to become part of mainstream political discourse in post-independence Bengal despite deep fault lines between Hindus and Muslims, as well as Dalits and landed Bhadralok-dominated upper castes in pre-partition history. The Congress era and later CPM-led Left Front (LF) subsumed the aspirations of post-partition Muslims as well as subaltern class caste under a benign Sabarn hegemony during their successive rule.

Bengals Dalits reduced to political pawns as BJP, TMC play caste card ahead of 2019 Lok Sabha polls

File image of Mamata Banerjee. PTI

However, the victory of Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress over the Marxists in 2011 and subsequent emergence of the BJP as her main challenger following Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ascendance at the Centre in 2014 led to a paradigm shift in the state's politics.

One of the key features of the new politics is the increasing use of the Dalit card by both sides, more in shrewd mobilisation tactics at the ground level than public rhetoric. Mamata used the accumulated sense of deprivation among both Dalits and Muslims to unseat the Left Front in the wake of Sachar Committee and Ranganath Misra Commission reports which revealed the sorry state of minority and backward communities both in the state and rest of the country.

Scheduled Castes and Muslims comprise 23 percent and 27 percent of Bengal population respectively, as per the 2011 census. Among the Bengali-speaking Dalits, Namashudras and Poundrokhatriyas have 17 and 12 percent share respectively, making them most populous and influential, mainly in south Bengal. Rajbangshis represent the main backward community in north Bengal with their 18 percent share of SC population. Though no census data is available for Bengal’s Other Backward Classes, Mamata has widened the Left-era 17 percent reservation quota for OBC students by including more Muslim OBC groups.

Now, BJP is trying hard to use Dalits and OBCs, both Hindi and Bengali-speaking, as battering rams to raid the fort of its friend-turned-foe Mamata. The party’s vote share soared to 17 percent in Bengal during the 2014 Modi wave but plummeted to 10 percent in 2016. Nevertheless, it has been gaining more Oposition space in subsequent polls at the cost of the Left and Congress. Encouraged more after wresting Bengali-dominated Tripura from the Left, BJP is now keen on bagging Bengal in the 2019 general election or the 2021 Assembly polls by stirring the communal cauldron. The recent spate of communal riots point to some success of Sangh Parivar in harnessing the Dalits and OBCs to suit its agenda.

The ground reality

In the cities of Asansol and Ranigunj, a contest over Ram Navami processions between BJP and Trinamool Congress triggered communal flare-ups, mainly between the Hindi-speaking Dalits and Urdu-speaking Muslims between 26 and 28 March. As we visited the worst-hit neighbourhood of Rajabhandh- Hill Basti in the coal and steel hub Raniganj, men and women who live in the slums — from both communities — blamed "rowdy boys" for their losses and suffering, in addition to prolonged police inaction. Muslims, both TMC and CPM supporters, held the Dalit BJP supporters from adjoining Dompara responsible for the mayhem. They accused the Dompara boys of being "vulnerable to the lures of free feast and booze which made them easy prey for BJP’s heady hate politics".

Jitu Badyakar, Shambhu Choudhury, Krisna Badyakar and other Dalit youths admitted their allegiance to BJP-VHP and participation of the slum’s men and women in the Ram Navami procession for past three years. But they denied intoxication — apart from the religious kind —  and justified their ‘tit for tat’ against Muslims. They were particularly bitter about TMC supporters among Muslims led by one individual named ‘Billi’. The two sides had been feuding since the 2014 polls.

The same narrative emerges at the epicenter of the riot in the Raj-era railway town Asansol, called Chandmari. The neighbourhood is part of the sprawling subaltern area known as Rail Par, dominated by Muslims but also shared by Dalits and OBC Hindus. Showing their burnt and vandalised homes and shops, both sides complained that the BJP-TMC political turf war had turned into communal frenzy.

File image of West Bengal BJP president Dilip Ghosh. News18

File image of West Bengal BJP president Dilip Ghosh. News18

But the emphasis on the ‘pampering’ of the other community was unmistakable.

The Dalit angle came up when Hindus pointed to an ‘attack’ on the Ram rally which included a large number of Dalits. A Dalit boy, Shyam Narayan Ravidas, had dressed up as Lord Ram and was perched atop a vehicle during the procession in which VHP and TMC supporters, men and women participated. He was badly injured in the stone-pelting following an altercation over ‘provocative slogans’ at prayer time in nearby mosques. The rumour of the boy’s death triggered fresh clashes on 28 March that left at least four dead, including the teenage son of an Imam, who made a moving call for peace.

District BJP-VHP leaders like Madan Trivedi and Shashi Bhusan Yadav highlighted the role of ‘pichra barg’ in the ‘Hindu resistance against Muslim high-handedness’ under Mamata’s rule. Confident that the recent riots would consolidate ‘Hindu unity more’, they underlined the import of the Hindi-speaking Hindus who constitute the majority in urban parts of Asansol parliamentary constituency. According to them, the Scheduled Castes who comprise 35 percent of constituency voters would be instrumental for BJP, not only in retaining the crucial seat but also to expand the saffron base in the next polls.

The same sort of cynical speculation about political dividend was heard during the visits to earlier flash points: Industrial and mixed population Hazinagar, Chandonnagore , Kankinara in north 24 parganas and Hoogly as well as semi-urban Dhulagarh and rural areas including Basirhat, Nakasipara, Ilambazar, Duttaphukur and Chanchol.

The glimpses of ground reality show the Sangh’s two-pronged strategy. One is aimed at recruiting Hindi-speaking Dalits and OBC youth in cosmopolitan and industrial towns into the ranks of Hindutva foot soldiers. They are to be pitted against mainly Urdu-speaking upcountry Muslims. Settled in Bengal for generations since the days of the British Raj, both communities supported the Left and Congress in their heyday.

Now, the saffron war-cry ‘Hindu-Hindi-Hindustan’ has found resonance in working class areas.

Sessions for regimenting young minds, mostly jobless, on a daily diet of anti-Muslim hyper nationalism and mock war drills are being held under the shadows of closed and sick factories and upcoming temples. These youths were foot soldiers in series of sectarian strife — both large and small — against local Muslims including jute mill workers who opposed installation of Chinese machines that would lead to further job losses as well as those at the receiving end of land mafia.

The other strategy is meant for Hindu Dalit refugees from Bangladesh who have largely settled in districts close to this side of border. BJP specifically aims to subvert Mamata’s vote banks among Matuas, a powerful religio-social sect of Namashudras which has influence in more than 60 Assembly seats in south Bengal. BJP believes that Bengal’s big sister can be dislodged if Matuas and other Namashuras are pitted against Muslims, Mamata’s other vote-bank. The saffron demand for separate reservation quota for Hindu OBCs is also aimed at this.

After being divided between the Left and the Congress for a long time, Bengali Dalits feel betrayed by both.

"Their bitter memories of religious persecution in Bangladesh and consequent forced migration have turned them into ready-made repositories for Sangh politics. Further, their accumulated anger and frustration against ruling party apparatchiks at panchayats and administrative level have steered them to BJP since Modi and Amit Shah promised to look into their grievances over citizenship rights and consequent deprivations.

In this backdrop, the Sangh activities among the Namasudras in and around the village of the Baduria boy whose derogatory Facebook post triggered a prolonged Muslim outrage and vandalism in July was not coincidental. Neither was the role of the Dalits in Basirhat town whom the RSS leaders later lauded for "saving Hindus in the town from Muslim attackers from outlying villages".

Similar pattern of clashes followed in Nadia’s Nakashipara in which Namasudras and Sadgops (roughly equivalent to Ahirs in north India) clashed with Muslims over polluting of temples. The memory of Sadgops' acrimony with Muslim farmers appeared to have been rekindled following the elevation of RSS pracharak Dilip Ghosh, reportedly from same caste background, to the post of state BJP president.

Mamata’s response

Mamata’s response to BJP onslaught thus far has been opportunist, shortsighted and self-defeating. After consolidating her Muslim vote-bank more by courting conservative community leaders and public posturing catering to their religious sentiments rather than offering substantial welfare measures, of late the chief minister has been flaunting her Hindu credentials to checkmate BJP.

The TMC supremo’s recent moves to rival BJP by celebrating Ram Navami, Hanuman Jayanti, Ganesh Chaturthi as well as display of chariot-borne Ram and Arjun-Krishna statues along with soft Hindutva icons of Bengal in Hindu localities: Are all aimed at countering the charges of Muslim appeasement before the general election.

The spate of riots and subsequent Sangh campaigns have already alienated a good section of Bengali and Hindi-speaking Dalits from Mamata’s camp. The Left-era tradition of ruling party’s petty politicking over panchayats and government largesse and refusal to allow any space to Opposition in elected bodies down to panchayats has only further vitiated the atmosphere.

Unlike north and west India, Bengal has no buffer against BJP: There are no social justice parties such as Samajwadi Party, Bahujan Samaj Party, Rashtriya Janata Dal. Neither is the emergence of Dalit and OBC young turks like Jingesh Mevani, Hardik Patel and Alpesh Thakor possible in the political milieu.

So Mamata and her party, essentially an offshoot of Congress politics, would have to find imaginative way to counter BJP’s anti-Muslim social engineering project à la Uttar Pradesh. Time is running out for her. The Left and Congress have to redeem themselves before it is too late.

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Updated Date: Apr 19, 2018 20:55:01 IST

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