West Bengal communal violence: Old habit of appeasement, petty politics has divided the people
Realising the political worth of the 27 percent Muslim electorate, Mamata Banerjee has gone on an appeasement overdrive in West Bengal.
As a traveller proceeds on the Taki road, from Kolkata to Ghojadanga post on the Indo-Bangladesh border, after travelling for 50 km on the rather busy highway, one would arrive at a bifurcation at Berachampa. Baduria is a non-descript town 14 km to the left of this bifurcation. A town of around 2.5 lakh people, it has suddenly gained notoriety after becoming the epicentre of a communal earthquake which has ominous portents, not only for communal harmony but also for national security.
During a visit to Baduria around 16 years ago to attend a function, I found serenity amongst the idyllic settings of the place. Like other things in those days, Taki road was a road less travelled by and we travelled leisurely even on a two wheeler.
The signs en route Baduria were, however, like dark clouds coalescing before monsoon rains. It was Ramzan and we found the highway blocked as the faithful gathered for prayers. The shop where we stopped for a cup of tea and to while away the enforced waiting period was soon chock-a-block, as people gathered after the prayers. Unlike the political Iftars in Lutyens Delhi, breaking of fast in these remote places is Spartan. The dress and lingo of the fasting people was, however, a dead giveaway; they were not Indians. Our hosts at Baduria confirmed the suspicion. They were apprehensive of the steady change in demography and the socio-economic impact this unchecked illegal immigration would have on the area. Critical of the appeasement indulged in by the Left Front government which had turned a blind eye to this mass human influx from Bangladesh and used them as captive vote banks, Badurians talked glowingly of a saviour who appeared on the horizon. Didi, they said, would bring West Bengal back on to the track of governance. They were certain that Mamata Banerjee would not discriminate. That she would ensure that the derailed governance in the state was back on rails.
16 years later, the optimism has failed to materialise. Baduria has been converted into a war zone. The offensive Facebook post of a 17-year-old which apparently led to the benumbing violence was just an excuse, my hosts from 16 years ago told me on 4 July, as they made desperate calls to inform the country about what they felt was their impending “massacre".
The situation, they said, had apparently deteriorated to such an extent that the Baduria assembly segment had around 65 percent Muslim voters with mosques and madrasas outnumbering any other new construction. Baduria, it appears, had become an extension of Bangladesh and the locals felt like aliens in their own land. The police had stopped heeding to complaints of eve teasing and molestation of young girls as they went to schools/colleges. The violence which began on 3 July was just a pretext, my hosts informed me, to compel the remaining natives to leave.
Ironically, Didi's cavalier attitude towards governance combined with relentless appeasement of Muslims has become a deadly brew. The problem becomes compounded and complicated as majority of those are not even citizens of India. Treating the hate mongers — clamouring for public hanging of the young boy as retribution for the blasphemous post — with kid gloves, and allowing them a free run of Baduria, Basirhat and adjoining regions by not allowing security forces to implement law and order is a manifestation of Mamata succumbing to fundamentalists.
That Mamata, instead of rebuffing the arsonists and displaying determination to abide by the Constitution, chose to further the appeasement by rejecting the central government's offer of additional central paramilitary forces indicates that hubris has found another victim. Her vitriolic outburst against the Governor, accusing him of acting like “block president of BJP” and “threatening and insulting her”, epitomises this supercilious attitude towards governance. The theatrics were cleverly meant to obfuscate the issue of failure of law and order leading to communal violence. The effort to explain the violence as something arising out of ‘interference’ by the governor may find takers from her loyal support base, but will only serve to embolden the fundamentalists spreading their venom across the state. The call for punishment as per Sharia law and the sign of a backtracking government are ominous signs not only for West Bengal but also for the country. To allow mobs, killing in the name of religion, to go unpunished is bound to have a debilitating impact on the idea of a secular democracy. People in a mob, irrespective of their religion and demand, cannot be allowed a free run, overriding the law of the land.
What perhaps made the communal violence even more dangerous was the deliberate attempt by the established media houses to remain oblivious to the communal violence virtually at the doors of Kolkata. While it may be portrayed as sang-froid, the attempt to push Baduria violence under the carpet by a pliant media has done great disservice to the society. What makes this mischievous effort to play ostrich more despicable is the fact that the same media houses were crying themselves hoarse over the incidences of lynching by criminals plying their trade under the garb of gau rakshaks (cow vigilantes). It needs to be understood that there can be no two rules while dealing with criminals.
India cannot toe the Pakistani syndrome of ‘good terrorist’ and ‘bad terrorist’ while dealing with nefarious elements in the society.
So what do repeated communal conflagrations like the ones in Kaliachak, Dhulagarh and now Baduria indicate? While Mamata alone cannot be held accountable for the communal quick sand West Bengal finds itself in, she cannot absolve herself of the responsibility. Notwithstanding her playing victim dramatics.
It was public knowledge in West Bengal that the Left Front government connived and winked at the illegal immigration across the border with Bangladesh. It was even more public knowledge that the most flourishing trade across the border was a virtual barter between Indian cattle and Bangladeshi Muslims. The failure of the agencies protecting the international border to counter this illicit activity is part of the systematic apathy towards issues of national security. The monumental callousness can be judged by the fact that till date, no authentic data regarding illegal immigration is available in the country. With the connivance of an apathetic government, the situation has reached a state in which the Sheikh Hasina government in Bangladesh has to issue warnings about terrorists infiltrating into West Bengal for a safe haven. In spite of that, Mamata has failed to pay heed to the warnings.
Any system with its eyes and ears on the ground and the correct intent towards national security would have been alarmed at the census details which indicated a huge spike in the Muslim population in West Bengal. Census data indicates that the Muslim population in the state is approaching pre-partition levels, with Muslims constituting 27 percent of the total population in 2011, it being at the peak of 29 percent in 1941. The figures raise concern when compared with the share in 1951, which stood at 19.5 percent after mass migration during the 1947 partition. The numbers and the issue become alarming when the decadal accretion rate is factored into the story. The accretion rate among Muslims for the period 2001-11 in West Bengal stood at 1.77 percent, which was abnormally high when compared to the national accretion rate among Muslims at 0.8 percent for the same period.
That the Indian polity obsessed with numbers during rhetoric did not make any effort to analyse the unexplained spike manifests the games politicians play at the altar of political expediency. Even a cursory study of the exponential increase would rule out migration from other states into West Bengal for employment opportunities. A state where industries have closed shop because of relentless trade union activities and strikes is unsuitable for people migrating in search for a livelihood.
The political impact of this dramatic rise in population can be assessed from the fact that three districts in West Bengal have Muslim majority and in more than 100 assembly seats, Muslims are the deciding electoral factor. Appeasement and vote bank politics have therefore become intricately entwined in the state.
The skulduggery of appeasement was evident when in 2007, notwithstanding its pretensions for liberalism, the Left Front government compelled Taslima Nasrin to flee from Kolkata as Muslim radicals rioted against her presence in the city.
West Bengal today is infinitely more volatile than in 2007. The reasons are not far to see.
Mamata has become a skilled political operator. A far cry from the days when as an idealistic firebrand in the 1990s, she took on the gargantuan Left Front. Realising the political worth of the 27 percent Muslim electorate, she has gone on an appeasement overdrive. She encourages Maulvis like Noor-ur-Rehman Barkati. He is the one who offered a prize to anyone who could blacken the face of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, issued controversial statements and flouted the red beacon rule with impunity till the time he was forcefully removed from the position of Shahi Imam of Tipu Sultan Mosque in Kolkata by its trustees. Mamata has even turned a blind eye to Maulana Nasser Sheikh banning TV, music, photography and interaction with Kaffirs at Kebala, a small town near Harishchandrapur in Malda district. In blatant disregard to secular state values, Mamata has provided honorariums to Imams and Muezzins from state government funds. As an extension of the mode of appeasement, Durga Puja immersion processions were prohibited after 4 pm to accommodate Muharram processions, disregarding the common Bengalis’ attachment to the festivities. The Calcutta High Court, in a scathing indictment, called the government order banning immersion procession an act to “appease the minority section of the public”.
Will Mamata understand that appeasement does not create legends like Kazi Nazrul Islam? All it does is create Frankensteins like Barkati and Naseer Sheikh who devour the very people they claim to represent by pushing them on a path of fundamentalism. Baduria is reaping the crop of irresponsible appeasement. Kolkata could be next.
Evidently, Mamata is riding a communal tiger Bengal will find impossible to dismount.
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