Asansol: Will voters cross communal divides to reflect on real issues of their daily lives?

Ground Report | The local mafia machination over competitive identity politics over religion, languages, places of origin et al has blossomed fully now with the increasing saffron offensive. After Mamata Banerjee unseated the LF in 2011, the TMC brand of identity cum vote-bank politics has only facilitated the surge of Hindutva forces in Asansol and elsewhere. Will livelihood worries become decisive over divisive politics this time?

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Biswajit Roy
is Consultant Editor with eNewsroom India. He reports on major news developments as well as writes political pieces on national and Bengal politics and social-cultural issues.

Asansol: Politics of communal polarisation has helped Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to win Asansol parliamentary constituency for successive two terms in 2014 and 2919. Will it be able to wrest the seven assembly segments from its friend-turned-foe Trinamool Congress (TMC) and CPM in 2021 state polls? Though TMC won five and CPM retained two in 2016, the tri-corner Bengal poll this time is likely to see changes. Notwithstanding BJP’s lead in all the seven seats in 2019, local factors including inner-party feuds in both Narendra Modi and Mamata Banerjee camps are likely to impact the outcome, locals say.

Changing economy and politics in the industry zone

Asansol is the headquarters of Paschim Bardhaman district. It is one of the major industrial zones of West Bengal, though, it has retained only a shadow of its former glory. Known as mini India, the Hindu majority here is divided mainly between Bengalis and Hindi-speaking upcountry settlers (around 40 percent) while Muslims (approx 21 percent) are dominated by Urdu-speaking people known as Biharis. North Indian upper castes and Marwaris dominate business here while scheduled castes (28 percent) dominate the slums and unorganised workforce in all the towns.

Tribals (approx. 7 percent) reside in outlying areas remanding the rural landscape before the British Raj turned the belt close to Bihar and Jharkhand into a colliery cum heavy industry hub as well as a railway junction. Sikhs and Christians have also been a small but important part of the social mosaic since the days of early settlers in the 19th century. 

Narendra Modi waves helped Babul Supriyo, a singer turned political rookie to sail through successfully in 2014. But his increased margin in 2019 was largely attributed to the communal polarisation following a series of communal violence in 2018 March over Ramnavami processions, mainly in Asansol north and Raniganj. 

asansol communal divide bengal elections bjp tmc cpm
File picture of Asansol-Raniganj riots 2018. Affected women from both Hindu-Muslim families had narrated their plights together. Credit: Swatilekha Mondol

The closure and sickness of much big public and private sector units for various economic-political reasons have turned the zone into a veritable graveyard of industries since the eighties. CPM held its citadels during three decades of Left Front rule. But the writing on the wall was clear as the gradual decline of organised industry, traditional labor economy and trade union movements made the ground fertile for social fragmentation and divisive politics, particularly after the demolition of Babri Mosque. 

The nexus of land mafias-big money- corrupt politicians and police who have been grabbing factory lands has played on the fight for increasingly scarce livelihood and living space among the toilers and the jobless youth. Illegal mining in this area under the Eastern coalfield region has furthered mafia control over the economy and politics here at the cost of society and nature. The mafia machination over competitive identity politics over religion, languages, places of origin et al has blossomed fully now with the increasing saffron offensive in Bengal.

The BJP-VHP-Bajrang Dal penetration in this zone has been spearheaded mainly by Marwari businessmen who have used Hindu lower castes, particularly Hindi-speaking poor Dalits as foot soldiers in violence against neighboring Urdu- speaking, highly ghettoised but relatively better off Muslims.

asansol communal divide bengal elections bjp tmc cpm
A gutted home in Raniganj after riots in 2018 | Credit: Swatilekha Mondol

After Mamata Banerjee unseated the LF in 2011, the TMC brand of identity cum vote-bank politics has only facilitated the surge of Hindutva forces in Asansol and elsewhere. According to local observers, Mamata had first courted the conservative Muslim clergy. The latter brought out huge rallies on the day of Milad-Un-Nabi or celebration of the birthday of prophet Muhammad as well as on Muharram day to assert their strength in response to BJP-VHP’s increasingly provocative Ram Navami shows. Mamata’s men later tried to grab a share of the Ram cake by organising parallel Ram Navami rallies as well as Bajrangvali and Ganesha pujas to win over Hindi-speaking Hindus. 

2018 riots

The dance of death and destruction in March 2018, mainly in Asansol North (AN) and neighbouring Raniganj, took place in the backdrop of this mutually polarizing politics. Both Hindu and Muslim elders in the slums of AN Rail Par area (dubbed as mini Pakistan by the Sangh Parivar) whom I had met after the mayhem, recalled wistfully how they had taken parts both in Muharram and Durga Puja-Dussehra processions earlier. Similar refrains were heard in Ronai on the way to Raniganj where people across the faith line thronged a Mazar. At least four persons lost their lives in the violence including a teenager and a woman. All of them were poor. 

The cry of the women across the religious divide at the slums of Raniganj’s Rajabadh-Hatkhola area still haunts this correspondent. Their dilapidated homes were vandalised and looted by avenging youth of both sides, politically aligned to BJP-VHP and TMC. Both BJP MP Babul Supriyo and TMC mayor cum Pandebewar MLA, Jitendra Tiwari instigated competitive violence. Babul’s communal campaigns online shocked even his Bengali fans. 

Muslims are rooting for TMC

A revisit to Asansol North a few days back makes it evident that minorities mostly favour Mamata Banerjee. Imdadul Rashidi, the middle-aged imam of Noorani mosque off the Ok road in the railpar area was a voice of sanity amid the ugly communal frenzy in 2018 even after he had lost his teenage son. The boy became a victim of the cycle of mutual killings and mayhem. But the bereaved father refused to stoke the fire at his son’s janaza and called for peace and amity. His message saved the situation in Asansol and adjoining areas including Jharkhand. The imam and his clan hailed from the neighbouring state. 

Last time he declined to speak in clear political terms. But Modi 2 government’s majoritarian moves and BJP’s aggressive drive to bag Bengal have changed his mood. Now he stands for Mamata. 

“Her government has worked for common people, both Muslims and Hindus, the best in the last 50 years in Bengal. So I want it to come back for peace and amity. The beauty of India and Bengal lies in its Ganga-Yamuna tehzeeb. That cherished heritage is being destroyed now. I am sure politics of hatred will be defeated and the culture of love and peace will win,” the imam said.  

Disclosing, he was a Congress supporter but never got involved in active politics till the ground reality changed rapidly. “I still have no hatred against those who had killed my son. I still hope my message for peace and amity has melted their hearts. I know that Ram Navami’s violence was engineered to polarize local people along the communal line. I still meet my Hindu neighbours and don’t hold the community as a whole responsible for my son’s death. But BJP is taking India back towards the time of the partition,” he commented.

Referring to the visit of Sanyukt Kisan Morcha leaders from Delhi borders in Asansol who appealed to Bengal voters not to vote for BJP, the imam supported their demands. “My prayers are with them. Rakesh Tikait had strengthened BJP after the Muzaffarnagar riots. Modi Ji could have used that support for the welfare of the common people. But that didn’t happen.” 

Muslim families in the railpar area echoed the sentiments of imam Rashidi. “Babul Supriyo never visited our areas even after the riots. Mamata didi serves poor people of all religions. Modi Ji has virtually thrown us out of frying pan into the fire. His latest gift is the staggering hikes in fuel prices,” Noor Jahan Khatun, a housewife said. Abdus Samad, a middle-aged private tutor was caustic. Modi Ji will not provide us bread and jobs. At least, he should allow us to live in peace in Bengal,” he said.

( To be continued)

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Biswajit Roy
is Consultant Editor with eNewsroom India. He reports on major news developments as well as writes political pieces on national and Bengal politics and social-cultural issues.

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