Courting communities: How TMC and BJP are battling it out over identity politics

From refugee communities to Muslims to Bengali-speaking Hindus to Hindi-speaking Hindus to OBCs, no one is left behind.

Courting communities: How TMC and BJP are battling it out over identity politics
Shambhavi Thakur
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Ahead of the Assembly election in West Bengal, political parties have started playing their identity politics cards – urging various sections of the populace to believe they have their best interests at heart.

At the centre of this is the Bharatiya Janata Party.

In the state’s districts bordering Bangladesh – where the population is dominated by members from the Matua and Namasudras, both Dalit refugee communities – the BJP and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh have been proclaiming that only Narendra Modi and Amit Shah stood by them, against all odds, to enact the Citizenship Amendment Act.

According to the BJP, the “protection” offered under the Act will save the community when the nationwide National Register of Citizens is conducted to purge “Muslim infiltrators” from Bangladesh. This message is passed along with reminders of how the Muslims “drove” Hindus out of Bangladesh.

In the same areas, the Trinamool Congress, the Left parties, and other Dalit organisations have been telling people that they will complicate matters for themselves if they fall into the BJP’s trap and apply for citizenship under the Act. According to them, this entails labelling oneself a “foreigner” – which is a sure path to ruin.

While the Act isn’t a focal point of the TMC’s election campaign, chief minister Mamata Banerjee has repeatedly said that every voter is already a citizen, and she will not allow anyone to question their citizenship. Her government has said that 10 lakh people living in 213 refugee colonies will be given land rights – which will act as citizenship documents – and that by the end of 2020, residents of 96 such colonies had received these rights already.

These conversations aren’t restricted to Bengal’s borders. In the Darjeeling hills, the site of a violent, decades-old agitation for statehood, two warring factions of the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha, both of which are now aligned with the TMC, have been talking about the BJP’s betrayal of their demand for a Gorkhaland state. The BJP had won the Lok Sabha seat in Darjeeling for three successive years thanks to the GJM’s support, and its 2014 election manifesto had promised a “permanent political solution” for Gorkhaland.

On the other hand, the Gorkha National Liberation Front is seeking to revive itself in alliance with the BJP. GNLF leaders have made speeches on the state police’s atrocities in suppressing the statehood agitation of 2017, and are claiming that Bimal Gurung, who leads one faction of the GJM, “betrayed” the Gorkha cause by partnering with the TMC in 2020.

Gurung has been a fugitive since the 2017 violence, when the state government slapped dozens of cases against him. Mamata’s government has now promised to withdraw these cases.

Moving on to the forested, Adivasi-dominated areas of Jangalmahal in southwestern and parts of north Bengal, the TMC has said it supports the demand for a separate Sarna religion code in the population census. The majority of Bengal’s indigenous people follow Sarna and Sari as religions, and Jharkhand chief minister Hemant Soren’s campaign on the same lines has influenced a section of the Adivasi population living in West Bengal districts bordering Jharkhand.

In Jangalmahal, the TMC has reminded people how under its governance, there has been a manifold increase in primary schools teaching in the Santhali language and the Olchiki script. The people will lose their religions of Sarna and Sari if the BJP comes to power, the TMC has warned, as the saffron party will include them under Hinduism.

On their part, the BJP and the Sangh Parivar have been reminding Adivasis of their “glorious struggles” against the British Raj and their role in India’s struggle for freedom. Organisations like the Ekal Abhiyan, Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram, and Sewa Bharati have been working on the ground to popularise Lord Ram and the slogan “Jai Shri Ram” among the Adivasis.

So, this is how the 2021 Bengal election has transformed into a platform to address myriad communal aspirations with the principal rivals, the TMC and the BJP, attempting to win communities over. Issues like development, social welfare, employment, and corruption remain dominant, but it's this undercurrent that has gained prominence in election strategies.

“The politics of West Bengal has undergone a tectonic shift over the past decade as identity politics has triumphed over class issues,” said political activist Prasenjit Bose, who leads a civil society initiative against the citizenship laws. “Even in this election, class issues such as employment, governance and corruption are there, but it is identity politics that is likely to play the decisive role.”

The Left’s involvement in identity politics is at a minor scale, Bose said. The TMC brought it to prominence but it was the BJP that was “much more honed” in this battle.

Courting OBCs, Muslims and Hindus

In the districts of Cooch Behar, Alipurduars, and Jalpaiguri in north Bengal, the TMC has engaged with the Rajbanshi community, the state’s largest Scheduled Caste group, on how Mamata’s government promoted the Rajbanshi and Kamtapuri languages and culture through government-funded development boards. Two former leaders of the Kamtapuri and Greater Cooch Behar statehood movements, Banshi Badan Barman and Atul Roy, have been campaigning for the TMC here.

Simultaneously, union home minister Amit Shah brought up the Rajbanshi’s heroic battle against Mughal armies and has promised to name a paramilitary battalion after Narayani Sena, a 16th century army of the Koch kingdom that ruled the area. The BJP’s campaign carries the network of former statehood leader Ananta Rai Maharaj, who currently lives in self-exile in Assam.

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In areas dominated by OBCs, BJP leaders have made speeches on how the TMC “deprived” these classes by including Muslims among the OBC categories. The BJP’s OBC Morcha has attempted to mobilise the community by demanding 27 percent reservation for OBCs. The party has cited the rise of Modi and BJP state president Dilip Ghosh – both of whom belong to the OBC category – as proof of the BJP’s pro-OBC policies. In the 2019 Lok Sabha election, the BJP performed exceptionally well in the OBC-dominated districts of Jhargram, West Midnapore, Hooghly, and Bankura.

For the record, while including Muslims among OBCs by following the recommendations of the Ranganath Mishra commission, the TMC government has also raised the reservation quota for OBCs from seven percent to 17. While the state has no seat reserved for the OBCs – unlike the SCs and STs who have 68 and 16 seats reserved, respectively – the TMC’s candidate list for 2021 has seven percent representation from the community.

In the areas dominated by Muslims, who comprise 27.01 percent of the state’s population according to the 2011 census, the TMC has vowed that only it can take on the BJP and prevent the implementation of the CAA, the NRC, and the National Population Register.

On their part, the Left parties, led by the CPI(M), have said that Mamata cannot be trusted since she had sporadically allied with the BJP between 1998 and 2006, and was likely to do the same in the future to save herself and her nephew from corruption charges. “The TMC is an organisation affiliated to the RSS,” said CPI(M) politburo member Salim.

Finally, there are the state’s Hindus, with different forms of rhetoric for those who speak Hindi and those who speak Bengali.

Among the Bengali-speaking Hindus, the BJP has carried out a high-voltage campaign arguing that they face an imminent danger of the “Islamisation” of their homeland. Mamata, with her politics of appeasement, would “turn West Bengal into West Bangladesh”, according to state president Dilip Ghosh. This rhetoric included reminders on Bangladesh’s “atrocities” on Hindus and minority groups, and that 19th century Bengal was the birthplace of “Hindu cultural nationalism”.

The TMC’s warning to this section of the vote bank is that they’ll lose Bengal’s distinct culture and heritage as “the BJP has no idea of or respect for Bengali culture”. The TMC’s 19th century recollections are on the legacy of the Bengal renaissance, which marked the beginning of modern India.

As TMC national spokesperson Sukhendu Sekhar Roy told this reporter: “They [the BJP] know not an iota of Bengal’s culture and heritage. They have insulted Rabindranath Tagore, Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, and Chaintanya Mahaprabhu. They garlanded the wrong statue, thinking it was of tribal hero Birsa Munda.”

The BJP’s approach for the state’s Hindi-speaking Hindus is to bring up the TMC’s “attack” on outsiders; Mamata has, after all, pegged the Assembly election as being between the Bengali and the bahari (outsider). Recently, Dilip Ghosh even said that non-Bengalis contributed more to Bengal’s development than Bengalis. The TMC’s rebuttal is to highlight its ideals of pluralism and how the government has promoted education in Hindi.

The blame game

On Friday, while announcing her party’s list of candidates for the election, Mamata said that preparing the list had been a tough task, since a balance had to be struck while dealing with various communal aspirations.

“There were the old ones and the new ones, there are different castes, creeds and communities,” she said. “This was not a factor in Bengal earlier. But now, the BJP has started its ‘divide and rule’ policy. So, we had to consider all these factors.”

But not everyone agrees that the BJP is solely to blame.

“It’s the TMC which opened a Pandora’s box of identity politics in West Bengal,” said Biswanath Chakraborty, a professor of political science at Kolkata’s Rabindra Bharati University. “Now, identity politics has become quite deeply rooted in the state’s political landscape.”

Identity politics was largely absent in the state until 2008-09, when the TMC made several overtures to reach out to the Matua-Namasudras and the Muslim voters. After coming to power, the party formed development boards for a dozen communities living in the Darjeeling hills and the foothills, such as the Lepcha, Bhutia, Mangar, and Tamang communities.

These initiatives were seen as an effort to weaken Gorkha aspirations by dividing the linguistic group – the common language of Nepali binds these communities – on the basis of ethnicity.

Yet the BJP and the RSS have done fairly well in the same game. The TMC’s community outreach programme was mostly at the government level. For instance, the party’s SC-ST-OBC cell was virtually defunct until late 2019 and in January 2021, it was divided into separate cells. But the BJP always had specific cells dedicated to the SCs, STs and OBCs, as did the RSS in its grassroots programmes.

According to a senior BJP leader, who also has ties to the RSS, the TMC is playing a “dirty game”.

“It wants to unite the Muslims and divide the Hindus into groups over caste and linguistic identities,” he said, on the condition of anonymity. “Our attempt is to unite all Hindus and prevent Bengal’s Islamisation.”

Rantidev Sengupta, who edits the RSS’s Bengali mouthpiece Swastika and heads the BJP’s intellectual cell in Bengal, echoed these sentiments.

“We are talking about ‘sabka saath, sabka vikash, aur sabka vishwas’,” he said. “The TMC is playing communal and divisive politics. They are dividing people for their petty political gains.”

The CPI(M), meanwhile, blames both the TMC and the BJP for dividing people.

“We are talking about issues that concern all, like employment, education, food, healthcare, inflation, corruption and governance,” said CPI(M) politburo member Md. Salim. “Whereas the BJP is dividing people in the name of religion, and the TMC’s ‘Bengali versus bahari’ theory is no less divisive.”

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