Strong base and Bengali Hindutva: In Howrah, far-right Hindu Samhati comes to BJP’s rescue

Debtanu Bhattacharya, the president of the grassroots organisation, will contest on a BJP ticket in an area where the saffron party lacks a strong base.

Strong base and Bengali Hindutva: In Howrah, far-right Hindu Samhati comes to BJP’s rescue
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Debtanu Bhattacharya has been a vocal critic of the Sangh and its affiliates. He’s said the Bharatiya Janata Party and its mothership lacks commitment towards Hindus and even accused them of appeasing Muslims.

Debtanu is the president of the Hindu Samhati, or Hindu Unity, a far-right group which has been working at the grassroots to spread Bengali Hindutva in West Bengal. For the group, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh has always been a centrist proposition.

This Assembly election, though, Debtanu has decided to overlook the Sangh’s many ‘failures’ and contest on a BJP ticket from the Amta constituency in Howrah district.

“We are part of one large Hindu family and disagreements are part of the Hindu tradition,” he said at a meeting of BJP and Hindu Samhati workers in the town of Joypur in Amta. The meeting was being held above a small Indian Overseas Bank branch. Men and women with saffron scarves moved in and out, greeting each other with chants of “Joi Sri Ram”. The standard chant of the Hindu Samhati, however, has been “Joi Ma Kali”, to distinguish the Bengali character of the organisation from Sangh affiliates in the Hindi belt.

Debtanu told the crowd that West Bengal cannot be turned into West Bangladesh and the time for Hindu resistance has come. “Jihadi interference aided by radical masterminds in Bangladesh and their cohorts in West Bengal must be stopped,” he said.

This is tame stuff when you look at the history of Debtanu and Hindu Samhati in West Bengal.

A home for ex-RSS workers, and now former Congress and CPI(M) cadre

The Hindu Samhati is a natural home for pracharaks who have left the RSS fold, much like the founder of the organisation, Tapan Ghosh, who died last year after testing positive for Covid. Among the many colourful things Ghosh had called the RSS, “a spineless political force much like the Congress” tops the charts.

The organisation, its supporters, and leaders are accused of involvement in recent riots and instances of hate speech. In 2013, 13 men in Birbhum were convicted for raping a tribal woman as punishment for being in a relationship with a Muslim man. Ghosh dubbed this a conspiracy and the organisation extended assistance to 11 of the men’s families.

Debtanu joined the Hindu Samhati in 2013. Speaking to Newslaundry, he said he was a pracharak in “the Northeast” (Assam and Tripura) from 1992 onwards and felt that the RSS’s work was too slow and steady, and “constructive”.

“They build primary schools, train people, but I felt we need an organisation to stand in direct resistance,” he said. His Facebook bio describes him as an “uncompromising Hindu warrior” who is “ready to pay price to resist Islamisation of our Motherland”.

In earlier interviews, Debtanu has stated that when it comes to “direct action”, the RSS takes a step back. The “direct action” could refer to Debtanu’s appeals to Hindus to keep weapons in their homes for “self-defence” or “facilitating” the marriages of Muslim girls (300 of them, he claimed) to Hindu men as an “anti-love jihad” campaign.

Mukunda Koley, a Hindu Samhati worker present at the Joypur meeting, said the main fight is against the oppression by Muslims in West Bengal. Like Debtanu, he also emphasised the need for “direct action”.

“For Hindus of West Bengal, the need of the hour is to save West Bengal from becoming land of jihadis,” he said. “The RSS has its own style of functioning, but we are aggressive. RSS can be slow, but we need to act fast as the time is running out for us.”

Apart from ex-pracharaks, the organisation now attracts men who have formerly worked with mainstream political parties.

Take, for instance, Banti Khan, 34, who said he was “born and brought up in Congress culture” and was part of the Indian National Congress till 2016.

“I attended Tapan Ghosh’s meeting of Hindu Samhati and really liked it,” Khan said. “My eyes opened up to how Muslims have captured our land, how Congress distorted history, and I joined the Samhita and now work with the BJP.”

Banti Khan says he dislikes Nehru and his Hindutva icons include Syama Prasad Mukherjee.

Banti Khan says he dislikes Nehru and his Hindutva icons include Syama Prasad Mukherjee.

Banti spouted a familiar mix of conspiracy theories and grievances of the right-wing: love jihad (“how Hindu women are trapped and impregnated by Muslim men”), how Muslims working for terror organisations are taking over, the issue of loudspeakers in mosques, and how Hindu homes and properties are being usurped by Muslims.

While unable to provide a specific instance of his woes, he offered a generic example of Muslim unity versus what he called a “divided Hindu society” to buttress his point.

“If a Muslim calls someone for help in a fight, 14 people will turn up. But if a Hindu calls for help, no one turns up. This is especially true for upper-caste Hindus who are too comfortable to fight. Scheduled castes are better in that sense, they have more unity,” he said, pointing to his friend Subhankar Bauri, 27, who is a BJP worker. Subhankar and his family were CPI(M) workers till 2016.

Subhankar joined the BJP because of attacks on his family by “TMC goons”. “The Left party is finished and unable to protect us, so we joined the BJP to save ourselves from TMC goons,” he said.

Subhankar says he does prachar for Modi government schemes but also likes the Mamata government’s schemes for women.

Subhankar says he does prachar for Modi government schemes but also likes the Mamata government’s schemes for women.

Subhankar joined the BJP because of attacks on his family by “TMC goons”. “The Left party is finished and unable to protect us, so we joined the BJP to save ourselves from TMC goons,” he said.

Subhankar’s trajectory is a familiar one in West Bengal, where the Trinamool Congress stands accused of furthering the reign of political terror, so much so that in the 2018 panchayat elections, nearly 30 percent of the seats went uncontested, with only TMC candidates filing nominations. In the following 2019 Lok Sabha election, about two-fifths of the traditional Left voters shifted to the BJP.

Subhankar said he doesn’t view the BJP as a “Brahmin-Baniya” party. “Modiji’s schemes are for everyone, they don’t discriminate.”

Debtanu is flanked at all times by Gautam Hazra, the president of the BJP Scheduled Caste Morcha, and talks of how he’s worked to spread awareness about the central government schemes on housing and gas.

“The big irony is that those who fight on the issue of Muslim-Dalit unity here don’t get any Dalit votes,” he said. “All Dalit votes come to BJP.”

The men driving Hindu Samhati's campaign.

The men driving Hindu Samhati's campaign.

Hindutva to the rescue

Until at least a month ago, Debtanu had announced that he would start his own party to contest the election, and not take or give support to the BJP for failing to protect Bengali Hindus.

His decision to contest on a BJP ticket in Amta has enthused the saffron party, which otherwise lacks a strong cadre base in the district. Howrah district is also where the party cadre is divided with the ticket distribution. The Hindu Samhati, on the other hand, has thousands of active grassroots workers who swear by a Hindu homeland in Bengal and have made inroads with community work like distributing free soap and sanitisers during the Covid lockdown.

This is borne out in some conversations we had with residents of Joypur.

Raju Midha, 30, said he’s unemployed and wants the next MLA from Amta to ensure employment for rural youths. “Several young people are leaving villages to settle not only in other states but also in other districts of West Bengal,” he said, adding that he is ready to try voting for the BJP this time.

“I’ve no problem in voting for the BJP candidate here,” he said. “I have seen him distributing relief among poor people during crises. When we were trapped during the Covid lockdown, I saw his men offering food and relief. It’s the first time I saw a social organisation working here. Debtanu Bhattacharya looks credible to me.”

Coupled with their on-ground work, the Hindu Samhati has successfully established itself as the default “protector” of Hindus in riot-torn areas, especially where the police administration has failed in curtailing violence.

Rinku Panja, 26, a housewife, said: “Other developmental issues can be taken care of later but the most urgent issue is social security. We don’t want to get our Durga and Kali Puja pandals attacked anymore.”

She explained: “From 2015 to 2020, 10 incidents happened in the periphery of Chandrapur, Moinan, Bhatora and Norit. Boys who attended congregations and waz mehfils were involved in large and small attacks. Hindu Samhati workers only came to our rescue when no one came. For girls and women’s security, we’ll vote for him.”

However, Ranjana Majhi, a 30-year-old housewife, had different concerns: “Amader dabi paniyo jol, rasta, skiksha, karmosongtshan. Our primary demands are pure drinking water, roads, education for children and jobs. Tell me, what can a housewife like me ask for? These needs are unfulfilled. We’re drinking water which is not drinkable. There are no proper roads, no flood management, lack of teachers in schools for our children, and no jobs.”

During our interactions, shopkeepers and local businessmen preferred not to reveal who would get their vote. Many of them, however, said they want a candidate who has a clean image and ensures a sustainable environment for their businesses.

“We just want to avoid unnecessary trouble,” said Joydeep Kar, a local businessman. “Poll times are critical so it's better not to reveal our choice. All I can say is, I want to see a candidate who can stop tolabazi (extortion).”

Khokan Das, a tea-seller, said he has no preference for any political party but wants a candidate who can work for poor people.

“We’re marginalised people. Politicians of the same traits only promise us and ditch us after elections are gone,” he said. “People tell us a lot about Modi and his schemes. Some people talk about Didi also. But Modi seems better. I have no special liking for the BJP but as a person, I like Modi.”

The incumbent MLA from Congress, Asit Mitra, will be asking for Amta’s votes once again. For the Hindu Samhati workers, the main mandate now is to spread Modi’s “sabka saath, sabka vikas”. But isn’t this hard to buy when it’s coming from an organisation whose main thrust is the creation of a Hindu Bengal?

“We don’t have problems with Muslims like APJ Kalam or Ashfaqulla Khan who fought for India, but the ones who are trying to break India today,” said Banti.

Does he have any Muslim friends? “I speak to them but it’s impossible to make friends with them. They can’t be friends.”

***

This story is part of the NL Sena project which over 300 of our readers contributed to. It was made possible thanks to Vedant Kanade, Madhukar R, Shreyansh Jain, Navas, Ayan Dutta, Mathivanan, Padmani, Arjun Goutham, Sudarshana Mukhopadhyay, Ravi Pandey, Rajesh Shenoy, Sahit Koganti, Sarthak, Uma Rajagopalan, Somok Gupta Roy, Sam Sadguru, Tulasi Pemmasani, Praveen Surendra, Kamesh Goud, Ankur Mishra, Sharique Damda, Himanshu Singh, Akshaydeep Singh, Saurabh Bhatia, Chitrak Gupta, Mayukh Roy, Suhesh Lodh, Sumit Dhiman, Farzana Hasan, BK, Sandeep Sharma, Yuvraj Arora, Ranjith PS, Inderdeep Singh, Joseph M Raj, Gregory Cooper, Sayani Dasgupta, Soumit Ghosh, Daman, Raunak Dutta, Mhetre, Puneet Dravid, Md Rafat S Siddiqui, Shayan Sarkar, Aliasgar Khokhawala, Rinku Goel, Vijesh Chandera, Rohit Duggal, Qaim Alvi, Shubham Bangar, Sainath Naidu, Prabhat Lakra, Daksh, Bibhas Adhikari, Anima Dey, Sujith Nambudiri, Rahul Chauhan, Murali K, Aikya Chatterjee, Harshal Geet, Aditya Deuskar, Anindita Brahma, Abdeali Jivaji, Kamran Hambali, Pranav Prabhakaran, Ankur Mehrotra, Ston, Phani Sista, Kartik Rao, Sourav Banerjee, Ravinder Dasila, Rohit Jain, Gaurav Kumar, Anishkumar Madhavan, Abhijeet Kumar, Akash Chandra, Ridhima Walia, Priyanshu, Deepanker Mishra, Rishi R Mehta, Vaishali Miranda, Mithun Singh, Roger, Sandeep Roy, Bindhulakshmi, Jashan Ghuman, Subhadeep Banerjee, Suhas Gurav, Nahas, Apoorv, Reid Alexander Dsouza, Abhishek Chakraborty, Varun Arora, Oindrilla Mukherjee, Shageer, Arnab Chatterjee, Sahil Ali, Roushan Jha, Shamik Das, Srinivas Iyer, Simranjeet Singh Kahlon, Imran Shariff, Souvik Deb, Tamnjum, Rajeev Kumar, Nabil Shaikh, Sushmit Roy, and other NL Sena members.

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