At village in the backyard of Santiniketan, the university town known for hosting the Rabindranath Tagore-founded , a Hanuman temple was inaugurated on March 11. Chants of “Jai Shri Ram” and religious songs created an atmosphere of devotion. The area is part of the Bolpur assembly constituency that votes in the last phase on April 29.
Coming only a few days after elections were announced for Bengal and four other states, the event at Shrichandrapur, where the is dominated by Scheduled Caste communities, assumed political significance, as “Jai Shri Ram” has been more of a political slogan than a religious one.
Asked about the probable results of the election, the group of people that built the small Hanuman temple said, unanimously: “This time, it’s Jai Shri Ram!” They meant a victory for the BJP. They belonged to Dom and Bauri castes, both of which sit on the lowest rung of the Hindu caste hierarchy.
Bengal has India’s second-highest SC population and they make of the state’s demography, while Scheduled Tribe communities make up another percent. Of the state’s 84 assembly seats reserved for SC and ST communities, in the Lok Sabha election in 2019, the Bharatiya Janata Party led in 46, the Trinamool Congress in 37, while the Congress led in one.
Of the reserved seats where the TMC led, several had significant Muslim presence. Hingalganj in North 24 Parganas has over 50 percent Muslim population; Swarupnagar and Haroa in the same district, and Nabagram and Kharagram in Murshidabad have over 40 percent; Sitai in Cooch Behar and Nanoor in Birbhum have nearly 30 percent.
This was seen as an indication that the BJP had made inroads into areas dominated by the backward classes, especially Dalits.
Of the three assembly seats reserved for the SCs in Birbhum district, the BJP led in Dubrajpur and Sainthia, but trailed behind the TMC in Nanoor.
Need for change
At Shrichandrapur, when asked what made them decide to vote against Mamata Banerjee’s TMC, no one spoke of anything even distantly related to Hindutva, including those who had started building the temple in memory of a monkey that died in the village two years ago.
“It’s the local leaders, you see. We really can’t blame Mamata Banerjee. Her policies are all right. Her only fault is that she didn’t keep a track on what these local leaders were doing. They have become absolutely intolerable,” said Bishu Bauri, a middle-aged man.
“We are yearning for change,” said Subhas Bauri, standing next to him.
They kept listing the myriad ways that the local TMC leaders employed to make illegal money, mostly by forcing people to pay illegal cuts from their share of government benefits to avail those them in the first place.
“From the Rs 1.2 lakh entitlement for the housing scheme, they take a cut between Rs 10,000 and Rs 15,000. One has to either be a hardcore TMC supporter or be able to pay a cut for availing schemes like widow pension, senior citizen’s pension, sufficient days of MGNREGA jobs, cash benefits of Rupashree and what not! Only the Kanyashree project has not been affected because it is implemented through the schools,” Subhas said.
Sukumar Barui, better known as Pochai, is one of the key BJP organisers in the village. He has a background of attending an RSS shakha for a brief period and taking early training in politics from Sibdas Ghorui, an RSS worker and onetime local leader of the BJP.
Explaining how the BJP gained strength in the village, Sukumar said local BJP workers didn’t publicly engage in politics until Narendra Modi came to power in 2014 because “the time in 2011-13 was not favourable”.
Modi’s ascent to power gave them the confidence and the green signal from local RSS and BJP leaders to go on the offensive, and they were soon joined by disgruntled TMC leaders.
According to Shrichandrapur’s residents, in the 2013 panchayat election, those opposing the TMC contested on the CPIM’s tickets. But several of them were thrashed, threatened, and their votes allegedly stolen. In the 2016 assembly election, the villagers could vote freely and they mostly went with the TMC.
“After the election, the Left lost morale and we stepped up our activities. In 2018, the TMC’s opponents contested on the BJP’s tickets but this time none was allowed to file their nomination. The people of our village took revenge on the TMC in the Lok Sabha election by voting overwhelmingly for the BJP,” Sukumar claimed.
Shrichandrapur is the village from where an agitation demanding that TMC leaders return “” spread to other parts of Bengal. The menace of cut money became a major political issue in late 2018, when prime minister Narendra Modi and union home minister Amit Shah started repeating the charges, over and over. In June 2019, soon after the BJP jolted the TMC in the Lok Sabha election by taking its tally from two to 18, Mamata Banerjee took notice. In a on June 18, 2019, she asked her party’s leaders to return cut money they might have taken from people.
A series of such incidents followed in other parts of Bengal, with protesters seeking the return of money TMC’s leaders had allegedly taken from beneficiaries of government schemes. At Shrichandrapur, local TMC leaders Uttam Bauri and Rajib Akur became the target of the public’s anger.
The village has no Muslim population and the Hindus are divided along caste lines. Explaining the divide, a student from the village studying painting at Visva-Bharati said his father got land rights for a plot of vested land, in 2010, during the rule of the Left Front. Land parcels which are in possession of the government are called vested land. But it was close to where upper caste people lived. They did not want this Dalit family to live near them. So, they went to the local panchayat with an offer: they would buy the plot from the Dalit family and give them another plot at another place.
“We had to accept the offer and build our home on that alternative plot,” said the student, unwilling to be identified.
According to the villagers, Hindutva started gaining influence among them after the panchayat election, when local organisers of the BJP and the RSS started building public opinion against the selling of cows to traders operating in the weekly cow market at Illambazar, and against Mamata Banerjee’s policy of “Muslim appeasement”, chiefly monthly stipends for imams and muezzins.
Most of the young men and women at Shrichandrapur could not recall the name of either the BJP or the TMC candidate, but they all knew what “love jihad” was.
“Today, my father gets emotional whenever he sees the red flag of the Left on TV, but he will still vote for the BJP and so will my girlfriend. Both of them now believe Muslims should be sent to some other country,” the Visva-Bharati student said.
Asked if they would have voted for the TMC had Mamata not indulged in the alleged “Muslim appeasement” even though local TMC leaders didn’t mend their ways, most of the BJP supporters said they wouldn’t have.
Asked if they would have voted for the TMC despite the alleged “Muslim appeasement” so long as the grassroots TMC leaders behaved, the BJP supporters looked indecisive. It would have depended on the “extent of appeasement”, one of them said.
“Caste remains a social issue but that is not influencing the voting pattern. Since the state has not witnessed caste-based politics, caste-antagonism has no political manifestation. The BJP grew here based on issues such as corruption and alleged malpractices of the ruling party leaders,” said Partha Gupta, a third-generation Santiniketan resident, alumnus of Visva-Bharati, and theatre practitioner who has built a in Dwaranda, a neighbouring village of Shrichandrapur.
Villagers at Pathai near the Hanuman temple.
TMC’s ‘goonda raj’
Similar sentiments prevailed in the neighbouring villages of Chella, Gopalnagar, Bonovela and Mahidapur — with Gopalnagar hosting an RSS shakha and Mahidapur having a majority population of Muslims and Dalits. The responses were hardly different in in Birbhum. Pathai is part of Mayureshwar assembly seat.
More than half of Pathai’s population is Scheduled Caste. Pathai has a stronger association with the BJP than Shrichandrapur. The BJP won a high share of the vote in Mayureshwar in the 2011 assembly election – as against 4.06 percent statewide. At Pathai, the BJP polled nearly as many votes as the TMC. In 2016, the BJP put up actor Locket Chatterjee as its candidate. She lost, but only narrowly.
The panchayat election was peaceful here compared to in other parts of the district. Contests did take place and the TMC won. But in the Lok Sabha election, about six out of 10 Pathai voters went with the BJP.
What happened between the panchayat election and the Lok Sabha elections that changed Pathai’s mind?
According to Kailash Pratimandal and Narugopal Bagdi, the violence unleashed by the TMC during the panchayat election in other parts of the state led them to the conclusion that it was “the right time to start resisting the TMC”.
“There was no violence in our village but we could all see on TV and read in newspapers of what was happening elsewhere in the state. It was mockery in the name of elections and it alarmed us all,” Pratimandal said.
In the panchayat election, the BJP also emerged as the TMC’s principal opponent all over the state, leaving the Left and the Congress behind. As TMC’s opponents started gathering around the BJP’s flag, a Hanuman temple was built at the end of 2018.
Sanatan Bagdi, a BJP supporter, said that tension broke out at Pathai over the temple as the TMC construed it as a political move and began accusing local BJP organisers of mixing religion with politics.
“The BJP leaders started talking about Muslim appeasement and Hindu unity after their support base increased,” Bagdi said.
The temple was built just before the Lok Sabha election in 2019.
Ram through Hanuman
Founding Hanuman temples, especially in areas dominated by SC and ST communities, has been an integral component of the agenda of the Sangh Parivar, the constellation of organisations under the RSS, the BJP’s parent organisation. The trend, according to a senior RSS leader in south Bengal, started in 2017, when the Sangh expressed over rising “jihadi” influence.
“The aim has been to create a religious and devotional atmosphere in the state. In areas dominated by the backward classes it has been our attempt to unite all Hindu castes against the politics of appeasement,” said an RSS organiser in Birbhum, who didn’t want to be named because he wasn’t authorised to speak to the media.
“Popularising Hanuman is part of the plan to instill Ram bhakti among local people,” the leader explained.
Shibaji Prasad Mandal, the RSS chief in Birbhum, could not be contacted for comment despite repeated attempts.
“The BJP grew in our area as most of those opposed to the TMC’s rule, especially those aggrieved by local TMC leaders’ highhandedness, took up the BJP’s flag after the assembly election revealed the Left had no prospect of winning anymore. Religious issues started entering the discourse after 2017-18,” said Chandranath Bauri, a resident of Radhanagar village in Bishnupur block of Bankura district.
In Radhanagar, was the local BJP’s way of uniting the Hindus. Here, people from SC and ST communities make 46.35 and 4.55 percent of the population, respectively, according to the 2011 census.
In the Lok Sabha election, Radhanagar and Joykrishnapur voted in favour of the BJP, according to the residents.
Asked if they would have voted for Mamata if she had restrained local TMC leaders but continued with her so-called Muslim appeasement, Joykrishnapur’s residents were divided. Asked if they would have voted for her had there been no Muslim appesement but local TMC leaders operated the same way, the answer was a unanimous “no”.
One of the issues raised by Hindu supremacists that seems to have struck a chord with the people in these villages is the Bengal government’s decision to pay a monthly stipend to imams and muezzins. Even though the payment comes not from the government’s funds but from the Wakf board, Mamata had on several occasions in 2012-13 sought credit for herself.
Now, this seems to be working against her, even though she announced, a few months ago, – from the government exchequer no less.
“Why is she giving allowances to the Brahmins now, so many years after Muslims got it?” asked Jayanta Santra in Joykrishnapur village in Bishnupur where over 46 percent of the population is SC and 2.44 percent is ST, according to the census of 2011.
Most of these villages have negligible or no Muslim population.
However, the scene is a little different in parts of South 24 Parganas and North 24 Parganas districts, where Muslims and Dalits live next to each other and together make up 70-80 percent of the population.
In Canning West constituency in South 24-Parganas, for example, the Scheduled Castes make up about 47 percent of the population, and Muslims 37 percent. In Magrahat East in the same district, the SCs are 34.6 percent and Muslims over 50 percent of the population.
Here, the BJP has been growing since the panchayat election and has lately made inroads among the local SC population. According to local residents, the Hindus, mostly Dalits, were initially reluctant in responding to the BJP’s campaign because they believed getting involved in communal politics would not be the right thing given that they lived in close proximity to Muslims.
In the assembly election, the TMC defeated the CPIM by a margin of 9,500 votes. In the Lok Sabha election, the TMC defeated the BJP, bagging nearly 53 percent of the polled votes. In Canning West, the TMC won the assembly election by 18,726 votes against the Congress and the Lok Sabha election against the BJP, obtaining 51.27 percent of the votes.
Explaining the changing polling trend of Magrahat West, Shankarlal Mandal, a small trader in Patikhali area, said, “The increase in the TMC’s vote share reflects the transfer of traditional Muslim votes of Left parties to the TMC, while the BJP’s rise is explained by the shifting of Dalit votes from the Left and TMC to the BJP.”
Sanatan Sarkar, a resident of where Muslims comprise 57.66 percent of the population and Dalits make up 31.8 percent, had another anecdote to tell. Part of Magrahat West constituency, Usthi has a population of over 6,000, according to the census of 2011. According to Sarkar, propaganda started in 2018 about Muslim-dominated localities being better served by panchayats and state government schemes than Dalit-dominated areas.
“In rural areas, people often believe word of mouth more than getting them verified. Therefore, a perception has been built up that Hindus, mostly Dalits, have been deprived while Muslims got government projects on priority basis,” said Sarkar, a plumber.
In South 24 Parganas, Muslims comprise 35.57 percent of the population, and Dalits 30.2 percent. In North 24 Parganas, Muslims are 25.82 percent and Dalits 21.7 percent.
The equations are different in North 24 Parganas and Nadia, though. There, the majority of the SC population is made up of refugees from Bangladesh, especially those belonging to the Matua-Namasudra communities. Members of these communities have often expressed a sense of dislike for Muslims because many of them, or their ancestors, fled from the erstwhile East Pakistan, now Bangladesh, after facing atrocities from their Muslim neighbours.
The BJP’s campaign accusing Mamata of Muslim appeasement has struck a chord with a section of them, and the Citizenship Amendment Act has found support of a good number of them as well. In the Lok Sabha election, the Matua-Namasudras voted overwhelmingly in favour of the BJP, helping the party win Bongaon and Ranaghat seats.
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