In the latest round of the Malda stand-off, the Bharatiya Janata Party alleges that the West Bengal government has refused to give permission to Union Minister Nitin Gadkari to hold a rally in the district. The party has now shifted the event to neighbouring South Dinajpur district.
Ever since January 3, when an angry mob stormed the Kaliachak police station in Malda and torched vehicles and shops, the Trinamool Congress government in Bengal has seemed determined not to let the BJP into the area. First, Samik Bhattacharya, the only BJP MLA in Bengal, was turned away and arrested at Malda town when he tried to visit Kaliachak. Next, a “fact-finding team” comprising three Union ministers, sent by BJP party chief Amit Shah, was sent back to Kolkata.
The TMC’s rationale: the BJP would give the incident a communal colour and polarise people with hate-fuelled rhetoric. The mob of January 3 had broken away from a rally organised by a Muslim religious group and protesting against Hindu Mahasabha leader Kamlesh Tewari’s comments about Prophet Mohammad. The violence had spilt over to a neighbourhood behind the police station, where most of the residents are Hindus. The motivations of the mob, in a region rife with crime and political violence, are difficult to pin down. In a state that is already volatile ahead of the assembly polls, communal tensions could have grim results. But the TMC’s chosen method of keeping the peace is wrong-headed and illiberal. It is also bad politics.
The BJP legislators who tried to visit Kaliachak had a right to do so, as elected representatives in the state or Central government. Their stated reason for being there was to probe an administrative lapse and address shaken residents. Preemptively arresting or detaining them does not constitute a reasonable restriction to freedom of speech. Last year, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad’s Praveen Togadia and the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen’s Akbaruddin Owaisi were barred from entering Bangalore and holding rallies. The order was upheld by the court since both leaders had a long track record of making inflammatory speeches and Togadia had been charged with directly inciting violence. If the TMC had any such evidence against the BJP leaders heading to Kaliachak, it did not produce it.
If the TMC is really worried about hate speech, it could have monitored the visits and put a stop to any provocative comments. Moreover, Gadkari’s rally, which was to be held as Bengal prepares for polls, wasn’t even directly related to the incident. In this case, the state government’s concern for preventing the communalisation of Kaliachak is stretched thin. It looks remarkably like a nervous political party bent on keeping a rival from campaigning in election time.
By imposing a ban on BJP visits, the TMC has only laid itself open to criticism from the opposition party in the state – that it is covering up a serious administrative lapse and does not want eyes on the ground, that its actions are politically motivated and that it is bent on appeasing Muslim constituencies before the elections.
It also plays into the BJP’s attempt to project itself as the embattled protector of a persecuted minority in West Bengal’s Muslim majority areas. In Malda, BJP leaders at the district level have adroitly flipped the minority card, speaking about their duty to stand beside the numerically weaker Hindus, neglected by the government. In the broader context of the state, it helps establish the BJP as the champion of Hindu interests.
The communal polarisation that the TMC claims to fear could be made far worse by its autocratic ways.