On January 3, a mob burnt parts of a police station in the northern Bengal town of Kaliachak located in the district of Malda. Initial reports suggested that the crowd had broken away from protestors agitating against the remarks of a Hindu Mahasabha leader who had allegedly insulted Prophet Mohammad. The incident caused intense speculation in the national media, with the Bharatiya Janata Party using it as leverage both nationally and in West Bengal.
Even though the exact drivers behind the violence were never identified, three months later the Kaliachak riot has faded away from national consciousness. Yet, in Kaliachak itself, the incident is being used to stoke embers during the Assembly elections by both the Trinamool Congress and the local BJP. The other two parties in the fray locally, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and the Congress, on the other hand, are depending on their alliance to get past the finishing line.
Known for its mangoes and monuments – it was the medieval capital of Bengal – Malda is a Muslim-majority district, by a sliver: 51% of Malda is Muslim.
The district is unusual politically to still be dominated by the Congress – after the party has been wiped out from almost all other parts of Bengal – 8 out of 12 Assembly seats in the district and both its Lok Sabha seats are held by the Congress Party. This dominance has to do with Ghani Khan Choudhury, a former Union railway minister who managed to ensure some development for the district, otherwise one of the most backward in the state. Choudhury died in 2006, but so strong is his legacy that his family still dominates the district’s politics. Both members of Parliament from Malda are his relatives, elected largely on the strength of his name.
Less favourably, Malda is now also a criminal hub. This includes poppy cultivation (for opium), fake currency notes and even an illegal weapons market, dealing mostly in country-made, crude arms. Its location abutting Bangladesh means that supply chains for these products are well laid-out.
The Trinamool challenge
The Trinamool Congress did very well in south Bengal in 2011 in order to come to power in Kolkata. Yet, northern districts such as Malda have remained out of its reach. In 2011, it managed to only attract 8% of the Malda vote, winning only one Assembly seat. In the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, it increased its vote share significantly to 17%, but still lagged the Congress, the Left and, surprisingly, even the BJP.
To try and take this upward trend even further, the Trinamool has decided to poach the Ghani Khan legacy from the Congress. Abu Nasar Khan Choudhury is Ghani Khan’s brother and was elected as Congress MLA in 2011 from Malda’s Sujapur constituency. Last year in June, though, he jumped ship and joined the Trinamool. Speaking to Scroll.in, senior Trinamool leader Mukul Roy said, “We are confident of doing well in Malda. Now we even have a member of the Ghani Khan family and, like the Congress, can claim his legacy”
But, on the ground, it seems the Trinamool feels something a bit more than a Khan Chowdhury is needed. The party is therefore quietly playing up the January Kaliachak riot. On April 4, chief minister Mamata Banerjee came to Kaliachak and addressed a rally at the local Karbala ground. While she did mention Ghani Khan and tried to claim his legacy, most significantly, Banerjee also bought up the Kaliachak riot. The Assembly constituency that Kalaichak falls under, Sujapur is more than 90% Muslim. In that rally, Banerjee made it a point to claim that her government had ensured that there was no fallout from the riot.
The subtext of her message was clear: usually governments would have dealt far more strongly with such an incident, but her government, with local Muslim interests at heart, had gone slow. That was her sales pitch for the election.
Congress alleges conspiracy
The Congress office in Kaliachak is situated right beside the police station that was attacked. The station now sports a brand new coat of paint – part of the Trinamool government’s damage control. At the Congress office, Matiur Rahaman, Congress President for the Kaliachak block turns the tables on Banerjee – and directly blames the Trinamool for engineering the violence for its own gain.
Rahaman questions why the permission for the rally was given by the district administration at all. “Kaliachak was peaceful,” he argued. “But the Trinamool wanted to break the peace and cause trouble.”
He also blamed the poppy mafia. “Anti-socials close to the Trinamool wanted to destroy their police records,” Rahaman said. “That is what happened.”
Later, the Congress candidate from Sujapur, Isha Khan Choudhury (Ghani Khan’s nephew), also questions the narrative of the incident as a riot. “A one lakh crowd, if it went berserk, would clear everything in its path,” he posited. “But the thana where the police were wasn’t touched. What was burnt down were a few scrap cars and the file room where the cases are kept. You’re telling me a mob went berserk and it turned into a riot and they so surgically went after one particular building in the police station – that is more than a coincidence. It was only a few anti-social within the crowd who went and burnt down the record room for their own purposes.”
He ended off by directly blaming the TMC. “Trinamool is colluding with the same people who burnt down the station. They are roaming free and free to influence the election.”
The fact that the Congress and the Left, the first and second strongest parties in Malda, are in an alliance means that the force of sheer arithmetic outweighs issues such as Kaliachak when it’ll come to final results. Yet, hidden under the simple binary of wins and losses is the hidden story of the slow rise of the BJP – a rise catalysed by the Kaliachak riot.
Unlike the TMC, the Bharatiya Janata Party isn’t playing footsie with Kaliachak and is using it unabashedly to play on the fears of Hindu voters in a Muslim-majority district.
Ajoy Ganguly, Malda general secretary of the BJP, stridently makes the claim that the BJP has made Kaliachak a top issue for the election. “The BJP has ensured that at the national level, Kaliachak made news for almost a 100 days. We were the ones agitating on this. Our party even sent a national-level team to investigate the riot but Mamata’s government didn’t allow them to enter Kaliachak.” Connecting the riot with the issue of immigrants, he claimed, “Most of the people in the crowd were Bangladeshis, yet the district administration gave permission.”
To further boost the party, national heavyweights such as Amit Shah and Smriti Irani will campaign in Malda on Friday, two days before polling day.
The silent rise of the BJP
For a party that is a minnow in Bengal, the BJP has a respectable presence in pockets of Malda – built up by raising issues such as Bangladeshi immigration or cow smuggling. “So big is the cow smuggling trade that if we plug Malda, Bangladesh will shut down,” Ganguly claimed. “And the Trinamool participates in the smuggling. Even the chief minister gets a cut”.
In Baishnabpur, the constituency neighbouring Sujapur, the BJP picked up a respectable 14% share of the vote in the 2011 Assembly elections. It also expected to do well in Malda town, which has a much higher percentage of Hindu voters than out in the countryside. Also encouraging is the party’s upward graph of votes. In 2011, it managed to get 7% of Malda district’s vote, a figure that more than doubled to 18% in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections.
The BJP has no serious chance of forming the government – or maybe even of coming in third in terms of seats in the state. But if it manages to increase its vote share significantly in Malda on the basis of communal issues such as cow smuggling or the Kaliachak riot, that could be the pivotal microstory of the West Bengal 2016 elections.