A 5,000-strong Muslim mob that attacked a police station in West Bengal’s South 24 Parganas on Sunday was mostly made up of Trinamool Congress supporters, officials in the district administration have said off-the-record. They were reportedly enraged by the absence of leaders of the ruling party at a panchayat meeting to review progress in the investigation into the murder of cattle trader Rauf Laskar on September 4.

Laskar’s death and the attack on the Dholahat police station have brought back into focus the cow politics that has led to violence and tension across the country in recent months. West Bengal cabinet minister Siddiquallah Chowdhury, who sent a fact-finding team to the affected area on Monday, blamed right-wing Hindu bodies for the murder but offered no supportive evidence.

A senior administration official, however, denied any link between the killing and right-wing groups such as the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, Vishwa Hindu Parishad, Bajrang Dal and Gau Raksha Samiti, pointing to a first information report registered by Laskar’s family mentioning “unknown assailants”.

A police officer said they were looking into other angles, such as business rivalry. “If it was a communal flare-up, the mob would have gone for the handful of Hindu villages in the neighbourhood instead of attacking the police station,” the officer added.

Growing hostility

The development comes at a time of rising animosity between the Sangh Parivar, which is going all out to make inroads in West Bengal, and the Trinamool Congress government.

Chief Minister Banerjee has had a running feud with the Cow Development Cell, an affiliate of the Bharatiya Janata Party, over its recently concluded cow census in the state.

“We can allow human population census, but no cow census,” Banerjee said. “It is aimed at creating communal divide and disturbances.”

Sunday’s Dholahat flare up had its roots in “cow related issues", Banerjee alleged.

Subrata Gupta, president of the West Bengal unit of the Cow Development Cell, said the cow census had to be done in a “clandestine manner” as the state government threatened its members with police action.

The “cattle issue” had become a handy tool for the government to divert attention from the involvement of its supporters in Sunday’s attack on the police station, where one person was killed and police had to open fire to control the mob, officials said.

The hostility was particularly felt at a meeting of the VHP in Kolkata on Saturday when the group’s leaders made vitriolic attacks on Banerjee.

“Mamata ji, had you been born in Bangladesh, you would never have dreamt of becoming chief minister but would have lived according to the whims of Muslim clerics,” said Surinder Jain, joint general secretary of the VHP. “And had you been married in Bangladesh, you would have been the third or fourth biwi of a mullah or moulvi.

Jain warned the chief minister against “showering too much mamta on Muslims”, saying, “People at large have brought you to where you are today. Jehadis have not brought you to power.”

Political vacuum

The meeting would have passed off as usual tongue-lashing by the Sangh outfit but for the fast changing political scenario in the state, where more and more MLAs of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and Congress, councillors and panchayat functionaries are being taken into the Trinamool fold. Rivals fear the Trinamool is working at having no opposition at all.

In this political vacuum, the BJP and the Sangh Parivar have sensed opportunity. And from the time BJP leader Siddharth Nath Singh launched the slogan “Bhaag Mamata, Bhaag” till the VHP meeting on Saturday, there is a distinct pattern of the saffron brigade’s growing aggression in Bengal in steering a campaign towards religious and communal polarisation.

“There is a distinct scale-up of the Sangh Parivar’s activities in the state at all levels and among its 30-plus affiliate bodies in Bengal,” said senior BJP leader Jayprakash Majumdar. “We are moving with a definite roadmap and a clear blueprint. The Sangh Parivar’s central leadership is fully focused on Bengal.”

The VHP meet came on the heels of BJP national president Amit Shah’s meeting in the Bengal capital in August during which he lauded the party’s performance in assembly elections held earlier this year. “The results should not be judged by the number of seats we won,” he said. Calling the party’s 10.5% vote share a real achievement, he declared, “It makes a solid ground for the BJP to pitch its hopes in Bengal.”

The secret survey

The Sangh is emboldened in its efforts by a huge Bengali Hindu refugee population in Bengal that is waiting to be won over.

Indicating that the Hindutva card will be a key component of the battle strategy, leaders at the VHP meet said that a nationwide secret survey to identify the displacement of Hindus – triggered by the alleged “exodus” of Hindus in Uttar Pradesh’s Kairana town – was on. The South Bengal part of the survey, they said, was over and its findings were “very grave”.

“There were innumerable instances of Hindus fleeing their homes and hearths in districts like Howrah, North and South 24 Parganas, Malda, Murshidabad and Dakshin Dinajpur,” said Jain. He said the Kairana episode had made them take a pledge – “Palayan nahin, parakram” (no flight, but fight).

The Trinamool leadership refused to respond to the VHP’s attack on Banerjee. “We have not heard what the VHP leaders said, but it is better not to respond,” said party secretary general Partha Chatterjee.

But top Trinamool leaders acknowledged the elections in UP early next year would pose a fresh threat for Bengal. After the BJP’s victory in Assam earlier this year, any gain the saffron party made in UP would be a serious setback for the Trinamool in Bengal, said a senior state minister.

“There might be a political backlash along with communal polarisation should the BJP fare well in UP,” he said.

Growing footprint

Talking about the BJP’s current status in Bengal, a top central leader looking after the state’s affairs said the Sangh had already achieved the first goal of having a fully dedicated party cadre of nearly 55,000 workers at the booth level.

There are about 77,500 polling booths in Bengal and the party wants at least one full-time worker for each booth, he said, adding that the target would be met well ahead of general elections in 2019.

Ahead of that, the BJP is hoping this will pay dividends in the 2018 panchayat polls.

Regular training programmes are being held at the booth level with central leaders such as Kailash Vijayvargia and Shiv Prakash monitoring classes of 100-150 recruits being taught the BJP ideology.

The RSS has also been active. As a state intelligence report put it, “At present, 5,000 shakhas of the RSS are being run in West Bengal whereas about 4,065 were operational in 2011.”

“The RSS is relentlessly trying to expand its base by continuous training and indoctrination," the report added. "It is found that the senior RSS and Sangh Parivar leadership, particularly of the VHP, have been visiting West Bengal on and of.”