In the second part of his autobiography, Thy Hand, Great Anarch!, Bengali writer Nirad C Chaudhuri describes the Hindu god Ram to his readers thus: “The incarnation of Vishnu who was worshipped as God, particularly as the warrior God, by the Hindustanis”, the Bengali word for Hindi speakers.
This was written in 1987 and reflects the fact that the worship of Ram was mostly absent among Hindu Bengalis.
Fast forward three decades and it seems this is beginning to change. Last Wednesday, West Bengal enthusiastically celebrated Ram Navami, marking the birth of Ram, with processions and tableaus. The Bharatiya Janata Party and allied groups actively patronised the festivities, seeing it as a means to increase their political footprint in the state.
But this was no ordinary celebration, seeing as it was backed by a political party. Participants in the Ram Navami processions marched with weapons – swords and tridents. Many of these processions went past areas with high Muslim populations or places known to be communally sensitive. As a result, communal tensions were high in the state this past week, leading to rumours of violence and small conflagrations.
In Telinipara, a Muslim-dominated jute town two hours north of Kolkata, a Ram Navami procession led to violence on Friday. Marchers and residents pelted stones at each other and houses and shops were set on fire. On Tuesday, the police arrested 10 people for the violence. In Birbhum distirct on Tuesday, a Hanuman Jayanti procession turned violent and attempted to break through police barricades.
The tension reached Kolkata too as a group of people assembled outside a mosque on Thursday and shouted religious slogans while prayers were on inside. Following this, some people set up a roadblock to protest the incident. An attempt to attack shops was foiled with the intervention of leaders from both the Hindu and Muslim communities, reported the Indian Express.
Cow heads and rumours
Along with the sporadic incidents of violence, there were rumours as well. In Birbhum district, news of three men allegedly buying the heads of cows caused some tension. Residents were suspicious about the purchase, given that cow and pig carcasses in places of worship have historically been a way of sparking communal riots. In January, there had been tension in Kolkata after chunks of meat were found to have been thrown in a Hindu temple.
The communally charged environment meant that rumours of violence spread thick and fast on social media. There were false reports of a riot on Thursday. One message that was circulated read, “Just been informed that riots have broken out in Metiabruz and the Army has been called in. Part effect in Kidderpore. Crowds gathering up at Park Circus. Please get home before things get out of control.” Metiabruz, Kidderpore and Park Circus are all Muslim-dominated areas of Kolkata.
The police, too, took to social media to dispel the rumours as false.
This is not the first instance of wild rumous of rioting in Kolkata being spread on social media. It had happened in August 2015 too, with little action taken against the rumour mongers.
Underlying this communal tension is the political rivalry between the BJP and the ruling Trinamool Congress. With the precipitous decline of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), the BJP has moved into the space of the principal Opposition in the state. The Trinamool’s dependence on Muslim votes and its aggressive wooing of the community has provided the BJP with fertile ground to organise events such as the armed processions on Ram Navami.
In 2013, the Mamata Banerjee-led Trinamool government had awarded Muslim priests with a stipend. Last year, it attempted to regulate idol immersions during Durga Puja so that it did not clash with the Muslim festival of Muharram. It received flak from the Calcutta High court for both moves.
The BJP has accused the Trinamool of Muslim appeasement multiple times, most recently during the communal riots in Dhulagarh in December.
To counter the BJP’s charge that it unduly favours Muslims, the Trinamool, on its part, organised Hanuman prayers this year. And last Wednesday, Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee accused the BJP of “appropriating” the festival of Ram Navami.
In the ongoing political slugfest, each party has also accused the other of vindictive arrests. The Trinamool claims several of its party men have been arrested by the Central Bureau of Investigation in false corruption cases. In February, the BJP accused the ruling party of framing its leaders in a child trafficking case. In a move that is sure to take the political rivalry up another notch, the West Bengal Police have issued a non-bailable warrant against BJP state president Dilip Ghosh for carrying a sword during a Ram Navami procession.
On Tuesday, a BJP leader even put a bounty of Rs 11 lakh on anyone who could behead Chief Minister Banerjee. Earlier in 2016, BJP state president Dilip Ghosh had also issued a beheading threat to anyone who gives “anti-national” statements.
This political acrimony, Banerjee contends, is why the BJP-led government at the Centre is yet to release the Rs 10,459 crores in funds that is owed to the state. The chief minister made this statement as she travelled to Delhi to meet visiting Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina a few days ago. The lack of bonhomie between the BJP and the Trinamool also means that Banerjee has all but blocked Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s proposal to share the waters of the Teesta river with Bangladesh.
Matters have even reached the office of the first citizen with Banerjee publicly backing BJP veteran and former Union Home Minister Lal Krishna Advani for the president’s post, a move widely seen to be against Modi’s wishes.
Even as the high voltage communal angle to the TMC-BJP face off makes it clear that the Bharatiya Janata Party is now the main Opposition in the state, the actual electoral impact of this is unclear. Banerjee was re-elected to power in West Bengal in 2016 winning 72% of the seats in the Assembly. Moreover, the BJP and its allies have till now been unable to draw large crowds to their rallies and processions – an almost neccesary feature of Bengali politics. On Tuesday, for example, a Vishwa Hindu Parishad rally to celebrate Hanuman Jayanti in Kolkata saw only a hundred people turn up. The BJP has depended on headline grabbing moves such as armed marches to make inroads into the state. But it might need to put in more groundwork if it wants to dislodge the Trinamool.