Suvendu Adhikari’s ‘agenda’ is to divide Hindus and Muslims, and fears run deep over slogans like ‘Jai Shri Ram’.
Phase two of West Bengal’s election begins tomorrow with 30 assembly constituencies going to polls in three districts. Among these, the battle of Nandigram in East Medinipur – a bipolar contest between Trinamool Congress chief Mamata Banerjee and recent Bharatiya Janata Party convert Suvendu Adhikari – will be the most-watched.
At her day-long public meetings and roadshows, Mamata has focused on attacking Adhikari for betraying the party and the people of Nandigram, often calling him “Mir Jafar”. She carefully addresses her women voters, calling out for support from “mothers and sisters” and asking them to vote in large numbers. A key feature has been her attack on the Modi government for “using the Central Reserve Police Force” to “obstruct” pro-TMC votes at polling booths.
Meanwhile, Adhikari’s campaign has been replete with anti-Muslim dog-whistling: referring to Mamata as “begum”, “phupi” and “khala”, and saying that her rule would turn West Bengal into “mini Pakistan”.
In 2016, Adhikari had won from Nandigram seeking support from the very voters that he today casts as anti-India outsiders. In fact, in the run-up to the 2016 assembly election, Mamata had given Adhikari, then her trusted lieutenant, the responsibility to make inroads in the Muslim-majority district of Murshidabad – a task that required the TMC to woo Muslim voters away from the Indian National Congress.
Now, in 2021, Adhikari is telling his voter base that the TMC is ruled by people who burst crackers at Pakistan’s victory. “If they return to power, you would not be able to wear bindi, tulsi beads and dhoti,” he said at a rally on March 22.
‘Jai Shri Ram’: same slogan, different impact
Nandigram comprises two administrative blocks with a total of 350 polling booths. Twenty-two CRPF companies will be deployed in Nandigram alone for the election.
According to the 2011 census, Muslims constitute 35 percent in Block 1 of Nandigram and 12 percent in Block 2.
In both blocks, the anger among residents against local-level TMC workers and petty corruption is palpable. Residents, both Hindu and Muslim, have still not received funds for rehabilitation and rebuilding homes that were destroyed by Cyclone Amphan. Others say they are still waiting for MNREGA wages.
The key difference is that many Hindus have the option of expressing their anti-incumbency sentiment with a vote for the BJP, unaffected by the party’s Hindutva pitch. This is perhaps illustrated best by the differing responses we received when we asked their views on the BJP’s “Jai Shri Ram” slogan.
“Ram is a god for us,” said a woman in Sonachura in Nandigram’s Block 1. “What’s there to not like about the slogan?”
Even the Hindu supporters of the TMC are not bothered by the slogan per se but the men who chant it. A woman at a TMC rally at the Vivekanand football ground in Chandipur, for example, questioned the devotion of BJP men who chant the slogan.
“We take off our slippers to go to the temple but these men shout ‘Jai Shri Ram’ while wearing slippers,” she told Newslaundry. “They get drunk and they take god’s name. God’s name can’t be taken anywhere, in any state, right?”
Meanwhile, for Muslims, the slogan represents a threat to their very way of life and the freedom to practise their faith. Several Muslim residents at Nandigram Block 2 are worried that once the BJP comes to power, they will be forced to chant the slogan.
A young Muslim man preparing for the West Bengal Civil Services Board said the problem is that BJP workers use the slogan to exert religious dominance.
“Since childhood, we have taken part in Saraswati puja in school. There has been no problem,” he said. “But now, to have someone tell us to chant slogans to prove ourselves? This is not acceptable. And this is only happening for votes.”
On Adhikari, he said, “Did he not see Pakistan here when he asked for our votes in TMC? Suddenly he’s seeing Pakistan everywhere.”
A family of TMC supporters
In Mangalchak village in Nandigram Block 2, we met a Muslim family, all of whom were TMC party workers and active supporters of Mamata Banerjee. SK Abdul Ajij, his son SK Rajab, and grandson SK Rahman were busy stringing together TMC flags to put up around their block. Ajij, 67, a retired fireman, was applying gum to posters which they would later stick around the area.
“We are loyal TMC supporters,” Rajab told us. “I was a schoolteacher and always involved with politics even in my younger days. I’ve been a TMC worker in my block for 15 years now.”
When we asked him if anyone pays them money to put up posters and string up flags, he said they do it out of loyalty for the TMC. “The party supplies these to us and we make sure that these are put up around the block,” he said. “Nobody pays us to do this work.”
Rajab (left) and his son Rahman are both TMC party workers.
During our conversations, the three generations of TMC workers told us that they are very happy with Mamata Banerjee and her government.
When the conversation turned to Adhikari, Rajab told us: “His campaign in BJP is very different. His agenda is to divide Hindu-Muslim votes. In this area, people of all faiths have lived in harmony for generations. But for the first time, I can see that everyone is getting divided. It’s not good for Bengal. Villages of Bengal will burn if this continues.”
Have they seen communal activity on the ground? “We see it everyday,” Rajab said. “When we talk to Hindus of the area, they say, ‘BJP is a Hindu party so let’s give them a chance. What’s the harm?’”
Rahman said he has seen this divide in younger people of the village too. “BJP has some support here. All the CPIM supporters have gone over to the BJP because they hate the TMC,” he said. “CPIM had no leadership after 2011 and the supporters blamed TMC for this. Now, they have found BJP and want to take revenge.”
Several BJP workers we met at rallies would echo this reality of the shift from CPIM to BJP: “Pehle Bam, abhi Ram,” they said. First Left, now Ram.
We asked Rahman whether he has seen or heard of incidents of communal tension in the area. “An incident happened recently nearby,” he replied. “Some Muslims were doing namaz in the neighborhood and some men showed up. They started screaming ‘Jai Shri Ram’ loudly to disturb the Muslims. Why do they do this? Why can’t we all just follow our own faith?”
Rajab’s wife, Sabina Bibi, told us that she doesn’t have a good feeling about the BJP’s anti-Muslim rhetoric. “We don’t have a problem with ‘Jai Shri Ram’. They can chant for the god they believe in,” she said. “But if BJP wins, we are scared they will make us chant the same too.”
A kilometre away from Mangalchak, we met Abdul and his family at their home. Abdul is not his real name.
“This Hindu-Muslim divide makes me uncomfortable,” he said. “There is support for BJP here from the Hindu households, but I have seen some Hindus supporting Didi too. The Hindu votes will be split there but Muslims will vote for Didi en masse.”
We asked him what he thinks about Adhikari. He said that if Adhikari hadn’t switched parties, Abdul would have voted for the BJP.
“Adhikari is not a good man. The public was very angry with him even when he was in the TMC. I was going to vote BJP just because I wanted to get rid of this man,” he said. But now, Abdul is asking anyone who will listen to vote for anyone other than Adhikari. “I have personally nothing against BJP, but I am actively campaigning and telling people not to vote for Suvendu whenever I get the time.”
His wife, Sultana (name changed), echoed the forced “Jai Shri Ram” fear we heard earlier.
“BJP will make us chant ‘Jai Shri Ram’ if they come to power,” she said. “Why should we do that? We have our own religion and we want to follow it. They can follow their own customs. We can do our rituals and follow our customs.”
Atif (name changed), who works at a brick kiln, said he is confused about whom to vote for. The BJP is not an option for him but the TMC’s rule has, for him, only meant hardship and no material gain.
“They say TMC has done a lot for Muslims, but what have they done other than giving money to muezzin?” he asked. “How has our life improved? There’s corruption at every level, everything is pocketed by their men: local workers and supporters and whoever is close to them. I can’t vote for BJP but I hate the TMC. I will have to think about who to vote for.”
At Nandigram Block 2, Dhirendranath Maity said he used to run a sweet shop which he was forced to shut down during the lockdown last year. Now, he runs a stationery shop. His son, who has a PhD from Jadavpur University, is unemployed, but will be working as a polling officer this election season.
“We don’t want daya, kindness from the state. We want jobs and money in our hands,” he said. “Young men are sitting jobless. My own shop fetches me very little money.”
For him and his family, Modi’s pitch of a “double-engine ki sarkar” is an attractive prospect that’s worth trying out this election.
Parikshit Sanyal contributed reporting and translation.
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