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Advent of communal politics - Deccan Herald
Advent of communal politics
Sibaji Pratim Basu,
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 A burnt vehicle seen at a road after a communal riot at Baduria in North 24 Pargana district of West Bengal on Wednesday. PTI Photo
In the spring of 1750, a series of riots erupted in Paris when the populace discovered that police were sweeping children off the streets in an overzealous attempt to control vagrancy. Soon rumours buzzed through the town that the police were kidnapping the children of poor people to send them off to populate the colonies, while some said it was to provide fresh blood to cure the king's leprosy / venereal disease.

Detailing the account in The Vanishing Children of Paris (1991), Arlette Farge and Jacques Revel describe how the popular perceptions of the unnatural appetite of a degenerate monarchy grounded the rumour that led to a very real, murderous riot.

Rumour breeds riots. From the fall of Bastille to Sepoy Mutiny it had had its booty. It can also claim a huge share in fomenting the recent riots in Basirhat, a sub-division of West Bengal that shares boundaries with neighbouring Bangladesh. All these events took place under a populist regime in the times of post-truth age.

The skirmishes began when a morphed photo on Facebook posted by Souvik Sarkar triggered a protest, which was dispersed by the police. Then several images went viral on social media with people claiming that they were from Basirhat. In one image, a man is trying to disrobe a woman, with the caption claiming this was the manner in which Hindu women were being treated in West Bengal.

In reality, it was a scene from the Bhojpuri film Aurat Khilona Nahi. Nupur Sharma, the spokesperson of Delhi BJP, shared a photo on Twitter that called for protests against 'lawlessness’ in the state. The image used in the tweet seems to be of Gujarat riots, a photo taken by Manish Sharma of the Associated Press.

But can there be smoke without fire? How could West Bengal, known for her left-liberal ideology and politics for nearly a century, which can boast of a mostly communal-tension-free atmosphere even after the memories of the Great Calcutta Killings (1946), partition (1947) and the nationwide sickening times of the post-Babri Mosque demolition (1992), go so wild over such baseless postings on social media? Any honest answer to this question is bound to be inconclusive and complicated.

The perception among the standard popular Hindu, especially the Bhadrolok, on six years’ of Trinamool rule is though the regime has initiated several infrastructure development works like construction/maintenance of roads and flyovers (neglected under the Left rule) and populist programmes like Kanyashri, distribution of rice at Rs 2 through PDS etc., it really thrives on the appeasement of minorities (read Muslims) and Hindu Dalits, like the Matuas.

The state government's decision to give monthly allowances to imams and muezzins, who say the 'azaan' is cited as an example for appeasement. Generally, this argument appeals to rational minds. However, if one-sided, such arguments also glosses over other empowering schemes like giving scholarships to Muslim students and to include the community in Other Backward Classes. Such 'affirmative action’ would also seem vital and rational if we go by the Sachar Committee report of 2006.

But one may further ask why such communal disturbances of a huge scale like this (including other lesser known riots) did not happen during the long rule of the Left? The answer lies in the two different courses of politics. The Left politics is cadre/organisation-based while Trinamool's politics is leader-based and 'populist’. Let us also admit at this point that despite the Bengali renaissance of the 19th century and the long tradition of Left-liberal politics, the Hindus and Muslims, except on a few occasions, remained culturally separate units.

Even poet Rabindranath Tagore felt it on the first day of the anti-partition movement procession (October 16, 1905). When enthusiasts were tying 'rakhi' as a mark of unity to every passerby, a Muslim hesitated and said, "But Sir, I’m a Muslim!” And being led by the English-educated Bhadralok community, the Dalits were almost absent from the leadership of the party as well as from the government.

Thus, keeping in mind these separate existences, when the Left approached the minority community or low caste social groups, they approached them as the 'party’, trying to bring them into the fold. So, in Muslim-dominated areas like Bhangar, you had Comrade Rezzak Mollah (who is presently in Mamata’s Cabinet) and not a Buddhadev Bhattacharya.

Populist politics

In Trinamool's case, a party which has not inherited statewide organisational network like the CPI/CPM, the religious communities and social groups have joined the ruling party as communities / social groups, without losing their separate entities, which makes it having lesser or almost no control over them. This is the fate and limit of populist politics.

The location of Basirhat, which shares an almost open border with Bangladesh with river-routes for entry and exit, is another point of worry. This informal - illegal to many - system runs since the birth of Bangladesh along the lines of other bordering districts like Nadia, Murshidabad and Malda, which often report news of small to medium levels of tension.

However, situations have turned more grave with the radicalisation of Islam in large parts of Bangladesh and its immediate influence on these districts of the state through the electronic and social media. Thus, we often find a virtual war on Facebook or WhatsApp launched by the fanatics of both the communities. This is something that no regime in the state is competent to combat.

But what the present regime can and should immediately do is to ensure administrative - both civil and criminal - fairness while dispensing justice. Incidents can flare up in future in spite of our best wishes and efforts, but once the victims feel that the government is making no discrimination in punishing the criminals and protecting the innocents, the present trust-deficit will fade away.

Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee has ordered a judicial inquiry by a sitting judge of the Calcutta High Court to probe the riot. Parallel efforts of organising multi-level dialogues among all the stakeholders stand next in line. Ultimately, this is a matter of political will. But these are the only options that we have in store.

(The writer is a professor of political science at Vidyasagar University, West Bengal)