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Serving panipuri in a communal cauldron: The state of Bengal politics

NewsServing panipuri in a communal cauldron: The state of Bengal politics

The skill of the Chief Minister in making momo or serving panipuri may serve as media diversion, but does not help the state government in administering a bankrupt state.

Communal tension in West Bengal has reached a worrisome stage. The recent incidents in North Bengal illustrate how the state administration remains a bystander while merrily communal conflicts are flaring up in different parts of the state. Only last week a place called Harirampur in the district of South Dinajpur, one community attacked another, vandalised shops run by the other community, desecrated a temple of the community and even beat the policemen who belonged to the target community. What is interesting is that the village, just about an hour away from the district headquarters Balurghat, has a sitting state minister as its representative to the state Assembly. The riot at Harirampur did not find much media attention since it was busy covering Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee exhibiting her culinary skills in the Darjeeling hills.
Such incidents are neither isolated nor political in nature. This was seen beyond doubt in South Bengal only a few days before the Harirampur incident. Three workers of the ruling TMC were brutally killed by some others at Canning, a stronghold of the ruling party. The murdered three, Swapan Majhi, Jhantu Halder and Bhutnath Pramanik were Trinamool Congress workers, who were waylaid by a group of rivals led by a certain Aftabuddin and his associates. Though the ruling TMC kept asserting that it was a result of TMC-BJP rivalry, the identity of the alleged killers reveals a different story, a fact that the state administration refused to accept but failed to hide.
Several districts in West Bengal had seen communal violence after the row over the comments on the Prophet by a former BJP member, Nupur Sharma. Howrah, a district where the state’s administrative headquarters Nabanna is located, was the epicentre of trouble. The areas dominated by one community witnessed large-scale arson, vandalism and also attack on the police force. Protests spread to several parts of West Bengal—from South 24 Parganas, Nadia to Murshidabad over the issue. Protesters damaged a local train at Bethuadahari railway station in Nadia district, the Ranaghat-Lalgola local train was vandalised, train services were halted by the protesters. Incidents of arson and attacks on some houses were reported from the district of Murshidabad. Even a police station at Beldanga was targeted. Important roads were blocked, traffic was halted, police stood helpless before the mob for some time.
Such incidents of communal flare-up illustrate the underbelly of West Bengal’s socio-political situation today. First and a critical point to note is that wherever the aggressive community has a strong presence, the other community is vulnerable. Even the police seem to be helpless in containing the attackers. Second, there are several pockets in the state that are communally sensitive and unsafe for the other community. Even political affiliation to the local ruling party is not insurance enough for survival. This was seen in Canning, where the TMC leader and his associates were killed. It is a clear case of communal disharmony. Third and what is most worrisome for the nation is that the ruling party, its supremo Mamata Banerjee in particular, is a hostage to the situation. She is caught badly in her failure to promised economic revival of a sinking state. The trick of providing doles is not working any more as the state exchequer is staring at an empty coffer. More important, the failure to follow the rules and regulations of Centrally sponsored schemes has now resulted in stoppage of fund flow from New Delhi. The skill of the Chief Minister in making momo or serving panipuri may serve as media diversion, but does not help the state government in administering a bankrupt state. Meanwhile, a section accustomed to break into lawlessness with or without provocation and who know well enough their value in electoral politics for TMC, is making merry with lives of others who are equally poverty stricken and more vulnerable.
For Mamata Banerjee, it is a perfect Catch-22 situation. To take the state out of the current quagmire she needs full cooperation from New Delhi. But that militates against her political ambition, howsoever farfetched the same seems, of assuming the charge at 7, Lok Kalyan Marg. After all, BJP today is the main rival to her TMC in the state. How can she buy peace with BJP leader Narendra Modi? To keep BJP away from West Bengal she adopted the oft-used formula of winning a section of people who are against BJP. This leaves her to win another 15 odd per cent of votes from among those subalterns who cannot differentiate between today and tomorrow. But the apparent political safety she opts for seems to be backfiring of late. Religion, after all, is less important than livelihood. In fact, the assumption that a certain community would opt for religious fundamentalism, come what may, is misplaced. For survival, people remain passive prima facie but once they realise they need not blindly follow the road towards destruction they will quietly switch sides. Mamata Banerjee’s politics is right now at this crossroad.
Terrorising the opposition and the hitherto silent but potential switchover candidates may not work for long as can be seen from the crowd that the leader of the opposition Suvendu Adhikary is attracting of late. People are restless. The more the communal incidents take place the worse will be the foundation of TMC politics. It is inconceivable that poor people will side with lawlessness and arson. The emasculation of the law enforcement agency by the ruling TMC is already working against the party’s presumed support base. This was seen recently in the alleged murder of student leader Anis Khan at Sarda village in the Amta area of Howrah. There was another case of a Congress councillor at Jhalda in the district of Purulia who was shot dead. There are allegations of involvement of a local police person who asked Kandu to switch loyalties to TMC. In order to maintain its political hegemony, TMC is wrecking the prospect of building a coalition with two anti-BJP political parties—Congress and CPM. This is certain to force all opponents to TMC to seek a redressal from BJP, as they did in 2011, away from the 34-year-long CPM-led Left rule. For political survival, in the absence of any strong economic incentive, TMC needs to desperately cling to the rule of the lawbreakers which is taking it down to its final destination of political annihilation.
What is more, the communal cauldron that is boiling in several parts of West Bengal, is weakening the TMC day by day. The killing of three TMC men at Canning is just one such example. The huge corruption in recruitment, as revealed by the court, is being watched by all communities who hoped to get some job. The huge assets accumulated by the TMC local leaders in general and many top brass of the party cannot be hushed up any more even by a pliant media. Panipuri and momo may serve as media diversions but the subalterns are watching silently. TMC will do well to note that both Deoband Assembly and Azamgarh Lok Sabha seats in Uttar Pradesh went to the BJP; communal polarisation did not work. There is no reason to believe that poverty-stricken electors of West Bengal will like to get boiled in the communal cauldron unchecked. Examples of Uttar Pradesh and Assam are staring at Nabanna.

Author Sugato Hazra’s latest book is “Losing the Plot: The Political Isolation of Bengal”.

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