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BJP fails to win West Bengal despite its anti-Muslim election campaign

14th May 2021
BJP fails to win West Bengal despite its anti-Muslim election campaign

April 24, Covid-19 patient administrated oxygen outside a hospital in Kolkata, West Bengal, India due to bed shortage (Credit: Sumit Sanyal/Anadolu Agency)

Sajeda Haider

The Indian state of West Bengal has concluded its most blisteringly long and religiously polarising election in history, with Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, leading the charge for his Hindu Nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) as their star campaigner. Modi held enormous rallies, disregarding Covid pandemic and social distancing rules, in the hope of winning power in a state that has to date eluded his party.

While Modi was electioneering, India, particularly its capital New Delhi was reeling under a deadly wave of the coronavirus notching up a daily record-breaking 300,000 new cases and rising. Shortages of hospital beds, ventilators and oxygen meant that people were dying on the streets in their thousands every day, so much so that corpses were lined up outside crematoriums and graveyards.

Instead of dealing with the national health crisis, Modi and his ministers were busy using all their firepower to conquer the state on the eastern fringes of India, bordering Bangladesh – but again it escaped their clutches.

The Trinamul Congress-led by India’s only woman Chief Minister, Mamata Banerjee, won a landslide third term with the help of its Muslim voters who overwhelmingly backed her to keep the BJP out of Bengal.

Muslims constitute 27 per cent of Bengal’s population – almost double the national average of 14 per cent – and it was this that enticed the BJP to make a bid for power thereby segregating voters along religious lines, something that the Indian constitution prohibits, but which the BJP has done in most of northern India with great success.

Bengal was split by the British at the time of Indian independence in 1947 with West Bengal going to India and East Bengal becoming a part of Pakistan. However, unlike the bloody partition of Punjab on the western border, Bengal did not see as much transfer of people or as much bloodshed. While many Hindu refugees moved from East Pakistan to West Bengal, Muslims in West Bengal remained in India, particularly in rural areas.

Bengali Hindus and Muslims have more in common with each other than with the rest of either India or Pakistan – their language, culture, ethos, culinary habits, etc. – so much so that in 1971 East Pakistan eventually broke away from Pakistan and formed an independent Bangladesh. Even today Bangladeshis, predominantly Muslims, have a greater affinity with their Bengali Hindu counterparts in India than Pakistanis or other Indian Muslims.

Hence, as the BJP’s election-winning machine ploughed through most of northern India uprooting old ties and planting seeds of religious sectarianism, they did not find fertile ground in Bengal. North Indian Hindu Gods like Lord Ram or Hanuman are not revered in the same manner in Bengal, therefore BJP’s movement to tear down the Babri Mosque in 1992 and replace it with a Ram temple did not evoke the same passions amongst Bengali Hindus.

The BJP’s veneration of the cow does not cut much ice among Bengali Hindus, who enjoy eating meat and do not consider a festival complete unless there is mutton on the table. Thus, the BJP had to look for other issues to divide Bengali Muslims and Hindus.

Modi and his Home Minister and chief poll strategist, Amit Shah, homed in on the border between India and Bangladesh and accused all opposition parties of encouraging and allowing illegal immigration from Bangladesh into Bengal to increase their vote banks. For the last seven years since Modi has been in power, they have been calling Muslims in Bengal “illegal infiltrators”. Shah has gone to the extent of calling Muslims ‘termites’ who are eating away at India and need to be exterminated.

In the 2016 West Bengal Assembly elections, the BJP was able to win only 3 of 294 seats. However, in the 2019 general election as Modi swept the country, similarly in Bengal too, for the first time the BJP was able to garner 18 out of the 40 parliamentary constituencies. The BJP was sure that if they ran a high-pitched religiously polarising campaign, they could win Bengal.

They ‘othered’ the Muslims of Bengal, calling them ‘termites’, ‘infiltrators’, ‘terrorists’ and ‘foreigners’ in their own land. Shah promised to throw Muslim ‘infiltrators’ out of India once the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) was implemented. The Modi Government in Delhi passed the discriminatory CAA in 2019, which would fast track Indian citizenship to all Hindu refugees coming from Muslim countries in the neighbourhood i.e. Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh, but has not yet started its implementation due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

The BJP also promised to roll out a National Register of Citizens in Bengal for which people would have to prove that they and their ancestors have been living in India since before 1971. This would be a sword hanging over the head of Muslims, who if unable to prove their residence in India would be stripped of their citizenship. Most poor people in India have very little paperwork to prove where they were born etc. let alone paperwork of their ancestors.

Mamata Banerjee was repeatedly referred to as ‘Mumtaz Begum’, a Muslim name alluding to the BJP’s allegations against her that she was ‘appeasing Muslims’ so that they would vote for her. She was derisively called “aunt of the Rohingyas” alleging that she was allowing Rohingya refugees to illegally enter India and sheltering them.

Symbolic gestures made by the TMC government of holding iftars or distributing a kilo of sugar-free to poor Muslims during Ramadan, or giving a small stipend to imams and muezzins of mosques were dubbed gross ‘appeasement’ by Modi and his party, but they conveniently forgot to mention that Hindu priests were also given a stipend. Hindus were made to harbour a misplaced sense of victimhood.

“The fact that Muslims have not received positive discrimination in education, jobs, and soft skills for Muslim youths is never mentioned. Look all around there is poverty and illiteracy. Only we are caught up in the discourse of appeasement when we should have been talking empowerment,” argued Sabir Ahmed, a National Research Coordinator at Pratichi Institute that looks into gender equity, health and education.

While Muslims make up 27 per cent of the state’s population, currently they only hold 6.08 percent of government jobs in the state. Had TMC really been appeasing Muslims as the BJP claims, then their proportion in these secure jobs would be much higher.

During polling, four Muslim boys were shot dead by the trigger-happy paramilitary security forces brought in by the Election Commission to ensure a free and fair election. Instead of ordering an inquiry into the incident, the BJP’s state unit’s chief and would-be chief ministerial candidate justified the killings alleging that they were “bad boys” and Muslims should learn a lesson as this would be their fate should they misbehave when the BJP came to power in Bengal.

The Bengal election became a de facto referendum on the Modi Government, and had the BJP juggernaut breached Bengal then there was no stopping it from turning India into a one-party democracy, wrote many liberal and secular analysts. All eyes were on Bengal and Bengalis realised the national importance of the election.

The support for the TMC came like a tsunami with Bengalis, Hindus and Muslims, determined to keep the BJP at bay in their state. Modi during the campaign had jeered and even indulged in cat-calling of Mamata Banerjee, something that the women of Bengal objected to. “Each woman’s vote for Mamata was a slap on Modi’s face for jeering at her and all Bengali women,” said Rajashree Ghosh [pseudonym], a social activist.

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