A dangerous turn

Political violence is commonplace in West Bengal, where every level of elections is fiercely contested. Over the last three years, however, the escalating violence has entered more dangerous terrain, with a marked increase in communal tension and rioting. On July 2 in Basirhat, an inflammatory Facebook post, allegedly by a 17-year-old, provoked a round of wanton violence orchestrated by some radical Muslim outfits in the North 24 Parganas district. While the person was arrested quickly, the State government displayed a lack of resolve to immediately halt the protests that led to blocked roads, an attack on a police station, and vandalisation of shops and houses in Basirhat and nearby areas. Paramilitary forces were finally deployed by July 4, returning a degree of calm but only after the damage had been done. Soon, accusations and recriminations followed as the BJP sought to make this a case of minority-led communalism while the ruling Trinamool Congress complained that the BJP was fanning communal tensions. The politics spilled over into a needless spat between Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee and Governor Keshari Nath Tripathi, attended by allegations and name-calling. Rather than personalise and politicise a meeting between constitutional functionaries to extract political mileage, Ms. Banerjee should have shown greater initiative to defuse the situation by tackling the violence firmly and bringing to book those responsible for the acts of arson. The incidents in Basirhat seem eerily similar to what transpired in Kaliachak in Malda district in January 2016. Then, too, the State government had not shown alacrity in ending the violence, or acting against those responsible for it.

Such communal violence is not common in West Bengal, which makes it all the more worrisome. The State had largely escaped the communal trouble that erupted in many parts of North India during the run-up to and in the wake of the Babri Masjid demolition in 1992. In terms of political discourse, the contestation between the Congress and the Left Front, and later with the TMC, was mainly on the basis of class politics or patronage. Ever since the Muslim peasantry, especially in southern Bengal, abandoned its support for the Left Front — a fallout of the anti-land acquisition agitations in Nandigram and Singur — the TMC has worked assiduously to consolidate its support among them. But it has done this by blatantly pandering to conservative and reactionary sections among Muslims, in the hope of earning the community’s support. Such an approach is exactly what the BJP, which was once electorally irrelevant in the State, feeds on in order to frame its own polarising narrative. From all accounts this has worked, as the party has grown into something of a political force in the State. Some of West Bengal’s districts have been hit particularly hard by the increasing hold of sectarian politics, which risks turning the State into a communal hot spot. Steps must be taken to urgently reverse this trend before further damage is done.