Malda among worst-affected districts as communal polarisation and violence rises in West Bengal

It had been five years since the construction of the mosque had begun. But Rupam Tiwary, 45, could not get himself to warm up to the idea. “There is a Kali mandir, a Durga mandir and a Shiv mandir in close proximity,” he says. “How could we let a mosque come up there?”

Tiwary has been a BJP worker in the village of Raipada in West Bengal’s Malda district since his teens. But his moment of glory arrived about three years back when he participated in a movement to stop a mosque from coming up near his village. “We cover the idols in the temple when Muslims carry out their procession during Muharram,” he says. “We don’t like them dancing in front of our gods. Plus, there are only two Muslim families living in the area. Why do you need a mosque for two families?”

Tiwary mobilised BJP and RSS workers in Malda and launched a campaign to scrap the construction of the mosque, which was being built slowly and steadily. “We got 3,500 signatures on a petition,” he says. “We wrote to the administration, as well as the police. We took to the streets. We agitated until they finally budged in 2018. The mosque was being funded through Arab money. We don’t want Bengal to become Pakistan.”

Rupam Tiwary. Firstpost/Parth MN

The half-built structure still stands just outside the village of Raipada. Deserted, forlorn and abandoned, where people sneak in at night to smoke weed. It is symbolic of the communalisation seen in West Bengal, and particularly in Malda, over the past five years or so.

Raipada falls in the assembly constituency of Baishnabnagar — one of the only three the BJP had managed to win in 2016 state election, where 294 seats were up for grabs. The constituency consists of almost an equal number of Hindus and Muslims. One of the reasons behind BJP’s win in Baishnabnagar was a riot that unfolded just ahead of the 2016 elections. “The Kaliachak police station was attacked by some anti-social elements,” says Subhro Maitra, senior journalist based in Malda. “But the BJP gave that a communal colour. The constituency of Baishnabnagar borders the area that had seen the incident. They used it to polarise the electorate and get Hindu votes.”

BJP and RSS cadres have consolidated on the win of 2016 in Baishnabnagar, and furthered their agenda since then. Bijaykumar Basak, 46, resident of Raipada, who trained in Nagpur at the RSS headquarters in 2019 where they taught him self-defence, says, “We have to save India from traitors. We are not saying all Muslims are bad. But we have to be vigilant against some.”

The ideology has seeped in ominously among the electorate. Priyanka Mondol, 16, rolling bidis for a living in Raipada, says the state government and administration is biased towards Muslims, while neglecting Hindus. “During the lockdown, they deposited Rs 500 to 1,000 in the bank accounts of Muslims,” she says. “But Hindus did not get it. In the past one year, we got gas only twice while the Muslims have got it three or four times.”

Priyanka Mondol. Firstpost/Parth MN

The venom being spewed in Baishnabnagar is now seen across Malda during the ongoing assembly elections in West Bengal. Two teachers, teaching at a school about 40 kilometres from Baishnabnagar, lament the fact that they can’t do Durga puja in their schools. “We have stopped namaaz too,” one of them says. “But we are fighting to get Durga puja back in school. The school has a majority of Hindu students.”

The BJP leadership in Malda, however, speaks a different language. Gobinda Chandra Mandal, district president of the BJP, says there are mainly two-three issues in Malda. “The embankment around Ganga River keeps breaking down, deluging farmlands and habitations,” he says. “It causes serious losses to the farmers. It has made lakhs of people homeless. They need to be rehabilitated. Besides, Malda is known for its mangoes but there is no factory here. So mango cultivators end up selling their stock for a lower rate.”

Upon asked about the communal polarisation on the ground, he says, “The other parties accuse us of reducing the elections to Hindu-Muslim. But that is a lie. Mamata Banerjee is busy appeasing a particular community.”

The Hindu consolidation behind BJP, unsurprisingly, has the Muslims nervous. Hussain Shaikh, 58, a construction contractor from Kaliachak, says the elections have been reduced to Hindu versus Muslim, while completely ignoring the issues of governance, education, livelihoods and health. “I have lived here all my life,” he says. “The district was never as polarised or tense. We have stayed with our Hindu neighbours. They have eaten at our homes. I don’t think we will get those days back now.”

Being a Muslim, Shaikh says he feels safe in Kaliachak because it is a majority Muslim area. “But I feel nervous entering any vicinity in Malda where Hindus outnumber Muslims,” he concedes.

Malda used to be the centre of Bengal a few centuries back. Much has changed since. According to the 2004 state government report, Malda's literacy rate at 50.71 percent was the worst across all the districts of West Bengal. The district’s health and education indexes too were the lowest among all districts in the state. It is also one of the epicentres of out-migration in West Bengal, for there are hardly any employment opportunities here. Yet, the discourse during the election is largely focused on religious polarisation.

WhatsApp messages of Muslims trafficking children across the border, or how they are engaged in “love jihad” as well as “land jihad”, often do the rounds here. “Muslims from Bangladesh come here illegally and settle down,” says Tiwary. “The TMC allows them to stay where they settled. This is land jihad.”

Bijaykumar Basak. Firstpost/Parth MN

The district of Malda shares its border with Bangladesh, which is often blamed by the BJP leaders for sending “infiltrators” into the state. The defence of  the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and the National Register of Citizens (NRC) across the country, which critics say is discriminatory towards Indian Muslims, is not lost on the Muslims of Malda.

Sumala Agarwala, TMC spokesperson in Malda, says the Muslims are nervous about the enforcement of CAA and NRC, which is one of the reasons why the TMC is doing well in the district where it has historically not been strong. “Muslims fear that they would be sent to Bangladesh if the CAA and NRC is enforced in West Bengal,” she says. “And they know that Mamata is the only person who can resist it in the state.”

The number of Muslims slightly outnumber the Hindus in Malda, which has historically been a den of the Congress, largely because of the late Ghani Khan Choudhary — former cabinet minister in the state. He became an MP from Malda in 1980, and then represented the constituency for eight straight terms. His family is still one of the most influential families in the district. In 2016, the Congress had won eight of the 12 Assembly constituencies in Malda.

This time around, though, the Congress would find it extremely difficult to retain these constituencies. Asim Akram, 26, a tea seller in Shujapur, says he will be voting for the TMC because the Congress cannot have its chief minister in the state. “This is a critical election,” he says.

“Politics should not be about religion. And I want to vote for a party that can form the government in the state.”

Kali Sadhan Roy, Congress district vice-president, concedes the party has a challenge in Malda. “Minority vote forms our main support base. This time, minorities are uncertain, because they are nervous about CAA and NRC,” he says. “They believe that Congress is not in a position to form the government, therefore, it is better to vote for the TMC, since only Mamata can resist the BJP while implementing CAA or NRC. But eventually, the voters will come around and vote for the Congress because no matter what happens, TMC MLAs can jump towards the BJP. Our MLAs won’t defect.”

However, the vote split between Congress and TMC is visible on the ground, giving BJP a clear edge. In the General Election of 2019, the Congress and BJP won a seat apiece falling in the district. However, while the BJP won North Malda by over 80,000 votes, the Congress won South Malda by merely around 8,000 votes, with the BJP being a close second. The numbers clearly indicate BJP’s significant inroads in Malda since winning a solitary Assembly seat in 2016.

However, the trend of communal polarisation is not limited to Malda. According to home ministry figures released in 2018, incidents of communal violence have sharply increased in West Bengal post-2016. The state, which recorded 27 instances in 2015 killing five people, had 58 such incidents in 2017, killing nine people.

Ettaj Ali, 70, living next to the half-built Mosque outside Raipada, says regardless of who comes to power, his only wish is to live in peace. “I am not bitter about the fact that the mosque was not allowed to come up,” he says. “I can pray in the field, at home, or wherever I wish to. It is better to not have a mosque than to have arguments.”

Ettaj Ali. Firstpost/Parth MN

However, that language hardly cuts any ice among brainwashed Hindus here. A 23-year old shopkeeper right across Ali’s house, says it was the right call to stop the construction of the mosque. “This is a Hindu country,” he says, while showing the birthday cards at his shop. “I keep wedding material too. But I don’t have it right now.”

“Why?” I ask him.

He looks startled. “This is the month when Muslims get married,” he says. “Hindus get married from next month onwards. If you don’t know that, you are not a Hindu.”