Lotus bloom in West Bengal

In the last six months, especially after the Lok Sabha election, the Bharatiya Janata Party’s Muslim membership in the State has seen an unprecedented growth

Yeh kya ho raha hai? (What is happening?) It is raining Alis for the BJP,” tweeted a Bharatiya Janata Party supporter. Discussions and statements such as this, arguing the pros and cons of inducting Muslims into the BJP, are flying thick and fast on social media, all seeking answers to one question: Is the BJP becoming another Congress?

In the last six months, especially after the Lok Sabha election, the BJP’s Muslim membership has seen an unprecedented growth in West Bengal. “Primary membership has doubled,” said BJP State president Rahul Sinha.

Till December 2013, 6.06 per cent of the “increased” primary members of the BJP were from the minority community. As of June 20, 12.38 per cent (60,172 people) of new members of the party are Muslims. “Most of the new members joined after the elections,” said Ritesh Tiwari, media-in-charge of the party in the State.

The data may make traditional supporters anxious, but BJP leaders are less worried. “Muslims cannot be wished away in Bengal,” former State president, Tathagata Roy, said.

Out of the 341 development blocks in West Bengal, about 140 blocks have a 42 per cent (average) Muslim population, which translates into 25-30 per cent votes in the State. “So, we have to explain to supporters that we are not an anti-Muslim party. However, we will not extend any undue advantages like ‘religious quota’ to Muslims,” said Mr. Roy.

Anxiety in the party

An article published in the July 14 edition of Swastika, the Bengali mouthpiece of the Hindu nationalist organisation, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), stated that the BJP’s success is “facing a crisis.” Analysing the nature of this crisis the writer of the piece argued, “Unruly Communist Party of India(Marxist) cadres joined the All India Trinamool Congress and sidestepped the original [AITC] workers, thus creating chaos in the party.” Without naming any community, the columnist also said “many are migrating to [the] BJP to create similar chaos,” thereby endorsing the anxiety of the average tweeter.

Mr. Sinha accepted that the minority community’s interest in the BJP is “perhaps unique to Bengal” but refused to accept that within the BJP and the RSS, many are questioning the policy of inducting Muslims. “The CPI(M)’s A.B. Ansari [arrested later] in Burdwan wanted to join us; we refused. We are not accepting tainted leaders,” he said. “But we welcome Muslims as long as they are not anti-national. [This] will not affect [the] traditional vote base.”

Sadeq Ali (name changed), a middle-aged father of three in Choto Jagulia village in North 24 Parganas, is no average political activist. A staunch CPI(M) activist who owns about 50 acres of land, Mr. Ali has “ensured” victories for the Left Front constituent, the All India Forward Bloc (AIFB) in his area for years. On a rainy afternoon a few weeks ago, Mr. Ali rallied nearly 300 AIFB supporters to join the BJP. “They all are Muslims,” he said, while instructing his son to celebrate Eid in the neighbourhood “to ensure security.”

The village stretches for about one kilometre and houses offices of two political parties — the Congress and the CPI(M) in the east and west end of the village. After the 2011 Assembly poll, the Congress office was occupied by AITC’s local leaders; the CPI(M)’s office was torched. Mr. Ali’s brother’s cable television network was seized and he left Choto Jagulia for two years. But he has his past to reconcile with.

“Do not forget that Sadeq was the biggest strongman during CPI(M)’s time,” said Qasem Molla (name changed), an AITC supporter, while reiterating that the AITC cadres are committing “mistakes.”

“My prayer to Didi’s (Mamata Banerjee’s) brothers is to stop the attacks on the CPI(M). They will increasingly join the BJP, and leftists are adept at conducting polls,” warned Mr. Mollah. It is now evident in districts across West Bengal that Muslims and Hindus are leaving the Left Front en masse to join the BJP, as Left leaders are failing to guarantee security. But this may not be helping AITC. “In a way, the strategy to decimate the Left by force has boomeranged,” said a senior leader of the AIFB on condition of anonymity.

Senior CPI(M) leader Nepaldeb Bhattacharya said that the Muslims, however, are not leaving the party.

One of the key Muslim faces of the AITC, Ahmed Hassan Imran, a journalist and Rajya Sabha MP, also echoed the same sentiments.

“Muslims are not leaving the AITC; we checked facts. Only one or two persons have joined the BJP,” he said, also explaining why Muslims cannot join the BJP. “None of the BJP’s nearly 300 MPs represents the community. Neither [can] the memories of Gujarat be erased…But I agree that in some places Muslims are targeted…party chief Mamata Banerjee is looking into the issue,” he said.

The BJP’s fault lines

During the election campaign, many BJP candidates said they would “ban cow slaughter and exports along the border,” if elected. The campaign has not gone down well with Muslims and even some Hindus who survive on both local consumption and export of beef.

“Beef export or supply is one of the few businesses controlled by Muslims. If banned, it may cause problems for the party,” said Arif Khan (name changed) of Tentulia village in North 24 Parganas, soon after shifting to the BJP from the Congress. A senior BJP leader told The Hindu, slaughter “will not be banned” as it may affect the leather industry. “It will affect livelihood and we are aware that the economy has linkages with social harmony,” he said.

Interestingly, a section of the city’s intelligentsia is not averse to Muslims joining the BJP. Anthropologist M.K.A. Siddiqui welcomed “the trend.” “If a community is keen to learn about a legitimate political party, why is it worrying?” he asked.

Muslims who are joining the BJP are predominantly from the Bengali-speaking communities outside Kolkata. In Kolkata, Muslims are mostly from Urdu-speaking communities, more aligned with the AITC.

“Bengali Muslims are tired of non-Bengali Muslims [9 per cent] controlling their thoughts and culture and hence turned to the BJP to have their aspirations addressed,” said Sabir Ahmed, a senior researcher on minority issues. Sadeq Ali had another interpretation: West Bengal’s Muslims stayed with the ruling coalition for security.

“Day-to-day security is important for us; we need to rethink about the BJP in Bengal,” he stated.

Perhaps traditional Hindu supporters of the BJP need to rethink about the Muslims of Bengal as well.

~ Suvojit Bagchi 

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