Suvojit Bagchi told Sabrangindia that this allegation of “Muslim appeasement” against parties has its very own particular context in Bengal. “Muslims are a visible presence here– unlike in rest of India – and their issues cannot be easily pushed under the carpet. Every third person is a Muslim in West Bengal. Out of the 341 development blocks in West Bengal, about 140 blocks have a 40-42 per cent (average) Muslim population, which translates into 25-30 per cent of votes in the in the state. So every political party, keen to perform well in Bengal, needs to address the key issues and problems of the community, which can seen either as ‘appeasement’ by sections of the media and the public, or in fact due representation of a visible section of the population. Addressing problems of the Muslims may appear like ‘appeasement’ to those who do not contest elections, says Bagchi.
Whether the expression of anger against the alleged remarks by a Hindutvawaadi leader ought to have taken form it did, is another matter however. However, having said that, Bagchi says, “I will not deny that Mamata Banerjee-led Trinamool Congress and the Communist party of India-Marxist have both played vote-bank politics using Muslims, as they both knew that winning election in Bengal is impossible without a consolidated support from the Muslims.” This has had, inevitably, its flip-side.
“The Hindu majority knows that two-third of the Bengalis- if West Bengal and Bangladesh are put together- are Muslims, so there is a fear of being outnumbered by the Muslims in Eastern India, in case of a change in equations. It is not only a fear of the Hindu Bengalis but that of other communities in the North East as well. Thus we witness violent massacres of Bengali Muslims, periodically, in parts of the North East. The fear, clearly, is potentially dangerous and since politics plays mostly with the mass consciousness and people’s insecurities, various parties and forces play with data and demography to manipulate minds to win elections. While a Hindu consolidation may help the BJP, a Muslim consolidation helps the Trinamool, the way it helped the Communists earlier.
Even after all these years there is an across the board consensus, a balance so to speak, which has kept West Bengal a communal violence-free state for decades. It is in the last few years that this balance has been looking more and more fragile,” Suvojit told Sabrangindia.
Opium Cultivation is the key to Malda violence
APDR’s statement, however, was corroborated by many including senior police officials and politicians. They almost unanimously accepted view is that the Malda violence is “not a product of communal violence” but it is a result of an “ongoing opium war” between the drug traders and the police. Police’ activities in various blocks of south Malda’s Kaliachak have increased considerably over last few months, which is the peak season for sowing of poppy seeds. While it is unclear why the police stepped up its anti-opium operation, as the “trade” has been continuing –right in the public eye –for several decades right before the district administration, a backlash was clearly on the cards. Trinamool Congress’ local leaders said that opium trade has employed many and targeting the trade has actually affected livelihood of the people in the district, across income groups.
“Landowners put the land on lease for opium cultivation. The ordinary farmers work in the land, produce and sell, albeit illegally. Police stepped-up operation this year right at the beginning of the sowing season- and quite rightly- in November, but the backlash to this police action, was perhaps, inevitable. This is not a communal clash, for sure,” said Mozahar Hossain, the Kaliachak 1 block president of Trinamool Congress.
“Police reached the Panchayat Pradhans and asked them to assist in an advocacy drive by publishing and distributing a leaflet. It was issued informing people that the opium trade cannot continue. Loans were offered for other businesses as well. But it is difficult for the people to change their job overnight; what resulted was the proverbial Catch-22 situation,” said Hossain. A district police official said that the mob targeted the “poppy plucking machine” when they attacked Kaliachak police station on January 3, indicating that the locals were unhappy with the police action. Reportedly, the state government has asked the local administration to stop the opium trade, cattle smuggling and fake-currency rackets presumably after being warned by the central government about the ill-effect of such trades on the Malda residents, and generally.
All sides that Suvojit Bagchi spoke to, condemned the widespread media reports that described Sunday’s incident as “a communal violence” even while highlighting that the hooliganism of local leaders of Trinamool Congress in all parts of Bengal has been and is looking increasing ominous. A senior and retired police officer said that “five policemen are killed in Bengal over last few months by the mob and general lawlessness is at an all time high.” “Perhaps this incident can be described better in the ambit of general lawlessness, rather than in the scope of a communal flare-up,” he said, corroborating APDR’s view. Interestingly, the APDR and the police officials often do not see eye-to-eye on many issues.
Meanwhile, BJP has formed a central-level team to probe and submit a report to party president Amit Shah. The team- headed by party national general secretary and Member of Parliament Bhupender Yadav- is expected to visit Malda on Monday (January 11, 2016).