ASANSOL, West Bengal — Any mention of the Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP)’s proposed “rath yatra” conjures up violent memories in this communally-sensitive town, not far from Bengal’s border with Jharkhand, where clashes around Ram Navami processions resulted in two deaths in 2018.
For Suman Kalyan Moulik, the abiding image is from a year earlier, in 2017, of a teenage girl leading a Ram Navami procession whilst shouting dire warnings of the impending subjugation of Hindus in India by Muslims.
“The girl looked no older than 15 to 16 years. She was saying in Hindi that all Muslims will have to bow their heads before Ram, all Hindus should rise in pride and things like that,” Moulik, a teacher and publisher recalled. He did not spot any political party’s paraphernalia in the procession, he adds.
Months later, the Muslims in the area took out a Muharram taziya depicting Muslim men fighting in the Kargil War. “It seemed like a really tragic attempt to emphasize that Muslims are patriotic too,” Moulik said.
The riots followed in 2018. Months after the violence, the BJP announced it would conduct a “rath yatra” — a term first used to describe L.K. Advani’s national tour to gather crowds to destroy the Babri Masjid in 1992 — across West Bengal. The state government has since refused to give permission for the yatra. On January 9 2019 the Supreme Court asked the state government to explain its stance.
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In Bengal, BJP leaders, on the other hand, insist their aims are peaceful and constitutional. The event for instance, has been re-christened a “Save Democracy Rally”.
In Bengal, BJP leaders insist their aims are peaceful and constitutional. The event for instance, has been re-christened a “Save Democracy Rally”.
“We made a mistake initially by calling it a ‘rath yatra’, but we have corrected the name now,” said Chandra Kumar Bose, the party’s vice-president. “Why will the BJP take a communal approach in Bengal? It doesn’t work here. It will be political suicide. We have not dumb to do that. Mamata Banerjee is painting it as communal.”
Bose explained that there are no ‘raths’ involved and people will arrive in buses like regular political campaigns. Some grassroots BJP workers, however, told HuffPost India that the processions will have tableaux which they are informally referring to as ‘raths’.
Back in Asansol, where the families of those killed in 2018 are still grieving, the thought of another communally charged political event — as they see the yatra to be — has some residents of the town on the edge. While political pundits debate the electoral implications of the BJP’s ‘Hindutva’ agenda, Asansol’s residents are more concerned about the catastrophic consequences of communal politics.
A ‘celebration’, a riot and the polls
Ram Navami processions were never a significant feature of public life in Asansol, said 68-year-old Swati Ghosh. All that changed in 2015, a year after the Narendra Modi government swept to power in Delhi in the summer of 2014.
“It has been getting bigger since then,” said Ghosh, who has lived in Asansol for over 40 years and is a member of the Asansol Civil Rights Association.
Asansol, Roy said, lends itself to the political rhetoric popular in states like Uttar Pradesh and Bihar because of it’s mixed population, proximity to Bihar and presence of coal mines. “Most of these Ram Navami processions are led by Hindi-speaking people. But last year, alarmingly, there were quite a few Bengalis in the procession.”
Of the 2 seats BJP won in Bengal at the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, Asansol was one.
Moulik added that the first time any BJP leader won a Lok Sabha seat from West Bengal in the 90s, it was from Asansol. Ghosh and Moulik added that in 2017, slogans shouted at a Ram Navami rally tried to push the message that Hindus were in danger in West Bengal and it was up to the community to rise up against West Bengal CM’s ‘Muslim appeasement policies’.
“Of course, the implication was the answer to such oppression is BJP,” Ghosh said.
In a monthly magazine called ‘Udyog’ published by Ghosh, the organisation published the detailed report by a fact-finding committee that visited the riot-hit areas of Asansol a couple of days after the clashes took place.
The report states that prior to the Ram Navami celebrations, in a meeting between members of the local civic body, police, organisers of the procession and representatives of the local mosques, it was decided that there will be no ‘DJ box’ spouting loud, divisive statements.
Also when the Ram Navami procession will pass Muslim majority areas during namaaz and azaan, it will be quiet.
The report states that a local councillor facilitated another meeting on 27 March, the day of the procession, where Muslim youth ‘welcomed’ the participants of the Ram Navami procession with cold drinks and flowers. However, the report adds, within hours, slogans demanding ‘dariwala, topiwala dur hato, Pakistan bhago’ started being shouted from loudspeakers. The situation soon spun out of control.
All the residents of Asansol that HuffPost India spoke to said that following the riots, it had become clear that there were many ‘outsiders’ involved in the clashes.
“There were many faces in the processions no one knew to be locals. Also, this wasn’t the first time people from outside West Bengal had participated in a Ram Navami procession in Asansol’s neighbourhoods.”
The fact-finding report added that, a series of interviews conducted by members of the team revealed that local Muslims and Hindus tried to protect each others’ lives and properties during the riots. The report mentions one RK Verma who owns a gold and silver jewellery shop in one of the riot-hit areas. When the clashes began, he called up his Muslim neighbours in panic who kept a vigil around the shop. A few kilometres away, Hindu neighbours protected the only Muslim resident in their locality, a small-time tailor.
Imdadullah Rashidi, the imam of the Noorani mosque in Asansol, also told HuffPost India that he firmly believed that miscreants had arrived from outside West Bengal. Rashidi’s 15-year-old son died in the clashes but when the police asked for suspects, Rashidi said he could not name anyone he knew. “Who would I name? The people who had done all this had left Asansol by then. If I named someone, it had to be people from neighbouring lanes who we have known for over two decades,” he said. The imam, whose family hails from Bihar and who went to study in Saharanpur in Uttar Pradesh, said that the particular anti-Muslim rhetoric used around the time in Asansol was not something he had seen in the 30 years he had lived there. “It is clear, people from outside are being brought in for political reasons.”
Can ‘outsiders’ win Bengal for BJP?
In Bengal, BJP is reeling under a leadership crisis with the party failing to project a single leader who can draw popular votes. As a result, Amit Shah and Narendra Modi — often out of tune with Bengal’s cultural nuances — have had to do the heavy-lifting for the party. Bose, the party’s vice-president told HuffPost India that the party has not been able to find someone to take on someone with Mamata Banerjee’s popular appeal in Bengal.
Conversations with BJP’s grassroots workers often reveal that the party’s poll strategies are till now hinged with flaunting the likes of Shah and Modi in Bengal. BJP party worker Ruma Dutta said that the ‘rath yatra’ was essentially meant to impart courage to grassroots workers.
“The people who will work at the hundreds of booths need to see the likes of Amit Shah in a grand procession like this and know they are there for them,” she said.
Khokon Ghosh, the leader of the party’s youth wing in South Kolkata said he is responsible for ‘taking care of the raths’ and also determining routes. He emphasized that the ‘yatra’ was essentially focussed to have leaders like Amit Shah and Yogi Adityanath put forth BJP’s ideas to voters. “This ‘rath’ is not like the others. In fact, BJP’s raths are not communal at all,” he insisted.
Political analyst Amal Mukhopadhyay said, a ‘rath yatra’ led by Amit Shah is hardly the answer to the party’s problems in the state.
“It becomes clear that by doing this, the BJP is just trying to consolidate and embolden the divisive political forces. The BJP as a party doesn’t have an ideology. It’s ideology is the RSS ideology, which wants a ‘Hindu Rashtra’,” Mukhopadhyay said. “The BJP may call the rath anything, how will they divorce themselves from that notion if they bring out a ‘rath yatra’ before the polls?”
Mukhopadhyay said that the Trinamool government’s ‘politics of doles’ — where they have been trying to appease religious groups, especially Muslim community heads with sops — may actually push some middle-class Bengali voters to choose BJP.
“Bengali middle class is absolutely not interested in the politics of religious polarisation. But if this government gives giving doles to Muslim leaders so blatantly, it may just throw some people off. That’s the only way BJP will win a seat or two. Not by their own strategies,” he said.