Battleground Bengal: Here’s How This Feisty ‘Didi’ In The Saffron Camp Invokes Modi To Win Over Muslims

by Jaideep Mazumdar - Apr 25, 2021 07:19 AM
Battleground Bengal: Here’s How This Feisty ‘Didi’ In The Saffron Camp Invokes Modi To Win Over MuslimsBJP's Mafuja Khatun (centre)
  • “I joined BJP because the CPI(M) had become totally irrelevant in Bengal and also because I was inspired by Modiji’s sabka saath, sabka vikas slogan. One of my principal goals is to bust the myth that the BJP is an anti-Muslim party,” Khatun told Swarajya.

Sagardighi, a Muslim-majority Assembly constituency in Bengal’s Murshidabad district, is witnessing a unique electoral battle this time.

A gritty 50-year-old Muslim lady — Mafuja Khatun — is batting for the BJP and banking not only on a massive consolidation of Hindu votes here, but also citing Modi’s ‘good deeds’ to appeal to Muslims for their votes.

Mafuja Khatun is no stranger to the heat and dust of politics. She was a senior leader in the CPI(M) and won the Kumarganj Assembly seat in Dakshin Dinajpur district twice (2001 and 2006) for the party.

Khatun, who is fondly referred to as ‘Didi’ by BJP workers and supporters, lost Kumarganj to another Muslim lady — Mahmuda Begum of the Trinamool — in 2016.

She joined the BJP in early 2019 and was fielded by the saffron party from Jangipur Lok Sabha constituency in the parliamentary polls held later that year.

‘Didi’ was the only Muslim woman candidate fielded by the BJP in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, and is one of the nine Muslims fielded by the saffron party in the Assembly polls this time.

While contesting from Jangipur two years ago, ‘Didi’ invoked Modi’s plans to ban triple talaq and how the Modi government had removed an archaic law that disallowed Muslim women to undertake Haj without being accompanied by males.

“I joined BJP because the CPI(M) had become totally irrelevant in Bengal and also because I was inspired by Modiji’s sabka saath, sabka vikas slogan. One of my principal goals is to bust the myth that the BJP is an anti-Muslim party,” Khatun told Swarajya.

This time, she is telling Muslim women about Modi fulfilling his promise of banning triple talaq and how the many welfare schemes launched by the Modi government has benefited millions all over the country.

‘Didi’ has concentrated mostly on small street corner meetings and door-to-door campaigns.

“This sort of campaigning helps me establish a direct connect with the people, listen to their concerns and explain things properly to them,” says Khatun.

Speaking to a group of Muslim women at Kabilpur, a large village with a population of about 18,000, Mafuja Khatun tells them: “The Modi government has launched a huge number of welfare schemes, but Mamata Banerjee has not allowed those in Bengal. The schemes launched by the central government benefit all, including Muslims. The beneficiaries of Ujjwala scheme (free LPG connections for the poor) for instance, include a huge number of Muslim households. The Modi government does not differentiate or discriminate”.

At Kismatgadi village, the BJP candidate cites the example of the Jal Jeevan Mission (piped drinking water to every household) which the Mamata Banerjee government is not implementing properly despite having received thousands of crores of rupees from the Union government.

“Had the state government implemented this properly, you would have got water connections and arsenic-free water in your houses by now. Mamata Banerjee only knows how to play politics and is not interested in development,” Khatun tells the villagers.

This strikes a chord among the villagers since arsenic levels in the groundwater — the only source of drinking water for the residents of Sagardighi — is heavily contaminated with arsenic.

The arsenic levels in Sagardighi’s groundwater is 560 micrograms per litre whereas the safe limit for arsenic in drinking water set by WHO is 10 micrograms per litre.

“There is no family in Sagardighi that is not affected by arsenic contamination. Many have died of cancer and arsenic-induced ailments and tens of thousands are suffering. But Mamata Banerjee is not concerned and only plays politics. She uses Muslims as vote banks and is not bothered about improving the socio-economic plight of Muslims. The BJP, on the other hand, strives for development for all, irrespective of creed, caste or colour,” she tells the residents of Kismatgadi.

And they applaud in return.

But it's not just arsenic that plagues Sagardighi. Like most other places in Bengal, this predominantly rural constituency is steeped in poverty and backwardness.

Declining crop yields and lack of employment avenues forces thousands to migrate to other states in search of menial jobs.

Most rural areas suffer from lack of development. Barely 20 per cent of the villages are connected with paved roads, and most don’t have toilets. Sagardighi has been denied centrally-sponsored schemes like housing for the poor (PM Awas Yojana) and help for farmers.

Naturally, people are angry with Mamata Banerjee, and the two-term Trinamool MLA Subrata Saha. Saha, a businessman, was in the Congress and once close to Congress strongman and former Union Railway Minister A.B.A Ghani Khan Choudhury.

“He (Saha) was the Minister of state for public works till 2014 and then minister without portfolio. He could have done a lot, but was completely inactive. All he did was further his own business interests,” said a former professor of geography at Sagardighi Kamada Kinkar Smriti Mahavidyalaya, the only general degree college here.

The professor’s views find wide resonance in Sagardighi. “There has been no development here all these years. People are extremely poor and most are daily wage earners who lead subsistence lives,” said Kamal Sheikh, a trader who owns two hardware stores at Sagardighi.

Subrata Saha, realising the acute anti-incumbency against him, has been playing the Muslim card. In all his meetings, he has been raising the bogey that the BJP is an anti-Muslim party and if it (the BJP) comes to power in Bengal, Muslims will be disenfranchised and stripped of their citizenship.

Saha also promises to start working for Sagardighi’s development and says that Mamata Banerjee has decided to lay special emphasis on development of Malda and Murshidabad.

Saha also blames the Congress, which holds sway over the two districts of Malda and Murshidabad, for poverty and backwardness.

“People have been reposing faith in the Congress, but that party is not capable of doing anything. Only the Trinamool can bring about development,” he asserts at his meetings. But his words ring hollow and not many are willing to accept his promise of focusing on development now.

The constituency

Sagardighi gets its name from a large lake (‘sagar’ means sea and ‘dighi’ is lake) that was dug by legendary king Mahipal (988 to 1038 CE) of the Pal dynasty that ruled over vast swathes of eastern India between the 8th and 12th centuries.

Located in the Rarh region of Bengal with the Chota Nagpur plateau to its west and the Gangetic plains to its east, the soil here is mostly laterite and lateritic-clay which is not very fertile and, thus, agricultural yields are low.

The fragmentation of farmland that precludes use of machines and modern techniques has made agriculture an unviable vocation for many, thus creating more poverty and triggering migration to other states.

The Congress won the Sagardighi Assembly seat nine times between 1951 and 1972, while the CPI(M) won it for the next seven terms from 1977 to 2006. The Trinamool’s Subrata Saha won it in 2011 and 2016.

Muslims are in a majority in Sagardighi, accounting for more than 67 per cent of the population (2021 estimates). Hindus form about 31 per cent of the population.

The decadal population growth rate is very high at 23.06 per cent (2001 to 2011), and the proportion of Muslims is increasing very fast.

Muslims accounted for 59.75 per cent of the population of Sagardighi CD Block in 1991, and this figure rose to 62.18 per cent in 2001.

Over the next 10 years (2001 to 2011), the percentage of Muslims rose to 64.68.

According to estimates, Muslims will form more than 67 per cent of the population now.

The proportion and number of Hindus has been falling steadily. An increasing number of Hindus are being forced to migrate away to other areas.

This migration, say locals, is induced by fear and inability of Hindus to live in close proximity with Muslims in the rural areas.

Hindu consolidation

“The growth rate among Muslims is very high and on an average, a Muslim family has seven to eight children. Hindus, on the other hand, have just two kids at the most,” said Paritosh Sarkar, a former teacher at Sagardighi S.N. High School.

As happens in other parts of Bengal, Hindus find it increasingly difficult to stay in Muslim-dominated areas.

“The Muslims harass Hindus in various ways and since Hindus are generally pacific by nature, they do not resist. Hindus prefer to keep quiet and tolerate the harassment, taunts, insults and even threats and intimidation as much as they can and then sell off their lands and properties and migrate to other places when they can no longer put up with such harassment,” said Bonomali Das, a businessman who used to reside at Ramna Sedighi till 15 years ago before moving to Berhampore town (the headquarters of Murshidabad district).

There are many like Das who have been forced to migrate away from their ancestral villages to seek safety in Hindu-majority towns.

Again, as in the rest of Bengal, Sagardighi has also been witnessing growing assertion by Muslims over the last 10 years.

Hindus have had to bear the brunt of this assertion — a direct fallout of blatant Muslim appeasement by Mamata Banerjee.

This is why Sagardighi, like many other parts of Bengal, has witnessed a consolidation of Hindu votes. And Hindus say unequivocally that they will vote for the BJP.

Division of Muslim votes

Despite the Trinamool’s desperate efforts to prevent a split in Muslims votes, it is certain that Muslims will not throw their weight behind the Trinamool en masse.

That’s because the Congress has fielded Sheikh Hasanuzzaman, a Muslim who wields considerable clout here. And the Congress still commands the loyalty of many Muslims who are not likely to shift their allegiance to the Trinamool.

To queer the pitch for (Trinamool candidate) Subrata Saha, the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM) has fielded a candidate — Mehboob Alam — from Sagardighi.

Alam, a former Trinamool leader who also has substantial clout, was a member-in-charge of education of Sagardighi panchayat samiti. Many Muslims are expected to vote for him.

The Trinamool’s electoral prospects are hobbled not only by the four-way split in its Muslim vote bank, but also by severe anti-incumbency triggered by its poor performance in government and also by the non-performance of Subrata Saha.

With Hindus consolidating themselves behind BJP’s Mafuja Khatun, who is also the vice-president of the party unit in Bengal, and Khatun also evoking some support among Muslims, Sagardighi may send its ‘Didi’ to the Assembly this time.

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