Ground Report From Malda’s Chanchal: How Odds Are Stacked In Favour Of BJP In This Muslim-Majority Seat

by Jaideep Mazumdar - Apr 24, 2021 01:22 PM
Ground Report From Malda’s Chanchal: How Odds Are Stacked In Favour Of BJP In This Muslim-Majority Seat West Bengal elections 2021
Snapshot
  • Created in 2011 by the Delimitation Commission, Chanchal has elected the Congress’ Asif Mehbub for the last two terms (2011 and 2016).

    But Muslim alienation — owing to step-motherly treatment of the area by Trinamool and its selection of a Hindu candidate, is happening alongside a Hindu consolidation, which may work in favour of the BJP.

If one goes by conventional political wisdom, the BJP has no chance of winning Chanchal, an overwhelmingly rural Muslim-dominated Assembly constituency in the Muslim-majority Malda district of Bengal.

Nearly 66 per cent of the 2.37 lakh strong electorate of Chanchal are Muslims, and most of them are of Bangladeshi origin.

Not only does the demography of this constituency militate against the possibility of the BJP candidate, Dipankar Ram, posting a victory, the Muslims are also ranged against the BJP.

The Trinamool, say locals, has been successful in driving the fear of an NRC updation exercise among the Muslims of Malda, leaving them stateless.

“Most Muslims here are illegal infiltrators from Bangladesh or descendants of such infiltrators. The Trinamool, through its relentless campaign, has created a scare among them that they will be rendered stateless if the BJP comes to power and starts the NRC updation exercise that it has promised to do,” said Krishna Haldar, a former senior teacher of Chanchal R.D. Girls’ High School.

The Trinamool has been telling the Muslims that during the National Register of Citizens (NRC) updation exercise, they will be asked to produce documents dating back to 1951 to prove their citizenship.

“Few Muslims have such documents since most are illegal infiltrators and have procured ration cards and other citizenship documents illegally. They will not be able to furnish their legacy data to prove that the names of their parents or grandparents were included in the 1951 NRC (prepared after the nationwide census exercise conducted that year),” said Kamalendu Sen, a lawyer who practices at Malda.

This has created widespread panic among Muslims who fear that if the BJP comes to power in Bengal, they will be stripped of their (fraudulently acquired) Indian citizenship.

The Trinamool has been reiterating its opposition to the NRC updation exercise proposed by the BJP. “Other parties like the Congress or the Left cannot stop the NRC updation exercise since they have no chance of coming to power in the state. The Trinamool will retain power in Bengal and will not allow this exercise here. That’s why we are appealing to Muslims to vote unitedly for the Trinamool so that we can win a huge majority of seats and foil the BJP’s anti-Muslim game plan,” asserted Trinamool candidate Nihar Ranjan Ghosh.

Ghosh said that Trinamool supremo Mamata Banerjee has been vocal in her opposition to the NRC and is “the only politician who can thwart the BJP’s plans of robbing Muslims of their Indian citizenship”.

This manufactured fear of the proposed NRC updation exercise had driven many Muslims to rally behind the Trinamool.

But Chanchal has been a Congress stronghold and not all Muslims are keen on supporting the Trinamool.

Created in 2011 by the Delimitation Commission, Chanchal has elected the Congress’ Asif Mehbub for the last two terms (2011 and 2016). He is the Sanjukta Morcha (the Congress-Left led alliance) candidate from Chanchal this time.

Asif Mehbub, 39, is articulate, soft-spoken, humble and very popular in Chanchal. A fine arts graduate from Visva-Bharati University, Mehbub is widely perceived to be honest and well-meaning.

Chanchal (and neighbouring Malatipur Assembly constituency) was created by including areas from the Kharba and Araidanga Assembly constituencies (both ceased to exist in 2011).

Both Kharba and Araidanga had been Congress strongholds, and Asif had won the Kharba seat in a byelection held in 2008.

His father Mahabubul Haque was a four-time MLA from Kharba and was a very respected figure there. Asif Mehbub, thus, belongs to a well-known political family here.

In 2011, Asif defeated his nearest CPI(M) rival Anjuman Ara Begum by over 14,000 votes in Chanchal and bagged a vote share of 48.69 per cent while the CPI(M) candidate’s vote share was 38.62 per cent.

Asif Mehbub won Chanchal in 2016 by defeating his nearest Trinamool rival, Soumitra Roy, by more than 52,000 votes. Asif’s vote share was 53.78 per cent while Roy’s vote share was 23.26 per cent.

Asif, thus, improved on his 2011 electoral performance in 2016.

The Trinamool, aware that it cannot match Asif’s personal popularity, has been carrying out a silent campaign that though the Congress candidate may be a good and well-meaning person, he can do little to protect the interests of the Muslims because his party (Congress) is too insignificant in Bengal.

But a large chunk of Muslims are likely to back Asif Mehbub, who they look upon as their ‘own man’. More so since the Trinamool’s Nihar Ranjan Ghosh is perceived to be an ‘outsider’.

Ghosh is a resident of English Bazar (in Malda) and has been ‘imposed’ on this constituency by Mamata Banerjee. Local Trinamool leaders and functionaries have been unhappy over Roy’s candidature and quite a few of them are not working wholeheartedly for him.

Ghosh is also perceived to be ambitious and opportunistic. Many Muslims are suspicious of him and told Swarajya they would have preferred the Trinamool fielding a Muslim candidate in a Muslim-majority constituency.

“It is very strange and unfortunate that the Trinamool could not find a local Muslim candidate. Had it fielded a Muslim, most of us would have voted for that candidate. Since the Trinamool has not fielded a Muslim, we will back Asif who we know very well,” said Maulana Obaidur Rehman, a widely respected religious figure in Chanchal.

Shafiqul Islam, a lecturer of geography at Calcutta University who hails from Rashidabad, a large village in Harishchandrapur I community development (CD) block in Chanchal, told Swarajya: “It is quite anachronistic that the Trinamool wants to project itself as a protector of Muslims, but chose to nominate a non-Muslim as its candidate in a Muslim-majority constituency”.

The Trinamool’s decision to nominate ‘outsider’ Ghosh from Chanchal has, thus, not gone down well with the Muslims of this constituency.

Though Asif Mehbub has been representing Chanchal for the last 10 years, it is the Trinamool that is battling anti-incumbency here.

That’s because, explained Shafiqul Islam, it is the Trinamool which has been running the government in the state for the past decade.

“Poverty is widespread, there are few means of livelihood and no development has occurred here during the last 10 years of Trinamool rule. Had the Trinamool been serious about improving the plight of Muslims, it would have taken concrete steps. But it (Trinamool) treats Muslims as vote banks only,” said Islam.

Islam’s grouse is well-justified. In Chanchal I CD Block, 50 per cent of families are in the BPL (below poverty line) category while 40 per cent of households live in absolute poverty.

Unemployment is a high 62 per cent, while only 42 per cent of the villages are connected with paved records, according to official records.

In the Harischandrapur I CD Block (these two CD Blocks make the Chanchal Assembly constituency), over 47 per cent of the families fall in the BPL category, literacy is about 52 per cent, unemployment is nearly 65 per cent and a mere 24 per cent of the villages are connected with paved roads.

These dismal figures reveal the grim truth about the sorry plight of the people of Chanchal. The Congress’ Asif Mehbub says that he has been nudging the Trinamool government to initiate development projects.

He has been submitting many suggestions to create employment opportunities, improve agricultural and horticultural productivity and plug the leakages in state and centrally-sponsored welfare measures. But the Trinamool government has allegedly been deaf to his suggestions and proposals, he says.

Add to this the corruption among local Trinamool leaders and functionaries who demand ‘cut-money’ for everything, and the anger against the Trinamool is understandable.

“Not only has the Trinamool government not done anything here, even the welfare schemes it runs have benefited Trinamool functionaries and their families. The Trinamool is a corrupt party full of rent-seeking leaders who care little for the poor, especially Muslims,” said Sarwar Alam, a close aide of Asif Mehbub.

The Muslim vote in Chanchal, thus, will be split between the Trinamool and the Congress. And interestingly, the Trinamool’s blatant attempt to play the Muslim card has resulted in consolidation of the Hindus, who account for over 33 per cent of the electorate.

The Hindus are an embattled lot in Chanchal, as they are in all other areas of Bengal where Muslims are in a majority or account for a substantial chunk (over 35 per cent) of the population.

The Muslim population is increasing exponentially. The very high decadal growth of population of Malda district (more than 21 per cent in 2001 to 2011) is wholly due to the very high birth rate among Muslims.

“Muslims are displacing us (Hindus) from our lands. We are finding it increasingly difficult and even impossible to stay in areas where the Muslims are present in large numbers. They (the Muslims) make life difficult for us and so many Hindus are selling their lands and properties and moving away,” said Radhakrishna Das, a retired government employee and resident of Bhagabatipur village in Chanchal I CD Block.

Mamata Banerjee’s blatant appeasement of Muslims has led to a growing assertiveness among Muslims all over the state. And Chanchal has also witnessed a lot of muscle-flexing by Muslims targeted at Hindus.

All this has consolidated the Hindus behind the BJP. The BJP has had a presence in Chanchal for many decades. In the 2011 Assembly elections, the BJP’s Sital Prasad Chakraborty got a 7.8 per cent vote share.

The BJP fielded Dipankar Ram in 2016, and he bagged a respectable 19.5 per cent vote share. In the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, the BJP’s vote share in the Chanchal Assembly segment of Malda Uttar Lok Sabha seat (which was won by BJP’s Khagen Murmu) increased to 28 per cent.

Dipankar Ram (the BJP candidate) is well-known in the area and has a strong RSS background. He has been actively involved in many social welfare, charity and relief projects and enjoys the reputation of being a sincere, honest and hard-working person.

Ram, 43, also commands the respect of Muslims. The RSS conducts many social welfare projects targeted at all sections of the poor, and does not discriminate against Muslims at all.

The RSS undertakes many charity and relief projects throughout the year. Last year, during the lockdown, the RSS was at the forefront of distributing foodstuffs and other essentials among the poor, including the Muslims.

At the same time, largescale anomalies were committed by Trinamool functionaries in the distribution of even official relief and many Trinamool leaders and activists were accused of siphoning off relief meant for the poor.

All that not only severely dented the Trinamool’s image, but also won the RSS, and by extension the BJP candidate, the admiration of many Muslims.

Given all these factors, BJP’s Dipankar Ram stands a very good chance of bagging Chanchal.

Jaideep Mazumdar is an associate editor at Swarajya.

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