Asansol, the most industrialised part of Bengal, is now a communal hotbed.
In an election in which the underlying issues are the communal divide, Muslim appeasement, corruption, extortion and patronage to the local mafia by the Trinamool, BJP’s Babul Supriyo looks set to register his second victory.
On the face of it, Asansol is a prosperous and busy industrial belt with coal mines, steel and cement plants and many other industries, and a major railway hub as well. Bordering Jharkhand to its west, the Asansol Lok Sabha constituency contributes the most to Bengal’s economy among all the 42 parliamentary constituencies in the state and is one of the most cosmopolitan areas of the state.
But just beneath this surface simmers intense anger, hatred, discontent and rivalries that find frequent expression in outbreaks of communal violence, bloody feuds and worse. The black economy, driven by earnings from illicit coal mining, illegal sand mining and illegal slaughter houses - all controlled by a powerful mafia - has widened the communal chasm and fuelled criminal activities as well as criminalisation of politics and society.
According to residents of Asansol, the second-largest city in Bengal, matters have taken a turn for the worse after the Trinamool came to power in the state in 2011.
Illegal coal-mining from the approximately 10,000 abandoned coal mines (over an area of 1,000 square km) of the public sector Eastern Coalfields Limited is widespread and generates an estimated Rs 10,000 crore a year. An estimated 25,000 tonnes of coal is illegally extracted daily from the mines. Illegal sand mining from the river-beds generates an estimated Rs 2,000 crore annually.
Auctioning of scrap from the steel plants (including IISCO, India’s first steel plant) and the Railways, is controlled by the mafia and generates more than Rs 4,000 crore, most of it illicit. A number of illegal cattle slaughter houses also generate a huge sum of money. All these, along with extortions from businessmen, generates more than Rs 25,000 crore a year for the mafia dons and crime syndicates. And a small and tightly-knit gang of mafia dons control all these illegal activities.
While the activities of this mafia do not affect the common man, what does is the criminal activities they spawn and sponsor. “Extortion of protection money from industrialists, businessmen and traders has increased phenomenally. There is a thriving ‘syndicate’ in the construction business and everyone, even an ordinary person, has to take building materials and labour from the syndicates at inflated rates.
This also generates a huge lot of black money, and resultant criminal activities. Many parts of Asansol have become out-of-bounds for law-abiding and ordinary citizens. We avoid going to many places that are infested with criminals. It is only natural that black money fuels crime that again generates more black money and this vicious cycle has resulted in Asansol turning into a hub of organised crime,” said Manendra Singh, an automobile spare parts dealer who owns a large establishment on G.T. Road.
The Communal Divide
Muslims form just 20 per cent percent, while Hindi-speaking Hindus form about 35 per cent and Bengali Hindus about 45 per cent of Asansol’s population. The Hindus, on the face of it, are thus in an overwhelming majority and there should have been no reason for intense enmity between the two communities.
But a deep chasm exists, and the reason, say Hindus, is that all the illegal and criminal activities are controlled by Muslims. “The mafia dons are all Muslims and they have been giving protection to the Muslim masses and egging them to get aggressive with the Hindus,” says Ram Kumar Sharma, a social activist and petty trader who is associated with the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP).
“These Muslim mafia dons and their henchmen have huge sums of money and with that, they are purchasing lands all over Asansol. Hindu-dominated areas are targeted and Muslim migrants, many of them Bangladeshis and Rohingyas, are settled there. Once a sizeable portion of land in one particular Hindu-majority area goes into their hands, it becomes impossible for Hindus to continue living in those areas.
Hindu girls fall victim to their ‘love jihad’ designs and the womenfolk are harassed and teased. The Muslim settlers, all migrants, are generally extremely lower middle-class people who create an ugly environment and it then becomes impossible for Hindus to stay there,” said a VHP functionary who did not want to be named. Many places of Asansol like Sitala Dangal and Akuriapara have turned from Hindu-majority areas into Muslim-majority ones, he said.
The displacement of Hindus from many areas where they were in a majority and had been residing for decades has bred acute resentment among the Hindus towards Muslims. Since the mafia dons are Muslims, their henchmen and musclemen are mostly their co-religionists and, therefore, most of the crime in Asansol is committed and controlled by Muslims.
“They (the Muslims) have a lot of money and a huge cache of arms. And they enjoy political patronage. Earlier, when the CPM was in power, this patronage was subtle, but under the Trinamool rule now, it is open and blatant,” said Narayan Trivedi, a former senior railway officer who has chosen to settle down in Asansol.
There are twin reasons why the CPM, and now the Trinamool, patronise and protect the criminals of Asansol. First, they contribute a lot to the coffers of politicians and political parties. Second, the largely poor Muslim folk whose lives they control are ordered to vote for a particular party or candidate by the mafia dons and since the community votes en bloc, they form a precious vote bank. Detailed analysis of past election results will reveal the electorate there vote en masse for one candidate or party.
The resentment among Hindus is also fuelled by what the community sees as blatant appeasement of Muslims, especially over the past eight years since the Trinamool has been in power.
“Since 2011, Muslims have got preference in jobs and welfare schemes. For instance, nearly all the beneficiaries of the BPL housing scheme in Chandmari Srinagar area of Asansol are members of the minority community and a large number of deserving Hindus have been deliberately left out. The police also look the other way when the accused in a crime are Muslims,” said the VHP functionary.
Muslims, allege residents of Asansol, have also encroached on huge tracts of land belonging to the Railways and public sector units like IISCO. “A new and sprawling colony called Azad Basti has come up on 86 bighas of land belonging to the railways and instead of removing them, the state government has provided electricity and power supply and even built roads for these illegal encroachers,” said Rabindranath Ghosh, a senior executive with a telecom company and a native of Asansol.
All this, he adds, has bred resentment amongst Hindus of all sections towards Muslims. “It is the Trinamool government, with its politics of appeasement, which is fuelling this resentment among Hindus and the communal divide,” he adds.
Deepak Agarwal, a prominent trader and agent of an automobile lubricant manufacturer, says that even though Muslims are in a minority, they punch much above their numerical strength. “They have a huge lot of black money and arms, have the politicians in their pockets and they are a valuable vote bank. Also, they run the crime syndicates here,” said Agarwal.
A very sore point among the Hindus, and a cause for recurring heartburn, is the Durga Mandap at Bastibazar in Asansol. Basti Bazar was earlier a Hindu majority market area but over the past four decades, Muslims have pushed out Hindus and are now in a majority there. Hindus had started holding Durga Puja at a mandap there every year many decades back, and Lakshmi Puja and Kali Puja also started subsequently.
Over the past few years, Hindus have wanted to convert the mandap into a permanent mandir and install a murti of Devi Durga there, but the Muslims have been raising objections and the administration is not allowing it. At the behest of the local Muslims, the administration here also prevents regular pujas there and keeps the mandap under lock and key. The gates of the mandap are opened only during the annual Durga, Lakshmi and Kali Pujas and even blowing of conch shells, beating of drums and ringing of bells is not allowed there during these Pujas on the grounds that doing so would “offend the Muslims”. Obviously, this has angered Hindus a lot, said the VHP functionary.
The annual Ram Navami processions have become the primary communal flashpoint. “Many routes through which the processions have traditionally passed have become Muslim-dominated areas and they attack the processions. The administration imposes restrictions on Ram Navami processions to appease the Muslims and this not only angers Hindus, but also encourages Muslims to become more aggressive and assertive,” says Ram Lakhan Prasad, a third-generation resident of Asansol whose grandfather was a worker at IISCO.
Prasad has a large grocery store and is associated with Hindu relief organisations. He points out that open slaughter of cows and open sale of beef in many places in Asansol has also angered Hindus.
The educated and middle-class Muslims, however, lament the communal divide and also blame the Trinamool for it. “Unfortunately, the Trinamool leaders have deep and close links with the coal, sand and cattle mafia who are all Muslims. Due to the patronage they extend to the mafia, criminal activities have increased and it is a fact that many Muslims are engaged in crime. But they are giving the whole community a very bad name. Islam proscribes crime and considers earnings from crime as haram. So, these mafia dons and criminals are actually un-Islamic,” said Shafi Quereshi, a mid-level executive at a cement company. Quereshi’s father used to teach at a prominent Christian missionary school in Asansol and his grandfather used to work in the Railways.
“It is wrong on the part of the government to grant undue favours and exhibit any bias in favour of Muslims since that breeds resentment among the non-Muslims and creates a divide. But the (Trinamool) government is doing this for its narrow political gains and ignoring the long-term and permanent damage this is causing to society,” lamented Quereshi.
Constituency’s Political Profile
The Asansol Lok Sabha constituency comprises seven Assembly segments: Pandaveswar, Raniganj, Jamuria, Asansol Dakshin, Asansol Uttar, Kulti and Barabani. All these fall in Paschim Bardhaman district and in all, Hindus are in a majority. Only some pockets of Asansol, Raniganj and Kulti are Muslim-majority.
The Congress held Asansol for the first two terms from 1957 to 1967 and then it was bagged by the Samyukta Socialist Party. The CPM won the seat for the next two terms from 1971 to 1977 and 1977 to 1980, after which the Congress wrested it back from the Marxists and held it for the next two terms from 1980 to 1984 and 1984 to 1989. From 1989, for the next eight terms till 2014, the CPM held the seat and in 2014, the BJP’s Babul Supriyo bagged the seat.
In the 2014 elections, Babul Supriyo got 4.19 lakh votes, a 31.19 per cent increase from the BJP’s vote share in 2009. The Trinamool’s vote share in 2014 was 30.58 per cent, a 9.95 per cent decrease from its share in 2009.
The CPM suffered the largest decline with its vote share coming down to 22.39 per cent in 2014 from 48.69 per cent in 2009. In the 2005 byelections, the CPM’s vote share was 61.33 per cent, while the Trinamool’s was 27 per cent and the Congress came third with 7.85 per cent votes.
The BJP did not finish in even the top five in 2005. The Trinamool had been the runner-up in Asansol since 1998 when it bagged 38.07 per cent of votes. In 1999, it got 41.63 per cent votes while in 2004, it got 33.85 per cent votes. Till 1996, it was the Congress which occupied the second place.
But even though the Trinamool has not been able to bag the Asansol Lok Sabha seat till now, it has five of the seven Assembly segments -Asansol Dakshin, Asansol Uttar, Kulti, Barabani and Pandaveswar -under its belt. The CPM bagged the other two - Raniganj and Jamuria - in the 2016 Assembly polls.
In the 2011 Assembly elections that brought Mamata Banerjee to power in the state, the CPM bagged Pandaveswar and Jamuria. The BJP’s vote share in these two Assembly elections varied between an unimpressive four and nine per cent. Before 2011, the CPM was the dominant political force and used to bag almost all the seven Assembly seats under Asansol Lok Sabha segment.
The Candidates And Issues
Playback singer Babul Supriyo has been re-nominated by the BJP from Asansol. He is campaigning in the name of Prime Minister Modi, promising that if re-elected, he will complete the unfinished tasks of rejuvenating the industrial sector, eliminating the coal, sand, land and cattle mafia and bring in investments. Babul Supriyo campaigns in his inimitable style, singing couplets and verses from his hit songs and blaming Mamata Banerjee for the poor civic amenities in Asansol.
The Trinamool, which had fielded Dola Sen last time (she is a Rajya Sabha MP now), has nominated yesteryear star Moon Moon Sen (Shreemati Sen Barman) who won the Bankura Lok Sabha seat for her party in 2014.
Sen has been asking for votes in the name of Mamata and her own mother, renowned actor Suchitra Sen who passed away a few years ago. Her appeal is simple and short: “Vote for me and you vote for Mamata and progress”. She says it is not she, but Mamata, who will meet the aspirations of the people of Asansol.
However, the underlying issues here are the communal divide, Muslim appeasement, corruption and extortion and the patronage to the mafia by the Trinamool. A series of communal riots since 2014 has polarised the Hindus behind the BJP. The Hindi-speaking Hindus have rallied more strongly behind the BJP, as is evident from the response during the rallies and meetings of Babul Supriyo.
A big section of Bengali Hindus, who have been supporters of the CPM and the Congress before shifting their allegiance to the Trinamool have now inched their way to the BJP, thanks to the perceived minority appeasement of the Trinamool. The Hindus are alarmed over the patronage given to the mafia by the Trinamool and the blind eye turned by the state administration and police to crimes allegedly committed by Muslims.
The Muslims are, of course, supporting the Trinamool, which also has its own support base among Bengali Hindus and a section of the Hindi-speaking populace who have benefited from the Trinamool and have a finger in the corrupt pie. However, the CPM candidate, Gouranga Chatterjee, is campaigning very intensely among Muslims and has earned the goodwill of a section of the Muslims.
He is also expected to get the support of a section of Bengali Hindus. Thus, he will eat into the Trinamool votes, and political analysts say this will pave the way for an easy victory for the BJP.
The Trinamool is also driven by serious and intense factional feuds. The two main factions of the party are led by a state minister belonging to the district and the other by the Mayor of Asansol. Extortion by lower-level Trinamool leaders, the steep hike in municipal taxes and endemic corruption in the city’s civic body has left traders and businessmen very angry and they are expected to vote for the BJP despite their complaints against the saffron party over demonetisation and GST.
This is not to say that all is well within the BJP. Many in that party and unhappy with Babul Supriyo. BJP veterans in Asansol say that Babul Supriyo, being a new entrant to the party, does not give due importance to the organisational leaders and has built a coterie around himself.
He does not interact much with party leaders and workers in Asansol and remains aloof. However, despite these differences, they have rallied behind their candidate. And in the overall analysis, Babul Supriyo stands a much better chance of entering the Lok Sabha once again than his nearest rival Moon Moon Sen.