No Longer An ‘Abode Of Peace’, Restive Birbhum Yearns For Change
Once a ‘Shanti Niketan’, Tagore’s Birbhum is under serious threat of being taken over by radical Islamists.
Criminal mafias, mainly Muslim, are forcibly taking control of Hindu areas. This has produced widespread resentment among Hindus, who are now realising the importance of BJP.
Birbhum occupies a special place in the hearts and minds of Bengalis. The district in western-central Bengal hosts Rabindranath Tagore’s Visva Bharati University in Shantiniketan (the ‘abode of peace) and had been closely associated with fine arts, culture, bauls (wandering Sufi minstrels), handicrafts and scenic landscapes.
But today, Birbhum has become synonymous with crime syndicates that control illegal quarrying and sand mining, poverty, communal violence, social distrust and disharmony, and severe environmental degradation.
The citizenry of Birbhum - it means the land (bhumi) of the brave (bir) - today remain in perpetual fear of its murderous mafia and their autocratic political patrons. What was considered to be Birbhum’s beauty in the past - its hills (the lower part of the Chota Nagpur Plateau) and its many rivers - have now become its bane. And the social harmony of the past has been irretrievably shattered.
Stone quarrying and mining sand from the dry beds of its rivers has not only scarred the once-famous beauty of Birbhum, but also led to the growth of crime syndicates and mafia rings. That is because most of these highly lucrative activities are illegal. The hills yield high- quality black stone which is sought after by the construction industry, while the superior-grade sand mined from Birbhum’s rivers is used not only in construction, but also for making cement, quartz and silica.
This entire business has come to be controlled by a few Muslims who have turned into mafia dons. Since the mining is mostly illegal, they maintain armed gangs of criminals. And they have the ruling politicians, the police and the administration in their pockets. The members of the gangs are also Muslims, and they have also become very rich. The huge cash generated by this mining, the easy access to arms and the state administration, and the buying off of politicians, has made the mafia dons and their henchmen laws unto themselves and spawned a criminal culture in Birbhum.
On the other hand, the Hindus of Birbhum, though a majority, are largely poor. Most Hindus are land-owners and farmers, and agricultural distress has impoverished them. The rest of the Hindus are either professionals - doctors, teachers and engineers - or engaged in government and private jobs or small businessmen and traders. Thus, the Hindus are nowhere nearly as cash-rich as the Muslims. This has resulted in Muslims buying off land from the Hindus at above-market rates and many Hindu-majority areas of Birbhum are slowly turning into Muslim-majority ones.
The Hindu-majority areas undergoing a demographic change has triggered social and communal discord in Birbhum. A discord that has, in recent years, often erupted in the many minor and major incidents of communal clashes. Even in district headquarters Suri, many Hindu-majority localities are undergoing a change in demography and character.
The change in demography is not an innocent one. “There are two aspects to this. Rich Muslims and some Muslim charity organisations are buying large tracts of land in Hindu-majority areas and settling poor Muslims, mainly illegal Bangladeshis and Rohingyas, in those areas.
These Muslim families live in ghetto-like conditions and indulge in petty crimes targeted at Hindus. They start harassing their Hindu neighbours, especially the womenfolk, and once they become sizeable in numbers, they start asserting themselves very aggressively,” said Monojit Majumdar, a school teacher and a resident of Kali Mandir road in Suri.
A major thoroughfare in Suri is the J.L. Banerjee Road, named after prominent advocate and freedom fighter Jitendra Lal Banerjee. All Hindu processions, like those for immersion of Durga murtis, used to take this road. A little over two decades ago, a small madrassa came up on this road and has now turned into a major one with hundreds of students.
The Muslims have re-named the road as ‘Madrassa Road’ and over the last few years, have been raising vociferous objections to any procession by Hindus passing through this road. The administration and the police, not surprisingly, have quietly acquiesced and Hindus are no longer allowed to take their religious processions through this road.
“As long as I can remember, only Hindus have been residing in Lalkuthi (in Suri). But about two decades ago, Muslims started buying land and houses from the Hindus and there are many Muslim families residing in my area. Nothing wrong with that, except that they are very aggressive, indulge in petty crimes, and disturb and harass our womenfolk. They never live like good neighbours and are very hostile towards us. They have started raising objections to blowing of conch shells and ringing of bells during the daily pujas in our homes and we no longer feel safe walking the lanes that pass through their houses,” said Biswanath Chakraborty, a respected figure who used to teach history at Visva-Bharati University.
New Muslim localities have also come up. “Cash-rich Muslims have bought lands from Hindus and have set up their exclusive enclaves. Two such enclaves in Suri are the ‘Madrassa Pally’ (‘pally’ means locality in Bengali) and the ‘Sajano Pally’. The Muslims wanted to name the latter as ‘Shah Jahan Pally’, but we objected vehemently because an ancient mandir stands there,” said Sambhunath Ghorai, a trader. Needless to say, these two areas have become ‘no-go’ zones for Hindus and many say that a lot of suspicious activities have been sighted there.
A few years ago, Birbhum’s Kanglapahari village came in the news when the Hindus there were denied permission by the district administration to hold their annual Durga Puja due to objections raised by Muslims who were in a minority in the village. Ultimately, the Calcutta High Court ordered the administration to grant permission. But tension still persists in the village and locals say a concerted effort is being made to settle a huge number of Bangladeshis and Rohingyas in the village. Objections are being raised in recent years by Muslims of Rampurhat (a small town in Birbhum) over the holding of a large Durga Puja there.
A little over three years ago, in March 2016, rampaging Muslims mobs attacked and destroyed Hindu houses and properties in Ilambazar over an alleged Facebook post by a Hindu boy that was deemed derogatory to Islam. The boy, an engineering student, was arrested, but Muslim mobs baying for his blood attacked the police station and tried to take away the accused. The boy’s family and many Hindus had to flee Ilambazar, a temple town that was once a Hindu-majority area before Muslims started settling down there and renamed it as Ilambazar.
In November 2016, a Hindu trader at Mollarpur in Birbhum was attacked (read this) over his refusal to donate a huge sum of money that Muslims had demanded for Muharram. He died a few days later and the death sparked clashes, but the media blamed Hindus for the trouble. There have been many minor clashes between Hindus and Muslims, and locals blame Muslims for their growing aggressiveness.
Hindus of Birbhum cite ‘love jihad’ as another major concern. “Muslim boys and young men deliberately target Hindu girls, entice them and marry them after forcibly converting them to Islam. We receive so many complaints from hapless parents of such girls, and have been able to help some of them. But many others cannot be rescued and once they realise what they have done, it’s too late. Many Hindu girls who have married Muslim men and been converted to Islam live hellish lives in purdah, but we cannot help them,” said a leader of the Birbhum chapter of the Hindu Jagran Manch. All Hindu parents now make it a point to escort their daughters to and from schools and colleges.
Birbhum has become a major transit hub for cattle smuggling too. “Cattle brought in illegally through Jharkhand transits through Birbhum before being transported to Murshidabad and then on to Bangladesh. Murarai, Sukhbazar and Rajnagar are the three cattle markets and all the cattle traders and transporters are Muslims.
The police, of course, look the other way since they are bribed and also because all those involved are Muslims,” said Rabi Mondal, a retired schoolteacher who resides at Paikar village through which an estimated one hundred trucks bearing cattle pass through on the way to Murshidabad. Mondal says that in the past, some such trucks transporting cattle illegally were detained by the police and the cattle rescued, but intervention from ruling party politicians and senior officers resulted in them being returned to the smugglers.
Hindu Anger And Polarisation
All this has led to growing anger and resentment among Hindus and the consolidation of the Hindu vote against the Trinamool Congress. That is because the Trinamool is being blamed for the growing aggressiveness of Muslims and the resultant victimisation of Hindus.
“Since 2011, when the Trinamool came to power in Bengal, appeasement of Muslims has peaked and they (the Muslims) are being given a free hand to indulge in all sorts of criminal activities. Hindus are being targeted and being subjected to atrocities, and the administration under the Trinamool is turning a blind eye,” alleged Shamik Chatterjee, a BJP activist. A large section of Hindus, who are hurt and angry, agree with Chatterjee.
“If all this can happen when Hindus are in a numerical majority here, can you imagine the plight of Hindus in Muslim-majority areas. Hindus have been forced to migrate away from areas that have turned Muslim-majority. What also troubles us is that under the Trinamool regime, crimes against Hindus and harassment of Hindus has increased phenomenally. We feel as if we have become second-class citizens. The Muslim ganglords and mafia give money to the Trinamool politicians here and to the police, so crimes against Hindus are covered up. This cannot go on,” said Saumitra Poddar, a medical practitioner in Suri town.
Significantly, the Santhals who form about 8 per cent of the population of Birbhum, have also joined the ranks of the hurt and angry Hindus. That is because the Santhal-populated areas of Mohammad Bazar, Nalhati, Rampurhat and Murarai administrative blocks form the ‘stone belt’ of Birbhum where stone is being mined illegally.
The impoverished Santhals (all Scheduled Tribes) have become workers in these illegal stone quarries and are a highly exploited lot. “They (the adivasis or santhals) are forced to work for long hours at measly wages by the Muslim quarry owners. The Muslim henchmen of these quarry owners target and exploit Santhal women and even small girls are not spared by them.
Their lands have been taken over forcibly or by deceit and their environment has been destroyed. They have lost everything, and are very angry,” said Sumati Handsa, a tribal welfare activist.
The Birbhum Lok Sabha constituency comprises seven Assembly segments: Dubrajpur, Suri, Sainthia, Rampurhat, Hansan, Nalhati and Murarai. All these Assembly seats, except Hansan, were bagged by the Trinamool in the 2016 Assembly polls. The Congress won the Hansan seat. The BJP finished in third position in all the seats in 2016 as well as the 2011 Assembly polls, but the vote share of the saffron party increased significantly in 2016 as compared to 2011.
The Left had won the Sainthia and Dubrajpur Assembly seats in 2011 and the Congress had bagged the Hansan and Nalhati seats that year while the remaining three had gone to the Trinamool. Before that, the Left has been winning all the Assembly seats and Birbhum was once considered a communist citadel. However, the BJP has always had a strong presence in Rampurhat and Nalhati.
In the 2014 Parliamentary polls, Trinamool’s Satabdi Roy, a former Bengali film actor, bagged the seat with 36.09 per cent votes while the CPM’s Mohammed Qamre Elahi polled 30.82 per cent votes.
The BJP’s Joy Banerjee finished in third position with a 10.35 per cent vote share. In the 2009 parliamentary polls, Shatabdi Roy (Trinamool) had got 47.82 per cent votes while the CPM’s Braja Mukherjee had polled 41.77 per cent votes and the BJP candidate Tapas Mukherjee’s vote share was 4.62 per cent. Thus, while Shatabdi Roy’s vote share declined by 11.73 per cent in 2014, the CPM’s declined by 10.95 per cent. The BJP improved its performance significantly by increasing its vote share by 5.73 per cent.
The Birbhum Lok Sabha seat was bagged consistently for 10 successive terms by the CPM from 1971 to 2004 till the Trinamool wrested it from the Marxists in 2009. For the first four terms between 1952 and 1971, Birbhum was represented in the Lok Sabha by the Congress. The communists started emerging as a strong force here only in the early 1960s and since 1971 when it bagged the seat, the Congress has been the main contender for power.
However, the Hindu Mahasabha had a very early presence here and its candidates - Nitya Narayan Bandopadhyay and Manmatha Nath Das - polled nearly 18 per cent and 23 per cent votes in the 1952 and 1957 Lok Sabha elections respectively. The BJP also secured the second position in the 1998 and 1999 Lok Sabha elections, polling a respectable 28.23 per cent and 29.93 per cent votes respectively.
Hindus form a majority of 63 per cent of the 14,95,108 voters of Birbhum Lok Sabha seat while Muslims form the remaining 37 per cent. Among the Hindus, Scheduled Castes and OBCs account for a sizeable chunk of 30 per cent and the Scheduled Tribes (adivasis) form about 8 per cent. The adivasis, or santhals, are a decisive factor in Sainthia and Rampurhat Assembly segments. Muslims are mainly concentrated in Nalhati, Murarai, Hansan and some parts of Rampurhat Assembly segments.
Poll Arithmetic And Issues
The anger amongst Hindus over appeasement of Muslims by the ruling Trinamool and the resultant aggressiveness and assertiveness by Muslims has resulted in a majority of the Hindus rallying firmly behind the BJP. Significantly, apart from the exploited Santhals, a large section of the SCs and OBCs among Hindus have also shifted their allegiance to the BJP, which was for long considered to be a party of upper-caste Hindus.
This is evident from the fact that while tens of thousands of men and women, including youngsters, from the SC and OBC communities have joined the BJP in recent months, many from these communities occupy important organisational posts in the saffron party. There is a visible and voluble evidence of support for the BJP on the ground in Birbhum with rallies and processions being taken out in every nook and corner of the constituency. Cries of ‘Jai Shri Ram’ and ‘Bharat Mata Ki Jai’ rent the politically-charged air every so often.
And over the past couple of years, Ram Navami, Hanuman Jayanti and Ganesh Chaturthi have become an important part of the Hindu festival calendar here. These religious festivals are often celebrated in the same grand manner as the Bengalis’ traditional Durga Puja.
“That those participating in Ram Navami processions are mostly Bengalis is significant since this celebration is new to Bengal. But the fact that this, along with Hanuman Jayanti and Ganesh Chaturthi, have become an integral part of Bengali Hindu festivals is the result of very hard, long and consistent work by the Sangh Parivar. This is the fruition of the Sangh Parivar’s grand project to unite Hindus and create a pan-Hindu identity,” said Mrinmoy Banerjee, a teacher of sociology at a private college in Birbhum.
The Muslims have also rallied behind the Trinamool and there are reports of Muslim clerics having issued diktats to the community after the jumma prayers last Friday that they should vote en masse for the Trinamool. But the CPM and the Congress have fielded Muslim candidates - Rezaul Karim and Imam Hossain respectively. Both have considerable influence within their own community and are expected to get a good number of votes. Thus, they will cut into Trinamool votes, thus giving an advantage to the BJP.
Trinamool has re-nominated Satabdi Roy from Birbhum, but her earlier appeal has waned considerably. “She has done nothing to improve the economy and the plight of the poor in Birbhum. Though most of the people here are engaged in agriculture, returns from farming are dwindling every year and most of the farmlands are dependent on rainwater.
There are no irrigation facilities and power supply is intermittent. Illegal stone and sand mining have increased and so have criminal activities. Local Trinamool leaders are corrupt, high-handed and repressive and the police have also become repressive. There is little respect for democracy and human rights. Suri, Rampurhat and Bolpur towns are a civic mess and Satabdi Roy as well as the Trinamool MLAs or the Trinamool government in the state have done nothing to address these issues,” said Ramprasad Mondal, a prominent citizen of Suri.
The Trinamool is also riven by factional feuds and its Birbhum strongman, Anubrata Mondal, has not put his considerable weight behind Satabdi Roy. Roy’s rallies and meetings have not attracted much crowds and many lower-rung Trinamool functionaries and workers who are highly disgruntled are covertly supporting and aiding the BJP.
The BJP’s Dudh Kumar Mondal is a strong candidate, whose organisational and political skills are well-acknowledged. He is an old BJP hand in the district and has a very good rapport with party functionaries and workers at the ground level. The BJP has also been able to enrol tens of thousands of new members over the past five years and is organisationally very strong in Birbhum.
The BJP, thus, has a very bright chance of bagging Birbhum. And if that happens, a dream of the founders and stalwarts of the Hindu Mahasabha, which had made its presence felt in Birbhum immediately before and after Independence, will be fulfilled.
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