Infiltration, demographic change and radicalisation of a section of the minority population are issues in the West Bengal elections this time, at least in the minds of the majority of the electorate. Some sort of communal polarisation is also taking place. The division was always there; after all Bengal was partitioned on the basis of religion. But what was latent, is coming to the surface now, gradually. There is a distinct unease among the state’s majority population, and worries about a de facto second partition, of demographic changes in the border districts. Things that no one apparently bothered about are now a part of conversation not just in urban areas, but also in semi-rural towns and border villages.
In Kaliachak block, a little over 20 km from Malda town, a narrow road veers off National Highway 34 into Baliadanga. There men sit on the steps of their houses as they talk of life in a Hindu pocket in an area which is 85-90% Muslim. Located right next to the Kaliachak police station, Baliadanga was at the heart of the violence in Malda, which saw a Muslim mob attacking the police station and setting vehicles on fire apparently to destroy the criminal records stored in the police station’s strong room. Along with that they struck terror in the heart of Baliadanga. “Boys half my height were running up and down the lane with revolvers in both hands, threatening to shoot us,” says one of the young men present there. “We did not dare to step out of our houses. They damaged the local temple and attacked some of the houses. The police had fled, so there was no one to protect us.”
A hub of poppy cultivation, illegal arms manufacturing and cross-border arms and fake currency smuggling, Kaliachak block in Malda district adjoining Bangladesh is Bengal’s heart of darkness. Here, criminals owing allegiance to different factions of the same party indulge in cross-road shooting in broad daylight; murder and violence are par for the course; cartels are controlled by gangsters who once belonged to the CPM and have now shifted their allegiance to the ruling Trinamool Congress. As people in Malda claim with a dash of hype: “Whatever be the criminal activity in whichever part of the world, someone from Kaliachak will be involved in it.” And now radicalisation is slowly creeping in, driving the Hindu population to the edge.
“The Baliadanga High School did not allow a Saraswati Puja this year. The girls’ school did, but not the high school,” says one of the men in Baliadanga. “When we told the principal that he could not stop the puja, he did not reply.”
A few kilometres away, Hindu villages in Baishnabnagar Assembly constituency are seething with resentment. “How was the road that you took to our village?” a villager asks about the bumpy, dirt track from the India-Bangladesh border near Mahadipur. “Go, check out the roads in the Muslim areas. The local MLAs, MPs do not work for us because we do not have the number,” they say.
Valid or not, this feeling of being discriminated against because of their religion is strong in these parts. In the semi-rural Baliadanga, Sanatan Karmakar, a jeweller, echoes similar sentiments: “The only work done for us is by the panchayat, which has a BJP pradhan.”
A stronghold of the Ghani Khan family, Malda district has two Congress MPs, late Railway Minister A.B.A. Ghani Khan Choudhury’s niece Mausam Noor; and his brother, Abu Hasem Khan Choudhury. Ghani Khan’s family members are there as MLAs too.
Over 350 km away in Kolkata, a group of ex Army men and professionals like chartered accountants, IT experts, etc., have come together on a platform called the Shyama Prasad Nagarik Mancha, with the purpose to highlight the problems related to infiltration, and to press for the identification and disenfranchisement of illegal migrants. According to this group, the nature of infiltration from Bangladesh has changed over the years. Earlier it was just the poor who were crossing over into West Bengal and spreading to the rest of India in search of livelihood. However, after the advent of the Sheikh Hasina government in Bangladesh and the crackdown on the radicals there, a large section of the illegal migrants comprise extremists who are fleeing that country to find a safe haven in Bengal, with political backing from this side of the border. Apparently, it is these radicals who are now trying to influence the local Muslim population in Bengal
The general perception anyway is that the erstwhile Left Front encouraged illegal migration from Bangladesh during the 34 years it ruled the state, helped them forge their identities and converted them into its captive vote bank, and that the present Trinamool Congress government has continued with this process.
The Shyama Prasad Nagarik Mancha gave this newspaper several instances of land-grab by infiltrators in districts such as Murshidabad, North 24 Parganas, etc., allegedly in connivance with political leaders and the local administration. Allegedly, land records have been changed in favour of outsiders, who are now “Indian” citizens because of forged Aadhar cards and other identity proofs. Matters have reached the court in certain cases.
Kazi Masum Akhtar, the principal of Talpukur Ara High Madrasa, a government recognised school, was in the news for standing up to conservative clerics who did not want the national anthem sung in the school because it contained the words “Bharat Bhagya Vidata”. He blames the situation on the government treating radical conservative clerics as the “mouthpieces of the Muslim community” and not giving the progressives a platform. He calls it the “Bangladeshi Jamaat effect”, where efforts are being made to “finish off the progressives”. Masum Akhtar was asked by the management of the madrasa to dress in an Islamic manner, keep a beard, WhatsApp photos every week to show how much his beard had grown, among other things. “Just imagine that the principal of a government school is being asked to keep a beard to continue teaching,” he says. “Imams and maulanas held a meeting saying my presence had improved the school so I should continue, but I must have to be what they define as a full Muslim.” He is under police protection at present.
“The media in West Bengal will speak of fundamentalism in Pakistan and Bangladesh but will not utter a word against fundamentalism in West Bengal. They are scared because their offices will be ransacked,” alleges Akhtar.
Akhtar also warns of communal trouble: “You should see how scared the Hindus are in areas like Tiljala. Don’t you think some will hit back at the first opportunity they get?”
When asked about this radicalisation, CPM leaders talk about the phenomenon being a part of the “larger global trend”, etc.
During an interview with this newspaper at his clinic, CPM leader Fuad Halim, a medical doctor by profession, when asked about the influx of migrants into the border districts and about demographic changes, dismissed it as a non issue: “First, people have families on both sides of the border. People marry across the border, go across the border. That’s innocent. Second part is that the population in the border districts has not been significantly impacted. In Bengal, in the last census, our population has grown less than what national average has grown. So how significant is the infiltration? If one believes that infiltration is a major issue in Bengal, one has to look at the Census figures. So if anyone is crying that infiltration is impacting the population, then that is motivated.”
In the 2001 census, Muslims were 25.2% of West Bengal’s population, which increased to 27.01% in 2011. Unofficially, it is said to be around 30% at present.
At the same time, a senior Trinamool Congress leader admitted on the condition of anonymity that all is not well in the border districts of Bengal, and that things may go out of hand unless monitored closely.
The general feeling in almost all the places that this correspondent visited was that in some of the seats in the border districts, BJP will make inroads in the votes of the Bengali Hindu population. This was obvious in Baishnabnagar in Malda. The fight this time, the villagers would like to believe is between the Congress-CPM alliance and the BJP. The BJP candidate came third in the 2011 elections, by securing 20,459 votes. The winner, Isha Khan Chaudhury of the Congress, secured 62,389 votes, while the CPM, which had put up a Hindu candidate, won 57,165 votes. Isha Khan Choudhury, the nephew of the late Ghani Khan Choudhury, has shifted to the neighbouring Shujapur to fight his uncle, Abu Naser Khan Choudhury of the Trinamool Congress, “on the direction of the party high command,” he tells this newspaper. But a senior Trinamool leader claimed that Choudhury shifted “because he realised that some Hindus were coming together against him”.
When pointed out that it may be numerically impossible for the BJP candidate to beat his opponent, one of the villagers said that “At least there will be a fight. Someone has to realise that they cannot take us for granted.”
Meanwhile in Baliadanga, residents are yet to decide whether they will vote in the 17 April election. Their access to the main road has been blocked by the Kaliachak police station, which has erected a wall on the passage that leads to the main road, to protect itself from any further attacks. Now Baliadanga’s women have to take a roundabout route, through an unlit road to reach the main road. “We will vote for whoever breaks the wall for us,” they say.