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Ram Navami Violence: Are Both BJP & TMC Leveraging Bengal's Communal Clashes?

The tardy police response gives the BJP the opportunity to accuse Mamata of being weak and biased towards Muslims.

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The communal violence that broke out in Howrah in West Bengal on the day of Ram Navami last week, and the clashes that have continued to flare in areas of adjoining Hooghly district, send out a chilling message: In the run-up to the soon-to-be-held panchayat elections in the state and the Lok Sabha elections in 2024, Bengal will see a ramping up of the murderous politics of polarisation for likely electoral gains.

Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee and leaders of the ruling Trinamool Congress (TMC) have, of course, blamed the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) for igniting the communal clashes, including incidents of arson and stone pelting.

They say that the BJP and its affiliates deliberately tried to provoke violence by taking out Ram Navami processions with swords and bulldozers in communally sensitive areas, and that “outsiders” were brought into the state to incite trouble.

“They have hired goons from outside the state to orchestrate communal riots. Nobody has stopped their processions, but they do not have the right to march with swords and bulldozers. How did they get the audacity to do this in Howrah?” Mamata said, and alleged that the routes of the processions had been changed “to particularly target and attack one community.”

The state BJP on its part has blamed the government for failing to maintain law and order and allowing the situation to spiral out of control. It has been lambasting the Trinamool chief — who is also the home minister of the state — for making the police act in a partisan manner, allowing miscreants from a particular community to get away scot-free. “The CM is working not for all, but for only people of one religion,” Bengal BJP President Sukanta Majumdar said.

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Tardy Police Response Arms BJP

The blame game over the growing incidence of communal clashes in the state is part of a well-worn script. It is, of course, indisputable that over the last few years, BJP-led right-wing groups in Bengal, as in other parts of the country, have weaponised Ram Navami processions as a means of majoritarian muscle-flexing, which, when accompanied by swords and abusive chants against the minority community, frequently — and predictably — lead to communal clashes. Bihar too witnessed horrific incidents of violence and arson on the occasion of Ram Navami this year.  

It is also indisputable that despite the rioting in Howrah last week, Bengal’s BJP leaders saw it fit to add fuel to fire by taking out two more so-called Ram Navami shobhayatras in Hooghly on Sunday, sparking further communal clashes. Needless to say, this has kept the unrest and the war of words between the BJP and the TMC simmering, with each claiming that the other is fomenting communalism and lawlessness in the state. 

What is less clear, though, is that given that such clashes took place in Bengal during last year’s Ram Navami as well, why was the state police so tardy in its response? Why was it seemingly so unprepared for potential trouble?

This gives the BJP the opportunity to hit Mamata with two charges. First, that she has lost control over the law and order infrastructure of the state; and second, she had primed the police to look the other way while goons from the minority community were committing violence and arson in response to Hindus celebrating the glory of Ram.

Though the two charges are contradictory, the BJP knows that one or both will strike a chord with sections of Bengal’s electorate, especially the allegation that the CM is anti-Hindu and always keen to give Muslims a free pass at the expense of the majority community.

That the police failed to prevent or, at least, put a stop to the violence at once does no good to Mamata’s image as a strong chief minister. The question is, while the BJP clearly regards such communal flare-ups as something that could bring electoral dividends, could the TMC chief also leverage the toxicity of such incidents to her advantage?

Is the Muslim Vote Eroding for TMC?

The BJP routinely accuses Mamata of minority appeasement — an accusation that is not entirely unwarranted. However, the narrative that the BJP is determined to upend the state’s communal equilibrium speaks not only to Bengal’s Muslims who may feel threatened by the right-wing party’s majoritarian agenda. Each time an incident of communal violence occurs, ostensibly at the provocation of the BJP and its cohorts, it also serves to remind those people of Bengal who believe in social harmony, that between Didi and Modi, the former is perhaps the safer and saner bet.

Such reminders are vital for Mamata now, whose government, which is in its third term in power, is bedevilled with charges of corruption, especially the humongous recruitment scam that has landed several of her ministers in jail.

Moreover, after the TMC lost the Sagardighi bypoll to a Left-backed Congress candidate recently, there is a perception that Mamata’s hitherto solid Muslim vote bank may also be eroding. There are whispers that many Muslims feel that the TMC can no longer offer them adequate protection against the Hindutva brigade. 

At a time like this, a spectacular spurt of communal violence in the backdrop of resounding cries of 'Jai Shri Ram', could suit the TMC just as well as the BJP, especially since both could be looking to gain from a deeply polarised countryside in the upcoming panchayat elections in the state. 

Mamata has warned of the possibility of more tensions on 6 April on the occasion of Hanuman Jayanti — another Hindu festival that the Sangh Parivar has appropriated as a day for showing off saffron’s strength. For the sake of the people of Bengal, one hopes that the state’s politicians will desist from their cynical stratagem of stoking one more round of inter-community violence under the excuse of celebrating a religious festival.

(Shuma Raha is a journalist and author. She tweets @ShumaRaha. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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