How the ghost of the Baduria-Basirhat communal riots is polarising polls in West Bengal

The family of Kartik Ghosh, a Basirhat resident, who was killed in a mob attack in 2017. His son Probashish said that the family now supports the BJP. Amit Bhardwaj
16 April, 2021

On a humid April afternoon, Ramesh Debnath, a 42-year-old resident of the Basirhat Dakshin assembly constituency in West Bengal, was sitting with two friends at a tri-junction, holding a political discussion. When I approached them, they first enquired whether I was from Prashant Kishor’s team, referring to the political strategist working with the Trinamool Congress for the ongoing state elections. Hearing a negative response, they opened up. I asked about their voting preferences. Even though they praised the chief minister Mamata Banerjee, the memories of communal riots in the region in 2017, during her term, played a decisive role in shaping their electoral choice against the incumbent leader.

“I work for the auto union backed by the Trinamool Congress. I have been a hard-core supporter of Didi,” Debnath said, referring to Banerjee. “But this time, I want her party to lose from this seat.” When asked why, he responded, “When the riots took place in 2017, no one from her party came to our rescue. The TMC showed the Hindus their real aukaat,”—place. “Why should I, as a Hindu, vote for the TMC?”

Debnath’s reasoning was not an exception. The lingering impact of the communal riots in 2017 has created a fertile ground for religious polarisation. Basirhat-1, or Basirhat Dakshin, Basirhat-2, or Basirhat Uttar, and Baduria are among 22 administrative blocks of West Bengal’s North 24 Parganas district. These three administrative blocks are part of the Bashirhat Lok Sabha constituency—a Muslim dominated seat—which is currently represented by Nusrat Jahan, a Trinamool Congress member of parliament. In July 2017, a communal spat that began from the Baduria locality soon took the shape of a communal riot and spread to Basirhat Dakshin.

The communal violence was triggered by an offensive cartoon of the prophet Muhammad shared on Facebook by Souvik Sarkar, at the time a 17-year-old student of class 11. The family claimed his Facebook account was hacked. Angry mobs gathered outside the residence of Sarkar’s uncle—where he was staying—and vandalised the house. The teenager, who used to study at Baduria’s government school, managed to escape the violent mob. But the situation snowballed. First, Baduria was engulfed in communal tension, and subsequently Basirhat Dakshin. A series of shops were vandalised and burnt at Basirhat Dakshin’s Trimohini Chowk, and public property was damaged. Kartik Ghosh, a Basirhat resident, was injured in a mob attack and subsequently died, while several others were injured.

At the time, the Banerjee administration drew criticism from opposition parties for its slow response. Four years later, amidst the ongoing electoral battle for Bengal, several voters said the riots were on their minds. At first, the Hindu voters didn’t overtly speak about the riots. But the moment one scratched the surface, the residue from the psychological wounds of the communal tensions became evident.

The TMC candidate for the Baduria assembly constituency is Qauzi Abdur Rahim, also known as Dillu, a former Congress member. Between 1967 and 2011, his father and Congress leader, Abdul Gaffar Qauzi, had won from the assembly seat eight times. In 2016, he handed over the baton to Rahim, who won the assembly polls. Five months ahead of the 2021 assembly elections, Rahim switched allegiances and joined the TMC.

In Baduria, I visited a BJP mandal-level office. The workers of the saffron party shared their strategy to dislodge Rahim and the TMC from the Baduria constituency. The Baduria communal tension was on the top on their list.

“When we go for the door-to-door campaign, we remind the voters about the Baduria riots and what all transpired after it,” Badal Ghosh, a 34-year-old ex-ward president of BJP, said. “When the riots were happening in 2017, we were expecting that our MLA Qauzi Abdur Rahim would step out to stop the frenzied mob. But he had gone in hiding. When Baduria’s Hindu voters saw this, they were compelled to get polarised.” Ghosh is a teacher at a government school and has been working for the BJP since 2014. According to him, the TMC’s local leadership is full of leaders from “the minority community” who try to “run the town at their whims and fancies.”

The BJP workers claimed that their vote share in this constituency has increased multifold after the 2017 communal violence. “We used to have a small voter base and even smaller organisation in Baduria,” Tarak Nath, a BJP booth president, told me. “But things changed after the 2017 tensions. Our voter base has increased by at least five to seven times after the riots.” In the BJP office, these workers had a whiteboard with the statistics showing the voting pattern of the booths in the locality and their stronghold Hindu pockets.

In 2016, the BJP had polled barely 9 percent of the total votes cast in Baduria. According to 2011 records, the Baduria administrative block has a 65 percent Muslim population and Hindus are 34 percent of the population.

The BJP office where I met Ghosh was not far away from Souvik Sarkar’s residence, where the Hindu neighbourhood had turned completely saffron. Argho Dey, a 27-year-old, works with a private firm in Baduria. Late at night on 5 April, he was standing with a group of friends at a general store adjacent to a TMC office. Dey’s concerns echoed the issues raised by the BJP workers. “The riots exposed us to the truth,” he said. “We realised that it is only the BJP and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh who would stand by the Hindus. It made us realise where we stand and what our political-electoral choice should be.”

Even though the odds are against the saffron party in Baduria and Basirhat, voters like Dey expressed that they prefer the BJP and Sangh Parivar. However, the TMC workers were dismissive of these factors.

The TMC leadership and Muslim scholars rejected the possibility of vote polarisation due to the riots. Abdul Matin, the general secretary of All India Sunnat-ul-Jamaat, an organisation that works to impart Islamic education, was among those who had tried to calm down the frenzied mobs during the 2017 communal violence. I spoke to Matin this April. Sitting in his office, which falls under the Devanga constituency adjoining Basirhat, he claimed that the voters have forgotten about the Baduria-Basirhat riots. “It is not an electoral issue in these polls,” he said. “People have forgotten about it and the political parties themselves are refraining from mentioning the violence. It is unlikely to have any impact on the voters.”

The TMC’s local office-bearers and workers at the party’s Baduria election office also claimed that the voters have nearly forgotten about the 2017 riots and that it is a non-factor in the ongoing polls. “Parties such as BJP might try merukaran”—polarisation—“but it will not work in Baduria, which has a history of communal harmony,” Karim Ali, a 38-year-old TMC full-time activist, said. But the accounts of several Hindu residents of Baduria and Basirhat showed that the TMC office bearers and supporters were mistaken in this belief.

Back in Basirhat Dakshin, I met the family of Kartik Ghosh. They were yet to recover from the shock of their father being killed in the communal violence. The family lives in a two-storey under-construction house in a Hindu neighbourhood of the Tantra locality, in Basirhat Dakshin. Kartik’s elder son Debashish Ghosh, runs a tea shop, and the younger one, Probashish Ghosh is engaged with a state government department as a casual worker. The job was given to him as compensation for his father’s death in the communal violence.

In the wake of the Baduria-Bashirhat riots, the BJP’s West Bengal unit had claimed that Kartik Ghosh was their activist. At the time, the Ghosh family denied this and told the media that they had no links with the BJP. However, when I visited them in April, the family claimed that they are supporting the saffron party. Probashish added that Kartik had indeed been a BJP worker. “Following my father’s death, the TMC local leaders had threatened us of dire consequences,” he told me. “We were told to tell the media that Kartik Ghosh had no links with the BJP. Out of fear, we did as we were told.” Probashish further claimed that he and his brother were beaten up by TMC workers barely days after Kartik’s death. The family said that while their father was a BJP activist, the two brothers and their mother had supported Mamata Banerjee. However, both Probashish and Debasish are now firm supporters of the BJP and its Hindutva plank.

The Hindu voters I spoke to near the Ghosh residence remain tight-lipped. On condition of anonymity, they referred to BJP’s old campaign slogan in West Bengal, “chup chap kamal chap”—silently vote for the lotus.

After leaving the Ghosh residence, I headed to the Chowmatha bus stop in Bashirhat Dakshin. I spoke to a few business owners, mostly from the Hindu community. They told me that the TMC and Banerjee have brought development in the area. While they expressed disenchantment and anger with the MP Nusrat Jahan, they maintained that they still support the incumbent party. As we spoke, Ritobrata Mondal, a 27-year-old, interrupted the conversation to say that credit for free ration and several development schemes goes to Prime Minister Narendra Modi and not Banerjee.

“It’s the BJP-led central government that has delivered development for us,” Mondal said. He added, “Go towards Hindu paras”—neighbourhoods—“in Taki area and you will get to see the reality.”

Next, I travelled to Taki–a municipality area where the Ichamati River draws the border between India and Bangladesh—and the villages nearby. In the market area, flags of the TMC and the Sanjukta Morcha, an alliance of the Left Front, the Congress and the Indian Secular Front, were hoisted on the local establishments and homes. As I took the inner lanes and moved towards the villages, BJP graffiti and flags became visible.

A few kilometres from Taki, at a Muslim para in the Dandirhat village, I found unanimous support for the TMC and Banerjee. Women voters said they would vote for the TMC because of the help provided to them during the COVID-19 lockdown such as uninterrupted free ration supply for several months.

“Didi’s government has brought development in these localities. During the lockdown, it was Mamata Banerjee who supported us in all possible forms,” Fatima Bibi, a 22-year-old resident, said. However, TMC MP Nusrat Jahan remains unpopular in these areas. Voters claimed that she was absent during the lockdown and when the Amphan cyclone hit West Bengal in May 2020.  

“Nusrat is our MP what has she done for the constituency? Where was she when the Amphan hit us?” Ishaan Sardar, an 18-year-old student questioned. “I am just criticising her, but if you speak to people in other pockets of Basirhat, they might end up using even harsher words.”

Yet, the criticism of Jahan did not mean that voters had shifted away from the TMC. Sardar added, “I am able to study because of the policies of the Mamata Banerjee government. In this election we support the TMC. And if during the Lok Sabha, the TMC’s fields Nusrat again, we will have to vote for the TMC. But it will be a vote for TMC and not Nusrat.”

However, at Dandirhat’s Jhautala locality, a Hindu-majority neighbourhood, the views were different. This locality falls under the Basirhat Dakshin constituency. While not everyone expressed an opinion in support of the BJP, those who were vocal did side with the saffron party. Their primary reason was the Baduria communal tension.

“In the wake of the 2017 riots, for nearly 10-15 days, we lived under fear,” Kishan Ghosh, a 30-year-old resident of the village said. “Even now the relations between the two communities have not become normal.”

Govind Chandra Ghosh, an elderly resident of the village and a former milkman, was more direct. “The riots stopped only when the reinforcements from the RSS and BJP came for our help with lathis and weapons,” he said. Referring to Basirhat and Baduria, he said, “In these pockets, Muslims are high in numbers. If we speak, there is a fear of backlash. But we are fighting to bring BJP to power so that the Hindus get their pride back.”

Basirhat Dakshin has played an important role in the BJP's growth in West Bengal. In 1999, with help of the TMC, the saffron party had won its first assembly seat in Bengal in a by-poll. It took them another decade and a half to register the second victory. In September 2014, in the Basirhat Dakshin assembly by-poll, Samik Bhattacharya of the BJP defeated TMC candidate Dipendu Biswas, a former football player, by a narrow margin. This assembly segment has a higher Hindu population compared to Basirhat Uttar. Notably, Bhattacharya had unsuccessfully contested the Lok Sabha election that year from Basirhat constituency.

However, in the 2016 assembly elections, the BJP’s hopes of making inroads in West Bengal was crushed by Banerjee’s juggernaut. While the saffron party managed to win only three assembly seats, Bhattacharya lost to TMC’s Biswas. In 2016, TMC polled 40 percent vote share, BJP got 29 percent votes and the Congress clinched 26 percent of total votes polled in the constituency. Notably, ahead of the 2021 assembly polls, Biswas switched loyalties—the former Basirhat Dakshin MLA joined the BJP.

Basirhat Uttar is the adjoining assembly constituency. It is a Muslim-majority constituency. In 2016, the TMC, the Communist Party of India-Marxist and the BJP had fielded Muslim candidates here. While both the TMC and the CPM got over 45 percent of the total votes polled, the BJP only managed to secure six percent votes. The sitting CPM MLA Rafikul Islam Mondal is contesting the 2021 assembly election as a TMC candidate from the seat.

Even on this seat, there seems to be a polarisation of Hindu votes. Pintu Biswas, who is in his forties, runs a saloon in Basirhat Uttar. Biswas claimed that he used to vote for the TMC but will not do so anymore. “Didi indulged in Muslim appeasement,” he said. “She reads Namaz on public forums and gets scared of Jai Shree Ram. When BJP comes to power it will punish the TMC and Didi for her misdeeds.” While he noted that he personally has never faced any trouble from the minority community, he also spoke about the 2017 riots.

Not very far from where I met Biswas is the Loknath Temple, a local shrine that both Hindus and Muslims depend on for their earnings. Rabin Kahar, a 61-year-old, assists those who come to offer prayers at this temple in exchange of Rs 100 to 200. When CPM was in power, Kahar supported them. In the 2011 elections, he shifted his loyalties to the TMC. Now, he is a hardcore BJP supporter. Referring to the Muslim community, and to Abbas Siddique, a Muslim cleric who is a leader of the newly formed Indian Secular Front, he added, “When they can vote for Abbas Siddique, why won't I choose a Hindu Party—BJP.” Siddique’s brother-in-law is contesting from Basirhat Uttar on an ISF ticket.

However, others such as Aparna Mondal, who runs her family’s sweet shop, hailed Banerjee for improving the basic infrastructure of the region in the past ten years. She also refuted the allegation hurled by BJP activists that the Banerjee administration has worked only for the minority community. “The Loknath Temple redevelopment work, roads in this area, well-lit streets—all this work happened during Didi’s tenure,” Aparna said. “How can someone accuse that she is working only for a specific community?”

It is difficult to ascertain whether the Baduria-Bashirhat 2017 riots contributed directly to the spike in support of the BJP in the Basirhat region. But a look at the Basirhat parliamentary constituency’s 2014 and 2019 party-wise vote share figures gives a sense of how the BJP has gained electorally in these areas post the communal conflagration.

In the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, the TMC had secured 39 percent vote share in Basirhat parliamentary constituency, followed by the Communist Party of India at 30 percent and the BJP at 18 percent. In 2019, two years after the riots, the BJP’s vote share nearly doubled in the constituency. While the TMC’s Nusrat Jahan polled 54 percent of the vote share, the BJP’s Sayantan Basu managed to clinch 30.12 percent vote share. The Congress party repeated its 2014 performance by managing to get little more than seven percent vote share, the jump in the TMC and the BJP’s growth came at the cost of the CPI. The Left Front’s vote share in the parliamentary constituency shrunk from 30 percent in 2014 to 4.7 percent in 2019. This could be an indication of polarisation of votes: the Muslims voters shifting towards the TMC and the Hindu voters choosing to side with the BJP.

Snigdhendu Bhattacharya, a journalist and author of the book Mission Bengal: A Saffron Experiment, argues that the polarisation amongst the Hindu voters is a result of the BJP and the Sangh Parivar’s years-long campaign. He mentioned that the BJP’s local leadership in these pockets is made of the Sangh Parivar activists.

“These areas hadn’t seen communal polarisation before the entry of the BJP in 2014. The demography of these areas hasn’t changed. So the present polarisation is a result of the BJP and Sangh Parivar’s sustained campaign since 2013,” Bhattacharya said. He added, “The polarisation has definitely increased since the Baduria-Bashirhat riots of 2017. But the ground for this was being built since 2013. Even the tension that was building ahead of the 2017 riots was a result of the BJP’s high-pitched campaign since the end of 2014.”

Banerjee is facing her toughest electoral battle in 2021. While the BJP is trying to dislodge the TMC from West Bengal, the Sanjukta Morcha and the ISF, headed by Siddique, is eying the support of TMC’s Muslim voters. However, in her rallies, Banerjee primarily targets the BJP. Her party has accused the BJP of trying to polarise the election and vitiate West Bengal’s communal harmony. The TMC often refers to the saffron party as “bahiragoto”—outsiders, trying to create communal frictions.

Ahead of the 2016 West Bengal assembly elections, Dilip Ghosh, a former leader of the Hindu Jagran Manch, which is affiliated to the Sangh Parivar, was appointed as the chief of the BJP’s state unit. In March 2017, the Akhil Bharatiya Pratinidhi Sabha, the RSS’ highest decision making body, passed a resolution during a summit in Tamil Nadu expressing “grave concerns” over “the unabated rise in violence by Jihadi elements” in West Bengal. In April 2017, Dilip Ghosh participated in processions for Ram Navami, a Hindu festival, in Kharagpur Sadar. He declared that similar processions will be carried out across the state on Dussehra. This became a flashpoint between the TMC and the BJP. That year, when the Baduria-Basirhat riots took place in July, Ghosh and his team attacked Banerjee for her failure to control the situation and what they described as a delay in deployment of the central police forces. “We were to meet the family of the victims, but the TMC does not want our party to help in this situation in any manner,” Dilip told ANI. “They are themselves not able to control the situation. This government does not want the grim reality of the state to be exposed before the country.”

During the ongoing assembly election, the impact of the polarisation has become evident not only in the Baduria-Basirhat region but also in several other pockets of West Bengal, a phenomenon that TMC’s detractors are trying to exploit.

“BJP and the Trinamool are the same, we call them BJ-mool,” Aritra Biswas, 35-year-old teacher and CPM worker, told me. “During the Left Front’s rule, the Sangh Parivar didn’t grow. It is only during the TMC’s regime that the BJP and RSS’s clout has increased. TMC is like an academy for the BJP in West Bengal under which the saffron forces are strengthening themselves.”

Meanwhile, Ranabrata Chakravarty, the former chairman of Sewa Dal, a grassroots frontal organisation of the Congress, in the North 24 Paraganas district, claimed that the Congress’ prospects have improved in Basirhat Dakshin due to the entry of the ISF.

“Here the Congress candidate, Amit Majumdar is in a direct fight with the BJP,” Chakravarty said. “The TMC is being kicked out of the electoral race. Our prospects have strengthened due to the ISF. Their workers are boosting are campaign.”

However, TMC workers argue that ISF’s Abbas Siddique has little influence in this belt. “There is no impact of Abbas Siddique here,” Sabbir Hussain, a 30-year-old TMC worker told me. “Muslims want the RSS and the BJP to get defeated. They do understand that the BJP is working on the agenda of converting this country into a Hindu Rashtra. Hence, Muslims will not vote for any force which will help in making the BJP’s electoral prospects stronger.”