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.