Hooghly, India – In November 2019, India’s Supreme Court authorised the development of a Hindu temple on disputed land within the northern city of Ayodhya, the place there was as soon as a medieval-era mosque.
Around the identical time, authorities within the state of West Bengal – about 900km (559 miles) away – fenced a two-acre (0.8-hectare) land parcel in a sleepy neighbourhood of Hooghly district and barred all entry.
Hindu pilgrims argue the location, with remnants of a mosque and a sturdy minaret, in Pandua city about 100km (62 miles) north of Kolkata, the capital of the West Bengal state, is a Hindu shrine of goddess Shrinkhala Devi.
This is exactly how the motion to construct a temple for Hindu deity Ram in Ayodhya began. In 1949, Hindu activists surreptitiously positioned idols of Ram contained in the Babri Mosque. It was ultimately demolished by Hindu mobs in 1992.
India’s governing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) rose to political prominence on the again of the temple motion, which was launched by its ideological father or mother – the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS).
The RSS – a Hindu revivalist organisation – and its affiliate organisations comparable to Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP or World Hindu Council) wish to convert dozens of mosques throughout the nation into temples. They say these Muslim locations of worship have been constructed after demolishing Hindu temples, although normally official data say in any other case.
The disputed shrine in Pandua, domestically often called Badi Masjid (large mosque) is amongst them.
The shrine of Zafar Khan Gazi, a number of kilometres south of the disputed Pandua mosque shrine, is now guarded by gun-wielding personal safety guards amid Hindu-Muslim tensions.
Pandua – like many of the nondescript cities of Bengal – is thought for its syncretic tradition – the place Muslims and Hindus have lived collectively for hundreds of years, typically collectively organising their festivals.
“We have never witnessed any communal animosity ever,” stated Sheikh Moktar, 59, an administrative member of the native Islamic faculty in Pandua, home to 200,000 folks, 1 / 4 of them Muslims.
But lately, the communal amity on this as soon as communist bastion appears to have frayed, notably after Hindu right-wing teams began to push a hardline agenda. Analysts say right-wing Hindu teams linked to the BJP have used non secular mobilisation for celebrations comparable to Ram Navami, which marks the birthday of the Hindu Lord Ram, for political features.
The annual Ram Navami celebrations have witnessed 1000’s marching with swords, falchions and machetes, and shouting slogans in reward of Ram and enjoying songs denigrating Islam.
At an April 2017 Ram Navami rally in Chandannagar, a metropolis in Hooghly district near Pandua, Al Jazeera witnessed folks, together with youngsters, marched with swords, chanting anti-Muslim slogans whereas large audio system blared devotional music.
These rallies, organised throughout the state, have typically turned violent lately.
Asansol district, an industrial metropolis recognized for its coal mines, witnessed lethal Hindu-Muslim violence in 2018 and 2019.
Bhatpara within the North 24 Parganas district, an industrial township north of Kolkata, witnessed lethal Hindu-Muslim violence in May 2019 through which no less than seven folks died.
The space, home to greater than 300,000 folks, has emerged because the epicentre of communal stress for the great a part of the final 10 years.
According to the newest knowledge launched in 2018 by India’s inside ministry, 27 incidents of violence have been reported in 2015, however by 2017, the incidences of communal violence doubled in West Bengal state.
“There were at least a dozen riots in the area with deaths and large-scale damage to property over last two years,” stated Subha Protim Roychowdhury, a member of a left-leaning civil society group.
“Almost on a daily basis, Bhatpara witnesses violence. It is impossible to keep a count of the incidents,” stated Roychowdhury.
‘Defends the religious mobilisation’
Tushar Kanti Tikadar, who heads Hindu Jagran Manch (HJM), an affiliate of the World Hindu Council (VHP) in south Bengal, defended the non secular mobilisation.
“It used to be celebrated outside Bengal earlier but now we do not need to sensitise Bengalis about Ram Navami, they know it,” Tikadar, who is predicated in Barasat in North 24 Parganas district, informed Al Jazeera.
“We can now unite people in the name of Ram, it is a big success.”
He denied that Ram Navami celebrations have been aggressive or divisive. “If Muslims can display weapons during Muharram, why cannot the Hindus,” he argued.
The BJP has continued with a really aggressive anti-Muslim marketing campaign. Last 12 months, the celebration’s Bengal chief, Dilip Ghosh, stated if they arrive to energy, the celebration would “identify five million Muslim infiltrators and deport” them to Bangladesh.
His rhetoric was consistent with the celebration’s stand in opposition to undocumented migrants from Bangladesh and Rohingya refugees. Senior celebration chief and home minister Amit Shah has previously known as Bengali immigrants “termites”.
In neighbouring Assam state, nearly two million Bengali folks, together with Muslims, have been excluded from a citizenship register, successfully rendering them stateless.
West Bengal – home to about 100 million folks – is one in every of two massive Indian states, the place the BJP is but to seize energy, regardless of working the nationwide authorities since 2014.
The celebration has additionally been attempting to make cow slaughter an election concern within the state, the place beef is consumed broadly by each Muslims and Hindus. Dozens of Muslims have been lynched throughout India by Hindu mobs after being accused of smuggling cows for slaughter since 2014 when Prime Minister Narendra Modi got here to energy.
Hardline Hindu agenda
The hardline Hindu agenda, it appears, has paid dividends for the BJP, which bagged 18 out of 42 parliamentary seats within the 2019 parliamentary elections in West Bengal. The celebration had received simply two seats within the 2014 elections.
The BJP has deployed its total high management, together with Modi and his right-hand man Shah, because it goals to win the state meeting elections slated to be held in the summertime of 2021.
The celebration has additionally intensified efforts to applicable Bengali icons, together with secular freedom heroes comparable to Subhas Chandra Bose and Rabindranath Tagore, who wrote India’s nationwide anthem.
The Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M) which dominated state politics for 34 years, has now been relegated to the margins, with the BJP rising as the primary challenger to the governing All India Trinamool Congress Party (AITC) led by Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee.
The state was largely free of non secular strife in the course of the communist celebration rule that led to 2011, though elections have been marked by political violence throughout that interval.
The CPI-M, analysts say, have been in a position to secularise Bengali society, which was divided alongside non secular traces within the wake of the partition of India in 1947. The partition noticed large-scale inhabitants transfers between Indian West Bengal and East Pakistan (previously East Bengal), which later grew to become Bangladesh.
“It was a deeply divided society on communal lines owing to violent partition of India and Bengal in 1947 and following influx of [Hindu] refugees from East Pakistan, now Bangladesh,” stated Ranabir Samaddar, a political scientist primarily based in Kolkata.
“… The communists managed to secularise a divided post-partition society by promoting tolerance among Hinduised refugees in particular and the Bengalis in general,” Samaddar, the founder and distinguished chair of Mahanirban Calcutta Research Group, a well known social science institute, informed Al Jazeera.
‘Weaponised the process of Hinduisation’
In the final decade, Hindu right-wing organisations have pursued politics of non secular polarisation, whereas pushing a story that successive governments favoured Muslims, who kind one-third of the state’s inhabitants.
“The BJP weaponised the process of Hinduisation using money and muscle power and managed to influence the poor – Dalits and the Indigenous population – to develop a mass base,” Samaddar stated.
Muslims stay some of the marginalised communities with barely 6 % illustration in authorities jobs whereas housing discrimination is rife in cities. The literacy charge amongst Muslims can be seven % (2011 census) decrease than the nationwide common.
Muslim illustration in democratic our bodies within the state has improved lately. In 2011, Muslims fashioned 20 % of the state Assembly, the very best proportion since independence, however it’s nonetheless decrease than their inhabitants.
The fear of the rise of the BJP is palpable amongst Bengal’s Muslim neighborhood, which has confronted elevated assaults and political marginalisation throughout India for the reason that Hindu nationalist celebration got here to energy on the centre six years in the past.
The BJP governs 17 of India’s 28 states but it surely has only a single Muslim legislator. India’s 543-seat Parliament has 27 Muslim members of Parliament. Of the 302 BJP seats, there’s not one Muslim member of Parliament.
Muslims throughout India have confronted assaults at instances for his or her look and their companies have confronted an unofficial social boycott by Hindus.
During the pandemic, the media ran vicious campaigns in opposition to Muslims, blaming them for the unfold of the coronavirus, which has killed greater than 150,000 folks in India.
Manzar Jameel, an schooling activist primarily based in Kolkata, stated the “trends are worrying”.
“Very often, a Muslim is subjected to comments in public space which was unthinkable few years back, it is scary,” the 60-year-old activist stated referring to Islamophobic and hateful feedback in opposition to the neighborhood.
“We were not subjected to such aggressive comments in Kolkata, ever. Despite latent anti-Muslim sentiments and all its drawbacks, it was a largely peaceful place during the left’s rule. People used to come to eat with us spontaneously during festivals, which has reduced,” he stated.
One-fifth of Kolkata’s inhabitants includes Muslims and town has not seen main non secular violence in many years. Currently, town’s mayor is a Muslim from the governing AITC celebration.
But Muslims within the multicultural metropolis have began to cover their id in public, a number of members of the neighborhood stated. Nousheen Baba Khan, a college scholar, acknowledged that this tendency “to remain faceless” is rising.
Another younger Muslim girl stated – on situation of anonymity – her mother and father “instructed” her to not “cover [her] head or wear anything that may indicate” that she is a Muslim.
Lumaah Yasin, an info expertise skilled and businesswoman, needs her son to settle overseas. “We may not say it but yes, we are scared,” she stated.
“And it is not just fear of the Muslims, it is a larger fear when we think of this country … if you divide the country and the state on basis of communities, ethnicities and languages … what would happen to all of us,” stated Yasin.
Yasin, in her mid-30s, feels West Bengal’s “tolerant and cosmopolitan” tradition which allowed folks to peacefully cohabit with variations can be attacked if the BJP involves energy.
“And, it is a far bigger price to pay than my son’s travel abroad.”