Elections

Lok Sabha 2024: How Has 'The Muslim Appeasement' Debate Affected West Bengal Politics?

Witnessing an exchange of barbs centred around communal polarisation, West Bengal's political atmosphere continues to shaped by the narrative.

Samir Jana/Hindustan Times via Getty Images
West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee speaks after Eid-ul-Fitr prayers, in the presence of nephew Abhishek Banerjee (R), at Red road on April 11, 2024 in Kolkata, India Photo: Samir Jana/Hindustan Times via Getty Images
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When it comes to West Bengal, the narrative runs into the tricky waters as the country walks into the business end of the Lok Sabha polls. Considered to be one of the primary roadblocks to NDA’s vision of 400 seats, West Bengal’s political contours have been heavily shaped by debates on caste and religion. The contest is being predicted to go down to the wire, as Mamata Banerjee looks to better her 2019 performance which saw Trinamool Congress ceding 18 seats to the BJP, who had only managed 2 in 2014. While BJP looks to establish a dominant ground with lofty predictions of their performance in Bengal, Mamata Banerjee believes the people of Bengal will recognise her effort in vouching for a state painted with secular values and her support for all communities of the state. Although, Mamata’s Banerjee’s strategies to woo voters of different communities, especially the Muslims, have been targeted by a spate of BJP leaders over the course of the 2024 Lok Sabha elections, experts opine that the Muslim voters, making up for almost 30%, will play a crucial role in turning the tide in Didi’s favour.

In the prelude to the elections, Banerjee has not minced her criticism aimed at BJP’s attempts at polarising the nation. Having called out Narendra Modi for the same, the TMC has maintained that the BJP’s attempts at perpetuating the culture of Islamophobia will never find ground in Bengal. A vocal critic of the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and the National Register of Citizens (NRC), Mamata Banerjee has pointed out how both of these walk towards alienating Muslims further in this country. "I do not like CAA because they have kept five communities on the list... lekin Muslims to nikaal diya jaise un log ka Hindustan me koi contribution nahi hai (Muslims were not on the list as if they do not have any contribution to the country)," Banerjee had said in a gathering last month. The election manifesto released by TMC also has rejected CAA and NRC at the very core. "We also promise to repeal the CAA and stop the NRC exercise in the country,” senior TMC leader Amit Mitra had said while unveiling the manifesto.

The polarisation debate has taken a violent form in Bengal, with the top BJP brass accusing Mamata Banerjee of only catering to Muslim needs, a sentiment which has been shared across opposition parties in the state.

JP Nadda, national president of BJP, in a recent rally in West Bengal’s Behrampore constituency of Murshidabad district, which has Bengal’s highest Muslim population of 66.28%, talked about Mamata Banerjee opposing the CAA to appease Muslims. “Prime Minister Narendra Modi has given citizenship to Hindu and Dalit refugees from Bangladesh but Mamata Banerjee opposes it. She is appeasing Muslims,” Nadda said. In a still-complicating episode around sexual abuse and land grabbing accusations against TMC leader Sheikh Shah Jahan in Sandeshkhali, the BJP has found another opportunity to rain down heavily on TMC for “sheltering Muslim terrorists”.

“Mamata Banerjee’s government believes in appeasement, dividing people and patronising terrorists. But when Pakistan attacks India, Modi Ji’s government gives a befitting reply by crossing the border,” Nadda further added.

Recently at another rally in West Bengal’s Srirampur, Home Minister Amit Shah targeted Mamata for her recent measures, accusing her for her one-dimensional appeasement policy towards Muslims. “Mamata Banerjee came into power with the slogan of 'Ma, Maati, Manush' but this slogan has lost now and 'Mulla, Madrasa and Mafia' is there at the ground. Tell me should mullas be paid from Bengal's state treasury?" Shah said. This comes in context of Banerjee’s announcement of a hike of Rs 500 in the monthly allowance of Muslim Imams and Hindu priests in August last year, addressing a conference of imams and muezzins in Kolkata. The imams receive a monthly allowance of Rs 2,500 and muezzins, a stipend of Rs 1,000 since 2012. A year after coming to power, the TMC government had announced monthly honorariums to imams and muezzins in the state.

Addressing the barbs aimed at her policies that she has been consistently subject to, Mamata had said, “People have maligned me for my beliefs. When I attend Iftar during Ramzan, my photographs are ridiculed. BJP had even attempted to change my name. However, I don’t care about it because it is my duty to see that people of different religions don’t fight with one another. We don’t do any discrimination; BJP does. They let go of convicts in the Bilkis Bano case. Everyone is witnessing the atrocities on minorities and tribals…We have given recognition to 307 unaided madrasahs; 700 more will be recognized this year.”

Attacking Banerjee’s refusal to attend the Ram Mandir inauguration in January, Shah further added, “She doesn't prevent Rohingya (Muslims) from entering India and opposes Ram Mandir inauguration. She also denies the permission of 'Durga Visarjan' but gives leave to Muslim employees in Ramzan." In a significant move, Mamata Banerjee took out an all-faith rally on that very day which saw a sea of people from various religions and sects flooding the streets of Kolkata, in a TMC-orchestrated show of religious harmony. Talking about the wave of divisive politics and how BJP was celebrating the day as their "Independence Day", Mamata had added, “I don't believe in politicising religion ahead of elections. I am against such practice. I have no objection against those worshipping Lord Ram, but object to interference with the food habits of people." Mamata had also visited a gurudwara in Garcha and a local mosque and church in Park Circus to offer her prayers on that very day.

According to the Lokniti-CSDS post-poll survey, TMC had secured 75% of the Muslim vote in the 2021 assembly elections, which had been instrumental in Banerjee resuming her seat. Critics and analysts believe that the Muslim vote in Bengal is to play a crucial role in the elections once again, with Banerjee poised to win most of it. However, with a percentage of Muslim voters shifting towards the Left Front and Congress, and the Indian Secular Front (ISF) in the Left-Congress mix, the vote consolidation takes a more interesting turn. While BJP continues to ride on their attacks on Banerjee and her doctored attempts at Muslim appeasement in the state, the TMC targets BJP’s anti-Islam stance in the context of a barrage of recent polarising speeches and videos posted by the BJP (which talked about the opposition snatching reservations from deserving SC and ST candidates and handing them over to Muslims in the country). As most of South Bengal, including Kolkata, prepares to go to polls in the coming phases, TMC looks to wrestle the wave of polarisation, by reinforcing the secular vision of Banerjee and the party, going beyond mere one-dimensional appeasement.

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