In Malda, a Muslim-majority district in West Bengal, a rally of swords and trishuls, saffron bandanas and shouts of ‘Jai Shri Ram’ marked Ram Navami. There hadn’t been anything like it in living memory.
“Our organisation has got a boost in the Hindu-dominated parts of Malda over the past couple of years, though we’re still facing difficulty getting started in the Muslim-dominated areas,” says Tarun Kumar Pandit, spokesperson for the north Bengal chapter of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS).
He’s standing in a school ground run by the RSS-affiliated Vidya Bharati where 115 RSS workers from across north Bengal have gathered for a 20-day camp, complete with discussions on nation-building and field exercise in khaki shorts, with lathis in hand.
The 20-day-camp for south Bengal, held in Howrah district, had a record number of 325 attendees.
Among the participants in Malda was a local Class 11 student who said he joined because he was ‘alarmed’ by ‘increasing Muslim aggression’.
He was referring to an incident where a mob set the Kaliachak police station on fire in January 2016.
Investigations later revealed that the ‘riot’ had been a backlash by a group of criminal poppy cultivators. But the truth came too late for some. The Kaliachak incident got portrayed, even beyond the borders of Malda, as a ‘communal riot’.
Where did that version of events come from? Primarily the small but highly effective social media cells of the saffron brigade.
The tone of their posts is dictated from further up in the power pyramid.
The RSS’s general secretary for south Bengal led the way in this case, Jishnu Basu, with an open letter to journalists that questioned the mainstream media’s ‘silence on the incident’ and claimed a neighbouring Hindu village was attacked.
“One incident after another, in the districts of Malda, Murshidabad, Burdwan, Nadia, North and South 24-Parganas, over the past few years, are indicating impending peril. Isn’t West Bengal turning into West Bangladesh?” the letter went on to state.
These campaigns have turned into polarising points beyond Malda. But why start with Malda to begin with?
The saffron camp’s focus on Malda (51.27% Muslims) and Uttar Dinajpur (49.92% Muslims) — the only two Muslim-majority districts in north Bengal — is part of a carefully thought-out strategy.
“Not only are Hindus slightly fewer in number than Muslims, and hence feel insecure, these two districts are also among worst-affected by infiltration from Bangladesh. They offer us the best chances for creating a breakthrough in north Bengal,” an RSS pracharak said, requesting anonymity.
Cause and effect
Capitalising on what they call chief minister Mamata Banerjee’s ‘overt Muslim appeasement’ (monthly government stipends for imams and muezzin, for instance), the Hindutva brigade is running an aggressive campaign on communal lines. It seems to be working.
“The threat from Muslim aggression is real. Mamata Banerjee has turned West Bengal into a breeding ground of Muslim fundamentalists and has made the Hindus second-class citizens,” says Sayantan Dutta, a first year student of Visva Bharati University in Birbhum, who recently joined Bajrang Dal and participated in a massive Ram Navami rally in Suri town.
There are hundreds like Dutta who have joined Hindutva outfits over the past couple of years, responding to social media campaigns highlighting the plight of Hindus in West Bengal.
“The media keeps mum when riots take place. We would not have known anything about riots in Kaliachak, Deganga, Dhulagori and Kanchrapara had there not been the social media,” Bibek Goswami, 28, a primary school teacher hailing from Baruipur in South 24-Parganas district, told HT. He joined the RSS a year ago.
- The Sangh Parivar (literally, family of organisations) is the term for the group of parties and associations that are either part of or draw upon the founding ideology of the right-wing Hindu body, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS)
- In West Bengal, the Bharatiya Janata Party has gone from being a marginal force in 2011 to a strong challenger to current chief minister Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress
- Erosion in the Left and Congress support bases are helping the BJP get non-Trinamool Congress voters into their fold
- One of the means of expanding their base is organising large religious processions. The Ganesh festival, not traditionally celebrated in the state, is now a big deal too, says political analyst Subroto Moitra.
“Muslims are being given majority share from the reservation quota for the OBCs. It will be too late if Hindus do not unite now,” says Swarajit Guha, 31, who joined the Bajrang Dal four years ago and now heads its Malda chapter.
Be it Malda, Hooghly, Howrah or Birbhum, it is mostly young boys in their teens and twenties joining the saffron camp.
“For a long time, the destructive Naxalite ideology and Left ideology in general drew the students and youths of Bengal in their hundreds and thousands. But now they are coming to us, after realising that only the Sangh can lead meaningful and constructive social changes,” says Biplab Roy, spokesperson for the RSS in south Bengal.
The Sangh Parivar or family of orgnisations is the term used for the group of parties and associations that are either part of the RSS or draw upon the founding ideology of the right-wing Hindu body.
According to Roy, about a thousand are joining the RSS in south Bengal every month. “A majority of them are students and engineers, doctors, IT employees and management teachers,” he says.
Political analyst Amal Mukhopadhyay, however, feels Hindutva is not the sole appeal for the people joining sangh. “Many are coming to them thinking it is only BJP, by virtue of being in power at the Centre, which can take on the Trinamool head-on,” he says.
Inside the web
In 2013, the RSS’s south Bengal chapter introduced weekly sessions called “IT milan’, exclusively for swayamsevaks in the IT sector.
These sessions, complete with surya namashkar, yoga for back pain, and discussions on current affairs, helped them strengthen their base and begin to broad-base their social media initiatives.
“Donald Trump’s victory, despite the US media’s unethically biased campaign against him, has marked the fall of the mainstream media. We dominate the discourse on social media,” says Tapan Ghosh, who was a senior RSS pracharak until breaking away to form his own outfit, the far-right Hindu Samhati, accusing the RSS of ‘lacking aggression’. Formed in 2008, the outfit has spread to 12 of the state’s 20 districts.
“We have dedicated teams that create contents for social media but every volunteer diligently circulates those using social media,” said Sourish Mukherjee, VHP’s media in-charge for Bengal.
Hindu Samhati, Bajrang Dal and Hindu Jagran Manch have social media teams comprising 10-15 people at the state level for generating content. RSS has such teams at the district level as well, but credit volunteers with their online success.
“The onus of circulating content through Facebook, WhatsApp and Tweeter lies on every volunteer,” said Sourish Mukherjee, VHP’s media in-charge for Bengal.
“We are ahead of the Left in social media campaign because of our dedication. We follow what we preach, while the Left practices hypocrisy,” Amanish Iyer, RSS’s joint secretary for Hooghly district, told HT.
Their opponents agree that saffron camp has managed to change the discourse. “The Hindutva brigade is using Twitter to troll seculars and liberals, WhatsApp to spread fake news and Facebook to organise people and dominate social discourse,” says Kasturi Basu, cultural activist and co-founder of People’s Media, an initiative to counter fake news online.
According to blogger Ipsita Pal Bhowmik, “We have entered the post-truth era. There is a flood of fake social media profiles and news. Photos of broken Hindu idols passed off as scene from West Bengal turns out to be of Bangladesh. Photo showing Pakistani flag in Kolkata was morphed. Photos from old riots in other parts of the country were circulated as a riot taking place in Bengal right that moment.”
How it unfolded
The BJP in Bengal began making early gains in 2013-14, mostly in areas dominated by Hindi-speaking people and infiltration-prone areas bordering Bangladesh.
Trends of the 2016 Assembly polls and the by-elections and civic polls held since, however, reveals the saffron camp’s growing influence in refugee colonies dominated by Hindus who migrated from Bangladesh over the past few decades.
“I grew up hearing from my grandfather how Muslims in Bangladesh forced Hindus to sell off property at throwaway prices and migrate to India. We cannot afford to allow Muslims that space here as well,” said Chiranjit Das, a college student who lives in the refugee colony belt of Kapasdanga in Hooghly town. He joined the RSS six months ago.
Meanwhile, the state unit of the BJP has also undergone a transformation. As long as Rahul Sinha was the state BJP president, BJP and RSS were operating almost independent of each other. Senior RSS pracharak Dilip Ghosh’s elevation to BJP state unit chief in 2015 has helped change that. He has helped ensure that every district unit of the BJP is guided by RSS leaders.
“Corruption and bad governance are fleeting issues. The only permanent issue (in Bengal) is the security of the Hindus and we have our focus set on our core agenda,” says Dilip Ghosh, BJP president , West Bengal
In Hooghly, for instance, RSS district chief Dipanjan Guha stepped aside to take charge of the district BJP unit.
Speaking to HT, Dilip Ghosh made their agenda clear. “Corruption and bad governance are fleeting issues. The only permanent issue is the security of the Hindus and we have our focus set on our core agenda,” he said.
The tactic seems to have paid rich dividends. While the RSS had 580 shakhas in West Bengal in 2011, they now have more than 1,500. Most of this growth has been in the districts of Kolkata, the North and South 24 Parganas, Hooghly, Howrah, Birbhum and West and East Midnapore.
In Hooghly, for instance, the number of daily shakhas has doubled, going from 25 in 2014 to 50 in 2017.
Politically, the activities of every Hindutva outfit will benefit BJP. The party hopes to consolidate majority Hindu votes by sharpening the polarisation. They would continue slamming Trinamool leaders over their alleged involvement in Saradha and Narada scams ahead of the panchayat elections due next year, but without losing the focus on Hindutva.
BJP has evidently sensed a kill. During a visit to its state office in north Kolkata on in the evening on May 4, this correspondent found only a couple of people who look after the office. The scene was quite in contrast to the pre-2015 picture when one would always find some of the leaders or workers.
“Leaders are spending more time of the field and less in the office,” said a middle-aged man who looks after the office