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India: Why West Bengal state elections are a test for secularism

26.03.2021

India's West Bengal state has emerged as a key battleground for PM Narendra Modi's Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, which is looking to extend its national domination.

India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Hindu nationalist party are making a serious bid for electoral victory in the populous eastern state of West Bengal.   

To win power in the state, where a monthlong election begins on Saturday, Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has deployed its formidable election machinery.

The party's top leadership — including Modi and his powerful Home Minister Amit Shah — has also been relentlessly campaigning in the state, which has been ruled by the regional Trinamool Congress (TMC) party since 2011. TMC is headed by firebrand Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, a sharp critic of Modi.

The BJP currently controls a dozen of the country's 28 states, with alliance partners in several others. But it has never won power in West Bengal, whose 90 million people make it India's fourth most populous state.

Winning states is key to controlling the upper house of the national parliament whose members are elected by state assemblies. The BJP already has a huge majority in the lower house of parliament and will be in a better position to push through legislation through parliament.

03:45 mins.
DW News | 14.01.2020

Indian citizenship law brings protestors to the streets

Stoking religious polarization and discrimination?

The BJP is banking on its strong Hindu nationalist ideology to draw votes.

To galvanize Hindu support, the party is promising to deport hundreds of thousands of Bangladeshi Muslims who fled decades ago to West Bengal.

The BJP also enacted a controversial citizenship law in 2019. The Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) fast-tracks citizenship of Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi and Christian immigrants from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh who arrived in India before 2015.

However, it excludes Muslims, a move that has been denounced for undermining India's secular constitution. 

The government also has plans to implement a National Registry of Citizens (NRC), in what it says is an attempt to identify and deport illegal immigrants. But many fear that the registry will be used to target Muslims.

A similar exercise in India's northeastern state of Assam has already drawn condemnation as 1.9 million people, many from non-Hindu minorities, were not included in the list.

Kedarnath Mondal, an activist based in West Bengal's Malda district, said that the people residing in the floodplains of his district have lived there for several generations.

"Branding them as 'Bangladeshis' and moving them to a detention camp will destroy the years of activism we have undertaken to give these people their right to be recognized as residents of West Bengal," he told DW.

Activist Mondal says the people residing in the floodplains of the Malda district have lived there for several generations

Anti-Muslim sentiment underlies support for NRC

Residents of Hamitpur area, which falls under the jurisdiction of West Bengal, are unfazed by the talk of NRC.

A BJP leader here, who didn't wish to be named, is confident that the CAA will protect Hindu residents of the area, even if their names do not come up in the NRC list, like in the case of thousands of Hindus in neighboring Assam state.

"Many Hindus on these floodplains were persecuted by Muslims. When their (Muslim) population increases, they start kidnapping our girls, converting them to Islam and killing us," he alleged, without getting into specifics.

"There is an underlying anti-Muslim sentiment here, so no one is concerned about Hindu names in the NRC list. What we care about is kicking the Muslims out of the country," he said.

Sheetal Sarkar, a boatman, who belongs to one of India's so-called lower castes, echoes a similar opinion.

Sarkar's family migrated to India from Bangladesh's Pabna district in 1952.

"I am not scared to show any documents, if asked, for the NRC. Most of us are residents of India from birth. I have an issue with Muslim people moving from Bangladesh to India but wanting to keep their citizenship in both countries."

The floodplains and border regions may not play a major role in determining the outcome of the upcoming election

Electoral politics and right-wing agenda

The floodplains and border regions may not play a major role in determining the outcome of the upcoming election in West Bengal, but for the BJP, they will likely be a target area if they come to power.

Local BJP leaders have so far been quiet on the subject, but Home Minister Shah has stated several times that the NRC would be implemented in the state if his party comes to power.

Banerjee, the incumbent chief minister, has vehemently opposed the NRC and vowed to stop its implementation.

Shyam Mondal, a TMC leader in Malda, told DW that the BJP has generated false propaganda about Bangladeshi Muslims immigrating to India. "Look at the areas in Malda where Bangladeshi immigrants reside. Over 70% of them are Hindus. The NRC will be futile for the BJP, as their main voter base, Hindu Bengalis, will be the main losers from the exercise."

Sailen Mishra, a Bolpur-based activist, believes that the BJP is simply trying to take advantage of the simmering right-wing Hindu religious sentiment in the state.

"The NRC is an attempt to finish Dalit-Muslim unity by reducing them from the larger political narrative. The BJP preyed on the sentiments and insecurities of Bengali Hindus, particularly those from refugee families, which is why they won 18 of the 42 Lok Sabha (lower house of the national parliament) seats in West Bengal in 2019," he told DW.

West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee has been a sharp critic of Indian PM Modi

Propaganda and minority appeasement

While the BJP is trying to win over voters by promising economic development and an end to minority appeasement, Rajib Trivedi, a TMC worker in Malda, believes that his party has focused on infrastructural development.

"Mamata Banerjee has made significant progress in promoting women's education and improving physical infrastructure," he told DW. "She will create more jobs if she's given another chance," Trivedi added, saying that her achievements are being undermined by BJP propaganda. 

Shaan (name changed), a tea seller in Malda, wants to vote for the BJP as he believes the TMC prefers to appease Muslim voters at the cost of Hindus living in the area. "In 2017, Mamata didn't allow Hindus to immerse their idols at the time of the Durga Puja religious festival, as it clashed with Muharram," he told DW.

"If our interests are not taken into account, why would we want the TMC to come back to power?" he asked.

Mondal, the TMC worker, disagrees. "Banerjee was concerned that there might be riots if Durga Puja idol immersion happened at the same time as the Muharram procession. Since the idol immersion could take place on several days, she requested Hindus to do it on some other day, which angered many people."

In this ideological fight between the TMC and the BJP, it's unclear who is ultimately going to come out on top. Surveys have predicted a close race. And results are scheduled to be announced on May 2.