While the drama of legal battle between Mamata Government and the BJP regarding the latter’s Rath Yatra in West Bengal continues in Calcutta High Court, civil society and organisations are worried about the spectre of competitive communal politics in the state, aggressively pursued by both the ruling TMC and the opposition BJP. The proposed Rath Yatra covering almost the entire state is undoubtedly the BJP’s gameplan to push it’s agenda of deepening communal polarisation in the state ahead of the general elections.
In the recent past, West Bengal witnessed a number of communal riots and clashes, armed rallies of various Hindutva organisations raising anti-Muslim slogans during Ram Navami, aggressive celebrations of Hanuman Jayanti across the state. This in addition to various statements by central BJP leaders including Amit Shah threatening an NRC process and deporting Bengali Muslims from West Bengal to Bangladesh, has communally charged up the politics of the state.
With the collapse of CPI(M) and it’s increasing irrelevance in the electoral politics of West Bengal, the BJP with its aggressive brand of Hindutva has already emerged as the main opposition party to TMC in the state. The TMC with its electoral strategy of consolidating the near 27 percent Muslim vote in its favour, is accused of being soft on Islamic fundamentalist forces and is perceived by a large section of the Hindu population as not only corrupt and authoritarian but also as openly “appeasing” Muslims. Though this perception has some material basis, but it has been blown out of proportion by the BJP and various Hindutva forces. To counter this growing perception among the Hindu populace, Mamata Banerjee has significantly reduced public visibility of her association with Muslim signs and symbols, and has entered into a competition with the BJP in proving that her party is ‘more pro-Hindu’ than the BJP. The grand celebration of Hanuman by the TMC, the promise of building Sun Temples across the state, the alleged infiltration of Bajrang Dal and it’s near takeover and control in some areas by local TMC leaders are only a few examples.
It is in this context that the proposed Rath Yatra by the BJP throughout the state, passing through various sensitive places where riots had taken place in recent past, is worrying and alarming. “AAMRA – Ek Sacheton Prayas” (“We – A Conscious Initiative”), a civil organisation from the state is doing serious work in documenting the communal riots and disturbances by visiting the affected areas for the past many years. A team from the above collective recently visited all the places from where BJP’s Rath Yatra is to be flagged off.
We publish here the English translation of the fact finding report prepared by the above organisation which visited Gangasagar, a few days before Amit Shah was scheduled to flag off one of the Rath’s – basically a hi-tech luxurious air conditioned bus. The original Bengali report can be found here on AAMRA’s official Facebook page.
সব তীরথ বারবার, গঙ্গাসাগর একবার!
[Sab Tirath Baar Baar, Gangasagar Ekbaar!]
It is here that the proponent of Sankhya philosophy, Kapil muni (sage) arrived from Ayodhya to lose himself in the philosophical pursuit. According to the myth of the Puranas, the descendant of King Sagar, Bhagirath, got the Ganga from the Himalayas to the ocean. Gangasagar, a delta in the Sunderban areas, is the place where river Ganga meets the Bay of Bengal. Every year lakhs of virtuous devotees visit Gangasagar aka Sagardwip, in order to worship Kapil muni and Bhagirath.
Approximately 2 lakh people live on this island. Located near the international border of Bangladesh, Muslims are a slight numerical majority in the island. But throughout the year the place is visited by lakhs of devout Hindus. The Sagar block is comprised of 9 village panchayats. Every year depending on the position of the sun, devotees swarm to Gangasagar to celebrate Makar Sankranti (winter solstice) and take dip in the sea.
Like every year, the arrangements for Makar Sankranti have begun in Gangasagar this year too. But another event is supposed to take place 5 days prior to the day of the solstice. The Bharatiya Janata Party President Amit Shah is supposed to visit the island for his party’s “Rath Yatra”. The announced purpose of the yatra is to publicize the success of the present Central Government of Narendra Modi and to condemn the misrule of the State Government under Mamata Banerjee, and propagate the establishment of democracy in the state of West Bengal. But what could be the reasons for choosing this sparsely populated religious place for a political program? Twenty years ago, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad had established its first office here. Few years back, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), one of the principal organizations of the Sangh parivaar, also set up their office in Gangasagar. Recently the Sangh has started physical training programs of the local youths to initiate them into the political ideology of Hindutva.
Gangasagar is therefore not a sudden or random choice for the Rath Yatra. Various political activities have been taking place here for some time now. It is not difficult to understand that the Sangh Parivaar wants to increase the influence of Hindutva and establish their political authority in Muslim-dominated Gangasagar. But is there something more to the agenda? After all, Gangasagar is the land of Kapil, a proponent of Sankhya philosophy, a non-believer in God and an opponent of the Vedas. Does the choice of Gangasagar for Amit Shah’s Rath Yatra point at some long cherished plan of the Sangh Parivar? Kapil Rishi’s birth has already been linked to the Hindu god Vishnu. Will another godless Budhha be made into a reincarnation of Vishnu by the Sanatan Hindus? The atheistic rationalism of Sankhya is still one of the principal philosophical opposition to the Sanatanis. If the memory of that opposing philosophy can be twisted in its place of origin, then how difficult could it be then to appropriate the philosophy itself!
While conducting fact finding enquiries into recent communal riots in West Bengal, we realized it is necessary to intervene before the riots actually take place. It is necessary to unmask in advance the plans and preparations for such flare-ups. That way at least people could be informed and apprised of the facts behind the scenes. We hope that way the Government, which is aware of everything but does nothing, is also reminded of their duties. Our capability is limited. We are trying to do as much as we are capable of, but we wish we could do much more.
Before Amit Shah’s Rath Yatra, as representatives of “AAMRA- Ek Sachetan Prayas” [“We – A Conscious Initiative”], we visited Gangasagar. We spoke to different people, political workers and leaders. Our attempt was to understand the demography based on religion, the relationship between different communities, their major professions, socio-political conditions, the attitude of people towards BJP’s Rath Yatra and the response of the political parties to this program.
We met an old man in a tea shop near the place where we were staying. As we spoke of the purpose of our visit he introduced us to Rustam Sheikh, a man in his sixties. Sheikh Rustam Ali, is a local leader of the Trinamool Congress. After we introduced ourselves and told him the purpose of our visit, here is what he told us:
Sheikh Rustam Ali
President, Trinamool Congress Minority Cell, Sagar Island.
“Both the communities have historically lived peacefully in this Sagar Island. Though the Viswa Hindu Parishad set up their office here some twenty years back, but still it didn’t cause much of a problem. The troubles started in 2008. One day they brought a lot of people from outside. Many of them were staying in the Dharmashala of Kolkata Textile Traders Association. They took bath in the sea, and then while rallying back to the Dharmashala they raised anti-Muslim slogans. ‘Gangasagar mein rahna hai, toh topi-Quran chodna hai [In order to stay in Gangasagar, dump your topi and Quran]’. Listening to these slogans many Hindus among the local Van drivers walked up to them and raised objections. In response, the outsiders/visitors attacked these people. Following this incident, people from the Sagar gheraoed the Dharmashala-office and protested. Then the police came and arrested them. As much as I can remember the police arrested twenty of them. We were also arrested on a counter-case based on false charges. That case is still not closed.
In response to BJP’s Rath Yatra, Trinamool Congress has decided that a rally will be held from Bridge No. 2 in Gangasagar till Bus stand No. 5 where Hindus and Muslims together will perform Hindu prayers and Quran readings, based on their own religious choices. The party has appealed us to not get provoked; we should maintain distance from the route followed by the Rath Yatra.”
After speaking to Sheikh Rustam Ali, we come out of the tea stall. As we took a few steps, someone from behind commented, “These guys also won’t be there for long!”
We turned back and asked “Who are you referring to?”
“These TMC people!”
“What do you mean by ‘there’”?
“In power I meant, where else!”
“Why? What happened so suddenly?”
“All of them are thieves! From hair to toe…”
“Which party do you belong to?”
“You are calling your own party a thief? Why are you still in it then?”
“I don’t have an option!”
“How do they get so many votes, if they are thieves?”
“If we don’t vote for them, whatever little is happening will also stop. That’s why”
“Got it. But what is your opinion about the Rath Yatra?”
“Muslims are scared. Who wants trouble anyway!”
“Do you think there will be some trouble?”
“No one from here will create any. But if the outsiders who are coming with the Rath create tension, then yes trouble will happen.”
“Can we know your name?”
He told us his name. But also requested us not to disclose it.
After this, our fact finding team proceeded towards the newly built Kapil Muni shrine. His original ashram was lost in the ocean since long. In 1973, a temple was built off the coast. In 2013, the temple was reconstructed under the supervision of Satnami Akhara (based in UP). When we reached, evening prayers had begun in the temple. We ran into a sanyasi called Tiger Baba, who moves around on a bicycle. Everything from his shoes to his bicycle bore the name “Tiger Baba”.
“Where do you stay?” we asked him.
“Here in a hut. Earlier I used to live in Delhi”.
How did you reach here?
“There it is way too polluted!”
We didn’t want to disturb the other sanyasi’s immersed in prayers, and proceeded towards the sea. We had tea, and got into a “Toto” (battery operated Rickshaw van). Our destination was Sheikh Ismail’s residence. He was once an influential CPI(M) leader. He is a well-known name in this area. Our Toto-driver said he knew Ismail’s house, which turned out to be quite far from the sea beach. Our Toto driver called out his name as we reached the collapsible gate of his house. Ismail, roughly 70 years old, himself came out. He brought us chairs to sit. We introduced ourselves and told him about the purpose of our visit.
Ex-President of the Sagar Panchayat Samiti, CPI(M) District committee member.
“You are a senior political organiser in this area. Have you noticed any impact on the local population of BJP’s Rath Yatra plans in Sagardwip? Have you taken up any activities on behalf of your party?”
“This Rath Yatra is completely political. BJP wanted to start the Rath Yatra from the Kapil muni temple. But the head priest of the temple objected. Finally it was decided that the Rath Yatra would be flagged off from a point 100 meters away from the temple. Just opposite to the temple is a Muslim-majority village. They are anxious. Two years back the BJP-RSS tried fomenting conflict in this area. They were shouting provocative slogans against Muslims. On behalf of our party we have taken various activities against such communal programs. We have been asking everyone to stay vigilant. The Rath Yatra can spark trouble anytime. Our District Convenor Shamik Lahiri and State level leaders like Sujan Chakraborty are going to visit Gangasagar on 4th December. We have asked our comrades to keep their eyes open.”
“How much influence does the BJP or RSS have here?”
“Although they are few in number, but there are some BJP supporters here. But it’s still not clear who are in the leadership.”
“Historically BJP was never a political force in Sagardwip. Then where did these people come from now?”
“Political workers and supporters are switching to these Hindu groups, from different political parties. Every party has a bunch of people who are opportunists. Of those who have recently joined the BJP, around half of them have done it with the hopes of earning money. Out of those with the BJP now, 90% were our party members. After TMC came to power in the state, a big chunk of such people went and joined the ruling party. A section of those people have now shifted to the BJP after they did not get the favours they expected from TMC. VHP runs a camp in Sagardwip. They conduct trainings there. Trainers come from outside. So far, because of fear from the ruling party, they haven’t yet started their publicity drive for the Rath Yatra. But it’s only a matter of time, because they have the power of money.”
“What is the TMC doing for the Muslims here?”
“The allegation that TMC is appeasing the religious minority for the sake of votes, is true. There is no logic behind government providing subsidy for salary of Imams. In that case, why won’t there be subsidy for Brahman priests? We have heard that TMC has decided to conduct prayer recitations, Gangajal sprinklings, Quran readings, etc., as a counter to BJP’s Rath Yatra. All this in the long run is only going to further communal polarisation.”
“A communist party, a left Government ruled the state for 34 years. How much of an initiative was taken to propagate secular, atheistic values in the society?”
“We haven’t been able to do that work.”
We couldn’t reach a conclusion on what were the main reasons behind such incapabilities of the Left Government – whether it was electoral concerns or was it the social risk behind talking about atheism in this country. Our conversation ended with Ismail alleging the TMC’s role in making corruption a social norm, from road construction projects to building of schools, based on his own personal experience.
From talking to various people, shopkeepers, van pullers, toto-drivers, we realized that the main occupation of people here is agriculture, spanning paddy, vegetables and paan (beetle leaf) cultivation. Other that this, people also depend on fishing in the river and the ocean, small business, transportation service etc. At times, cyclonic depressions bring clouds of anxiety in the daily life of people here.
On the following morning we went to the sea beach. The beach was crowded with pilgrims mainly coming from northern India. The wide road between the temple and the beach was lined by countless small shops selling artifacts made from sea shells, conches and jute. One of these shops happens to be the shelter for Tiger Baba whom we met the previous evening. He was standing in front of his shack. It was filled with images of numerous gods and goddesses, and Sanskrit mantras written in Bengali script.
“Are you a Bengali?”
“Yes”, he said. “But my connection with Bengal was only during my childhood days”.
“Where was your home?”
“Dhaka-Bikrampur, in Bangladesh. Then Delhi, after I lost everything in the riots. In Delhi everyone knew me… from Indira Gandhi to Atal Behari. I worked as a trainer of tigers in Thailand. Here it’s only oppression. You will see if you stay for Makar Sankranti…”
After a while we found that his conversation was becoming incoherent and hard to follow. Added to this was a constant outpouring of steep anger and hatred coming from the childhood experience of having lost everything in riot. Even sanyas hasn’t helped him to get over this anger-hatred-despise. We left with a feeling of sadness for the old man.
Our next destination was the VHP office, near the bus-stand. A sizeable, 2-storeyed building. We ran into a young man at the main gate of the office.
“Is there any karyakarta around … Whom we could talk to?” The man in his forties took us inside. There was an open space inside the building. He went in and came back from inside with an old man, in his mid sixties. After formal introductions, he said, “My name is Satyanarayan Mouryawala. Actually it is Agarwala. But I use Mauryawala. I stay in Kolkata, near Girish Park. I have a shop in Barabazar.”
VHP Activist, Gangasagar
“How old is this VHP office? What activities do you conduct from here?”
“It’s been almost 20 years. At that time this was a low lying land. We raised the ground level by dumping soil. And then we built this building. Slowly over time the building grew in size. Construction is still going on.. Here we arrange for the accommodation of Gangasagar pilgrims. Every year we cater to almost 1500 people. We are dedicated to community service.”
“Are you also connected with the RSS?”
“I was once with them, when I was younger. Now I am with VHP.”
He spoke fluent Bengali, though a slight Hindi influence revealed his non-Bengali roots. “Do you have an identity card?” he asked.
We produced our IDs. He noticed the mention of JU, and asked, “JU as in Jawaharlal Nehru …?” We had to stop him, “It’s Jadavpur University”. Satyanarayan immediately retorted, “Wo bhi toh communist logon ka den hai!” [That too is a Communist den!]
“But not everyone there is a Communist. How are your preparation for Rath Yatra going?”
“About the Rath Yatra, you should talk to Abani babu. He is a local, and he can tell you about it.” He called out to the earlier man who took us inside. Mr. Abani came and sat facing us.
His full name was Abani Pradhan. He is an RSS-trained Swayamsevak, and has worked in various districts over the years. Currently he is in charge of Sagar island. But he described himself as a “VHP worker”.
Abani told us, “There are pressures here from the ruling party. So it is difficult to take up local programs. TMC has decided to shut down transport vehicles on the day of the Rath Yatra, to make it difficult for people to join. But we are getting good response from the common people.”
“How is your relation with the local Muslim population here?”
“Our organisation is completely social service oriented, it is not a political organisation. Here Muslims are often provoked into communal things. Around 10 years back there was an incident of voilence. Things were set on fire. A lot of property was destroyed. The Calcutta Textile Traders Association’s guesthouse and Hindu Sanhati office were also attacked.”
“How is RSS’s work going on here?”
“Free coaching classes are being run for students from 1st to 5th grades. Regular camps are organised for the physical and psychological development of youth.”
“Would you let us stay here if we visit?”
“Yes, of course! But only Hindus are allowed. Also there is no place here for people who consume fish, meat, eggs or alcohol.”
From here we started for the Textile Traders Association guesthouse. Its maintained like a usual hotel. One of the workers in charge there told us that the Guesthouse is only for families. But we were also told that frequent residential camps are also organised here. In 2008, participants of one such training camp, while returning in a rally after taking dip in the sea, started shouting anti-Muslim slogans. Some people on the streets objected, at which point these trainees charged at them. That sparked the violence that time.
Here we also met a young person, who is connected with the BJP. From him we got the contacts for the General Secretary of the party’s Sagar Block committee, Buddhadeb Bhuiyan. We spoke to him over phone.
General Secretary, Sagar Block Committee, BJP
“How are the Rath Yatra preparations going?”
“They are not letting us to campaign. They are threatening us with social boycott. Local people are getting scared of facing backlash from the ruling party. People are in terror.”
“Is there an apprehension of any trouble?”
“The ruling party might create clashes. We are apprehensive of that. We have informed the administration. Sunderban Development Board is also dilly-dallying with giving permissions. Let’s see what happens!”
“How likely is it that provocative slogans will be raised from your rally?”
“Nothing of that sort will be done by us. We will try to ensure that no such thing happens.”
We then spoke with a Madrasa worker from Bamonkhali village, Khalilullah Khan. He told us, “The majority population in Sagardwip is Muslim. Because of the pilgrimage and tourism, land prices here have grown in leaps and bounds. RSS wants to cleanse this island of Muslims. They keep engineering conflicts now and then, with that purpose. This Rath Yatra is a part of that political conspiracy. While there is harmony between Hindus and Muslims, there is also conflict. True harmony can only be built by opening up our kitchens for one another. Otherwise it is going to be very difficult!”
An anonymous TMC worker
On our way back we met with another young person at a tea stall. He is a businessman by profession. Aged around 40, he is a member of the Muslim community, and is connected with Trinamul Congress. On condition of anonymity, he told us, “Power strife is happening, using religion as a mask. Believers from both communities are being pitched against each other. BJP is reaping the benefits by instigating the Hindus, while the ruling party is using the Muslims for its own political purposes.”
“How exactly is this polarization playing out here?”
“Around a year back, the BJP decided to conduct “World Peace Yagna” in front of the Kapilmuni temple. The local TMC leadership instigated the Muslim community members to oppose this. Why should temple premises be used for political programs, is what they wanted people to ask the organisers. The poor gets killed in riots, how much the babus care about it!”
“Are the Muslim community members realizing this?”
“If not everyone, but many have figured out their cunning game!”
We bode farewell to this conscious young man, and proceeded towards Kochuberia to return back.
Once upon a time, because of its inaccessibility, a popular adage that was used was “Sab tirath baar baar, Gangasagar ek baar” [All other pilgrimages can recur, but Gangasagar is once in a lifetime]. Today traveling to Gangasagar is comparatively much easier. Today, the government’s tourism booklet on Gangasagar proclaims “Sab tirath ekbar, Gangasagar baar baar”.
Now it doesn’t take too time to reach Gangasagar from Kolkata (provided the vessel from Harwood point to Kochuberia is on time!).
We returned with the desire to revisit again. However, we couldn’t leave without an anxiety. Would the traders of politics be able to restrain their greed for power, and leave this island in peace? Would these politicians allow the two different communities to live together in peace like they have been doing for thousands of years till now?
More recent updates
 On 6th December morning, Sagardwip TMC leader Sheikh Rustam Ali called and said, “Our party program has undergone a slight revision. We have now decided to conduct a public meeting in protest against BJP’s Rath Yatra, on 8th December at Number 5 bus-stand in ‘Sagar’. And on 10th, we will take out a peace rally from Gangasagar to Kochuberia”.
 The Kolkata High Court stayed Amit Shah’s Rath Yatra in Coochbehar, till the next hearing on 9th January, citing issues of law and order.
 On 20th December, High Court judge Topobroto Chakraborty passed an order allowing the “Ganatantra Bachao” Rath Yatra, condemning the State Government for being unreasonable and whimsical in trying to disallow it.
 The State Government filed an appeal to a higher division bench, against the 20 December order. On 21st December, the division bench yet again stayed the Rath Yatra.
The “AAMRA – Ek Sachetan Prayas” [“We – A Conscious Initiative”] fact-finding team members who drafted this report, included Sushmita Roychowdhury, Subhash Das, Farook ul Islam, Mohit Ranadeep. AAMRA stands for “An Assemblage of Movement Research and Appraisal”.
The report has been translated from Bengali to English by GroundXero.
Photos are courtesy the fact-finding team.