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India: Cultivating Communal Hatred in Bengal | Kumar Rana and Manabi Majumdar

29 November 2014

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Economic and Political Weekly, November 15, 2014

Blasts in Khagragarh in Bardhaman district in West Bengal on 2 October 2014 have led to growing anti-Muslim propaganda in the state. Such incidents related to political violence have their roots in the political-economic structure of central Bengal where rural surplus has led to uneven economic growth, paving the way to political domination of one class over another. This can be seen from the class structure of the rice belt of Bardhaman, Hooghly and part of Birbhum districts, where the proportion of agricultural labour is still very high, between 40% and 50%. There is an urgent need to separate such instances of criminal activities, related to the political economy, from those of the purported Islamic jihad.

The authors are indebted to Anirban Chattopadhyay and Dwaipayan Bhattacharya for helpful discussions, and Sabir Ahmed for generous sharing of data. Thanks are due also to Pia Sen, Mukhlesur Rahman Gain, Priyanka Basu, Toa Bagchi, Susmita Bandyopadhyaya, Subhra Das and Sangram Mukherji. A very preliminary draft of this article was partly presented at a talk at Ganadarpan, a social organisation of Kolkata, on 18 October 2014. The discussions following the talk proved to be immensely helpful. Usual disclaimers apply.

West Bengal is seized today by a brazen, irresponsible and unsubstantiated uproar about “Muslim fundamentalism”. In this brief and necessarily incomplete note, we seek to analyse this ferment against the recent blast that occurred in the district of Bardhaman, looking through the prisms of media activism, state surveillance and its electoral calculus, and finally through the lens of social justice.

Media Activism

A proactive media is discovering the wide network and the threatening spread of “anti-national”, “Islamic-fundamentalist jihadi”, and “terrorist activities” in the Gangetic plains. This distinct anti-Muslim hype, however, is not something new. Rather, a fresh round of revitalised divisiveness seems to be unfolding, disconcertingly with added dimensions. Not just a few newspapers, but almost the entire print and electronic media is engaged in a sort of “jihad” against the “terrorists with jihadi links”. Following the blast on 2 October 2014 inside a rented house at Khagragarh area of Bardhaman town, various sections of a hysterical media have relentlessly been competing with each other to draw mileage from one “discovery” after another, almost instinctively linking up essentially criminal activities with those taken up by Islamic institutions, mainly madrasas, and their followers, mostly persons bearing Arabic names. As evidence, it is suggested that “literatures in Arabic, Urdu and Bangla have been found” at the sites of the blast, in some madrasas and in the houses raided by the National Investigation Agency in connection with the investigation, but they are “yet to be deciphered” and it is yet to be known whether the literature as pertain to the general Islamic religious courses or something “conspiratorial”. This reminds us of the routine seizure of easy-to-find books and literatures (reportedly, including issues of the Economic & Political Weekly) from the suspected Maoists across the state some years ago! On a gloomier note, this reminds us of the infamous terrorist hunts by the security personnel and state police in different states of India, particularly in Jammu and Kashmir in recent times and in the Punjab in the 1980s.

There is no denying the fact a blast has taken place at Khagragarh, and certainly the incidence needed to be investigated and that the offenders associated with the unlawful act must be brought to book. This admitted, it is myopic to oversimplify issues beyond such obvious goals. For example, that there exists a cottage industry of explosives in several areas of the state is common knowledge, the clients of which are none other than political parties of all hues. Some of these outfits operate from Bardhaman, Birbhum and Hooghly districts – the so-called rice bowl of West Bengal and a site for large-scale violence and fight for political supremacy resulting in undemocratic turf wars that disallow even fielding of candidates by political parties other than the ruling one (Bhattacharya and Rana 2013; Rana 2013). It seems as though the media and other anti-terrorist advocates chose to ignore this culture of “explosives” in the electoral dynamics of Bengal and for that matter for most of the Indian states, only to manufacture “terror” afresh.

Also, several of the reports in the media failed to disclose their sources. We have been told, “Goenda-der sutre jana geche (it is learnt from the intelligence sources)” that Rajia (wife of Sakil Ahmed who was killed during the blast and was allegedly a Bangladeshi national) and Alima (wife of Abdul Hakim, injured during the blast), who were arrested and are now in custody, have been trained in Islamic jihad quite rigorously turning them into “steel-nerved” women, who have refused to disclose anything to the investigators. But they have apparently disclosed that they have learnt “how to slaughter people (manush kotal korteo sikhechi)” (Anandabazar Patrika, 7 October 2014). Through their disclosure a large network of terrorist activities has also been apparently uncovered. In these alternating narratives of suppression and confession, what remains missing is of course the vagueness of information.

Similarly, out of the number of books and literature that the investigating agency has seized from a madrasa, apparently there was one entitled “Bhalo Mrityur Upay – The Way to a Good Death”, easily available to buy. Immediately it was headlined: “Bhalo Mrityur Kee Upay Batlalo Madrasa (madrasa prescribes ways to a good death)” (Anandabazar Patrika, 14 October 2014). Another book, which was shown by the TV channels as a proof of jihadi training, was Golam Mortaja’s Chepe Rakha Itihas (The Suppressed History), copies of which are available in the public libraries and libraries of many eminent institutions. Madrasa after madrasa have been brought under the purview of “investigation” and as a result many of them have not reopened after the Eid vacation, out of fear. This fearful reaction from a number of madrasas is being interpreted as the “proof” of their being involved in suspicious activities such as training women jihadis.

In many villages, male adults have been leaving home for fear of repercussions; this reaction has been uncritically presented, in the media, as the “hard evidence” of their terrorist connection. Any student of history would remember how village after village became “male-free” during the Naxalite movement in the 1970s or at the time of the Lalgarh movement in 2008-10. The connection between fleeing and the felt experience of police atrocities committed upon innocent people is perhaps more real for the Muslims, who, as a statistical regularity, are subjected to arrest, beating and several other atrocious harassments. Their projection in the media reinforces, rather than reduces, this “destructive synergy” between unfair actions and fearful reactions.

And yet, the same raucous media, through its studied silence about the daily livelihood struggles of the largely indigent Muslim community in the state, works to invisibilise their presence. To quote the poet Sankha Ghosh (2003: 440-1),

Communalism keeps growing in our daily behaviour, through our behavioural belief, in the depths of our brain…We fail to notice how, imperceptibly, beneath our own eyes, another parallel nation takes shape inside this country; this disconnect between the two gradually metamorphoses into a complete divorce. Neither English nor vernacular dailies ever give an impression of the important presence of the Muslim community in the life of the state. In the school and college curricula on history and literature there is little reflection of the minority society outside the mainstream.

State Surveillance

One can see for oneself how differential the treatment is that is meted out to the Muslims by the Border Security Force (BSF), the state police, government officials and others. A Muslim is always a suspect, be it at the airport, at the passport office, line department offices, and so on. The “othering” of the Muslims, alas, is not confined to the state and its institutions. As it appears, the so-called civil society and the human rights organisations that have played very active roles in contemporary West Bengal (from Singur, Nandigram, Kamduni and Jadavpur) seem not to be interested in the Muslim minority issue. No civil rights organisation has so far appeared in the scene and Siddiquallah Chowdhury, leader of the Jamiat-Ulama-i-Hind had to announce legal aid for the two women arrested in connection with the blast (Anandabazar Patrika, 20 October 2014). The fear psychosis among the Muslims, therefore, is not something new: apart from the memories of communal riots, the reactivation of strategies to combat Islamic terrorism by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led National Democratic Alliance government in 2002, supported by the then Chief Minister of West Bengal Buddhadeb Bhattacharya who declared a “war on madrasas not affiliated to the West Bengal Board of Madrasa Education” (Indian Express, 26 January 2002), made the Muslims feel more vulnerable to state-tolerated attacks. This feeling of vulnerability combined with a strong sense of socio-economic deprivation that found reinforcement through the publication of the Sachar Committee report (which the Left Front government was reluctant to accept) made things politically complex and was partially responsible for the dislodging of the Left Front government from power in 2011.

Subsequently, the Trinamool government, in a rush to consolidate its electoral base, turned an issue of social justice and equal citizenship into a matter of identity-based nursing of constituencies with a clear potential to stir up communal divisiveness. For example, measures such as stipends for the Muazzins, recognition of 10,000 new madrasas, etc, were naturally seen by many non-Muslims as “Muslim-appeasement”. Also, concerns and campaigns about Islamic fundamentalism raised around activities of a section of Muslims across the border were not quite addressed by the Left regime, just as it never took the issue of socio-economic deprivations of Muslims in the state seriously. As the poet Sankha Ghosh (2003: 449) alerts us, “…as a reaction to this silent avoidance of the issue [activities of the Islamic fundamentalists in the border regions] many hitherto moderate Hindus are veering towards [Hindu] fundamentalism”. The loud discourse on terrorism on the one hand and the lack of evidence-based public debate on the other on concerns of infiltration as also of human development deficits of the Muslims in the state have led to a growing polarisation between non-Muslims and Muslims – a trend that fundamentalists of all hues encourage, as their interests curiously converge.

The socio-demographic disadvantage of the Muslims of the state (only 17% live in urban areas – the national corresponding average is more than double) has led to their under-representation in the power structure, disabling them from properly articulating their voice. Only a minuscule section, mainly urban, of the self-styled guardians of the community, has received political support from the major political parties. The so-called pro-Muslim politics pursued under the current regime has turned out to be politically counterproductive for the Muslims, with no move towards social justice, underlining instead religious boundaries more sharply.

The resultant sentiment has been used and nurtured with much care and sophistication by the BJP to harvest Hindu votes, indeed quite successfully (it has secured 17% of the total votes polled in the 2014 elections and has won two Lok Sabha seats). Now the party is even more resolute: Narendra Modi’s electoral speech in May 2014, against the Bangladeshi immigrants, has been echoed thereafter in Amit Shah’s by-election campaigns, and more recently in the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh chief’s “address to the nation” through the national television. As things stand now, the BJP and Sangh Parivar in alliance with the media have near successfully established in the non-Muslim mind that (a) Bangladeshi Muslims are regularly infiltrating the country in huge numbers, (b) they along with “all” the Muslims of West Bengal are conspiring against the nation, and (c) the madrasas are the grooming ground for terrorists. That these three claims are partly “manufactured” is clear from publicly available data.

The Infiltration Issue

Of a total 4,096.7 km Indian borders with Bangladesh more than half (2,216.7 km) encompasses West Bengal, and a large part of the border has already been fenced.1 While most of the border region is guarded by the BSF, a small part is under the surveillance of the Sashastra Seema Bal. Normal life in the border region seldom escapes the panoptican gaze of the BSF. During our visits to several border villages we got a glimpse of the treatment meted out to villagers by the BSF that was no less than harassment. But the harassment of the Muslim villagers was manifold, they were not free to exit or enter the village after sunset. This practice, however, does not square with the professed role of the BSF, which is to “promote a sense of security among the people living in the border areas”.2 But, the Hindu villagers enjoyed relatively more freedom. Significantly, many people have been routinely commuting across the border, with the help of the BSF. Illegal border trade, which can happen only with the help of the BSF, is hardly unknown to anybody in these areas. Transborder crime related to these activities is also a common happening. Again, these occurrences go against the declared role of the BSF: “ prevent transborder crimes, unauthorised entry into or exit from the territory of India” and “prevent smuggling or any other activities”.

However, the issue of commuting, which has got almost normalised, is different from the BJP’s claim regarding population explosion in West Bengal owing to (a) illegal immigration from Bangladesh, and (b) the allegedly higher rate of reproduction among Muslims. First of all, the decadal rate of population growth has been declining noticeably in West Bengal. In 2001-11, it is (13.9%) lower than the national average (17.6%), and much lower than what obtains in a state like Gujarat (19.2%) (Census 2011), where Muslim population is comparatively lower and which does not have to face “border issues” of a relative scale. It is true that the rate of decline of population growth in certain districts in West Bengal is not as sharp as in other districts, and that these districts have a higher concentration of Muslims and they share borders with Bangladesh. But there is no obvious connection here either with religious identity of the people or with the border theory.

Rather this can be attributed, following the general trend across the world about which a plethora of literature is available, to the general socio-economic status of the people inhabiting these districts. And there are counter-examples. In Uttar Dinajpur, where nearly half the population consists of Muslims, the decline in the rate of decadal population growth is 6 percentage points, which is greater than the state average (4 percentage points), and the corresponding figure for the district of Malda is comparable with the state average. Admittedly, the decelerating trend is not as significant among Muslims as it is among Hindus in the state (during 1981-91 and 1991-2001 the population growth rate for the Hindus were 21% and 14%, respectively, while the corresponding figures for the Mulsims were 37% and 26%).3 Still, judging from the overall decline in the rate of population growth in the state and the trend of decline among the Mulsims (11% during 1991-2001) one may safely conclude that detailed and disaggregated population data for Census 2011, when available, could indicate a falling rate of population growth among the Muslims of the state too. Also, a district-level comparison of population figures can be illuminating (district-level religion-wise data were made available only in the 2001 Census, and we have to wait till the release of the 2011 district-wise religion data for a district-level comparison). It is imperative, therefore, that we bend the arc of political debate vis-à-vis the Muslim community in the state away from various myths and fabrications in order to place at its centre issues of social justice.

Concerns of Justice

According to the findings of a Public Report based on a fairly large survey of over 97,000 households in the state, livelihood struggles remain the central experience of the Muslims here, as nearly 80% of them earn their livelihood through one form of manual labour or another.4 The same study revealed that in 17.3% of the surveyed households, the highest level of education was illiteracy and in another 11.8% of the cases this level happened to be below primary.

The culpability for such deficits in educational attainments of the Muslims has often been laid at their own doorstep, hinting at their lack of interest in their children’s schooling. The reality, however, tells us a diametrically opposite story. Studies have found that parental educational aspirations among the Muslims are comparable to those found among their Hindu counterparts. It is rather that a heightened demand remains unmet due to the lack of appropriate and adequate supply-side response (Majumdar and Rana 2012; Pratichi Trust 2009; Rana 2010; Santra and Rafique 2007). The survey mentioned above found 3% of the 325 surveyed villages having a population more than 1,000 people to have no educational institution at all. An analysis of the District Information System of Education (DISE) report for 2011-12 brings this situation up even more clearly: while blocks with Muslim population beyond 50% had 5.6 primary schools per 10,000 people, the corresponding figure for blocks with less than 15% Muslim population was 8.6, the state average being 7.2. Again, the pupil-teacher ratio for primary schools in the blocks having a 50% plus share of Muslim population was nearly 37:1, while the same was 23:1 for the blocks with the corresponding share of 15% or less, with the state average of 27 (Association SNAP and Guidance Guild 2014). The findings of the studies mentioned above, regarding expanding enrolment of Muslim children in the primary and secondary schools, were reinforced by the data from the Public Report: in 325 study villages the survey found 829 educational institutions of which only 22 were non-government madrasas. The average enrolment in different government institutions was as follows: primary schools – 220; SSKs (low-cost primary schools)5 – 144; upper primary schools – 312; MSKs (low-cost upper primary schools) – 272; secondary schools – 875 and higher secondary schools – 1,566. In all cases the figures far outnumber the state average.

Myth-making extends beyond the question of enrolment into areas of syllabi and curricula. The madrasas, it is alleged, only impart religious education (and engage in jihadi trainings). The recognised madrasas of West Bengal have, following a report of the Madrasa Reform Commision chaired by A R Kidwai (2002), thoroughly revised their syllabus and curriculum, and in the high madrasas the syllabus and curriculum are much broader in scope than what is found in the West Bengal Board of Secondary Education.6 Also, we have had the opportunity to visit some Khariji (Qaumi) madrasas that have been imparting science and language teaching alongside teachings of Quranic and other religious texts. A similar trend is also found in Bangladesh (Anam 2011). This is not to say that all madrasas are equally tolerant of free-thinking academic pursuits; nor is it claimed that no madrasa has any connection with illegal activities. There may be some madrasas, just like some schools run by Hindutvavadi organisations, that preach and help practise bigotry, jingoism and even militancy. But the way in which all madrasas are being painted with the brush of terrorism is not only a blatant untruth, it also deflects attention away from the woeful public neglect of human development conditions and opportunities that the Muslim community of the state, especially, deserves in the interest of social justice.

Crime Records

We conclude by paying a quick look at some of the available data on crime in the state. The popular opinion on crime and religion seems to find an automatic link between the Muslim community and terrorist/criminal activities. This line of argument draws strength from a unidimensional (mis)reading of available data ignoring multiple connections between class, social identity, governance structure, and geopolitical situations, etc, that jointly determine criminal behaviour. For example, data on prisoners collected, through a right to information application by researcher Sabir Ahmed, from various correctional homes for 2003-07 revealed that during the reference period Muslim prisoners outnumbered their Hindu prison mates (the rough distribution being 2:1.7 On a deeper probing of the data available from Alipore correctional home for 2012-13, it was found that the distribution of under-trial prisoners (who constituted more than 80% of the total for both Hindus and Muslims) was almost 1:1. Again, 41% of the Muslim undertrials were simply illiterate and another 49% had attended only primary school.

This alerts us to the complex class settings of the society, where, “law is also framed by the dominant groups” and acts of deprived groups “do not get social sanctions and thus become unlawful” (Shaban 2009). In all likelihood, Muslims, with lower degrees of educational achievements and thin social support on the one hand and the animosity of the law-keepers on the other, become easy prey for arrest and detention without trial. But, this does not anyway substantiate the fanatic claim that “Musalman manei criminal (by definition Muslims are criminals).”

That the propensity to crime is related to political economy can be seen clearly from the district-level crime data of West Bengal for 2012. The district of Bardhaman with only Muslim population of about 20% had a crime rate of 965 per 1,00,000 people, while the corresponding figure for Murshidabad with 64% Muslim population was 190 (GoWB 2014). Bardhaman being a district with agricultural surplus and preponderance of industries has a much higher degree of economic growth. And, as a study finds, “Economic growth has actually led to an increase in crime rates”,8 for several reasons – primarily economic but ultimately political.

The blast in Khagragarh that has led to the fanatic anti-Muslim propaganda has its root in the political-economic structure of central Bengal where rural surplus has led to an uneven economic growth paving the way to political domination of one class over another. This can be seen from the class structure of the rice belt of Bardhaman, Hooghly and part of Birbhum districts, where despite a highly flourishing agriculture, the proportion of agricultural labour is still very high, between 40% and 50%. These blocks make news headlines with large-scale political violence. These socio-economic trends need much deeper investigation. There is an urgent need to separate such instances of criminal activities, related to the political economy, from those of Islamic jihad. Propaganda along this line has already done a lot of harm to the country by alienating the Muslims from the rest of the population – the Meerut “love jihad” rumour is just a sample of myriad falsely constructed news9 – but equally sadly by desensitising the rest about their sense of alienation. Otherwise, it is hard to fathom how oblivious many of us are about what a report based on public hearings (Anhad 2011) on the issues of atrocities upon the minorities reveals:

The findings of tribunals were quite revealing about the condition of the Muslim minorities. Many a testimony moistened the eyes of the some of the jury members, the harrowing stories of mothers whose sons are being tortured, the wives whose husband has been made the victim of police atrocities; the third degree torture inside the police custody, the insensitivity of administration was all there, and was registered with pain and objectivity it deserved.

In the end, we revert back to the instance of whipping up of communal passion in Bengal in the 1960s and the description of the role that a vernacular daily played in such incitement that we find in the writings of Ashok Mitra. Importantly, there was a significant counterpoint to this development. The left intellectual Samar Sen was in effect editing another daily Hindustan Standard at that time. To quote Mitra (2007: 191-2),

The management apparently wanted Hindustan Standard to follow suit [to toe the line of the vernacular daily]….After an hour’s heated exchanges with the management one day, Samarbabu sent in his resignation, walked out of the office, took a tram from the Dharamtala crossing to Ballygunge and never went back.

There is no Samar Sen now; but, Samar Sens are not just brilliant individuals, they are very much a social product. Bengal society cannot afford to forget its history: the history of communal bloodbath and the heroic battles against the nightmarish violence.

The task of the society in general and intelligentsia in particular is not only to act to prevent communal bloodbath but also to fight for social justice, for ensured rights of each and every inhabitant of the land which is to be protected jointly by all its citizens irrespective of their religious allegiance, political affiliation, caste affinity or gender identity. It is centrally important now to pursue evidence-based research, clear-headed thinking and debates on the lives and livelihoods of people of Bengal including those from the Muslim community and to act upon their demands for justice. It is time that we begin again with counter-questions and counter-movements such that we steer clear of the destructively polar and polarising positions of either the public silence about the presence and the role of Muslims in the life of the state or the frenetic and embedded propaganda against them. The prerequisite of fighting terrorism is fighting injustice. Terrorisation in the name of countering terrorism, conversely, strengthens terrorism.


1 See accessed on 17 October 2014.

2 See, accessed on 17 October 2014.

3 Cited in Mainuddin (2010: 82.104).

4 See Association SNAP and Guidance Guild (2014), the survey was carried out by a group of activists and academics.

5 See Pratichi Trust (2002), Rana et al (2002).

6 See Gupta (2010). On the different types of madrasas see Puri (2012).

7 Computed from the data collected by Sabir Ahmed from Alipore Correctional Home, vide Memo No 1532/RTI-02/2012, dated 14 August 2012, Directorate of Correctional Services, Government of West Bengal, in response to the RTI application by him, dated 5 January 2012 and 7 July 2012.

8 See Dutta and Hussain (2009). Also see Ehrich (1973).

9 The Hindu, “U-turn by Meerut Girl on ‘Love Jihad’ ”, 14 October 2014; The Indian Express, “Their ‘Love Jihad’ Centrepiece in Tatters, Hindu Outfits See Plot in Meerut U-turn”, 23 October 2014.


Anam, Tahmima (2011): “An Education: Inside Bangladesh’s Madrasas”, The Guardian, Saturday, 21 May.

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– (2009): The Pratichi Education Report II, with an Introduction by Amartya Sen (Delhi and Kolkata: Pratichi Trust).

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Kumar Rana (k.rana7[at] is with the Pratichi Institute, Kolkata and Manabi Majumdar (manabimajumdar[at] is with the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta and the Pratichi Institute, Kolkata.


The above paper from Economic and Political Weekly is reproduced here for educational and non commercial use