The 30-year-old resident of Makhra village in Birbhum is a claimant to multiple identities: the breadwinner in a family of three, a farmer, a day labourer, a caring father and a practising Muslim.
Rehman is also a BJP activist, having switched over from the Trinamul Congress in a district where political clashes have signalled what appear to be stirrings of a shift in affiliations in parts of Bengal.
The support of the Birbhum youth is expected to come in handy for Modi — and his party president Amit Shah — as they press ahead with their Mission Bengal and try to nail “the myth” that Muslims do not support their party.
Sen, the Nobel laureate who traces his roots to the same Bengal district that is now in the news for political clashes, had celebrated the complexities of human identity and presented a critique of the politics of identity in his 2006 book, Identity and Violence: The Illusion of Destiny.
Sen had contended in the book that religion cannot be the sole identity and people should not be pigeonholed purely in terms of faith. He had argued that the freedom to choose identity affiliations is the antidote to divisive extremism — a contention that challenges the “solitarist” approach of ideologies that critics associate with the Sangh parivar and sections of the western world.
Rehman, a school dropout, is not aware of Sen’s arguments against the “solitarist” approach that locks up everyone in tight little boxes of one-dimensional identities.
But Rehman’s stark words echo Sen’s hypothesis, although it is not universally accepted.
“Amar aage pran, tarpore dhormo…. Bou-bachcha-ke niye shanti-te duto kheye banchte hobe. Tai BJP korchhi (Being alive is more important than religion…. I need to live with my family in peace and with two square meals a day. That’s why I am supporting the BJP),” Rehman said, holding his daughter Shamima close to him.
He was responding to a question from The Telegraph on what led him to support the BJP.
Similar questions have taken centre stage in Ilambazar block, where Trinamul-BJP clashes have claimed at least five lives in the past few months. The skirmishes peaked in the past 10 days when a turf war broke out in Choumandalpur and Makhra, two villages that fall in the block.
Against this backdrop, Rehman’s disclosure is certain to be seized on by the BJP as evidence of its growing acceptability among the minorities as the party prepares to take on Mamata Banerjee in the 2016 Assembly elections.
But two caveats before the BJP jumps to any conclusions.
One, Rehman represents a shift that is so far restricted to a dusty corner of Bengal.
Two, the push factor from the rival, not exactly the pull factor from the BJP, is drawing people like Rehman to their new affiliations.
A visit to villages like Makhra and Choumandalpur reveals that poor Muslim villagers are switching allegiance to the BJP because of their disenchantment with Trinamul, a party they had embraced with fathomless hope around three-and-a-half years ago.
Several Trinamul insiders admitted that the party was fast losing out to the BJP in Ilambazar block with a population of around 3 lakh, of which over 60 per cent are Muslim.
The area had been a Left stronghold but the 2009 Lok Sabha elections portended the winds of change to come. The Left vote share dipped in the Bolpur Lok Sabha constituency and it lost the Birbhum parliamentary seat to Trinamul, triggering an exodus from the quaking Left to the rising power.
The transition was complete in the 2011 Assembly elections in which Trinamul won six of the 11 seats in Birbhum — an emblematic surge from the party’s tally of one MLA in the district in 2006.
Three years after the milestone elections, the Left continues to bleed in Birbhum — once part of the impregnable Red citadel in central Bengal. Some villagers are now viewing the BJP as the Opposition force than can fill the vacuum the Left has shown little ability or inclination to fill.
“Some of our party supporters want the BJP to take on Trinamul as we have failed to organise any major movement in the district though discontent is brewing in the area,” said a senior district CPM leader.
Dudh Kumar Mondal, the BJP’s district president, said that anti-Trinamul forces were coming under the BJP’s fold and conceded that his party had been taken by surprise.
“The rise in support for our party has come as a surprise to us…. We didn’t even know that village after village has been silently switching over to the BJP,” Dudh Kumar Mondal said.
Sheikh Alehim, 25, and S.K.S. Jamal, 28, of Choumandalpur said “hope” had made them switch to the BJP from Trinamul a few months ago. “Hope” was the magnet that drew countless voters to Trinamul’s paribartan slogan in 2011.
The identity of “hope” is economic — and the very basic need of ensuring survival.
“We haven’t been paid for 100 days’ work for a year. Trinamul panchayat members demand money to issue certificates and when we protest, they threaten us. Our concerns with the rising prices of seeds and fertilisers do not bother them. The Trinamul leaders have become rich in a short period; they move around in cars and own property but our conditions have only worsened,” said Alehim.
“In our village, we need political protection to raise our voice against Trinamul. The CPM is not here any more…. The BJP is the only hope and all of us have joined the BJP,” he explained, as others standing around him nodded in agreement.
The young man’s family has four bighas of double-crop land, which barely meet the rice requirements of the seven people at his home and spare nothing that can be sold in the market.
“I have been to Ranigunj, Durgapur and Asansol to work as a day labourer. I have also gone to Chennai…. There is nothing here,” said Alehim.
There is hardly a pucca house in this village of around 400 families, most of whom have very small landholdings and have to work as daily labourers to earn and meet their needs beyond rice.
Alehim, who returned from Chennai for the sowing season around a month and a half ago, came back to his village after nine days on Monday to collect relief materials the district administration was distributing among the villagers.
The relief distribution by police constables in T-shirts has an ironic ring for the villagers, who said they had to face police brutality on the night of October 24. A section of the villagers had beaten back a police team that day from Makhra during a raid to unearth bombs allegedly stored there.
Alehim, who had fled fearing arrest, insisted that the “police atrocity” on the pretext of the bomb hunt was intended at terrorising those who had crossed over to the BJP.
Trinamul leaders, including Mamata, these days make oblique references to the BJP. But Anubrata Mondal, the Trinamul Birbhum chief who is known outside the district for advising his party workers to hurl bombs at the police, said that the BJP’s rise was nothing but a creation of the media.
“There are over 1,900 villages in the district in 167 gram panchayats…. The BJP is present only in eight or nine villages,” said Mondal, sitting in a fortified party office that has CCTV cameras and an army of supporters who scan every visitor.
Mondal’s homework cannot be dismissed outright. Out of the 167 gram panchayats, Trinamul holds sway in more than 115. Of the 42 zilla parishad seats in the district, Trinamul has 26. The BJP has a presence in only Ilambazar, Bolpur, Mayureshwar I and II and Rampurhat I blocks — out of a total of 19 in Birbhum.
But Sheikh Samad, a BJP leader in Ilambazar block who cut his teeth in politics as a local committee member of the CPM, borrowed a farming metaphor to suggest Mondal was making the same mistake the Left had five years ago.
“When the pests start affecting a part of the paddy field, they take very little time to spread. You just wait and see how our party grows,” Samad said at his home in Parui.
Samad, a short and stocky man wanted in connection with the murder of Trinamul activist Suleman Sheikh, said the Trinamul leadership was using the police and implicating BJP leaders like him. Sadai Sheikh, a prominent BJP leader in Ilambazar block, is also an accused in the same murder case while Nimai Das is now in jail in several cases of attempt to murder.
Mondal, who had been named in the Sagar Ghosh murder FIR but not in the chargesheet, said: “People like Nimai, Sadai and Samad are criminals who have taken refuge under the BJP fold… They are the main force behind the BJP, capturing some villages by terrorising people with bombs and bullets. The administration will take care of them.”
Administration is the key to political power in Birbhum. The erstwhile Left government was accused of implicating Opposition leaders like Kajol Sheikh, a Trinamul strongman in Nanur block, in over 30 cases ranging from murder to extortion.
Kajol lost his two brothers and father in clashes with the CPM for the control of Suchpur, which hit the headlines in 2000 when 11 people died in a Trinamul-CPM clash. With the police and the CPM cadres after him, Kajol ran away to Bolpur. Having secured bail in all the cases after the change of guard in the state, Kajol is now the satrap of Nanur, around 24km from Bolpur.
Cases are pending against BJP leaders like Sadai, too, but these leaders are not overly worried about police action, probably because the party holds the reins at the Centre. The confidence of the leaders has trickled down to the lower rungs — and the BJP has gained.
“The BJP has successfully played the administration card and convinced the people that it can offer shelter from Trinamul goons while we have failed to protect common villagers who have gone against Trinamul for valid reasons,” admitted Gautam Ghosh, a CPM district secretariat member.
Several villagers in Makhra, Choumandalpur and Parui echoed the CPM leader. “We were feeling cheated by Trinamul. But whenever we tried to protest, we were threatened…. We needed a shelter and the BJP has provided that,” said Abul Kalam of Makhra village.
BJP state president Rahul Sinha said that he was aware that the villagers were coming under the BJP fold to save their lives. “Trinamul is trying to retain its control by terrorising people…. But we won’t let that happen,” Sinha said.
While there is little doubt that fear is driving some people to the BJP, two questions remain: how durable the loyalty will be and whether it will be enough to weaken Trinamul. The first test will come next year when elections to four municipal bodies in Birbhum are expected to be held.
Winning such a battle depends on organising political movements, on which the BJP leaders do not seem to have focused so far.
“Yesterday, some BJP supporters went with relief materials but returned after a brief argument with the cops when they were not allowed to enter because of prohibitory orders. Had Mamata gone there as an Opposition leader, she would have probably sat there till the police budged,” said a political scientist.
The lesson from Makhra appears to hold true for both Trinamul and the BJP. Mamata cannot hope to count on the minority vote forever by raising the BJP bogey — just as the BJP cannot hope to win over Bengal by solely playing on the fears of the disgruntled.
-The Telegraph, Calcutta