The recent mob violence in Malda district feeds into attempts by the TMC and the BJP to make inroads into three Congress-dominated districts in central Bengal.

While conspiracy theories swirl around it, the incident of mob violence in West Bengal’s Malda district, as it unfolded on January 3, has a fairly linear narrative. A little-known Muslim organisation, Anjuman Ahle Sunnatul Jamaat, had called for a rally at Kaliachak to protest against an alleged derogatory remark made by a leader of Hindu organisation in Uttar Pradesh insulting Prophet Muhammad. The rally elicited a turnout of around 30,000 people. Midway into this jamaat (assembly), a section of the crowd broke away from the rally and attacked the Kaliachak police station, hurling stones, injuring many policemen, torching 30-odd vehicles and even firing a few shots — hardly an unusual instance in an area where firearms abound.

The rampaging mob then proceeded towards a residential enclave, Baliadanga, behind the police station. Around 3 p.m., a special combat force, supported by a large contingent of district police, reached the area. The situation was finally brought under control after several rounds of firing.

Lawlessness or communal violence?

It was, however, later reported by a section of the media that the incident was communal in nature, something district police say “escalated tensions” in the area. What intrigues many in Malda is that more than a week after the news of it when normalcy has already returned to the district, it is still snowballing in the rest of the country courtesy social media. Several residents of Malda and the local chapter of the civil rights group, Association for Protection of Democratic Rights (APDR), insist that the violence “was not communal in nature by a long shot”.

“When policemen are killed in non-Muslim areas, it is termed ‘lawlessness’, and when a police station is set afire in a Muslim-majority district, it is labelled communal,” says APDR’s Malda chapter secretary Jishnu Roy Chowdhury, pointing at a police station in central Kolkata being attacked thrice in the past few days but the press largely choosing to ignore it. What, then, could possibly explain the wanton arson and violence by people ostensibly protesting against remarks allegedly made in mid-December in another State? Kaliachak Block I president Mozahar Hossain, a member of the Trinamool Congress (TMC) which is in power in the State, claims that the violence was essentially a case of lawlessness, of opium cultivators of the area — known for its large-scale trade in opium for decades — hitting back at the police for having stepped up anti-poppy operations recently. “Winter is the time when poppy seeds are sown. This year the police was proactive in preventing poppy cultivation and rightly so,” he says.

The South Bengal chapter of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), however, believes it was a clear attack on the Hindus. “The fundamentalists targeted the Hindu villages in the neighbourhood, shooting and injuring two villagers,” says RSS worker Jishnu Basu. “A police station has been looted. Many documents, case diaries, CDs, intelligence reports were destroyed. Rifles were taken away. How many have been recovered? People do have the right to know… [at a time] when an incident like the one in Pathankot occurred, is it not alarming to have an incident [like Malda] on the eastern frontier?” he adds.

Lawlessness or communal violence, the incident is likely to feed into frenetic attempts by the TMC and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to increase their presence and electoral performance in three Congress-dominated districts in central Bengal — Malda, Murshidabad and Uttar Dinajpur. In the 2011 Assembly elections, the Congress bagged 30 of the 42 seats in alliance with the TMC which won three; going it alone in the last general election, it still ended up with a lead in nearly 30 of the 42 Assembly segments.

With increasing likelihood of a Congress-CPI(M) alliance ahead the 2016 Assembly elections, a strong polarisation in the three districts will not only work to the advantage of the BJP, a growing force in the State, but also of the TMC. The ruling party might have led in only one of the 42 Assembly segments in the general election but its vote share was substantial. For example in Malda South Lok Sabha constituency, where Kaliachak is located, TMC got nearly two lakh votes [more than 20 per cent]. In other Lok Sabha constituencies of central Bengal such as Jangipur, Murshidabad and Baharampur, the party has scored between two to three lakh votes [25-30 per cent].

The combined might of the Congress and the CPI(M) — if one adds their vote shares secured in the last general election — would be insurmountable for the TMC in a straight fight in central Bengal. In case of a calibrated polarisation, however, if the TMC can increase its vote share by another 5-10 per cent among the minorities and BJP garners 5-10 per cent of Congress’s Hindu vote, the TMC can obtain 20-plus seats in central Bengal in the event of a triangular contest — something that might offset an expected drop in its tally in its bastion, South Bengal.

A limited increase in the BJP’s vote share, thus, bodes well for the TMC. It’s no surprise then that the Malda maelstrom has the Congress most worried. “The incident seems to have been portrayed in a manner which suits the purpose of both the TMC and the BJP,” says State Congress president Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury.