In November 2019, India’s Supreme Court approved the construction of a Hindu temple on disputed land in the northern town of Ayodhya, where there was once a medieval-era mosque.
Around the same time, authorities in the state of West Bengal – about 900km (559 miles) away – fenced a two-acre (0.8-hectare) land parcel in a sleepy neighbourhood of Hooghly district and barred all entry.
Hindu pilgrims argue the site, with remnants of a mosque and a robust minaret, in Pandua town about 100km (62 miles) north of Kolkata, the capital of the West Bengal state, is a Hindu shrine of goddess Shrinkhala Devi.
This is precisely how the movement to build a temple for Hindu deity Ram in Ayodhya started. In 1949, Hindu activists surreptitiously placed idols of Ram inside the Babri Mosque. It was eventually demolished by Hindu mobs in 1992.
India’s governing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) rose to political prominence on the back of the temple movement, which was launched by its ideological parent – the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS).
The RSS – a Hindu revivalist organisation – and its affiliate organisations such as Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP or World Hindu Council) want to convert dozens of mosques across the country into temples. They say these Muslim places of worship were built after demolishing Hindu temples, though in most cases official records say otherwise.
The disputed shrine in Pandua, locally known as Badi Masjid (big mosque) is among them.
The shrine of Zafar Khan Gazi, a few kilometres south of the disputed Pandua mosque shrine, is now guarded by gun-wielding private security guards amid Hindu-Muslim tensions.
Pandua – like most of the nondescript towns of Bengal – is known for its syncretic culture – where Muslims and Hindus have lived together for centuries, often jointly organising their festivals.“We have never witnessed any communal animosity ever,” said Sheikh Moktar, 59, an administrative member of the local Islamic school in Pandua, home to 200,000 people, a quarter of them Muslims.
But in recent years, the communal amity in this once communist bastion seems to have frayed, particularly after Hindu right-wing groups started to push a hardline agenda. Analysts say right-wing Hindu groups linked to the BJP have used religious mobilisation for celebrations such as Ram Navami, which marks the birthday of the Hindu Lord Ram, for political gains.
The annual Ram Navami celebrations have witnessed thousands marching with swords, falchions and machetes, and shouting slogans in praise of Ram and playing songs denigrating Islam.
At an April 2017 Ram Navami rally in Chandannagar, a city in Hooghly district close to Pandua, Al Jazeera witnessed people, including children, marched with swords, chanting anti-Muslim slogans while giant speakers blared devotional music.
These rallies, organised across the state, have often turned violent in recent years.
Asansol district, an industrial city known for its coal mines, witnessed deadly Hindu-Muslim violence in 2018 and 2019.
Bhatpara in the North 24 Parganas district, an industrial township north of Kolkata, witnessed deadly Hindu-Muslim violence in May 2019 in which at least seven people died.The area, home to more than 300,000 people, has emerged as the epicentre of communal tension for the good part of the last 10 years.
According to the latest data released in 2018 by India’s interior ministry, 27 incidents of violence were reported in 2015, but by 2017, the incidences of communal violence doubled in West Bengal state.
“There were at least a dozen riots in the area with deaths and large-scale damage to property over last two years,” said Subha Protim Roychowdhury, a member of a left-leaning civil society group.
“Almost on a daily basis, Bhatpara witnesses violence. It is impossible to keep a count of the incidents,” said Roychowdhury.
‘Defends the religious mobilisation’
Tushar Kanti Tikadar, who heads Hindu Jagran Manch (HJM), an affiliate of the World Hindu Council (VHP) in south Bengal, defended the religious mobilisation.
“We can now unite people in the name of Ram, it is a big success.”
He denied that Ram Navami celebrations were aggressive or divisive. “If Muslims can display weapons during Muharram, why cannot the Hindus,” he argued.
The BJP has continued with a very aggressive anti-Muslim campaign. Last year, the party’s Bengal leader, Dilip Ghosh, said if they come to power, the party would “identify five million Muslim infiltrators and deport” them to Bangladesh.
His rhetoric was in line with the party’s stand against undocumented migrants from Bangladesh and Rohingya refugees. Senior party leader and home minister Amit Shah has in the past called Bengali immigrants “termites”.
In neighbouring Assam state, nearly two million Bengali people, including Muslims, were excluded from a citizenship register, effectively rendering them stateless.
West Bengal – home to about 100 million people – is one of two large Indian states, where the BJP is yet to capture power, despite running the national government since 2014.
The party has also been trying to make cow slaughter an election issue in the state, where beef is consumed widely by both Muslims and Hindus. Dozens of Muslims have been lynched across India by Hindu mobs after being accused of smuggling cows for slaughter since 2014 when Prime Minister Narendra Modi came to power.
Hardline Hindu agenda
The hardline Hindu agenda, it seems, has paid dividends for the BJP, which bagged 18 out of 42 parliamentary seats in the 2019 parliamentary elections in West Bengal. The party had won just two seats in the 2014 elections.
The BJP has deployed its entire top leadership, including Modi and his right-hand man Shah, as it aims to win the state assembly elections slated to be held in the summer of 2021.
The party has also intensified efforts to appropriate Bengali icons, including secular freedom heroes such as Subhas Chandra Bose and Rabindranath Tagore, who wrote India’s national anthem.
The Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M) which dominated state politics for 34 years, has now been relegated to the margins, with the BJP emerging as the main challenger to the governing All India Trinamool Congress Party (AITC) led by Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee.
The state was largely free of religious strife during the communist party rule that ended in 2011, although elections were marked by political violence during that period.