Assembly Elections: BJP’s Communalism, Repression, EVM Fraud, Misogyny At Its Height

Assembly Elections: BJP’s Communalism, Repression

 

On 31 March 2021, the Union Finance Ministry cut interest rates on various small savings schemes sharply by 40-110 basis points. Early the next morning, on April 1, Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman tweeted that the rates would remain the same and that “orders issued by oversight shall be withdrawn”. This U-turn was announced on April Fool’s Day, but the Modi regime could not fool anyone as to their motives in hurriedly reversing the rate-cut decision. Clearly, the Finance Ministry had been advised that the rate cut decision be postponed till after elections – since a decision delivering a major blow to small savings holders during Elections would be politically costly to the BJP. Nothing underlines the cynicism, dishonesty and incompetence of the Modi regime more than this episode.

Meanwhile, as has become commonplace during elections, an Assam BJP candidate’s car was found transporting a polled EVM! The Election Commission’s cock-and-bull story claiming that the polling party’s car had broken down, and that they had taken a lift in the next car without realising it belonged to the candidate, can convince no one. This EVM theft can only be compared to the booth capturing that used to happen with paper ballots in the past. In another Assam polling booth where there are 90 voters, 171 votes were cast. If EVM machines are just as susceptible to capture or rigging than paper ballots, why use them in the first place?

There is a pattern to the long trail of dubious episodes involving faulty, malfunctioning and stolen EVMs. In the vast majority of reported instances, the “faults” have benefited the BJP. The Election Commission has strenuously rejected the suggestion that EVM and VVPAT machines are susceptible to tampering, despite the fact that most countries the world over have rejected ballot machines precisely because they acknowledge this possibility. It is clear that regardless of the outcome of the elections, Indian voters must demand a return to paper ballots to ensure that their votes are secure.

All over India, including in the states where elections are underway, the BJP is aware that it is perceived as a party that has “sold everything, sold our assets.” Privatisation of public sector assets, plunder by crony corporations of people’s savings in public sector banks through unpaid loans that are written off, the attempted rate-cut in small savings, the farm laws that sell agriculture to the companies, the labour laws that are diluted to suit the employers, privatised education and healthcare as well as the worst unemployment in 40 years – all these are more the pro-corporate measures, anti-people measures, the effect of which people are experiencing and resisting.

Unable to answer people’s questions on these fronts, the BJP is resorting to its old staple in its election campaign – venomous anti-Muslim hate speech. In Assam, Amit Shah has asked voters to choose between “atma-nirbhar Assam and maulana-nirbhar Assam” (Assam that is self-reliant or Assam that is reliant on Muslim clerics). The reference is to the AIUDF, led by Badruddin Ajmal, that is a member of the opposition coalition. In West Bengal, the Prime Minister addressed the sitting Chief Minister in a highly offensive and misogynistic tone. BJP West Bengal President Dilip Ghosh told the CM that it went against “Indian culture” for her broken leg in its cast to be seen while she wore a sari, adding that she should wear shorts instead. Displaying the BJP’s trademark violence towards intellectuals and artistes, Dilip Ghosh declared that intellectuals are a social liability and also threatened film, theatre and music artistes who have been speaking up against the BJP: “If they don’t leave politics aside, I will take care of them. And, artistes know how I do it.” Such threats are especially disturbing in a state like West Bengal, long known for its vibrant and argumentative cultural sphere.

But by far the most toxic part of the BJP’s campaign has been its hate speech aimed at creating a Muslim-hating Hindu votebank that has, till now, never been a prominent feature of Bengal politics. In the Nandigram seat, the BJP candidate attacked his rival, the sitting Chief Minister, using terms to suggest that she is a Muslim who is an “aunt” to “infiltrators” and “Rohingyas”. A Union Minister campaigning in Bengal said the CM had belonged to the “Rohingya gotra (sub-caste)”. This campaign, using one of the world’s most oppressed refugees as a term of abuse, and suggesting that a candidate who is Muslim, or is a Hindu person who does not hate Muslims, does not deserve votes of Hindus. The Election Commission, as has become usual, has remained silent on this open, blatant hate speech.

But the communal hate speech by the BJP only reveals its bankruptcy and desperation. Modi’s pet media houses are working overtime to create an illusion of invincibility for the BJP. Helped by such media, the BJP is browbeating the electorate and declaring itself the inevitable victor even before votes have been cast! But as the Elections proceed, voters of all five states are calling their bluff. Fighting back in the face of the BJP’s vast funds (dubiously obtained through the shady electoral bonds scheme) and propaganda machinery, farmers and workers, women and young people, are succeeding in keeping people’s issues at the forefront and refusing to be influenced by hate speech.

BJP Leaders Threaten “More Sitalkuchi-style Killings”

Four voters, standing in a queue to vote in Sitalkuchi, Cooch Behar, West Bengal, have been killed in firing by the CISF central forces.

These four are reported to be working class men from poor families: two migrant workers Nur Alam Mian and Maniruzzaman Mian, a first-time voter Samiul Haque, and a mason Hamidul Mian. In addition, in a separate incident, an 18-year-old first time voter Ananda Barman, was shot dead by unidentified miscreants.

Such firing raises grave questions about the role and motives of central forces in the West Bengal elections. Rather than keeping the peace and ensuring free and fair elections, the central forces are committing bloodshed and intimidating voters. Statements by BJP leaders have added to the impression that the central armed forces are serving to intimidate voters to further the BJP's interests.

Here is a list of instances where BJP leaders have sought to use thr Sitalkuchi firing for communal targeting and intimidation of voters:

The CISF and other central forces answer to the Home Ministry headed by Amit Shah, who is currently campaigning for the BJP in West Bengal, and using the firing in his speeches to sharpen communal polarisation. Shah alleged (falsely) that the CM mourned only the four victims whose community she wished to "appease" and did not mourn Ananda Barman. The fact is that all over W Bengal, all five victims are being mourned. Four of them were killed by the bullets of central forces - and the ECI and the Home Ministry bear responsibility for those deaths.

BJP's West Bengal President Dilip Ghosh has threatened "more Sitalkuchi-like incidents in many places" if the "bad boys do not behave", adding that the "bad boys" must not be allowed to "remain in Bengal."

Another BJP leader Sayantan Basu declared that in the four remaining phases of elections, 16 Sitalkuchi-style massacres would be committed.

During the Lok Sabha elections, Sayantan Basu gave a speech urging central forces to "shoot booth captors in the chest, not the legs." At the time, the EC had said they would act against Basu. Was any action taken? If not, the failure to punish him has certainly emboldened Basu to continue to issue threats on behalf of the central paramilitary forces.

The fact that the BJP leadership is able to speak on behalf of the CISF as though it were their private militia, indicates how the central forces are being misused by the BJP-led Central Government in the WB elections.

The fact that all four voters who killed in the CISF firing are Muslims, makes Dilip Ghosh's and Sayantan Basu's words a thinly veiled communal threat against the minority community.

Unanswered Questions About The Massacre:

a) The fact is that there is no evidence whatsoever that the four victims attempted to snatch CISF rifles, as alleged by the CISF, or indeed that they indulged in any other form of violence.

b) A survivor of the massacre, a teenager named Mrinal Haque, has been found to have several injuries consistent with a thrashing with sticks. Villagers say that when they protested the unprovoked thrashing to which Mrinal was subjected, the CISF opened fire and killed four voters. The injuries on Mrinal's body give the lie to the police observer's report to the EC, that Mrinal had fallen sick, and that onlookers mistakenly assumed he had been beaten by jawans and assembled a violent mob which attacked the CISF.

c) Media reports which initially claimed that there was a mob of 300-400 people, now states that there were merely 70-80 people. Crowd control requires minimum force. Why was the CISF deployed in West Bengal, when it is well known that the CISF has neither experience nor training in crowd control? Even assuming that the CISF claim about villagers getting agitated about a boy's thrashing, why could the CISF not control a crowd of less than 100 persons, without resorting to lethal firing?

d) Even the CISF has not claimed that the victims came to the poll booth armed. Had they in fact been planning violence, they would have been armed - they came unarmed because they came to cast their votes. It is inconceivable that four unarmed persons would suddenly seek to snatch rifles from CISF men - knowing full well that they were vastly outnumbered by a CISF battalion armed to the teeth.

e) We want to know why the EC has accepted the CISF version without demanding evidence to back the story. Surely there must be CCTV footage, or other videographed evidence of the CISF claims?

Our Demands:

  • We demand an independent enquiry into the CISF firing at Sitalkuchi
  • We demand that the responsible CISF personnel including any officer who ordered the firing be arrested and prosecuted for the massacre.
  • We demand that CISF deployment be withdrawn by the EC and measures taken to restore voter confidence.
  • We also demand that the EC ban Dilip Ghosh, Sayantan Basu. Amit Shah and any other leader who vilifies the victims of the firing, or communalises the firing, from campaigning, and book them under the relevant sections of Model Code of Conduct and People's Representation Act for hate-mongering and intimidation.

On 13 April, protest gatherings were held all over India to mourn the victims of the CISF firing, and demand justice for the all five voters killed in Cooch Behar.

EC’s Partisan Role

The month-long election campaign in West Bengal witnessed what seemed to be a disturbing nexus between central armed forces, the Election Commission and the BJP.

The EC announced that central forces would have a right to fire in “self-defence” – a statement that was bound to embolden violence by central forces and offer them a ready-made pretext for such violence. Sure enough, the CISF firing at Sitalkuchi followed in Cooch Behar, killing four migrant workers who had returned t West Bengal to cast their votes. The CISF pleaded “self-defence”, and the EC rushed to absolve the CISF of any blame. Meanwhile, several BJP leaders threatened West Bengal voters with “more Sitalkuchis”, and communalised any demand for justice for the victims of the firing by branding it as “appeasement of Muslims”.

The special police officer submitted a report to the EC endorsing the CISF claims without even visiting the firing site and meeting the injured persons and eyewitnesses. There is a wealth of evidence which is at odds with the CISF claims. Every ground report by journalists indicates that those killed and injured in the firing are not violent “strongmen” but ordinary unarmed voters. There is no evidence of any provocation by the voters that would justify the use of lethal force by the CISF. Yet the EC has shown no concern about ensuring justice for four voters killed while waiting to cast their vote.

The Election Commission has been displaying a pronounced selectivity and bias in its treatment of poll code violations. The EC debarred the West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee from campaigning for 24 hours for her speech asking women voters to ensure that central forces do not prevent voting. But the EC has taken scant notice of rampant hate-speech by BJP leaders. The EC debarred BJP leader Rahul Sinha for 48 hours for his comment that the central forces should have killed eight instead of four people in Sitalkuchi. But it did not take any action against BJP leaders Dilip Ghosh and Sayantan Basu for celebrating the Sitalkuchi massacre and threatening more massacres of the same kind. It did not take any action against Home Minister Amit Shah for insinuating that the Chief Minister’s grief for the four Sitalkuchi firing victims was an instance of “appeasement of Muslims”.

The EC also merely issued a mild “warning” to BJP’s Nandigram candidate Suvendu Adhikari for his venomous hate-speech against the minority community. It failed to invoke relevant sections of the Representation of People Act and the Model Code of Conduct, relating to inciting hatred between communities.

Democratic forces in West Bengal are having to contend not only with the BJP, but with partisan central forces and EC as well. The EC’s conduct – its lack of concern for voter safety, and its willingness to ignore or condone hate speech and intimidation by the BJP, compounded by its dubious record on EVMs - is a disgrace to the democratic process, and gives weight to the assessment by the V-Dem study that India is an “electoral autocracy” rather than a full-fledged democracy.EC Fails To Act Against Hate-Speech and Threats By BJP Leaders in West Bengal

As the month-long election schedule unfolds in West Bengal, it is marked by what appears to be a disturbing nexus between central armed forces, the Election Commission and the BJP.

The EC announced that central forces would have a right to fire in “self-defence” – a statement that was bound to embolden violence by central forces and offer them a ready-made pretext for such violence. Sure enough, the CISF firing at Sitalkuchi followed in Cooch Behar, killing four migrant workers who had returned t West Bengal to cast their votes. The CISF pleaded “self-defence”, and the EC rushed to absolve the CISF of any blame. Meanwhile, several BJP leaders threatened West Bengal voters with “more Sitalkuchis”, and communalised any demand for justice for the victims of the firing by branding it as “appeasement of Muslims”.

The special police officer submitted a report to the EC endorsing the CISF claims without even visiting the firing site and meeting the injured persons and eyewitnesses. There is a wealth of evidence which is at odds with the CISF claims. Every ground report by journalists indicates that those killed and injured in the firing are not violent “strongmen” but ordinary unarmed voters. There is no evidence of any provocation by the voters that would justify the use of lethal force by the CISF. Yet the EC has shown no concern about ensuring justice for four voters killed while waiting to cast their vote.

The Election Commission has been displaying a pronounced selectivity and bias in its treatment of poll code violations. The EC debarred the West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee from campaigning for 24 hours for her speech asking women voters to ensure that central forces do not prevent voting. But the EC has taken scant notice of rampant hate-speech by BJP leaders. The EC debarred BJP leader Rahul Sinha for 48 hours for his comment that the central forces should have killed eight instead of four people in Sitalkuchi. But it did not take any action against BJP leaders Dilip Ghosh and Sayantan Basu for celebrating the Sitalkuchi massacre and threatening more massacres of the same kind. It did not take any action against Home Minister Amit Shah for insinuating that the Chief Minister’s grief for the four Sitalkuchi firing victims was an instance of “appeasement of Muslims”.

The EC also merely issued a mild “warning” to BJP’s Nandigram candidate Suvendu Adhikari for his venomous hate-speech against the minority community. It failed to invoke relevant sections of the Representation of People Act and the Model Code of Conduct, relating to inciting hatred between communities.

Democratic forces in West Bengal are having to contend not only with the BJP, but with partisan central forces and EC as well. The EC’s conduct – its lack of concern for voter safety, and its willingness to ignore or condone hate speech and intimidation by the BJP, compounded by its dubious record on EVMs - is a disgrace to the democratic process, and gives weight to the assessment by the V-Dem study that India is an “electoral autocracy” rather than a full-fledged democracy.

The Ominous Aftermath of Modi’s Bangladesh Visit

The Golden Jubilee of the independence of Bangladesh was meant to be an occasion of celebration. Unfortunately, in the wake of Narendra Modi’s visit to Bangladesh, the country has been caught in a trail of deaths, bloodshed, repression and violence. Given India’s role in the liberation of Bangladesh, it was perhaps natural for Bangladesh to invite the Indian Prime Minister on this occasion. But then India now has Narendra Modi as the Prime Minister and it is perfectly understandable why large sections of Bangladesh society have been extremely uncomfortable with Modi’s visit, that too on this kind of an occasion. The protests in Bangladesh were quite expected.

The autocratic government of Bangladesh and organisations sponsored by or allied with the ruling party tried to suppress the protests and attacked the protesters. As a reaction to Modi’s visit and this repression unleashed by the Hasina government, some organisations have also attacked Hindus and their institutions in Bangladesh. This must be condemned unequivocally. The Hindus in Bangladesh have nothing to do with either the Modi government and the communal politics of RSS-BJP or the repressive measures of the Hasina government. We hope the common people of Bangladesh who wish communal harmony and peace will prevail over this fundamentalist violence and not let it escalate and vitiate the environment on the solemn occasion of the golden jubilee of independence.

It will be wrong to conflate the anti-Modi protests in Bangladesh with any generalised anti-India sentiment. Modi is certainly not India and the protests against Modi are as universal as protests against Trump or other autocratic rulers in today’s world. It is Modi’s infamous track record as Gujarat CM and now as India’s PM which has been fuelling these protests worldwide ever since the 2002 Gujarat genocide. Till his ascent to power at the Centre in 2014, several countries in the world used to deny him visa. Even now protests greet him on almost all his foreign visits and large sections of the Indian diaspora participate in these protests. Within India Modi has to face protests in several states especially whenever he ventures beyond the northern and western parts of the country. It is common to see ‘Modi Go Back’ trend on Twitter in several languages.

In India, Modi’s Bangladesh visit attracted attention primarily because of his claim to have been arrested for participating in a satyagraha in 1971 for Bangladesh’s freedom. It appeared as though Modi had gone to Bangladesh to celebrate the golden jubilee of his first satyagraha and arrest. While most people disbelieved his claim as yet another typical Modi bluff, many people dug up records to verify that the Bharatiya Jan Sangh, the predecessor of the BJP, had indeed organised a satyagraha campaign from 1 to 12 August which had culminated in a rally in Delhi. Modi may well have taken part in this satyagraha as a young Jan Sangh activist, even though what he calls arrest may well have been just a customary ‘courting of arrest’.

The real point that merits attention is the context of the Jan Sangh Satyagraha which coincided with the signing of India’s friendship treaty with the Soviet Union. This was a major departure from India’s erstwhile policy of non-alignment and was a crucial step to secure diplomatic and military support for the Bangladesh liberation war and India’s eventual direct intervention. The RSS-BJS campaign opposed this treaty, saw this as delay on India’s part to accord recognition to Bangladesh and declare war on Pakistan. The course prescribed by RSS would have meant walking straight into the American trap and weakening the cause of Bangladesh. The RSS clearly had no ideological affinity with the secular, progressive, socialist orientation of the Bangladesh liberation war.

For Narendra Modi what perhaps mattered most was the fact that his Bangladesh visit coincided with the elections in West Bengal and Assam, the Indian provinces bordering Bangladesh. His Bangladesh itinerary included visits to the Jesoreswari Kali temple in Satkhira and Orakandi Thakurbari in Gopalganj district, the holiest shrine of the Matua community and the birthplace of the Matua movement’s founder Harichand Thakur. He was accompanied by the BJP MP from the Matua community Shantanu Thakur and a delegation of the Matua Mahasangh from West Bengal and following his visit to the Orakandi shrine, Modi made specific announcements about the Matua community both in Bangladesh and West Bengal. This was a clear violation of the model code of conduct and a brazen misuse of a foreign visit with a view to influencing voters back home.

The Matua movement was an anti-caste movement that became popular among sections of dalits in undivided Bengal in the nineteenth century. Founded by Harichand Thakur and carried forward by his son Guruchand Thakur, the movement was quite akin, in terms of its focus on education, social equality and women’s rights, to the anti-caste movements initiated by Phule and Ambedkar in Maharashtra. After Partition, large sections of the Namasudra community, the core Dalit group following the Matua movement, migrated to West Bengal and founded a new centre called Thakurnagar in North 24 Parganas district. Today, the Sangh-BJP establishment tries to subvert the anti-caste egalitarian legacy of the Matua movement and fit it in its own ideological framework of social collaboration and Hindu supremacist nationalism. The anti-caste egalitarian origin or core of the movement is being sought to be overshadowed by playing up the post-Partition insecurities of the community and deceiving them on the issue of citizenship.

Among the bilateral issues and initiatives discussed during the visit, the two countries finalised a connecting road called ‘swadhinata sadak’ (freedom road) and a third train route between the two countries connecting Dhaka and New Jalpaiguri. There has however been no corresponding headway on the unresolved issue of water-sharing between the two neighbours. In an ironic twist of history, the two countries have resolved to observe December 6 as ‘Maitri Diwas’ (friendship/harmony day) in memory of December 6, 1971 when India had formally accorded recognition to Bangladesh as an independent republic. Twenty-one years later, it was December 6, 1992 which delivered the biggest blow to communal harmony within India and friendship between the two countries when the vandals of the Sangh brigade demolished the Babri Masjid in broad daylight displaying brazen contempt for India’s syncretic culture and the modern constitutional rule of law.

Modi’s Bangladesh visit has unleashed a new phase of unrest in Bangladesh with its ominous social and political implications for Bangladesh’s poll-bound neighbouring provinces in India, West Bengal and Assam. Peace- and democracy-loving people in both Bangladesh and India will have to show great restraint and maturity to deal with this dangerous aftermath of Modi’s politically loaded visit to Bangladesh.