I wasn’t really shocked but it was eyebrow-raising, nevertheless, when Amit Oraon took the bag from the coolie and dumped it inside the car at New Jalpaiguri railway station. There was a fairly large “Angry Hanuman” poster, the one that created so many controversies on social media some years back.
As mentioned in the previous piece in this series, the fierce pride Priti Bramha had displayed in her Bodo identity in Bongaigaon, Assam was a revelation. While Priti was least interested in politics, Amit seemed to be all about it. After a few minutes of conversation, Amit asked me if I would mind if he puts up a saffron flag. When I responded by saying it was his car and I couldn’t care what flag he used, out came a saffron flag seen in various places in India since the consecration of the Lord Ram idol at Ayodhya on January 22.
In fact, across Siliguri, Darjeeling, Jalpaiguri, Alipurdar and Cooch Behar, saffron flags could be seen fluttering everywhere. My sense sitting in Delhi was that the Ram Temple “hype” was a North Indian phenomenon. But North Bengal surprised me.
Amit doesn’t mince words when he criticises the Mamata Bannerjee-led government in West Bengal. According to him, hardly any infrastructure or development work has been done by the charismatic and popular Mamata Didi. His complaint: Trinamool Congress people are so busy making voter ID and Aadhar cards for illegal migrants that they have no time for development. There was no way for the author to verify how exaggerated this claim was though TMC-leaning folks in Siliguri vehemently point out how the roads in West Bengal have improved.
No doubt, compared to about five years ago when the author was there, the roads are indeed vastly better. There is also a sense of “cease fire” in north Bengal between TMC and BJP cadre compared to the mayhem one reads about in south Bengal. When the author asked Amit if he was not scared of talking openly against Mamata Didi, his response was interesting. “You see, this is not like Kolkatta or 24 North Parganas. When it comes to street and muscle power, we are evenly matched. So TMC guys know they will “get it back” if they attack us”, he says. Amit is an Adivasi and has become an ardent supporter of “Hindu Revivalism”. He is not bothered if he is called Islamophobic. The author was fairly certain he would find a completely different set of expletives when he visits south Bengal.
North Bengal has somehow become a BJP “stronghold” gradually since the Gorkhaland agitation of the 1980s. For instance, in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, Raju Bista of BJP won Darjeeling with a 59% vote share. Similarly, Jayaonto Roy won Jalpaiguri with a 51% vote share and Nisith Pramanik (Union state Home minister) won Cooch Behar with a 48% vote share. In Alipurdar, John Barla won with a 54% vote share. The BJP won even Raiganj, albeit with a lower vote share of 40%. Even some BJP supporters seem to think that the party could lose Raiganj and Cooch Behar this time. According to them, demographic changes in the two constituencies make the BJP candidates vulnerable. Since the 2021 Census has not even started, all one can rely on is speculation, rumours and anecdotal evidence. However, there is tremendous resentment against Rohingya Muslims.
The “locals” have learnt to live with immigrants from Bangladesh. After all, they are culturally “Indian” and most have integrated. In any case, they have been coming for the last six decades or so. But folks in North Bengal are not willing to accept Rohingya Muslims. They are described as completely “un-Indian” and alien and also dangerous. In the 2024 elections, this will be an issue. Just as CAA and NRC will be in not just north, but the whole of Bengal. The author could sense a tinderbox and it is worrisome.
On the way to Bagdogra airport to board a flight to Delhi on February 7, the author stopped at a shop to buy some cigarettes. A lady with a splash of sindoor was doing the transactions. Since the author understands Bangla and manages to speak a bit, he asked the lady why there was no saffron flag in her shop when almost all others had one. She smiled and asked the author where he came from. When she heard Delhi, she smiled again and said in Bangla: “ You big city English-speaking people won’t understand. I don’t need a saffron flag in my shop. I have saffron in my heart”. The author couldn’t think of a coherent response to that.
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