When chasing a lead about communal tension in the Howrah Uttar constituency, the sight of two Hindu and one Muslim man sitting and having a chat on a Sunday afternoon gives a good hint about how tense the situation really is. When asked about it, Mohammad Shamim, a mill worker said that people need to have a full stomach before there can be communal violence.
In the adjacent lane, a hungry and hopeless Sabita Rai sits at her door biding her time, as her husband sleeps inside. She has been surviving on tea since morning because she doesn’t have enough money to afford a meal for her family. What does she want? Her sons to get a job.
In 2019, shortly after the Lok Sabha elections, a group of Bharatiya Janata Yuva Morcha (BJYM) workers had blocked Howrah’s Dobson road to chant the Hanuman Chalisa on Tuesdays to protest Muslims offering their Namaz on the same street on Fridays.
The police had tried to disperse the crowd which led to an altercation between the police and the BJYM workers. The mosque and the Hanuman temple are located barely 10 meters from each other on two sides of the street.
The Quint visited Howrah’s Dobson road to investigate chatters which said that this communal tension would be a poll issue in the 2021 West Bengal Assembly elections. While talking to the locals in the area, we found out that the BJYM workers had blocked the road on Tuesdays for two months and after that everything went back to normal. They further added that there was negligible communal tension in the area.
So, if communal tension is not an issue? Then what is?
Unemployment and Development
Rai has five daughters and three sons. One of her daughters is married, and all her sons jobless. “I can’t get my other daughters married because I don’t have the money for it,” she says as she talks about her situation. While her sons are out looking for jobs, she manages whatever food she can to feed herself and her family. If she can’t, they spend the day on an empty stomach. Sometimes the nearby temple offers them food to eat.
"Who do we go to? We can hope something from the government only if we get something from them. I just want my children to be employed. I can’t ask them to go steal or do anything illegal. " - Sabita Rai, Housewife
She has received no help from either the central government or the state government and thereby has little to no hope from the politicians.
Meanwhile, Lakshmi Sharma, another housewife is very pleased with West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee and the Trinamool government as her three daughters have received the benefits of the Kanyashree, Rupashree and other schemes aimed at empowering women in the state.
Angry at the central government, she alleges that she and her family had to suffer quite a lot after demonetization.
A similar sentiment is echoed by Anil Gupta and Firoz Gouri, two shopkeepers who complain about the rising gas prices in the state. They say that “it is becoming impossible to sustain like this.”
As gas prices have crossed the Rs.800 mark, Gouri adds, “We have received nothing. We used to get gas subsidy but that has been stopped too. We used to get Rs. 200-300 as subsidy.”
But there are some who believe that “change is needed” and the situation in Howrah Uttar can be better if the BJP comes to power. Mill Owner PK Tiwary believes that “unemployment and inflation” can be tackled if the BJP comes to power in Bengal. He is happy with the schemes implemented by the central government.
Kisan Sharma, a studio owner near Howrah’s AC Market laments his time during the lockdown and says that he still hasn’t been able to get his business up to speed since then. He too says that people need to first earn a living, religion can come later.
"So many people are unemployed that people are dying to manage their bread. There’s hardly any business since lockdown. No government came to help us. Politicians are just filling up their pockets. " - Kisan Sharma, Studio Owner
Amarnath Sonkar, a vegetable seller subtly smiles and adds that all the people in the area, Hindu-Muslim alike came together to help each other survive during the lockdown days when business had come to a halt.
Sonkar, Shamim and Gobindo Sarkar, a mill owner claim that they have all received rice, pulses and vegetables during the lockdown from the state government which has made it “a thousand times easier to survive the lockdown.” They are angry at the central government for not helping them during the lockdown.
Sharma says that despite she and her family not having a ration card, they were given rice and pulses.
They too are happy with Howrah Uttar’s MLA, TMC’s Laxmi Ratan Shukla, who they say “helped them a lot” during the lockdown.
"He has gone door to door to help people. He used to tell everyone to contact him directly if they had any problem. " - Mohammad Shamim, Mill Worker
Meanwhile, a shopkeeper who wished to stay anonymous alleged that he had received some money from the Modi government during the lockdown but nothing from the state government. He is angry at the state government for not standing by their side when “they needed them.”
Ajay Kumar Singh, a local tempo driver says that he has been suffering major losses since the lockdown. He attacks the Mamata Banerjee government alleging that “their situation has become worse under her.” He is happy with the central government’s work and wants PM Modi to “take charge in Bengal.”
There is Some Communal Tension Though
Singh however alleges that ‘religion is a big factor’ in the area. He believes that there isn’t just communal polarization but also an “outsider narrative” that plays out. He alleges that “Bengali drivers get more benefits than Hindi-speaking drivers.” He adds that they must bribe the local in-charges or “starters” to get “good routes to drive in.”
Singh who did not disclose his political affiliation claimed that he was one of the people who had blocked the road to read the Hanuman Chalisa. He adds that due to their protests, the “Muslims had stopped blocking the road to read their Namaz and so they stopped too.”
While on one hand, we have the stories of Shamim and Sonkar who attest to communal harmony in the area and talk about how it was this communal harmony that helped them through the lockdown, Singh on the other hand, alleges that “Muslims have leeway in the area, and no one can stop them.”
"If we try to say anything, they (Muslims) will say that the government is ours. We don’t have the courage to speak up against them. They are scared that all this will stop if PM Modi comes to power. " - Ajay Kumar Singh, Driver
Meanwhile, Sabita Rai sits at her door, eagerly waiting for her sons to come back with some good news, and hopefully some food for the night, having lost faith in the people in power, as Howrah Uttar goes to polls on 10 April.
. Read more on Politics by The Quint.2021 French Open Postponed by a Week Due to COVID-19Bengal Elections 2021: Howrah Uttar’s People Say Jobs Not Religion . Read more on Politics by The Quint.