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How does a society — in this instance, a village in the Sunderbans — become polarized on communal lines? Investigations into communalism have often attributed the phenomenon to the stoking of religious differences or to ethnic strife. In Matherdighi village (Canning II block, Sunderbans), the communal leanings of Hindu families against their Muslim neighbours are premised on something else altogether. The germ of the animosity that has divided the two communities in the village that I visited recently lies not in religion or ethnicity, but in a perceived shift in demographic factors. The allegedly sudden rise of the Muslim population in the village has led to the deepening of religious and cultural differences with Hindu households.

The numerical superiority of the Muslim community was the topic of discussion in a tea shop where I stopped for refreshments after a long, but unremarkable, journey on varied forms of public transport (train, cycle-van and, finally, a magicgari) that took me from Calcutta to Matherdighi via Canning station, Shimultala and Atharobanki. A handful of nervous Hindu villagers, oblivious of a stranger in their midst, were discussing the possible consequences of the dwindling numbers on their side: frenzied construction of mosques (15 have apparently been built in the last few years), restrictions imposed on microphones during celebrations of Hindu festivals, the forceful acquisition of agricultural land from Hindu landowners, and so on.

In the course of the day, I interviewed several villagers, most of them Hindus, who cited the following reasons that have made Muslims numerous in Matherdighi. Illiteracy and conservatism apparently make Muslim households shun family planning methods; migration in search of livelihood, something that has intensified since the Sunderbans were ravaged by Aila, is far more common among Hindus than Muslims; the newfound prosperity of Muslims — the result of their supposed involvement in robberies near the porous border — has forced the Hindu mercantile class to flee the village, and more along the same lines.

Further investigations with reliable sources — chiefly field workers of a philanthropic organization that has been working in Matherdighi for several years — revealed that many of the charges levelled by the Hindus lack empirical evidence. Incidentally, official data that are meant to record the ‘phenomenal’ rise in the number of Muslims in Matherdighi, which, traditionally, has had a relatively high Muslim presence, could not be retrieved from the block office in spite of several requests. What was furnished to support the questionable claim were figures from Census 2011. Even here, the gradual decline in the populations of the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribes was held up as clinching evidence of maulvis converting ordinary people to swell Muslim ranks. The decline in percentage of the SC population — 28.6 per cent in 1991, 24.6 per cent in 2001, and 20.93 per cent in 2011 — is noticeable. For the ST population, the corresponding decline has been from 7.2 per cent in 1991 to 5.9 per cent in 2011. But this evidence, though startling, is circumstantial at best. Furthermore, a young Muslim woman I met, married with two children, refuted the charges of conservatism convincingly. She said most Muslim families are now actively endorsing birth-control methods to ease the financial strain of running a large household. Like other women from her community, she, too, had decided to send her children not to the local madrasa but to a government school. (In Canning II, the female literacy rate has risen from 17.6 per cent in 1991 to 49.4 per cent in 2011.) She added that even though she was unemployed, her family was supportive of the idea of her finding work as a zari worker. The claim of Muslims engaging in crime to prosper could not be ascertained either. Influential members of both communities, I was told by several villagers, profiteered through dubious means.

Then what explains Matherdighi’s sectarian disposition? One possible source of the anxiety and anger among Hindus is the change in the ownership of the channels of patronage. Allegations of Muslims being favoured in the disbursal of government contracts for panchayat work is fairly common in the village. Ironically, the party in power has orchestrated the transition, keeping in mind the ‘meteoric’ rise in the Muslim population, a demographic shift that remains unsubstantiated.

However, the weakening of the community fabric in Matherdighi does enough to dispel the myth of the Sunderbans being one of the few surviving bastions of communal harmony. Significantly, the worship of Banbibi and Shah Jangli — the icons representing this fusion of faiths — is no longer common in Matherdighi. The deities continue to be revered by marginalized communities — fishermen, wood-cutters, honey collectors — whose livelihoods remain dependent on the forest. Incidentally, most Hindu residents are of the opinion that a decisive numerical advantage — the cherished goal of every majoritarian philosophy — is the key to harmonious ties with Muslims.

The polarized nature of community life in Matherdighi was an unexpected discovery. Is this the result of public apathy towards the communal underpinnings of rural societies that are often projected as idylls? The concomitant fetishization of secular, folk elements in popular culture, the cult of Banbibi in the Sunderbans is one example, also contributes to the collective myopia.

The withering of the Sunderbans’ inclusive ethic has also been abetted by the waning — political and philosophical — of the egalitarian principles that guide Marxism. It is telling that in Matherdighi, the Marxists, as well as their successors, are accused of appeasing Muslims, the result of the cynical political practice of granting patronage in the guise of protection to disadvantaged communities.

There are thus multiple sources of the communal contamination in Matherdighi. But the most lethal is the chasm that has been engineered to minimize social interaction between Hindus and Muslims, effacing their shared histories. The State’s unwillingness to strengthen community ties is unsurprising. But the negligence of NGOs to challenge information that is used to propagate a sectarian agenda cannot be condoned. The dissemination of credible information in the public forum to correct assumptions of skewed demographic realities could be the critical, but missing, antidote to this poisoning.