A madness has gripped Bengal. Communal tensions flared up in various pockets of the state Raniganj(West Bardhaman), Kakinara(North 24 Parganas), Kandi (Murshidabad) Purulia, and Asansol reported communal clashes. Bengal is hitting headlines in national media for all the wrong reasons. Blame game among political parties for communal tensions have gathered momentum and common people are in intense distress, particularly in affected areas
Number of communal violence in the state has sharply gone up in last three years. Though the last year of left rule witnessed as many as 21 communal violence incidents, in TMC rule, the situation didn’t improve much, rather it worsened over a period of time. On an average 20 communal clashes were reported during Mamata regime since 2011. But the numbers have increased dramatically since 2015. An estimate shows in three years i.e. 2015, 2016, 2017, approximately 27, 32 and 58 communal violence cases were reported, claiming five, four and nine lives respectively. The clashes injured approximately 250 people. In these three years, 294 people lost their lives in communal clashes across India in 2,276 incidents and a total of 6,969 people were injured. Therefore, the increase in communal violence in Bengal is not a standalone incident, and it still is in the lower side but the escalation of communal tension in Bengal forced Bengali people to think about the reasons behind it and also about the common future of Bengalis ahead.
A cursory look at the rising figures of violence indicate a tacit link between numbers of communal violence and rise of right wing in the centre. Between 2015 and 2017, BJP gained maximum power all over Indian states and in many cases their entry in a non-BJP state perfectly coincided with occurrence of severe communal violence in that state. Therefore, communal violence has a purpose and a pattern. In Bengal’s context too, there is a method in madness which needs to be traced and outcomes should be analysed to understand the long-term consequences of these well-orchestrated incidents of clashes.
Bengali majoritarianism has always been a reality in this partition-affected state. It was successfully controlled during the left era by replacing caste/religion narrative with class/economy narrative, but it was never eliminated, it only remained dormant. With left becoming a vanishing tribe in the state, TMC, the ruling party has no such ideology or obligation to highlight class struggle and downplay religious sentiments. As a result, suppressed majoritarianism resurfaced gradually. While the state government has tried to play the card of regional identity, tradition and culture to control communal intolerance, constant fanning of communal divide by the BJP and its Bengali allies, has intensified a thousand times in last years. This new Right-Wing force is emboldened with money, muscle power and influence (due to their strong presence in the Centre). Caught between these two scenarios, majority Hindu Bengalis have identified themselves with Hindutva – religion as the primary identity and race i.e. Bengali identity as secondary. Imposition and invasion of the North belt Hindi culture, andexplosion of non-Bengali population in the state (in Kolkata Bengali people are minority) made it easier for BJP and allies to invade Bengal. Thus, in the last three years the state has observed several small Ram temples and Hanuman temples suddenly mushrooming everywhere, replacing traditional local gods and goddesses. A section of upper class Bengali Hindus have embraced Hindi as main language, with aspiration to find a fortune in the larger Hindi-speaking belt of North-North West India and another section of lower class/caste Bengali Hindus have embraced Hindutva to make their presence felt in Brahmanical caste-based Hinduism doctrine of Bengal. Therefore, when an office colleague of mine proudly announces her children can’t speak Bengali and Hindi is their first language, unknowingly she subscribes to the Hindutva agenda. Similarly, when our domestic help buys Hanuman Chalisa for her children she too contributes to the invasion of monolithic Hindutva of Hindi belt in Bengal, without thinking of larger consequences. Just like Tripura in Bengal, RSS has opened more than 1300 sakhas in the last three years and morning marches of RSS members are common a sight now, all over the state. Over the last 3-4 years of time Hindutva brigade invested time, money and energy for social engineering (promoting caste and religious divide) and increasing incidents of communal violence are proof of their success. The state has around 30% Muslim population and has a border with Bangladesh. Therefore, islamophobia is a handy tool for the right wing in the state to polarise majority Hindu. Furthermore, continuous infiltration of Hindu minorities of Bangladesh in West Bengal has changed the demography to the advantage of Right wing; as the immigrants bring with them bitter memories of sufferings (as minorities) and almost instantaneously relate to the agenda of Hindu Rashtra of BJP, which they believe is their right. This complex socio-political scenario has prepared the ground for Ram Navami processions and subsequent violence in the last few years.
This year tension started building in the state as BJP and allies started preparing for Ram Navami and declared they would organise rallies with arms on 25th March to celebrate the festival and to ‘unite Hindus.’ In a counter move, ruling TMC also declared their resolution to publicly celebrate Ram Navami, apparently to reclaim Hinduism from Hindutva brigades.
Those who know Bengal could instantly sense the political agenda on both sides i.e. battle for retaining and gaining Hindu vote bank.
Ram is not worshipped in Bengal, like he is worshipped in north and western India. Ram Navami day is celebrated as Annapurna puja traditionally in Bengal. The state is famous for worshipping Shakti-goddesses, feminine force of power like Durga, Kali, Annapurna, Tara, Saraswatiand among male gods Shiva and Krishna are most prominent. Even the forms of worshipping in Bengal is more of submission than aggression and festivity continues throughout the year at grassroots in a harmonious way. In many cases both Hinduand Muslims participate in some local religious fests. Bengal is different. In famous Bengali literature Ravana and his son were projected as protagonists and Ram as an opponent (Meghnadbadhkabya by Michael Madhusudan Dutta).
In this diverse Bengal, saffron brigade has imported the Hindi-Hindu-Hindutva narrative, along with Ram Navami and Hanuman Jayanti as entry point to impose Hindutva and assert socio-cultural engineering of RSS-BJP Mission, for distinct political gain. Anticipating trouble, the state government denied permissions of most of the Ram Navami rallies. But the strategy of the ruling TMC to reclaim Hindu votes by celebrating Ram Navami simultaneously, backfired. On 25th March BJP and allies organised huge rallies all over West Bengal with arms, chanting slogans in Hindi, as in many places majority of people in rallies were surprisingly from outside Bengal and Hindi speaking, as reported in local news and by local people. Violating all restrictions imposed by police, processions passed through Muslim populated areas and chanted anti Muslim slogans. The grassroots political complexity became visible when, local TMC leaders, who were supposed to celebrate Ram Navami separately, joined BJP rallies in few places, which emboldened the unruly mob. Violence erupted as mobs abused minorities, attacked local mosques and in Kakinara pulled down statue of Maulana AbulKalam Azad, first education minister of independent India. When police tried to intervene, they were attacked with stones and even bombs were hurled at them leaving nine policemen severely injured and a total of five people killed in different places between 25th and 29th of March. Both communities were affected as after a while, Muslim mobs started vandalising in retaliation. Several persons were injured, and many shops were burnt. Police was not successful in controlling the violence on very first day, thus it could spread in adjacent sub-urban areas, with social media playing a key role in sharing fake news and rumours, thus adding fuel to fire. While police and administration tried to control the violence and gradually succeeded in bringing back peace, a major violence was obviated in Asansol on Thursday 29th March due to utmost restraint and peaceful reaction of Imam Imdadul Rashid, who lost his teenage son Sibtulla Rashidi in this violence. The teenager was kidnapped by RW mob and tortured to death. Police recovered the body after a day. When a strong Muslim mob gathered for retaliation, the Imam pledged for peace and said, ‘My son has lived his life, don’t bring sorrow to other homes, if you don’t listen to me I will leave the place forever’. On the same day, in the same area the BJP Union Minister Babul Supriyo threatened some people to skin alive, thus instigating more communal tension and conflicts, in his own constituency. State government has imposed restriction on the movement of the union Minister and he was not allowed to visit the affected area. Both incidents got wide coverage in national media. While regional media played a constructive role in de-escalating tension, a few from national media and social media attacked minority communities, spread Islamophobia and fake news claiming Hindus are facing continuous harassments, blaming state government for minority appeasement and demanding resignation of the Chief Minister. Central government demanded report from the state (while ignoring the worst riot-affected Bihar) and built pressure on the state government to allow central ministers to visit the affected areas. No wonder the state government did not readily agree to the idea, seeing in the cards further worsening law and order situation as often the agenda of the ruling party is polarisation.
A few days have passed since Ram Navami violence and normalcy is returning in affected areas, slowly. At the cost of five lives what has Bengal achieved is now the main question. The role of left parties and opposition party INC is also in question. While INC Bengal criticised BJP in a customary fashion and remained mostly quiet, left parties attacked BJP and TMC in the same breath, putting major blame on TMC for messing up with Ram Navami celebrations and for inability to restore peace in the shortest possible time (the way former CM Jyoti Basu did in post-Babri mosque demolition riot, though drawing parallel of both situations is an over simplification, as the context has undergone a sea change). It has become clear that for Bengal's left, TMC remains the main opposition even at the cost of RWs winning grounds. TMC on the other hand failed to control the situation more effectively and some are alleging that they did it purposely to scare minorities and keep their minority vote bank intact. BJP very clearly tried to show its power in Bengal, the power to make minority vote irrelevant in politics.
At the end of the day the biggest achievement of BJP is that they became successful in manipulating agenda of all parties in Bengal. To counter Hindutva pressure, TMC has started peddling soft Hindutva, so has INC. Left as per their own strategy is cherishing the loss of face of TMC government and attacking the state government more than attacking BJP’s communal politics. However, in Bengal's context, the left is a vanishing tribe and their political stand is almost irrelevant for upcoming elections (Panchyat in May 2018 and Parliament in 2019). It may be mentioned here that in the past ten years, left lost most of its cadre base to BJP and poll results (including that of recent bypolls) illustrated how left and Congress votes migrated to BJP while TMC had been consistent in maintaining its vote bank (with a little increase).
Bengal is a key focus of BJP for upcoming parliament election, as it wants to compensate its projected loss of seats in other states (where it is in power) from Bengal, Assam, Odisha and Kerala. Therefore, communal tensions would be kept alive till next poll by them. The efficiency and political will of TMC to control communal tensions in the state is questioned this time, leading to speculations of TMC’s future political alignment in post in 2019 - will Mamata be instrumental in splitting votes through a third front and indirectly helping BJP? Will there be a grand alliance with TMC, INC and Left? Or in Bengal will Left-INC poll alliance repeat? While TMC and INC are apparently open to the suggestions of forming a grand alliance, left is a divided house yet, as the politburo will decide whether Karat line, which calls for no alliance will win, or Yechury line which propagates the need for a grand alliance will be able to convince the top leadership. In this backdrop of chaos if we ask who gains most at this point of time, the answer is undoubtedly BJP. There are clear signs of lower caste Hindu votes transferred to BJP just like Dalit votes in UP or lower caste votes in Tripura. BJP has also attempted to split Muslim votes by supporting TT cases and welcoming TT petitioners and her lawyers in the party. With adequate money, muscle power and organisational base the right wing is surely ahead in the race.
In recent past a known comrade of my locality told me during a causal chat, that the party (Left) prefers to fight fascists directly, hence they could live with the idea BJP coming into power defeating TMC and later the left will defeat BJP. While the first part (that BJP may defeat TMC) is emerging as a possibility, the second part (that the left would defeat BJP) is pure utopia in today’s context. On the other hand, this will be the first time for Mamata to confront a strong cadre-based party - BJP-RSS, which has done its homework well, has loads of money, muscle power and influence over the system (due to presence in Centre). Compared to BJP’s strength TMC has only a popular CM and hopefully minority vote bank intact. Though during its tenure TMC has done some development work for poor and middle class, Tripura election result has made it clear that neither development works count, nor do scams by parties affect election results, when toxic communal, caste or ethnic cards are played. Upcoming PRI election will tell us more about the mood of Bengal. In all likelihood, 2019 will witness a direct confrontation between BJP and TMC with left and INC sitting in the aisle, having insignificant influence on election outcomes.
Ram Navami, Hanuman Jayanti and many more festivals will keep repeating in Bengal leading to minor violence here and there till 2019 and beyond. It is up to the state and the majority of Bengali (Hindu population) to defeat communal politics as the onus of defending secularism cannot be shouldered by minorities alone. Minorities in Bengal are living in apprehension. Almost all parties have virtually abandoned them for securing Hindu vote, the very parties which used minorities as mere vote bank for decades. Being disowned by major political parties and cornered by Islamophobia of majoritarian population, it is high time for Muslims in Bengal to decide their future roadmap in Indian democracy. An educated Muslim friend of mine was opining that Muslims should go invisible for a while, refrain from taking part in elections and preferably not even go for voting, as this will help ‘secular’ parties to combat BJP. I however, failed to comprehend her definition of secular that day, but with each passing day, her positions are echoed in many writings and speeches of secular liberal intellectuals, from left, right and centre of Indian mainstream politics and Bengal is mirroring the same image. It is up to minorities to decide whether they are ready to give up their rights in the hope of defending rights in future, it is up to Bengali people to decide whether they are ready to give up their Bengali identity to make inroads for Hindutva in Bengal, it is up to common people to decide whether they will defend sovereign socialist secular democratic republic of India or embrace the idea of Hindu Rasthra, by remaining silent to communal divisive onslaughts happening in the state, in the name of religion.
Bengal is not a big state, which can determine politics of India in general, but this time the situation is different, which we can express perfectly by repeating an old saying in a customised way - what Bengal will decide today India will follow tomorrow- and this in reality is not an exaggeration. Bengal suddenly has become immensely powerful in Indian politics, as victory in Bengal will determine the fate of coalition governments in centre in 2019. Meanwhile, we hope peace restores fully in the state and all parties as well as voters behave responsively to uphold the secular, plural diverse character of India.