Memories of 1946 Great Calcutta Killings Can Help Us Understand Violence in Today's Bengal

For the first time since the 1940s (with important exceptions), we are witnessing in Bengal today the growing acceptability and assent to a concocted revival of fears of the “Musolman”.

Political violence has always been an integral part of Bengal’s history. The forms of such violence – over time – have mutated and transformed themselves. In the series Bengal: Genealogies of ViolenceThe Wire attempts to capture some of the milestones that mark the narratives of political bloodshed spanning more than eight decades. Read the other articles here.

If you would like to receive the nine-part series directly in your mailbox, sign up here.

The recent and ongoing political violence in West Bengal must be seen in light of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s efforts to capture that most culturally and historically significant state from the ruling Trinamool Congress party, as well as the latter’s attempts to retain hold of the power it snatched from the Left nearly a decade ago now.

For much of its post-independence existence, Hindu nationalist agendas of the northern and western regions have largely found little sympathy in this part of the country, despite the sizeable number of prominent ideologues and leaders of national stature it contributed during the late-colonial period to that cause. One thinks of Syama Prasad Mookerjee, N.C. Chatterjee or Ashutosh Lahiri, amongst others. But outside a relatively restricted circle of enthusiasts, visions of a Hindu rashtra never actually captured the political imagination or electoral loyalty of the peoples of West Bengal for a rich variety of reasons. (It is necessary to keep in perspective, for instance, that there are merely three BJP members in a state assembly of nearly 300.) Due to the confluence both national and regional factors, this appears to be changing, and the new appraisal of the Hindu right invites comparison and contrast with the last time this was the case; the final decade of British colonial rule.

Of course, much has happened over the intervening decades to dissuade any easy equation, and the wider contexts themselves were starkly different. Of obvious relevance was the fact of colonial rule. Yet there may be some interesting, if disturbing, lessons in thinking of the two historical conjunctures together. While it is true that all major parties have deployed political violence in the making of what Dwaipayan Bhattacharyya has called “party-society“, the stakes this time around are particularly high, given the clash of political-ideological agendas of the TMC and BJP and the respective kinds of future they envision, at least on paper; there is no ignoring the distinctiveness of the grammar and ends to which the current moment of political violence is being deployed. It is in this sense that the linkages and faint resemblances with that catastrophic moment of political violence – 1946 – are jarring, if instructive.

Readers will recall some of the defining circumstances that gave rise to the Hindu Mahasabha in colonial Bengal over the course of the 1920s and thereafter. Founded on the rationale that the Congress was neglecting specifically Hindu interests through their claim to be the most authentic representative of the incipient Indian nation composed of Hindus and Muslims alike, the organisation began to attract substantial adherents over the course of the 1930s, as antagonisms between the Muslim majority and Hindu minority sharpened over the major political developments in the devolution of British colonial power to Indian representatives, the social dynamics of a colonial political-economy of which caste Hindus were the primary beneficiaries, and substantial cultural and religious differences.

True to their obsession with demography, the Mahasabha claimed sole spokesmanship of a supposedly neglected and persecuted Hindu minority, and as the realities of Muslim-majority rule were contemplated during the increasingly charged decade of provincial autonomy, their defence of Hindu interests found ready reception primarily amongst the urban intelligentsia, students and professional classes of the region. While what the historian Suranjan Das would call the convergence of elite and popular communalisms was certainly true, Syama Prasad Mookerjee himself, for instance, would rue the failure to “penetrate” into the heart of the province in a diary-entry from as late as 1946.

Also read: The Lives of Ordinary People Who Joined West Bengal’s Tebhaga Movement

While the Mahasabha certainly enjoyed success with particular hearts and minds then, it’s fairly lacklustre electoral performance in the critical elections of that year nonetheless put matters in perspective; caste-Hindu electoral loyalties remained squarely with the Congress. The party’s curiously under-appraised moment of triumph came, however, in the energy and gusto with which it committed its followers to the violence of the Calcutta and East Bengal riots of 1946, and the manner in which it assumed the lead in mobilising opinion in favour of partitioning the province of Bengal. Remember, the provincial Congress was, in fact, divided. The Mahasabha was not.

As historian Joya Chatterji’s early work has shown, Calcutta was what political-scientists now term a “riot-ready” city in the days leading up to the Muslim League Day of Direct Action due, in no small measure, to the preparatory work the provincial Congress and Mahasabha undertook. This was not the one-sided affair much folklore has conveniently imagined for posterity. Coupled with the findings of Janam Mukherjee’s historical research that suggest the prime lynchpin of caste Hindu rage – Muslim League chief minister H.S. Suhrawardy – did not simply stand by and let the violence continue unchecked, the story of the “Great Calcutta Killings” appears a very different one from that of unilateral Muslim aggression on helpless Hindu victims.

Indeed, following the mass-political violence of late 1946, the Mahasabha’s movement for a “Hindu homeland” resonated powerfully with those Hindus fearful of the prospect of being a permanent minority in a Muslim majority nation-state, whether in united Bengal or in the eastern wing of Pakistan, and loathe to share territory with those they had come to regard with hostility and suspicion, if not a kind of ethnocidal hatred. Readers may consult the pamphlets, speeches and proceedings produced by the organisation during these months to note the quasi-eliminationist and genocidal rhetoric deployed, and the various ways in which fear of Muslim domination was cultivated and fabricated by the Bengali votaries of Hindutva, to lasting effect. This is hardly to suggest that there was no reality to their fear of minority, but that these were anxieties peculiar to a caste-elite resident in what eventually became West Bengal; what sense would a partition make to a Namasudra worker in Barisal? What sense did it make to a Sarat Chandra Bose? Who actually wants to leave hearth and home?

Also read: How the Revolutionary Nationalist Movement Gained Popularity in Bengal

Partition, the transfer of power and the political and social dynamics of the early years of India’s independence all but finished the Mahasabha in the now truncated state, as other cleavages moved to the centre of political discourse and contestation. While communalism receded from the forefront of debate, it would be a mistake to think that the tensions contributing to the wound were actually resolved. The writer cannot help but recall an instance from over a decade ago when his use of what he obviously mistakenly assumed was standard, polite and honorific address was regarded as utterly exceptional and surprising by a Bengali Muslim shop-keeper in suburban Calcutta; the man’s eyes welled with tears because he was spoken to with respect and dignity. The findings of the recently published Sachar report offered one some perspective on the matter.

It nonetheless occurs to me that for the first time since the 1940s (with important exceptions), we are witnessing in Bengal today the growing acceptability and assent to a concocted revival of fears of the “Musolman”, in which the BJP and its various affiliated parties and fronts appear invested over the past handful of years. It will not do to pretend as though Islamophobia has not constituted an important dimension of Bengali Hindu political psychology, despite fairly prolonged periods of a relative quiet. One reads, for instance, of the interesting phenomenon of disgruntled CPI(M) workers finding understanding with the BJP. Placed in a national context where the ruling party openly declares its contempt for Indian Muslim life (condemning lynch mobs while they operate with impunity and in some cases, the sanction of their elected political representatives, for instance), the BJP appears to be intent on stoking demographic anxieties expressed in U.N. Mukherji’s Hindus: A Dying Race, over a century ago, in its bid to capture the state it regards as its rightful home.

This time around, however, Muslims are the minority, and as the National Registry of Citizens scandal or Amit Shah’s speech in Kolkata on his last visit suggest, the alibis of counter-terrorism and tackling illegal immigration and infiltration from Bangladesh will be mobilised in service of further polarising and destabilising an already tense situation in the hope of reaping electoral dividends down the road. It should be no surprise that there has been a sharp uptick in the annual number of “communal incidents” since 2014 in West Bengal, the year the BJP came to power at the Centre, coupled with gaudy displays and the artificial respirations of culturally misplaced festivals like Ram Nabami featuring trishul-brandishing children. The political violence we have seen as of late is thus a direct consequence of that party’s attempt to make inroads into a region that has historically regarded it with distaste, against the TMC’s efforts to retain control over the uneasy alliance of contending forces it cobbled together in the years since its dramatic unseating of the CPI(M), following nearly three and a half decades of uninterrupted Left rule.

Violence during a Ram Navami procession at Raniganj in Burdwan district. Credit: PTI

So, there is both a sense of déjà vu as well as unprecedentedness about the current predicament. Arguably of great consequence in the not-too-distant future is the fact that the BJP is now by far the wealthiest political party in the country, having created the legal conditions to enable unlimited funding from abroad. The plan, it would seem, is to slowly and gradually buy off politicians, businessmen, lawyers and other major players willing to compromise with its worldview, aided no doubt by the subordination of the city of Kolkata and its environs to the dynamics of western-Indian capital.

Also read: The Changing Faces of Political Violence in West Bengal

Let there be no illusions about what is at stake here: the peoples of Bengal are faced with the possibility of granting legitimacy to a political organisation committed to an ideology that is squarely at odds with the spirit of the constitution of India, whose proponents openly and with impunity stoke fanciful anxieties about Muslim demographic designs on Hindus, whose overall intent over the past couple of years seems to have been the wholesale subjection of the various institutions and apparatuses of the state to the service of an Islamophobic, anti-Dalit, anti-labour, hyper-patriarchal, homophobic, anti-intellectual, culturally conservative and, ultimately, fearful agenda; for in the final analysis, Hindutva’s structuring impulses have always rested on insecurity, hatred, and resentment. The citizens of Bengal, and beyond, must ask themselves what good could possibly come of such a way of being. One can only hope that the political classes not given to the banality of Hindutva, will discover the conceptual resources and moral clarity to offer a vision far more adequate to their well-being.

Dwaipayan Sen is assistant professor of South Asian history, Amherst College, Amherst, Massachusetts.