The political locus of Bengal is rapidly shifting. In early April this year, the BJP used Ram Navami – an obscure festival in the local calendar – to flaunt a toxic brand of Hindutva, arming the children and youth with swords and knives, and making them march across Bengal’s towns. It was a show of outright brazenness, pulverising the belief that many had that the RSS would confine its Muslim bashing-Hindutva campaign to social media mobilisation. However, the Ram Navami show of strength was not an isolated moment in Bengal. It was part of an organised and well-funded programme through which local Hindutva factions have been receiving undiminished resources from the RSS and its ilk.
But it would be a mistake to assume that the BJP is the only organisation to have a dirty tricks department operating in Bengal. To promote their own agenda, local Islamists are also tapping into the lack of employment and limited education opportunities among vulnerable Muslim youths. Such machinations are known to often lead to explosive situations – like the one that was witnessed in the state early this week.
The riots that broke out this week over an outrageous Facebook post in the Baduria region of Bengal’s North 24 Parganas are a direct fallout of a long period of radicalisation by Islamist forces that have penetrated the state’s border districts with impunity. This is the latest in the line of sporadic riots Bengal has seen over the last months, spread across Malda in the north, to Dhulagarh in the vicinity of Kolkata. What has become increasingly clear is that these are not flash in the pan eruptions. They are a calculated and orchestrated show of provocation and counter-provocation put up by either side that leads inevitably to violence, arson, loss of property, civic chaos and further polarisation.
Bengal has long been on the map of the rightists. And the reasons for this are rather predictable. Historically and territorially, for centuries, Bengal has had a large and cohesive Muslim population. So, the idea of a Hindu Rashtra, however perverse it sounds, cannot be fully realised if Bengal remains outside its fold. A local version of Muslim bigotry is strengthening that perverted theory. But there is also another, subtler reason for the polarisation.
Along with Kerala, Bengal was the first point of contact with European missions and itinerants in the modern period. As a result, the two states have had a longer exposure to ideas beyond the borders of the subcontinent and have provided, in the last one and a half centuries, much of the intellectual ballast that was to become the foundation of the modern Indian nation-state. The RSS’s dogged anti-intellectualism and its hatred for European enlightenment targets precisely these very ideals. Hence these two states have a great symbolic value if RSS’s dodgy idea of ‘India’ is to gain a foothold, however illegitimate and illiberal it may be. To that end, Bengal’s ‘conquest’ is not just desirable but an imperative enterprise.
While Islamists have found Bengal to be a rich ground for their whataboutery, what is somewhat baffling is the way the BJP is planning this conquest. First, Bengal has not seen good governance for decades and there are bona fide issues of growth, employment, industrialisation, infrastructure, health and corruption that need to be dealt with. A political movement that aims to gain ground in Bengal would logically champion these issues.
Second, communalising Bengal, notwithstanding their comparative decline over the years, is not going to be easy because most of its public institutions – schools, colleges, the media and judiciary are still founded on a long history of secular and informed debate. Third, Bengal’s cultural and culinary habits, like in most part of India, carrying a wide variety of influences, have survived the toughest of historical fault lines over the last century or so.
Finally, a brutal decade in the 1940s and the restive years of the late 1960s and early 1970s could not push Bengal towards brazen communalism. This is despite the fact that Bengal was home to some of the bloodiest riots this country has ever seen. It is worth asking why the RSS/BJP would choose the communal rather than the governance path to mark its political arrival in Bengal. What would it gain in forcefully trying to adopt a pro-Hindi, north Indian brashness? And what is the reason behind their confidence?
Communal politics is usually a shortcut to short-term gains. Emboldened by its successes elsewhere, the local BJP has started to create some nuisance value. In a state like Bengal, plagued by the lack of jobs and secure livelihoods, a meal a day and some extra cash can attract a steady stream of jobless vigilantes. As of now, that is where the ‘foot-soldiers’ are coming from. There is unlikely to be any massive mobilisation of this militia beyond this constituency.
However, the real trouble is not in the numbers but the tacit support it is gaining from urban, middle-income, male Bengali supplicants of Hindutva. The support base is narrowing down the older divide of loyalties between the Bengali-speakers (the Left or Congress or TMC) and those who do not speak the language (the ‘nationalists’). Some of BJP’s recent support has also come from former Left supporters. For others, the ruling TMC is the embodiment of ‘wickedness’ and BJP is the party to fill the void created by the Left. Finally, feeding the fear is the herd of local Wahabis, who, thanks to chief minister Mamata Banerjee’s shady deals with them, enjoy a great deal of clout, especially in the border districts. And these are the forces either walking into the BJP’s trap, or trying to create an Islamist haven in parts of Bengal.
Either way, the BJP is increasingly perceived as a party which will boost Bengal’s national standing, and ‘teach’ the rabid Wahabis a lesson or two. These are comparatively new developments, riding on years of neglect of the state’s intellectual and commercial assets. But perhaps the biggest failure of all is the Left’s inability over decades of governance and mass support, to convert their apparent voter base into a democratic demography, who would choose their governing institutions with empathy, learning and reason.
The state’s response to communal violence has been predictable. It has primarily kept the media out of troubled areas and when cornered, has blatantly blamed the BJP. Following the recent outbreak of communal trouble, Banerjee has even blamed the governor’s partisan suggestions to contain the violence.
The police, which usually uses force with alacrity, are hesitant to do so when confronting a religious militia. Besides, the TMC since 2011, has become used to not dealing with a serious opposition. In spite of some successes, Banerjee’s governance is largely a corrupt shadow-play (much like Modi’s), which is effortlessly steering the state trapezes through political and intellectual void. Any serious probing of its ministrations and a robust, inveterate oppositional voice may prove the beginning of her undoing. And that is something that will determine the nature of Bengal’s governance and its possible deterrents in the coming months.
It is premature to talk about any substantial political change at the moment. A new Left born from the ruins of the old is likely to emerge, though it would take a series of very hard and bold decisions to make that happen. And there is still hope that Bengal’s long history of civic resistance will start kicking in at some point. But if the TMC messes it all up and the Left continues to be in the lurch, the big gainer will be the BJP. Bengal is not just a border state and a populous state. It is today also a troubled state.
In other words, if, after all these historical and social deterrents that militate against Bengal’s Hindutva, the BJP in the near future manages to emerge victorious with its perverse politics, then one must concede that there is – and never was – anything to defend in Bengal anymore.
Sayandeb Chowdhury teaches at Ambedkar University.