This is an excerpt from Mission Bengal: A Saffron Experiment by Snigdhendu Bhattacharya, published by HarperCollins.
The BJP was prepared for such a Bengali regionalist movement to emerge. According to a BJP organizer who did not want to be named, Shiv Prakash, the BJP’s national joint-general secretary (organization) who was looking after Bengal, told the state unit leaders in 2016 that Mamata Banerjee would resort to Bengali sub-nationalism once they pushed for Hindutva. From this perspective, the BJP state organization was rearranged. In the 2011 assembly elections, thirty-two of the 289 candidates had been Hindi-speaking, and the majority of them got tickets in Kolkata and the industrial towns. The BJP put up the highest number of Hindi-speaking candidates among all the parties. Now, Hindi-speaking leaders of the state unit, such as Ritesh Tiwari, Raj Kamal Pathak and Prabhakar Tewari, were gradually moved out of prominence.
In another move to appease Bengali sentiments, the RSS tried cozying up to Pranab Mukherjee, whose presidential tenure was to end in July 2017. Advaita Charan Dutta met him in Delhi in mid-2017, when Mukherjee invited Dutta to visit his home during Durga puja. In October, four RSS leaders, including Dutta, attended the Puja at Mukherjee’s Birbhum residence. These exchanges would finally lead to Mukherjee accepting the RSS’s invitation to be the chief guest at their flagship annual event in Nagpur in June 2018. By honouring the tallest Bengali politician of recent times, the RSS drew significant public attention, if not sympathy.
Besides, a prolonged campaign was planned to highlight how Hindutva was an integral part of Bengal’s cultural heritage. It was decided that a set of organizations working in collaboration with the BJP and the RSS would arrange a series of small-, medium- and large-scale events to generate discussion around Bengali icons.
In this ideological battle, they had a two-fold approach, according to a state-level leader of the BJP who spoke to this author on condition of anonymity. The first was to deny Bengali ethno-regionalism any superiority over Bharatiya nationalism; and second, to emphasize that Bengal was the place of birth of Bharatiya nationalism. Bengalis would be told that they need not feel threatened by the popularization of Bharatiya culture; rather, Bengal should be proud that this Bharatiya nationalism is their contribution to the rest of the India; that Bankim Chandra penned ‘Bande Mataram’ and that Sister Nivedita planned a tour of India carrying the image of Bharat Mata that was created by Abanindranath Tagore. Where else should people be prouder about shouting ‘Bande Mataram’ and ‘Bharat Mata ki jai’?
The first such event was organized in October 2017. Rantidev Sengupta, a veteran Bengali journalist who had been working in close association with the RSS over the past few years, was the chief organizer of the event, in the capacity of being the general secretary of the Sister Nivedita Mission Trust. The Trust organized a talk on the occasion of the 150th birth anniversary of Nivedita, Swami Vivekananda’s Irish disciple who had a profound influence on Bengal’s extremist revolutionaries of the Ognijug, or age of fire. Nivedita’s role in India’s struggle for freedom is unforgettable. She, among other things, introduced Bengali revolutionaries to the autobiography of Mazzini, which contained a chapter on guerrilla warfare. Talks around Nivedita would always resonate in Bengal.
Now, Mohan Bhagwat was to deliver a speech on her. From the dais on October 3, Bhagwat said: ‘All diverse languages and practices should coexist, but under the unifying idea of Bharat Mata. All diversities must be subservient to nationalism.’
The second major event was Amit Shah’s. He was to speak on Bankim Chandra. This event was organized by New Delhi-based BJP think-tank Syama Prasad Mookerjee Research Foundation (SPMRF), one of the main organizations to whom the BJP had entrusted the task of connecting with the Bengali intelligentsia – especially the bhodrolok. Its helmsman, Anirban Ganguly, a Jadavpur University alumnus who lived in Delhi and was a member of the BJP’s central policy research wing, was to work together with the nominated Rajya Sabha MP Swapan Dasgupta, a columnist. The two would coordinate with Shiv Prakash and RSS ideologues in Bengal.
The SPMRF was to hold a series of discussions in towns across Bengal, highlighting nineteenth and twentieth century Bengali nationalist icons – Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay, Sister Nivedita and Kazi Nazrul Islam, among others. The BJP had to be established before the public as the true torchbearer of the legacy of Bengal’s nineteenth and twentieth century icons.
The invitees for Shah’s speech were chosen carefully –- a large number were college and university teachers, including six former vice-chancellors. The task of SPMRF was to build a network of intellectuals to revive talks around Bengal’s Hindu nationalist icons of the pre-Independence era. An SPMRF organizer once told this author that the best way to establish relations with academics and researchers of certain repute was to hold events on personalities in whom all Bengalis took pride.
Ahead of Shah’s event, Bengal BJP’s senior leaders systematically approached prominent public intellectuals to drop off invitations. Actor Soumitra Chatterjee, former Supreme Court judge Ashok Kumar Ganguly, former Naxalite-turned-writer Santosh Rana, theatre actors Rudraprasad Sengupta, Chandan Sen and Manoj Mitra, singer Amar Paul and painter Samir Aich, among others were invited for the function. None of them turned up. The only popular writer who came was Buddhadeb Guha, who was never previously seen around politicians of any colour and hardly ever spoke on socio-political issues.
The auditorium, however, was full on 27 June 2018 as Shah took the stage. There was no space unoccupied in the auditorium and there were many standing outside. The others on the dais included Netaji researcher Purabi Roy and former vice-chancellor of Gour Banga University Achintya Biswas. Biswas had been close to the RSS for some time.
The image of Bharat Mata on the stage was not the one usually seen at Sangh Parivar events in the rest of the country. The one here was the iconic Bharat Mata painted by Abanindranath Tagore in 1905. Shah was also presented a framed picture of Kali.
In his speech, Shah said the Partition of India could have been avoided if the Congress had adopted ‘Bande Mataram’ in its entirety as the national song. ‘Congress’s politics of appeasement was expressed through its incomplete acceptance of ‘Bande Mataram’ in 1937, and it led to the path to Partition. They divided the song and divided the nation,’ he said, and continued, ‘Bande Mataram does not belong to any particular religion or language. It unified India. Congress made a blunder by linking the song with religion. I am forced to draw its reference because we must take lessons from the mistakes of the past.’
In a more significant remark for the state, Shah announced: ‘The song was an expression of India’s national revivalism. Our nationalism is cultural nationalism and Bankim Chandra is the fountainhead.’
The audience erupted in applause. One after another, the audience was shouting, ‘Bande Ma-ta-ram!’
Snigdhendu Bhattacharya is a journalist and author based in Kolkata.