Communal Polarisation in West Bengal Reflects the Many Failures of Identity Politics

Recent events in the state show how easily social coalitions, which have been the hallmark of Bengal society for decades, can break down, with class-based issues being relegated.

Members of a right-wing group protest against the West Bengal communal clashes. Credit: PTI

Members of a right-wing group protest against the West Bengal communal clashes. Credit: PTI

Bengal was one of the two provinces, along with Punjab, that was partitioned on religious lines in 1947. The Partition was followed by largescale migration of Hindus and Muslims. A large number of Hindu families who were uprooted by the Partition and subsequent communal riots in East Bengal settled in the areas around Kolkata city in the districts of south Bengal, primarily in North and South 24 Parganas. The flow of Hindu migrants from East Pakistan (present day Bangladesh) continued well into the 1960s.

Syama Prasad Mukherjee, one of the founding members of the Bharatiya Jana Sangh, a charismatic leader and an excellent orator, was a MP from Calcutta South East, largely encompassing those areas inhabited by large number of refugees from East Pakistan. The situation in West Bengal remained extremely volatile and complex as a substantial Muslim population remained after deciding not to migrate to East Pakistan following Partition. With memories of horrific communal violence in Kolkata city (popularly known as the Great Calcutta Killings), the situation was extremely conducive for the Hindu right.

Class-based movements in West Bengal

Despite the conducive situation, the Hindu right failed to consolidate its support base among Hindu migrants from East Pakistan and the Hindu population in West Bengal. The cause for this was that success of the progressive forces in the state in mobilising substantial sections of the population on class-based issues in urban and rural areas.

In the urban areas, immediately after Partition, agitations were spearheaded by the Communist Party as well as other Left and progressive forces on issues related to food security; against efforts to increase second class tram fares; on providing ownership rights over land (patta) to refugees from East Bengal in settlement areas; and in demand of better emoluments for teachers.

In rural areas, the movement was primarily against landlordism and to enhance food security for the rural poor. These movements set off new courses in West Bengal polity in two ways – the emergence of the Left, particularly the CPI, as the main opposition to the ruling Congress party with an alternative sets of policies; and the dominance of class-based politics and the relegation of identity-based politics, which had dominated the polity of (undivided) Bengal for most of the pre-independence period.

However, the primary focus on class-based politics did not prove to be a hindrance in the formation of larger social coalitions of oppressed identities, particularly between Dalits and Muslims, against exploitative and oppressive landlordism in rural areas of West Bengal. This was made possible largely due to the intersectionality that exists between these social and economic classes like rural labourers, small, poor, marginal peasants and a section of middle peasants. The model was successful in maintaining communal and social amity in a political context characterised by extreme communal volatility and polarisation.

As a result, except for 1964 and 1992, there were no communal violence in Kolkata city, and there was practically none till 2013 in the rural areas of the state.

Emergence of TMC and resurgence of identity politics

The victory of the Trinamool Congress (TMC) in the 2009 parliamentary elections, followed by its historic victory in the 2011 assembly polls, marked a new era in the West Bengal polity. Significantly, the rise of the TMC was largely on account of class-based mobilisations following the Left Front government’s faulty and disastrous land acquisition programmes in Singur and Nandigram.

Agitations led by TMC supremo Mamata Banerjee enabled the party to cover newer grounds among the deprived social and economic classes like Dalits and Muslims, who until then had by and large been with the Left. The poor in urban and rural areas, Hindus and Muslims alike, began to see Banerjee and the TMC as their saviour and ally. However, all of these turned out to be a stopgap measures by Banerjee and her party.

No sooner did her party become dominant, than she fell back on the Congress brand of identity politics. Massive hoardings of the TMC supremo offering prayers can be seen in Muslim dominated areas of the city. The state government’s decision to providing monetary and other benefits to imams, ban immersion of Durga idols after Dussehra last year, and open support to triple talaq are some manifestations of the TMC’s identity-based politics.

West Bengal chief minister and Trinamool Congress supremo Mamata Banerjee with party leaders. Credit: PTI

West Bengal chief minister and Trinamool Congress supremo Mamata Banerjee with party leaders. Credit: PTI

The ruling party relied more on religious symbols, religious leaders and assertions of religious identities as symbols of empowerment of Muslims. Issues like farmer suicides, loss of land for the Muslims and other socially deprived sections, and the general deepening of agrarian crisis in which Muslims, Dalits and adivasis were majorly affected in rural Bengal, were brushed aside as minor incidents.

Instead of empowering the Muslims (and other deprived sections), economically and socially, they are treated more as a vote bank to win elections. The implicit understanding is that Muslims are homogenous entities who vote en-bloc for any party irrespective of their economic positions and contexts, and their political and social opinions are largely controlled by some dominant religious leaders and influenced by religious symbols. But this has proved to be wrong, historically, not only in West Bengal but in the nation as a whole.

Emergence of Hindu right

The national political scenario underwent a rapid change with the formation of NDA government under the leadership of Narendra Modi in 2014. The absence of a credible opposition at the national level had eroded the liberal space in the domestic polity. Attacks on Dalits and Muslims across India increased, almost becoming a regular affair. Largescale communal rioting had given way to localised mob lynching in the name of cow protection, and these evinced muted responses from an opposition that is divided and scam-tainted.

The strengthening of Hindu right nationally had its fallouts on the political space in West Bengal, which is a matter of grave concern for its secular polity since: (a) more than 25% of the population is Muslim, one of the highest in the country, (b) it is one of the few states in India in which cow slaughter is legal, and (c) it shares a large international border with Bangladesh, which lately has been witnessing radical Islamic insurgency. Thus, the dominance of communal politics in West Bengal has implications in neighbouring Bangladesh and vice versa.

Also read: Why Is the BJP Communalising West Bengal Instead of Offering It Good Governance?

In this volatile political environment, the ascendance of the BJP has been a matter of grave concern. For the first time since its formation, the BJP has independently managed to win two parliamentary constituencies (in 2014) and three assembly constituencies (in 2016). This was followed by the emergence of the BJP in the second position, displacing the Left Front-Congress combine, hitherto the main opposition, in the by-elections for Cooch Behar parliamentary constituency and Kanthi Dakshin assembly constituency in which sizeable sections of erstwhile Left Front supporters had shifted their allegiance to the BJP.

The rising insecurity among Muslims in West Bengal, along with the strengthening of the Hindu right in India, was not addressed by the state government empowering them through more jobs, better access to education or by providing them with more finance for entrepreneurial activities, as recommended by the Sachar Committee a decade ago. Instead, the TMC government was seen to be hobnobbing with the orthodox elements among the Muslims, and appealing to their religious symbols and identities while completely bypassing class-based issues.

Also, the absence of a consistent secular opposition, particularly the Left Front – which is yet to come out of political confusion on issues like industrialisation and land acquisition, its prime causes of defeat in 2011 – has not strengthened secular politics in the state. The Left has failed to accept its political shortcomings and hence has not been able to reclaim the confidence of the poor, resulting in its continuous marginalisation and erosion of support across the state.

Moreover, since 2011, it has done precious little in terms of building movements on people-centric issues; the role of the Left leadership in protecting its grassroot cadres from TMC hooliganism has been equally pathetic, to say the least. These political and organisational factors were important in explaining the shift of loyalties among large sections of Left cadres towards the BJP in various areas of West Bengal. Politically, the Left Front in the state had missed golden opportunities to corner the government and ruling party on issues of corruption like Sarada, Rose Valley and Narada sting probe.

The political and organisational vacuum created in the state was utilised by the Hindu right, which always had an eye on West Bengal but it failed to do anything substantial since independence due to the dominance of class politics in the political activities and discourse.

Impacts of resurgent identity politics

Thus, the dominance of identity-based and relegation of class-based politics – a complete reversal of the earlier post-independence period – has pushed the state to the brink. With the dominance of identity-based politics, the state had moved back to the pre-independence period in terms of the nature of political discourse and actions.

While Banerjee and her party were promoting fundamentalist sections and continuously shrinking the liberal space in West Bengal, communal incidents broke out in various parts of the state. It started in Canning in South 24 Parganas and Deganga in the North 24 Parganas, within a 50-km radius of Kolkata. However, more violent clashes erupted in Malda district’s Kaliachak area, where the Muslim population protested against an allegedly derogatory speech about Prophet Mohammed. The speech was made outside West Bengal, but the magnitude of violence in Malda showed the tinderbox atmosphere that exists in the state. Houses were looted, local police station was set on fire and a BSF vehicle was also attacked.

A series of communal clashes rocked the state during Muharram and Dussehra in October last year. Major incidents were reported from Hazinagar in North 24 Parganas, Chanchal in Malda, Kharagpur in West Medinipur and Chandannagar in Hooghly. In all of these incidents, it was the simultaneous occurrence of two important religious events that led to minor clashes first, which then escalated into major violence.

Also read: Mamata’s Opportunism and the BJP’s Communalism are Pushing Bengal to the Edge

No sooner were these communal fires extinguished, than another major incident of communal violence took place in Dhulagarh area in Howrah district, which is no more than 25 kms from Kolkata, in December. Clashes erupted on the occasion of Milad-ul-Nabi, which also happened to coincide with a Hindu festival. Although these festivals have been organised with utmost peace and tranquility over the years, this time it was different. Houses and business establishments owned by members of both communities were attacked and looted. What followed was an atmosphere of increased tension, hatred and mutual distrust among the communities.

The latest incidents of communal violence erupted in Basirhat and Baduria. The immediate reason ostensibly was an outrageous Facebook post in the Baduria area of North 24 Parganas, which is close to the international border with Bangladesh. Just like in Kaliachak and Dhulagarh, police stations were attacked and houses were torched and looted. However, unlike in Dhulagarh, even the local MLA was attacked and ruling party offices were ransacked. It seems from all these incidents that what is needed for the communal clashes in West Bengal is a spark, like a Facebook post or a speech that can demolish peace and amity that was created among communities over many years.

In the midst of these clashes, Ram Navami, that was never a major festival in the state, was organised with lots of passion and fanfare. Armed processions were taken out throughout West Bengal, with the Hindu Right playing a dominant role in terms of mobilisation.

Devotees participate in a procession to celebrate 'Ram Navami' in Kolkata. Credit: PTI

Devotees participate in a procession to celebrate ‘Ram Navami’ in Kolkata. Credit: PTI

It was for the first time in many decades that the Hindu right in West Bengal had managed to mobilise such a large number of people with arms and religious symbols for a festival that is not quite akin to Bengali tradition and culture. Assertion of Hindu symbols as part of Ram Navami celebrations in West Bengal has to be seen as reactions to the use of Muslim symbols and identities that was so grotesquely used by the TMC. The present discourse in West Bengal shows that social coalitions, a hallmark of West Bengal society for decades, can break down and class-based issues can be relegated with the dominance of identity-based politics and symbols.

In the pre-independence period, despite domination of religious identity in the political discourse, communal clashes had a class nature, particularly in the rural areas. Most of the landowners were upper-caste Hindus who were extremely exploitative, while the poor folks – agricultural labourers, poor and marginal peasants – were either Muslims or Dalits. Hence, any violent assertion for rights by the poor people in rural areas had a religious angle. The same cannot be said to be the situation at present. It was mainly a clash between two groups of poor people who were, by and large, equally exploited through state sponsored policies. There is no class dimension to the present communal polarisation in the state.

West Bengal is on the brink of disaster. While the overall national political scenario cannot be overlooked, the political activities of secular forces in the state has left a lot to be desired. If secularism has to be the winner, then class-based issues need to be raised and it should dominate issues based on identities. After all, one should not forget that the two-nation theory was an identity-based understanding.

Shantanu De Roy teaches economics at the TERI University, New Delhi.