In Satyajit Ray’s Joi Baba Felunath – set in Benaras – Machli Baba is a fake sadhu aligned with the criminal smuggler of antiquities Maganlal Meghraj. In that film, Feluda makes a caustic remark that excessive overt religious devotion is a trait of the corrupt. And Machli Baba, after his pravachan on the ghat of Benaras, gives out a fish scale to all the devotees.
That machli or fish is integral to the Bengalis is common knowledge. My late maternal grandfather whose Mukherjee family is distantly related to S.P. Mukherjee – the founder of Jan Sangh – though he was a Kanyakubja Brahmin whose ancestral origins went to Kannauj in Uttar Pradesh, used to devour fish and meat every day. He didn’t relate religion to food. He held his holy thread before every meal, uttered something and then proceeded to eat his non-vegetarian breakfast, lunch and dinner with vigour. He was a foodie from the quarks of his bones.
Grandfather looked upon total vegetarianism as irrational; a self-inflicted injury to deny crucial nourishment that could make a person very ill and arrest higher mental development. He used to insist to me, from my boyhood days, to drink up the gravy of the Hilsa dish as well, because it would be good for my brain. Seafood and fish oil rich in omega-3 have played a role from the pre-historic times in the development of the human brain – this is a scientific fact. So since fish is a permanent part of the Bengali menu, certain diseases – related to memory and the brain – are much less in Bengalis.
But now fish, our much loved fish, is under attack in Bengal. BJP’s Hindutva food politics have reached Bengal via social media propaganda.
For the last six months, Bengali speaking trolls have surfaced in large numbers on Facebook and Twitter. They are swarming everywhere like locusts. One doesn’t need the detective skills or the mogoj ashtro (mental weapon) of Ray’s Feluda to figure out which ideology they are supporting.
Reports were already coming from rural Bengal that cow protection is turned into an issue and caste politics is being encouraged. A well-funded grassroots campaign is going on in rural Bengal to polarise the people in the name of religion and caste. Chief minister Mamata Banerjee has spoken about this; she wants to stop or at least resist this campaign.
These trolls have spread all over social media with their propaganda. Memes demanding that the writings of poet Michael Madhusudan Dutta should be banned because he had converted to Christianity, married a foreigner and ‘insulted Rama’, were followed by memes which declared Tagore as ‘characterless,’ ‘anti-Hindu’ and a ‘pimp of the seculars and the British’.
On the other hand, Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay – who in reality wrote ‘Bande Mataram’ while thinking of Bengal – is being eulogised as a ‘true Hindu’ who ‘should have received the Nobel Prize’, but was denied it because “he spoke the truth”. The fact that Bankim had died before the Nobel Prizes began is a small matter that is conveniently ignored. All this is being done to ‘awake Hindu Bengalis’, asking them to know their ‘true history’.
An organisation calling itself the ‘All India Fish Protection Committee’ has emerged on social media, threatening Bengalis who eat fish. Religion is invoked by mentioning Matsya, one of the ten avatars of Vishnu. To most Bengalis, all this is very comical. Some have responded that the silvery Hilsa in the memes is perfect to be converted into a nice, smoked fish.
But beyond all this humour, something serious – and worrying – is brewing. For many Bengalis, this goes beyond resisting a political party; now it is a matter of preserving the liberal culture of Bengal from the assault of the conservative Hindustani cow belt culture. On Saturday, the state BJP president Dilip Ghosh – an MLA from Kharagpur – at a seminar at the Jadavpur University declared that he would lead a Ram Navami rally on April 5 with tridents and swords. Ram Navami celebration is a recent import into the state and the worship of Ram is not popular in Bengal, like it is in North India. Many are seeing this publicly announced rally – with swords and tridents – as a ploy to impose Hindustani cow belt culture on the liberal fabric of Bengal. Many Bengalis are offended and appalled at this attempt at socio-cultural engineering. A Hindu identity is being hammered into the minds to polarise people.
The BJP’s vote share in Bengal had fallen from its peak of 17% in the 2014 Lok Sabha election to 10% in the 2016 assembly elections. A renewed effort is now being made by BJP to increase the vote share. Banerjee has recently appealed to the Left Front to fight under the TMC leadership against the Hindutva ideology that is being spread systemically through these well-funded campaigns.
The Hindutva campaign is likely to boomerang. It doesn’t pay to be anti-fish in Bengal. The carrot and stick politics of BJP where the carrot is the mythical ‘development’ and the stick is ‘hate against anti-Hindus, ‘seculars’, Muslims, targeted intellectuals, anti-nationals and political opposition’ might stumble badly like Machli Baba of Ray’s Joi Baba Felunath, if the party is foolish enough to deny the Bengali her/his fish.
A vegetarian Hindu Rashtra with anti-Romeo vigilantism and a regressive ultra-conservative mindset is not the idea of Bengal or indeed of India. They are repulsed by this idea and want to resist it by safeguarding liberal culture.
Bengal is one of the large bastions which has resisted Hindutva ideology and stopped its surge in Bengal after 2014. If Bengal falls, India will fall, is the common feeling amongst the liberals and the progressives in Kolkata. The soul of Bengalis is related to ponds, rivers, ocean and fish. If something fishy happens there, there is no chance of BJP advancing beyond its support base for a long time to come.
Devdan Chaudhuri is the author of Anatomy of Life. He is one of the contributing editors of The Punch Magazine. He lives in Kolkata.