If the Hindi heartland is usually believed to be organically connected to right-wing politics, Bengali politics – until some time ago, at least – was considered to be sutured to the Left.
In 2011, Mamata Banerjee pulled off the seemingly impossible feat of dislodging the over three-decade-old Left Front government. That historic electoral turnabout did not, however, rupture the quintessential leftist brand of politics Bengal had come to embody.
Instead, the Trinamool Congress (TMC) chief minister claimed to represent the ‘real’ Left in the state. Her plain sarees and trademark rubber chappals optically backed such claims.
The absence of large-scale communal violence has been a prominent dimension of Bengal’s Left politics since 1977, when the communists came to power. For instance, it’s often noted that in the aftermath of the Babri Masjid demolition in 1992, the state kept the peace – unlike the rest of the country.
Pre-Partition bloodshed notwithstanding, Bengal’s secularism, to many, gathered around it an aura of invincibility. The long and uninterrupted Left Front rule, it was argued, prevented the emergence of a well-defined platform that communal forces could leverage for political advantage.
However, this remarkable history should not be taken to suggest an absence of Hindu-Muslim tensions on the ground. In fact, Bengal’s historical trajectory belies such a naive assumption. On the contrary, Bengal’s social equilibrium has always stretched thinner than imagined.
The political and electoral dynamics currently seen in the state can be understood as a sudden manifestation of dormant Hindu-Muslim tensions. Hence, for the first time, an ascendant BJP is poised for direct electoral contest with the TMC.
The roots of this present moment can be traced back to the history of Bengali nationalism in the 19th century, when the anti-colonial struggle became entwined with Hindu revivalist ideologies and the political philosophy of the Bengali bhadralok.
Consider the case of Dharma Sabha – the first bhadralok association with modern politics. Set up in 1830, the organisation went all out to defend the right of Hindu widows to commit sati. Radhakanta Deb Bahadur (1784-1867), a Dharma Sabha leader who was also a scholar and torchbearer of conservative Hindu society, actively resisted then governor general William Bentinck’s decision to abolish the practice of sati in 1829.
The contradiction between social reform and bhadralok conservatism becomes more evident in that, even as he resisted the abolition of sati, Deb advocated English education as well as education for women among Hindus. Besides, he was actively involved in setting up the Calcutta Book Society and funding Hindu College in Calcutta.
Positing themselves as the makers of Bengal’s Hindu destiny, sections of the Bengali bhadralok leveraged the nationalist project as a means to awaken the consciousness of a ‘dormant’ Hindu society.
In her book Bengal Divided: Hindu Communalism and Partition, 1932-1947, historian Joya Chatterji showed how culture bequeathed to the fractious bhadralok a sense of communal identity. “In the late thirties and forties, the bhadralok relied upon many different tactics to create the semblance of an united ‘Hindu’ polity, whether by the use of shuddhi (ritual purification) or ‘caste-consolidation’ programmes, which sought to find a place for the lower castes and tribals in the Hindu community,” writes Chatterji.
The bhadralok also made use of local social and political grievances to put together a communal agenda.
In fact, Chatterji draws attention to how the they accepted help from the Hindu Mahasabha and Bengal Congress to mount a campaign for partitioning Bengal: “From a refusal to countenance being ruled by Muslim ‘inferiors’, it was a short step to demanding partition and the creation of a separate Hindu homeland.”
Between 1857 and 1947, bhadralok nationalism, as many scholars have argued, drew inspiration from Sri Aurobindo’s political vision – one that identified the nation with the goddess Kali. Bipin Chandra Pal, a prominent national movement leader, introduced Kali Puja and the Shivaji festival to the nationalist project. Others, like Chittaranjan Das, were influenced by Vaisnavism, while Subhas Bose was a disciple of Ramakrishna and Vivekananda.
By the 1940s, scores of RSS-affiliated volunteer organisations mushroomed across Bengal. The long list includes Baghbazar Tarun Byayam Samiti, Arya Bir Dal (Park Circus), Salkia Tarun Dal (Howrah) and the Hindu Seva Sangha in 24 Parganas. Many of these organisations – for instance, the Bharat Sevashram Sangha – were patronised by the Marwari and other business communities.
RSS leaders currently based in Bengal never fail to remind people that Syama Prasad Mookerjee, a leading figure in the Sangh pantheon, hailed from this state.
He was a minister in the Jawaharlal Nehru cabinet. After falling out with Nehru, Mukherjee quit the Congress and founded the Bharatiya Jana Sangh, which preceded the BJP, in 1951. He remained president of the Akhil Bharatiya Hindu Mahasabha between 1943 and 1946. It should be noted that the Hindu Mahasabha-Jana Sangh combine won 13 seats in Bengal’s first assembly polls in 1951-52.
The subsequent rise of Left parties, coupled with Mookerjee’s death in 1953, stalled the right-wing advance in Bengal. But a network of RSS-run organisations – particularly schools – continued to work on the ground. The communist parties, meanwhile, created a support base among Hindu refugees from East Pakistan and led militant struggles for land reform – carving out a solid electoral constituency among Bengal’s peasants. This demographic stood by the Left Front government for over thirty years.
Before the Narendra Modi government came to power, there was little on the ground to boost the political morale of the Hindu right in Bengal. The BJP surely did not predict then that it could be the main opposition in a state where it did not even figure in political conversations.
But then, the unexpected happened. In the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, the BJP secured 16.8% of votes in the state. Aided by a diminished Left Front, a whittled-down Congress and a steady stream of defectors, the BJP began to make inroads in local elections.
Bengal’s BJP and RSS leaders will tell you that this is the moment they have awaited for years. They will tell you how, over the last five years, RSS shakhas have expanded and schools multiplied. Where there was a base, the process of building an edifice has begun.
A careful examination of the past thus suggests that the current political dynamic in Bengal is a manifestation of longer, repressed histories.