West Bengal is witnessing frequent communal flare ups these days in tandem with the gradual emergence of the Modified BJP as the principal opposition to its friend-turned-foe Mamata Banerjee-led Trinamool Congress government. In a series of sectarian violence, unprecedented since the Partitions horrors that the undivided Bengal had suffered, at least 40 persons were killed and hundreds injured in 200 odd clashes along the religious divide since Mamata assumed office in 2011.
In the meantime, BJP’s vote-share had surged up to 17 per cent during the 2014 Modi-wave but plummeted to 10 per cent plus in 2016 assembly poll. Though Mamata has garnered 44 per cent of votes second time against 36 per cent in her first stint, successive bye-polls in last two years has pointed to the upswing in the BJP’s poll fortune, mainly at the costs of the Lefts and Congress, the former rulings parties of the state.
With both sides gearing up for a battle for Bengal in 2019 general election and the assembly poll two years later, the Sangh Parivar is trying hard to keep the communal cauldron boiling by stirring up the complaints against Mamata’s ‘Muslim appeasement’ and fears of Hindus being deluged by Bangladeshi Muslims. The saffron brigade is working overtime to pit Hindu Dalit refugees from across the Indo-Bangla borders, particularly those who harbor bitter memories of religious persecution there, against Muslims here. It hopes to distill the heady politics of Hindu consolidation, a la UP and keep it free from dilution by Dalit and OBC identities, like what happened in Gujarat since caste hostility is already watery in humid Bengal.
If new generations of refugees are the fulcrum of Sangh’s politics at bordering areas, Hindi-speaking upcountry settlers of the yore are its main launching pads in mixed population industrial areas in addition to tribal and OBC –dominated areas of Junglemahal. As the Modi–wave of 2014 has waned since demonetization and GST imposition, the currency of Janus-faced Bikashpurush among urban Bengalis has been changed for appropriation of Bengali middle class icons in the Hindutva pantheon.
To checkmate the challengers, Bengal’s big sis is harping on her claims to be the sole savior of minorities, particularly Muslims who represent more than 27 per cent of state population. In addition, she counts on her sway over the presiding family of Matua sect that represents a sizable section of dalits, namely Namasudra and Poundro khatriyos in addition to her guardianship of the state’s tolerant tradition. Recent riots and tensions, mainly triggered by online obscenities and fake news by Hindutva fanatics active in social media as well as concurrence of Muharram and Durga Puja immersion processions etc, has also revealed the Trinamool realpolitik.
The government’s police, otherwise ruthless in battering opposition rallies and journalists at slightest pretext, have maintained ‘maximum restraint’ to religious frenzy by a section of Muslim youth under order from the top. Even attacks on police stations, mainly by criminals who had joined the community outrage against Hindutva insults to Islam were handled with kid gloves. The list of Trinamool’s Muslim MPs and ministers as well as their hangers-on only reveals the clout of religious and social conservatives who are only interested in exploiting the fears and frustrations of community youth for their own ends.
Realizing that her lenience has only given credence to Sangh campaign, the chief minister has resorted to assorted balancing acts with shrewd political calculations in mind. The manhandling of journalists at a Kolkata rally on 14 February by Hindu Samhati, a fringe organization of Hindutva brigades has brought forth the tacit understanding between Trinamool and the group. Tapan Ghosh, a former RSS leader in south 24-parganas who runs the outfit has been enjoying police permission to hold his annual congregation at the heart of the downtown since 2009 that marked the fag end of three decades-long Left Front rule. However, the Samhati has grown in strength, both in terms of money, mobilization and muscle power after Mamata has taken over.
The loony Ghosh who tries to outsmart Sangh in rabid anti-Muslim rhetoric has been expressing his support to Mamata while cautioning her against the ‘closet communists’ who have turned to her fold following the LF debacle. He renewed his support to Mamata at latest rally while taking ‘inspiration’ from Islamophobic Donald Trump and Zionist prime minister of Israel, BiBi Netanyahu. The irony was unmistakable when he criticized Modi for not supporting unilateral US-Israeli move to make Jerusalem the ‘eternal capital of the promised land’. He extorted Hindu refugees from Bangladesh to aspire to reoccupy their homeland as the Zionists did.
In the meantime, he urged them to ask Muslims here to make a choice between a ‘ghar Wapsi to their ancestor’s faith and Keyamat for their faith and folks in the war between Islam and rest of the humanity’, in an improvisation of Samuel Huntington’s theory of clash of civilizations.
He drew his point home by facilitating a Muslim family who had purportedly converted to Hinduism at the rally, an unthinkable thing in Kolkata even a few years ago. Journalists were beaten up after they sought to speak to the family and wanted to know whether the conversion was voluntary. His calls for ‘Hindu resistance’ at every village were clearly aimed at inciting communal violence, stereotypes he used to demonize Muslims bore the signature tune of the Sangh in letter and spirit.
What made his appeal deadly is the Bengali tinge to Sangh ideology by replacing the north and West Indian ethos and icons by local ones. The banner for the rally bore the gory image of Goddess Kali which has been part of Bengali Hindu’s political symbolism across generations as well as literary icons like Tagore, Bankim Chandra, Saratchandra and Vivekananda as well as Gopal Pantha, allias Mukherjee, a hero of Hindu ‘resistance’ during the great Calcutta killings of 1946-48.
Clearly, Ghosh wants to create a political space for him and his group at the cost of BJP, may be as a bargaining chip with Nagpur while Mamata mollycoddles him to drive a wedge in the Hindutva camp and its impact in the ballot box. That’s why no charge of hate speech and communal trouble-making has been slapped against Ghosh, despite being arrested for roughing up journalists.
On the other hand, the chief minister has begun underlining her Hindu credentials publicly while asking her minions to make gala shows of Vajrangbali and Ganesh Pujas etc. which are not part of Bengali Hindu festivals. More the Pujas are merrier, particularly for the jobless youths. The army of unemployed and their Para or neighborhood clubs have been kept in humor by generous doles by the government and the ruling party. It has replaced the cadres and local committee offices of the CPM to provide the muscle power and social-political control rooms respectively that the new rulers require to rule with iron hand. Bengal’s prima donna has been followings the steps of her former friends by promoting religious pomp, conservatives of all hues. The icing of the cake comes from the never-ending festivals at government expenses to create a false but sustained feel good factor.
But soon it may be proved as a foolhardy picnic on the top a simmering volcano.
*The views expressed are exclusively of the author.