Observations on Bengal in Assembly Polls 2021

The 2021 Bengal assembly elections are going on, with the latest voting round witnessing deadly political violence in Cooch Behar. However, as an observer, and that too as Obangali or Bahiragata, there are broader meta narratives that have been emerging for a while. It is strange that most people have failed to notice a few trends. While the economic and development trends are well understood and have been discussed to the point of saturation, there is increased interest in the Hindu identity of Bengal, and open questioning of the shenanigans of the Kolkata bhodrolokis in the name of minority appeasement that has hung over the state of Bengal for decades on a stretch now.

 

Cultural Revivalism of the Subaltern Hindus

What do I mean when I say cultural revivalism? Many people will actually not take my claim lightly, but let me give an example to highlight what has been going on. Irrespective of the Trinamool’s power control, the television industry of Bengal has seen a success formula that more than speaks for itself. One of the most popular serials in the last five years was based on the life of Rani Rashmoni.

Rashmoni was born of a Mahishya agriculturist family of village Kona, Halisahar, 24 Parganas (North), West Bengal, on 26th September 1793. Her father was Harekrishna Das and mother Rampriya. For the outsider, both belonged to what would qualify as the subaltern communities to borrow the leftist identity paradigms linguistically - Mahishyas are lower caste as they are associated with agriculture and such activities that are considered to be traditional OBC occupations. She was married to Rajchandra Das, a famous zamindar of Janbazar, Kolkata at the age of eleven, and after becoming a widow took charge of the Zamindari with the help of her son-in-law. She made contributions to building Kolkata and promoting Hindu faith by building Dakshineshwar Kali Mandir and supporting Sri Sri Ramkrishna Paramhamsa among other things. Her fierce belief in pride of the local people in the face of British imperialist behaviour once again came back to public memory with the 2017 series based on her lifetime. Karunamoyee Rani Rashmoni was shown as a worshipper of Raghubir, another epithet for Sri Rama, and the serial created records for Bengali television with some of the highest TRPs, and played a big role in reviving the memory of Lokmata as more than just a disciple of Sri Ramakrishna.


Another interesting trend in recent times has been the increased focus on the Namashudra community. Few people know the origins of the community, and about the founder of the Matua Mahasangha, Sri Sri Harichand Thakur. The role of the Matua community in the electoral politics of Bengal is primarily driven by the sense of marginalization that the Matuas continue to feel in Bengal’s social landscape. Sri Sri Harichand, who lived in Orakandi in Gopalganj of present day Bangladesh, had founded the Mahasangha as a reaction to the marginalization of the lower castes. However, his association from the broader Dharmic sampradaya remains strong - in some religious literature of the Matua Mahasangha it is claimed that he was the incarnation of Sri Sri Gaurango Mahaprabhu, who had once told to his mother that he shall once again born in North-East corner of Bengal to finish his lila. Thakur ji’s insistence on bhakti marga and his call against untouchability comes straight out of the Sri Vaishnava traditions coming down from Sri Ramanujacharya onwards.

The importance as a vote bank that the Matuas claim, or the rise of the subaltern icons in public memory are strong indicators of a paradigm shift that has taken place in the cultural milieu of Bengal’s mindset. All of a sudden, it is not the Bhodrolok that matter, and this sense of insignificance seems to be making them writhe in pain.

 

Not Reading the Truth in Bengal’s ‘Blatant Minority Appeasement’

That the intelligentsia of this nation and of Bengal in particular refuses to see the monster it has created is evident in a piece that came through in The Wire on 14 March 2021. Monobina Gupta, long time Bhodroloki of Kolkata, was hammer and sickle (tongs missing) in berating the Left for not fighting ‘communalism’ in Bengal. Whipping a dead horse is easy, and she blamed the Left for the state’s soft Hinduisation while not acting on Islamic hardliners. Whatever Sachar Committee may claim or say, it has allegedly taken a Prashant Kishore to be blunt and honest about minority appeasement in Bengal.To quote words ascribed to him verbatim:

"For the last 20 years, there has been a blatant effort to appease the minority. The entire political ecosystem in Bengal be it Left, Congress or Didi have been to grab the Muslim votes. There is some element that BJP is exploiting. And that element is coming from the blatant misuse of minority politics."

Was it not known? In my own private conversations from Kolkata in 2013, when Mamata Banerjee was still ascending after her victory, Bengalis from outside Kolkata talked to me in hushed tones about blatant minority appeasement, lest they be branded and excommunicated. There was anger and disgust against the tarbuz (watermelon) policy of the Trinamool Congress. It is perhaps only now that a serious challenger in the form of a strong BJP post 2016 who at least does not claim to engage in this appeasement that the people found a voice for their frustrations.

Why is it so? Bengal’s politicians have insisted on creating an environment where even the Calcutta High Court had to ask the government to stop this blatant policy.  "You are exercising extreme power without any basis. Just because you are the state, can you pass arbitrary orders?" the Court had remarked in 2017 on the issue of the ban on Durga Puja processions to accommodate Muharram processions.

Religious processions were not the only point of issue. The rather famous case of Suman Chattopadhyay becoming Kabir Suman to marry a Bangladeshi Muslim woman, just because his German wife refused to divorce him, reminded one of the Kamala Das’ conversion under influence. In his widely read blog Mukto-Mana, the now deceased blogger Avijit Roy Day had written

“Kabir Suman was and is famous for his ‘Jibanmukhi’ songs. I don’t know if songs can be ‘Moronmukhi’ also. His peak period as a composer and singer was from 1992-96. He became an Indian Member of Parliament by winning election from Jadavpur constituency (a 99% Hindu majority area) during 2009 from Mamata Banerjee’s TMC party. Mamata took him as a ‘Muslim face’ in her party for his popularity as a singer. Later Mamata sent him to political oblivion when he wanted to outgrow her.

I tend to accept Taslima Nasreen’s allegation against Kabir Suman that he had tried to instigate Muslims of Kolkata against Taslima for criticizing his beloved Prophet. Kabir Suman’s remarks about Khagragarh (West Bengal) explosion and religion oriented other statements reveal his eagerness to be a Kath Mullah. He has to prove that he is more Muslim than other Muslims. Poor fraud Kabir Suman!”

Blatant appeasement also reached heights in Bengal when religious clerics were bought with a monthly stipend while the poor ‘subaltern’ Hindus stood by and watched aghast till the courts ordered it to be stopped. Or the fact that people like Imam Barkati were allowed to engage in hate speech wantonly. Even after the BJP’s rise in 2019 general elections, Mamata Banerjee continued to toe her line.

“I appease Muslims…. Will do it 100 times as there is no harm in taking kicks from a cow that gives you milk,” she told the media in 2019 after seeing the results.

Subsequently though, Mamata can be seen chanting the Chandi Path, or talking about Bajrang Bali, even as the Indian Secular Front leader Maulana Abbas Siddiqui, who was supposedly removed on the grounds of communalism from the TMC, continues to receive state sponsored largesse. Running with the hares and hunting with the hounds got a whole new meaning altogether.

 

The Sceptre of Noakhali Hangs on the Bengali Psyche

This for many may seem a very strong claim, but it would be foolish to deny that the sceptre of Noakhali hangs large over this election. In many ways, scores of Bengalis, much more than the other communities in the state, see this election as a moment of civilizational reckoning. The sense of history in recent times has veered a lot on the events that occurred between 1905 and 1947. None can deny the impact of the Muslim League’s Direct Action call and the massacre of Hindus that took place across East Bengal. West Bengal of today simmers on, driven by the haunting memories of all kinds of massacres and riots that happened that time, especially the carnage of Noakhali that pretty much sealed the fate of India’s partition at that time.

A trailer of the same was seen in December 2019, when massive riots broke out in West Bengal in the name of protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act, led by TMC leader Mamata Banerjee. Her government’s response to the same mirrored that of the Muslim League government of 1946 Bengal. A reading of the military report, available in the British archives on the ‘Great Calcutta Killings’ perhaps reads quite telling:

"There is hardly a person in Calcutta who has a good word for Suhrawardy, respectable Muslims included. For years he has been known as “The king of the goondas” and my own private opinion is that he fully anticipated what was going to happen, and allowed it to work itself up, and probably organised the disturbance with his goonda gangs as this type of individual has to receive compensation every now and again. It is difficult to estimate the number of casualties but I should say it is somewhere in the region of 2 to 3 thousand at least. There were corpses all over North Calcutta, they were in the river, canals, side lanes, in fact, everywhere. The number of shops looted and burnt must be somewhere in the region of 2 to 3 thousand. I personally think that the killings of both sides were fifty, fifty, or if anything, more Muslims than Hindus, but damage financially has been much greater to the Hindus than to the Muslims."

The parallels don’t just end there. In the run up to the Partition, Bengal had witnessed several riots. However, it would be pertinent to note, as Chhanda Chatterjee in her book Syama Prasad Mookerjee, the Hindu Dissent and the Partition of Bengal, 1932-1947 has noted, the period 1937-1941 was marked by a few factors:

  • Appeasement efforts by the Congress, led unfortunately by the likes of the Bose brothers who were at the fore of politics in Bengal
  • Militarization by radical Islamists that would challenge the authority of the state if need be ‘to protect Muslims’
  • Attacks across the eastern regions of Bengal in particular on Hindu processions and pujas like Saraswati Puja and Durga Puja on college premises.
  • Series of riots, including the 1941 Dacca riots that were triggered off by the Census 1941 exercise where Hindus felt they were being left out deliberately by the overwhelmingly Muslim administrators
  • The question of abduction and rape of Namasudra women in Khulna also became a major problem, similar to questions of love jihad that one hears today; and
  • Massive negligence in cyclone relief in Noakhali and Chandpur in Comilla, followed by the blatantly shameful role in the Bengal famine subsequently that killed 30 lakh Bengalis.

Clearly, the cycle of history has seemingly come a full circle in many ways across the land of Bengal. Will the election of BJP end this cycle of violence? One can only speculate.

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