Bengal: Where We Don't Do Politics In Vivekananda's Name, But...

Ishadrita Lahiri
·9-min read

In a sea of green, orange and white balloons, women dressed in neatly pleated sarees, men who followed the rally colour code, and others who didn’t, stood Trinamool kormi (worker), Kalachand Das*. Donning a poster of Mamata and Abhishek Banerjee on his chest, a Trinamool scarf around his neck and holding a party flag, Kalachand, was pointed to The Quint’s reporters by a couple of snickering Trinamool Youth Congress (TMYC) boys. The TMYC formed a large part of the rally crowd­ - a padyatra on the occasion of Swami Vivekananda’s 158th birthday. The rally was led by TMYC President, Abhishek Banerjee.

Banerjee is also Chief Minister and Trinamool Congress (TMC) supremo Mamata Banerjee’s nephew and currently said to be person number 2 in the party.

Cameras prompted Kalachand to talk of one thing only, however- his house, which is allegedly falling apart and how he is “walking about the streets”. Vivekananda was definitely not top-of-mind.

“I approached (TMC leaders) Bobby Hakim, Partho Chatterjee and even Didi (Mamata) herself, but they didn’t help me at all”, continues Kalachand. “You wouldn’t believe, I asked them for a job and they gave me work as a sanitation worker”, he claimed.

Clearly, Kalachand was not your happiest Trinamool kormi. Why then was he covered in all things Mamata Banerjee?

“I’ve been with her since she started the party. Can’t leave her now. Not for the BJP”, came the answer.

Vivekananda: ‘A Hindutva Leader’

The TMC rally for Vivekananda in South Kolkata and its counter, conducted by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in North Kolkata that very morning, act as a looking glass on the sentiments of both party’s cadres in the city.

TMC’s rally outdid BJP’s in terms of attendance
TMC’s rally outdid BJP’s in terms of attendance

The BJP rally, led by state President Dilip Ghosh, national general secretary Mukul Roy, MP Swapan Dasgupta, and state Yuva Morcha president Saumitra Khan, managed only about 1/5th the people at the Trinamool rally, but scored full points in showmanship.

With women dressed in party colours, and an actor dressed and posing as Vivekananda on a chariot for the full length of the rally, there was quite a spectacle.

Women mostly clad in saffron joined the rally
Women mostly clad in saffron joined the rally

Divided into three different parts, one part of the rally was the one led by the top-notch leaders, another had men and women singing Rabindra Sangeet, while the third took responsibility for sloganeering.

Leading the last bit were two women on a bike, the only women bikers in the entire rally.

“Humaara neta kaisa ho? Vivekananda jaisa ho!”, shouted the woman sitting in front, in a bright, dark green saree.

Sonali Verma (back) and Priyanka Gupta (front)
Sonali Verma (back) and Priyanka Gupta (front)

“I’m the Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao head for North Kolkata”, said Sonali Verma, sitting pillion on the bike. “She is the treasurer for the Mahila Morcha in my area”, she added, introducing Priyanka Gupta, who was seated in front of her.

“Vivekananda is the pride of Bengal, and has taken Bengal to the world. He believed in all religions. Not just one. And we believe in the same”, said Priyanka.

Both Priyanka and Sonali joined politics while in college, and unlike in the Trinamool rally, where a particular leader inspired them to join the party, they claim that it was the Trinamool Chhatra Parishad’s alleged high-handedness that drove them to support the BJP.

“The BJP needs youngsters like us, just like the TMC has their youth unions. We will lead the party in the state. We won’t let them enter our houses and beat us up”, said Sonali.

When asked if comments by BJP leaders have made them feel that BJP is not a party for women, they said that these are “isolated comments”.

“If the BJP was anti-women, we wouldn’t be here riding our bike. How many women on bikes have you seen in TMC rallies?”, asks Priyanka.

The BJP crowd, from the people that The Quint spoke to, appeared to be mostly non-Bengali speaking residents of North Kolkata and adjoining districts.

As the rally reached its endpoint, which was Vivekananda’s ancestral home, now a Ramakrishna Mission cultural centre, a crowd gathered outside while the leaders moved in to pay their respects. Amongst the crowd, in a saffron turban, stood Jaijit Singh.

"I’m a BJP worker but we’ve not come here to do politics today. Swami Vivekananda in his Chicago speech said that he’d come to represent a religion that provided shelter to all religions and faiths- the mother of all religions- Hinduism. " - Jaijit Singh, BJP worker

“People had misinterpreted him in various ways, as they’ve misinterpreted Hindutva and Hinduism. He spoke about one nation and the spirit of nationality. With the present government in Bengal, that feeling of nationalism is being finished”, he added.

Singh is one of the BJP’s recent recruits and joined the party around the Lok Sabha elections in 2019.

He believes that the Modi government is following “Keynesian economics”, “which will not benefit in the short run but in the long run”.

“BJP will revive the state economically, eliminate disguised employment and bring in real employment”, said Singh.

For Banasree Mondol, a resident of Howrah and a BJP worker for 10 years, Vivekananda stood for Hindutva, an ideal that has been lost in Bengal, she says.

Banasree Mondol
Banasree Mondol

“I’m wearing the colours of Hindutva. This is the same colour Vivekananda wore”, said Banasree, pointing at her all saffron get-up, with a matching turban, tied in the style of Vivekananda.

“The TMC doesn’t have any history. It doesn’t have a culture. Because of the BJP, the people of the state can now strongly proclaim the Hindutva ideals of Vivekananda. Hindutva was in their heart all along, but they couldn’t express it because of fear of the ruling dispensation- be it the Left or the Trinamool”, she says.

When asked if “Hindu khatre mein hain”, she says that there were earlier, but with the BJP coming to power, they aren’t anymore.

“India is the only country where Hindus can stay. There are so many persecuted Hindus from Bangladesh who have come to India to seek refuge. Now if our country also throws out its Hindus, where will we go? We are not outsiders. Why should we be treated like that in our own state?”, she asks.

Whose Vivekananda Is It Anyway?

Back in the Trinamool rally, all cadres were trained to say “this is not political” to any journalist asking them questions.

At this rally, there were “outsiders” too. But they’re with the Trinamool because Mamata “accepted” them at a time when “no one else did”.

Ajit Singh, vice president of a Gurudwara in Bhawanipur and a ward-level TMC leader, says he joined Trinamool in 2011 because other parties “couldn’t maintain peace in the state”.

Ajit Singh
Ajit Singh

“Bengal is the only place where one can live without having to suffer riots every day. I saw what happened to my brethren in 1984. That situation cannot be allowed to come back to Bengal”, says Singh.

“Didi’s simplicity and the determination she showed to take people of all types with her is what attracted me to the Trinamool. She proved that you don’t need to be someone from a rich family to make it big in life”, he says.

He adds that Mamata’s support for the farmer’s protests in recent times has motivated him to work harder for the upcoming elections in the state.

“She’s the only leader in the state who has unequivocally stood against the black law that our brothers and sisters in Punjab are trying to repeal”, says Singh.

“These parties are saying that Vivekananda is theirs. Rabindranath is theirs. Netaji is theirs. But these people are not icons for Hindu people or Bengali people only. They are icons for the entire country and the world. The BJP is like that person who tries to come close to a rich relative. When a person is rich, everybody is their relative. The BJP is trying to do that with Bengali luminaries”, he adds.

For “outsider” Tulika Kumar, the Trinamool Congress was her ticket to acceptance in Bengal.

Tulika moved to Kolkata from Ranchi in 2010. Her family had purchased an apartment in the city prior to their move.

Tullika Kumar
Tullika Kumar

“When we moved here, the CPI(M) goons in our area harassed us to no end for money and other favours. They wouldn’t let us live just because we had moved in from another state. At that juncture, the Trinamool rescued me and my family and I have not left their side since”, she says.

"If some party is saying that they’ve rights over Vivekananda, let them. We believe that he’s everybody’s. So if they’re saying he’s theirs, that is true as well. But we are not here for politics, we are here for the great man." - Tullika Kumar, TMC Worker

The “we are not here to do politics, but…” template was thoroughly followed by Abhishek Banerjee in his speech at the end of the rally.

Banerjee reminded his audience how US President Donald Trump, in a rally organized by PM Modi, had mispronounced Vivekananda’s name.

"These people who claim to follow Vivekananda’s ideals were sitting on the side and clapping when Trump insulted him. If they cared about Vivekananda, then they would have snatched the mic from him and demanded that he pronounce the name correctly." - Abhishek Banerjee, TMYC President

“Trump has been sent packing. His minions who are here in India, will also be shown their way”, he added, in his “non-political” speech.

As the national and local media monitored the battle for Vivekananda on the streets of Kolkata very, very closely, it would seem that in terms of sheer numbers (as indicated by the wide-angle, tight angle and drone shots circulated by IPAC) the TMC may have won this round of “Whose Bengali Luminary Is It Anyway?”. But, with the elections around the corner, there are quite a few more rounds to go.

Next in line for political appropriation- Netaji Bose. Let the games begin!

(*Name changed to protect identity)

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