A little over three years ago, a student uploaded an 'objectionable' post on Facebook against Prophet Muhammad at Illambazar in Birbhum. Soon, an angry mob ransacked a police station and a 30-year-old man died after being shot in the head by a ‘stray bullet’. The BJP state president called for the beheading of ‘anti-nationals’ and demanded ‘self-respect’ for Hindus.
With assembly polls around the corner, the Trinamool Congress (TMC) attacked the BJP for fostering hate. No stranger to political violence, the incident was an anomaly in the district that hadn’t had a reported case of communal violence for decades. A sign of things to come, this was the first in a string of communal incidents that would punctuate Bengal’s politics in the coming years. It predicted the extent to which the BJP’s call for “self-respect” for Hindus, fuelled, at least partly, by Mamata Banerjee’s alleged Muslim appeasement would resonate in the coming years.
At Bhagabatipur at Illambazar, less than half an hour’s drive from the Vishwa Bharati University that Rabindranath Tagore had envisioned as a place of learning unfettered by religion or nationalism, the anger at the death of Rezaul Islam continues to rankle. His widow, Farida Bibi, had moved away from the village with her kids. What remained, Abul Kalam (64) said, was a “sense of impending doom”. The former panchayat board member explained, “At the time, there was no way for us to gauge the extent to which this kind of hatred between Hindus and Muslims would spread. I don’t know what will happen to this state.”
The Lok Sabha seat is one that the BJP has had on its radar since it finished third there in 2014, with a net vote gain of nearly 14 per cent. The seat, with its 37 per cent Muslim population (varying from 15 to 99 per cent in each of its 13 blocks) is a perfect template of how the BJP’s relentless campaign of Hindutva has allowed them to gain traction and acceptability in a state where it couldn’t muster 2 per cent of total votes two decades ago.
With the BJP gaining ground, the TMC victory in last year’s bloody rural polls saw them win 87 per cent of gram panchayat seats uncontested amid allegation of intimidation and murder. Polling in Birbhum left at least nine injured in clashes between the two parties.
The CPI(M) often cites the three decades of Left Front rule as evidence that Hindutva is antithetical to Bengal, that under its rule, ideology had trumped identity. But the fact remains that Bengal, unlike the rest of India, was partitioned twice and between 1905 and 1947, relations between Hindus and Muslims had deteriorated, eventually manifesting in the Great Calcutta killings and Noakhali-Tipperia riots in 1946. The state -- with a Muslim population of 27 per cent -- saw both conflict and cohabitation between the two communities. Today, the Left is a shadow of its former self and the politics of identity dominates discourse.
This election season, political conversations -- from Contai to Cooch Behar, from Darjeeling to Diamond Harbour -- are eventually whittled down to the binary of Mamata versus Modi, Hindu versus Muslim.
The Past: How Bengal Shaped Hindutva
“How can the BJP claim that theirs is a party that belongs to Hindus? The BJP doesn’t have any respect for the Hindu religion,” thundered Mamata Banerjee at Pandua in Hooghly last month, while listing the development works her government has done for religious sites, in particular for Tarakeswar.
An hour’s drive from the hallowed fields of Singur where Banerjee scripted her 2011 victory, the 450-year-old temple at Tarakeswar has come to represent the challenge that Banerjee faces today.
In June 2017, Banerjee announced the creation of Tarakeshwar Development Authority (TDA), with a budget of Rs 5 crore to develop the temple. At its helm, she appointed Firhad Hakim, now the first Muslim mayor of Kolkata since Independence. The BJP was up in arms, opposing the decision to appoint a ‘non-Hindu’ at the head of a temple board and flung the charge of ‘Muslim appeasement’ at her. Since then, the temple’s priests have welcomed the move and its head priest, Dandiswami Sureshwar Ashram, was quoted in December 2017 by The Times of India as saying that “any help is welcome…why should we not welcome this?”
But for Mamata Banerjee, who strategically polarised Muslim votes in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections to win eight of the 14 Muslim-dominated seats, the charge of appeasement has stuck. Her government’s announcement of a monthly honorarium for nearly 30,000 imams in the state saw the VHP launch a campaign for similar honorarium to Hindu priests and unemployed youths.
Competitive communal politics continued, polarising the electorate and weakening the Left. The BJP, meanwhile, gained traction and consolidated the pro-Hindutva, pro-Modi and anti-Mamata votes.
Almost exactly at the halfway point between Tarakeswar and Singur is Kaikala village, where, at a 19th century school, Chandranath Basu had first used the expression ‘Hindutva’ in 1892 and the ideology’s connection to Bengal is something that neither the BJP, nor the RSS tire of reiterating. After all, RSS founder KB Hedgewar’s stint as a medical student in Calcutta was greatly influenced by Bengal’s radical nationalists. His successor MS Gowalkar’s time at the Ramakrishna Math was a factor in his understanding of Hindu nationalism, as one characterised by ideas of service and renunciation.
It was on Hedgewar and VD Savarkar’s advice that Shyama Prasad Mookherjee became the president of the Hindu Mahasabha, after joining the organisation in 1939. Inducted into the Jawaharlal Nehru cabinet as minister for industries in 1947, he resigned from the Hindu Mahasabha in 1948 and he would subsequently resign from the Nehru cabinet as well, seeking instead to form a political party to oppose Nehru. The RSS, at the time, banned after Mahatma Gandhi’s murder, was looking to form its own political front. This would culminate in the formation of the Bharatiya Jana Sangha (BJS), the BJP’s predecessor.
In the 1952 general elections, the BJS contested six of Bengal’s 36 seats, winning two seats and securing 5.59 per cent of the vote share. SP Mookherjee won from Calcutta South East and the party, buoyed by Mookherjee’s leadership and support from Hindu refugees, would continue to script impressive electoral performances. But after his death and BJS’s inability to offer political patronage to Hindu refugees, the party and Hindutva dissipated from the state.
That is until the early nineties. The list of “holy and inspirational” men that Modi listed, while countering Banerjee’s salvo of sending him ‘rasgullas’ filled with soil, wasn’t accidental last week. “The soil of Bengal gave birth to so many great men such as Ramakrishna Paramahamsa, Swami Vivekananda, Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose and Shyama Prasad Mookerjee. If Modi gets ‘rasgullas’ made out of this soil, it will be like ‘prasad’ to him,” the Prime Minister said.
With the BJP growing in north India, the party had realised in the nineties the need to shed its image of being a north Indian party of the Hindi-speaking ‘other’ in the state. A state-level political campaign began where the BJP celebrated regional icons while at the same time asserting the Bengali roots of its Hindu nationalist politics. In February 1990, a rally to celebrate Swami Vivekananda was held in Kolkata, where national leaders LK Advani and Murli Manohar Joshi accused the ‘pseudo-secular’ Left and Congress of neglecting Bengali personalities.
The Organiser, the RSS organ wrote, “Any country would have been proud to have a personality like Vivekananda. But the Marxists and Left progressives in Bengal are a different breed. They are now threatened to be buried in the quicksand of their frothy Marxist ideology that is completely unrelated to the psyche of Bengal, nay of India.”
The Ram Mandir issue, the BJP decided, would be utilised in the state differently, fusing the national and the regional. For instance, in April 1991, the state announced a series of jatra (folk theatre) performances where the campaign conflated scenes of the Ramayana with local politics -- the victorious Ram was the BJP, a defenseless Sita was Bengal and Ravana was the Left.
“Even local panchayat leaders and the legend of SP Mookherjee would find space in these performances. The seeds of Hindutva were planted then. The party is taking advantage of it now. But it is unfortunate that those visionaries like Advani have been sidelined,” said one Bengal BJP leader, who didn’t wish to be identified.
The Present: How Hindutva is Shaping Bengal
On April 15, a day after the Bajrang Dal organised their Ram Navami rally at Purulia, the TMC countered it with theirs. The two rallies were nearly identical: saffron flags and youth dancing to the shuddering beats reverberated across the city.
For two days, the streets of Purulia, once a Maoist bastion and a Forward Block stronghold, brimmed, almost entirely with young men. Dancing wildly to Hindutva pop -- a cocktail of thundering techno music, combined with nationalism and religious references -- the city remained acutely aware of the political machinations at play. The Bajrang Dal had been organising rallies here for three years, the TMC was a new entrant, coping when no longer able to cope.
Armed Ram Navami rallies, organised by the BJP, had first become part of the Hindutva mobilisation in the state in 2016. The procession drew criticism, not just from Mamata Banerjee, but also from within. Union home minister Rajnath Singh had criticised the processions at the time – in particular the fact that children were seen “wielding arms”. Last year, during the armed rallies, one person died in Purulia while a Puja pandal was attacked in Bardhaman district.
But in the Lok Sabha seat, where the district administration maintains that at least 500 temples for Lord Ram and Hanuman were constructed in the past year, encapsulates the changing face of Hindutva in the state. As one TMC MLA from Kolkata put it, “We tried making the case that this isn’t Bengali culture. But there has been a lot of assimilation. The difference between the north and Bengal is less than it was.”
The result: the TMC has decided to, wherever possible, also assert its own Hindu identity. In Purulia, for instance, the TMC-supported rally was organised under the banner of Nagarik Manch (Citizen’s Platform) and managed by Gaurav Singh.
Singh, until recently a key figure in the Bajrang Dal, is now the TMC youth wing president of Purulia town. BJP district president Bidyasagar Chakraborty said, “The Bajrang Dal has been doing it for two years, this is the third. It is a non-political, religious festival. There is a request to all Hindus to participate and last year, some from the TMC had also participated in the past.”
With the TMC not being able to stem the flow of Hindutva in Bengal, it has decided instead to ride the wave the best it can. The MLA explained, “Something has changed in the psyche of Hindutva” in the state, but it “is difficult”.
In Barrackpore Lok Sabha constituency, where 2016 saw rioting at Naihati, the party’s heavyweight, Arjun Singh, switched over to the BJP and is challenging Dinesh Trivedi. A series of defections followed, along with the mobilisation of the BJP and RSS on the ground. A member of Trivedi’s team said that with the Muslim votes and Hindi-speaking Hindu votes cancelling themselves out, “the Bengali Hindu voters might end up deciding”.
At the seat that was once the jute bowl of India and elsewhere, the question of ‘Bengali-ness’ has become key for the TMC. The party has been repeatedly attacking the BJP’s legitimacy as a Bengali party -- a tactic it had deployed in December last year to counter the BJP’s attempt at conducting rath yatras in the state. At the time, Banerjee had flagged off a rath yatra for Lord Jagannath in Kolkata and said, “There is a close connection between Maa Kali’s Temple and the Jagannath Temple of Puri…I am praying for peace to reign in Bengal as well as in the entire country.”
Her nephew, Abhishek had been more direct. “In the name of rath yatra, they have brought a 7-star AC luxury bus from Delhi. We have heard of rath yatra of Shri Jagannath or Shri Krishna (referring to the Rash Mela held in districts like Cooch Behar). But in the name of rath, communal asuras of Bangla will be riding a luxury bus…we have to be alert,” he said.
The TMC has also tried to counter the BJP’s narrative of the National Register of Citizen where it proposes a binary of the “Hindu refugee” and the “Muslim infiltrator” as being ‘anti-Bengali’. During the exercise in Assam, Banerjee posited herself at the heart of the debate and claimed that of the 66% of the Bengalis in Assam, whose names don’t feature in the first draft were Hindus. “Does BJP president Amit Shah have the original birth certificates of his parents,” she asked, before concluding, “One shouldn’t hope to win the hearts of Bengalis with repression.”
This is key. In 2014, the BJP had received only 21 per cent of the Hindu votes in the state, compared to the TMC’s 40 per cent and the Left’s 29 per cent, as per data from the Centre for Study of Developing Societies, adding that the TMC also received 40 per cent of the Muslim votes, while the BJP only received 2 per cent. “It is a misconception that the TMC is a Muslim party. It has a large support base among Hindus and it’s vital that the BJP isn’t able to erode that,” said a TMC Rajya Sabha MP. But, the MP added, “With polarisation pitting Muslims against Hindus, it is a difficult balancing act to maintain.”
The ‘balancing act’ that the MP spoke about can be seen across the state. Hindutva is no longer confined to the margins or restricted to dusty pamphlets. It’s central and finds expression in daily lives. At Basirhat, another seat that has seen rioting in the past years, Mohammad Arif, who owns a restaurant, said the ‘balance’ was one he had to maintain on a daily basis. “I had one restaurant, and my best selling item was the beef biryani and chaap. The mutton biryani a close second,” he said.
In the past year, his customers nearly halved and for the first time, the 63-year-old Arif Restaurant was dubbed a ‘Muslim’ eatery. After some consideration, he eventually opened up a smaller restaurant across the road for Hindus that served mutton but not beef. “Those who ate and laughed together for years…now sit across the road, separated from each other,” he said.