An impending crisis or an inescapable compromise?
“What Bengal thinks today, India will think tomorrow.” This is how the first generation Indian nationalist Gopal Krishna Gokhale had certified the political wisdom of Bengalis a hundred years ago. Today the slogan is better turned on its head: What the rest of India thought yesterday, West Bengal (WB) is thinking today.
Something that never happened is happening lately. The Hindu right is fast occupying the centre-stage of WB politics. In the parliamentary election held last month, the Hindu nationalistic BJP won as many as 18 seats out of 42 in the state by reaping 40.25% votes, which is massive in any multiparty democracy.
There is little doubt that the BJP will fare much better in the assembly polls scheduled for 2021, unless an intervening governor’s rule advances the date. Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee is losing her grip over WB politics, leaving the ground virtually wide open for the BJP to ensure a thumping victory.
Situated next to Bangladesh, which has a record of playing hide and seek with Islamist regimes, this complex “epaar Bangla, opaar Bangla" (East Bengal, West Bengal), space can pose serious communal challenges with their inevitable fallout on Assam. A saffron WB facing a “green” Bangladesh is by any reckoning a jarring colour combination with potentially perilous security ramifications.
To speculate upon the impending probabilities, two popular myths must be exploded at the outset. One, Bengalis are not communal; and two, Bengalis are less violent people.
Contrary to popular wisdom that Hindu nationalism originated in the “cow belt” of north-central India, the first saplings of Hindutva were sown in Bengal. It was in 1858, just a year after the Hindu-Muslim joint revolt had rocked British rule in India, that Tarinicharan Chattopadhyay wrote his “Bharatbarsher Itihas,” the first virtual anti-Muslim manifesto.
Everything wrong in India was attributed to the thousand years of Muslim domination, the book explained: “The misfortunes and decline of this country began on the day the Yavana [Muslim] flag entered the territory of Bengal… Ravaged by endless waves of oppression, the people of Bengal became disabled and timid…
“The country was reduced to such a state that the wealth of the prosperous, the honour of the genteel and the chastity of the virtuous [Hindu women] were in grave peril … The resumption of good fortune was initiated on the day the British flag was first planted on this land … It must be loudly declared that it is to bless us that Isvara [God] has brought the English to this country.”
The mission Tarinicharan Chattopadhyay launched picked up momentum in no time. Rajnarain Bose founded the Nationality Promotion Society to inculcate nationalist sentiments among the Bengali bhadralok (genteel class). The Calcutta-based Hindu Mela (fair) became a popular annual event and soon spread to Lahore and Madras.
The motto of the Hindu Mela was to make the “Hindu jati” nationalistically conscious. When questioned as to how Hindu jati and Indian nation could be synonymous it was clarified that “certainly [Hindus] form a nation by themselves.”
The popular Hindu mela song, penned by Hemchandra Banerjee, eulogized “Hindu heroic pride.” The song lamented how it had tragically “departed” after the advent of Muslims.
Even as these kinds of Hindu nationalistic sentiments were being roused in Bengal, similar tendencies were growing amongst the Bengali Muslims. They found expression in the replacement of Sanskritized Bengali words by Persianized ones.
On the larger Muslim canvas, the National Mohammedan Association came into being in 1877, and soon submitted a list of Muslim grievances to the British government.
It is instructive to note how at the beginning of Indian nationalism both Hindus and Muslims looked upon the British as their respective saviours. We are simply fooling ourselves if we still think that the British were the crooked ones who manufactured the tool of “divide and rule.”
In Muslim communal consciousness, two strains were noticeable. While, on the one hand, the Muslim leadership was placatory to the Hindus in north India then, on the other, it had complete disdain for the Bengali bhadralok.
Thus, while addressing the Hindus of Punjab, Sir Syed Ahmed Khan, the doyen of Muslim modernism, would complain as to why they did not regard him as a Hindu, in respect of Bengali bhadralok he would criticize the latter for their Hindu-accented upper caste politics.
He routinely referred to “Mahomedans” and “Bengalis” to emphasize the distinct motive of the Bengali Hindu elites to drive a wedge between them. For him, the Indian National Congress was virtually a Hindu contraption in which the Bengali Hindus called the shots: “It is incumbent on me to show what evils would befall my [Muslim] nation from joining in the opinions of the Bengalis.”
That during this period there was a clear cleavage between bhadralok politics and Dalit politics in Bengal in which the latter was in tune with the Muslims is well known.
On the question of Bengali violence, it was in Bengal where the maximum number of communal riots had occurred before Partition. Suranjan Das’s Communal Riots in Bengal 1905-1947 (OUP, 1991) discusses them in detail.
In the corresponding period Punjab, which witnessed the worst Partition riots, did not have anything like the Mymensingh riots of 1906-07, Calcutta, Pabna, and Dacca riots of 1918-26, other riots in 1927-31, Dacca riots of 1941, and, finally, the Great Calcutta Killing, and the Noakhali riots of 1946.
But unlike the Partition riots in Punjab, those in East Bengal lingered on for a long time, culminating in the massive anti-Hindu riots of 1964. Even otherwise, Hindus of East Pakistan/Bangladesh remained under the constant threat of eviction thanks to the communally motivated application of enemy property acts.
The deteriorating Hindu-Muslim situation in India, say, during the 1992 Babri mosque demolition, contributed to Hindu Bengali plight vis-à-vis Muslim highhandedness.
In contrast, thanks to the dominance of the liberal/left in WB politics, anti-Muslim riots in the state were virtually non-existent. But it did not mean that violence per se was non-existent.
Towards the end of the 60s, Naxalite terrorism had reduced Calcutta to a veritable war zone which cost many lives. The movement was quelled by the Indian state with an iron hand and matching brutality.
In WB today, political violence has engulfed the state as never before. During the recent parliamentary elections, it witnessed the maximum number of murders. The apprehension is that the trend would continue till the next assembly elections. Given the ongoing political polarization on religious lines, large-scale Hindu-Muslim riots also cannot be ruled out.
If that happens, its impact on Bangladesh politics is elementary political science. Already PM Sheikh Hasina is under tremendous strain to maintain a precarious balance between the country’s “secularists” and “Islamists.” The more she would be cornered by the latter, the more she would be forced to transfer the problem to her Indian counterparts.
One foreseeable outcome would be the reopening of Bangladeshi territory for India’s north-east insurgents to maintain their hideouts. Politics by definition is not a game for solving problems but a game to ensure the political longevity of leaders.
BJP’s Hindu card can make it win elections but it cannot make it solve either the inherent Assamese-Bengali rift or the caste dynamics of the Bengali Hindu refugee movements.
Likewise, it may be fine to fan the hopes of millions of “non-citizen” Hindus to dream of earning Indian nationality but to make them prove “persecution in Bangladesh” as their legitimate ground for migration into India is extremely tricky, both diplomatically and administratively.
Let us brace ourselves for another round of Bongal Kheda (oust the Bengalis) agitation in Assam and the eruption of now-dormant SC politics in West Bengal.
These doomsday probabilities notwithstanding, let me conclude with an optimistic proposition. South Asia is an area of Hindu-Muslim experimentation, which no other region in the world can compare with.
The world’s maximum number of Hindus and Muslims live here and they are destined to continue as such. As Saadat Hasan Manto used to say, how many Hindus or Muslims would the rioters kill, maximum a thousand or two.
But would that change their respective demographics? Per a rough count, there are 1,100 million Hindus and 500 million Muslims in the region.
Let both the communities be reminded of their ultimate destiny and frustration. Gopal Krishna, an Indian academic, wrote many years ago: “The inescapable truth seems to be that Hindu India cannot escape the consequences of its medieval defeat, however much it might try, and Indian Islam cannot overcome the consequences of the failure of its mission of conquest in India whatever it might do. The result has been on both sides, frustration, hatred, and apparent powerlessness to alter the situation.”
But why call it frustration! Is it also not an opportunity, a hope? If such a huge mass of people, seemingly so unfriendly, have lived side by side for a thousand years without an Armenian massacre, without a Holocaust, or without a Rwanda, why can they not live happily for another thousand years?
The nearest comparable tragedy was the massacre of Bengalis during the Bangladesh Liberation War. But that was not an inter-religious conflict, even though Pakistan tried to give it that colour.
It is all in our minds as to how we want to see ourselves. Let “epar Bangla, opaar Bangla” be the role model. By extrapolating the model into our South Asian region, let us proudly remind ourselves that we are a unique people amongst whom one single individual, Rabindranath Tagore, composed the national anthems of three countries, Bangladesh, India, and Sri Lanka.
In an otherwise communally charged India we still proudly sing Pakistan’s national poet Mohammad Iqbal’s “Saare jahan se achchha Hindustan hamara” (best amongst all nations is my India). Can anyone say that Tagore’s “Amaar Shonar Bangla” does not also subsume the Bengalis of West Bengal?
Partha S Ghosh Senior Fellow, Institute of Social Sciences, New Delhi. Formerly, ICSSR National Fellow, and Professor of South Asian Studies at JNU.