By Swapan Dasgupta
It is by now sufficiently clear that the West Bengal government’s ostrich-like attitude to the vandalism witnessed around the Kaliachak police station in Malda district on January 3 has resulted in a political muddle. Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s initial policy of pretending that nothing of any significance happened that day may well have been based on the belief that it is always prudent to underplay incidents that have communal dimensions. In the past such an approach—that has the tacit blessings of Bengal’s ‘progressive’ intelligentsia and even the media—has paid dividends and prevented sectarian tensions from spreading in a state that has a rich mix of communities. So, why has the political fallout of Kaliachak been greater than was initially anticipated?
To blame the entire kerfuffle on ‘trolls’ and ‘bhakts’ in the social media, as one articulate Trinamool Congress spokesperson has done, is rather self-serving. No doubt it was the sustained outrage in the social media over the initial mainstream media blackout of the violence that helped generate widespread concern, particularly outside West Bengal. Certainly, it was also an opportunity for those who believed that the reaction to the Dadri beef lynching in Uttar Pradesh was disproportionate to hit back at the double standards of the intellectuals who had returned their literary awards in protest. However, the plain fact is that the violence that resulted from a mobilisation of nearly a lakh of people just couldn’t be brushed under the carpet. And more so since there was revealing footage to substantiate the menacing attitude of a mob that happened to have been driven by a sense of religious indignation.
The comparison may be inexact, but there is an eerie parallel between the official reactions to the Kaliachak violence and the hooliganism that was witnessed in Cologne, Germany, on the night of December 31. Just as the Kaliachak violence resulted from the mobilisation of local Muslims by an obscure organisation, the molestation of women in Cologne appears to be the outcome of a below-the-radar mobilisation of young males from West Asian and North African communities, including a large number of asylum seekers. In both cases the police appears to have been caught entirely by surprise; and in both cases the governments reacted with a mixture of denial and disbelief, for fear that the situation would be exploited by political opponents of the regime. The reaction has been more pronounced in Germany which is suffering from a bout of indigestion over Chancellor Angela Merkel’s extra-generous accommodation of asylum seekers from West Asia. By contrast, there has been no visible fallout in West Bengal but the incident has served to resurrect the underlying disquiet over what has been called the TMC government’s “appeasement” of Muslim petulance.
It is important to recognise that, at least in India, all state governments have a daunting task balancing competitive and, occasionally, conflicting identities. West Bengal may not have had significant communal clashes since 1965 but that is not to suggest that mobilisation along sectarian lines has been absent.
On the Hindu side, Bengal presents an interesting case study. A large chunk of the intellectual component of what is called Hindu nationalism originated in Bengal in the 19th and early-20th centuries. The contributions of Bankim Chandra Chatterjee, Bhudeb Mukherjee and Swami Vivekanada are important in this respect. The founder of the Jana Sangh, Shyama Prasad Mookerjee also cut his teeth in the local Hindu Mahasabha and was in the forefront of the move to prevent the incorporation of West Bengal into East Pakistan in 1947. However, after Mookerjee’s death in 1953, the Hindu nationalist impulses in West Bengal were blunted. Whereas the collective memory of Partition was an important component of the Hindu nationalism that emerged in North India after Independence, the Hindu refugees from East Pakistan became a reliable vote bank for the Communists after the 1950s. Indeed, in the six decades of post-Independence electoral politics, ‘Hindu’ parties have never managed to secure a meaningful toehold in the state.
It is not that the state is devoid of any self-conscious sense of Hindu-ness, but this has not translated into political mobilisation. One possible reason could be the intellectual hegemony of the Left—a phenomenon that has led to complacency over pressing problems such as the illegal immigration from Bangladesh and disinterest in the steady demographic transformation of the state. The Left was electorally decimated in 2011 but the advent of the TMC has not led to any significant shift in the intellectual landscape. ‘Anti-communalism’ in West Bengal has remained true to a flawed secular inheritance: opposing ‘majoritarianism’ alone.
An autonomous domain characterised as ‘Muslim politics’ was a feature of Bengal politics from 1905 to 1947. However, after Independence, Muslim communities subsumed their larger political interests—mainly centred on representation—in the dominant ‘secular’ parties. Initially the beneficiary was the Congress, subsequently the Left and, today, the TMC. Where Mamata Banerjee has differed from the Left is in accommodating the explicitly religious impulses of the Muslim communities. Unlike, say, Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee who was wary of maulvis and madarasas, the TMC government has sought to make the religious leaders of local Muslims stakeholders in her political dispensation. In the context of the global resurgence of Islamism, this has resulted in the Muslim leadership upping the political ante and demanding its pound of flesh from the local administration. This has included political protection to Islamic radicals and even turning a blind eye to a section of the underworld that has expediently used religion and community as a cover.
The Chief Minister’s tacit justification of the Malda underworld’s conflict with the Border Security Force which initiated a crackdown on counterfeit currency smuggling and the production of narcotics may have been dictated by compulsions of the Assembly election due in the summer. But it is also a commentary on the extent to which a section of the local Muslim leadership now believes it can call the shots. In different parts of eastern India, Muslim community leaders appear to be experimenting with different political expressions. In Assam, the Bengali-speaking Muslims, particularly in the districts where Muslims are dominant or near-dominant, the inclination is to promote a separate Muslim political party that seeks to share power with a ‘secular’ party on its own terms. In Bihar and West Bengal, on the other hand, the preference is still for promoting community interests through traditional ‘secular’ parties such as the Congress, Rashtriya Janata Dal and the TMC. In Malda, where the TMC and the Congress are in direct competition for the votes of a predominantly Muslim electorate, it is understandable that Mamata Banerjee is anxious to not do anything that could antagonise powerful community leaders.
In the game of mobilisation along explicitly sectarian lines, the Muslim community, it would seem, is far ahead in the game. There has been no corresponding Hindu mobilisation—this may explain the absence of inter-community clashes of the type witnessed in other states. This pattern may not change in the short-term but in view of the growing, but still largely muted, disquiet over aggressive Muslim mobilisation, the coming Assembly election could initiate trends that could become ominous. Experience shows that if there is simmering anger (or even fear), it takes only a small, local incident to bring all the contradictions to the surface. The signs so far are not encouraging.
The Telegraph, January 15, 2016