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India: Communalisation of Politics in West Bengal

Wednesday 25 April 2018, by siawi3


April 23, 2018

India: Anindya Sekhar Purakayastha on Communalisation of Politics in West Bengal

The Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 53, Issue No. 16, 21 Apr, 2018
Communalisation of Politics in West Bengal

Religion and the Public Sphere

The growing saffronisation of the Bengali public sphere, evident from the violent celebrations of Ram Navami and Hanuman Jayanti in West Bengal, has raised the possibility of a murky manoeuvring of communal politics before the 2019 general elections. With the left and liberal public spaces having failed at addressing crucial socio-religious questions and the far right misappropriating and usurping these spaces, comprehensive critical engagement with the growing presence of religion in the public sphere is necessary.

Of late, West Bengal, along with Bihar, has been in the news for communal flare-ups in some districts where different communities have been living in relative harmony for long. With the left being a pale shadow of its former self in the state, the political void, caused by the virtual decimation of the “Left Hemisphere†(Keucheyan 2013), has been hijacked by shrill and belligerent voices on the right, hell-bent on hegemonising the Bengali “mindset†by using new icons of religious nationalism and a politics of the majoritarian culture.

Consequently, one can see the growing saffronisation of the Bengali public sphere with Ram Navami and Hanuman Jayanti celebrations being organised amidst violent political fanfare across different districts. This was seldom witnessed earlier in the state. This phenomenon of rabid politicisation of popular mytho-religious figures and symbols by the state unit of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) began as a calculated electoral strategy in 2017 to galvanise the Hindu vote in West Bengal. This year’s Ram Navami celebration turned into a completely political arena where political parties vied with each other to claim greater allegiance to lord Ram.

Under the 34 years of the Left Front’s rule, the state had been turned into a red bastion where official participation in religious matters was completely discouraged. While the present ruling regime has been accused of resorting to “soft Hindutva†and “appeasement politics,†the overall ambience has so far been relatively calm and religiously peaceful. In spite of the communal riots in Bengal during the partition of 1947 and sporadic community feuds in some areas, West Bengal has not witnessed large-scale incidents of engineered religious hate-mongering. The overall general opinion in the country still holds that, for the Bengali bhadralok, it is culturally difficult to embrace any form of bellicose saffronisation as a form of politics. Nurtured as the bhadralok is in Tagorean and other traditions of syncretic liberalism, religious fascism, it is popularly perceived, would be culturally and politically repugnant to the average Bengali. To see children walking in a religious procession with swords, sticks, trishuls, and daggers in their hands in the name of Ram had been hitherto a totally unfamiliar sight.

For social observers, civil society stakeholders, political pundits, and academicians, it is indeed a challenge to decipher this growing saffronisation in Bengal’s public culture. What does it imply for the future of politics in Bengal? Has the bhadralok civil society tradition collapsed or is it slowly on the wane? Is religious nationalism a global trend that affects every corner of the globe (Bengal, therefore, is no exception), throwing serious challenges to the normative tropes of left–liberal–secular ideology? These are crucial questions for the future of postcolonial governance and citizenship rights.
In the wake of the BJP’s win in Tripura, according to a political commentator, the Bengali bhadralok would perhaps now gradually warm up to the right wing and the state would replicate the electoral trends as witnessed in Tripura in the next general elections in 2019. Notwithstanding the rhetorical posturing of its state leadership, even die-hard BJP supporters would take such political prophecies with a pinch of salt. However, for the advocates of progressive politics, there should not be any room for complacency and there is no denying that even if the much venerated argumentative Bengali public space continues to retain some of its liberal and syncretic moorings, there is yet something seriously rotten coexisting in the state, as the recent climate of religious vitiation has resulted in large-scale incidents of communal violence in the Asansol Raniganj region of the state, areas that are known for their industrial set-up, cosmopolitan culture and communal harmony.

The far right’s strategy of religious polarisation started in 2017 when communal tensions were incited in Kharagpur, Barasat and in Dhulagarh, regions of West Bengal which have a sizeable Muslim population. In Barasat, fake videos were circulated by right-wing groups to foment communal animosity. In both Barasat and Dhulagarh, the state government acted quickly and steps were taken to pre-empt further trouble. In 2017, Ram Navami celebrations were weaponised in Bengal for the first time by BJP members who were seen brandishing weapons, which was justified on the grounds that weapons and sticks were waved in Muharram processions. The ruling Trinamool Congress party in the state organised parallel Ram Navami rallies to foreground its own non-saffronised version of Hinduism, a move that has been widely criticised because such attempts of soft or counter Hindutva have proved to be dangerously counterproductive. The entire Bengali public space became polarised and religiously charged due to this competitive cultural populism. Subsequently, sporadic clashes were sparked off in various districts, resulting in a huge loss of lives and property, leaving behind a deep sense of a communal divide.

These events have also raised the possibility of a murky manoeuvring of communal politics before the 2019 general elections. What hitherto seemed a routine affair in places like Uttar Pradesh or Gujarat, seems to be taking root in West Bengal now.

One could offer a narrative account of how, over the years, the normative dynamics of the Bengali public sphere has been eclipsed and how this erosion of the civic–political space aided by a 24 × 7 commercialised media culture and nationwide normalisation of xenophobia has led to the gradual collapse of the remnants of the progressive left–liberal space that kept communalism at bay in Bengal for so long. However, it is heartening that prominent intellectuals in the state took out a rally in Kolkata on 8 April to express the message of brotherhood and communal amity in the aftermath of the Asansol communal carnage. Such rallies restore faith in the unique characteristics of Bengali culture, which usually shies away from all kinds of crude religious fanaticism. But, notwithstanding such laudable attempts, the canker of communal hostility has already set in. I would argue that comprehensive critical engagement with the growing presence of religion in the public sphere is necessary. Recent incidents of communal violence in Bengal clearly testify to how the left, during its long rule in the state, failed to effectively address the socius in its programmatic drive to attain political hegemony. [. . . ]


Anindya Sekhar Purakayastha teaches at Kazi Nazrul University, West Bengal.