This is my published column. An edited version first appeared on Daily O on 8 Feb, 2019.
Unprecedented dramatic scenes in Kolkata on Sunday 3 Feb. Around 35-40 CBI officers in several vehicles had reportedly reached Kolkata Police Commissioner Rajeev Kumar’s residence.
If you are a high profile person with state security deployed at your residence it is highly unlikely that your security guards would let a group of men suddenly barge in. And so it happened that Kolkata police didn’t let the CBI team in, and went a step ahead and detained them, put them in vans and sent them off.
Last heard, only Rajinikant was capable of such feats in his films. CBI comes to arrest Commissioner of Police, Police arrests CBI. Like changing the course of a running bullet. Within hours of the drama, West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee herself reached the Commissioner’s residence and literally stood like a wall guarding him. In the dark of the night, she gave a passionate speech singing paeans for Kolkata Police force, whom she called one of the “best in the world” in efficiency and integrity, and made a scathing attack against Narendra Modi and Amit Shah for using CBI as a tool for political vendetta and attack the federal structure of the Constitution. She gave a clarion call to all forces, administrative services etc to condemn the CBI action which eminent lawyer Indira Jaisingh has called “illegal and grossly malafide attack on federalism” and then moved to Metro Channel to sit in indefinite dharna against the central government, an act she called, “satyagraha’ to ‘save the constitution’.
This was an all out war declared against the might of BJP-RSS by the indomitable Bengal Tigress. It comes on the heels of a series of events whereby the West Bengal CM has repeatedly asserted that law and order is state subject, and have fiercely guarded her territory.
In December 2018, BJP’s most ambitious plans for Bengal, a grand Rath Yatra traversing through all the 42 Lok Sabha constituencies in Bengal covering a distance of approximately 17,000 kms featuring BJP’s top brass including the prime minister, was thwarted by West Bengal govt as permission was denied at the last minute citing law and order threat.
While an angry BJP quickly knocked the Court’s door alleging Mamata Banerjee of political vendetta, the fact is that whichever Court’s door BJP knocked, be it Supreme Court or Calcutta High Court, they refused to interfere with Bengal government’s decision. The Supreme Court said that the apprehension of a possible law and order situation cannot be called “unfounded”. Thus contrary to the BJP narrative that Mamata Banerjee has unleashed anarchy in West Bengal, the law is clearly on her side and her administrative actions have probably saved lives.
Several BJP leaders have been denied permission to land their choppers and forced to take long road trips from Jharkhand to Bengal. In these cases, BJP didn’t knock the court’s door, lest it backfires and Mamata’s decisions are vindicated by law.
The 2018 West Bengal Gram Panchayat Elections too have been extremely heated with BJP accusing Trinamool Congress of using threat and violence to intimidate BJP candidates and not even allow them to contest. It is a fact that about 34 per cent of the seats was won by TMC uncontested and even Supreme Court expressed shock over the sheer number of seats, 20,076 out of the total 58,692, having gone uncontested.
Hardly ever a political party in India have put so much effort in one state and have faced so much resistence. Mamata Banerjee stands like a hill guarding the 42 Lok Sabha seats and BJP keeps rolling the boulder up the hill like Sisyphus. But what has BJP gained in this battle so far? And what do the people of Bengal make out of the huge power struggle? These questions remains unexplored.
The Bengali electorate and the BJP is in a peculiar love hate relationship. To begin with there is no one type of Bengali electorate, the state is full of diverse culture, language, class and caste. There is the Bhadrolok who cares about the revolution, Rabindra Sangeet and Coffee House, and the ‘chasha majoor’ (farmers and labourers) who cares about slogans like land to the tiller and observes May Day singing ‘Jagoraner gaan’ (songs of the awakening). Then there is the innocent santhals, an identity immortalized by Mithun Charkarborty in Mrinal Sen’s Mrigaya, there is the Bengali who gave rise to Naxalbari movement, now called the naxals. The list of diverse identities goes on.
But no matter how diverse Bengal may be, BJP’s Hindi-Hindu-Hindustan trope has no takers. To begin with Bengalis have a traditional clash with the Hindi language. Bengalis have a strong regional identity and Mamata Banerjee has guarded that well. Cultural icons, singers, actors are a common element in her rallies. It is only in her rallies that you’d hear the national anthem being sung in perfect baritone following all rules of singing Rabindra Sangeet. Secondly, Bengalis do not identify with the Hinduism the same way as north Indians do. Lord Ram, Hanuman, Ram Temple – these are not part of a religious Bengali who is much more likely to worship Goddess Kali, Durga, Radha Madhav, Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, and a range of other regional Gods and spiritual leaders. Bengali’s best songs for Goddess Kali was composed by a Muslim, Kazi Nazrul.
If I may dare put it simply, Bengalis are a bit snooty with ludicrous amount of superiority complex. Gopal Krishna Gokhale did not make the comment, “What Bengal thinks today, India thinks tomorrow” in vain. A Bengali thinks she is always ahead of others and always right. For such a bunch, a new team player coming from outside and claiming “you don’t know how to play this game, we would teach you, because we know better,” doesn’t work. “Hindu Khatre mein hai” may work in northern belt but Bengalis are way too proud and emancipated to have an identity crisis, so “Bengalis khatre mein hai” won’t work.
Notably, even though it seems like a weak card, BJP has been continuously playing no other card in Bengal except the Hindutva card. Over the last two years RSS-BJP combine have made several attempts to demonize Mamata Banerjee as a pro-Muslim leader who does not care about Hindus. Religion is blatantly used to induce fear, hate and divisiveness among the Bengalis.
A barrage of fake news and photoshop images spread through social media to build fake narratives like Pakistan flags was furled in Bengal. The BJP IT Cell secretary have also been arrested for such communal activities. In every rally leaders like Yogi Adityanath, Sambit Patra and Amit Shah have repeatedly raised false alarm that “Durgapuja is in danger”, Mamata Banerjee is giving more importance to Muharram than Durgapuja. Ram Navami a festival that had no significance in Bengal have now become BJP’s biggest event and platform to spread anti-Muslim hate. BJP is bringing groups of men from BJP ruled state Jharkhand to deliberately create trouble in West Bengal, said Mamata Banerjee.
As a result of relentless provocation and hate speech the year 2017 saw a series of riots and violence in Bengal among which the situation in Basirhat was the worst. In 2018, I personally visited Basirhat, Malda, Dinajpur and other areas meeting families of hate crimes including that of Kartik Ghosh who was killed in Baduria riots and Afrazul who was hacked to death in Rajasthan allegedly by Shambhulal Regar. Every person I spoke to told the same story. Seeds of hate are being planted in areas where there was not an iota of communal tension for decades. Yet everybody told me that there is tremendous resistence from people to this divisive agenda, they all say the incidents of violence was an unfortunate event but there is no hate. “Bengalis don’t hate each other,” they told me.
So why does BJP play the Hindutva card in Bengal? Because all said and done, Bengal is the land of the original Hindutva thought. The 19th century social reforms and Hindu revivalism carried the seeds of modern day Hindutva. It was in works of Bankim Chandra Chattopadhya and Abanindranath Tagore that modern Hindutva found the Bharat Mata imagery. The upper caste Hindu Bengali who revolted against the British colonial powers also separated themselves from Muslims as they went back to the Vedic Hindu identity and Brahmanical supremacy. Their successors in present day Bengal feel emasculated in a social setting where Muslims are not second class citizens. This is BJP’s target vote bank, who can be given the illusion of emancipation by inducing anti-Muslim hate and fear. And perhaps BJP have gained some ground in Bengal using this tried and tested formula.
But Bengal still has hope. The story of Imam Maulana Imdadullah Rashidi in Asansol who lost his 16 year old son seemingly by Hindu group who held him hostage, and yet made an appeal, “…with your tongue or with your hand, none of you will cause any harm to any Hindu” shows us there is hope.
Amit Shah has set a target of winning 22 out of 42 seats. It remains to be seen how much ground BJP has gained in one of India’s last secular bastion using the Hindutva card that takes Bengal back to the 19th century.