Monday, 30th October 2017

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Changing spirit

Events in West Bengal show that stereotypes are inadequate

By Swapan Dasgupta
  • Published 13.07.17

Stereotypes are broad brush generalizations that, while based on facets of reality, often conceal complexities and loose ends. The prevailing stereotype of West Bengal is that it blends high culture and radical instincts with a disdain for hard work and money. This shorthand of the Bengali character is coupled with the generalization that the high-minded people of the state are neither prone to caste politics nor sectarian antagonisms.

As is evident, stereotypes are never unchanging. That Bengalis couple a love for high culture with an excitable temperament is a perception that dates back to the raj when united Bengal was troublesome to the imperial masters. It was this image that was probably the main factor behind the shift of the national capital from Calcutta to Delhi in 1911 - a move that was resolutely opposed by British business interests. After Independence, the image of volatility persisted -Jawaharlal Nehru's fulmination about Calcutta being a "city of processions"- but after the mid-1960s it was compensated, at least among the country's liberal intelligentsia, by the belief that West Bengal was an oasis of inter-community tranquillity and harmony in a country torn apart by caste and communal conflict.

Caste conflict- as opposed to caste movements - has not been a feature of Bengal. However, the first half of the 20th century marked Bengal as a communal hotspot. Between the collapse of Mahatma Gandhi's Non-Cooperation movement till the horrible Direct Action Day and the subsequent Noakhali riots, communal conflict was endemic in West Bengal. Why this pattern was abruptly reversed after the late-1960s, despite the unending trickle of Hindu refugees from East Pakistan, is a worthwhile subject of research. Whatever the reasons -and the parallel charms of radical politics among the Hindu population is a possible explanation - the image of West Bengal as being indifferent to identity politics has persisted. Even after the demolition of the disputed shrine in Ayodhya in 1992, there was relative peace in West Bengal, apart from a few stray incidents that seem minor compared to the much larger disturbances in the rest of India, particularly the Hindi belt.

This stereotype is today in real danger of being demolished. Last week's riots in the Basirhat-Baduria belt of North 24 Parganas, not terribly far from the Bangladesh border, led to only one death. But since the disturbances happened in the wake of incidents of rioting in Kaliachak, Dhulagarh, Deganga, Samudragarh, Hajinagar, Bhagabanpur and Kharagpur over the past two years, there is a growing impression that West Bengal is regressing to the pre-1965 days. The impression has been bolstered by some shrill political grandstanding involving both the chief minister, Mamata Banerjee, and the stalwarts of the Bharatiya Janata Party, which is making a determined bid to fill the void in the Opposition space created by the abrupt collapse of the Left.

The political rhetoric apart, the state government has suggested that the furore resulting from a gratuitously insulting Facebook post was also exploited by troublemakers from across the international border. A recent crackdown on cow smuggling into Bangladesh has also been identified as a cause of disquiet among the professional cross-border smugglers. In the process, the state government has also admitted to a similarity with the Kaliachak disturbances of January 2016 when a tendentious Facebook post originating in Uttar Pradesh was exploited by counterfeit currency smugglers to attack the police and even destroy a police station.

That many riots have an underworld subtext is common knowledge. But the reason why the Basirhat-Baduria riots appear to have unnerved the political establishment in West Bengal is a little different. From all accounts, the initial mob attack in Basirhat was greeted the next day by recriminatory violence in Baduria and a few adjoining places. What was unique in the ugly incidents of Basirhat and Baduria was the emergence of tit-for-tat violence - a phenomenon hitherto not seen in West Bengal. This counter-mobilization, more than the intemperate reaction to the Facebook post, has prompted accusations of an organized conspiracy. The Trinamul Congress has further linked this alleged conspiracy to the Centre's actions against Opposition leaders on charges of corruption.

No doubt we shall hear more of the supposed RSS-BJP conspiracy if and when the judicial commission appointed by the state government submits its report. However, in all this talk of a pincer movement by the underworld and the Hindu nationalists, relatively little attention has been paid to the stirrings inside the Muslim community.

After 1947, the Muslim community of West Bengal had taken a backseat in politics, having been orphaned by the Muslim League. There was an interplay of forces between those who sought refuge in an Islamic identity and those, arguably a minority, that sought a greater measure of identification with the rest of Bengali society. The confusion persisted with the Bangladesh war, a struggle that wasn't greeted with all-round Muslim solidarity on this side of the border. Indeed, the creation of Bangladesh resulted in a curious development. While the Bangladeshi intelligentsia developed links and a mutually beneficial relationship with their (largely Hindu) counterparts in Calcutta, the more religiously-inclined Bangladeshis (and not least those who sought to give the country an Islamic face) developed links and began influencing a large section of Muslims in West Bengal. The Sheikh Hasina Wajed government has privately complained to Indian authorities that many of the minor functionaries of Islamist organizations have fled across the border into West Bengal to escape the crackdown in Bangladesh. The belief that Banerjee has colluded in this is unsubstantiated. However, it is undeniable that the electoral support of the Trinamul Congress has swelled considerably thanks to the active support of Muslims whose sectarian agenda has never been concealed.

Unlike the Communist Party of India (Marxist) that made inroads into the Muslim community but never allowed Islamists any political prominence, the TMC's political management has been more accommodative. Independent Muslim parties, such as the ones led by Badruddin Ajmal in Assam and the Owaisi bothers in Telangana and Andhra have not struck roots in West Bengal because the identification of those with a sectarian agenda with the TMC is complete. The charge of 'appeasement' levelled against Banerjee is unnecessarily loaded. However, it is apparent that the chief minister has taken both symbolic and real steps to keep alive the impression that she owes the Muslim community a special debt of gratitude. Just as the Yadav and Muslim communities felt they had a special status in Uttar Pradesh under Samajwadi Party rule, a similar impression now runs through the Muslim community in West Bengal. How this translates into ground realities is not fixed but if there is evidence of organized Muslim high-handedness in some parts of West Bengal, it owes to this perception. Certainly, the mobs that went on the rampage in Basirhat and earlier in Kaliachak, Dhulagarh and Kharagpur believed that they enjoyed a special dispensation, above the law.

Whether out of conviction or calculation, Banerjee has fuelled the impression that she is putting into practice the formulation of the former prime minister, Manmohan Singh, that the minorities will have first rights over the State's resources - a contentious principle of public policy at the best of times. Her calculation that this approach would not upset the political applecart was warranted on account of the absence of anything remotely resembling a Hindu vote bank in West Bengal. Maybe now there are indications that this assumption may not be entirely valid.