GROUND FOR FUTURE SHOCK 

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By BY ASHIS CHAKRABARTI
  • Published 13.03.02
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Communists are at Writers' Buildings and everything must be fine with secularism in West Bengal. So, Gujarat and Uttar Pradesh may take their turns through the purgatory of communal fire, but Bengal's secular paradise will not be lost. A small band of Hindu fanatics in Taldi or Malda or a few Muslim zealots in Murshidabad are so out of joint with the state's cultural ethos that they can pose only a marginal threat. Such is the popular perception of Bengal and it seems so true when you look around and see the communal cauldron burning in other places. But slowly, and not so imperceptively, a change seems to be taking place in Calcutta, too. Whether it is the drawing room conversations of the elite or the street talk of hoi polloi, communal overtones are increasingly becoming not only acceptable but also respectable. Traditionally, the Bengali middle class took pride in secularism, which was considered part of a liberal education. To the bhadralok class, religious fundamentalism was not only politically incorrect but also socially degrading. It happened to people living in India's "cowbelt" or carrying its legacy wherever they lived. It is perhaps absurd to expect Bengal to be untouched by the churnings that affect the rest of the country. There may not be many instances of ugly street battles or large-scale rioting. But the state cannot be wholly immune to what historian Tapan Raychauduri described, in his Kingsley Martin Memorial Lecture in Cambridge in 1991, as the sangh parivar's "struggle for the hearts and minds of the Indian people". For Bengal, despite the appearance of communal amity, the signs of this "struggle" are becoming increasingly visible in different strata of the society. Not being secular is therefore no longer dishonourable. It is not shameful to sing the praise of Narendra Modi and the charge of the karsevak brigade. In animated conversations on Gujarat or Ayodhya in upper middle class homes, the secularist Hindu is painted as a greater villain than the Muslim. Anti-secularism becomes anti-intellectualism, too. In any case, the secular intellectual is pilloried as a parasite, unrepresentative of the masses and irrelevant to popular upsurges. This new anti-secularism has two basic claims to respectability. It is no longer the backward putsch of the cowbelt, the revolt of the vernacular-educated underprivileged against the English-educated upper classes. The new champions of Hindu fundamentalism are a far cry from the typical Rashtriya Swa-yamsevak Sangh activists visualized by K.B. Hedgewar or M.S. Golwalkar. These are English-educated, upper class people who otherwise have nothing but contempt for the masses. They supposedly give respectability to what was long perceived as an illiterate cult . This new cult is also today's badge of courage that must dismiss secularism as woolly-headed softism. To the urban saffron chatterati, Modi's marauders are heroic people who had shown the cour-age to take much more than an eye for an eye. The danger is that this unabashed Muslim-baiting is creeping into the consciousness of large sections of the masses, cutting across political beliefs and age groups. It is a threat that emanates as much from the gentry in Calcutta's club circuit as from the lowly saffron volunteer in some dusty district town. Therefore there was a general nod of approval when Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee spoke of some madrasahs being used to train religious fundamentalists and possibly would-be terrorists. Coming from the Marxist chief minister, this was final proof of what they had always known: that Muslims are conspirators waiting to destabilize "our country and society". So the sensible thing to do is to strike at "them" before they can strike at "us". They were not interested in the more important message from Bhattacharjee that Muslims need to be given better education so that the mullahs cannot take advantage of their educational and socioeconomic backwardness. Not just the madrasah controversy, the Partha Roy Burman kidnapping, the attack on policemen outside the American Center, international events following the September 11 attack on America and closer home, the brutalities on the Hindu minority in parts of Bangladesh combined to create a climate of opinion that came in handy for both Muslim-baiting and secularist-bashing. It is not that communal incidents elsewhere in India had not had their ripples in Calcutta or other parts of Bengal. The rioting in Calcutta in 1992 following the destruction of the Babri Masjid showed that certain parts of the city, where migrants from other parts of India and Bangladesh formed substantial parts of the population, stayed outside the secular ethos of the majority of the citizens. Worse still, that riot revealed chinks in the armour of organized political parties which failed to bridge the communal divide. In the other major incident of communal violence in Calcutta since the mayhem of 1946, the provocation for the four-day disturbances in January, 1964, came from the riots that erupted almost simultaneously in Jabalpur in Madhya Pradesh and several places in Bangladesh over the sudden disappearance of a holy relic from Kashmir's Hazratbal mosque. So, when Godhra and Gujarat happened, Bengal's secular politics faced yet another challenge. The Left Front, the Congress and the Trinamool Congress lost no time in taking to the streets to renew their pledge for communal harmony. But it would be wrong to assume that anti-secularists have given up on Bengal. Their fight for intellectual and emotional space has been sharpened. Their victories may not yet be spectacular, but these may be enough to prepare the ground for future shocks. This is precisely what the Communist Party of India leader and senior Left Front minister, Nanda Gopal Bhattacharyya, had warned against in a study of the growth of communal organizations in West Bengal some years ago. He showed how the RSS, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and the Bajrang Dal have strengthened their ranks despite the BJP's negligible presence on the state's political scene. There is every reason to believe that their number has increased manifold since the publication of Bhattacharyya's pamphlet. If the rising number of madrasahs in Malda and Murshidabad is seen as ominous, one has to visit Purulia, Bankura and parts of Midnapore to see how sangh parivar schools are mushrooming in remote, tribal-majority hamlets. The urgency for the secular voice therefore is more, and not less, than ever before even in supposedly safe Bengal. It is also too important a message to be left only to the political parties which can cynically sacrifice anything at the altar of political expediency. Far more important than joining the seminar or the street procession, the battle for secularism has to be joined in drawing rooms, club lounges and in the neighbourhood adda. The communalist has to be shamed and shown his place in civil society, no matter what his pedigree, position or power.