How aggressive Ram Navami celebrations paved the way for BJP in Bengal: Read an excerpt from Sambit Pal's new book
The lavish Ram Navami celebrations were the VHP and its associate organisations’ answer to Muharram processions in Bengal. The BJP rode on this wave to extract political benefit out of it, writes Sambit Pal
Veteran journalist Sambit Pal's The Bengal Conundrum: The Rise of the BJP and the Future of the TMC comes at a juncture when political turmoil on the state's turf is rife, with debates on 'insiders versus outsiders' reaching their crescendo right before it goes to the polls. The book aims to investigate how the Bharatiya Janata Party, who, until even five years ago, held only two seats from Bengal in the Lok Sabha, managed to increase their count to 18 in the 2019 general elections. Pal takes a closer look at what dismantled the Left in one of its traditional strongholds, thereby allowing the Right to make inroads into what is considered largely unfamiliar territory for the ideology and the party.
With first-person accounts and a comprehensive lowdown on contemporary Bengali society, the journalist documents Mamata Banerjee's rise and her journey through the state's complex political milieu in the past decade to illustrate what may have disenchanted its people away from her.
In the excerpt that follows, the writer sheds light on how the BJP postured its majoritarian politics to counter the TMC's 'minority appeasing' stance, in order to capture the imaginations of Bengalis with boisterous chants of 'Jai Shri Ram' during Ram Navami — a festival it had barely ever observed before.
The year is 2017 and two young boys, one clad in printed trousers and a black shirt and another in black pants and grey T-shirt and wearing a cap, are performing lathikhela (a performance using sticks) on the streets of a suburban town of Chandannagar, which was a French colony before Independence. The passers-by look at their intense performance. Behind them, a sea of people chanting ‘Jai Shri Ram’ and waving saffron flags march through the arterial streets. Among them, some are carrying swords and brandishing them openly. Some, dressed as Lord Hanuman, are carrying maces. A group of young women is seen dancing to music booming out of huge sound boxes placed in a Matador. As some are chanting slogans, ‘Haar ghar bhagwa chhayega/ram rajya phir aayega (Saffron will reach every household, Ram’s kingdom will be back again)’, trucks carrying pictures of Bharat Mata, Swami Vivekananda and even a group of army jawans follow. Behind the huge cut-out of Swami Vivekananda, there is Lord Ram. His idol holding a bow and arrows moves through the crowd. Girls and boys sporting red scarves around their foreheads, holding crude weapons high in the air, chant, ‘Bharat ka abhimaan hai Hindu, Matribhumi ka shaan hai Hindu (Hindus are the pride of Bharat, Hindus are the pride of the motherland).’ Some are even dressed as Lord Ram and Goddess Sita and riding a ghorargari (horse cart). The air is fraught with tension, one can feel being in a war field as people give a war cry for Lord Ram and a Hindu nation.
That year, West Bengal got a taste of a different kind of Ram Navami (spring Hindu festival that celebrates the birthday of Lord Ram). ‘Earlier, the Ram Mandir in Chandannagar used to bring out a procession on Ram Navami. A few Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) activists used to take part in that. They also organised such processions during Janmashtami. Then, there was just one procession,’ says Pinakpani Ghosh, a journalist and a resident of Chandannagar. In 2017, however, one man changed the way the festival was celebrated in the area. A man called Dilip Ghosh had mobilised the people of this mofussil town and took the Ram Navami celebrations to the masses. No one knew his name at that time. It was only later that he stepped into the shoes of West Bengal BJP president. ‘People came to know about Dilip Ghosh when he became the BJP state president. But, he was instrumental as the chief of Hindu Jagaran Manch to mobilise the temples to bring out multiple processions and then merge them into one during Ram Navami. It all happened after TMC came in power,’ Ghosh adds.
Chandannagar was not an isolated case, similar scenes were replicated across Bengal that year. Interestingly, no slogan was raised in favour of the BJP from these Ram Navami rallies. There were slogans against Pakistan, on Kashmir, etc. This was a way to polarise people.
Before 2017, for the average Bengali household, Ram Navami meant a tame celebration limited to mothers fasting for the well-being of their sons. No-fuss, no noise was involved. A few processions were visible, but they didn’t hold much significance. Also, no aggressive show of power or faith was involved. Ram is very close to the Bengalis’ heart, more than a deity. Unlike north India, he is not a war hero, but more like the benevolent eldest son of a king. Grandmothers would read the Bengali version of Ramayana written by Krittibas Ojha and we learnt the stories of Ram, Lakshman and Sita through them. People of Bengal chanted Ram naam to scare away ghosts. So naturally, the aggressive Ram Navami celebrations that suddenly emerged in Bengal were a shocker for many.
For Bengalis, in whose lives Maa Durga is omnipresent, 2017 signalled a change in the state’s mood and a new social churning was visible with the aggressive emergence of the remodelled Lord Ram. The lavish Ram Navami celebrations were the VHP and its associate organisations’ answer to Muharram processions in Bengal. The BJP rode on this wave to extract political benefit out of it. The Bengal BJP state president, Dilip Ghosh, had come out in a new avatar. He was seen in saffron pagri holding a sword in one hand and a mace in the other. He gave a war cry from his assembly constituency, ‘Here [Bengal] a fight is on between “Ramzada” and “Haramzada”. It is a test to decide who is on the side of Ram, and who is not.‘
‘I looked after the Hindu Jagaran Manch since 2011 and I wanted to give a voice to the Hindus who saw partition and division in Hindu society. They felt insecure about the way Muslims were being appeased. They felt they would be refugees in their own land. No political party talked for the Hindus. If one talked in favour of Hindus, he was branded as communal. Political parties talked for the Muslims to get votes. We caught that point and we needed an issue through which we could unite the Hindu voices. We used Ram Navami for that. This was not part of the Bengali tradition. We got a huge response and it worked well for us,’ says Dilip Ghosh.
The above extract from Sambit Pal's The Bengal Conundrum: The Rise of the BJP and the Future of the TMC, has been reproduced here with permission from its publisher Bloomsbury.
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