West Bengal riots: State with a rich secular history is violently polarised on communal lines today

Being a probashi much before the word became part of political terminology, living in parts of north India that perennially resonated with aftermaths of communal riots, I was somewhat relieved that West Bengal was a secular utopia of sorts. Though it got unfortunately left behind when Baba made a career move after I entered school, I believed it remained my cultural home.

In the 80s, riots broke out in one city or another across north India, and as cub reporters we witnessed religion playing a decisive part in Indian politics, West Bengal was beset with other issues. These included land reforms on the positive side and flight of capital as a downer.

On the occasional visit to relatives, endless woes were listed, traffic was abominably slow —  further held up by protests galore, there were no jobs, distant cousins were still recuperating from aftershocks  of incarceration during years of Left-wing turbulence in the state, constant power shortage which introduced Indians to the device called inverters and so on.

Yet, I heaved a sigh of relief that though average Bengalis got at the throat of one another for little reason during adda sessions every evening, no one battled with the other on matters of religious identity. Reading of history and the remarkable turnaround from the communal ugliness — dating from the late 1930s to the worst tragedies of Muslim League's direct action in August 1946, and the carnage in Nokhali later that year which left its footprint for a decade and half after Independence — was indeed a matter to be proud of, not just for Bengalis, but also for all Indians.

When still young, the first record player arrived home and dad soon began procuring 33, 45 and 78 rpm records. To a child, these records provided the first glimpse into the existence of Bengali Muslims. Till then, the only Bengalis I knew were relatives and family friends, all Hindus. I understand now that this stemmed from the reality that though accounting for 27 percent of the state's population, they crowded the bottom of the socio-economic ladder and were thus missing from the milieu I grew up in.

Riots have hit parts of West Bengal over hte last week. Reuters

Riots have hit parts of West Bengal over hte last week. Reuters

In time, I shared my awareness with wide-eyed classmates about Kazi Nazrul Islam and proudly played a few Nazrul songs at home and demonstrated how they were different from Rabindra Sangeet but not of the kind of divergence which we saw among contrasting communities in our small campus town in the Hindi heartland.

If a state with such a violent communal past could actually move over it, there was hope for the emergence of a modern nation, one where religious identity was not the principal basis for social and political identity. So, why is it that this pride has now disappeared, and who is responsible? Furthermore, when did this slide down the gorge begin?

For the past several weeks, we have been witness to another round of acrimonious exchanges across press conferences, public speeches and on the streets, where either warring Hindus and Muslims clashed or the Trinamool Congress cadre fought pitched battles in the hinterland.

Everybody has an opinion on whether Mamata Banaerjee is politically appeasing minorities to solidify her support base, or if the BJP is trying to milk latent Hindu communalism, dormant for almost half a century. But there are very few who are willing to end this game of mutual retribution for the sake of the future of the state.

Instead of discussing recent riots in the Basirhat-Baduria strip of North 24 Parganas or even tracing communal clashes in places that have been trouble spots in recent years, it is more worthwhile to understand causes that led West Bengal to put more than half a century of communal conflict behind it in the mid 1960s. It is also important to understand why a state that did not follow several other "communal" regions of the country into sectarian decay in the aftermath of the Babri Masjid's demolition, is now increasingly appearing to have slipped back to the pre-1965 era, when inter-communal suspicion and conflict was fairly common.

Partition of Bengal, though based on religion, subsumed religious identity in post-independence politics, indicative in the electoral demise of Hindu parties whose two stalwarts — Syama Prasad Mookerjee and NC Chatterjee — won Lok Sabha elections in 1952. Thereafter, neither Jana Sangh nor Hindu Mahasbha performed creditably till 2014.

On the other side, partition left Muslims in West Bengal politically orphaned after the natural shift of Muslim League to East Pakistan. Consequently, both Hindu and Muslims found — and sought — spaces in politics, not on the basis of religious identities but on basis of other tags.

The emergence of communist parties and the sheer dominance of the Left Front from 1978 ensured that people were workers, peasants and other professionals first and representatives of their community only thereafter. The CPM may have kept religious identity in mind at the time of selecting candidates for elections but this consideration did not become paramount, like in other states like Uttar Pradesh and Bihar.

Till the time the Left Front ran a government with a modicum of success that met aspirations of people, its cadre were able to ensure successive victories. The cookie began crumbing when the Buddhadeb Bhattacharya government began messing up on several fronts, though many would say that the rot set in earlier. But once non-sectarian politics began facing challenge, both Mamata Banerjee and BJP began playing identity politics with gusto.

While the communists had kept Islamists at bay, TMC was guided by no such mantra. She may not be the Bengali or female version of 'Mullah Mulayam' or Akhilesh Yadav or even Lalu Yadav, yet Mamata Banerjee definitely made more of a public gesture of wooing Muslims than CPM leaders.

Naturally, the BJP too reciprocated, though TMC leaders contend that their strategy was reactive to counter BJP mobilisation on the basis of Hindutva. It's a bit like the chicken and egg situation varying from district to district, town to town — the sum total is that West Bengal is today polarised on communally lines.

While communist parties are the only forces ideologically oriented to shepherd the state back to the times when identity politics was not paramount, the Left suffers from organisational deficiency and lack of political ingenuity. With competitive grandstanding being order of the day, repeat episodes of the recent variety are more likely than ever before, especially in the run-up to 2019. Not happy augury for all, probashi or bashinde.

Updated Date: Jul 14, 2017 18:17 PM

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