Trinamool's descent into Hindutva politics on Ram Navami is unprincipled and strategically dangerous for Bengal

Trinamool leaders announced that they would support (read, also organise) Ram Navami processions, which would, however, be peaceful and unarmed, and accompanied by cultural programmes

Suhit K Sen March 26, 2018 15:50:28 IST
Trinamool's descent into Hindutva politics on Ram Navami is unprincipled and strategically dangerous for Bengal

Ram Navami 'celebrations' in West Bengal on Sunday, that left one man dead and many, including four police personnel, injured, has brought attention to the rise of divisive politics in a state that has not bought the communal politics that has been playing elsewhere in the country. What was significant to note was the Trinamool Congress' response, specifically apropos of this year's Ram Navami.

Chief minister Mamata Banerjee's first response was reasonable. Last Tuesday, she said that processions would be allowed, but no arms — including maces and tridents — can be displayed. The chief minister's response came after BJP state president Dilip Ghosh's statement where he said that his party would march in processions, bearing arms.

Thus began a graded climb down, which many in the state found alarming, especially since till a couple of years ago the observance of Ram Navami was a private affair, carried out only in temples and homes. Buckling under pressure, Mamata announced the very next day that a handful of processions that had a tradition of parading with weapons displayed, would be allowed to do so this year as well. Up to this point, perhaps, the response, from an administrative perspective, was understandable. In fact, by Friday, around 60 organisations had sought permission for processions and agreed that they won't be bearing any arms.

Trinamools descent into Hindutva politics on Ram Navami is unprincipled and strategically dangerous for Bengal

File image of West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee. PTI

What followed was the Trinamool's indefensible descent into the terrain of Hindutva politics: on Thursday, Trinamool leaders announced that they would support (read, also organise) Ram Navami processions, which would, however, be peaceful and unarmed, and accompanied by cultural programmes. Though Mamata issued instructions to the Director-General of Police to maintain strict vigilance — including preventing processions without police permission, ensuring specified routes were followed and, of course, the arms ban be observed - the damage had been done. As a caveat, it must be recorded that the problem of taking out processions was confined to a few districts and that the head of a relatively influential mosque issued a statement welcoming the Trinamool initiative and saying there was no harm in Ram Navami processions. That hardly counts for much by way of an endorsement.

These are the facts and the timeline. The outcome has already been stated - violence, leading to several deaths, many more injuries and the destruction of property. Politically, however, the problem is that though the Trinamool Congress managed to upstage the BJP to a large degree, it could not prevent processions organised by the BJP, fringe groups like the Bajrang Dal, and sundry others to bear arms in procession. Ghosh made a point of doing so and in some processions children, too, brandished weapons despite an earlier statement issued by the West Bengal Commission for Protection of Child Rights that this should not be allowed. On Sunday, it took note of the involvement of children and got in touch with the relevant authorities.

There are two views on the Trinamool position: one is exculpatory, pushing the argument that this was necessary to preempt the BJP from mobilising the majority 'community'. The other is condemnatory: it goes, roughly, that the Trinamool's recourse compromises secular values in general, and particularly in Bengal, which has not had a history of using religious events for political mobilisation. Neither have been used as vehicles for political mobilisation.

This year, the Ram Navami observances were purely political, a fact deprecated by the head priest of a Kolkata temple, whose family has been associated with the temple, which organises the city's biggest Ram Navami festivities for around half a century.

Those who would give Mamata some leeway are clearly looking at the panchayat elections due by July-August, though a schedule has not yet been fixed. Perhaps they are also looking at the expansion of the RSS network over the past year — reportedly up 250 shakhas, from around 1,100 in 2016 to around 1,350 in 2017.

But butting heads with the BJP on its terms is a questionable strategy in Bengal, where it still has limited urban traction, and practically no heft in rural areas, where most processions held were Trinamool-inspired. It would be strategically more sensible to deny the Hindutva elements the space for its communal politics — politically — and more principled, of course, if that counts for anything. Administratively, having taken a position, armed processions should just have been broken up, through mass arrests if necessary.

But encouraging the Hindutva brand of politics is not just unwise and unprincipled, it is also dangerous in a state, which despite having a substantial Muslim population (27 per cent), has had an exemplary record of public and political harmony, whatever opinions may be held and actions executed in the private sphere.

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