West Bengal communal riots: How BJP manages to bind leaders like Mamata Banerjee in a 'secularism trap'

Damned if she does; damned if she does not. No matter in what way Mamata Banerjee reacts to the developments in the North 24 Parganas district, either as the chief minister of West Bengal or as the chief of the Trinamool Congress, she risks being identified with one side of the communal divide.

With the BJP already pitching in aggressively for the Hindus, she actually does not have much of a choice. Even if she is entirely even-handed in her approach, she would find it hard to escape being branded partisan. This would, in turn, shape perceptions that matter in elections.

File image of West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee. PTI

File image of West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee. PTI

Mamata is facing what might be called the secularism trap. As a secular politician of the old school, she is hard-wired to appear sympathetic to the Muslims but she cannot be oblivious to the Hindu backlash to it.

With the BJP cleverly ensuring, through its polarising rhetoric, that a balancing act is impossible, she lands in a by now familiar predicament of all secular politicians: how to position oneself in the times of Hindu consolidation.

That they should be in a plight like this tells us something about the hollowness of the version of secularism peddled by members of the political class so far. It appears it had no depth, no inner strength and no intellectual vigour to stand up to the smallest challenge that comes its way.

It survived long in a situation of no competition, and when one presented itself it was quick to sink in its own shallowness. It took for granted the easy, agreeable co-existence of religious communities and overlooked the frictions that could put them in conflict at some point in time. There was no effort to take the idea of secularism deeper through conscious effort, leaving it fragile.

The BJP and the wider Sangh Parivar have been smart enough to exploit the weakness in the narrative and if they are reaping a healthy political dividend they are not to be blamed. It’s rather amusing to watch commentators of the Left orientation lamenting the trend of communal polarisation for political ends and attributing the rise of the BJP to it.

They ignored the political potential of religion. The fact that secularism never went much beyond debates in academic circles and its social depth was pretty limited remained unacknowledged. There was a huge vacuum waiting to be filled and the BJP has moved in.

While it is understood that religion and politics make a dangerous combination and the forces making political capital of it at this point, and the country, could pay a heavy price for it at a later time, the fact remains that the secular resistance is proving to be no challenge at all.

The BJP continues with its political conquests with religion as a prop – it's not open always though – a valid, logically justifiable question to the tactic remains elusive.

To the secularists, the threat should have been apparent during the Ram Temple movement and Rath Yatra of Lal Krishna Advani in early 1990s. The rise of Narendra Modi in Gujarat should have been an eye-opener too. But they simply did not know how to react.

The intellectuals went into the slam mode while the political dispensations sought to take the legal route. Both approaches lacked the intellectual content to face the rising challenge. Both appeared hollower when Modi began his ascent to the top.

Now the question is whether secularism was just an intellectual fashion statement thriving on sophisticated language or there was more to it.

Secularism is a great concept but the fundamental flaw with it in the Indian context was in looking at it through the minorities prism. The majority simply did not figure anywhere; if it did as the potential tormentor of the minorities.

The secular political class was happy to give it a malicious twist, putting the minority and the majority as separate sides in a conflict. Now, the whole idea of benign treatment to the minorities is under the threat of being scrapped. The secularists have to take the blame for it.

Coming back to Mamata, she has the difficult task of evading the secular trap. Whichever way she acts, she cannot escape being branded along communal lines. Managing the aftermath of the current communal flare-up will be a real test for her.

Updated Date: Jul 07, 2017 18:26 PM

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