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West Bengal’s Communal Fissures

The recent communal flare-up in West Bengal is rooted in the region’s history of Hindu–Muslim antagonism.

The recent spate of communal violence in Baduria, part of Basirhat subdivision in West Bengal, is symptomatic of growing communal polarisation in the state. The Hindu–Muslim antagonism also owes much to the growing electoral ambitions of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in West Bengal. Why a section of the electorate is increasingly turning towards the BJP can be explained by reading recent developments in the context of the history of communalism in the region. This would reveal that far from West Bengal being newly “infected” by the nationwide wave of Hindu communal hatred, it has historically carried the seeds of intense social tension that recent political processes have now brought to the surface.

The trigger for the flare-up in Basirhat was apparently a Facebook post by a 17-year-old schoolboy allegedly containing offensive references to the Prophet and the Kaaba. This is what is supposed to have set Muslim mobs on a rampage, demanding that the “culprit” be handed over or hanged. Hindus retaliated, and the violence continued for several days. There are reports of fake news circulated by people linked to the BJP that have further fanned the communal flames. The Trinamool Congress (TMC)-led state government blames the BJP for fomenting trouble, while the latter is calling for President’s rule in the state. This public mudslinging cannot hide deep fissures within Bengal’s social fabric, which the BJP’s recent campaigns have only widened.

Hindu–Muslim violence in Bengal can be traced at least to the early 1900s. Communal antagonism intensified over the following decades, often propelled by colonial policies. By the mid-1930s, when the colonial state introduced elections to provincial governments, Bengal came to be ruled by Muslim political formations, as the Hindu elite found themselves in a minority in its demography. The fact that the Muslim League had governed Bengal for several years before independence has largely faded from collective memory. Also forgotten is the anti-Muslim hatred this had churned up. Bengal inaugurated partition violence with the Great Calcutta Killing in August 1946. Undoubtedly, League leaders stoked the fires of communalism without scruples. But Hindu communalism that rose up to the challenge remained a strong political undercurrent in post-partition West Bengal.

On the eve of independence, the Hindu Mahasabha (HM)—the precursor of today’s BJP—was a strong political force. However, for a variety of reasons, especially the public backlash it faced on Gandhi’s assassination, post-partition West Bengal witnessed a steady decimation of the HM and the rise of the left. But Hindu communalism was only brushed under the carpet both by the Congress regime and then by the left; it was never deprived of nourishment.

Left parties consolidated their hold on West Bengal’s politics by championing the cause of refugees. The early waves often comprised relatively better off and mostly upper caste Hindu migrants. Defence of refugee interests often prompted the left to adopt vigorously anti-Muslim postures. It is unsurprising therefore that, just like the Congress it replaced, the left leadership that came to power in West Bengal in the 1970s was largely bhadralok in its social composition.

The condition of Muslims in left-ruled West Bengal remained largely unexamined until the Sachar Committee came out with its damning report in 2006. It proved that pro-poor left rhetoric had done little to empower the Muslims of West Bengal. But it was evident that, just like the Congress government before it, left parties have never had any qualms about forging strategic alliances with extremely conservative Muslim community leaders. For they often held sway over blocks of Muslim electorates who increasingly came to be ghettoised after partition.

Eventually, the Left Front government looked upon later waves of refugees (mostly low-caste peasants) with increasing hostility for the burden it placed on the resources of the state. Again, despite the successful land distribution initiatives, the government later on came to alienate a large section of poor peasants. Thus, underneath the appearance of stability, the long stretch of left rule witnessed a steady corrosion of much of its social base. The TMC took advantage of these fissures and came to power in 2011. But it continued with some of Bengal’s time-tested political strategies. Just like its predecessors, TMC pandered to the same conservative Muslim leadership. It is not surprising at all, therefore, that the TMC parliamentarian from Basirhat constituency, Idris Ali, was accused of instigating riots in 2007, demanding that Taslima Nasreen, the exiled writer from Bangladesh, be ousted from West Bengal.

The TMC’s main contribution to a change in West Bengal’s politics is in removing the taboo on talking religion in public life. Mamata Banerjee has repeatedly made hollow symbolic gestures to her Muslim constituency that made little difference to the lives of ordinary Muslims. Her apparently pro-Muslim postures have only served to irritate her caste-Hindu following and to embolden the conservative Muslim leadership. The BJP is exploiting this to garner support from West Bengal’s disgruntled and increasingly paranoid Hindu voters. The strategy might work in bringing the BJP to power in West Bengal at some point in the coming years. But history teaches us that that no party needs to import communalism into Bengal politics. It already exists and has been nurtured over decades by successive regimes in West Bengal.

Updated On : 14th Jul, 2017

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