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Mainstream, VOL LIX No 17, New Delhi, April 10, 2021

BJP desperate to change the cultural contour of Bengal from class to caste | Arun Srivastava

Saturday 10 April 2021

by Arun Srivastava

Suddenly the Bengalis, both Hindus and Muslims, have started rallying behind Mamata Banerjee. Even till April 1, the day Nandigram went to the polls, the Bengalis did not share a common perception about the role and policies of Mamata. But what happened on that day has suddenly altered the political and electoral scene and equation in the state. The BJP leadership which has been confident of reaping a good harvest are at a loss to comprehend this sudden change in the mood of the people.

Though for some time the Bengalis, irrespective of Hindus and Muslims, were nursing the illusion that their interests were jeopardised, what happened on the day of the polling and also the language used by Narendra Modi while addressing an election on the same day some 90 kms away from Nandigram, has shaken their trust in the BJP leadership. Bitter jibes and unsavoury remarks of Narendra Modi against Mamata has been perceived as an assault on the Bengali culture and insult to a Bengali girl. The Bengali people have come to believe that Modi has been using targeting the Bengali culture and sense of Bengali sub nationality.

Though globalisation has brought about significant changes in the Bengali society, by and large the concept and culture of Bhadralok continues to have a major impact on the social life. Bengali people still believe that they are “different” as they inherit the legacy of renaissance. They have element of radicalism and share the values propounded by Marx and Lenin. The fact remains that Bengali and its people never believed in orthodox ideas. They always believed in the leftto the centre ideas. They shared the idea of internationalism and refrained from pursuing the politics based on limiting identity markers like caste and religion.

It is absolutely clear that Mamata Banerjee would not have thrown the Left establishment out of power in 2011, if the Bhadralok had continued to extend its support to it. But the degeneration that has crept in the left and the manner in which they were getting alienated from the rural poor turned this section disillusioned. Though the Left launched Operation Barga for the benefit of the poor, the fact remains that it gave birth to a new class of power brokers who utilised the government machinery ruthlessly. It created a new class of rural middle class which not completely in uniformity with the Bhadralok. This class has emerge as the new power centre and has been primarily responsible for the decline of the leftist ideology in the state.

This new class was essentially centrist in nature, they continued to believe in the Bengali culture, though some rightist academics emphasise that they look at the society from entirely different perspective. Unlike what the bhadralok class thinks, for them there is nothing “unique” about Bengal. The Bengali culture and its ethos must not be ridiculed for the failure of the leftist ideologues and their practices. It is heartening to note that even in this time the students of Presidency College and Jadavpur University have longing for CheGuevera and Charu Majumdar, or Satyajit Ray and Ritwik Ghatak. It is equally important that the BJP has not succeeded in its endeavour to win over the vast masses of the students and youths. Its “Hindu” vs. “Muslim” binaries have failed to have major impact.

The performance of BJP in the Lok Sabha elections of 2019 ought to be seen in some other perspective. It was the poor reach of economic benefits to the scheduled castes people that has made them act on the caste line and vote for the BJP. But it must be acknowledged that the BJP and RSS have not succeeded in completely turning them as the flagbearers of Hindutva. This is evident in their rallying behind Mamata’s TMC. Modi constantly reminds that his heart aches for the Matua Dalits who, it is calculated, can influence the outcome in nearly 40 assembly seats. But it fails to move the Matuas to that extent the BJP expects.

It was in the early colonial period that caste had entered into politics in Bengal. The political elite, the bhadralok, who mostly belonged to the three upper castes of Brahmin, Kayastha and Baidya demanded democratic reforms. During this period leaders of some dalit castes, like Namasudras in eastern Bengal and the Rajbansis in the north also floated their own associations. But these failed to have significant impact on the politics or culture of the state. These movements worked for their self-improvement and stayed away from Congress politics.

It was after the riots of 1950 a mass exodus of Dalit peasants took place from East Bengal (now Bangladesh) to West Bengal. In post-Partition West Bengal, the main attention of Dalit leaders focused on the rehabilitation issue; refugee agitations displaced caste movements from West Bengal’s public space. Matua movement was an anti-Brahmanical heterodox religious sect for the Dalits, started by Harichand and Guruchand Thakur.

In the 2011 assembly election, the Matua support went to Trinamool Congress (TMC). Mamata Banerjee, unlike her communist adversaries, became a member of the Matua Mahasangha. Since 2009, the Matuas have been articulating their grievances against the citizenship act. BJP offered them CAA 2019 as a final solution for their citizenship-related woes.

Since Matua Mahasangha is an oppositional religious movement that is against Brahmin domination and Vedic Hinduism it was tough proposition for the group to support Hindutva ideology. Realising this fact Modi undertook the visit to Orakandi in Bangladesh, the birthplace of Guruchand Thakur in the belief that it would appeal to the emotions of Matua pracharaks and gosains with grassroots level networks, tilting the balance for BJP. But the Thakur family is divided. There are now many Ambedkarites in the community. It is interesting to notice that issues specifically related to SC-OBC are featuring in electoral politics. Caste has appeared on the political scene.

The promise of Narendra Modi to create Sonar Bangla ought to be viewed in this backdrop. In this election the most potent offer he and his boss Narendra Modi has made to the people of Bengal has been creation of Sonar Bangla. But the narrative of this offer does not commensurate to the ground realities and mainly to the social and cultural ethos of the state. His offer utterly lacks the basic concept, which ingredients are actually needed to build Sonar Bangla. He and Modi have been repeatedly harping on it probably without knowing the real feelings and implication of the phrase.

The song was composed by Kaviguru Rabindranath Tagore as an expression of how precious the Bengali language is and how much its speakers value it. One of India’s most cherished renaissance figures, Rabindranath Tagore,put India on the literary map of the world when “Gitanjali” was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1913. Gandhiji called him the ‘Great sentinel’. Introducing “Gitanjali”, W.B.Yeats wrote: ‘[the poems] have stirred my blood as nothing for years…’.

Tagore’s worldwide acclaim as a social, political, religious, and aesthetic thinker, innovator in education and a champion of the ’One World’ idea makes him a living presence. The poem is even the national anthem of Bangladesh. Before coming out with this proposal Shah and his mentor Modi should have at least taken pains to explore why Bangladesh, a predominantly Muslim country has adopted this poem. The primary reason is it is the culture and social ethics that unite the Bengakis, not only the geography. No doubt the two stalwarts of the contemporary Indian politics erred significantly.

One thing is certain, behind the façade of turning West Bengal into Sonar Bangla, the two protagonists of Hindtuva could not comprehend the real spirit and value that the poem symbolises. Modi and Shah dissociated the idea from the culture and social ethos, and made it look like mere a material object. But it has a design. They knew that in order to penetrate in Bengal and rule the state, they have to chop the cultural and social ethos. And to accomplish it, promise to create Sonar Bangla is the best bet. The first step in this direction has been to made the people realise that they belong to a particular caste before they are the Bengali.

Both the leaders used their office, energy and brain to promote caste as in their perception it would be the step forward towards creation of Sonar Bangla. It is an open secret that caste has never been the deciding factor in the Bengali society. Till a couple of years back, a common Bengali would outright deprecate any reference to caste. Though the upper caste politicians ruled the state for decades, they also did not patronise caste or worked to preserve the interest of their castemen unlike the prevalent practices in Hindi states. Caste has always been a pariah in Bengal.

Both the leaders have been working on this line is clearly evident from the fact they made it an issue in the 2016 assembly election. Their key players in the game were the members of the Matua community which belongs to the scheduled caste category. Mamata Banerjee also used this to consolidate her position. But it was the BJP which trounced her and gained an upper hand. In the Lok Sabha election of 2019 the BJP played this game ruthlessly. This politics immensely benefitted the saffron party. The success in the 2019 election helped the BJP to lay its base in at least 70 assembly constituencies.

The desperation to divide the Bengali society on caste line has been so acute that Modi could not check the impulse to rush to Bangladesh to make conscious the Matua people of their caste identity. The BJP in a brazen manner provoked the caste feeling. It is unfortunate that Bengali cultural ethos have started feeling the tremors of the caste politics.

While the BJP is trying to assimilate the Mauta identity into the Hindutva identity, the TMC is working to project their identity as that of the Bengali refugee aspiring for citizenship. Undeniably the Matuas are witnessing a horizontal split. Nevertheless it is certain that the politics of caste identity will become more prominent and pronounced in Bengal politics in near future, especially in the context of mobilizing marginal communities.

It is imperative to mention that the old BJP leaders and cadres who were earlier with the Jana Sangh did not subscribe to this policy of the current leaders. Though the BJP leaders, Modi and Shah accuse Mamata of opposing the slogan Jai Sri Ram, the fact remains that most of the old BJP leaders and cadres do not endorse it. For them it is nothing but merely a political slogan and was against the Bengali cultural and social ethos.The party soiurces maintain that this was primarily the reason that most of the old founders of the party were denied the tickets to contest the assembly elections.

It is significant to watch that besides the turncoats, those shifted their loyalties from TMC, the non Bengalis have been the major beneficiaries of getting the tickets. Both these sections do not nurse any illusion about the cultural and social compulsions. For them sharing power has been the prime goal.

These old leaders in many places have tried to revive the defunct Jana Sangh and filed their nominations as its candidates. IN Malda which has been the hot bed for the BJP, these old leaders have joined the Jana Sangh and are contesting from eight of the 12 assembly seats. Their primary aim is to ensure the defeat of the official candidates. Sanjit Mishra, former district BJP president, is the new district president of Jana Sangh.

The Jana Sangh was merged with the Janata Party in 1977 and L.K. Advani was its last president. In Bengal the Jana Sangh was revived by an old timer Subrata Mukherjee, the great-grandson of Syama Prasad Mookerjee. This development in Malda, a district with a minority population of around 55 per cent, has unnerved the state leadership as it has the potential to question the efficacy of questioning the rational of creating a new Sonar Bangla and engineering rebel in the rank and file just in the middle of the election. In Malda while the BJP is trying to polarise votes by focussing on caste and communal issues, the Jana Sangh is adhering to the traditional philosophy of Hinduism.

The BJP is using the caste to break the political hegemony of the upper caste as it is sure that this section, which patronises the culture of Bhadralok, would not allow it to grow in the state. Stray caste clashes that are taking place ought to be viewed in the wider backdrop of class struggles. Had it been not the case the Naxalbari uprising might have been consigned to the dustbin as a simple incident of caste war. Naxalism would not have surfaced as a new political and ideological alternative.

No doubt caste has been present in Bengal politics, however started becoming more pronounced in Bengal politics after the decline of the Left narrative. The Matuas, one of the vocal Dalit communities in Bengal, started re-organizing themselves politically. They asserted as a powerful electoral vote bank and started building pressure on the state and the political parties to support their demand for citizenship in India. There are more than 16 Dalit communities in Bengal, and among them, Matuas have shown significant progress in education, employment and other developmental sectors. Both the BJP and the TMC are using the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) in their own way to get their support.

Politics in West Bengal has been traditionally different from the rest of the country in terms of ideology as well as agenda. Caste was not seen as a major determining factor. In West Bengal, the key word that is being used to denote the community or class support base has been the term ‘party’. Party has been above all; family, kinship, caste and religion. The BJP is now striving to change this fundamental concept. Incidentally assembly election is witnessing many shifts in its political landscape. The major shift is from ‘party society’ to ‘identity politics.’ Even Mamata Banerjee had held a convention solely for the Scheduled Caste (SC) and Scheduled Tribe (ST) communities in Kolkata. After coming to power in 2011, the TMC appointed Manjul Krishna Thakur, Boro Ma’s younger son, as minister for micro, small and medium enterprises. This situation gives rise to two questions; (i) Is this trend desirable in a plural society? (ii) Will the rise in Hindu nationalism result in conflicts in a region that has been immune to such tensions?

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