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Hindutva’s rise in West Bengal could threaten neighborhood

The Rise Of Muscular Hinduism And Hyper-nationalism In Rural West Bengal Is Spreading To The Urban Areas, Challenging The State’s “secular” Character.

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Bhaskar Choudhury ‘Arup’ from Sylhet and Md. Muzammel Hossain from Madhupur in Tangail in Bangladesh have been keenly following political happenings in the neighboring Indian state of West Bengal. The two are worried that something which has never happened before is happening in the ‘other’ Bengal lately. They are perturbed that the Hindu right-wing is fast occupying the center-stage in West Bengal politics. 

The cause of the duo’s apprehensions stems from a rise in communal tensions in West Bengal thanks to the hyper-nationalism of the Hindu right. India’s secular polity is under threat. Hindu-Muslim relations in South Asiaas a whole may suffer as a result of this. In the 2019 parliamentary elections in India, the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) won 18 of the 42 parliamentary seats in West Bengal. 

While Bhaskar Choudhury has to visit the West Bengal capital of Kolkata to resume medical treatment of his cancer-stricken wife, Hossain has to continue his cancer treatment there. Like Choudhury and Hossain, hundreds of thousands of Bangladeshi nationals who travel to West Bengal and further on to other Indians states for medical treatment, business and as tourists every year, are worried about the Hindu right ramping up its anti-Muslim and anti- Bangladeshi card ahead of the assembly election in West Bengal scheduled for 2021. They are apprehensive of physical harm as has inflicted on many Muslims across India. 

West Bengal BJP chief Dilip Ghosh, who has a penchant for courting controversies, said in a recent tirade:“if the BJP comes to power in West Bengal, it will send back 10 million Bangladeshi Muslims living illegally here.” The vitriolic outburst by Ghosh is aimed at further stigmatizing and polarizing the Muslims of Bengal and Bangladeshi nationals who may be in India either for tourism or medical treatment. But Indian officials brushed off such misgivings.

Dilip Ghosh has been elevated from a RSS pracharak (active, full-time worker) from the state’s tribal area of Jangalmahal to BJP’s Chief Ministerial candidate in West Bengal. His rise represents the BJP’s caste-based social engineering project, says senior Kolkata-based journalist Samir K Purkayastha. “Ghosh is a perfect fit for a leader who can drum-up hyper-nationalistic churnings in West Bengal and polarize the voters,” Purkayastha told South Asian Monitor.

“The BJP’s new narrative is the alleged danger to Hindus in parts of West Bengal from Muslims – the danger of these rural areas becoming Muslim,” says veteran Bangladesh-watcher Sukharanjan Dasgupta.

“For most of post-partition history of West Bengal, unlike Bangladesh, religious polarization has not been there in the political landscape,” Dasgupta, who covered Bangladesh’s Liberation war from erstwhile East Pakistan for a leading Kolkata-based Bengali daily, said. 

Rise of BJP and Hindu refugee factor 

For a party that had no electoral presence even a decade back, it is remarkable that the BJP has emerged as the main opposition party in West Bengal in the last couple of years. But the Hindu right always has its eyes set on West Bengal and the North East Indian states.

“The Hindu right has been active in rural Bengal even before Indian independence. But now, the Narendra Modi-Amit Shah duopoly has brought it to urban Bengal also. The BJP is trying to separate the Hindu migrants from the Muslim migrants. The BJP has managed to radicalize Hindus in Bengal-particularly the Partition refugees who earlier identified themselves with the communists-to create a wedge between Hindus and Muslims. By passing the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), the BJP has created a narrative that Bangladeshi Hindus migrants are ‘refugees’ while the Muslim migrants from Bangladesh are ‘illegal infiltrators,” he explains.

“Over the years, the Hindu right, has helped in bringing Hindus belonging to the backward Namasudra community from present-day Bangladesh into West Bengal,” Dasgupta points out. 

Political analyst and cultural commentator Jawhar Sircar wrote: “In Bengal, the BJP is now a conglomerate of desperate Leftists, Congress and even ex-Trinamool supporters who have regrouped under its protection, for the immunity they think they will get because the party controls the Central government and the para-military forces.”

The BJP’s stunning electoral win, the former bureaucrat wrote, “was not solely because of the Narendra Modi factor but because of some terrible mistakes that West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee made.”

The Hindu right, however, has always been well entrenched in undivided Bengal. By the 1940s, scores of RSS-affiliated volunteer organizations like the Bharat Sevashram Sangha mushroomed across Bengal. Most Hindu right-affiliated organizations in Bengal have been and are patronized by the Marwari and other business communities, according to Sircar.

Though Bengal saw very little cross-border migration during partition (unlike Punjab) communal violence saw an uptick in East Pakistan in the 1950s and 1960s which led to a large number of Hindus, mostly upper castes, migrating to West Bengal, Assam and Tripura, Daspgupta recalls.

The Hindu right today sees the third and fourth generation of partition refugees from Bangladesh as a perfect constituency to woo. “Today the RSS-affiliated Viswa Hindu Parishad has stealthily established offices in every district of Bangladesh and is helping mostly lower caste Hindus from Bangladesh to migrate to West Bengal,” Dasgupta told SAM.

Dasgupta says Mamata Banerjee, and her party-the Trinamool Congress-have been accused of sheltering Muslim radicals of the Jamaat-e-Islami from Bangladesh. The Sheikh Hasina government reportedly asked India to investigate links between the Jamaat-e-Islami and the Trinamool Congress, he says.

The BJP is trying to create a poisonous atmosphere that has already dehumanized minorities and inspired violence. Under the influence of the BJP, Bengali Hindu culture is changing. The muscular Hindu culture of the Hindi heartland popularly known as the “cow belt” is percolating among the Bengali Hindus. Bengali Hindus are adopting northern and western Indian culture of buying gold on Dhanteras. Bengali families have started organizing ‘sangeet’ ceremony, which normally was never part of the Bengali marriages.

Politics of pujas and Mamata Banerjee

West Bengal has in the last six years witnessed a surge in celebration of festivals that were previously more prevalent in other parts of the country, such as Ram Navami and the more recently Ganesh Chaturthi.The BJP's proliferation in Bengal since 2014 acted as a catalyst. Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress has herself had a role to play in the introduction of new festivals and deities into Bengal’s cultural sphere, Sircar notes.

Durga puja was always grand in Bengal, but now Ram Navami or Hanuman Jayanti processions (earlier not associated with Bengalis) are getting bigger, the former bureaucrat says.

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Banerjee must also stop going overboard in her attempt to appear pro-Muslim as this is being misunderstood by the majority Hindu community, writes Sircar. The Bengal chief minister’s appeasement of Muslims, a cause for which she walks that extra mile, is damaging the cause of secularism in Bengal. Additionally, Banerjee has to give up her recent temptation to arouse Bengali nationalism to counter the BJP’s Hindu-Hindi image,” Sircar says.

Dasgupta trashed the myth that Bengal politicians don’t frequently change parties as in the Indian hinterland. The state has seen frequent switching of parties by disgruntled leaders and political workers. The ones who were in the CPI (M) have shifted to the Trinamool Congress and from the Congress to the Trinamool and vice-versa, he points out.

The most important thing is that the BJP, which never had any acceptability in Bengal, has acceptability now. Droves of people, most of whom are third and fourth generation of Hindu Partition refugees, has joined the BJP, leaving the CPI (M).