Ram, the Trojan horse
The violent Ram Navami celebrations in Bengal highlight the Hindi-Hindu belt’s desperate attempt to politicise religion.
The sight of young children, including girls, thronging the streets of Bengal's towns is a sight that is supposed to empower many minds. During Saraswati Puja and the festive days of Durga Puja, this has happened in Bengal for a very, very long time indeed. However, during the BJP-RSS-VHP-Bajrang Dal and other Hindutva groups-sponsored Ram Navami, this festive and cheerful sight was converted, last year, into a scene of shock and dismay when Bengal saw little girls and boys being supplied with swords and made to march amidst hate-mongering slogans on a supposedly 'religious' occasion. This was widely condemned across West Bengal.
The shocking scene was repeated this year thanks to the same outfits, which are hell-bent upon tearing apart the socio-cultural fabric of Bengal. The West Bengal Commission for Protection of Child Rights (WBCPCR) has summoned representatives of Bajrang Dal from the Purulia district of West Bengal, for engaging children with arms in a Ram Navami procession. In the land of the UN award-winning Kanyashree project that aims to take the women of Bengal forward, what these merchants of Hindutva-sponsored hate have in mind is a very different future for the women of Bengal. If this is the idea of the Beti that the Hindutva brigade has in mind, it is important that all sections of Bengal's civil society wake up and look carefully at what is being done to their own state, supposedly in the name of religion.
Ram has always been a fringe god in Bengal with numbered temples spotted in his honour across Bengali areas. For the most part, he is the principal character of the epic Ramayana, whose Bangla version written by Krittibas Ojha in the 15th century had been and continues to be the major image of Ram, notwithstanding Ramanand Sagar's blockbuster Hindi serial that draws upon the Hindi belt image of Ram. Krittibas Ojha's Ram, the Ram that Bengal knows, is a sensitive person, prone to shedding tears and eating vegetables and food ubiquitous to the region. And, that in a way, represents how Bengal has historically engaged with outside currents – by Bengalising them. Since 2014, that rule of engagement is under severe strain with the Hindutva groups hell-bent upon foisting not only a Hindi-belt Ram on the unsuspecting people of Bengal, but foisting a wholly different form of supposed religious celebration that is rife with hate speech, flags of India, 'Pakistan Murdabad' slogans, children walking with dangerous weapons and Hindi speeches and songs in an 86 per cent Bangla speaking land. After hearing one of the 'devotional' songs blaring from a Ram Navami procession, my friend Ayan Basu quipped that the "Pakistan Murdabad" slogans in the celebration of a supposedly millennia old entity's birthday confounded him of whether Ram had fought against Lanka or Pakistan!
Bengal has always engaged with the story of Ram with its own take. One of Bengal's greatest poets ever, Michael Madhusudan Dutta, penned Meghnad Bodh Kabyo (The poem on the slaying of Meghnad, Ravana's son) – where Ravana, valiantly defending his people and his land against the unscrupulous invaders of the North, is the hero. This remains a classic in Bengali literature in many ways. This also reflects a similar take on Ram's conquest of Lanka that is seen in the Dravidian cultural sphere. The Hindi-belt has its Ram and Bengal has its own. They are quite different. The Hindutva groups of Bengal are desperate to impose the Hindi-belt Ram on Bengal and use him as a Trojan horse for other nefarious motives.
And, this, it did. In two districts of West Bengal adjoining BJP ruled Hindi-states, multiple communal clashes were triggered by armed Ram Navami processions. Sheikh Shajahan, a Muslim Bengali, was killed. Deputy Commissioner of Police Arindam Dutta Chowdhury was critically injured. Multiple other policemen were also injured. Maulana Abul Kalam Azad's statue was torn down. Police stations were raided by Hindutva gangs with arms in their hand and "Jay Sri Ram" on their lips. Bengal has never witnessed such a 'religion'.
Bengal is under siege. A political assault from the Hindi belt's Hindutva political forces is taking place under the garb of an alien religious and cultural banner. On the day of Ram Navami, it was also the date of the worship of Bengal's own goddess of food and bounty – Mother Goddess Annapurna. My mother, a non-vegetarian like any other Bengali, ate only vegetarian food that day. It was age-old; her Bengali religious practice demanded so. However, most of the crowds of the Ram Navami processions comprised of people who had no concept of the Mother Goddess Annapurna. The Hindu Bengalis who joined these processions must now be placing their own Mother Annapurna on a lower pedestal than the recently imported Hindi belt version of Ram in whatever religio-political calculations they have in their heads. And, there lies the cultural threat to the Bengali way of living and worshipping.
Mamata Banerjee, the Chief Minister of West Bengal, has alleged that the communal violence that was associated with Ram Navami this year was engineered by outsiders. It is hard to assess from a distance how true that claim is and it will only be known after thorough investigations. However, a few facts are clear. In an 86 per cent Bangla speaking state, any random normal assemblage of people should have a majority of Bangla speakers, if not an overwhelming majority. However, in all the incidents of armed violence during Ram Navami, the only language one heard from the crowd was Hindi. This can mean one of three things: one, violent Ram Navami processions were mostly executed by Hindi speakers and not by Bangla speakers; two, outsiders were brought in from neighbouring Hindi states to execute such violence – this is especially relevant for the Ram Navami associated violent incidents and the killings in Purulia and Ranigunj, both of which share their border with BJP ruled Hindi states. The Asansol MP, BJP's Babul Supriyo, even made multiple shameful communal instigations through social media in an age when Whatsapp messages can and have killed innocent people; three, Ram Navami is an event that is so alien to Bengal that its violent vocal expressions are in Hindi and it draws that section of Hindu Bengalis who would forget the Bangla language-centric Goddess Annapurna's celebrations and lend their voice to the Hindi-Hindu style Ram Navami 'celebrations'. Or, it could be all of the above.
Ram Navami's violent divisive avatar is not alone. In the last two or three years, Bengal has witnessed the Hindutva brigade's attempt to communalise even Bengal's very dear Durga Pujo. The ruling Trinamool has hopefully learnt its lesson that in an alien, hate-filled violent turf, its participation does not give it any political mileage but can only bring shame by association. While I say all this, one thing must be remembered. In the last official register of political support in West Bengal, that is, the 2016 West Bengal Assembly elections, BJP won a meagre 10 per cent of the votes. In a 70 per cent Hindu majority state, this means that six out of seven Hindus did not vote for the BJP. Thus, when the politically saffronised Delhi media tries to spin a picture of Hindus under siege in Bengal, they insult the intelligence and the socio-cultural ethos of the people of Bengal, especially the Hindus of Bengal. The largest proportion of Hindu Bengalis voted for the Trinamool. The second largest proportion of Hindu Bengalis vote for the Left-Congress alliance. BJP came a distant third. This was less than two years ago. Hindu Bengalis have been Bengalis and Hindus before BJP existed, before even the Indian tricolour existed – before 'Pakistan Murdabad' existed. These props were not needed to be a Hindu Bengali. They are not needed now either. The present author is a case in point – a proud Shakto, a proud Bengali. Hail the Holy Mother.
(The views expressed are strictly personal)