The communal virus
In the upcoming elections, the politics of West Bengal must continue to eschew the propagation and use of communalism for securing vote banks
Mamata Banerjee's quip on those who do not know anything of Bengali culture and ethos is the punchline that makes chaperon campaigners of opposition BJP edgy. The erstwhile leading opposition front of the Left and the Congress also made similar comments. On its part, BJP refutes this 'outsider' label as a ploy by its rivals to deflect attention from TMC's corruption, anti-incumbency and political violence as well as from UPA's dynastic rule. While TMC raises a battle cry of Bengal's inclusive and accommodative culture of accepting non-Bengalis, the punch on 'outsider' and its impact on the electorate aim at those who have no love lost for Bengal's syncretic cultural identities and its hallowed intellectual tradition of tolerance and humanism.
The outsider pitch is supplemented by a deep cultural narrative of Bengal's partition and its protagonists from both the 'Right' and the 'Left' as a matter of great historical significance. While the BJP credits Shri Shyama Prasad Mukherjee for purging out Muslim dominated East Bengal into Pakistan, the TMC only sees red in this attempt. The TMC along with the Left and Congress plead for shunning of religious division and do celebrate the emergence of a subcontinental diaspora of Bengali identity in what Mamata Banerjee named as 'Biswa Banga", the world Bengali. In opposition to such unity pitch, Dilip Ghosh's cryptic response on TMC's outsider charge points to Shahrukh Khan, the brand ambassador of Bengal, in whose case, TMC did not think of him as an outsider only because of Shahrukh's religion, as per Ghosh's mock. Triggering small doses of aversion in the minds of ordinary voters is a scheme of the foot-in-the-door policy of veiled reference to a soft target religious group by connecting it to TMC's alleged minority appeasement. This is how attempts to tickle the dilettante on religious lines that Bengal's literati finds as 'copy and paste' from the anti-minority brand of electoral politics is worked out. The sly nature of tongue-wagging between political rivals to making each other move away as electoral blocs goes deep down into triggering a divisive and debasing chasm within Bengal's splendidly tolerant public culture of religions. Bengal's legacy of enlightenment, educational and cultural refinement and well-meaning public morality of liberal tolerance suffers both the majoritarian and minoritarian vitriol that entirely banks on the deployment of carefully selected stereotypes that can offend the sentiments of each other.
Both the Left and the TMC play to the gallery by remaining checkmated by toxic propaganda that is churned out in the media and give a run to the opposition for their pie in this slippery slope of othering. In turn, the BJP does not miss out on the humour of exposing the pseudo-secular face of the
parties like Left, Congress and the TMC who never speak against a particular religious group.
The campaign painting the minority as the root of all victimisation of the majority Bengali Hindus resulted in distancing of the minorities from the parties they would traditionally support. As such distancing did not at all reduce toxic campaign in religious lines, the religious minority Bengali Muslims are engaged in a community introspection to find a way out of being maligned in this generalised story of victimisation. For majority Bengali Hindus, especially for the gentry of bhadraloks, who love to wait and watch such communal muckrake think-aloud ways and means of keeping Bengal's political culture free of the communal virus. In small talks, popularly known as 'addas', there is a shared concern about the arrival of forces like Owaisi led AIMIM and a host of saffron outfits just before the all-important assembly election. The concern is to keep Bengal out of this mutual response and counter-response between communal forces as there is a substantive silent majority from both communities who would not subscribe to such forces.
TMC's plank of reaching out to the grassroots with its socially productive cash benefit transfer for various sections of weaker and poor is largely able to thwart the initial moves made by divisive forces. As TMC remains insurmountable under the leadership of Mamata Banerjee, opponents look for chink in her armour by constructing issues of victimisation of the majority by an apparently aggressive religious minority in Bengal's backyard. Such an aggravated apprehension can be compounded anytime by a pre-ordained narrative of displacement of Namasudra Motua community commonly stereotyped as "refugees" and/or "displaced from their land". Both these put together construct a perpetually victimised identity of 'soronarthi-udbastu', which assumes the form of the painful memory of displaced Bengali Hindus from East Bengal who took refuge in Bengal. The concern for re-victimisation runs deep through Motuas alluding to 'soronarthi-udbastu' as the marker of their vulnerability. In the electoral marketplace, such a narrative of vulnerability becomes a staple for blaming the demography of Bengali religious minorities of present Bengal, even though most of the Motuas are already voters in Bengal, have MLAs and MPs from among them, yet the fear of being displaced again returns with a radical penchant.
The pre-existing discourse of refugeehood is now weaponised into a fearful othering as persecutors get a new trigger in the much-debated CAA that pricks up a stigma of being a refugee and displaced in not so a distant past. In such an atmosphere, it becomes quite easy to devise electoral ploys to consolidate a religious majority vote bank from certain sections of Bengal's large underprivileged populace.
Incidents like rioting in Bhatpara and Tikiapara have directly brought the bad taste of communal polarisation with the non-Bengali working class from outside Bengal. Incidents like Bengali speaking people harassed by non-Bengalis also cuts into the divide. In such a contested context, ensuing Bengal election will see polarisation in terms of insider/outsider to which religious divide is going to be a pastry-icing. The saving grace is TMC's elaborate social security programmes that can partly vaccinate the free-floating communal virus. To what extent the communal virus shall dent TMC can only be known after the elections. Until then the communal virus slogs through a foot-in-the-door strategy.
The writer is a philosopher and political analyst based in Shillong. Views expressed are personal