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In uncharted waters

  • Published at 04:32 am July 12th, 2018
What’s going on in West Bengal? / BIGSTOCK

Is West Bengal about to see more social unrest?

West Bengal has a special place in the hearts of Bangladeshis. It is because of the language and culture they share. Of course, there are some mutual suspicions and the baggage of Partition as well. West Bengal significantly influences Bangladesh-India relations, after all.

In India, and to its sub-regional neighbours, West Bengal has its own identity, or it did until recently. It is known to be the most liberal, enlightened, and cultured province of India. West Bengalis are both hailed and mocked for their intellect. It’s one of the three states out of 29 that has a long history of communist rule, and hardly has had any political presence of the Hindu right.

Things are changing, however.

Despite its relatively liberal socio-political and cultural fabric, in reality, West Bengal is Hindu -- not in the BJP-RSS sense -- Bengal in the way Bangladesh is the Muslim Bengal. Bengali Hindus are highly dominant in West Bengal.

There is a sizeable Bengali Muslim population in West Bengal who are mostly highly marginalized peasants and labourers. There hasn’t been much discussion about them in West Bengali public discourse since independence, unfortunately.

There is a unique sentiment among a large section of West Bengali Hindus: They were a little less than half of the population of the undivided Bengal during pre-partition India, but were overwhelmingly dominant socially and economically -- thanks to their early collaboration with British colonizers.

The creation of Pakistan and Bangladesh’s subsequent independence created a bigger domain for Bengali Muslims, and Hindus were almost disappointed at that prospect. Ever since then, West Bengal became a much smaller, leftover Bengali “Hindudom” which they cling on to still, sadly. 

Bengali Muslims have hardly had any place in that.

Hence, Mamata Banerjee’s recent reaching out to the sizable Muslim base in her state, not in any intelligent manner though, and offering them a voice. A prospect which seems to have shaken the comfort of a large section of Bengali Hindus in West Bengal. 

Partition-time and post-Partition demographic changes were different in the two Bengals. Both the pull and push factors of migration were at work. Almost every Muslim elite in West Bengal migrated to the East, leaving the rest of the community leaderless for decades.

Historian Jaya Chatterjee’s research shows that West Bengali Muslims were so economically handicapped that they could not afford the cost of migration. But the same wasn’t the case for the vast middle and lower middle class Hindus of the East.

They migrated for the pull factor or the mix of pull and push. For the poor it was mostly push. Communal riots, Hindu disharmony along caste lines, and vulnerability in terms of strength thereof, vis-a-vis Muslims, were also significant factors.

Moreover, the Pakistan movement in this part of the sub-continent was largely about playing socio-economic catch up by Bengali Muslims. That required the creation of vacancies, and hence the disproportionately privileged Hindus found themselves in the line of fire after 1947. 

We cannot forget how Bangladesh’s failure to provide enough safety to its declining Hindu population is creating backlash among West Bengali Hindus. 

The modern-day Bangla language and culture are mostly the gifts of Bengali Hindus with Kolkata as its centre. Bengali Hinduism is also substantially different from Hindustani Hinduism. But the sense of insecurity is pushing some of them into alliance with the otherwise culturally-inferior North Indians.

Tapan Gosh, leader of Hindu Songhoti -- a Bengali-Hindu social outfit -- and his disciples reach out at every place where there is Hindu-Muslim tension in West Bengal and fight for the Hindu cause. He has a strange version of history and has even declared something close to a war on Islam and Muslims across the globe.

However, Bengali Hindu pride or the Bengali pride cannot be bent so easily in West Bengal. An organization has sprung out of the grassroots level called “Bangla Pokkho” who call for Hindu-Muslim unity in Bengal to prevent a saffron invasion through engineered communal riots.

A long bout of communist rule has inarguably stagnated West Bengal’s economy. Consequently, BJP, with its communal agendas, has been on the rise in West Bengal, although clearly not possessing much of a challenge to Mamata.

Some rightful Muslim political assertion has been long overdue in West Bengal, especially in the context of their wretched socio-economic circumstances. It’s important that the region does not get into the hands of the mullahs. To that end, liberal and secular Muslims ought to take the lead.

The Saffron brigade is campaigning hard, trying to create a bubble of fear within Hindu minds and create a North India-like divisive Hindu consolidation. If they are successful and Mamata fails, even more social unrest might ensue in West Bengal. 

Sarwar Jahan Chowdhury is a contributor to the Dhaka Tribune.