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OP-ED: Why is BJP ‘discoing’ with Bengal’s pre-independence icons?

  • Published at 01:19 am March 14th, 2021
Deshbandhu Chittaranjan Das
Deshbandhu Chittaranjan Das was one of the key architects of the Swadeshi movement COLLECTED

Deshbandhu Chittaranjan Das was the antithesis of what the BJP stands for

“I am a proud Bengali. Don’t forget that we celebrate Deshbandhu Chittaranjan Das’s 150th birth anniversary this year. Don’t forget Rani Rashmoni and Vidyasagar. They were all proud Bengalis.” 

These were Mithun Chakraborty’s fervent words at the Brigade Grounds in Calcutta, on March 7, where he was formally anointed into the ranks of the Bharatiya Janata Party. The BJP’s juggernaut of appropriating Bengali pre-independence icons rolled on in bespoke fashion in the run-up to the West Bengal assembly elections, slated for next month.

The BJP has been desperate to throttle the “Bohiragoto Party” (outsider party) image and by invoking Deshbandhu Chittaranjan Das, Rani Rashmoni, and Ishwarchandra Vidyasagar in seriatim, Mithun Da and the party seem eager to give much-needed fillip to the “insider” party narrative, teeming with Bengali pride, perhaps as a final attempt to make inroads into an issue that has been a proverbial cul de sac for their campaign right from the get-go. 

The insider-outsider debate had been a hot potato since 2015, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi decided to declassify files apropos Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose’s death from the national archives. It reached a heated crescendo before the 2019 Lok Sabha polls when Ishwarchandra Vidyanagar’s bust was vandalized in a college in Calcutta, during a clash between TMC and BJP party workers. Both parties have exchanged barbs on who was responsible for the incident and who really held the cultural reins of Bengal, ever since. Evidently, that is a reason why the iconic reformer found mention in Mithun’s Brigade speech.

However, more interestingly, does the notable mention of Deshbandhu Chittaranjan Das on his 150th year of birth allude to a clear move to usurp another stalwart of the Indian National Congress? There are a few reasons why this is palpable.

Perhaps a lesser-known fact of Netaji’s life from mainstream accounts is that Deshbandhu was Netaji’s political guru. Netaji and his brother were deeply inspired by his opposition to the partition of Bengal and his role as one of the key architects of the Swadeshi movement. Netaji, along with other students, had famously sought advice from Deshbandhu at his dinner table during an incident that involved the manhandling of Professor EF Oaten, for which he was later expelled from Presidency College. Their relationship cemented into one of mentor and protege in the following years when Netaji left to study at Cambridge University. It is widely believed that Netaji’s decision to leave England and return to India was greatly shaped by Deshbandhu’s counsel and patriotism. 

A Bose family memoir written by the late Shishir Bose (Netaji’s nephew) recounts how he wept inconsolably for days in his prison cell in Burma on receiving word of Deshbandhu’s untimely demise in 1925. After Deshbandhu’s death, Netaji was very close to Basanti Devi (Deshbandhu’s widow) and even gave her the titular respect of “Ma.”

Deshbandhu’s connection with present-day Bangladesh is of crucial importance. Although he was born in Calcutta, Deshbandhu’s family hailed from Bikrampur (now in Bangladesh). His contribution during the partition of Bengal in 1905 and its aftermath had vastly shaped society in pre-independence Bengal till his demise. Deshbandhu is not only fondly remembered by generations of “epar Bangali” (originally from West Bengal) but also by “opar Bengalis” (settlers from East Pakistan) who settled in the state after 1971, with a significant Muslim demographic. 

It would augur well for the BJP to pay obeisance to Deshbandhu in a subtle effort to woo the perceived opar Bangla vote, which accounts for almost 30 million voters and includes the much-talked-about Mathua community vote. This could swing up to 20% of the West Bengal poll fortunes.

While the BJP thrives on being the champion of lost causes, a natural sequitur to hijacking Netaji’s legacy would be to repackage the significance of Deshbandhu, both in the context of his being Netaji’s mentor and political guru and having a strong sentimental connect with the Bengali voters who still deeply value his contributions to a then undivided Bengal and its society.

As a nationalist and patriot, he earned the title by giving away most of his professional wealth for the Swadeshi movement, which included his house in the Bhowanipore area of Calcutta. This was later turned into a government cancer hospital and still runs as one today. Is this the nationalism the BJP is willing to practice today? 

What Deshbandhu envisaged for Bengal is entirely the antithesis of what the BJP envisages for West Bengal in 2021. But when has that stopped the BJP from forcing common ground when there is none?

Ayan Chanda Ray is the great-great grandson of Deshbandhu CR Das, an advocate of the Calcutta High Court, and a political enthusiast.