Deep Halder appreciates the pressing need of poll junkies to keep themselves up-to-date, or rather one-up over their adda members in the countdown to the Bengal polls, and has come out with a brief overview of the state’s politics. Of course, the common issues are covered- the promises of development-employment-quotas, election sops, Sarada-Narada-Rose Valley, Syndicate, Amphaan, Covid, CAA, NRC, Tollywood, defections and infighting; but Halder’s “booklet, not quite a tome”, has quite a bit more to offer.
It would hurt the Bangla pride to consider these Assembly polls as anything less than most crucial, defining, nay momentous, in the history of the state, and the country. It would not help the ratings either, which explains the media frenzy. Ever since Raja Ram Mohan Roy held a public dinner to celebrate the victory of bourgeoisie forces in Spain, Bengal has hitched its wagon to the world, and only geographically to India. “When Bengal sneezes, the rest of the country catches cold”, “What Bengal thinks today, the rest of India thinks/does tomorrow”, “Clive sought and found the key to India in Bengal” – the author goes into the roots of this Bengali pride, and analyses if there is anything special or exclusive about Bengaliana?
Bengaliana means energy in life, argument, sharing happiness through food, festivals, poetry, songs and football. It is about earning enough to have two square meals a day and not running after wealth. It means simple living and high thinking. It can also mean arguing endlessly about something which one has no idea about, lampooning wealth creation and falling in love with the high notions of oneself and one’s ‘superior’ culture.
Bengal venerates Vivekananda, Tagore, Bose and Satyajit Ray. But contrary to what the rest of the country might believe, Bengalis never gave up on Bankim and Shyama Prasad Mukherjee. Bengal bore Partition, communal riots and huge influx of immigrants from across the border between 1946 and 1972. When Hindus are tortured in Bangladesh, Bengal also feels the pain. The state has seen massive demographic changes with consequent appeasement of the minorities by the ruling parties. All these factors, and some others, have kept alive the flame of the Right in Bengal, despite the Leftist attempts to extinguish it. If Bengal was where the Naxalbari began in 1967, it also hosted the Hindu Homeland Movement in 1947.
The threat to ‘Bengal identity’ from a “North Indian Hindi-speaking Cow-belt based” party, with stronger views on religion and nationalism, is being raised. “Know this state before you dream of winning it.” “Do they even have a full-fledged party structure in Bengal? They do not have cadres or leaders. Or is it just a loose collection of disgruntled, rejected turncoats? How come the largest party in the world does not find enough candidates of its own to field?” But didn’t this hold true for the ruling party when it was coming up? Has the TMC now been thinned down by defections, or is perhaps more streamlined for take-off? The Leftists had tried similar tricks during the Singur-Nandigram agitations, by blaming the ‘outsiders’ for formenting trouble. And how miserably had they failed! Prashant Kishore, despite being an outsider, has exerted enormous influence in drawing TMC’s election strategy. These elections might just expose the hollowness of this ‘outsider’ ploy.
Bengal holds Shri Shri Harichand Thakur (1812-78), in special regard. He mobilised the so-called Chandals, and gave them the name of Poornabrahman. He checked the conversion of Dalit youth into Islam by teaching syncretism of Vaishnavism, pre-Vedic Kaumaddharma and Sahajiya Buddhism. His followers, the Matuas, or the Namshudras, constitute about 18 percent of the state’s population, and influence six Lok Sabha and sixty Vidhan Sabha seats. They are in significant numbers in Bangladesh too, and quite a large number of them have migrated to India since 1946. In India, the Matua Headquarters are at Thakurnagar,70 km NE to Kolkata. After independence, Pramath Ranjan Thakur, worked for political awakening of Matuas, and used to bitterly complain about the betrayal by Nehru in resettling of SC refugees in India. The community blessed TMC in 2009, but before the 2019 polls, the PM visited the matriarch Boroma, w/o Pramath Ranjan Thakur, great grandson of Harichand Thakur, and secured her support by promising to pass the CAA. Shantanu Thakur is now the BJP MP from Bangaon. The PM recently visited Orakandi in Gopalganj (Bangladesh), which is a Matua shrine. The Matua vote will be a big factor in these elections.
Halder also touches upon the abiding legacies of Upendranath Bandopadhyay, Gopal Patha (Mukherjee) and Jogendranath Mondal. Upendranath did a long time in Kalapani for his involvement in the Alipore Bomb case, later assisted Savarkar, then joined Shyama Babu and wrote the Autography of an Exile. Gopal Patha, a Brahmin butcher, stood up for Hindus when they were being massacred in Bowbazar in August 1946. “We will not lay down even a nail if it has been used for defending Hindu honour”. JN Mondal, on the other hand, tried to play an ambassador of Dalit-Muslim Unity, went to Pakistan and became Jinnah’s Law minister. But soon he discovered the hollowness of this alliance, and returned to India as a disillusioned man. Subsequently, Mondal fought many elections, but lost all of them.
Deep Halder has analysed various caste, religious, class, and historical aspects of Bengal’s politics. But he has not discussed the politics of the Hills or talked about the demographic imbalance in Malda, Murshidabad and Dinajpur. That said, neither has Deep tried to call the elections one way or the other, neither am I hazarding any guesses!
Bengalis, especially the Bhadralok, brush caste under the carpet. All CMs, so far, have been from the so-called upper castes (even PC Ghosh was a Kayastha, not from the BC). OBC quotas have been implemented to the detriment of Hindu backwards, Muslim BCs cornering a major share of this pie. Matuas/Namshudras were shabbily resettled, many sent to Dandakaranya against their will, and generally allowed to rot. To hide this, the ruling classes of Bengal, especially the upper caste Communists hid behind class. The inherent contradiction between Bhadralok and Chotulok was touted to explain away the caste discrimination.
The Bhadralok Bengalis, the chattering class, turned a blind eye towards Marichjhapi because the victims happened to the Dalits. That no probe, nor investigation was carried out into Marichjhapi or Bijon Setu killings, never bothered them. Bengali Liberals are shallow enough to point out beef-eating, holding azaan in Durga pandals, and building a Durga Pandal in Mohammad Ali Park as evidences of tolerance and harmony in Bengal. These apologists of appeasement, and enablers of migration consider it an economic issue, not a communal one. Bhadralok are class-biased, caste conscious, and carry narrow regional stereotypes, but hide behind secular, cosmopolitan and intellectual veneer.
The Bhadralok are essentially upper caste, and are known by the books they read, the films they watch, cultural magazines they subscribe, the cult references they drop, and the universality of their moorings. Communist-supporting bhadralok used to deride Didi as a thike ji (maid), but after she came to power, she began to project her painting, singing, writing and poetry to shore up her credentials. She even published Ajob Chokra (Nonsense Poems) to be taken seriously by the snobs.
The communal question is alive and burning in Bengal. How much impact would Furfura Sharif’s Peerzada Siddique and MIM’s Owaisi have on the polls? Would they cut into the TMC vote? Does the majority resent the systemic appeasement of minorities? Would the late temple runs and Chandi Path renditions save the day? Can politicians pit Ram against Durga and get away with it?
Deep Halder touches upon Lalu Alam’s stabbing of Mamata in 1990, thrashing in 1997, the quite forgotten Marichjhapi massacre of Namasdhuras in 1979, the Bijon Setu killings of Anand Margis in 1982, Nandigram and Singur massacres, Deganga riots in North 24 Pargana in 2010, and violent agitations against Taslima Nasreen’s stay in India to remind the readers of the violent Leftist past. During her first term, Didi entered the Bhowanipur Police Station in 2011, and forced the police to release two youths who had been detained for hooliganism. Later she also dubbed the Park Street rape case as ‘fabricated’. On 30-3-2013, sixteen Islamic organizations held a public meeting at the Maidan and protested against the War Crimes’ trial being held in Bangladesh. TMC, Left and the Congress tacitly supported this nonsense. The burning of a police station in Malda, and the denial of Bisorjon in 2017 are also cited as examples of law and order condition under the TMC rule.
That Didi is still the biggest brand in Bengal cannot be denied. That Modi is immensely popular is beyond dispute. Lack of a CM face might hurt the BJP. Media used to speculate on the names of Sourav Ganguly, or Swami Kripakarananda, or Mithun Chakroborty, but all that turned out to be lame speculation. Mukul Roy is embroiled in cases, Subhendu Adhikari has just landed, Tathagat Roy is not a grassroot politician, Babul Supriyo does not enjoy connect, Rahul Sinha lacks charisma and Dilip Ghosh, the strongest contender being an RSS old-timer and belonging to the OBC, is too gaffe-prone.
The massacre at Nandigram and Singur agitation had damaged the Left. Situation has now changed even in Singur. Because of the construction of Durgapur Highway and the craze for warehousing, land rates are touching skies. Many farmers now wish to sell their lands, and to welcome industry. Bengal wants to rebuild.
“Double Engine ki Sarkar” seems like an appealing promise. But a lot would depend on how Bengal rates the performance of the Centre, and how deprived do the locals feel because of the non-implementation of Central schemes for farmers and health. That Bengal deserves and craves for a New Deal is not in doubt. Question is does the challenger have anything worthwhile to offer?
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