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Communal Polarisation in West Bengal Reflects the Many Failures of Identity Politics

Recent events in the state show how easily social coalitions, which have been the hallmark of Bengal society for decades, can break down, with class-based issues being relegated.

Members of a right-wing group protest against the West Bengal communal clashes. Credit: PTI

Members of a right-wing group protest against the West Bengal communal clashes. Credit: PTI

Bengal was one of the two provinces, along with Punjab, that was partitioned on religious lines in 1947. The Partition was followed by largescale migration of Hindus and Muslims. A large number of Hindu families who were uprooted by the Partition and subsequent communal riots in East Bengal settled in the areas around Kolkata city in the districts of south Bengal, primarily in North and South 24 Parganas. The flow of Hindu migrants from East Pakistan (present day Bangladesh) continued well into the 1960s.

Syama Prasad Mukherjee, one of the founding members of the Bharatiya Jana Sangh, a charismatic leader and an excellent orator, was a MP from Calcutta South East, largely encompassing those areas inhabited by large number of refugees from East Pakistan. The situation in West Bengal remained extremely volatile and complex as a substantial Muslim population remained after deciding not to migrate to East Pakistan following Partition. With memories of horrific communal violence in Kolkata city (popularly known as the Great Calcutta Killings), the situation was extremely conducive for the Hindu right.

Class-based movements in West Bengal

Despite the conducive situation, the Hindu right failed to consolidate its support base among Hindu migrants from East Pakistan and the Hindu population in West Bengal. The cause for this was that success of the progressive forces in the state in mobilising substantial sections of the population on class-based issues in urban and rural areas.

In the urban areas, immediately after Partition, agitations were spearheaded by the Communist Party as well as other Left and progressive forces on issues related to food security; against efforts to increase second class tram fares; on providing ownership rights over land (patta) to refugees from East Bengal in settlement areas; and in demand of better emoluments for teachers.

In rural areas, the movement was primarily against landlordism and to enhance food security for the rural poor. These movements set off new courses in West Bengal polity in two ways – the emergence of the Left, particularly the CPI, as the main opposition to the ruling Congress party with an alternative sets of policies; and the dominance of class-based politics and the relegation of identity-based politics, which had dominated the polity of (undivided) Bengal for most of the pre-independence period.

However, the primary focus on class-based politics did not prove to be a hindrance in the formation of larger social coalitions of oppressed identities, particularly between Dalits and Muslims, against exploitative and oppressive landlordism in rural areas of West Bengal. This was made possible largely due to the intersectionality that exists between these social and economic classes like rural labourers, small, poor, marginal peasants and a section of middle peasants. The model was successful in maintaining communal and social amity in a political context characterised by extreme communal volatility and polarisation.

As a result, except for 1964 and 1992, there were no communal violence in Kolkata city, and there was practically none till 2013 in the rural areas of the state.

Emergence of TMC and resurgence of identity politics

The victory of the Trinamool Congress (TMC) in the 2009 parliamentary elections, followed by its historic victory in the 2011 assembly polls, marked a new era in the West Bengal polity. Significantly, the rise of the TMC was largely on account of class-based mobilisations following the Left Front government’s faulty and disastrous land acquisition programmes in Singur and Nandigram.

Agitations led by TMC supremo Mamata Banerjee enabled the party to cover newer grounds among the deprived social and economic classes like Dalits and Muslims, who until then had by and large been with the Left. The poor in urban and rural areas, Hindus and Muslims alike, began to see Banerjee and the TMC as their saviour and ally. However, all of these turned out to be a stopgap measures by Banerjee and her party.

No sooner did her party become dominant, than she fell back on the Congress brand of identity politics. Massive hoardings of the TMC supremo offering prayers can be seen in Muslim dominated areas of the city. The state government’s decision to providing monetary and other benefits to imams, ban immersion of Durga idols after Dussehra last year, and open support to triple talaq are some manifestations of the TMC’s identity-based politics.

West Bengal chief minister and Trinamool Congress supremo Mamata Banerjee with party leaders. Credit: PTI

West Bengal chief minister and Trinamool Congress supremo Mamata Banerjee with party leaders. Credit: PTI

The ruling party relied more on religious symbols, religious leaders and assertions of religious identities as symbols of empowerment of Muslims. Issues like farmer suicides, loss of land for the Muslims and other socially deprived sections, and the general deepening of agrarian crisis in which Muslims, Dalits and adivasis were majorly affected in rural Bengal, were brushed aside as minor incidents.

Instead of empowering the Muslims (and other deprived sections), economically and socially, they are treated more as a vote bank to win elections. The implicit understanding is that Muslims are homogenous entities who vote en-bloc for any party irrespective of their economic positions and contexts, and their political and social opinions are largely controlled by some dominant religious leaders and influenced by religious symbols. But this has proved to be wrong, historically, not only in West Bengal but in the nation as a whole.

Emergence of Hindu right

The national political scenario underwent a rapid change with the formation of NDA government under the leadership of Narendra Modi in 2014. The absence of a credible opposition at the national level had eroded the liberal space in the domestic polity. Attacks on Dalits and Muslims across India increased, almost becoming a regular affair. Largescale communal rioting had given way to localised mob lynching in the name of cow protection, and these evinced muted responses from an opposition that is divided and scam-tainted.

The strengthening of Hindu right nationally had its fallouts on the political space in West Bengal, which is a matter of grave concern for its secular polity since: (a) more than 25% of the population is Muslim, one of the highest in the country, (b) it is one of the few states in India in which cow slaughter is legal, and (c) it shares a large international border with Bangladesh, which lately has been witnessing radical Islamic insurgency. Thus, the dominance of communal politics in West Bengal has implications in neighbouring Bangladesh and vice versa.

-Wire

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