Garga Chatterjee in his article in The Hindu (A dangerous connivance dated 6th April 2013) writes on the rise of Muslim fundamentalists’ asserting their political identity in Bengal’s politics. He goes on to ‘blame both sides equally’, saying the Trinamool Congress is overtly sponsoring the fundies and the Left is no less guilty for its silence. And he concludes the two are in a dangerous connivance which goes against the legacy of Bengal’s politics. Events that unfolded over the past few years leave us no ground for disagreeing with his summary of angst against all guilty parties. But one who has kept abreast of political talk in Bengal will know that similar statements have been repeatedly made the Left itself which says Mamata Banerjee is actively setting a dangerous precedent in Bengal and trying to communalise the atmosphere.
Even while we note that Chatterjee does not break new ground for us; since the Left is “equally” guilty we may take its statements to be a petty matter and concede that we have little grounds to disagree with summary of Bengali politics.
However we can add to the points which Chatterjee has chosen to talk about and broaden the grounds of the discussion.
Rise and rise of identity politics
The Constitution and the proceedings of the Constituent Assembly show, the founding fathers recognised the deep divisions existing among the various identities (including those based on class and not just social/linguistic/religious) of India and framed our laws with a spirit of agreement of the various identities to coexist, share power and abide by mutually agreed norms, laws and guidelines; without treading too much on each other’s toes. Some visionaries like Nehru and EMS even ventured to explore the question of the many nations that lived within the Indian nation state.
But instead of following through with the vision, the first 50 years were spent by the ruling Centrists hammering the identities to uniformity. Whether by imposing Hindi, the promotion of Bollywood as the de facto cultural identity, giving preferential treatment to certain regions at the cost of others, or by a host of might-is-right practices, they ensured the agreement stands betrayed and the national question messy and unanswered.
Things became progressively worse. Rioters were given impunity, people who carry out terrorist attacks in the name of identity were never caught or punished, mass murderers became demagogues with ease. Until this day when Indian politics is identified by the trait that anybody with ample money and muscle can get away with anything – from raping women on public transport (and assailing their gender identity), killing couples who love and get married (for disowning their caste/gotra identity), thrashing people who speak a different tongue (linguistic identity), banning books, vandalising art, threatening artists and what not.
Moreover every day the sedentary courts, corrupt legislative and insular executive all work towards discouraging democratic participation leaving, more often than not, violent politics as the only way to assert one’s self and be heard.
Little wonder that today not just the traditionally strong armed bullies of Indian politics, but every other regional party, identity group, caste etc. is taking to assertive identity politics.
For example when the member of a Dalit Party attacked Suhas Palshikar for offending his Dalit sentiments by including a cartoon lampooning Babasheb, progressive sections of the academia were taken aback. Unlike Maratha parties, Dalit parties of Maharashtra do not have much of a history of being bullies. Moreover ironically, the Dalits have themselves traditionally been severe victims of strong armed politics that uses hurt sentiments as a ruse to brutalise offenders. But looking at Jhajjar burnings, Tamil Nadu temple episodes, Khairlanji and others, is it not true that even today powerful castes can get away with the worst of atrocities on those below them? One look at the dismal figures of charges framed under the Atrocities Act will show how these identities have had little mentionable recourse through law and therefore are scrambling to get counted.
Something very similar is true of the victims of Mumbai 1992 and Gujarat 2002. The democratic has repeatedly failed to provide wronged identities with recourse to justice and is progressively forcing them to explore other means.
Even those who are entirely outside the ambit of vote bank politics, the Maoists, have little option but to cater to identities. If in Bihar their cadres are killing each other over Yadav-lower caste lines, in Maharashtra they are taking shelter from seclusion and State fire power in raising a militarist and militant Dalit identity.
In short, mainly due to internal dynamics, identity politics in India is steadily rising.
Why would one expect Bengal to remain unaffected?
Spoils of Divisive Power
Coming more specifically to Bengal, it will be worthwhile to recall two important episodes which were central to the political poriborton that ousted the Left and put the TMC in its place.
Sample this line – “A thousand Hindu residents of Nandigram were praying and Muslims were doing their Namaaz when the attack took place”. Though for this essay the line has been copied from (of all places) a rationalist website, variants of the above will be found populating an array of fact finding reports and blog posts coming from the anti-Left coalition and dealing with the Nandigram land acquisition and firing episode.
The other episode was of the young man called Rizwanur who had killed himself – or was killed – at the rail tracks following a love story gone sour. The chief minister’s and then police chief’s public involvement in the poor ‘Muslim’ boy’s death was a firm nail in the Left’s coffin.
For this essay we do not go into enquiries about the exact details of the two episodes and taking them to be true as stated.
But the obvious question is, what was the need to mention their religion? Villagers, fired upon and killed by a brutal government out to take their lands by force, is outrageous by itself. Where is the need for us to know their religion or whether they were praying or offering namaaz? If a boy of modest means has fallen in love with a rich girl and their love story’s been lethally soured by an unsure girl, a heavy handed father and a for-hire police force, is there any need to know his religion to feel sad for him?
Though the Sachar committee report does not single out the Left in failing to uplift Muslims, but its release came at a time that was just right for the opposition. It robbed the Left of any credit it may have shored up as despite having a sizeable Muslim population it was able to run a riot free state for over three decades and thus not allowing for severe religious polarisation as was seen following the 1992 Mumbai riots and 2002 Gujarat riots. Or for that matter introducing English, bringing computer education to and modernising madrassas unlike anywhere in India and bringing them under regulatory authority and thereby stemming them from becoming seminaries of hate. The report and the manner in which it was reported ensured that Idris Ali and a host of other Muslim leaders belonging to the anti-Left coalition and agitated effectively against the Left.
During the pre-election time not just the Muslims, other identities too demanded their pound of flesh. The Hindu supremacist BJP has made some inroads – partly owing to the sheer chaos that is Bengal politics but partly because hate and exclusivity of one sort breeds it of every other sort. Bimal Gurung became the knight in shining armour for the Nepali nation in the Darjeeling hills, a myriad other groups sprung everywhere extending from the Dooars foothills below it to tribal belts in the South. Even fringe loonies of Bengal politics like the Amra Bangali chauvinists got space in the anti-Left jamboree.
Fact is, from ‘Gandhian’ Medha Patkar, to ‘radical left’ Naxalite on to Right wingers, the power of identity politics weren’t unknown to the people who had converged to oust the Left. Clichéd as it may be, divide and rule works superbly and it didn’t fail this time either and the Left lost.
Even though the Left Front won for seven straight tenures without making appeals to caste or religion, the tide of identity politics and religious polarisation swamped it.
In Delhi too, the secular third front, torpedoed by the regional parties, kept failing and took the Left down with it.
For obvious reasons the Left is, as of today, apprehensive.
The Class Identity
We cannot understand the problems of extreme identity politics if we look at West Bengal and Bangladesh in isolation of our world order. Thanks to the US-NATO led global wars, persecution of the Muslim nations is a reality all around us. Even if those who use that as the fertile ground for breeding Islamist hate politics are a dishonest lot, it is an honest fact that the Muslim identity is under attack the world over and just being Muslim is often enough to invite unforeseen persecution.
When looking back for answers about who started the trouble, will we only blame the children who went to madrassas and learnt the hate by rote or will we also point fingers at the liberals who got busy building the neo-liberal world order leaving the natives and their children to fester in impoverishment? Will we ignore the stark reality that poverty is a direct precursor to identity base polarisation?
Sadly there is a section of the Indian educated classes who place their loyalties unquestioningly at the altar of the superrich and dissociate themselves from, and at times even despise, the humdrum masses. Now the mike of mass media is firmly in these hands and a good amount of polarisation emanates from it. We could ask why they choose to paint and propagate the extremes. We could also suspect their intentions and conclude that by pitting the extremes we are kept distracted so their crony masters can work in peace. A quick test would be to measure how much print space and TV time was allocated in the past two years to news about religious terrorism and how much was given to exploring the role of corporates in scams, land and resource grabbing by private companies.
Also a good number of the educated classes, not just Indian but also Bangladeshi, take the first flight out their wretched lands. Away from harsh realities and the dirt of the ground, surrounded by a life of opulence and peace they earn money and form ideas about how their native countries should ideally be run. Some of them choose sides and send back money and ideas. As the history of US dollars funding Hindu hate and Saudi petro dollars funding Muslim hate proves, attempts by such people to mould their native lands according to fancies, divorced of the subjectivity of ground realities, leads to disastrous results.