“A spectre haunts Bengal—the spectre of …”
Once upon a time, not too long ago, it was ridiculous to hope that this (in)famous statement could be completed by words other than “communism”. After the initial promise of bodol (change) turned into bodla (revenge) under the Trinamool Congress (TMC), the state today reverberates with aggressive chants of “Jai Sri Ram”. The cry has served the purpose of the mythical “Chi-Ching Phank” (Open Sesame) with which the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has opened the gates of Bengal. However, Calcutta remains unimpressed by Narendra Modi. In fact, the erstwhile capital of colonial India and the districts that surround it have saved the TMC from a total rout.
The saffron quake brought tectonic shifts in the north and the west of the state. The districts in the hills and those in the plateau have welcomed the prime minister. But Calcutta still swears by “cholbe na (doesn’t work)”. Led by apparatchik intellectuals, it seems to share the idea that the BJP is the harbinger of bloodshed in Bengal. It has been two weeks since the election results were announced and yet arson, blast, extortion and murder continue unabated in the simmering state.
Violence is a symptom of rival undercurrents in the social body that peak periodically. It is in many ways “the midwife of change”. So violence may be undesirable but it is inevitable. Like most social phenomena, violence too is multi-dimensional. The present rush of ferocity in Bengal has roots in communalism, security, culture and economy.
Even the somniloquist critic of the BJP—usually the Leftist bhadralok—will concede that the TMC aces communal card-play. In fact, the only solace for the red remainder in Bengal is a remixed lullaby: “what CPI(M) did yesterday, TMC does it today”. The CPI(M) provided logistical support to Bangladeshi infiltrators so that they could vote in India. It also profiled ideal infiltrators who Bengal would like to indulge. Islamists were welcome but heretics like Taslima Nasrin were not. Despite several raps by the judiciary, the TMC has remained undeterred in the pursuit of policy bias for Islamists in Bengal. State stipends for ulemas and postponement of Durga immersion due to Muharram are the foremost howlers. In return, the party has managed to turn nearly 25 per cent of the population, including infiltrators, into a loyal clientele. The relation between the TMC and the Islamists in Bengal is that of a crude give-and-take. In fact, after the election, the party president and chief minister had little hesitation in asserting that she will continue to bear the kicks of the cow which gives her milk.
Bengal has one of the highest population densities in the world. With a stagnant economy, the state cannot afford illegal immigrants to claim the little that is somehow rationed by the many. Besides such threat to economic security, the alien population in Bengal poses danger to physical security too. An ominous China in the north, a failed Pakistan in the west, a shell shocked Sri Lanka in the south—neighbours of India hardly inspire confidence. Faith-based zealotry in Bangladesh, under the political patronage of the likes of Khaleda Zia, also tides and ebbs. Those who feign immunity to such menace can either afford to wake up late for their bed tea (as an unabashed TMC leader admitted) or they are well-heeled employees of the “rights” industry. The latter think little about reciprocal obligations towards the state and kiss over “state is a conspiracy” at after-protest parties.
The vanguards of culture in Bengal, the bhadralok, cannot fathom how Ram has stormed into Bengal. Fellows of this anglophone coterie are surprised that the BJP could spread Jai Sri Ram in a society which has no apparent history of devotion to this avatar of Vishnu. But the rise of Ram is not that hard to explain. Sanatan Dharma, known as Hinduism in postcolonial India, nurtures the tradition of multiple authors in religious thought. It allows great reflexivity which makes it a congregation of diverse thoughts. This is not poststructuralism imported from France via translation stopovers in the USA. This is live poststructuralism.
Macaulay’s Calcutta must pay heed to the political history of Sanatan Dharma in Bengal and realise that the public festival of Durga Puja is not an age-old practice. Shakti Puja in this form is about two centuries old and emerged in response to the British Raj. The benign form of Shakti as Durga fit the political project of Swaraj more than the fierce form of Shakti as Kali. The latter would have risked an ethno-centric backlash from the “civilising missionaries”. But the children of Thomas Macaulay do not reflect upon this history. Even the colonial proponent of the “Minute on Indian Education” (1835) would not have imagined that his success will remain relevant in 2019. Macaulay had said: “… all the historical information which has been collected from all the books written in the Sanskrit language is less valuable than what may be found in the most paltry abridgements [sic] used at preparatory schools in England … We must at present do our best to form a class who may be interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern – a class of persons Indian in blood and colour, but English in tastes, in opinions, in morals and in intellect.”
If Durga was called upon to inspire strength in the fight against the British, Ram is summoned today to oppose a Stalinist state which has zero respect for democratic liberties such as a virtual ban on the film Bhobisyotter Bhut or persecution of those who chant Jai Sri Ram. The victorious symbol of Ram helps to clutch the iron gloves.
It is equally absurd that the bhadralok should be aghast at the damage done to a statue of Ishwarchandra Vidyasagar in the midst of an election rally in Kolkata. A pundit of the 19th century, he is remembered for the simplification of the native system of the alphabet in Bengal. That Vidyasagar was a foremost scholar of Sanskrit is forgotten because it is apparently a “scriptural” language and so should have no place in “secular” India. But it was his mastery over Sanskrit that allowed Vidyasagar to reinterpret the textual tradition and advocate widow remarriage even in the face of severe opposition from orthodox sections of Hindu society. Such a quest for the empowerment of women is in the hearse today. The bhadralok ignored the persecution of Ishrat Jahan, a petitioner in the triple-talaq case, even before she had joined the BJP. When the spirit of Vidyasagar is already killed, why shed tears over his bust?
Bengal is a bullock-cart economy. Even a decade back, it was possible to blinker people who labour. But today, social media has brought before them scenes of greener pastures from the global economy. Aspirations have shot up and people want more than a meagre bowl of fish-rice. The TMC has failed to address the inevitable change that has struck “production relations” in the society of Bengal. Such change is a result of a revolution in production technologies that constitute the economic domain of an interconnected world. So it is hard to simply wish it away. Like the regimental CPI(M), the TMC has strengthened an informal economy where loyalty is the only currency. But such a defensive economy can only reward a few. As a consequence, the yokes can no longer contain ambitions which now run and hit hither-tither.
A deliberately under-industrialised state looks forward to competing for prosperity. Newly-elected BJP MP from Hoogli Locket Chatterjee has already promised to revive industrialisation in the historic site of Singur. Come 2021, Bengal will vote for those who give the youth economic opportunity and not moralistic pills which are way past their expiry date.