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Understanding the BJP's rise in Bengal

By Mohammad Sajjad
June 14, 2019 19:19 IST
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Many anticipate that by the 2021 assembly elections in West Bengal, the BJP may come to power, says Mohammad Sajjad.

IMAGE: Bharatiya Janata Party supporters in Kolkata. Photograph: Rupak De Chowdhuri/Reuters

As a fallout of the Lok Sabha elections 2019, with each passing day, news of political conflicts, degenerating into hate and violence, is coming in from West Bengal.

We are reminded of the Bengal of the 1940s. Then, the 'third' party, the British, was in power whose phantom, competitive communalisms was devouring India.

Did it have something to do with the political and economic rise of certain groups, then, as it could possibly be, now? Perhaps, yes.

The Lok Sabha elections, 2019, saw a sharp rise in the BJP's tally even in West Bengal. It won 18 out of 42 seats with a very high percentage of votes (40.23% as against 17.02% in 2014).

Many anticipate that by the 2021 assembly elections in West Bengal, the BJP may come to power, thereby replacing incumbent Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee.

A meticulous study by the historian Joya Chatterjee's Bengal Divided (1995) could be of great help in providing us with a comparative understanding about the 1940s with that of today.

Chatterjee argues that the (second) partition of Bengal, in 1947, was preceded by organised agitations, demanding vivisection of the province by both Bhadralok (Hindus).


Having swallowed up the regional agrarian outfit, the Krishak Praja Party of A K Fazlul Haque (1873-1962), the Muslim League had already become stridently separatist!

Chatterjee goes on to explain why and how the Bhadralok shifted from 'nationalism' to 'communalism'.

They derived inspiration from Hindu revivalist ideologies, which shifted their emphasis from anti-British to an anti-Muslim posture.

In response to the McDonald Award, the Poona Pact (1932) between Gandhi and Ambedkar, 'reduced high caste Hindus to a small minority in a (Legislative) House which they had always expected to dominate'.

To add to the woes of the Bhadralok (absentee landlords), owing to the economic Depression of the 1930s, the 'sudden and dramatic collapse of agrarian prices and of rural credit placed a tremendous strain upon the system of rent and debt collection that was the mainstay of rentier incomes in Bengal.'

'The rapid decline of the rentiers to extract dues worked to the advantage of more prosperous tenants who were frequently Muslims'.

This newfound affluence of the new rural elites, the Muslims, fetched them franchise (voting rights) as per the Act of 1935.

'They were supported by the restless Muslim intelligentsia'.

In 1909, under the separate electorates, there were 46 Hindu seats against 39 Muslim seats in the provincial legislature.

In the 1930s, the total number of Muslim seats went up to 117, as against 80 for the caste Hindus, and 30 seats for the Depressed Classes (Dalits), after the Poona Pact.

Thus, both Dalits and Muslims were able to make their presence in the legislature, outnumbering the Bhadraloks.

IMAGE: West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee at her Save the Constitution dharna in Kolkata in February. Photograph: ANI Photo

Political Rise of Muslims and Hindu Consolidation, 1937-1947

Already during the 1930s, the Bhadraloks were alarmed at the rising representation of Muslims in the Union, Local and District Boards, as also in the School Boards.

For instance, in Burdwan, Howrah, 24 Pargana, and Midnapore, Muslim representation rose up rather faster.

The hold of educated Hindus over local politics was getting less secure every year.

In Barasat and Basirhat, the Muslim membership was touching 50%.

Little and trivial issues could degenerate into a communal fracas.

Qurbani was seen as a symbol of rising status and greater political influence of Muslims.

The general perception was made about the Bengal of the 1930s that against the 'tyranny of Muslim rule', a Hindu unity had to achieved.

Bhadraloks tried to countenance it by attempting to create a united 'Hindu' polity through different tactics including Shudhi 'which sought to find a place for the lower castes and tribals into a Hindu community'.

Chatterjee further says, 'a large number of Hindus of Bengal, backed up by the Congress and the Hindu Mahasabha, campaigned intensively in 1947 for the partition of Bengal and for the creation of a separate Hindu province that would remain inside the Indian Union'.

By that time the 'Bengal Congress came to present an unequivocally Hindu profile, the political differences between it and the Hindu Mahasabha became difficult for the untutored eye to discern'.

In the elections of 1936-1937, the Hindu votes had split between the Congress and the Independents. Hence, it could win only 48 out of 80 general seats.

In 1945-1946, the Congress won 71 general seats and 15 special seats.

Chatterjee clarifies that this convincing Congress victory in 1945-1946 was not a vote for secular nationalism or against Hindu communalism.

Rather, Hindu electorates were convinced that the Bengal Congress was committed to protect Hindu interests more effectively than the Hindu Mahasabha.

The two cooperated with each other 'through electoral understanding in different constituencies'.

Otherwise, the Hindu Mahasabha had aligned with the Muslim League. Its chief Syama Prasad Mookerjee was the finance minister of the province in the ministry headed by Fazlul Haque during 1941-1943.

This League-Mahasabha coalition came about despite the fact that Fazlul Haque had mooted the proposal of 'Pakistan' at Lahore on March 23, 1940.

This coalition in 1941 was as unlikely thing to have actually happened as is the reports that a section of Left votes went to the BJP in 2019!

By the 1940s, Hindu volunteer groups proliferated in Calcutta and beyond. The Hindu Sakti Sangha, a wing of the Hindu Mahasabha, had branches, membership, sound financial base, etc.

Intelligence reports testify the possession and use of firearms 'mobilising large sections of the Hindu bhadralok youth of Calcutta and the mofussil towns behind the communal ideology and politics of the Hindu Mahasabha and the Hinduised Congress" of the 1940s.'

After the War (1945), the demobilised military 'were induced to procure firearms and ammunitions for Hindu communal organisations'.

By the end of 1946, the 'Bengal Partition League' was established by them, the declared object of which was to demand a separate province in the districts of West Bengal to safeguard Hindu interests where they were in a majority.

IMAGE: Prime Minister Narendra Damodardas Modi campaigns in Jalpaiguri. Photograph: PTI Photo

In May 1947, the Congress and the Hindu Mahasabha jointly convened a mammoth public meeting in Calcutta to press for Partition which was presided over by the historian Sir Jadunath Sarkar (1870-1958).

More Congress-Mahasabha joint rallies were held in other towns such as Hooghly, Howrah, 24 Parganas, Burdwan.

The resolutions adopted in these meetings, to divide Bengal, were not submitted to Syama Prasad Mookerjee (1901-1953), but to the Congress.

Of 76 such meetings, at least 59 were held by the Congress, independently of the Mahasabha.

Scheduled Caste Hindus from Barasat, in 24 Parganas, in Burdwan, the Yadav Mahasabha of Khulna, tribes of Jalpaiguri and Darjeeling, etc, demanded partition of the province.

These were the districts where the Hindu Mahasabha's shudhi programme had been undertaken with vigour.

Chatterjee then finally concludes that the partition of Bengal in 1947 'was the considered choice of large and powerful sections of the Hindu population. When push came to shove, Bhadralok Hindus preferred to carve up Bengal rather than to accept the indignity of being ruled by Muslims'.

Political Rise of Muslim Communities and Saffron Mobilizations, the 2010s

Just as in the last decade of colonial Bengal, in the current decade (2010s) as well, one sees a perceptible Muslim rise in West Bengal not only in the Muslim concentration districts in northern parts, but also in other parts of the province..

Muslims constitute over 27% of the West Bengal population. Muslim representation in the rural and urban local bodies has been rising.

Though a precise data collection is awaited for West Bengal, in the 2018 elections for rural local bodies, the TMC regime is alleged to have coercively silenced the Opposition. In Bihar (external link) as well as in Uttar Pradesh (external link), 'Muslim Resurgence' in local bodies, is quite noticeable.

Additionally, newfound affluence of Muslims through remittance from the Gulf countries and its investment in education, local trading as also in local bodies' elections, the affluence getting reflected in public spaces through attractive architectures of masjids, and public display of religio-cultural festivities, as a marker of identity-assertion, etc, are becoming an eyesore for increasingly greater number of Hindus.

Moreover, since September 2010, almost 86% of the Muslim population of West Bengal are listed as OBCs; 49 communities as 'Backward', and rest four communities as 'More Backward'.

With this, the Muslim share in public employment, and in educational/academic spaces, have become quite visible (external link).

The ruling TMC is seen by its political opponents as extending favours to the Muslims.

Thus, an old bogey of 'Muslim appeasement', propagated by the saffron forces (external link), is getting renewed political salience.

It gets credence because of Mamata's collusion with Muslim clerics.

The Mastans get political patronage of the governing Trinamool Congress.

According to Sumanta Banerjee, it 'stands for the local gangster -- who has emerged as a hero in West Bengal's towns and villages, worshipped by inhabitants out of a combination of fear and patron-client relationship.'

The joint concept of Mamata and mastan played a major role in the Trinamool Congress's electoral triumph, in the assembly elections in 2016.

Along with these measures, Banerjee further adds, 'she (Mamata) seduced the unemployed youth in villages and towns by distributing money among them, in the name of funding their clubs.'

'Numerous clubs -- that get financial aid and other benefits from the Trinamool patrons -- have sprung up in cities, mofussil towns and villages.'

'These unemployed young people were encouraged by her party to emerge as mastans'.

In a saffronised Hindu perception, such politically patronised hoodlums are mostly Muslims.

Unfortunately the National Election Studies, CSDS-Lokniti and other academics and journalists appear to be ignoring such instances of 'Muslim resurgence' as a possible factor behind majoritarian consolidation in favour of BJP.

Now, the BJP is said to have entered West Bengal with its own huge resources, outsmarting the TMC in winning over unemployed youth, of course along the Hindu-Muslim binary.

It is now reported to be funding Durga Puja celebrations. In the northern districts of West Bengal, where Muslim concentration is relatively higher, the BJP has been mobilising Dalits and tribes, quite a lot of whom are immigrants (sharanarthi; whereas, for Muslims, a pejoratively disabling term is used, ghuspaithiya --infiltrators; even native Muslims would be accused of this) from those parts of Bengal which now comprise Bangladesh.

The Namashudras and a specific component of this community, Matua Mahasangh, have particularly been mobilised by the BJP to a considerable extent.

Till a couple of years ago, their sizeable chunk was with the TMC.

As many as two constituencies -- Ranaghat and Bongaon -- in the districts of North 24 Pargana and Nadia, with a dominant Matua population, have been won by the BJP.

The BJP also achieved as many as three out of a total of eight assembly seats in the by-elections this time around, namely, Habibpur (Malda), Krishnaganj (Nadia) and Bhatpara (North 24 Parganas).

During the 1940s too, the Rajbansi community, which lived mainly in the North Bengal districts of Rangpur, Dinajpur, Jalpaiguri and the princely state of Cooch Behar, were mobilised by the Congress-Mahasabha duo.

Of the Dalits, while 'one group under Jogendra Nath Mandal (1904-1968) and the All India Scheduled Castes Federation opposed Partition and ironically aligned with the Muslim League, and stood behind the demand for United Bengal, Radhanath Das, P R Thakur and others of the Scheduled Caste League, who were from the eastern parts of Bengal, preferred to retain their ties with greater India and aligned with the Congress-Hindu Mahasabha combine', say Sekhar Bandyopadhyaya and Anasua Basu Ray Chaudhury, in their recent research essay (Studies in History, 2017).

A data analysis based on the assembly segments, gives an impression, that this election in West Bengal (external link) was most polarised along Hindu-Muslim lines.

There are a total of 294 assembly seats. Of these, 125 seats have got 20% and more Muslims.

Out of these 125, the TMC took a huge lead in 93 assembly segments in the Lok Sabha election. In 23 assembly segments, the BJP took a clear lead.

This testifies unprecedented communal polarisation, comparable only with the 1945-1946 elections.

In the last three years (2016-2019), there were sudden spike in communal violence across West Bengal -- in Chandernagore, Hajinagar in Naihati, Dhulagarh in Howrah, Asansol-Raniganj, Chanchol in Malda and Basirhat.

The BJP and its affiliates have since long been carrying out social services, particularly in health and education sectors, among Dalits and tribes in various parts of India, as demonstrated in Tariq Thachil's book Elite Parties, Poor Voters: How Social Services Win Votes in India.

The challenge before the TMC lies in winning over the Dalits and tribes, through populist measures in the relevant districts, while retaining the support of the Bhadraloks and also shedding an image of Muslim appeasement.

These are no easy tasks in the face of the BJP's dominant and aggressive majoritarianism.

Muslims on their part need to lie low both as a matter of conviction for plural co-existence as well as for tactical reasons.

They need to be overcautious and tactically restrained in observing some of their religio-cultural festivities.

The history of communal polarisation of 1945-1947 seems to be repeating itself, not as a farce, but as a colossal tragedy in West Bengal today!

Can it be resisted successfully?

Professor Mohammad Sajjad teaches history at the Centre of Advanced Study in History, Aligarh Muslim University.

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Mohammad Sajjad