Bengal Election Can Leave Society Fractured Like Never Before

The caste-community-religion based politics will intensify in West Bengal as the poll fever rises. 

5 min read
The caste-community-religion based politics will intensify as the poll fever rises in West Bengal.

Hundreds of couples are getting married on a sunny winter afternoon amidst much fanfare, including tribal dance and music. People have gathered to witness the mass marriage event and suddenly get to enjoy a moment to cherish. The Bengal chief minister, Mamata Banerjee, impromptu joins a group of tribal ladies to dance to the tunes of dhamsa and madal.

The tribal mass marriage was organised by the West Bengal government in Falakata in Alipurduar district in North Bengal on 2 February 2021. Chief Minister was present to shower blessings on the newly married couples and hand over gifts to them. In addition, she joined the dancing ladies.

Mamata’s Transformation from Didi to Shrewd CM

15 years ago, such gesture by Mamata Banerjee would have been considered natural. She has always been a 'people's leader' and didi (elder sister), to be precise, to all. Mixing with the people in the crowd, chatting with the common people, rushing to a disturbed area to the rescue of the victims — she has done it all in a didi-like manner. Her connect with the people was unparallel.

However, ahead of the 2021 assembly elections in the state, many, especially the opposition, are drawing various conclusions out of the chief minister’s gesture.

Some consider it as wooing the Adivasi, ST voters in the North Bengal, who did not elect any TMC parliamentarian in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. Some say she has been targeting 84 out of 294 assembly constituencies dominated by the SC and ST communities. Some believe that the mass marriage organised by the government is an attempt to resist the conversion of the tribals to Hindu religion. Earlier, in the name of the mass wedding, Vishwa Hindu Parishad and some other fringe organisations have allegedly carried out a ‘conversion’ drive.

Bengal Politics’ Turn Towards ‘Identity’ Vote Bank

A state, where a decade ago the discussion used to generally revolve around the economic rights, industrialisation, forceful farmland grabbing by the government, employment generation, and atrocities of 34-year Left rule, has taken a sharp turn towards the polarised identity politics in 2021. Apart from the Hindu-Muslim binary, there are discussions among the politicians, poll-pundits and journalists over which caste, tribe and community will favour Didi or Modi in the upcoming assembly elections.

West Bengal might have boasted its progressive, caste-less Leftist politics for decades. The situation has completely changed in the last couple of years.

Both the TMC and the BJP leaders are openly talking about pockets of vote-bank. While the Muslims and Matuas were already in the parties’ radars, now the Rajbangshis, Gorkhas, Limbu, Lepchas, Adivasis (Santhals, Kurmis, are dominating ones), other STs SCs, and OBCs have entered the fray. Mamata Banerjee government have formed more than ten separate development boards for these tribes and communities.

There has been a sudden surge in Muslim identity politics as well. A cleric, Abbas Siddiqui has announced Indian Secular Front to consolidate the Muslims and Dalits in Bengal. Asaduddin Owaisi's AIMIM has joined hand with Abbas. They claim there has not been much development of the community under Mamata’s rule and BJP is posing a threat.

Abbas Siddiqui in his office.
Abbas Siddiqui in his office.
(Photo: Ishadrita Lahiri/The Quint)

Communal and Caste tensions in West Bengal around India’s Independence

This kind of churning over identity-politics in Bengal was absent for long. Historically, Bengal has seen a rivalry between the Hindus and the Muslims in the years leading to independence in 1947. The fissures in the two communities grew during the colonial rule and intensified since the proposed partition of Bengal in 1905.

The animosity reached its culmination through the formation of Bengal provincial government (under 1935 Act) based on religiously-defined constituencies and later in 1946 Great Calcutta Killings – a bloody communal riot. Moreover, the partition of Bengal on religious line in 1947 and exodus of the Hindu refugees from the then East Pakistan after the partition created a fertile ground of polarised identity politics.

The caste-politics, too, had seen its growth with a Dalit leader, Jogendranath Mandal, trying to forge an alliance with the Muslims in the pre-independence Bengal to later become the only Hindu minister in Jinnah's government in Pakistan. He was disillusioned and returned to his homeland to lead a self-exiled life.

Jogendranath Mandal
Jogendranath Mandal
Image Courtesy: Wikipedia

The lack of Hindu Rightist or Dalit leadership in post-independence Bengal and with the Left taking up the opposition space, later the governance of the state defused the tension of identity-politics. They turned it into 'class-struggle' between the rich and the poor. The Left government empowered the rural poor through land reforms and revival of Panchayati Raj Institutions. However, they lost the plot soon.

The Left Could Not Eradicate Caste & Communal Animosities from Bengal

Eventually, the Left transformed the whole state into a party-society. The only identity that worked was political. Either you are 'Left' or 'Congress' or 'TMC' irrespective of your caste, tribe or religious identity.

Does it mean then the caste system or the religious animosity had vanished entirely from Bengal? No. While sporadic communal tensions existed, the caste too was deep-rooted among the Bengalis. If anyone goes through the matrimonial ads in the Bengali or Kolkata-based newspapers, one will know the deep-rooted caste system's presence in the state. The Left had just ignored it to replace the caste division with class.

In the wake of the anti-land-acquisition movement and with the publication of the Sachar Committee report on the Muslims' status, it was Mamata Banerjee who started overtly exploiting the Muslim vote bank. She did the same with the Matuas. After the 2019 Lok Sabha election debacles, she has now concentrated on dealing with the SC, ST, OBC and Adivasi vote bank separately.

Interestingly, the BJP has been trumping Mamata in her own game.

How BJP is Beating Mamata in Her Own Game

The 2019 Lok Sabha elections showed the saffron camp reaped the benefits of their fringe organisations' grassroots-level work. Vanavasi Kalyan Ashram has been organising mass marriages for the last 15 years and working among the tribal populations through its Ekal Vidyalaya for decades.

Another organisation, Sree Hari Satsang, has been organising religious functions among the Adivasis of the North Bengal. RSS has been penetrating among the Matuas for long. Moreover, various fact-finding reports showed, BJP has been mobilising the Hindi-speaking OBCs against the Urdu-speaking Muslims and Bengali speaking lower castes, and Matuas in the bordering districts against the Bangladeshi Muslim infiltrators.

There is a fundamental difference between the identity politics of Mamata and the BJP. The saffron camp has a long-term goal of assimilating all these castes and the Adivasis into the fold of Sanatan Hindu religion. Whereas Mamata is looking at short-term electoral goals without any strong ideological foundation.

The caste-community-religion based politics will intensify as the poll fever rises in West Bengal. Whichever way the state goes, the scars of socially fractured Bengal is going to stay forever.

Cover of Sambit Pal’s latest book: ‘The Bengal Conundrum: The Rise of the BJP and the Future of the TMC’ published by Bloomsbury India.
Cover of Sambit Pal’s latest book: ‘The Bengal Conundrum: The Rise of the BJP and the Future of the TMC’ published by Bloomsbury India.
Photo Credit: Bloomsbury India

(Sambit Pal is the author of a recently published book ‘The Bengal Conundrum: The Rise of the BJP and the Future of the TMC, Bloomsbury India’. He tweets This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same)

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