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Bengal Has a Saffron Past — Here is its ‘Hindutva History’

‘Bharat Mata’, ‘Hindutva’, ‘Bande Mataram’ are all Made in Bengal. Here’s looking back at Bengal’s saffron past.

Updated
Opinion
4 min read
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With the eight-phase Bengal assembly elections fast approaching, and the BJP hot on the heels of Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, it becomes even more important to understand the socio-political context and history of the state.

Even more so given that the Hindu right wing party has managed to make deep inroads into the state that was once a Left bastion.

Mamata Banerjee and her party, the incumbent Trinamool Congress (TMC), have been up against the Hindutva brigade and Hindu nationalism, with its rallying cry being that the BJP is an ‘outsider party’. But ironically, the very ideology she and her party are up against, has its roots in Bengal.

Indeed, be it Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay’s ‘Bande Mataram’ — that’s now a popular war cry among the Hindutva brigade — or the notion of ‘Bharat Mata’, or even the very word ‘Hindutva’ — these are all Made in Bengal.

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19th Century Bengal’s Bid to Offset Western Influence

In fact, Bande Mataram — both the slogan and Chattopadhyay’s song — have been appropriated today by the BJP and its leadership. At a 27 June 2018 event in Bengal, Amit Shah had called the iconic song “an expression of India’s national revivalism. Our nationalism is cultural nationalism and Bankim Chandra is the fountainhead.”

While the idea of Hindutva and its foundation was introduced in iconic Bengali literature such as Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay’s ‘Anandamath’ (1882), the first recorded use of the word ‘Hindutva’ is believed to have been in Chandra Nath Basu’s eponymous book released in 1892. However, it was VInayak Damodar Savarkar who lent the term cultural currency.

Further, as author and political commentator Snigdhendu Bhattacharya notes in his book Mission Bengal: A Saffron Experiment, “the origin of the notion that Hindus are in danger – the principal reason that led to the creation of right-wing Hindutva organisations – can also be traced back to Bengal.”

Reminding Mamata Banerjee of the BJP’s Bengali roots, Union Minister Nitin Gadkari had said earlier in March, at a rally in Bengal’s Purulia district, “Mamata calls the BJP an ‘outsider party’, but the Jan Sangh, based on the ideals of which the saffron party was formed, was founded by Bengal's son Syama Prasad Mookerjee.”

While the North — the Hindi-speaking belt — appears to be the bastion of Hindu nationalism today, more so due to the Ram Janmabhoomi issue, before Partition, the roots of Hindu nationalism were planted in Bengal by the state’s intelligentsia – the likes of not only Bankim Chandra, but also Swami Vivekananda.

What triggered this ‘Hindu wave’ in the Bengal of the mid-19th and early 20th centuries? It was an anti-colonial reaction; a counter to offset the sway of Western education and values.

The Rise & Rise of BJP — and What it Means for Bengal & Mamata

Since 2014, the rise and rise of not only the Modi-Shah duo but their party, the BJP, itself has been apparent, in that it’s been steadily chipping away at traditional vote banks of their opponents in other states while strengthening its cadres in non-traditional regions. The long shadow being cast by the saffron party on Bengal is unsurprising.

In the 2019 general elections the BJP won 18 out of 42 seats in the TMC-ruled state by gaining 40.25 percent votes – this is no small feat especially in a multi-party democratic structure. Between 2014 and 2019, the BJP has taken over nine states while in the Opposition benches, among its biggest victories being Uttar Pradesh.

While key opinion polls are mostly tilted towards the TMC, it is reasonable to believe that at the very least, the BJP is going to emerge as the chief opposition in Bengal, further rendering an already-spiritless CPI(M) to the point of oblivion.

Given these trends, it becomes more significant for Mamata Banerjee and the TMC to perhaps change tack, focus on their own achievements and improvements than fight the BJP on the ‘outsider vs insider’ trope. It is also with the understanding that the incumbent in Bengal cannot afford to be seen as an ‘anti-Hindu’ party, pitted against the saffron juggernaut, Mamata Banerjee has recently been seen reciting from Sanskrit shlokas at public gatherings.

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Bengal, ‘Bharat Mata’ & the Way Forward

Appealing to Hindu sentiments in Bengal, Union Home Minister Amit Shah, addressing a rally in February 2021, assured that ‘after winning the assembly elections’, his party would ensure that the Gangasagar Mela — an annual attraction for Hindus in the state — makes it to the world map, and is internationalised.

But let us look at another ‘Hindu mela’ from Bengal’s past. The ‘jatiyo mela’ (national fair) or the Hindu Mela, was first organised in 1867 by Rabindranath Tagore’s father Debendranath Tagore and his associates poet-playwright-editor Nabagopal Mitra and essayist Rajnarayan Basu. What declared the fair open? A paean to Bharat Mata, composed by Rabindranath Tagore’s elder brother Dwijendranath.

Even the BJP’s ideological parent, the RSS, has its roots in Bengal.

Its founder, KB Hedgewar, was hugely influenced by Bengali nationalists during his time as a medical student in Calcutta. His successor MS Gowalkar’s understanding of Hindu nationalism — drawing on ‘service and renunciation’ — also has its bearings in Ramakrishna Mission Math in Belur, Bengal, where he spent some time. Even if one looks back at the recent past, who can forget PM Modi’s controversial visit to the Belur Math in 2015?

Given its ‘saffron’ past, can one say that what is happening today in poll-bound Bengal is not just a desire for a ‘real’ opposition to the incumbent TMC — which is currently facing anti-incumbency after a decade-long rule — but also, in a sense, ‘Hindu consolidation’?

Is Bengal finally coming to terms with its past, and can the BJP achieve its goal of fulfilling that so-called 'Hindu aspiration'?

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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