Politics in West Bengal: A Brilliant Farce

Photo: The Economic Times

By Hirak Dasgupta

I spent a whole night laughing after they rejigged the BJP leadership in West Bengal a couple of days ago. And why not! It is now almost entirely composed of the renegades from Trinamool Congress, the party they intend to demolish in the 2021 Bengal elections.  Needless to say the build-up to the elections is going to be a gala time for voters and party workers alike! The question that hangs in every thinking man’s mind now is: “Which is what?” Are we going to vote for the Bharatita Trinamool Party or the Trinamool Janata Congress? And then there is the third player, the erstwhile juggernaut Left Front, which seems to be quickly taking on a hue of saffron from the symbolic red. But can we blame them for a change of shade? They have been left out in the sun way too long and are thus sun-bleached. This parody sadly represents the socio-political backdrop of West Bengal now. The electoral choices for the people of India have never been easy. While they have eagerly exercised their suffrage whenever asked, they have always had to choose the least of the devils on the list. Then they have vainly sought the fragments of their gods in the elected men and women. But the problem in Bengal is complicated.

“Colours of the setting sun on ocean waters and on leaves of autumn trees change faster than you can imagine. The colours of processions too change faster than our likes and dislikes for leaders of the masses.”

My city Durgapur is a perfect microcosm of West Bengal, and a dipstick test of the socio-political complexities of this city reveals the true pathogen in Bengal – insidious casteism. It was the winter of ’89, I guess. My dad was just back from one of the Red Flag marches of the CPI(M), the mighty Communist Party of India (Marxist), the main stakeholder of the erstwhile Left Front Government. An entire day spent under the oblique rays of the winter sun did little more than put a tan on my father’s fair skin. He was boisterous as usual, boasting of the prowess of his party and the universal appeal of the colour Red. “Our blood is Red, and so is the colour of Revolution!” he gloated hurling a clenched fist towards the heavens. Red was in vogue. Their contingent had begun the march-past from the football ground overlooking the A-Zone Horse-shoe Market party office and snaked its way through the narrow allies of the suburban villages and colonies all through the day. While these villages are ancient in their existence, and populated by the black skinned Bauri tribesmen, the colonies have always been the strongholds of the burly Bihari milkmen. Durgapur owes her endless supply of housemaids to the Bauri villagers. The Menakas and Pius, flocking in to the countless company quarters in the mornings ever since they were built in these parts sixty years ago, have witnessed the birth and death of the biggest leaders and fraudsters the city has known. But our ingrained racial hatred still makes us look down upon them as subaltern humans – filthy, smelly “Negroes” worthy of little more than shanties and refuse. Yet they helped shape the Hindutva of Bengal since antiquity.

The pantheon of Bengal is a shared one – a bouquet of “Aryan” and “non-Aryan” deities. But as with the dubious Aryan invasion and migration theories it is very difficult to draw a line between what gods came here with the North Indian settlers and what gods existed among the local tribes before their lands were invaded by these settlers from the North. Skin tone became a marker of social class after the arrival of the North-men. Apartheid was in full bloom and the local tribesmen with their sombre skin tones were relegated to the lowest rung of the Hindu society here. Things didn’t change for them even with the Muslim conquests in Bengal. No one would give them their due place! Since the time of the great rift between the Shaktas and the Vaishnavas, Bengali Hindus have sworn in the name of Kali or Krishna. Kali owes her origins to the “non-Aryan” races; the Bauris being one of them. Yet they seem to have lost their claim to worshiping their female deity ever since Kali was integrated as a form of Durga. The Bauris were granted the right to call themselves Kshatriyas though. This elevation among other tribes at the hands of the Brahmin landlords was a stratagem. This way the Zamindars could easily harness the loyalty of a warrior clan and often pit them against other rebellious tribes. The Bauris still carry the title Khetrapal, a marker of their Kshatriya lineage.

By the late eighties the Indian National Congress was all but history in the state of West Bengal. Indira Gandhi’s declaration of emergency, the brutal quelling of dissident students, License Raj and a host of other factors had seeded the collective Bengali consciousness with abhorrence for the Congress. It is probably a chronic illness of the party to become impertinent from time to time. Dad was a small time leader of some sort in the local CPI(M) wing. His exact role and function isn’t clear to me till now. But he had once been in direct contact with some of the headmen at Alimuddin Street. It was pretty unusual for an officer in the ranks of the DSP to partake in active politics. For a political party founded on labour rights agitation the officer class was a pariah. Dad had been warned a number of times by his superiors at the Steel Plant about his political inclinations. But Red was in vogue and an unstoppable force at that. Dad’s troop had one Bauri and one Bihari man – both key figures – and none were atheists. The communist prudes would shun them from their community anytime! Tapas Khetrapal, the self-styled Kshatriya warrior and – if he was to be believed – the scion of one of the mighty centurions of the erstwhile Mahishadal fiefdom, was an enigma. He was proud of his supposed Kshatriya lineage, worshipped Kali and yet was a believer of Marxism. It was from him that I had come to know for the first time that Bauris were all Kshatriyas by Varna or caste.

Many years later, when I asked dad why the communist party leaders had allowed such open casteism to prevail under their noses, he said, “Well we needed the Bauri vote bank and we indulged them. That special feeling in calling oneself a Kshatriya was their own way of fighting the racial discrimination they faced at the hands of the Upper Caste Bengalis. They felt good about it and we made them feel special. A general aversion to education is their character trait. They were not going to become Communist theorists any way!” I was outraged by these remarks coming from my father. I began to question his motives. Now when I think about it, it becomes increasingly clear to me that the Hindutva trick was being played very cautiously in a subtle manner back in those times. You let a tribesman practice his brand of a particular faith and then give him a manifesto and some authority. You can bet on him to pull a large favourable crowd from his clan during elections. For the likes of Tapas Khetrapal, Hindutva was Red and not saffron, unlike in the case of Surendra Mishra, the Bihari leader in dad’s little troop. If you ever sit through the endless clanging of percussion instruments, rapping of dhols and the high pitched chorus of a group of Bihari village folk singing hymns in praise of Bajrangbali in a typical evening congregation you may be pardoned for feeling dizzy at first. The rustic art form, that it is, initially feels horribly monotonous, out of tune and too loud and cacophonous to be music. But it grows on you with time. A typical foggy winter evening setting, a minuscule temple with the saffron doused idol of the monkey god, one huge peepal tree and a dedicated group of devotees squeezing their lungs out and gyrating their heads with beats of the dhol – all this coupled with the smell of fresh baked chapattis and charcoal fire – make for quite an intense outing.

After a while you begin to understand bits and pieces of the hymns until you fall in love with the simplicity in them and especially the Bhojpuri language. They are very simple and straightforward in their offerings to the austere god. There is no hypocrisy in the messages, and the demand for a good life free of evil is never hidden surreptitiously in liturgical excesses. Simple verses as these and the monkey God Bajrangbali or Hanuman have served as the bridge between the Bengali Hindu and Bihari Hindu for a long time all across Durgapur. The two people – Bengalis and Biharis – have co-existed in my city since its inception. Both the people have lumbered on, cleared jungles, laid the foundations of the Steel Plant, and braved disease and longing for loved ones separated by hundreds of miles. Typical Bengali fish markets have existed alongside the peepal perches of Bajrangbali but never mingled to cause sacrilege. There was no offence to be given, none to be taken. So, when communism raged on in the allies and cul-de-sacs of Durgapur, there was no clash between the red of the Bengali young guns and the saffron of the Bihari traditionalists.

I would be lying if I said that our two clans always had truck loads of respect for each other. The Bengali Hindu and the Bihari Hindu have always found themselves quibbling on almost every aspect that defines the likes or dislikes of a people. While we, the Bengalis, have found the rusticity in them and the apparent thinness of their thoughts as gross, the Biharis have found us complicated and conniving to an equal measure. But that shouldn’t have been the case. After all, Hindutva is now conjectured to be the one common spinal cord that runs through every Hindu in the sub-continent! Quite interestingly though, the pantheons of the Hindus – separated by geography – vary as much as the languages. Save one or two thin tethers loosely stringing different Hindu clans together, the only similarity is perhaps the inclination to worship multiple deities. The different clans might as well have been proclaimed as different faith bearers altogether. Indeed these different belief systems have collided head on in the past spilling a lot of blood. Delving into all that is beyond the scope of this article. But the fact of the matter is that geography seemingly plays a much bigger role than religion. My dad’s Bihari comrade Surendra Mishra was in the Marxist contingent for the simple reason of representing Bihari Hindus in the State’s political scene. So, the Marxist force of Durgapur in their heyday was a loose alliance of factions. The intensely regimented format of the CPI(M) and the desperation among the party workers to stay relevant held everything in place. I can vouch this was the scene in every other corner of West Bengal back then. Only the factions varied in caste and ethnic constitution. When the big banyan tree finally fell, the fasteners were gone and the Pandora’s Box was opened!

When the All India Trinamool Congress finally came to power in West Bengal after much wrangling, even the biggest detractors of the new Chief Minister secretly praised her grit. She had literally conquered the Writer’s Building from the street up. I still remember the day the results were declared. Durgapur was painted green by her followers; an unusual sight to eyes that had been trained on an extravaganza of red. Almost overnight many communists jumped ship and began hobnobbing with people they had spurned the day before. The most fervent ones began to look for places to hide. My father was unabashed though. It was not only because of his brash nature but because he had been a popular face even among his rivals. They knew of his Congress lineage from his father and appreciated the fact that he had in him a mix of red and green. On the day of the symbolic desecration of his beloved party office, he was warned by young TMC party workers well in advance. My father spent an agonising couple of hours at home that evening and ran at night to see if the building still stood. It did stand with shattered windows, rummaged shelves and a gaping hole for a door.

But over these years it has become more and more obvious that Miss Mamata Banerjee’s party never really had any traction on the great multitude of clans in West Bengal. The carefully choreographed communist dance between the intelligentsia, the essential bourgeoisies, and the proletariats began to miss steps in Banerjee’s regime. The bridge between the thinkers and the proletariats has all but burnt down and the fickle bourgeoisies are an ominous threat to her now. The trick of the Left Front was not to take away religion from the masses and preach Marxism instead. They had successfully created a quasi religion, an odd mix of Marxism and theism. They had let people deify Marx, Lenin, and Stalin and put up their photos right beside the visage of Durga or Kali. The TMC did pull down the photos of the Marxist pantheon from the walls. But they failed to replace them with something worthwhile. The result was that every small-time leader began to create his own little power-centre within the party framework. Since the weight of years of socio-political studies was absent from the TMC’s manifesto, ways of handling such exceptions weren’t known to them. As Marx saw it, religion is the opium of the masses. And as I see it, they cannot survive without it either. Here in Durgapur, during the times of the Reds we would laugh at the lone warrior from the BJP, who would always contest in elections only to lose his security deposit. But from being a minor partner to the TMC, BJP has now become its nemesis in many ways.

Here in my hometown, the BJP is no longer a laughing stock. Over these years, from the times of the Left Front regime onwards, they have carefully studied the fabric of my city’s demography and have taken a dramatic approach. Those very rifts that the Reds were able to cunningly bridge with their quasi-religion have only been widened by the saffron hordes. They have dismantled the whole structure and created fractious elements out of it. The Bihari Hindu is now at loggerheads with the traditional fish-eating Bengali Hindu. The North Indian variety of Hinduism or Hindutva, as they love to call it, is being trained on the typical Bengali variety of the religion. The objective is to iron out the variety and steamroll everything into uniformity based on the RSS template of Hinduism. And what fancy name they have for it – Hindi-Hindu-Hindustan! Like the German origin Americans who fought for the Deutschland against their motherland in the Great War, some Bengali youth have found a reason to defenestrate Bengal’s own flavour of Hinduism. The castes have been ripped apart and each caste has been assured of proper representation in the Houses. Now you have a great multitude of belligerent factions with beguiling saffron men at their helms. The British art of divide and rule has been distilled into a mind-numbing drug. But in the recent times the major power source for the BJP in my hometown has been the turncoats from the TMC and unsurprisingly these are those very men who jumped ship when the Left Front fell. This makes for a very peculiar situation for the BJP. All this time they had been wanting to gobble up their principal rival. Now that they have begun to swallow up the men in green in large numbers, they are bloated and have a serious case of indigestion! The old BJP workers with roots in the RSS are irked. They look down upon these new recruits from the enemy as nothing more than mercenaries. They are like the Viking mercenaries in the army of King Egbert of Wessex. “Uninitiated goons!” as one RSS man known to me put it. I am reminded of a vampire movie where the dry old “pure-blooded” vampires deplore the human converts!

Lighting up a cigarette with a matchstick in the wind has ritual significance for me. It serves to bolster my ego as a hardcore smoker with no regard for my pair of air-sacks. Gobbling up West Bengal in the upcoming elections is the absolute dream of the current BJP leadership. It has ritual significance for them. It will serve to bolster the triumph of the resurgent, god-fearing bourgeoisie over the free thinkers of Bengal. Free thinking Bengalis are a wild bunch – anarchists, non-conformists, back talking antichrists in a true Hindu nation. The sooner they can be got rid of, the quicker a police state can be brought into being. After all what is Ramrajya if not a morally policed society! A few dissident specs like me here and there can be weeded out easily! But is it that easy?

Mr. Hirak Dasgupta is a writer, teacher, and columnist at The Times of India.


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