In this exclusive interview, Prof Partha Chatterjee, political scientist, former Director, Centre for Studies in Social Studies, Calcutta, and professor of anthropology, Columbia University, New York, in the United States, explains the historical importance of Hindu nationalist organisations in Bengal, why their influence waned after Independence and the consequences of the Bharatiya Janata Party coming to power in the state. The interview, conducted in Kolkata by independent journalist Dipanjan Sinha, was in Bengali and translated into English. In its audio-visual form, it was first broadcast on April 12, on the YouTube channel of Paranjoy Guha Thakurta (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tGFqXma9c60) and subsequently re-broadcast on April 15,by NewsClick (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XqMiSh8ooFc ).
DS: Until recently it used to be said that the ideology of BJP is incompatible with Bengal and Bengalis. Today, it is being claimed that BJP’s politics is very much a part of Bengal. So, how much of what’s being said is correct?
PC: According to BJP, the former member of the Hindu Mahasabh,a Shyama Prasad Mukherjee, formed the Jana Sangh (the BJP’s predecessor organisation) just before the 1951 (Lok Sabha) elections (the first in politically independent India). Many forget that after the death of (Mohandas Karamchand) Gandhi when Mukherjee was a Cabinet minister in (Jawaharlal) Nehru’s government, mass opinion (in the country) was against Hindu nationalists as some of them had a connection with the murder of Gandhi in January 1948. At that time, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) was banned.
Shyama Prasad Mukherjee was a Cabinet minister in Nehru’s government. There were ministers of different political persuasions in the Cabinet. At that time, the Hindu Mahasabha had not taken a firm stand on whether to support the Indian Constitution in its entirety. The RSS was totally against the Constitution of India. Its members did not want to support the Constitution. Shyama Prasad Mukherjee tried to soften the position of the Hindu Mahasabha but his attempt was not successful. Since he couldn’t do that, he decided to create a separate political party, the Bharatiya Jana Sangh (in 1951).
Those who looked after organisational matters of Jana Sangh were all from the RSS. Mukherjee passed away in 1953, soon after the formation of the Jana Sangh. Since then, the RSS, the Jana Sangh and later the BJP had almost no place in Bengal’s politics. Although before Independence, a number of prominent leaders of the Hindu Mahasabha were from Bengal. But after Independence, these organisations had no place in Bengal. Though in some pockets of Bengal, the shakhas (branches) of RSS were present but the organisations linked to it did not have mass support.
Why did Hindu nationalist organisations become so weak in Bengal?
There were two reasons for this. The Hindu Mahasabha had more influence before the Partition because the politics of Bengal was highly influenced then by communalism. During the period between the late-1930s till Independence (in 1947), we saw communal politics in Bengal. The Muslim League, on one hand, demanded Pakistan, while, on the other hand, the Congress took a middle position because the party didn’t want to lose its Muslim supporters. Hence, at that point of time, the Hindu Mahasabha provided a leadership to the Hindu communal movement that was pitted against Muslim communalism.
While before Independence, the Hindu Mahasabha had a strong influence on the politics of Bengal, the situation changed completely thereafter. After Partition, there was no separate political organisation for Muslims in Bengal, as most of the leaders of the community had moved to (East) Pakistan. Many of the Muslims who stayed back in West Bengal were farmers. They were located in districts like Malda, Murshidabad and Nadia, and are still there. Most of the middle-class Muslims who actively participated in politics went to Pakistan.
Thus, after Independence, communalism lost its importance and communal politics did not remain very strong. Instead, the movement to support the interests of refugees became a significant factor in the politics of Bengal. Refugee colonies had cropped up along the suburbs of Kolkata. The refugees demanded that they be provided legal documents that entitled them to the land on which they had already settled and built colonies that were not official refugee camps. This demand was the base of the movement which was led by the Leftists. Later on, most of these leaders moved (from the undivided Communist Party of India or CPI) to the CPIM) (Communist Party of India-Marxist) (after the party split).
The leaders of the khadyo andolan (the movement for food) of the 1960s and the CPI(M) came from the “refugee movement.” Kolkata-centric and middle-class-centric politics had no space for communalism. (Then onwards), various economic demands, protests by Naxalites (who were left of the CPI(M)) during the late 1960s, the movement among farmers… gained importance and took the place of communal politics in Bengal. The communists had by then divided into different groups like the CPI, the CPI(M) and the Naxalites, and these issues became more important in Bengal politics.
Several communal riots took place in Bengal in the 1950s. But the biggest one occurred in 1964. It was a communal riot that I personally experienced. I vividly remember how my Higher Secondary examinations got postponed because of Hindu-Muslim riots that took place simultaneously both in West Bengal and in East Pakistan. This was the last major communal riot in West Bengal.
When the proposal for Partition was accepted in March 1947, Shyama Prasad Mukherjee played a vital role. It was decided that Muslim-dominated provinces like Bengal and Punjab will come under Pakistan and the rest of the Hindu-dominated provinces will remain in India. According to this policy, Bengal and Punjab were going to be added to Pakistan. But in the first half of March 1947, the Sikh community of Punjab said that they didn’t want to go to Pakistan. They demanded that the Punjab province be partitioned, with the districts with a Muslim majority becoming part of Pakistan and the Hindu-Sikh majority remaining in India.
When the demand for the division of Punjab province was raised, Mukherjee, on behalf of the Hindu Mahasabha, demanded that Bengal too should get divided as Hindu Bengalis didn’t want to be part of Pakistan. But Sarat Chandra Bose and (Huseyn Shaheed) Suhrawardy (former Prime Minister of Bengal) resisted this move and demanded the formation of a United Bengal. They said Bengal will neither come under Pakistan nor under India. It will be an independent country.
This proposal was discussed for a few days but did not move forward. But a question arose as to what would happen to the Muslims of United Bengal if they wanted to go to Pakistan. When Mukherjee supported the idea of Partition, it was readily accepted. It was felt that was the right time for the partition of Bengal.
When this issue came up in the Bengal Assembly, most of its Hindu members including those belonging to the Congress, one or two communist members and most of the members belonging to the Scheduled Castes who were Hindu… all voted in favour of partition of Bengal. Therefore, Mukherjee played an important role in Bengal’s partition. When he put up this proposal, it made significant progress and most of the Hindus eventually accepted it. Afterwards, due to the absence of any Muslim separatist group in Bengal, including the Muslim League, Muslim communal politics came to an end in Bengal. Nowadays a claim is being made that Shyama Prasad Mukherjee is the Father of Bengal and this is because he was the person who demanded the partition of Bengal for the first time.
After such a long period, there has been a re-emergence of communal politics. How has this happened?
Recently, two issues have come up for discussion. The younger generation today does not have much of an idea about the trauma and the pain of Partition faced by the earlier generations. For this reason, they do not have any idea about the communal riots that had taken place in Bengal. So, a huge number of people are not realising why it is necessary to stand up against obnoxious attempts and activities to communalise politics in the state.
The second issue being raised by BJP is that of “outsiders,” meaning migrants from Bangladesh who are supposed to be coming to India in large numbers, that are not being reflected in the Census figures. Supporters of BJP are spreading rumours that the Muslim population in Bengal is growing by leaps and bounds and that in the near future, another partition is going to take place.
These claims are being made again and again in Assam and Bengal for the last 15-20 years. The “outsider” concept came from Assam to Bengal. The Bengali and the Muslim identity got intertwined in the ‘Bongal Kheda’ agitation. However, the reality is that the situation is very different in the two states. People from parts of Bangladesh like Rangpur and Mymensingh crossed the borders and settled in large parts of Assam. They cleared forests to cultivate land. This has gone on for the last century.
During the 1960s, the “remove Bengalis” movement gained momentum in Assam and at that juncture, the incidence of migration by Bengalis to Assam was the highest compared with the rest of the country. The cultural leaders and the political leaders of Assam were scared that after some years, the Assamese would become minorities in their own land and, in order to stop this, they stepped up the “remove Bengalis” movement in Assam.
It was a violent movement. Riots took place in the early 1960s. But it stopped as the leadership of the Congress, as an all-India political party, did not allow the hatred to spread.
Second, this anti-Bengali movement was also seen as anti-Muslim. The Congress did not want to lose the support of this huge number of voters. Around 90% of the new Bengali migrants to the Brahmaputra Valley, who were mainly farmers, were Muslim. In the Cachar area, however, the older Bengali-speaking migrants were Hindu.
Later on, the ethnic tussle between Assamese and Bengalis got converted into a conflict between “Indians” and “foreigners” that was sought to be portrayed as a national security issue in a border state. Later on, this movement was led by the All Assam Students Union or AASU that became the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP). All these movements were supposed to be against “foreigners” or “outsiders” illegal migrants from Bangladesh.
After Rajiv Gandhi came into power, an agreement was signed and the idea of having a Register of Citizens, that later was described as the NRC (National Register of Citizens) in its present form was sought to be put together in Assam, although that process has taken a long time. That time onwards, the process of identification of “foreigners” started, who had either to be deported or sent to detention camps and they would be denied the right to vote. This demand started from Assam.
During the political campaign to build the Ram temple at Ayodhya (that culminated in the demolition of the Babri mosque in December 1992), the BJP and the RSS claimed that as in Assam, a process would take place in the districts of Bengal like Malda, Murshidabad and Nadia, that border Bangladesh, to identify “foreigners” or illegal migrants. These claims sometimes got a lot of publicity while on other occasions, remained low key. However, over the last 10 years, the demand to identify illegal immigrants was raised many times. It became an important part of BJP’s campaign strategy, especially over the last three-four years. This is a reason for the rise of BJP in national politics.
Though it is said that this campaign is all about the identification of illegal migrants, it is an anti-Muslim campaign. With this, there has been a new beginning to Hindu communal politics in Bengal because over the last 40-50 years, communalism was largely absent in Bengal politics.
Many more aspects have become associated with this campaign. What is now being described as demands of the Matuas belonging to the Namashudra community (considered low caste persons), many of them emigrated from East Pakistan after 1947; then there another surge of emigrants around 1971 with the birth of Bangladesh. Even afterwards, people from this community came to Bengal. When those belonging to the Namashudra community came to Bengal, like other refugees, they did not have any documents (to prove their citizenship). As they have been staying here for generations, they became naturalised Indians over time and like other Indians, they also got their own ration cards, voter identity cards, and more recently, Aadhar cards and PAN (Permanent Account Number) cards. They didn’t have any other proof of their citizenship. This issue has again come up. But then who has a separate citizenship proof?
Behind the demand for proof of citizenship is the NRC in Assam. It has become the responsibility of a resident to prove whether she or he is a citizen of India. They have to provide evidence of where you were born or where your parents were born. As we have seen in Assam, this is almost impossible in most cases. The process, however, becomes an arbitrary means of deciding who should be a citizen and who should be a “foreigner” – who I want and who I don’t want.
We are aware of the terrible situation in Assam due to the NRC and the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) and this will now happen in Bengal by forming NRC. The main substance of the amended law is that if you are not a Muslim, you are not an illegal migrant and you automatically become an Indian citizen without submitting any documentary proof of citizenship, such as a visa or a passport. This discrimination between Hindus and Muslims has been made in the amended Act.
In certain parts of Bengal, in particular districts, this campaign has gathered momentum and it is clearly communal in character. I will add a point in this context. The BJP’s ascendancy in electoral politics by highlighting communal issues is something I think the party itself did not expect.
The BJP is also giving importance to another issue. It is arguing that if the same political party is in power in the Centre and also in the state, Bengal would benefit and gain economically, and that it does not make sense squabbling with New Delhi. Now this is not campaigning along communal lines. This means that the BJP is forced to include issues other than communal ones in its electoral strategy. I repeat that communalism, which was almost absent in Bengal’s politics after Independence and certainly after the 1960s, has certainly come back now and raised its ugly head again.
Political parties opposed to BJP are claiming that communalism does not go hand in hand with Bengali culture. But it seems that these parties have not been successful in convincing many people.
Some things are getting mixed up here. If you look at the past, communal politics and communal thought processes were very much present in the state before Independence – there was Hindu communalism as well as Muslim communalism. In the last 50 years, however, communal politics has, by and large, been absent in Bengal.
The new strand of communal politics that has come to Bengal has come from outside the state. The kind of communal discourse and politics that have been prevalent in North India have now come to West Bengal. Views of leaders of these political outfits from other parts of India, such as Uttar Pradesh are now being propagated in Bengal. Their communal slogans and ideas have now arrived here.
None of their slogans have Bengali roots, from ‘Jai Shri Ram’ (Hail Lord Ram) to ‘Love Jihad’ (a term used by radical Hindu groups to accuse Muslim men of luring Hindu women to marry and then convert them) and ‘Gau-Raksha’ (protection of cows). These slogans and phrases have never been a part of Bengali culture. The use of Hindutva thought processes are being justified by referring to the views of earlier thinkers and public personalities who were from Bengal and who were Hindu.
Consider, for example, Swami Vivekananda or Bankim Chandra Chatterjee. From their extensive writings, portions have been selectively picked up and are being used as weapons to propagate Hindutva politics. This had earlier happened as well. Yet, these same writings by Vivekananda and Bankim Chandra that are very much an integral part of Bengal’s culture, are, also admired greatly by persons with very different political predilections, from supporters of Congress to Leftists.
While Vivekananda and Bankim Chandra were not associated with a particular political party, they are today being appropriated by BJP and sought to be described as the real upholders of Bengali culture. It is being contended that this is your true heritage. In its efforts to bring Hindu nationalism to this state, BJP is arguing that Bengalis have forgotten these eminent personalities. My view is that BJP is not being entirely successful in its endeavour. What is happening is that the party is bringing its political slogans from North India to Bengal together with appurtenances like dresses. Saffron-clad people marching in procession is new to this state. Even the members of Hindu Mahasabha did not wear saffron clothes. A slogan like ‘Jai Shri Ram’ is a Hindi import and pronounced not in the way Bengalis would pronounce it.
These slogans have been sought to be popularised using the social media. Today, a lot of political propagandists use the social media in the Hindi language. This is new to Bengal.
I think these attempts to propagate Hindu nationalism are not succeeding in Bengal.
But, the political surge in favour of BJP has not been checked…
A lot of aspects are involved here. How much of the rise in BJP’s popularity is a consequence of the propaganda related to Hindu nationalism and how much of it is on account of disaffection with, and anti-incumbency sentiments against, the Trinamool Congress is not clear. A third additional factor is the comparison being drawn between Bengal and the rest of India, where people are better off economically. This is apparent when people from this state visit other cities and other parts of the country. They notice the difference and wonder why Bengal has not progressed economically. They think that a change can be brought about by BJP leaders from these states.
Ten years ago, BJP did not have the support it has at present in Bengal. It has become the main opposition party in the state due to several reasons. I don’t think BJP’s success in Bengal is only on account of the politics of communalism and Hindu nationalism.
If the BJP comes to power, what are the changes we are going to see?
This is the most important issue. The BJP is using a number of issues to gain popularity among Bengal’s voters. If the party manages to form a government here with a majority in the state Assembly, what could happen? There is no reason to believe that the state of Bengal’s economy would change overnight and that people here would quickly become prosperous. There is also no reason to believe that industrialists will start investing money in West Bengal as soon as a new BJP government comes to power. If there was an opportunity to make profits by investing in the state, it would have happened earlier. Setting up one or two new factories would not make a major difference. If there is no new social basis for financial prosperity, it cannot be achieved only through a change of government.
However, what a BJP government in Bengal can do is bring about cultural changes. It can impose the cultural agenda of Hindutva that it has successfully imposed in parts of North India. From an ideological perspective, Bengal is crucial for the party. The supremacy of Hindu culture over other cultures is what BJP has propagated in North and West India, in states like Gujarat and Maharashtra. This is absent to a considerable extent in Bengal and in many parts of south India. With the exception of Karnataka, the Right-wing Hindutva politics of BJP has not spread to Southern India, in states like Andhra Pradesh, Kerala and Tamil Nadu.
The opportunity for BJP to expand has come in Bengal and Assam. Bengal is more important to the party compared with Assam. If BJP is successful in spreading Hindu nationalism in Bengal, as it has in Uttar Pradesh, it will be a major step in the party realising its dream of establishing a Hindu rashtra (or a Hindu nation) in the country.
Thus, the threat to Bengali culture from BJP is huge. If the party comes to power in the state, it will certainly try and establish the Hindutva culture of North India in Bengal. That will be the party’s principal goal. One should not expect any revolutionary change in the economy of the state. What will happen is cultural change.
Translated from Bengali by Paranjoy Guha Thakurta, Subhasmita Kanji and Sourodipto Sanyal