The RSS has a fascination for Bengal that goes much beyond the electoral gains of the BJP in the current assembly elections. The organisation that owes its existence to the spread of Hindu majoritarianism in India may probably be looking for a particular closure. It was in Bengal 75 years ago that Syama Prasad Mookerjee and his right-wing Hindu ideology were decimated in a decisive provincial election that not only threw up Jinnah’s Muslim League as the absolute victor but also paved the way for the eventual partition of Bengal and India.
The Sangh itself, a “social” organisation, was not involved. It is linked, though, through Mookerjee, a president of the Hindu Mahasabha who later founded the Bharatiya Jana Sangh with the help of the Sangh. The Jana Sangh was succeeded by the Bharatiya Janata Party. He links the mainstream right-wing organisations – the RSS, the Mahasabha, the Jana Sangh and the BJP.
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The Sangh and BJP ideologues will never forget Mookerjee’s rout in the 1945-46 Bengal provincial elections that saw the Muslim League win 114 seats out of 250, the Congress emerging second with 86. Mookerjee’s Hindu Mahasabha won just one out of 31 seats it contested; the winning candidate was Mookerjee himself.
The BJP fronting the Hindutva majoritarianism today campaigns to set the ideological clock right in West Bengal. Its arch rival is not so much the Mamata Banerjee of Trinamool Congress as Mamata the “Muslim appeaser”. It decided the campaign parameters long back, nearly two years ago: a consolidation of the Bhadraloks as well as the ordinary Bengalis under the majoritarian umbrella. Unsaid and unlettered, this makes the electoral fight a battle between proponents of two religious ideologies.
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Communal churning in the past
The focus of this article is to briefly explore the roots of the communal churning in the Bengal Presidency and how both ideologies turned foes politically, socially, culturally. One can argue that the Hindu-Muslim strike is pan-India; then why focus on Bengal? For the simple reason that in that part of the sub-continent the Bengali identity developed strong roots as a pan-Bengal-Presidency identity as well as a national identity.
One can find a Hindu calling himself or herself a Bengali Hindu. Similarly, there is a Bengali Muslim. This Bengali identity was unique in the sense that it enveloped the entire Presidency, that once included the region that became East Pakistan in 1947 and Bangladesh in 1971. The pan-Presidency identity of the Bengali, Hindu or Muslim, that has determined politics, culture, custom, cuisine, religion and chauvinism over there. The Congress, the communist parties, the Mahasabha or the League had to absorb this identity to conduct politics. The Bengali identity of West Bengal and that of the old Bengal still clash; often.
North Indian style of Hindu majoritarianism
It is in this cultural cauldron that the BJP has introduced its predominantly North Indian style of Hindu majoritarianism, intent on a political churning that would establish its credentials once again across India.
One finds a curious similarity between the election scenario of 1945-46 and 2021 in terms of the political players involved. It is the BJP today, it was the Mahasabha then. It is the AIMIM and Indian Secular Front today, it was the Muslim League then. It is the Trinamool today, it was the Congress then. The communists brought up the rear then – though that was largely because of their opposition to the Quit India movement – and they are trying to be relevant today.
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Beginning with the 1910s and 1920s, Bengal saw the emergence of the Bengali Muslim identity that by the late 1930s and 1940s dominated the political spectrum in the Presidency owing to Jinnah’s Muslim League and his edicts. The victories of the League in the provincial elections in Bengal and Punjab were the last straw for the “nationalists” of that time.
Growing up to grow apart
This article draws heavily from the work of eminent historian Sabyasachi Bhattacharya, “The Defining Moments In Bengal: 1920-1947”. In two, illuminating chapters, the author tells us the story of the Bengali Hindu and the Bengali Muslim, the Bengal representing the Presidency, and how they grew up to grow apart.
To cut the story short for brevity, it goes like this: In the early parts of the 20th century, the Bengali Muslim The turn of the 20th century saw a Bengal that made the Bengali Muslim resent the Bengali Hindu. Then former could only count the contradictions between the two. Socially, the Bhadralok attitude made him/her feel inferior. Materially, he/she had no or little education, hardly any jobs and no representation in crucial government services. Religion-wise, he/she realised the Bengali Muslim took part in the Hindu festivals, prayed to pirs and fakirs and adapted to several Hindu customs.
Re-assertion of Muslim identity
There was a liberal Muslim minority in Bengal, but a large section of the intelligentsia wanted a re-assertion of their Muslim identity, actually meaning the re-assertion of their Islamic identity. That would over time lead to the “mullahs” control the Muslim population in rural Bengal. The conservative Muslim was wont to argue with the liberal Muslim: In the public domain there is talk of harmony, but in the private domain – in social and cultural relationships – the barriers have become stronger.
Bhattacharya quotes an essay from a journal, Islam Pracharak, to illustrate the “social distancing” between the two communities: “The few Muslims who receive education see in all public spheres only the Hindus: ‘Hindu zamindar, Hindu magistrate, Hindu clerks, Hindu advocates and barristers, Hindu police officers…’. This creates a conviction that the Hindus are a superior people and then the Muslims middle classes try and find a space for themselves in th proximity of the Hindu bhadralok. However, ‘the babus (Hindu bhadralok) still look upon them with contempt. Their touch will spoil the water in their hookah – Muslim contact will contaminate their bodies, their couches, etc’.” The Bengali Hindu did not see any contradiction in this class distinction.
The Khilafat Movement had an impact on the resentful Bengali Muslim. It raised the Islamic consciousness of the community. It found expression like in the form of protest against the Arya Samaj and the “shuddhi” movement. The Khilafat Movement did not last long and in India, it collapsed in no time as the Muslims were divided between the Congress, the Muslim League and the Movement. But it did raise their religious consciousness and that brought it in confrontation with their Bengaliness. Perhaps they still endure this contradiction.
The conservative Muslims decided to purify Islam. But how? It began with simple things like asking Muslims not to wear the Gandhi ‘topi’ because it was “against Islamic religious principles”. Muslims were encouraged to use the prefix “Janab” instead of “Sree”. Bhattacharya quotes a lament in a conservative journal, RaoshanHedayet: “Many Mosalmans innocently celebrate all the Hindu pujas and they ‘join in the boat race, the horse race, feasts with relatives, the village fair, visits to prostitutes, games and gambling; looks as if it is their puja, and apart from these disgusting pastimes forbidden by the Shariat, they also pay cash for the puja to the zamindar, along with their rent payment’. Muslims ‘were in the habit of using charms and swearing in the names of (Hindu deities) Kali, Durga, the deity at Kamaksha, etc, and all of that means that they are losing their Iman, they are becoming Kafirs, and they are ensuring their descent into hell’.”
Fakirs no better than kafirs
The second lament, as expressed in another journal, Islam Pracharak, was that, to quote Bhattacharya, “reverence for fakirs was increasing day by day, even as the behaviour and teachings of the fakirs were ‘no better than’ those of kafirs; the simple peasants, denied the benefits of religious teaching, counselling and leadership, ‘fall into the trap and are fast moving towards hell’.
The minority liberals disliked the growing Muslim resentment. A scholar, Mohammad Maniruzzaman wrote in 1903, as quoted in the book: “If our society can be made free of the influence of maulvis, mullahs and pirsahibs, there will be greater possibility of social progress.” Bhattacharya writes: “A contributor to Saogat, a renowned liberal journal, wrote of the ‘mullah group’ in Bengal that they were solely concerned with ‘purdah (seclusion of women), beard their vestments (special headgear and dress distinguishing their vocation)…their parochialism, their vested interests, their limited outlook.”
Bengali Muslim-Hindu divide
The author presents evidence of how “some intellectuals made a genuine effort to combine an assertion of the Muslim identity with a strong message of inter-communal harmony that would be based upon mutual respect”. However, such efforts bore no fruit because the class contradictions between the Bengali Hindu and the Bengali Muslim were far sharper than the cultural or religious contradictions. Bhattacharya explains this massive theory in a simple paragraph: “An essayist in Muslim Darpan writes in 1926: ‘The Hindu is the wealthy zamindar. You are a peasant under him; he has money, you are the borrower he is the lawyer and advocate, you are the client; he is the judge in the law court, you are in the dock…’.”
By the 1930s, the Bengali Muslims began to focus on educating their lot and school enrolments rose. The madarasas “switched to modernised syllabus”. But the polarisation was brewing simultaneously and it tainted the field of education as well. Bhattacharya notes: “Muslim dissatisfaction with the admission policy in Presidency College eventually led to the foundation in 1926 of its Muslim counterpart, Islamia College, at the initiative of (the first Prime Minister of Bengal and later the home minister of Pakistan) Fazlul Huq.”
The Bengali Muslim identity was brought into question with the Bengali Hindu questioning “Musalmani Bangla”, so described because of the usage of Persian words. As a counter, “educated Muslims started using Bengali with a liberal sprinkling of Urdu words” to which Hindus reacted by Sanskritising Bengali. There was Urduization and there was Sanskritisation. Bhattacharya quotes poet Sheikh Habibur Rahman, an assistant editor of Muhammadi, writing in 1921: “Hindu writers are trying to exile Muslim words out of Bengali literature. Do my Muslim brothers want to exile Hindu words in retaliation?” Each side began to reject each other’s language.
Bhattacharya writes that Rabindranath Tagore came down heavily against the growth of communal sentiments. “Tagore (in a statement in 1922) believed that this distance from the Muslim community was only one of many manifestations of the amazing capacity of Hinduism in the modern period to create barriers between castes and communities and peoples. Tagore believed that although India at one time welcomed all peoples and cultures, from the middle ages when Brahmanism acquired a centrality, Hinduism built for itself a ‘system of barriers’. Its nature was to forbid and to exclude. ‘The world never saw such a neatly constructed system against assimilation of any kind. This is not a barrier only between Hindus and Muslims. People you and me who want freedom in conducting our life are also impeded and imprisoned’.”
Sacred beard, sacred tuft
The author also quotes poet Kazi Nasrul Islam who wrote in Ganavani: “It is possible to tolerate Hinduism and Islam, but their fetishism about the sacred beard and the sacred tuft of hair on the head (tikitwa, daritwa) is intolerable, because that is what causes conflict. That tuft of hair on the head is not Hinduism, it is the priest’s signature. That beard is not Islam, it is the Mullah’s sign…The fight is between them, not between Hindus and Muslims.”
He also quotes a Muslim liberal, Sadakat Ali Akhande, writing: “The Bengali Muslims have forgotten the fact that Islam is a religion, it is not a nation – and therefore they are proclaiming to the world that they are an Islamic nation. They think that ‘nation’ and ‘religion’ mean the same thing….To re-enact the Crusades and Jihad today is impossible.”
For a brief while Hindu-Muslim unity was achieved in Bengal, even if for narrow political reasons. And how! The 1936 provincial elections threw up a hung assembly. Fazlul Huq formed a coalition government with the help of the Congress, but the Muslim League engineered its collapse and pressured him to join the League. Huq under League colours again formed a coalition ministry. Syama Prasad Mookerjee decided to join the Progressive Coalition Party as the alliance was called.
Syama Prasad Mookerjee joins hands with Huq
Bhattacharya quotes Mookerjee justifying his action of joining the Muslim League: “Bengal has suffered under the Communal Award…The only way to fight this is to organise the Hindus and to establish cooperation with those Muslims who feel that Bengal’s hope lies in joint work between the two communities.” The author observes: “Thus Syama Prasad defended his alliance with Huq.”
The ministry fared miserably. In the 1946 elections, the Muslim League returned with an awesome majority, winning 114 of the 119 Muslim seats in a 250-member house. HS Suhrawardy formed the government which, according to Bhattacharya, was “remembered chiefly for the communal carnage on August 16, 1946 to observe the Direct Action Day prescribed by Jinnah”.
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Fuelling more turmoil
Bhattacharya says the League sought to project the fact of three Muslims heading four governments in succession as proof of Muslims regaining “political power in the Bengal which their forbears had once ruled”. These are the words of MAH Ispahani, Jinnah’s right-hand man. These words only fuelled more turmoil.
The author summed up the events: “These were only some of the polarities and rivalries manifesting themselves. Each player in the game tried to exclude the rivals from power. This tendency could, of course, appear in any context but in Bengal this reached an extreme degree in 1937-47….The result, a politics of mutual exclusion, was preconditioned by the climate of communalism that infused all spheres of life in Bengal from the late 1930s, paving the way for the Partition of 1947.”
He also gives a summary of the social changes the political machinations resulted in: “Increasingly, ‘class consciousness’ merged with ‘communalism’ and hence ‘the formation of a joint front of the rich, middle, and poor peasants under the ashraf-ulema, jotedar triumvirate against the Hindu zamindar-mahajan-bhadralok classes.” These trends only consolidated and strengthened throughout the 1930s and 1940s by which time the new ingredient – electoral politics – concretised the Hindu and Muslim positions.”
Communally polarised elections
As West Bengal faces a highly charged and communally polarised elections, the words of Tagore that Bhattacharya quotes appear relevant. He wrote: “To Tagore ‘the absence of unity between the Hindus and Muslims should be viewed in the larger perspective of the historical traditions of these communities, not merely as a matter of political negotiation. The long run of history has shown the correctness of this approach’.”
–The author is a journalist-academic and a contrarian, a commentator on contemporary politics, society and democracy. (All quotations are from Sabyasachi Bhattacharya’s book, “The Defining Moments In Bengal: 1920-1947”.)