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Friday, September 17, 2021

Bengal elections & the post–poll violence – The paradoxical dichotomies

On the 2nd of May as I was watching the Bengal election results unfold on the television screen, an equally interesting trend was observable on social media. Many of my south Kolkata – bred Bengali friends, who would otherwise sip on high-end scotch on a lazy weekend and engage in an animated debate on the Ray-Ghatak rivalry, suddenly started posting, what I thought was, a slogan for the subaltern…”Khela Hobe”. Really? What’s going on I asked myself. Quite interestingly the urban elites painted a picture of the proverbial north Indian ruffian while hurling aspersions at the Hindi – speaking leaders BJP brought forth.

How come these flag-bearers of peace and finesse were fine with “Khela Hobe” (that literally translates to “the game will be on”) which actually turned out to be a nasty war cry during the post – poll violence which ensued in Bengal. This is the first paradox which characterized this election. What was curiously interesting was the complete annihilation of the Left – Congress – ISF coalition (The coalition got 1 seat combined). And why? One explanation could be that the coalition with the Indian secular front (ISF) led by the extremist cleric Abbas Siddiqui alienated the secular votes. But that seems rather flawed. Most of the urban constituencies (Kolkata & south and north 24 Parganas), which are supposed to be the least polarized saw a clean sweep by the Trinamool Congress. Why? The answer lies in the “No vote to BJP” campaign carried out by a large section of the Bengali intelligentsia. It simply led to all left votes gravitating towards TMC.

And what were the grounds for this campaign? The much used but barely understood word – “Fascism”. Painting Modi as a Hilter-esque “fascist” and thereby preventing BJP’s foothold from getting stronger in Bengal seemed to the appeal. And the left – leaning “bhadralok” did succumb to this campaign. And what followed was mayhem. Right after the election results were declared the TMC cadres were unleashed to carry out a mass massacre.

Thousands of families have been displaced. Many have lost their lives and countless people traumatized in this brutal genocide in the time of a devastating pandemic. Were all these people who have faced the wrath of the “victor”, BJP supporters? Of course, no. CPIM party offices have been burnt down to ashes in many districts followed by murders and gang-rapes of the left party workers. But the “Bhadralok” seems to be silent. He can’t seem to raise his voice against this absolute mockery of democracy. This seems quite analogous to Pakistan’s silence while Uighur Muslims in China face no less than ethnic cleansing.

The second interesting paradox which was clearly observable was the linguistic jingoism at play.  I mean doesn’t TMC’s campaign cry “Bangla nijer meyekei chay” (Bengal wants her own daughter) reek of xenophobia? One might wonder, why only along the language faultline? Aren’t the other ethnic identity markers salient? Look at Latin America for example. Though Spanish is the official language in almost all Latin American countries does it act as an overarching unifying force? Then the countries would probably cease to exist separately.

Latin America has witnessed four major conflicts in the last 100 years, the most recent being the Cenepa War in 1994-95 between Ecuador and Peru. In case of Bengal, quite curiously, while the “Bhadralok” gladly (and quite naively) accepts the idea of a stereotypical north Indian being the flag-bearer of Hindi–hegemony and tags him as a “bohiragoto” (outsider), he, on the other hand wouldn’t bat an eyelid looking at a Bengali brahmin woman (such as the honourable Chief Minister) wear a Hijab. This Arabic influence doesn’t upset him. Nor are the feminist ideals ridiculed when a Hindu Bengali wears an outfit as regressive and alien to the land as it can be. “Jai Shri Ram” is alien but “Eid Mubarak” is not. How come Arabic symbols are closer to our hearts compared to what’s the norm in more than one of our neighbouring states?

Let’s try to interpret “Bohiragoto” (outsider) in the light of Bengal’s history. Bengal has historically been ruled by Hindu kingdoms until 1204 when the Delhi Sultanate led by Bakhtiyar Khilji took over.  The Pala and Sena dynasties saw tremendous flourish in Sanskrit literature. Almost all of Bengal practiced Shaivism and Buddhism. Bakhtiyar Khilji’s bloody conquest and the subsequent Mughal domination saw a systematic cleansing of the Bengali ethos. The intimidation of the violent tyrannic conquerors and thereby subconscious acceptance was so deep seated, that when Siraj-ud-daulah lost in the battle of Plassey in 1757, the Bengali historians marked it as Bengal losing “independence”. Was it so? It was actually one colonial power replacing another. The Afghans & central Asians who ruled Bengal for 553 years (1204 – 1757) were in no way part of Bengal’s original ethos. They were as “Bohiragoto” as the Britishers were. If we have a bad taste in the mouth for our British colonial past, why do we have such enormous love for the Arabic identity symbols which were a hallmark of the invaders who colonised, oppressed and ruled us for twice the amount of time the British empire did?

So where do we go from here? What does the future hold for Bengal, socio-politically? Though it seems BJP has won barely 77 seats, one must take note of the numbers. The margins are extremely thin in around 30 constituencies. Will this post–poll violence create enough terror to disincentivize people to take up the BJP flag (or the left / Congress flags as a matter of fact)? I believe it depends largely on the counter-measures taken by the centre to rehabilitate and protect the victims of this shameless political violence. Otherwise, this might indeed crush the morale and make anti-TMC mass-mobilization at the grassroots really difficult, which in turn will be a clear throttling of democracy.

Remember “Fascism..” ? But one must remember that TMC is a one – leader organization. The Left and the Congress have been completely decimated in Bengal and I see no possible resurrection in the near future. Given that premise, BJP has all the reasons to be hopeful. And this in turn might provide the workers some strength…some light at the end of the tunnel.


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Dripto Bakshi
A PhD in Quantitative Economics, working as a Data Scientist in a multi-national bank.

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