The biggest political spectacle of recent times has been the Bengal Legislative Assembly elections of 2021. The eyes of the entire country were fixed on this. The winner has been declared. Now for five years this grand contest comes to a rest.
This election was many things to many people. For some it was about secularism vs communalism, for dispassionate political observers (if such a categoryexists), it was about the clash of a regional vs a national juggernaut, for some it was about nationalism vs sub-nationalism, for others it was the question of the “Bengali soul” or the Bengali identity.
But what has singed the aftermath of the elections are the reports of well-organized violence against specifically the grassroots workers and rural supporters of the leading opposition party allegedly by goons “let loose” by the ruling party. Recently the chief minister has announced some monetary compensation for all those affected by this violence. While this move is indeed admirable, the outsider is forced to wonder the extent to which these goons have been sheltered by the ruling party. Or is it the work of the supporters of the ruling party at the grassroot level itself and not just a select few criminally minded individuals.
From what has emerged till now, and let me tell you that even if the state government has officially disavowed any such association, there is enough visual evidence, and not just “fact check” videos too, of the polarization that has been visited on rural Bengal and peri-urban Bengal during this election.
Democracy thrives on difference of opinion. It is based on the premise that the opposition will critique the government’s moves constructively and thus lead to better and better outcomes and in case of a government that considers itself above such advice, the opposition will present an alternative in itself as a replacement for the people.Thus, intimidating the opposition should ideally have no role in the democratic process. But this has long been a pipe dream in India. Whether it be the post poll violence in Tamil Nadu or Bengal, it just shows that the democratic process has to walk a long road to maturity in India.
However, the case of Bengal is slightly different. There is a popular adage that goes ‘what Bengal thinks today, India thinks tomorrow’. So, it becomes evident that the Bengali considers himself a sort of a cultural fountainhead of India. While that may have been somewhat true before, whether it is so now or not is a topic of a different debate. But that has not stopped the Bengali from having elevated notions about oneself. Thus, one is forced to wonder if such incidents behoove the image of the state to external eyes.
Though West Bengal is my home state, I myself am an external eye, a watcher from outside of what Bengal is doing today. The rampaging pandemic precluded my entry into Bengal in the pre and post poll situation. The bitterness of the fight and the mudslinging for power did not move me at least whatever my personal political inclinations may be. But what was even more jarring were the rapes, killings, arson and looting after the elections were over. There have been widely circulated posts on WhatsApp and other social media platforms which speak for themselves.
More sinisterly, some of these incidents have had communal colours cutting across party lines which has had a disquieting effect on even those people who are not ‘apparently’ inclined to partisan electoral politics. Even the politically ‘woke’ have been forced to speak out against such atrocities, but of course, after having made careless comments.
What is all the more damning for the state government is that the mainstream media has been unable to ignore many of these incidents in the way it brushes other such incidents under the carpet. The central government has also taken note of this development. Several leaders and ministers at the centre have condemned the violence. Even the Governor of West Bengal made mention of it at the swearing in ceremony of the winning party.
On the other hand, the Kolkata police has opened a helpline to check the circulation of fake news. Alternative news sources have also shared videos claiming to ‘debunk’ these stories. Thus, one is left to wonder for good reason what is true and what is false. One need only go by the simple rule in these cases “If there is smoke, there is surely a fire.”
What becomes jarringly evident is that these foot workers of the opposition party have been left to fend for themselves by the very same leaders who promised heaven and earth prior to the elections. One of the leaders of the opposition party even made a comment about balidan, or sacrifice – which was, not to say anything less than the truth, plainly facetious, and unbecoming of a political leader.
To the outside watcher what is also abundantly clear, is that there is, in urban Bengal at least, an insidious shame about being associated with the word ‘Hindu’. What else can explain the set of memes widely circulated on social media that stated that Bengalis don’t ‘understand’ Lord Rama but understand only the phonetically similar alcoholic beverage? Lord Rama is ‘Purushottam’ (the best among men) to even the most ignorant Hindu and here is a race deriding that very figure; a race whose every daily routine practice that gives it its identity is derived from Hindu Dharma.
The irony is that the Sarodiya Durgotasava (the autumnal Durga Puja) which is the pride of the common Bengali is said to have been first performed, at least as per legend, by Lord Rama himself through Akaal Bodhan (literally, “the untimely awakening of the Goddess) and thus without him there would be no Durga Puja of which the Bengali bhadralok is so boastful of. Let us not even go towards the historical association of Bengal with the name of Lord Rama. Let me produce just a few names here from Bengal – Ramakrishna, Ramprasad, Ramkumar, Ramkinkar, Rameshwar. The list will go on, but I hope the Bengali reader, and those who know of Bengal’s rich spiritual and cultural history will recognize the significance of these names.
There has also been propaganda, sometimes insidious, sometimes overt that Bengalis are somehow separate from the rest of Hindu culture. How, pray tell? Which culture identifies the saree as an indigenous form of clothing? Which culture still reveres the Ganga as the life-giving holy river to which we turn to for paying oblations to the devas and the ancestors? Which land gave birth to Sri Chaitanya and became the epi-centre of the movement named Vaishnavism that shook India?
The examples are many. But this election has seen people posit the Bengali identity in distinction to and in conflict with, the Hindu identity. Rumours have been circulated about the nature of Hinduism, that if one becomes too Hindu one will stop being Bengali. What it has done is, it has torn apart the psyche of the common Bengali who for so long had not seen a difference between the two. It is this self-flagellation that has manifested in urban elite university educated individuals justifying the post poll violence by their stunning silence as both necessary and inevitable, when it was neither.
When people were being literally killed in her neighbourhood, the random professor of humanities in Kolkata was waxing eloquent on the aesthetics of Satyajit Ray’s cinema on her social media page. When middle aged Hindu women in the state were seen on video in post-rape conditions constantly wailing “I am no longer a Hindu” and not being able to hold herself up, the women’s rights activist in some small town of West Bengal was tweeting about, guess what? Abortion rights in Sweden. Not that the latter is not important, but when one has a fire burning next door, what sane human being would worry first about the possibility of there being a fire five kilometres away?
I am left wondering if this is the face that Bengal wants to show to the world. Are these things what Bengal thinks then of the democratic process? Is this what it wants India to think of tomorrow? What can one believe after such a resounding mandate has been delivered to one party and which is then followed by a terrific political repression cross the state of any opposing political view? That it considers itself above its equals? That it considers any sort of opposition or dissent a crime in itself and thus wishes to do away with the democratic process and bring back the dark days of the Naxal violence insidiously, when it was declared that the nozzle of a gun is the only source of power?
Of course, it may be said that had the other party come to power, it would have had the same effect. Then the question arises what have the grassroots of the population of Bengal been reduced to? That people seek only an excuse, only a vent to let loose the worst tendencies of human nature. Is this what has become of the people who once led the entire country towards a new age?
The effect of these incidents has left their mark, whether intended or not. I am more terrified than ever before of the consequences of whimsically set boundaries of political deviancy. Because so far there has been no justice for the victims, as compensation is not justice. It is not righting a wrong. It is a Band-Aid slapped where a careful stitch is required. The Bengali people need to decide whether this is going to be the hall mark of their character in front of the rest of the country as a people who use every political exercise as an excuse to settle scores or to give vent to the worst tendencies of the human psyche.
Right now, the CBI has descended on Bengal and had arrested four TMC ministers in the morning. What has happened throughout the day in Nizam Palace, with the chief minister rushing to the site is well known by now to everyone in the country. No one can call the utter lawlessness seen today in the premises of Nizam Palace ‘fake’ any longer, not even the strident cries of Mahua Moitra or the cliches of Derek O’Brien.
While the whole state is in lockdown mode for the alarming rise of Covid cases in Kolkata and the rest of the urban landscape of Bengal, what the country and the world saw today was a total violation of law and order, and utter lack of concern for the society among the cadres of the ruling party today. Nothing inside Nizam Palace today suggested that there was a pandemic going on anywhere in Bengal, not even the chief minister herself was maintaining any sort of Covid protocol. These videos are not fake of course, because, well, it all happened in a day and not even Fault News (a parody on the name of a certain fact checking website can find fault with these videos and visuals.
Do people think that with the bail granted to the arrested ministers all matters have been set to rest? That some sort of victory has been won? I think otherwise. What has happened today in Nizam Palace with TMC cadres stoning the central security forces, with the Kolkata police not even trying to intervene, with the chief minister thumbing her way to the CBI’s team in Bengal and daring them to arrest her, is that people have evidence now of the violence Bengal is capable of. That today’s violence was real and alarming is a fact that will rankle in the consciousness of Bengal’s people for quite some time to come. And this may well be a good thing to do, to remind the learned Mahua Moitra that fascism indeed grows organically, and that she herself has forgotten to call out her own party for these antics. What does that make her, and the rest of naysayers in Bengal I have spoken earlier about? Hypocrites? Or wannabe Fascists?