West Bengal looked to the Shahbag protests in Dhaka with hope. In 1971, a massive relief and solidarity effort was undertaken in West Bengal for the millions trying to escape a veritable genocide. The then leaders of the Jamaat-e-Islami in East Bengal and its students wing organised murder and rape squads in collaboration with the Pakistani forces. Their crimes included mass murder, rape as a weapon of war, arson and forced conversions. Post-1975, generals used them to cast an Islamic veneer of legitimacy over their illegal capture of power. Their immunity lasted until the present Bangladesh government restarted the legal proceedings in the War Crimes tribunal. The Shahbag protests demanded maximum punishment for the guilty.
In West Bengal, a few meetings have happened around Shahbag, mostly expressing support. But, shockingly, the largest was a massive rally held in Kolkata on March 30, explicitly against the Shahbag protests and in support of the war criminals already convicted. Various Muslim groups, including the All Bengal Minority Council, the All Bengal Minority Youth Federation, the Madrassa Students Union, the Muslim Think Tank and the All Bengal Imam Muazzin Association, organised the rally. People arrived in buses from distant districts of Murshidabad and Nadia, as well as from neighbouring districts. Students of madrassas and the new Aliah Madrassa University were conspicuous at the gathering.
The old rallying cry, “Islam is in danger in Bangladesh,” was heard. We heard a similar cry in 1952 during the mother-language movement, in 1954 when Fazlul Haq and Maulana Bhashani challenged the Muslim League, in 1969 when the Awami League made its six demands and during the 1971 liberation struggle — basically during every secular movement for rights and justice. The rally thundered that West Bengal would be “cleansed” of supporters of war crimes trial and the present Prime Minister of Bangladesh. They promised that political forces supporting Shahbag would be “beaten with broom-sticks” if they came asking for Muslim votes. Like Taslima Nasreen and Salman Rushdie, Sheikh Hasina would not be allowed inside Kolkata. They expressed solidarity with the anti-Shahbag “movement” in Bangladesh. This assertion is worrisome, as the anti-Shahbag forces in Bangladesh have initiated a wave of violent attacks on Hindus, Buddhists and secular individuals, and the destruction of Hindu and Buddhist homes, businesses and places of worship. Amnesty International documented attacks on over 40 Hindu temples as of March 6. That number has increased.
This large gathering and its pronouncements have been in the making. A collapse in the Muslim vote was important in the Left Front’s demise. Muslim divines regularly remind the present government of this. The Trinamool Congress wants to ensure a continued slice of this vote. In an unprecedented move, the government handed out monthly stipends to imams and muezzins to build a class of Muslim “community leaders” who eat out of its hand. The debt-ridden, vision-deficient government is unable to solve the problems that are common to the poor. It has wooed a section of the marginalised on the basis of religion by selective handouts. These are excellent as speech-making points masquerading as empathy. This also gives fillip to forces whose trajectories are not under usual political control.
The Left Front’s political fortune stagnated after 2011. It has cynically chosen not to strongly oppose this communal turn. Waiting for the incumbent to falter is its roadmap to power. The damage this is doing to the West Bengal’s political culture is possibly irreparable. The incumbent’s connivance and the opposition’s silence are due to the long-eroded tradition of democratic political contestation through grassroots mobilisation. Both deal with West Bengal’s sizeable minority population primarily via intermediaries, doing away with any pretence of ideology in the transactions.
Politics of blackmail
Organisations inspired by political Islam have used this disconnect to the hilt to blackmail the government. An emerging bloc of divines, and former and present student leaders have used students and youths as storm troopers at short notice. Sadly, they are unconcerned about life and livelihood issues of Muslims. With assistance from the Left Front regime, they drove out the persecuted humanist writer, Taslima Nasreen. The extent of their clout as blackmailers was evident from the government’s pro-activeness in keeping Salman Rushdie out of Kolkata, after his visit to Bangalore, New Delhi and Mumbai. This pushing of the envelope fits into a sequence of events that is increasingly stifling the freedom of expression. The double-standards are clear.
On March 21, a group of small magazine publishers, human rights workers, theatre artists and peace activists were disallowed from marching to the Deputy High Commission of Bangladesh to express their support to the war-crimes trial efforts. The police had “orders;” some marchers were detained. A month earlier, the same police provided security cover to an anti-Shahbag march and later to the marchers when they submitted a memorandum to the Deputy High Commission demanding the acquittal of convicted war criminals. Last year, public libraries were directed to stock a sectarian daily even before its first issue was published! The State thinks that it can play this brinksmanship game with finesse. When the political class acts as tactical facilitators or tactical spectators to apologists of one the largest mass-murders ever, the demise of Kolkata as a centre of culture is a natural corollary. A combination of circumstances can cause an uncontrollable unravelling. Bengal’s experience with sectarian politics is distinctly bitter.
The bye-election to Jangipur, a Muslim-majority Lok Sabha constituency, saw the combined vote of the two main parties fall from 95 per cent in 2009 to 78 per cent in 2012. The beneficiaries were the Welfare Party of India, a thinly-veiled front organisation of the Jamaat-e-Islami Hind, and the Social Democratic Party of India, a similar group. “Tactical pluralism” is their game, a concept quite akin to the tactical defence of Taslima’s freedom of speech by Hindu communal political forces. The rally in support of war criminals has exposed this faux pluralism.
There was another significant beneficiary in the same election — the Bharatiya Janata Party. Communal tension has been rising, with serious disturbances in Deganga and Canning. Sensing a subterranean polarisation, the majoritarian forces see an opportunity. Mouthing banalities about Bengal’s “intrinsically” plural culture is useless. Culture is a living entity, recreated every moment. It is being recreated by the victimisation discourse by fringe groups like Hindu Samhati and in certain religious congregations where unalloyed poison produced by divines like Tarek Monawar Hossain from Bangladesh is played on loud-speakers. Thanks to technology, vitriol produced in a milieu of free-style majoritarian muscle-flexing in Bangladesh reaches West Bengal easily. Hence the popularity of one of the convicted war criminals, Delwar Hossain Sayedee, who in his post-1971 avatar had become a superstar in the Bengali waz-mahfil circuit.
What are the effects of cultural exchange of this kind? The rally is a clue. A defence of Sayedee and the claim that he is innocent, made repeatedly in the rally, are like perpetrating Holocaust-denial.
A day after the anti-Shahbag rally in Kolkata, almost as a divine reminder of starker realities beyond the defence of Islam, nearly 45 lakh unemployed youth, Hindus and Muslims, sat for the primary school teachers’ recruitment examination for 35,000 posts. Clearly, the ‘minority’ employment exchange set up by the incumbents has failed. West Bengal has petitioned the Centre for a relaxation of the minimum qualifications for primary school teachers. The promotion of religious education is hardly the way to empowerment and livelihood generation for the minorities in a State where they have been grossly under-represented in all white-collar services. There are no short-cut solutions.
(Garga Chatterjee is a researcher at Massachusetts Institute of Technology)