It was economic discontent versus aversion to bigotry

The Bharatiya Janata Party’s unexpected capture of 18 Lok Sabha seats from West Bengal could in a sense be termed “ghar wapsi”. After all, the BJP is the lineal descendant of the Bharatiya Jana Sangh founded by a proud son of Bengal, Shyama Prasad Mookherjee. But given their traditionally enlightened outlook, Bengalis have been averse until recently to what are generally regarded as the Sangh Parivar’s attitudes and activities. If the Bengali voter appears to have shifted his position now, it is because of circumstances that have very little to do with the saffron brigade or the cow belt politics of sants and sadhus like Adityanand or Pragya Singh Thakur.

Mookerjee would not have approved of the upsurge of ghar wapsi, love jihad vigilanteism, gau rakshak lynchings and other forms of populist violence even in previously non-communal  Bengal that the BJP appears to condine. Judging by his principled opposition to the Quit India movement against British rule because it would create public disorder, it is clear he would deeply have deplored the Sangh Parivar’s turbulence.

He will forever be respected in Bengal for resigning, together with another Bengali minister, Khitish Chandra Neogy, from Jawaharlal Nehru’s cabinet in protest against the infamous Nehru-Liaquat Ali pact of 1950. This was a treaty signed by the prime ministers of India and Pakistan, supposedly to ensure that the minority communities were safe and not dispossessed in each other’s country. In practice, only Muslims continued to enjoy all their rights in India. Hindus who amounted to about 20 per cent or more of East Pakistan’s population were classed as “evacuees” and lost effective control of their houses and fields which the Pakistan government took over. They became “enemy aliens” after the 1965 India-Pakistan war and lost even titular rights to their ancestral properties even if they continued to live in Pakistan. The treay aroused widespread misgiving but Mookerjee and Neogy alone had the courage to protest and denounce it as a fraud on a helpless Hindu community.

When Nehru said to him, “We will crush you!” Mookerjee is believed to have retorted, “We will crush this crushing mentality.” He was also admired for other unpopular actions that spoke of his loyalty to Bengal’s culture and identity. Zhou Enlai’s comment after his education in Japan that language is an instrument of colonialism resonated with him. “You have drunk deep at the springs of western knowledge” he told students of Calcutta Universiiy when he was vice-chancellor. “While you will not hesitate to absorb for your benefit and for the national good the best elements in western culture and thought, you will not in any case permit the destruction of the vital elements of your own civilisation.” That was when Rabindranath Tagore delivered the convocation address in Bengali for the first time. Tagore also let loose “a volley of Sanskrit” to Oxford’s Latin citation when it honoured him with an honorary doctorate. Perhaps he was influenced by the first Lord Sinha, Britain’s only non-white hereditary peer, who must have caused eyebrows to rise in 1919 by introducing his Sanskrit motto Jata Dharma Stata Jaya to the College of Heralds and House of Lords.

He would not, therefore, have countenanced Dilip Ghosh, Bengal’s BJP chief, proclaiming his cow-belt affiliation by chattering away in Hindi on national television. Heis more likely to have supported Amra Bangali (We Bengalis), a socio-political organisation that tried to replicate Shiv Sena exclusiveness in West Bengal but was soon squeezed into silence.

Kamal Nath, the Madhya Pradesh chief minister who was brought up in Kolkata where his father and grandfather were in business, rightly dismissed the BJP’s appeal in West Bengal as “just Hindutva, nothing else”. He knows that many Bengalis accuse Mamata Banerjee of histrionically appeasing Muslims with her hijab, namaz and “Khuda Hafiz”. Her latest offence was to appoint Firhad (Bobby) Hakim, a smalltime local Muslim politician with no municipal experience at all, mayor of Kolkata. He is hardly a worthy successor to Bengal’s greats like Deshabandhu Chittaranjan Das and Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose. Before that she announced stipends of Rs 2,500 and land for house construction to 30,000 imams and muezzins. Trying to repair the damage, she got Mr Hakim to promise Rs 380 to Brahmin priests per corpse at the cremation ghat but this was too little too late. Given the tension, Amit Shah was probably applauded for calling Bangladeshi immigrants “termites”.

But the enlightened Bengali’s ingrained aversion to Sangh Parivar bigotry would not have evaporated so easily if it hadn’t been for gnawing economic discontent. Ms Banerjee succeeded in ousting the Marxists after 34 years mainly because their land reforms and minimum agricultural wages had created a revolution of expectations the Left Front just didn’t understand. Watching Indian society’s avid upward spiral, I found this blindness unbelievable. More than 50 years ago I spent a few days in the Punjab Agricultural University in Ludhiana. The students were all sons of farmers selected because they showed promise and on the understanding that they would take back to the field their university-acquired skills and enrich Indian agriculture. Not one boy was willing to return to farming. Everyone wanted a clerical job in the BDO – Block Development Office – which was the highest their gaze rose in the 1960s.

It should be clear to politicians and planners that village boys with a smattering of education yearn for white-collar jobs and middle-class respectability. Having driven Tatas out of West Bengal, Ms Banerjee found herself hoist with her own petard. Bengal voters who ditched her have yet to discover that the BJP hasn’t created too many jobs either. In fact, for all the BJP’s bombast, national unemployment is at an all-time high. It could be frying pan to fire for young Bengal if the party realises its dream of chasing Trinamul out of office in 2021.

Strong men with strongly-held views aare not always right. Echoes of Mookerjee’s resonant “Ek desh mein do Vidhan, do Pradhan aur Do Nishan nahi chalenge” (A single country can’t have two constitutions, two prime ministers, and two national emblems) can be heard in Narendra Modi’s  opposition to Article 370 for Jammu and Kashmir. Both are wrong for two reasons. First, Maharaja Hari Singh acceded to India on only the three points of defence, foreign policy and communications. Article 370 was New Delhi’s solemn quid pro quo. It cannot unilaterally be withdrawn without laying India open to the charge of breach of faith. Second, Mr Modi may not know it but every Indian province had a prime minister under the Government of India Act of 1935 until the republican Constitution came into force in 1950. In no way did this celebration of India’s multiple identity damage national unity.

The writer is the author of several books and a regular media columnist.



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