As a Bengali born and raised in Kolkata, my childhood was mired in both political romanticism and opportunism. Unlike in north India, West Bengal saw ‘ideology-driven’ politics where students galloped around campuses with huge portraits of Marx and Lenin. Behind this facade, however, lay another Bengal where the state was all powerful and all pervasive – to whom ideology was as relevant as Gandhi is in Kashmir.
‘Rough and ready’ methods were used unabashedly to muzzle and sometimes eliminate voices of reason. As a state, Bengal, unlike Maharashtra, has rarely witnessed a ‘multi-corner’ fight where even the independents have a certain stake. Barring the 1967 elections, there has never been a strong opposition within the state assembly resulting in the repeated formation of ‘powerful’ and ‘popular’ governments.
Usually, governmental stability is a precursor to political stability. But in Bengal, the reverse became true. A cadre-based party, with its ever-expansionist zeal, kept the situation in Bengal volatile. Skirmishes between the opposition and the ruling alliance became rampant. Even today, Bengal unfortunately trumps many other states when it comes to incidents of political violence.
Therefore, it is as difficult to define Bengal today, as it was back then. Few can locate a Rabindra Sangeet-loving, timid, couch-potato Bengali within the bloodthirsty, violent, political atmosphere in the state. There has always been a sense of rebellion in the air – a ‘frozen fragrance of insularity’ – which has cut Bengal from the mainstream.
Even when eastern Europe was spiraling out of the control of communists and the Soviet Union was nearing its end, the residents of the state reposed their faith in an ideology which was out of sync with the rapidly changing world. More importantly, this was an ideology where ‘looking inward’ was not only ‘impractical’ but also ‘sinful’.
Even today, Hindi films associate Kolkata with its narrow lanes and communist flags. Perhaps, this will soon change as the death-bugle of the CPI(M) in Bengal has already been sounded. No longer do the people find anything worthwhile in a party led by unaccountable, ‘politically-infertile’ octogenarians who are unable to evoke energy or passion.
The BJP interestingly, which was usually seen to be a party of ‘Hindi speakers’, is finding wider acceptance in the state. This is evident from the fact that RSS shakhas (branches) have increased three-fold in the last five years. Incidentally, the TMC regime is going to complete its sixth year at the helm of the government next month, which has again sparked fresh allegations of a secret TMC-BJP understanding.
Bengal has often flaunted and feigned its ‘secular’ and ‘liberal’ credentials. It may be true that Hindus and Muslims have lived together without rioting in the state. But that does not mean they have lived ‘harmoniously’ all the time.
Here, I will honestly confess that many members in my family were cynical of the mussalman (a Muslim person). The elders of my family have often advised me never to marry a Muslim girl. Nonetheless, my crush happens to be a Bengali actress from the ‘other community’.
The aggressive nature of the recent Hanuman Jayanti celebrations in Bengal by both the BJP and the TMC have been seen by intellectuals as a blot on the syncretic Bengali culture. Though I am not a self-styled custodian of truth, the fact is that the recent turn of events is a manifestation of the complex and concealed narrative.
It also shows that the civil society in Bengal, very much like their Delhi counterparts, have failed to descend from their high horses. The falsehood of Bengali secularism is becoming more and more conspicuous with every passing day.
P.S- The state is at the doorstep of a political change which may unsettle many conventional stereotypes woven around the state and its people. This border-state, today, is a paradox. The paradox, perhaps is best reflected by my Brahmin friend in the city, who is an Islamophobic beef eater.