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Dear Bengalis, Our Multiculturalism Is In Danger, And Only We Can Save It

Posted by Debopama Sinha in Society
July 8, 2017

Growing up in West Bengal, especially in Kolkata, has been a privilege. But it is difficult to explain this to those who were not fortunate enough to enjoy this privilege. Though Howrah is where I live, more than half of my life has been spent on the other side of the Ganges. Now when I see friends leave for other cities, some of them for higher educational purposes, others for professional prosperity, I can sense the saudade they experience, no matter where they choose to live.

The longingness is not because they are professionally unsettled or they miss the work environment back in Kolkata, but it is what Kolkata collectively stands for. It, after all, is the liberal, multicultural, cosmopolitan capital of India, the very reason it is possible to draw a direct comparison of the city with London.

The reason why I am writing this is not to cast a scathing or judgemental remark, but I cannot say this about people belonging to other states of India. This nostalgia that runs so deep, such longingness for their birthplace, in my opinion, is probably just a Kolkata thing and not a generic human characteristic.

Despite the alleged backwardness, the joblessness, the severely unprofessional attitudes, the frequent political conflicts, strikes and bandhs, Kolkata never stops being herself. I think the very essence of the city lies in its unabashed attitude where you can just “be yourself” without being judged.

Yes, in Kolkata the oft-used galagaal is oshikhito. We judge you for your lack of awareness and imbecility. We don’t judge you when you go out on Saptami and stop for a khiri roll around Esplanade. We don’t judge you if you are an Imran or a Shehnaz yet queue up in front of Pantaloons when Durga Pujo is just a week away and make Ashtami plans with your other Hindu friends. We don’t judge the college student who hails from a Muslim family in Murshidabad, studies Microbiology in Kolkata and is a practising vegetarian.

We don’t seek retribution with narrow judgmental eyes when a Mirza marries a Ghosh and they choose not to give a surname to their children. And this is the uniqueness of the city, which probably is difficult to explain to those who have never lived here. To us, Bengali indicates one’s linguistic identity and not their religious affiliation. This has been a practice in Bengal, for decades. Much before it became fashionable to call oneself a “Bong” and associate with the stereotypes trending on social media.

It is common knowledge that in Bengal Muslims constitute 27% of the state’s total population, one of the highest among Indian states. Till date, we have coexisted without getting threatened by the other’s presence. So why are we all of a sudden troubled by it? It’s not like a mass exodus of guerilla-trained ISIS militants has happened, neither are we suddenly getting aware of their food habits, their choice of meat and so on. Then why are we reacting this way?

They are the same people with whom we have shared our locality since birth, they are our old neighbours,  our childhood friends, the same known faces, slightly wrinkled perhaps, but still the same – then why so much animosity and mistrust? Who is behind this? It is time we raise these questions and demand answers. Unfortunately, we all know the answers already, and it is time we mull over it.

It is time we downright reject miscreants, sitting in positions of power, who spread hatred in the name of religion and politics. Politics over religious beliefs is not a new trend in India. It has always existed in dormant forms and often inconspicuous manners in our society. But when that very politics crosses the threshold that limits invasion of privacy and guarantees a person’s fundamental rights, and questions his lifestyle choices, it becomes extremely problematic.

Falling into this trap of believing such outright lies is dangerous. Religion shouldn’t be practised by those who harbour extremely fragile religious sentiments. Religions which have existed over centuries do not need protection by self-appointed vigilantes, and this applies to both Hindus and Muslims.

It existed before our birth and will continue to do so after we are long gone. Initially, such vigilantes approach people with a fundamentalist agenda and attempt to establish their religious familiarity. Then gradually they conjure up a problem and highlight how their collective existence is under immense threat and it needs to be saved. Then they go up on the podium and try very hard to resolve issues concerning this crisis of identity, which until a few days back you never knew existed.

Partially convinced and somewhat baffled, you may or may not join the mob or the community of internet trolls who launch a physical or virtual attack on the “rival” religious community. This attack could have several triggers – could be a baseless rumour about an unsuspecting villager storing meat in their refrigerator, could be a paid Facebook troll that apparently jeopardises the sanctity of your religion or could just be a video of few faceless men burning the national flag in a brilliantly choreographed manner.

This, unfortunately, is the general progression of incidents, and the only way out is to identify the mind behind the mob and expose them publicly. Otherwise, we would have to silently watch Bengal turn into a communal cauldron and know for certain that a dark and dreadful future awaits us. If Hindus and Muslims take up arms against each other, none would benefit from it. History provides ample examples of such violent conflicts, and we don’t need more, not in Bengal, not anywhere. Riot is not a natural phenomenon, but a man-made disaster and can only be avoided through widespread human awareness.

My only request to whoever reading this is, in a world of rabble-rousers let us be pacifists. Let us not rise against each other but help each other rise above such hatred and mistrust. Let us not make Bengal the battleground of religious conflicts. Let us learn to coexist because that is the way, and I repeat, the only way forward.

For God has not given us a spirit of fearfulness, but one of power, love and sound judgement.