Hindutva in Bengal

Revisiting Syama Prasad Mookerjee, the Trinamool's latest hero

A look at the communal politics of the Jan Sangh founder and how they relate to Bengal today.

On Tuesday, the Trinamool Congress paid floral tributes to Dr Syama Prasad Mookerjee, the founder of the Bharatiya Jana Sangh, (which later evolved into the Bharatiya Janata Party), marking another step on the road to the rapprochement between the TMC and the BJP.

From facing off bitterly against each other in the 2014 Lok Sabha Elections, the past few months have seen a definite thaw in relations between Mamata Banerjee and Narendra Modi. The BJP, since then, has now gone so far as to slow down corruption investigations against Trinamool leaders. And the Trinamool, in turn, has helped the BJP out in the Rajya Sabha as well as backed key foreign policy decisions with Bangladesh (such as the Land Boundary Agreement).

Even by these standards, though, feting SP Mookerji is significant. The Trinamool, till now, was a party accused of pandering to Muslim right wingers in Bengal – it instituted a stipend for imams and all but expelled Taslima Nasreen from the state. With Tuesday’s move, the TMC is trying to square the circle, by also identifying with a person who was one of the Hindutva movement’s leading lights and who, in 1947, openly called for Partition.

Syama Prasad Mookerjee

SP Mookerjee was born into bhadralok royalty. His father was Asutosh Mookerjee, the towering vice-chancellor of Calcutta University  (a post later held by the son too), who was awarded the Star of India and knighted for his services to the Empire.

Syama Prasad Mookerjee entered politics at the age of 28 and was first elected to the Bengal Legislative Council as a Congress candidate from Calcutta University in 1929 (without universal adult franchise, the Raj had a complex system of allocating legislative seats with quotas to special interests such as industries or, in this case, scholars).

He didn’t last too long in the Congress, though, given that it soon decided against council entry and SP Mookerjee didn’t want to vacate his seat, which he then held as an independent. Moreover, Mookerjee found the Congress’ attitude towards Muslims too soft and he was more interested in championing Hindu interests.

Communal Award

The politics of Bengal changed sharply after 1932, when the Raj released a new plan of legislative seat allocation known as the Communal Award. In Bengal, till then, in spite of the Muslims being a majority, there were more Hindu seats in the Council than Muslim seats. The Award reversed this anomaly, awarding more seats to the majority Muslims. To make matters worse for the upper caste bhadralok, in far away Pune, Mohandas Gandhi had come to an understanding with BR Ambedkar to award a large portion of “Hindu” seats to Dalits, in return for joint caste Hindu-Dalit electorates. This made the bhadralok’s position even weaker.

The bhadralok had, till then, dominated this province’s politics. Before the Communal Award, there were 46 Hindu seats to 39 Muslims seats in Bengal. This new system of distributing  power by the counting of heads, though, changed this system overnight. Now for 80 Hindu seats there were 117 Muslims seats.

Even as this new system was being introduced, the British governor of Bengal warned Delhi that this would “increase communal bitterness”. Sure enough, the Hindu elite of Bengal were alarmed at this sudden loss of power. One petition, signed by a stunning array of Bengalis, including SP Mookerjee and also Rabindranath Tagore, argued that the the Award was unjust since the “Hindus of Bengal, though, numerically a minority, are overwhelmingly superior culturally.” As historian, Joya Chatterji points out, “the implication was that the 'cultural superiority' of the Hindus more than outweighed the numerical majority of the backward Muslims, and entitled Hindus to a share of power far in excess of their numbers”.

Embattled minority

Almost overnight, the bhadralok community, that had almost come to define what “national” meant, started to see themselves as an embattled minority community (only a few decades back, the North Indian Muslim elite had gone through an near identical identity crisis).

In 1937, provincial elections were held in Bengal, which the Congress fought as part of an informal coalition with the Krishak Praja Party, a party of the largely Muslim peasantry of Bengal. The Bengal Congress, more than in any other part of the country, was a largely Hindu-based party. It thus didn’t fight a single Muslim seat – a wise move since it wouldn’t have won anyway – and left them for the KPP.

Unfortunately, post the election, driven by a host of factors, the Congress refused to form a coalition government with the KPP and its influential leader, Fazlul Haq (Haq has mostly been forgotten by the city he was once Premier of, but in Park Circus, the Kolkata street where he once lived, Jhowtala Road is now named "Fazlul Haq Sarani") . Haq was therefore forced into the arms of the Muslim League. Although both parties represented Muslims, there was a class divide: the League represented zamindars while the KPP, peasants and they had in fact fought as bitter rivals in the elections.

Again with eerie parallels to the United Provinces, this provincial government that was then formed did not have any minority (in Bengal’s case, Hindu) representation. This sealed the fears of the Hindus in the province that this new system placed them under the rule of a – to use Jinnah’s phrase – “permanent majority”.

Sectarian parties, paradoxically, do well in areas where their communities are in a minority and can be sold a certain kind of politics. Thus the Muslim League was strongest amongst the minority Urduwallahs and was, for most of the time, a bit player in majority-provinces such as Bengal and the Punjab.

After the formation of the League-Praja ministry, it was the province’s Hindus who realised that they were a minority in Bengal. It was in this situation, in 1939, that Vinayak Savarkar – another Hindutva stalwart – launched his party, the Hindu Mahasabha, in Bengal. Mookerjee joined the party and by 1940 had become the Mahasabha’s president and its most prominent face in Bengal.

Communal campaign

Mookerjee now took up a stridently communal campaign. Gandhi’s non-violence was ridiculed and the manhood of the Bengali Hindu was sought to be reclaimed. In a line of thinking that continues till today with the BJP, the Mahasabha attacked the so-called minority appeasement of the Congress, blaming the Grand Old Party for Hindus being “strangled to death” in Bengal.

In this campaign, he attracted a great measure of support, drawing to his party not only prominent zamindars but also the business wealth of Kolkata. While the Mahasabha could never supplant the Congress as the natural party of the Bengali Hindu, it did have a huge influence on Congress policy, yanking it to the right. In the crucial period of 1946-47, both parties worked together in close cooperation in the province.

In spite of his communalism, however, it was Syama Prasad who did what the Congress could not in 1937: he allied with Fazlul Haq and joined his Progressive Coalition Ministry, thus becoming Bengal’s Finance Minister. The Mahasabha had at the time opposed the Quit India movement and as minister, Mookerjee stuck to that agenda, writing in 1942 to the Governor of Bengal, Sir John Herbert, in order to offer his “whole-hearted cooperation” in order to “combat this movement in Bengal”. The fact that Mookerjee cooperated with the Raj in order to try and crush the Quit India movement is, till today, used as a stick to beat the BJP with.

Partition role

SP Mookerjee is most reviled – or feted, depending on where you stand – for his role in 1947. By the start of 1947, the Cabinet Mission plan, which promised a united India lay dead, rejected by the Congress. In this stalemate, as the country increasingly hurtled towards communal chaos, Mookerjee proposed a solution for Bengal. In a landmark piece in the Bengali newspaper, Anandabazar Patrika on 21 March 1947, Mookerjee wrote that “the mere mention of the word ‘partition’ need not throw us into a fainting fit”. He also listed the benefits of this division. The creation of West Bengal would help in “saving Bengali Hindus” because the new province would be 70% Hindu – helping engineer a majority.

For the Hindus left behind in Pakistan, he proposed the “Hostage Theory” – an extremely popular conjecture in 1946-47 which held that since both India and Pakistan had “each others” minorities, fears of reprisals would force both to keep their minorities safe. For SP Mookerjee, it meant that East Pakistan would take care of its Hindus since it would be anxious about Muslims in West Bengal. For Jinnah, it means that Uttar Pradesh wouldn’t harm its Muslims since Pakistan had Hindus too, which India wouldn’t want harmed.

In practice, however, it was seen that a calm weighing of the pros and cons of the “Hostage Theory” is something that frenzied mobs out to murder, rape and loot did not do. The Muslims of Delhi and the Hindus of Dhaka were attacked all the same.

This issue was especially stark in Bengal since after Partition, as much as 42% of Bengal’s Hindu population was now in East Pakistan. Ironically, after proposing Partition, SP Mookerjee, post 1947, also courted the votes of the refugees streaming in from East Pakistan. He resigned from the Nehru Cabinet when it signed the Delhi Pact on the minorities in the two Bengals. And in one of this more extreme suggestions (a permitted luxury now that he was in the opposition) Mookerjee wanted Nehru to declare war on Pakistan and annexe territory from East Pakistan.

Post-1947 collapse

Given these wild swings, it is not surprising that far from making a dent in Bengal, the Hindu Mahasabha couldn’t even attract the vote of the refugees streaming in from East Bengal, who largely turned to the the left and would later on go on to become one of the CPI(M)’s core support bases.

Moreover, serious allegations of a Mahasabha role in the assassination of Gandhi were a major blow to the party and its organisation in Bengal was severely affected. Consequently, Mookerjee left the Mahasabha and founded the Bharatiya Jana Sangh in 1951. The party was formed in association with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and is the earlier avatar of the Bharatiya Janata Party.

Mookerjee, once a stalwart of Bengal politics, was now reduced to a bit player in the newly partitioned state of West Bengal that he had helped create. In the 1952 West Bengal Assembly Elections, the Jana Sangh won a paltry nine seats out of 238. This is how the Hindutva movement more or less remained in the state till 2014, with SP Mookerjee a near-forgotten figure. Of course, now with a small resurgence of Hindutva in Bengal in the form of the BJP, it is no surprise that he is being remembered again.

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