Two deaths in clashes triggered by Sunday’s Ram Navami processions in West Bengal fit into a troubling pattern in the state: a deliberately performed spectacle of religion followed by violence. In Purulia district on Sunday, a man was killed after he was reportedly caught in clashes between the police and local residents. A second death was reported on Monday as fresh clashes broke out in Raniganj and Bardhaman. By Monday evening, the turbulence had spread to neighbouring Bihar, where Aurangabad was placed under curfew.
In the last couple of years, Ram Navami rallies cutting across the West Bengal landscape have swelled in scale and number. Apart from liberal lashings of saffron, these rallies are marked by sword- and trident-wielding demonstrators, including young children. Last year, over 200 processions coursed through Bengal to “unite the Hindus” against “growing jihadi activities in the state”. It would be disingenuous to say the marches are not political. Largely organised and attended by members of the Bharatiya Janata Party, they resemble the area domination exercises of a party keen to establish itself.
The ruling Trinamool Congress has resisted these demonstrations. This year, Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee tried to proscribe weaponised Ram Navami marches. Other parts of the state machinery have also swung into action: Bengal’s child rights commission has summoned two Bajrang Dal members over the participation of children in these armed marches. Both this year and the last, state BJP chief Dilip Ghosh was named in first information reports for carrying weapons. But Banerjee’s government is undermined by the Trinamool’s own confused brand of identity politics, along with the charge that the state administration has been corralled by the ruling party.
The BJP’s rise in Bengal is accompanied by assertions of the muscular Hindutva that dominates the Hindi heartland. Ram Navami processions may have been held in pockets of the state before, but this aggression is new and different from more quiet local Hindu customs. Ghosh also twinned the Ram Navami processions with the fight to build the Ram Mandir in Ayodhya.
Swords, tridents and Ram Mandir – the iconography of mainstream Hindutva has bled into the Bengal landscape. Meanwhile, a bust of freedom fighter and India’s first education minister Maulana Abul Kalam Azad was pulled down in the recent Ram Navami violence. The BJP and allied organisations seem to feel that to politically dominate, they must visually dominate first.
For instance, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh has deep roots in Bengal but there is a new visibility to saffron organisations that have now spread in the state. This is especially true of towns that have seen communal polarisation in the recent past. Take Dhulagarh, near Kolkata, which saw a sudden conflagration in December 2016. While the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh had a presence in the town for years, Trinamool workers spoke of increasing mobilisations by the Bajrang Dal, which trains armies of the youth on local grounds, and Shiv Sena flags lining the main road.
A Trinamool confused
If the BJP is making room for itself in Bengal through saffron mobilisations, the Trinamool’s response has not helped. Instead of standing firmly for secularism, or a politics drained of religion, it has waged various battles of identity.
First, it answered the BJP’s mainstream Hindutva with regional chauvinism. Last year, Banerjee tried to fashion Brand Bengal, with a state emblem and a song. It was meant to be a “powerful assertion of Bengal’s unique culture”, which was “distinct from north India”. These contestations entered language as well when Banerjee made Bengali compulsory in all schools in the state. The chief minister’s battle cry against the armed Ram Navami marches is that they belong to an “alien culture”. But these arguments are a parochial, rather than a liberal, counter to the BJP’s bigotry.
Even the Trinamool’s regional assertions were gradually diluted in the Ram Navami stir. First, the chief minister said a few groups that had a tradition of parading weapons would be allowed to hold armed marches. Then, the Trinamool itself organised competing Ram Navami rallies, as if to reclaim the festival from the BJP.
Besides, the BJP’s mobilisations were fuelled in the first place by the Trinamool’s vote bank politics. Not unlike the Samajwadi Party in Uttar Pradesh, the Trinamool has been accused of cynical “minority appeasement” in Bengal. It made common cause with the most orthodox clerics in the community. It has also drawn charges of going soft on crimes committed by members of the minority community.
This impression of a government acting in bad faith to corner votes, of partisan policing that favoured one community above the other, has only given heft to the BJP’s fear mongering – about Hindus under siege, about parts of Bengal turning into “mini-Pakistan”, about criminality being the preserve of one particular community, sheltered by the state government.
Advance through disorder
In the aftermath of the Dhulagarh riots, saffron organisations reached out to Hindu residents who had lost their homes and belongings and the BJP emerged stronger in the area. It is a pattern seen in Uttar Pradesh, which has long been the laboratory for Hindutva, and in Assam, where the BJP came to power in 2016 by using judicious doses of saffron in the right places. A local communal conflagration is used to tell a story of Hindu victimisation, translating into gains for the BJP. Communal disorder has been a fertile breeding ground for Hindutva and the BJP.
The Ram Navami violence is the latest in a string of low intensity communal incidents in West Bengal over the last couple of years. They have ranged from communal clashes between Durga Puja and Muharram processions, to the storming of a police station in the border district of Malda in early 2016, to last year’s violence in Basirhat, where a Facebook post by a Hindu teenager unleashed violence by certain Muslim outfits.
In many cases, the rituals and customs of both religions, which had coexisted for so long, have suddenly become the centre of tense face-offs. This could be disastrous for Bengal, which has a history of communal violence. Yet the state also has a tradition of syncretic customs, of everyday exchanges and quiet friendships between communities, which can be glimpsed at times even in places struck by violence. Sadly, these unfashionable histories do not suit the political calculations of any party.