Communal politics

In West Bengal, the BJP is using Ram Navami as an exercise of domination

The ruling Trinamool Congress, meanwhile, is widening the communal divide with its own confused identity politics.

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.

Members of the Kshatriya Samaj wave swords as they participate in a rally on Ram Navami in Howrah, West Bengal, on March 25.  (Photo credit: IANS).
Members of the Kshatriya Samaj wave swords as they participate in a rally on Ram Navami in Howrah, West Bengal, on March 25. (Photo credit: IANS).

Visual domination

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.

Members of the ruling Trinamool Congress hold a rally in Kolkata on Ram Navami, on March 25. (Photo Credit: IANS).
Members of the ruling Trinamool Congress hold a rally in Kolkata on Ram Navami, on March 25. (Photo Credit: IANS).

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.

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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.