Even by the fractious standards of Bengali politics, the College Street violence on May 14 came as a shock. As clashes broke out during the Bharatiya Janata Party chief Amit Shah’s roadshow in Kolkata, mobs vandalised Vidyasagar College and smashed a bust of Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, an iconic figure of the 19th century Bengal Renaissance. To this day, every Bengali learns their alphabet from a primer written by Vidyasagar over 150 years ago.

Bengali politics has always been violent. But the smashing of Vidyasagar’s bust maybe represents a new phase – one ready to dismantle old social structures. There is no better symbol of this old order than the Bengali bhadralok, now stuck between an immediate past associated with the communists and a present where significant sections are breaking away for Hindutva.

In many ways, however, this discussion holds little meaning. In today’s Bengal, the bhadralok is marginalised in politics, sidelined by the frenetic populism of both the Left and the Right – an arrangement that has little room for an elite, intellectual class.

The Bhadralok

As a class, the bhadralok were created under British rule in the 19th century. The word is a Bengali neologism, formed by literally translating “gentleman”.

Though the bhadralok generally referred to the educated classes under the British, in practice the category overlapped almost entirely with the three upper castes of Hindu Bengali society: Brahmin, Baidya and Kayastha.

Given the bhadralok’s wealth and education, they are well plugged into pan-India currents. As a result, the BJP has had a significant impact on this class following Narendra Modi’s rise in Delhi.

Aditya Aashish, centre, at Kolkata's iconic Coffee House. He believes 'Modi is working towards the development of the country'. Photo credit: Shoaib Daniyal

Support for Modi

Aditya Aashish is one of a large number of bhadraloks who live outside Bengal. He is studying for an MBA in Hyderabad. In Kolkata for a college project, Aashish claims to have no strong political views one way or the other – except he seems to like almost everything Modi has done. “Modi is working towards the development of the country,” said Aashish. “Take Balakot. At certain times, you need to be firm and Modi did that.”

In Murshidabad, Anil Kandari, 52, works at Berhampore town’s Public Works Department. He is a news junkie. Nothing unusual for the average Berhamporite, except Kandari consumes his news in Hindi despite being barely able to speak the language. “I watch Zee News since they show the real facts; Bengali news channels only lie about Modi,” he said. “It is only from Hindi news channels that I have learnt how respected Modi is abroad.”

The bhadralok have always had a greater pan-Indian consciousness than other Bengalis. Anil Kandari of Murshidabad now watches Hindi news channels in order to get positive news about Narendra Modi. Photo credit: Shoaib Daniyal

‘Muslim appeasement’

While Modi’s image and a pan-India consciousness have played a part, the biggest factor for the BJP’s rise among the Bengali bhadralok is maybe local: a widespread narrative that the ruling Trinamool Congress is appeasing Muslims.

Anjana and Debaprasad Mukherjee are a retired couple in Bhowanipore, just a stone’s throw away from Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s home. They are largely happy with the development work in their neighbourhood. “Ki ja chhilo bam amol-e, baba,” shuddered Anjana Mukherjee. What a state we were in under the Left.

They are pleased with the cleanliness, regular power supply and responsiveness of the Trinamool-controlled Kolkata Municipal Corporation. “One call and they come running,” said Anjana Mukherjee. “Under the Left, this was unthinkable.”

The couple will still, however, vote for the BJP. The deciding factor: “appeasement”.

“That is the only thing we are angry with,” said Debaprasad Mukherjee. “Why does she do some much for them [Muslims].”

As an example, he brings up a popular narrative of appeasement in Kolkata: lack of action against helmetless motorcycle riders. “Can a policeman ever ask a Muslim rider to wear a helmet?” he asked. “They are scared to even enter a Muslim neighbourhood.”

Anjana and Debaprasad Mukherjee acknowledge the development work done by the Trinamool Congress in their Bhowanipore neighbourhood. However, they will still vote for the BJP. Photo credit: Shoaib Daniyal

Sarbani Bandyopadhyay, a sociologist at Kolkata’s St Xavier’s College points out that such views are common even though they have little basis in fact. “I meet bhadraloks everyday who claim they are voting for the BJP because the Trinamool is appeasing Muslims,” said Bandyapodhyaya. “None of this is true, of course. Data shows the Muslims are the worst off in West Bengal. But nevertheless, this is a widespread impression in bhadralok circles given that a certain anti-Muslim mindset exists.”

Secular Bengaliness

While bhadralok backing for the BJP is growing, it is by no means absolute; a significant section still supports the Left Front. There is also approval for a larger secular ideal, with many bhadraloks repulsed by the BJP’s extremist religious nationalism.

At Kolkata’s Academy of Fine Arts, painter Prateep Ghosh’s face displays anguish when he talks about the BJP and its election campaign centred on Hindutva. “In Kolkata, we have always worked with Hindus, with Muslims, with Christians,” he said. “Where did this sort of violence come from? How can we throw out Muslims and Christians? Is it possible?”

Sometimes, this sentiment merges with an idea of Bengali identity. “These violent Ram Navamis, this was never our culture,” said Ghosh, shaking his head. “Bengalis worship peacefully. We worship Krishno, we worship our goddesses. This is from north India, not here.”

That Ghosh’s is not an insignificant point of view can be gauged from the fact that after the smashing of the Vidyasagar statue, Mamata Banerjee immediately began pushing a Bengali nationalist narrative to paint the BJP and its aggressive Hindutva as interlopers in Bengal.

Along with secularism, bhadralok support for the communists also stems from their appreciation of high culture, now missing from both the Trinamool and the BJP. “Even during its worse days, the CPI(M) prided itself on some intellectualism,” said Tapati Guha-Thakurta, historian at the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Kolkata. “What the Left would strongly decry as apasanksriti, perverse culture – a culture of loudness and spectacle – has now become the official culture of the state.”

A poster put up by the Trinamool Congress in Kolkata's Ballygunge. It is part of the party's attempt to tap Bengali nationalist sentiment around the smashing of the Vidyasagar statue. The Bengali word superimposed on the image of the smashed bust is "shame!". Photo credit: Shoaib Daniyal

Chhotolok rising

That there is no concept of apasanksriti in today’s politics points to a deeper shift in Bengal: the marginalisation of the bhadralok.

“The image of the bhadralok may be alive, but it is the ‘chhotolok’ that now dominates Bengali politics,” said Rajat Roy, a political scientist at Presidency University, referring to lower caste, working class Bengalis. “Autowalahs, labourers, hawkers, these people are the determinants. The bhadralok isn’t a determinant anymore in Bengali politics.”

The shift of power to the chhotolok has meant that some bhadraloks have withdrawn from electoral politics altogether.

Souradeep Ghosh is in his 20s and works as a coder in Sector 5, Kolkata’s information technology hub. He says neither he nor his family in Bankura participate in elections. “Why should we take the risk when politics is so violent?” he asked. “What will we gain by voting?”

This view is common among bhadraloks – but it is also restricted to them. Political participation is high among working class Bengalis. Indeed, Bengal has recorded higher voter turnouts than most states in the six phases of the Lok Sabha election held so far.

BJP flags dominate the College Street area, an education hub of Kolkata with colleges and book stores. Photo credit: Shoaib Daniyal


Two inflections have led to this situation, explained Rajat Roy. “In the 1990s, liberalisation shifted the source of wealth from land, a traditional bhadralok preserve, to incomes from the service sector such as information technology,” he said. “Then in the 2000s, Namashudra Dalits emerged as a major force, that Mamata would tap to come to power in 2011.”

Banerjee’s emergence marked a sharp shift from the bhadralok to the chhotolok. “She brought mass populism to the high table, a space once dominated by the bhadralok,” said Roy. “Her vocal and very unconventional ways of doing politics, her use of the idiom of identity, from caste to religion, has caused the bhadralok anxiety.”

The CPI(M) chief in West Bengal ridicules Mamata Banerjee's working class accent on social media. Banerjee's starkly non-bhadralok mannerisms have been a talking point for some time now.

As the BJP rose aggressively in Bengal after 2014, it did not change this chhotolok domination of grassroots politics. Its belligerent Ram Navami rallies, marked by frenzied dancing and loud music, are distinctly unbhadralok and the parades almost entirely consist of working class Bengalis. Like Banerjee before, the BJP has also explicitly targeted Dalits for their support. One academic analysis noted that the Bengal BJP has “appeared to have expanded the most in the southern SC, ST and OBC dominated areas of the state”.

As both Left and Right populism occupy the entire field of Bengali politics, the bhadralok feels disenchanted and disenfranchised.

“It seems that this is not our city anymore,” said Tapati Guha-Thakurta. “But it is our city. Where else will we go?”

Read more:

How Mamata Banerjee brought identity back into West Bengal politics (and why that’s a good thing)

How the Trinamool’s identity politics ended up (inadvertently) creating space for Hindutva