For high political drama encapsulated in a few minutes, it has few parallels; as a continuation of the pitched battle—verbal and otherwise—fought in Bengal by the Trinamool Congress and the BJP throughout the poll season, there can be no greater confirmation. A motley group shout ‘Jai Shri Ram’ as the convoy of West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee passes through an industrial belt on the northeastern fringe of Calcutta. As if on cue, the vehicle carrying Banerjee, the TMC chief, stops and she steps out. “Who’s shouting Jai Shri Ram?” she demands angrily. No one volunteers an answer. “If I am alive, I will see how far you go. Bengal will be ours,” she thunders, instructing the police to note down names of the men who shouted the slogan—a veritable war cry of BJP workers.
Bruised and embittered by the 18 Lok Sabha seats lost to the saffron surge in Bengal—until now, perceived as a secular frontier—Mamata is trying to counter ‘Jai Shi Ram’ with ‘Joy Bangla’ and ‘Jai Hind’, public exclamations that have represented secular Bengali and Indian patriotic sentiments for decades.
But, has the feisty Mamata, known for her street-fighting cred since her earliest days in politics, walked into a guileful trap by regarding the saffron brigade slogan as a taunt directed at her, almost as a personal affront?
Ever since the BJP’s unexpectedly good showing in Bengal, analysts say that the otherwise seasoned Mamata has reacted in a foolhardy manner. For, a petulant, even choleric, rejection of a Hindutva slogan can only play into the hands of the speedily-expanding BJP-RSS combine in Bengal, allegedly helping them to further deepen the communal divide.
Mamata has been vehemently describing Hindutva politics as “alien to Bengal” throughout her LS campaign, points out senior journalist Subir Bhaumik. “But she has clearly overreacted by trying to physically charge at BJP supporters,” Bhaumik tells Outlook, referring to the latest incident. “She should have ignored it, because religious parties are expected to shout religious slogans.”
The Trinamool, which sees the greeting, popular in the Sangh Parivar, as a political construct of the Hindi heartland, also sees in its regular, and provocative, brandishing a symbolic challenge by a BJP targeting the 2021 assembly elections.
Consequently, Mamata asked TMC supporters to greet each other with ‘Joy Bangla’ and ‘Jai Hind’—a secular antidote to Hinduvta’s muscular greeting that is taken up by newer voices in a Bengal politically polarised between BJP and TMC.
“It is expected that Mamata will fight Hindutva with Bangaliyana (Bengali-ness), by rousing ethno-linguistic pride against the politics of religiosity,” says political commentator Sukhoranjan Dasgupta. “Bengalis are a divided people now, and for many, memories of Partition-time violence rankle still,” he says.
A still shows Mamata angry at the ‘Jai Shri Ram’ slogan
Instead of rising to petty saffron bait, Mamata should focus on immediate political issues, like preventing the BJP-led Centre from enforcing the National Register of Citizens (NRC), says Bhaumik. Both Amit Shah and PM Narendra Modi had said during the hostile Lok Sabha campaign that if the BJP was voted back, it would replicate the NRC exercise in Bengal to “throw out” infiltrators, but leave Hindu refugees untouched. The exercise had become a contentious issue in Assam after the complete draft, released last year, omitted names of around 40 lakh people residing in the state for decades.
“Mamata should regroup to control the fallout of the BJP’s religious campaign. Ultimately, it’s a battle of hearts and minds that she has to win. For that she better avoid getting provoked,” says Bhaumik. Dasgupta casts a gimlet eye back in time, to the 1990s. “Mamata is being paid back in the same coin—divisive politics—she used when she split the Bengal Congress to float the Trinamool. Moreover, she is partly to be blamed for playing the politics of religious appeasement,” he says.
“In order to appease Muslims—mostly Bihari Muslims from Bangladesh—she has lost the popular support of the Matuas, Bengali Hindus from erstwhile East Pakistan, now Bangladesh,” Dasgupta tells Outlook. However, BJP’s shrill anti-Bangladesh rhetoric and threats to implement the NRC has not gone down well with many, warns Dasgupta, a close Bangladesh watcher.
“Bengal, secular for decades, runs the risk of being divided on religious lines. The BJP is dangerous for a border state like West Bengal. However, it must be noted that even Hindutva icon Syama Prasad Mookerjee joined the Krishak Praja Party ministry of Fazlul Huq in the ’40s,” says Dasgupta.
What is the Trinamool Congress to do, then? To take on the saffron wave and to blunt their burgeoning political heft in rural Bengal—which saw a tactical shift both from the decimated Left and away from the TMC itself—the Trinamool boss has called for the setting up of two cadre-based organisations to counter the RSS which, she feels, spearheaded the BJP’s entry into Bengal. The all-male organisation will be called ‘Jai Hind Bahini’ and the women’s group the ‘Banga Lolona Bahini’, she told the media.
Upping the ante on her Facebook page, blaming the BJP for creating unrest in the state by “mixing religion with politics”, Mamata wrote: “We will counter RSS and BJP with our culture. We will educate our people about the dangers of divisive religious politics”.
The slogans she wants to deploy against ‘Jai Shri Ram’, have, however, rare pedigree and can easily summon up patriotic passion. While ‘Joy Bangla’ is the inspiring war cry of the Mukti Bahini that fought the 1971 war of liberation for Bangladesh and was first raised by Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, ‘Jai Hind’ was the rousing slogan made popular by the Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose-led Indian National Army—both are deeply secular cries raised by two of Bengal’s greatest sons. As such, they’re etched into the Bengali psyche. “Neither are religious slogans...the BJP has turned ‘Jai Shri Ram’ into a political slogan,” says senior journalist Samir Purkayastha.
The slogan slugfest has also taken a new, numerical dimension now—trying to make a political hullaballoo out of Mamata’s animus, the BJP plans to send 10 lakh postcards with ‘Jai Shri Ram’ INScribed on them (see picture below) to the Trinamool boss’s Kalighat residence in Calcutta. Not to be outdone, the TMC in response wants to send ‘Joy Bangla’ and ‘Jai Hind’ postcards addressed to PM Narandra Modi and Union home minister Amit Shah.
This is all very well, but the religious polarisation of Bengal’s political landscape gathers pace. To curb the malicious influence of majoritarian, religion-driven politics, former TMC MP Sugata Bose has proposed to form an apolitical, secular and liberal citizen’s forum.
Bose, a Harvard professor and a grandnephew of Netaji, told a Bengali news channel that the movement against Hindutva should be driven by the cultural inspiration of Rabindranath Tagore and Kazi Nazrul Islam and the political legacy of Deshbandhu Chittaranjan Das and Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose.
The slugfest between ‘Jai Shri Ram’ and ‘Joy Bangla’, symbolising a battle for the political soul of Bengal, may turn more vicious and push the state further into the starkest of divides. Bengalis must decide where their loyalties lie—the choice given them is one bereft of greys.
By Probir Pramanik in Calcutta