[ The Hindu, 6 Apr 2013 ; The Friday Times (Lahore), April 19-25, 2013 – Vol. XXV, No. 10 ; Kashmir Monitor, 25 Apr 2013 ; Himalayan Mirror (Gangtok), 12 Apr 2013 ; Himalayan Mail (Jammu), 7 Apr 2013; South Asia Citizen’s Web, 23 Apr 2013 ]
Many in West Bengal are looking to the Shahbag protests in Dhaka with a lot of hope and solidarity – as an important and necessary step that would usher in a rollback of the creeping communalism that has afflicted the People’s Republic of Bangladesh since 1975. 1971 is still fresh in the mind of many Bengalees from the West, when a massive relief and solidarity effort was under taken on that side of the border to reach out to a large mass of humanity trying to escape a situation that has been described variously – from ‘civil war’ to ‘genocide’. The then leaders of the Jamaat-e-Islami in East Bengal and its students wing organized murder and rape squads, at times in collaboration with the armed forces. The specific crimes include mass-murder, rape as a weapon of war, arson and forced conversions. They escaped prosecution due to the by generals who used them to cast an Islamic veneer of legitimacy over their illegal capture of power. They were gradually rehabilitated until the present Awami League led government came to power – whose manifesto among other things, promised the trial of war criminals. Thus started the proceedings against them in the War Crimes tribunal. The Shahbag protests have demanded maximum punishment for the guilty.
In West Bengal, a few meetings and assemblies have happened around Shahbag. However, to the shock and dismay of many, the largest of these assemblies was a massive rally held in central Kolkata’s Shahid Minar on 30th March, explicitly against the Shahbag protests and in support of the war criminals convicted by the tribunal. Various Muslim groups including the All India Milli Council, All Bengal Minority Youth Federation, West Bengal Sunnat Al Jamat Committee, Association of Protection of Civil Rights, Milli Ittehad Parishad, West Bengal Madrasa Students Union, Ashikane Rasul Committee, All India Minority Association, All Bengla Muslim Think Tank, All India Muslim Majlish E Mushawarat, Aminia Jamiat E Muttakin Committee, Ulama Parishad, Magribi Bangla Anzumane Wayejin, Bangiya Imama Parishad and All Bengal Imam Muazzin Assiciation convened the meeting. People had also arrived in buses and trucks from distant districts of West Bengal like Murshidabad and Nadia, in additional to those from the adjoining districts of North and South 24 Parganas, Haora and Hooghly, among others. Students of madrassas and the newly minted Aliah Madrassa University were conspicuous at the gathering.
They rallied because ‘Islam is in danger’ in Bangladesh. Never mind that that post-1947, that part of the world through all its forms ( East Bengal, East Pakistan, People’s Republic of Bangladesh) has seen a continuous drop in the population percentage of religious minorities, in every census since 1951.This rallying cry is not new. It was heard in 1952 when the mother language movement of was in full swing, in 1954 when the United Front led by Fazlul Haq and Maulana Bhashani challenged the Muslim League, in 1969 when the Awami League made its 6 demands and in 1971 when Bengalees fought for independence and now in the context of Shahbag in 2013 – basically during every secular movement for rights and justice. One of the main accused in the war-crimes trial, Golam Aazam (also the leader of the Jamaat in East Pakistan in 1971), had used this old trick in the hat when he has stated in 1971 “the supporters of the so-called Bangladesh Movement are the enemies of Islam, Pakistan, and Muslims”. Replace ‘Bangladesh’ with ‘Shahbag’ and ‘Pakistan’ with ‘Bangladesh’ and you have the same logic. Terming the struggle in Bangladesh to be one between Islam and Shaitan (Satan), it was announced at the meeting that they would cleanse West Bengal of those who were trying to support the present Prime-minister of Bangladesh and the war-crime trial effort. It was also threatened that those political forces that support Shahbag would ‘beaten with broom-sticks’ if they came to ask for votes from Muslims. Just like Taslima Nasreen and Salman Rushdie, Sheikh Hasina will also be kept out of Kolkata – they added. They also supported the anti-Shahbag ‘movement’ in Bangladesh. The last assertion is especially worrisome as this anti-Shahbag movement has let loose its fury on the religious minorities of Bangladesh. This has resulted in a wave of violent attacks on Hindus, Buddhists and secular individuals, with wanton burning and destruction of Hindu and Buddhist homes, businesses and places of worship. Amnesty International communiqué mentioned attacks on over 40 Hindu temples as of 6th March. The number is over 100 now and still rising.
Given the recent trends of politics in West Bengal, this large gathering and its pronouncements are not shocking. The writing has been in the wall for a while. A collapse in the Muslim vote of the Left Front is an important factor in its recent demise after more than three decades of uninterrupted rule. Various Muslim divines like Twaha Siddiqui of Furfura Sharif, have explicitly pointed that out as a point of threat to the present government. The Trinamool Congress wants to ensure a continued slice of this vote. The present government has tried to hand out sops to build a class of Muslim ‘community leaders’ who eat of its hand by its unprecedented move to giving monthly stipends to imams and muezzins. Very recently, it has been decided that such a cash scheme might be worked out for Muslim widows too. Given that it is beyond the ability of the debt-ridden, vision-poor government to solve the problems that are common to the poor, it has cynically chosen to woo a section of the marginalized on the basis of religion using handouts. These are excellent as speech-making points masquerading as empathy and social justice. This is dangerous politics to say the least. It sets into motion currents and gives fillip to forces whose trajectories are beyond the control of the present political groups. The Left Front’s political fortune has not improved after its humiliating defeat. It has cynically chosen not too oppose this communal turn to West Bengal’s politics, for it too, believes that silently waiting for the incumbent to falter is a better roadmap to power. The damage that is doing to the political culture of the state in immense and may well be irreparable. The incumbent’s connivance and the opposition’s silence are largely due to decades of erosion in the culture of democratic political contestation through grassroots organizing. Both the incumbent and the oppostition parties deal with West Bengal’s sizeable minority population primarily via intermediaries, often doing away with any pretense of political ideology while indulging in such transactions.
For their part, organizations owing allegiance to a particular brand of political Islam ala Moududi, have used this disconnect to the hilt. An emerging bloc of divines and ex-student leaders of certain organizations have used the students that they can amass at short notice to launch specific protests, aimed in getting a leverage in terms of policy. Sadly, this blackmailing is hardly aimed at uplifting the living standards of West Bengal Muslims in this world. Rather, its string of victories started with successfully driving out the famous persecuted humanist writer Taslima Nasreen during the Left Front regime. The most recent example was the governmental pressure that was exerted on their direction to keep Salman Rushdie out of a proposed event in Kolkata, after he successfully did such events in Bangalore, New Delhi and Mumbai. This slowly pushing of the envelope fits into a sequence of events that are increasingly stifling the freedom of expression. At the same time, its double-standards are explicit. On March 21st, a medium-sized group consisting of little-magazine publishers, human rights workers, theatre artists, womens’ organizations and peace activists had announced that they would march in solidarity with the Shahbag protests and express their support to the Bangladesh government’s war crimes trial initiative by marching to the deputy high-commission of Bangladesh. Even after prior intimation, the rally was not allowed to move by the police due to ‘orders’ and some of the marchers were detained. The same police provided security cover to pro-Jamaat-e-Islami organizations as they conducted a rally submitted a month earlier and again later when they submitted a memorandum to the same deputy high commission demanding acquittal of convicted war criminals. Last year, it issued a circular to public libraries to stock a sectarian daily even before its first issue had been published! The role of the state is explicit in these actions – it possibly thinks that it can play this game of brinksmanship with finesse. The flight of cultural capital from the self-styled cultural capital of India is but a natural corollary of such unholy alliances with the political class playing tactical spectators and tactical facilitators to apologists for one the largest mass-murders in the last century .
The recent bye-election to Jangipur, a Muslim majority constituency carried certain signals. Prompted by the elevation of Mr.Mukherjee to Presidency, this election saw the combined vote of the 2 main parties fall from 95% in 2009 to 78% in 2012. The major beneficiaries were the Welfare Party of India, a thinly veiled front organization of the Jamaat-e-Islami Hind and the Social Democratic Party of India, an even more radical group of a similar ilk. Such groups are armed with a programme of ‘tactical pluralism’, quite akin to the tactical defence of Taslima’s freedom of speech by majoritarian communal political forces in the Indian union. The rallying against Shahbag has blown the cover of faux pluralism. There was another significant beneficiary and predictable in the same election, the BJP. Communal tension has been on the rise in recent years – there has been serious disturbance by West Bengal standards in Deganga and Noliakhali. The majoritarian forces smell a subterranean polarization of the polity. Mouthing banalities about Bengal’s ‘intrinsically’ plural culture is quite useless – culture is a living entity, that is always in flux, created and recreated every moment. It is being recreated by the victimization discourse by fringe groups like Hindu Samhati. It is being recreated in certain religious congregations in parts of West Bengal of Aila where unalloyed poison produced by divines like Tarek Monawar Hossain from Bangladesh is played on loud-speakers. Thanks to technology, such vitriol produced in a milieu of free-style majoritarian muscle flexing in Bangladesh easily finds its way to a place where the demographic realities are different. Hence the popularity and consequent defence of one of the convicted war criminals, Delwar Hossain Sayedee, who in his post-71 avatar had become something of a superstar in the Bengali waz-mahfil (Islamic religious discourse congregation) circuit. What are the effects of the subterranean cultural exchange of this kind? The rally is a partial clue. A defence of Sayedee and claiming him to be innocent, as was repeatedly done in that rally, is like perpetrating Holocaust-denialism.
Just a day after the anti-Shahbag rally in Kolkata, almost as a divine reminder of starker realities beyond the defense of Islam, nearly 45 lakh unemployed youth, Hindus and Muslims, sat for the appointment as primary school teachers recruitment examination for 35000 empty posts. Roughly 1 in 128 will succeed. There is no employment exchange worth its name, including the ‘minority’ employment exchange set up by the incumbents, which would absorb the unsuccessful 44 lakh. West Bengal is one of the few states that have petitioned for a relaxation of the minimum qualifications for primary school teachers in the Sarva Shiksha Abhijan scheme, as stated in the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act of 2009. There is a rot at the base with every community affected. It has been long in the making. The promotion of religious education is hardly the way to empowerment and livelihood generation for minorities, especially in a state where they have been grossly under-represented in the all white-collar services. There are no short cut solutions to this.
Majority and minority communalism in West Bengal, though not generally overt, can be found easily by scratching the surface. A combination of circumstances can awaken it. Will more such circumstances arise, or will more responsible politics prevent a potential communal unraveling of West Bengal? Bengal’s past experience with communal politics is distinctly bitter, both in the west and the east. The west lives with half-sleeping demons. In the east, the demons never really slept, and have been in and out of power.