The Creeping Communalism of the Bengali (and Indian) Middle Class
Communalism has been part of our existence for thousands of years. For those who associate communalism with the advent of Muslims in India (and forget that they came to India by sea to Kerala in the 8th century, not with the Ghazni invaders), should remember that we had violent communal clashes in the seventh century when Brahmanism took over ground from the Buddhists and when the Saivites in Tamil Nadu fought the followers of Vishnu.
However when we talk communalism, we mean what we used to earlier say in hushed terms, and now in louder voices, the “ Muslim question”. We are we, and they are Muslims and occasionally Christians and, not to forget, in the 1980s, the Sikhs. But let us take the Muslim question which, of course, is what seems to drive the discourse among the Bengali Middle class today.
When we were young, our parents had seen the communal riots during independence, but mainly as children. The Partition and its aftermath had coloured the visions of their parents, but in the fifties with the India project taking off and the changes in the political and economic landscape post-independence, communalism was not fashionable. That is not to say that at private conversations people did not talk about communal, dirty, anti-national Muslims, and finally with a twinge of envy, “they can have 4 wives.” I am sure that in Muslim families, such conversations centered on the unreliability, untruthfulness and alleged cowardice of Hindus (and god knows what else). But it was not fashionable to say it out aloud and most educated persons did not articulate such sentiments in polite society.
Part of the credit must go the ubiquity of the communist influence in Bengali middle class society. They were able to divert the understandable resentment against the Muslims of East Pakistan to economic issues for the refugees from the east. For all their faults, the communists in those days were definitely non communal in their outlook. In fact, they nurtured a discourse that absolutely excluded the community from all discussion. It was because of the economic agenda and the stature of Bidhan Roy that the Hindu Mahasabha died a natural death in Bengal.
However the atmosphere changed about two decades ago. It became fashionable to be openly communal in the nineties with the so called Ram Janmabhoomi movement. I can speak of my friends and relatives who, in the Marxist Calcutta of that time, suddenly became acutely conscious of their Hindu and often Brahman identity. Conversations were rife about the number of temples that Muslims had broken over the centuries, and how the destruction of the Babri masjid would transform India. Very few seemed to see the humour of an entire poverty stricken country deciding that the principal agenda of development was a Ram temple. However the Babri Masjid went, but Indian remained where it was; the changes came from the transformations brought about by the now much maligned Manmohan Singh who, together with Narashima Rao, actually changed the face of India.
Then the communal fervor seemed to die down again. But in the run up to the last general elections, the Bengali middle class went ballistic with their communal agenda. Aided now with the ubiquitous social media, it became possible now to peddle half-truths, plain lies and simply silly propaganda at lightning speed. But that was not the issue. The issue was that it all found fertile soil. The Bengali middle class appeared to be ready now for full scale communalism. And today the pages of Facebook, Twitter and so on are rife with comments that would have been though unthinkable in the seventies and eighties. Young men, mainly, thankfully women seem to be a little backward in this respect, are publishing opinions and comments which are openly communal and seem to be designed to spread hatred against the Muslim community. No doubt, similar sentiments are also rife among the Muslim community. I just don’t get to see most of it. Soon, it will no doubt, spread to target other communities as well. The antics of the great Hindu warrior Dara in Orissa seem to have been forgotten; more is the pity. The sad part of all this is that educated people, specialist doctors, and men of business who, one would think would have a more open outlook and would be better read and have a more mature understanding all seem to agree that getting rid of the Muslims would be the salvation of India.
Another dangerous trend is the appropriation of national symbols for the purpose of furthering the cause of communalism. Patel and Rajendra Prasad have already been appropriated to the communal pantheon. This is only possible for those totally devoid of a sense of history. While Patel and Prasad were critical of many of Nehru’s policies (and history has proved them right in many ways), anybody who has any knowledge of their politics and work would find it inconceivable that they would approve of Gujrat riots as a just retribution to Muslim threats. Patel was, incidentally, the man who banned the RSS after the assassination of Gandhi, and Prasad was Gandhi’s front man to stop the riots in Bihar that preceded Independence. Reading the perorations of the communal cyberwarriors , one would think that they were card carrying members of the Hindutwit brigade, which is a grave insult to these great men.
A large part of the blame must be shouldered by the past political dispensation that ruled India or at least their activities during the last 3 years of their rule. Led by a man who does not show any obvious
( or even hidden) leadership qualities, they allowed the communal agenda to set the stage and to allow the communalists to appropriate the development agenda as well.
No matter what the Marxian analysis may say, all successful countries, and in the Indian context, states, succeed because of their middle class. If India is to rise and really make this century India’s, the middle class must shed the communal mindset. This mindset is primitive and should never be allowed to dominate the agenda in the twenty first century. We have, for the most part been able to overcome the regionalism which was the bane of the early days of the Republic. Now we must stop this creeping communalism. The communalism of Bengal and India must stop.