Hope in an egg roll

In Bengal, cultural identity keeps communal polarisation at bay.

Written by Asad Ali | Updated: September 29, 2017 4:34 pm
West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, Rohingyas, Rohingya muslims, myanmar West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee. (Source: Express Archive)

The moment he said, “Sheta theek, kintu (That’s true, but…”), I knew it wasn’t over yet. I had just tottered inside a taxi off Park Street in Kolkata, clutching my egg chicken roll tightly. The minute the driver heard I was a journalist, his interest heightened. Things got interesting when he started talking about the BJP. To counter him, I suggested that the BJP might bring in development. Minority appeasement would stop. Incidents like the Basirhat riots would not happen, I ventured.

Now, when I look back at that conversation, especially in the context of Mamata Banerjee’s restrictions on Durga idol immersion timings (kept in abeyance by the high court), two issues come into better focus. The complex question of Bengal and the Bengali Muslim’s identity; and, how the intimacy the state enjoys with its shared culture can still manage to repel divisive forces. The explanation for both lies ensconced somewhere between that egg roll and the man’s answer. An attempt at exaggerated extrapolation? Well, not really.

Some days back, a YouTube food channel run by a Bengali received a lot of hate for featuring an egg roll. The general sentiment being that while “the rest of India” fasts on Navratri, Bengal feasts on non-vegetarian fare, even during Durga pujo. The comments were a vicious indictment of Bengal for not conforming to the larger, more true-to-faith as it were, brand of Hinduism that’s observed elsewhere. Irrespective of whether one was a Hindu or Muslim in Bengal, this was seen — first and foremost — as an obaangali (non-Bengali) north Indian imposition of rigidity on the cultural values of the state. A lot of my friends from Bengal, including Muslims, expressed anger. Then came the Jawed Habib non-controversy.

A print ad was published in Kolkata, showing Durga and other Hindu gods and goddesses at one of his salons. Some on social media (in general, the anger seemed to stem from people outside the state) complained that it hurt the religious sentiments of Hindus. A salon was vandalised by a mob in — cue drumroll — Unnao, Uttar Pradesh. Satirising Durga or depicting pujo in various ads, and even comic covers, is quite normal in Bengal. Again, Bengalis expressed displeasure at yet another insidious attempt by those unaware of “our” culture to randomly claim offence.

I see a lot of hope in such angry reactions to attempts at fomenting hate. Muslims don’t necessarily have to be angry at the egg roll incident. Hindus don’t have to be angry at the criticism that’s come Habib’s way. But they are, only because the bigger identifier remains largely cultural and not religious.

Of course, this can have varied reasons and might play out differently in terms of class structure (lower middle class Hindu-Muslims share similar working/living conditions, and hence there’s unity in deprivation; upper classes share same social circles, though when it comes to property sales, equations change again; middle class Hindus might tend to be more conservative etc), but largely holds true, and thank god for that.

This isn’t to suggest, naively, that Bengal is a utopia with zero minority discrimination — far from it. Buying property in the more upscale neighbourhoods of the city remains next to impossible. When the community settles for lesser affluent spaces, the immediate reaction is that Muslims tend to ghettoise. The cycle goes on.

The Muharram processions controversy also got me talking to some local Muslims. Almost all of them corroborated what I had been thinking. The enthusiasm about Muharram that I had seen growing up, seems much diminished now. Bear in mind that Bengal, to begin with, doesn’t have a big Shia population (the mourning procession of Muharram is, primarily, practised by Shias though some Sunni sections do participate). The average young Muslim in Bengal, slowly but steadily, is trying to move away from overt religiosity for various reasons. At least among the Sunnis, a lot of youngsters are questioning the legitimacy of such displays of faith — in part due to increase in awareness of their own text and literacy in general; leading, crucially, to the germs of a middle-class, the lack of which has historically crippled the social mobility of the community. The BJP isn’t expected to understand such socio-political nuances (or maybe they know it all too well).

However, the state’s political class should be perceptive of Bengal’s basic ethos, which is more sensitised than a lot of other states, but obviously not invulnerable. Otherwise, it runs the risk of walking into a templated trap of communal polarisation that Hindutva politics has adeptly deployed in the past. There is no need to create a Frankensteinian “other” in order to consolidate Muslim votes. Just have faith in the cultural fabric of the state.

The cab guy was a Bengali Hindu. He said he might be open to giving BJP a chance, but (that’s where the kintu kicked in) it has to be seen at what cost: “If you come in from outside to the state and just create trouble, it won’t be acceptable”. I’d like to believe that as long as there’s a kintu in people’s minds, things can’t be that bad.

asad.ali@expressindia.com

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