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The fires of Bengal

But it will take an act of imaginative statesmanship to make sure that the fires of Baduria and Basirhat do not become the inferno of Bengal.

Written by Pratap Bhanu Mehta | Updated: July 8, 2017 10:11 am
west bengal communal violence, basirhat protests, basirhat violence, baduria protests, curfew, amit shah, baduria clashes, centar This violence in West Bengal needs to be placed in the context of the politics of free speech and mob violence.

The old saying, “What Bengal thinks today, India will think tomorrow” may not be true. But the communal fires burning in West Bengal will have profound ramifications for national politics. The pattern is depressingly familiar: A Facebook post sets off a violent rampage by a section of Muslims. The police are accused of partisanship in handling the violence, which has now taken a deeply communal colour. Both the BJP and TMC are fishing for political gain in troubled waters. Conspiracy theories are rife. There is a great deal of mendacious sophistry. Some argue this violence might have been mischievously “provoked”, therefore somehow less condemnable. This argument forgets the fact that all violence justifies itself in the name of provocations. If you justify a Facebook post as provocation, then you have conceded the ground to all who engage in violence. But this small storm brewing in North 24 Parganas has larger political and constitutional ramifications.

This violence needs to be placed in the context of the politics of free speech and mob violence. The politics of speech is hobbled by two features. The first is the undue deference given to what might be called the “blasphemy” paradigm of restrictions on speech in which alleged “vilification” of a religion, especially its founders, is too easily taken as a ground for restricting speech. This has been applied for a range of figures from Muhammad to Basaveshwara. The availability of this restriction then prepares the ground for competitive political mobilisation: Will offences against my religion be protected more than offences against yours? The politics of free speech has always been communally coded: We don’t want to defend the principle, but convert it into an argument of over my mob versus your mob. Every party has used the politics of free speech to mobilise communal passions. Liberals are often accused of double standards. But all those who have written seriously on speech and violence in India have always said that parties like the Congress and the Trinamool were never liberal. They might have been pluralist, but they were never liberal when it comes to defending individual rights. Congress leaders are still defending the ban on The Satanic Verses.

Bengal, in particular, has an abysmal record on free speech whether in universities or lack of support for writers like Taslima Nasreen. Under both the Left and Trinamool, Bengal has been the paradigm case of progressive hypocrisy when it comes to defending freedoms or condemning mobs. This is why this mob violence will have larger national ramifications.

Second, West Bengal has always had a deep communal undercurrent. Despite massive differences, West Bengal and UP are more similar in one respect. It has been politically easier to make the case in these two states that the non-BJP governments have practiced the symbolic politics of minority appeasement. Charges of religiously partisan and communal policing, more overt alliances with Islamic radicals, and a cruder minority “vote bank” politics abound more easily in Bengal and UP, than they have for instance in a state like Bihar, where the politics of minority incorporation is more sophisticated. In a way this mob violence will be used to confirm to contentions of the Right: That Islamic radicalism is growing in Bengal, and that the state will be hesitant to take it on. The extent to which the first contention is true is hard to estimate. But it would be foolish to deny its presence and the catalysing role it can play in communal politics. But certainly this mob violence will lend credence to that argument. It will also strengthen the BJP’s rhetorical contention that mob violence has nothing specifically to do with its kind of politics, it is more general social and governance pathology. And the state’s handling of violence will reinforce the charges of partisanship. This charge of partisanship, will be the fodder used to fuel Hindu victimisation. It is not an accident that Kerala and Bengal are important in BJP’s narrative of Hindu victimisation. This is now aided by nightly television ratcheting up of “Hindus in Danger” fanning a national paranoia.

Third, there is no question that creating and fishing in disorder will be a central part of the BJP’s strategy in Bengal. To give Mamata Banerjee some due, on several fronts the record of her government is not as bad as the national press assumes. She has managed, by Bengal standards, to get her administrative act together. So her political vulnerability comes from a couple of sources: If corruption related prosecution in the Narada case take its toll on the party, or if there is communal disorder in the state. By reopening the language question in Gorkhaland she exposed one flank, by her handling of the mob violence she has exposed another.

But the disquieting news is that the political tea leaves suggest more communal violence in Bengal. When the BJP newly mobilises in a state it acquires an interest in communal disorder. Many districts in Bengal have always had a peculiar political economy of local institutionalised violence systems. These have been instruments of violence but also of social control. The CPM deployed them effectively. And the transition from CPM to Trinamool was less violent than many feared, because these institutionalised systems of local control simply defected wholesale. If the BJP gains some ground, it is an open question how these local institutionalised systems will react. Indeed the very fact that there is so much talk of “outsiders” fomenting conflict suggest these local system of control may be shifting in ways we do not fully understand. Spreading communalism could provide a cover for reshaping these local power structures.

Finally, there is the abysmal spectacle of a chief minister and governor at loggerheads. Who started this conflict may be immaterial. But the signal it sends is disturbing. Every constitutional office is now tainted with partisanship. The state itself is a divided house when it comes to dealing with law and order. The forces of disorder will be salivating at this political bickering.

Bengal is potentially quite combustible. It is a state with communal undercurrents, party structures and systems are in flux. And the state has no appetite for standing up for liberal values. The scale of violence is not large yet. But it will take an act of imaginative statesmanship to make sure that the fires of Baduria and Basirhat do not become the inferno of Bengal.

The writer is vice-chancellor, Ashoka University. Views expressed are personal

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More From Pratap Bhanu Mehta
  1. A
    Jul 19, 2017 at 11:40 pm
    Mr. Mehta can you spearhead an honest research project on the lum ation cultural annihilation of Bengal during the Left rule and how it destroyed the vibrant soul of an incredibly endowed culture , a people with an unending historical cast of stunning icons ? Will you analyse the debates within the early Communists whether to enter democratic politics ? How the CPM crushed political diversity in WB, ins utionalized mass violence,destroyed the academic, mental fiber of 3 generations of young , promising Bengalis while the state withered ? We all believed in a socialism which embraced every child of the soil sans the sophistry of the westernized ideologue. Periyar , Annadurai were rustic plebeians proud of their race, rejected the exotic veneer of ideology changed their people's lives while the Left let us down the pit. Sir will you have the courage to look afresh if there is anything in your native history that you can proudly carry to your international audience
    1. A
      Jul 10, 2017 at 3:15 am
      If BJP-RSS is worried about muslim population growth why they are not implementing uniform civil code and two child policy for all? also abolish the cast system and the reservation system too to make india a forward looking majority hindu nation ! instead these idio ts are behind cow , beef laws and lynchings and communal riots creating instabiliy and communal riots across india when porkistan and china is readying for attack from both sides ! muslims already reached 180 millions and it is projected that their population will reach 350 million by end of 2030 due to high birth rate which will be equal to population of America. I appeal to all gober eating ic sanghis here not to make 180 million anti nationals within the country and instead quietly frame the laws which restrict the population growth which will make sure that india is and will remain as a hindu majority country ruled by majority hindus. you dont need to be turn the country into another regressive porkistan !
      1. G
        Jul 9, 2017 at 8:28 pm
        Once again, the left resorts to appea t by condoning Muslim violence done in the name of religion. To muddy the waters, they will blame BJP or the dispute between CM and Governor. But the central fact remains that the violence was started by Muslims in the name of religion. Until we start tackling the root of the problem, we will never be secular. I repeat, there are no secularists in India of any consequence, least of this author. People like me who truly believe in secularism have no voice.
        1. Nagaraja Billur
          Jul 9, 2017 at 8:02 pm
          You dont take a stand of principles. Violence is violence. It should be ruthlessly condemned. Violence once it takes place loses its colour of any community and hurts innocent people. There cannot be any justification.
          1. B
            Jul 9, 2017 at 7:06 pm
            There will be MANY MORE future par ions of India until Hindus cease to exist unless they stand up to an ideology that came from arabia and vilifies this great civilization that gave Hinduism, Budddhism, Jainism, Sikhism as Idol worshippers, non-believers and kafirs. Stand up to the bigotry of islam.
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