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.