“Are you a Bengali?”
“Then you must be a communist.”
This was a conversation I had with a senior bureaucrat 35 years ago, soon after I moved to Delhi. It was a popular perception — that the DNA of a Bengali is essentially Marxian-radical. When we were in university, a popular, tongue-in-cheek adage that did the rounds was that in school we Bengalis were influenced by Swami Vivekananda and Subhas Chandra Bose, only to become Marxist in college, and, finally, devout followers of Ma Kali in old age. The RSS-BJP ideology and school of thinking remained very difficult to grasp, let alone embrace, for those who studied in Calcutta University. Instead, their politics was essentially radical and revolutionary, inherently anti-Delhi and against a strong Centre.
Today, as I look at Bengal in 2019, I am reminded of Karl Marx again. Sitting in the British Library, Marx had pointed out that the world is constantly in a state of flux, that the only constant is change. I realise Marx’s observation applies to Bengalis and to the left-wing radical Bengali DNA as well. An undeniable change is taking place.
Bengalis were never atheists. They have always been believers and devotees. Bengal remained alienated from forms of Hinduism and cultural practices in north India. But now, thanks to television, popular culture and the all-pervasive social media, that gap is shrinking. From Facebook to WhatsApp, cinema to television, the influence of north Indian festivals and culture has seeped through the very fabric of society.
Recently, I was at the wedding of a relative in a small district town in Bengal, away from Kolkata. The wedding had a sangeet ceremony — something that was unheard of in Bengali families till recently. The question is: Why? Such ceremonies are perhaps common in Punjabi weddings. But, increasingly in the state, the younger generation is embracing such customs. If the daughter wants a sangeet at her wedding, the parents are not going to say no. Similarly, in religiosity, there are new trends. One may or may not like them, but they can’t be denied. Of late, Ganesh Puja or Ganesh Chaturthi, along the lines of Maharashtra, has become popular. Dhanteras has also become increasingly popular, with jewellery shops across the state revelling in this hitherto unavailable marketing opportunity. There are advertisements galore as queues form outside the shops. The queues include many Bengalis.
There is a distinct change in Bengal. Public intellectuals and left radicals in the state argue that the BJP-RSS combine is “manufacturing” this change, and that they want to change Bengali culture. The anti-BJP argument goes that Bengalis were never known as great devotees of Lord Ram or Hanuman. Instead, they have been advaitabadi. They follow the Upanishads. It is important to remember that Swami Vivekanand floated the idea of neo-Vedanta and that he was not a Brahmin but a Kayastha by birth. His philosophy was fundamentally against Brahminical hegemony. There is another take on this. The BJP and the Sangh Parivar haven’t changed Bengali culture. Instead, it is a form of cultural diffusion, where the north, south, west and east have intermingled. Cultural practices are no longer isolated within a certain region. What we are seeing is a form of cultural and religious osmosis. In time, it is bound to have social and political implications. Bengal is not alone. Chhath Puja and Durga Puja have become big celebrations in Delhi, for instance. This was not so a generation ago.
In 1989, at the time of L K Advani’s Ram Janmabhoomi movement — when the entire Hindi heartland was captivated by it — Bengal didn’t see much enthusiasm. But today, it is not a mandir movement that is resulting in political gains for the BJP. Instead, the state and its people are shifting from left-wing soft radicalism to right-wing soft Hindutva. The reason: The state has a 30 per cent Muslim population and Mamata Banerjee’s consolidation of the Muslim vote bank — from allowances to imams to the latest controversy over polling dates during Ramzan — has become an issue for the Bengali bhadralok. The charges of Muslim appeasement are becoming louder. Hindu chauvinism, long dormant in Bengal, is coming to the fore. The BJP’s central leadership has understood and leveraged this change in Bengal’s political DNA. So Ayodhya isn’t the issue in the state. Instead, it is that of a strong nation and a strong India — that Bengal shouldn’t be alienated from the national mainstream. And through this, the Bengali society is gradually accepting the BJP. The opposition space vacated by the Left and the Congress is ready for the taking.
There is a school of thought that Bengalis are followers of Shakta — so as subalterns and non-conformists with the worship of Goddess Kali, political violence follows. But Ramakrishna Paramahansa’s father was a Raghuvir pujari, a worshipper of Lord Ram. He endorsed the Ramayan path and Hanuman. There are many such stories in his gospel, the Kathamrita. There it is called Gaudiya Vaishnavism and is very different from the Vishnu form you see in Tirupati. The Ramayan remains very popular in the state. Even Rabindranath Tagore writes in his autobiography about the influence of the Ramayan in his childhood days.
In the past four or five decades, communism preached atheism — but ultimately failed. Keep in mind that Jyoti Basu’s wife was a devotee of Ma Kali, as were several ministers in the Left Front cabinet. They visited Kalighat regularly. The BJP is exploiting this sentiment — and Bengalis are beginning to gravitate towards what Narendra Modi and Amit Shah are positioning as the political expression of a pan-Indian ethos. Is this good or bad? I am not casting value judgements. But the fact is, the BJP has successfully injected, into the families and paaras (neighbourhoods) of Bengal, a debate about the pros and cons of the national mainstream versus Bengali exceptionalism or even chauvinism. This debate is helping the BJP grow in the state.
This article first appeared in the print edition on March 26, 2019, under the title ‘Among the believers in Bengal’. The writer is a senior Delhi-based journalist.