Epicentre of communal politics shifts eastwards
Recounting the geographical shifts of the BJP's identitarian politics
That the BJP has invested systematically in giving Indian politics an identitarian turn has been recorded by many observers and analysts.
However, what needs to be noted is that the epicentre of its communal discourse has shifted from one region to another.
This sequential process reveals the modus operandi of the unfolding of the contemporary communal discourse and its association with the electoral narrative.
Since the late 1980s, India witnessed three major spatial shifts of the communal discourse: from the north to the west, and, finally, the present attempt to make the eastern parts of India its epicentre.
There have been pre-existent grounds for a communal divide in specific regions. But the BJP has worked to institutionalize them, taking one region at a time.
Deepening faultlines in the north
Much before being decimated in the 1984 general election, the BJP was desperate to replace its newly adopted doctrine of ‘Gandhian Socialism’ under Atal Bihari Vajpayee with a revivalist theme to acquire relevance in the political arena.
In this backdrop, Uttar Pradesh emerged as the first epicentre of a new communal politics seeking to deepen some pre-existent community faultlines that co-existed with past experiences of Hindu-Muslim cooperation. Contrary to political wisdom, the cultural politics of Hindutva started before the Shah Bano case (1985). In September, 1984, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, a constituent of the RSS family, began to mobilize public opinion in favour of the construction of a Ram Temple at Ayodhya. It embarked upon a 12-day journey from Sitamarhi in Bihar (the mythical birthplace of Sita) to Ayodhya in UP. After the successful completion of the Yatra, the VHP desired to take it to Delhi, but the assassination of then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi made them defer the plan.
The Shah Bano case (1985) emerged as a substantive context to dismiss Congress secularism as nothing but minority-ism and making Hindutva a rightful quest wherein the majority community was painted as the victim of prevailing secular politics. Only a cultural resurrection would mark the ‘return of the repressed’, it was argued. The unfolding of politics around the Ram Temple issue leading to the emergence of the BJP as the third and second largest party in 1989 and 1991 general elections, respectively, marked the emerging centrality of communal discourse in Indian politics with north India as its spatial core.
The second phase
The competing politics of privileging one faultline over the other resulted in relative marginalization of the communal discourse vis-a-vis caste-based politics of Lohiaite and Ambedkarite parties in UP. Therefore, by 2000 and thereafter, while the state continued to witness communal incidents, its translation in the electoral realm to the benefit of the BJP was marginal. By then, however, something big was happening in the western state of Gujarat. The 2002 riots in Gujarat threw up a new model of communalism that had institutionalized the religious divide by making the minorities (Muslims) a complex ‘Other’ that was pitted against the “authentic culture”, peace, harmony and ‘law and order’. This mode of othering ended up justifying violence and illegal encounters as well as spatial segregation and ghettoization. The suppression of Muslims was so systematic that the very need to orchestrate a communal conflict became redundant. A conflict requires two warring sides with some capability to inflict violence. Therefore, the second phase that began after the 2002 Gujarat riots culminated in a scenario of ‘communalism without communal riots’. This also showed that for Hindutva the core of communal discourse had shifted from the north (UP) to western India (Gujarat).
At a time when the emerging centrality of agrarian issues has led to a shrinking of the cultural space for privileging religious identity in south, west, central and north India, the BJP is endeavoring to communalise politics in eastern India, mainly West Bengal and the north-eastern states, on the plank of the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill. This signifies an emerging trend of spatially differentiated politics of ‘othering’ wherein the BJP-led discourse of Hindutva is shifting to east and north-east India. No wonder, West Bengal with 42 seats in its kitty is the new ground that the BJP intends to win to somehow balance its possibly declining fortunes in other parts of the country.
How the new focus on national security after Pulwama changes political equations in other parts of India remains to be seen, however.
Be that as it may, the eastern turn of the BJP requires the party to posture itself as a more competent champion of Bengali Hindu interest in West Bengal and the north-eastern states, particularly Assam and Tripura, with a significant Bengali Hindu population. This explains why a party that championed the ethnic sentiment of ‘Jati, Mati and Veti’ (identity, land and resource) in Assam is desperate to pass the Citizenship Bill that privileges religious identity.
In my recent fieldwork across Assam, covering 121 out of 126 Assembly seats, it came out categorically that the overwhelming majority of Muslims has already figured in the NRC list and Amit Shah’s subtle but significant rhetoric against 40-lakh people who couldn’t make it to the list is hurting the Hindu Bengalis the most, particularly in the Barak valley. The sentiment is expected to have immense traction in West Bengal, too, which explains the BJP’s desperation on the Citizenship Bill, which, by defeating the purpose of the NRC, has thrown the north-east into an ethnic vortex once again.
Thus, the shifting spatial trajectory of communal discourse indicates that while it would find takers across India, the epicentre of the same would be eastwards, primarily West Bengal and Assam. Whether this shift pays the desired electoral dividend to the BJP, as has been the case in UP and Gujarat earlier, is yet to be seen.
(Sajjan Kumar is a political analyst and co-author of the book Everyday Communalism, brought out by OUP in 2018)