Is the Idea of Bengal Set For a Major Change?
For historical reasons, almost all of these values were first conceived and popularized by a particular class of Bengali men, the upper caste and middle-class Hindu literati loosely known as the Bhadralok.
As 2019 general election comes to an end, and the country is set to have a new government in four days, pundits have begun to come out with their predictions. The ruling BJP has claimed a sweep in its favour while the Congress, the leading opposition, is banking on opposition parties for an anti-BJP alliance. West Bengal with 42 seats has lately emerged as a major talking point. West Bengal was one of the only three states where it took all the seven phases to hold the election. It was projected as a potentially violent state, where the BJP claimed the rule of law had almost broken down. Mamata Banerjee, the Chief Minister of West Bengal, had in response insistently projected her party as a national challenger of the Modi government.
As the polls moved ahead, this contest has only gained momentum. As the last round of polls take place, it would appear as though a particular idea of Bengal and ‘Bengaliness’ is at stake. Over the last few days, two particular developments in West Bengal have been widely reported and analyzed in the national media. There has been the controversy around the destruction of a bust of 19th century educationist and social reformer Iswarchandra Vidyasagar in the premises of a college he had set up and which is named after him. The vandalism took place when a BJP political rally led by its national president Amit Shah had been passing through the area. There is a consensus in West Bengal, both among the media and the average Bengali, that only miscreants imported from outside the state could possibly have committed such sacrilege.
The image of Vidyasagar commands immense symbolic respect among the average educated Bengalis, bordering on the divine. The precise nature and motive of this respect may be questioned, a point to which we will return, but its pervasive existence cannot. Within a matter of minutes, the entire articulate Bengali middle class, in West Bengal and elsewhere, flooded the social media with calls for defeating the BJP unambiguously. The Chief Minister led from the front, calling the BJP a gang of hooligans. The Prime Minister retaliated with charges that Banerjee’s party had actually caused the damage, and with promises of building a larger statute of the great man if his party came to power.
On the other hand, several reports were published about how former supporters of the CPI(M), which had ruled the state for 34 years until 2011, had been stealthily encouraging voters to vote for the BJP, with a hope that it would undermine the dominance of the ruling Trinamool Congress (TMC) in the state. They are doing it ostensibly with the hope that it would be easier to challenge the BJP in the future, since the party has no organizational base in the state. Nine seats in West Bengal go to polls today, and many observers predict that the BJP is set to win as many as 10 or more Lok Sabha seats from West Bengal this time.
If it does, it will probably erode to a significant degree the hegemony of a particular idea of what it means to be a Bengali. Since the late 19th century, Bengali intellectuals have carefully cultivated a set of qualifications for respectability, in the form of beliefs and practices, for the average Bengali individual to live by. These include distinct clothing, dietary, literary and cultural practices, as opposed to, for instance, “non-Bengalis”. A majority of Bengalis may or may not personally subscribe to all of them, but these iconic practices have over time gained such indisputable popular approval that it is near impossible to dishonor them publicly, for they represent a set of universally admirable values. The individual components of this ideal set of beliefs and practices—such as dietary or literary icons—matter less than their collective legitimacy in the popular Bengali mind.
For historical reasons, almost all of these values were first conceived and popularized by a particular class of Bengali men, the upper caste and middle-class Hindu literati loosely known as the Bhadralok. The term Bhadralok literally means gentlefolk, and refers to a disposition or comportment, which generally gestures at a liberal moderation in thought, speech and action. In practice it refers to the professional middle class, and pretty much every educated service holder, from the modest teacher or clerk up to the mighty lawyer or civil servant. This class has maintained very distinct preferences in the domain of religion and politics. While there is room for diversity in the way an average Bengali approaches Hinduism, for instance, the overall form of organized Hinduism in Bengal is profoundly distinct from its north Indian counterpart. Institutional or ceremonial Hinduism is Bengal is premised on a clear superiority of the mother goddess worship, for instance. In organized politics too, Bengal and later West Bengal, has always maintained a distinct character in that the major leaders who have mattered in politics in the province have almost all been sons of the soil. Even Gandhi and Nehru had faced immense challenges from Bengal and Bengali leaders, and could not arguably win an election entirely on their own without the mediation of their local associates.
The election of 2019 threatens to challenge that very regional identity. The tallest BJP leader in Bengal is not a Bengali, but Prime Minister Modi, who is a Gujarati. No less significant has been the manifest ignorance of the local BJP leaders of the hegemonic Bengali culture. Dilip Ghosh, the state President of the party, had confused, only a couple of days ago, the name of the iconic primer that Vidayasagar had written with another written by Rabindranath Tagore. Given the fact that almost everyone who has ever studied the Bengali language during the last hundred and fifty odd years has had to read Vidyasagar’s primer in order simply to be literate, the little book has gained an unassailable iconic significance in the imagination of almost every educated Bengali individual. As a matter of fact, this primer, and not the reformist accomplishments of Vidyasagar, is the most intimate living connection the great man has had with an average Bengali. In reality, his life and accomplishments are at best a retrospective celebration of an exceptional individual by his people who otherwise display little affinity with his temper, courage or entrepreneurial success.
Sumit Sarkar has written that the circulation of a limited set of anecdotes about the life and career of Vidyasagar probably reflected a surrogate celebration of some values -- courage, self-sufficiency and proto-nationalism -- that one did not have the heart or means to practice openly. Rabindranath Tagore had correctly noted the double standard in this valorization of Vidyasagar. The latter was alone in Bengal, Tagore wrote, and had a deep contempt for this weak, petty, lazy, arrogant and argumentative people, for in every way he was their very opposite. Vidyasagar himself had on several occasions been dismissive of high-caste Hindu Bengalis, particularly towards the end of is life.
The upper caste and middle class Hindu Bengali is far from perfect, nor is the Bhadralok version of political Hinduism essentially benign. But it has always consistently, and successfully, resisted what it has perceived as a domination from outside Bengal, or by “non-Bengalis”. Whether it is Hinduism as a religion, or any other political or cultural doctrine, it has always had to be mediated or domesticated by an entrenched leadership of the upper caste and middle class ethnic Bengalis. Since at least the 15th century, the Bengali society has had a history of outstanding reformists coming up with radical challenges to its foundations. But almost all of them, including Vidyasagar, suffered painful marginalization during their lifetime, only for their legacy to be selectively glorified after death as part of a cultural pantheon, as the conservatives soon enough reestablished their dominance over the society as a whole.
But never has this class had to face so strong a threat of cultural supersession by a non-Bengali leadership or their ideals as it currently does. In the early 1930s, for instance, when the cultural leadership of the Hindu Bhadralok had been under threat following the introduction of separate electorates, the protest against it had unanimously assumed the form of a struggle against the purported social and cultural leadership of the educated Bengali middle classes. It is no coincidence that still earlier, during the anti-partition of Bengal movement in the first decade of the 20th century, the language of protest had crystallized into a quasi-Hindu religious fervor with its distinct icons and exclusive appeal. Whenever the entrenched social leadership in Bengal has faced a threat to its cultural leadership, it has strongly rallied around and immense violence followed in its wake.
That precisely is why the current moment is so critically significant for the political history of West Bengal. While the BJP brand of political Hinduism with its vicious prescription for anti-Muslim rhetoric and muscle power is not good news at all, and must indeed be held back, the current Bengali resistance against it also symbolizes the rearguard action of a beleaguered ethnic cultural leadership, and indeed the most distinct identity of what it means to be a Bengali. The BJP leadership is not unaware of the might of this challenge, or its pervasive legitimacy in the Bengali psyche. That probably is why Prime Minister Modi has immediately disclaimed all responsibility for the Vidyasagar bust vandalism, and promised to build a larger replacement.
Yet, the social and cultural leadership of the Bhadralok does not by itself ensure material comforts to the lowest rung of the Bengali society. The political foot soldiers in Bengal, who were called cadres during the long Communist rule in Bengal, were regularly paid by the party. They also gained commissions from the common man for the public services which they helped them to access for a consideration. A majority of those foot soldiers have since shifted their loyalty to the TMC which has since worked out its own distinct regime of payment. Lately, the BJP has made attempts to poach these footloose workers by tempting them with money and promises of more gains. The residual CPI(M) supporters are not entirely immune to these temptations either. In a province devoid of major industrial progress or service sector penetration, the state still remains the largest dispenser of wealth and patronage. The BJP has sensed this desperation of the aspiring underclass in West Bengal, and is vigorously appealing to this purported majority, relatively less susceptible to the cultural pride involved in the Bengali identity.
This then is the cusp on which West Bengal politics stands today. It is as much a contest between the TMC and the BJP as it is between rival ideas of what it means to a Bengali or Hindu, at the same time as it is one between who assumes the leadership of the Bengali society and how. This contest may or may not have a decisive significance in the final tally of the BJP or its eventual exit or return to power at the national level. But it is all set to change the complexion of the popular Bengali society and culture in previously unanticipated ways. More immediately, it might well lead to major changes in the complexion of political leadership and popular discourse in West Bengal.
(The author teaches at Karnavati University in Gujarat)