West Bengal’s reputation as a sanctuary for underground political activity and terrorists has a long and chequered history.
Conspicuous piety is like the shifting dunes of sand. Enter Ramnavami, under the stewardship of the Sangh Parivar, on a grand scale in West Bengal. If not everywhere, then at least in those pockets where the devout can be collected for the chanting and extravagant demonstrations of faith, altering the conventions of secular worship that have converted Durga Puja and Kali Puja more into festivals than religious observance.
The organised celebration of Ramnavami seems sufficiently alarming to have provoked senior CPI(M) leader Surya Kanta Mishra to issue instructions to the remaining cadres of his once-mighty organisation to stay watchful and block efforts at stirring and shaking the communal politics cauldron. Angst rooted in religious identity has not so far gone viral in West Bengal, but it seems that efforts have been initiated to collect the tinder and keep it dry in case of need.
Additions to the narrative of angst are a continuous process on the two sides of the religious divide — that is, between Hindu and Muslim. Therefore reports, such as the Bangladeshi assessment that parts of India — including West Bengal, with its 2,200-km porous international border, as well as Assam and Tripura — have emerged as sanctuaries for terror operatives from the Harkat-ul-Jihadi al-Islami and the Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh on the run has worked to make the collection of tinder more urgent and easier than ever before.
West Bengal’s reputation as a sanctuary for underground political activity and terrorists has a long and chequered history. At different periods, militants from the Northeast and later Punjab, and now fundamentalist Islamic groups, have found havens in the state. The reputation is not baseless, because there have been occasional instances of the police raiding and nabbing operatives of varied allegiance.
Terrorism, particularly of the fundamentalist sort, through imports of proselytisers and their mix of trouble, were not welcomed to meddle in the state, where politics of representation was conducted on clearly drawn ideological lines that separated activists and loyalists of one party from another. The bipolar politics of West Bengal — the Congress and later the Trinamul Congress versus the Communists — helped to keep the peace by being a remarkably stable division up till now.
What probably worked as a very effective restriction on such terror operatives with loyalties rooted outside India was the painstakingly built and politically guaranteed communal harmony of West Bengal after Partition. There were moments when some cracks appeared in the insulation and weakened the communal stability in the state. Withdrawing the sanctuary given to controversial Bangladeshi writer Taslima Nasreen in 2007 was one, because communal rioting threatened the compact of peace. There were other signs that West Bengal was not nearly as immune from the spreading malaise of fundamentalism, more significantly Islamic and less evidently Hindu, as many imagined. Concern over the changing situation had compelled former chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee to warn then home minister Lal Krishna Advani that the mushroom growth of madrasas after 2000 was a signal of the entry of imported Islamic fundamentalism that came with money and trained manpower to build bases in West Bengal.
The connect between madrasas, West Bengal’s rural hinterland and terror modules that could blend and hide was dramatically exposed in 2014 when the Khagragarh bomb-making unit exploded, revealing the presence of Bangladeshi fundamentalist operatives. The initial disclaimers by the Trinamul Congress government on the nature of the blast and those involved, its efforts at denying the existence of madrasas with sinister links in remote rural locations, strengthened the perception that there was a political advantage hidden in there somewhere.
Communal angst had already established a presence in West Bengal before Mamata Banerjee had stormed to power in 2011, ending 34 uninterrupted years of Left rule. The bipolar politics of West Bengal has now been challenged by a multipolar competition with the BJP pushing hard to make room for itself. The tropes of Islamic fundamentalism and Hindutva nationalism can only be expected to expand. There will be, like Ramnavami, more and more conspicuous consumption of religious observation, be it the louder and louder calls to prayer from bigger and shinier mosques, and changing dress codes, with the tilak and thread on the one hand and caps and suits on the other advertising the allegiance of the wearer.
The Congress and the CPI(M)-led Left Front have blamed Mamata Banerjee for hand-holding the BJP and enabling its political entry into West Bengal. It is true that she did join the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance as a minister, not once but twice. It is also true that she joined the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance and was invited to do so. Her flexibility helped her politically in West Bengal. In an earlier age, her aggressive pursuit of the “Muslim vote”, to the point that the Muslim clergy became part of her election campaign, may not have counted for much. It does now, because the political dynamics have changed with the BJP staking claim as a challenger to the Trinamul Congress.
The triumph of the BJP in 2014 and now its extraordinary victory in Uttar Pradesh, its spread to the Northeast and the general aura of success and dynamism that surrounds Prime Minister Narendra Modi has stoked the hunger for more territorial gains. The narrative of the majority being overtaken by the minority, the fears that nowhere is safe unless the Muslim tide is stalled, has spread from Mumbai to Uttar Pradesh and Assam. West Bengal is somewhere in between.
Do the signs of an end to the era of insular politics mean the beginning of a more connected and communally divided competition for votes? Will the Trinamul Congress government have the political skills to deal with the situation? It will be a tough call for Mamata Banerjee, at a time when the BJP is pushing hard to make itself the only reliable defender of the vulnerable Hindu and the faith. If this turns into her weak spot, the relative communal stability of West Bengal, at least till now, could become volatile.