Mamata’s bid for Bengali nationalism, explained

All eyes are on Bengal as violence and communalism has gripped the state post the Lok Sabha elections 2019. For reports of violent clashes between the TMC and BJP to the recent doctors’ strikes, West Bengal Chief Minister has been on the opposite end of stern criticism. Even the Home Ministry led by Amit Shah, who for all intents and purposes to Banerjee is first and foremost the BJP President, has raised concerns about lawlessness in Bengal. Wading through the noise, Banerjee emerges clinging to a pro-Bengali identity that some are now terming Bengali nationalism.

Banerjee’s most recent call for Bengali nationalism has been in the realm of linguistics.

“If you are coming to Bengal, you have to speak in Bengali. We would not allow that people will come from outside and beat up Bengalis”, she said at the recent doctors’ strikes, in an effort to explain away the violence against doctors’ as committed by people who do not understand Bengali culture.

Increasingly, to Banerjee, anti-Bengali actors and pro-BJP supporters are the same.

The Wire explains that while Banerjee’s traditional Ma, maati, maanush slogan exemplified Bengali pride, her recent brand of politics is veering into nationalism that could liken deepend the fissures in an already communal state and country.

Vidyasagar statue vandalised after Shah’s roadshow

BJP President and now Home Minister Amit Shah’s roadshow in Bengal was a particularly violent affair.

Before the seventh phase of polling, on May 15, Shah conducted a pro-BJP roadshow in north Kolkata. However, the event quickly turned violent when TMC and BJP clashed near Presidency College and Calcutta University. In the violence, a mob broke a 200-year old bust of Ishar Chandra Vidaysagar.

TMC Party leader in the Rajya Sabha Derek O’Brien said that “BJP goons” had “desecrated” the Vidyasagar’s bust.

Vidyasagar, a prominent Bengali academic, is known for his activism, particularly his push for widow remarriage.

The crowd had to be dispersed by a large police force lathi charging at it. Although police officials said that members of both parties were injured in the violence, the BJP blamed the TMC and vice versa.

Shah, who was forced to suspend his roadshow, said, “TMC workers attacked us and tried to cabotage the roadshow while the police remain mute spectators”.

The TMC, however, claimed that “outsiders” recruited by the BJP vandalised Vidyasagar’s bust, a phrase that seems all too comfortable next to the BJP on issues like the Citizenship Amendment Bill, “illegal immigration”, and the National Registry of Citizens.

Banerjee was photographed inspecting the broken pieces of the statue and later ordered an investigation into who vandalised it.

She said that West Bengal Home Secretary Alapan Bandyopadhyay will chair the investigation committee and work with the Indian Police Service (IPS) officer Javed Shamim, Assistant Commissioner of Police Kaushik Das, and the principal of Vidyasagar College.

She added that FIRs had already been registered and 35 people in question had been arrested.

Even after tensions had died down, CM Banerjee made a grand show about restoring Vidyasagar’s bust. At the TMC’s event to “unveil” the new statue, Banerjee paid her respects to the marble idol and facilitated it with flowers.

This vandalism of Vidaysagar’s statue became a symbol of Banerjee’s pro-Bengali rhetoric and used the apparent disrespect shown towards Vidyasagar as an attack on Bengali culture itself.

“See what they have done to the college — they don’t even know what Vidyasagar means to us”, said West Bengal’s Education Minister partha Chatterjee.

Rampant “post-poll violence” in Bengal

Even after the election and outside of the doctors’ strikes, Bengal has erupting in violence. Last week, both BJP worker Samatul Dolui and RSS member Swadesh Manna were found hanging from trees.

BJP Howrah President Anupam Mullick said that Dolui had been receiving death threats from TMC party workers.

“Dolui was active in BJP and gave the party a lead from his booth in the Lok Sabha polls. He had received death threats soon after he took out ‘Jai Sri Ram’ rallies in the locality. Trinamool-backed anti-socials ransacked his house immediately after the polls,” said Mullick.

Manna was also a part of the Jai Sri Ram rally.

In another major instance of violence, in Sandeshkhali, BJP and TMC workers argued when BJP flags were allegedly forcefully removed. BJP leader Mukul Roy says that in Sandeshkhali, three BJP workers, including Pradip and Sukanta Mondal, were shot dead by “TMC goons”.

In response to the killing of its party workers, the BJP observed a ‘Black Day’ of mourning and protest against the TMC. Pradip and Sukanta’s families also registered two FIRs. The state police have booked some people for rioting, shooting, stabbing, and intent to murder under the Arms Act, as well.

‘Political conspiracy by the BJP’ says Mamata Banerjee

Home Minister Amit Shah sent a notice to the Bengal government stating that it was not effectively maintaining law and order. However, Banerjee’s administration responded that everything was “under control” and “firm and appropriate actions” have been taken.

Banerjee has also framed criticism against the TMC, including the doctors’ strikes, as a BJP-led conspiracy to defame her and her party.

“Over the last two years, we have seen that the Central government has been continuously trying to disgrace the Bangla government and its people through various means… The BJP and the Central Home Ministry are run by the same person. The party is dictating Home policy… A strong conspiracy is now on to destabilise the State government,” said Bengal Education Minister Partha Chatterjee.

She has also said that the BJP government is painting Bengal as more violent than it is when states in the Hindu belt have seen similar violence over the years.

“In Uttar Pradesh and Gujarat, children and Yadavs were getting killed, where were you (BJP) then? BJP is creating disturbance and killing our workers. BJP is using Home Ministry for political conspiracy. BJP itself has tried to create violence”, said Chatterjee.

Moreover, Banerjee has claimed that the clashes between the TMC and BJP are normal and expected instances of post-poll violence in a particularly divisive election cycle.

Since 2014, Mamata Banerjee emerged as one of the strongest anti-BJP voices in the country— and was mostly praised for it by the other leftist parties. Her bastion of West Bengal was also considered impenetrable until 2019 when the BJP managed to win a record 18 seats.

However, now that Banerjee seems backed into a political corner— in Bengal and the Lok Sabha— she is driving home a narrative of Bengali nationalism that she hopes will stick as far as she can fling it.

In an effort to differentiate herself from Modi’s nationalism and her party from the BJP’s Hindutva ideology, Mamata Banerjee and the TMC are increasingly becoming one and the same.

Rhea Arora is a Staff Writer at Qrius

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