Just days after West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee received flak for dragging state BJP leader Priyanka Sharma to court over a meme, party president Amit Shah’s roadshow in the state capital took a violent turn on Tuesday night, May 14. BJP karyakartas tailing his truck attacked Calcutta University (CU) students, broke into Vidyasagar College (VC), and vandalised the campus.
Raising pro-BJP slogans and the saffron party flag in response to the CU students, who were shouting anti-BJP slogans and holding placards reading “Amit Shah Go Back”, BJP workers charged with rods and pelted stones, bottles, and sticks at the students, according to numerous videos doing the rounds on social media.
Around 7 PM on Tuesday, clashes broke out between BJP supporters and Trinamool Congress Chhatra Parishad (TMCP), the student wing of TMC, and activists at VC, less than a kilometre down College Street. It climaxed with a mob storming the college’s main office and demolishing an Ishwarchandra Vidyasagar bust.
A police lathicharge late in the evening managed to bring the situation under control. Several ABVP miscreants were arrested as well. Shah was asked to asked to wrap up early in light of the violence, while the EC issued a ban on campaigning in the state effective from Thursday.
Here’s what happened
According to witnesses, participants in the rally were chanting, “Agar Bharat mein rehna hai, Ram Ram kehna hai”. Then they jumped over the iron gate and went straight for the glass case housing the patron’s bust, according to principal Goutam Kundu. Some reports also allege arson, claiming that men with covered faces burnt the gate down and proceeded to smash the glass case.
First-hand accounts of students have alleged that “BJP goons” roughed up the students and tugged at women’s dupattas women. Many former and current students, including the general secretary of the college union Manirul Mondal, were injured in the brick attack, according to The Telegraph. Motorcycles were burnt and the college office was ransacked.
Professor Debashish Karmakar’s laptop was destroyed and many election duty-related documents were found missing from his bag, which he had left beside the bust before rushing to hide at a different corner of the college with his wife. Many other female professors, who were still on campus at the time, were reportedly cowering in fear.
Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee who visited the campus and surveyed the damage, addressed the press from Bidhan Sarani at 9:45 PM. Alleging that the attack on Calcutta University was conducted with the help of “goons brought from outside,” she asked, “Does Amit Shah have any idea about the stalwarts who have studied in the college?”
“Calcutta University is a place of pride. When we are observing the bicentenary celebrations of Vidyasagar’s birth, they have broken the icon’s bust,” she reflected, tapping into the nativist Bengali pride, days before the last phase of polling in Kolkata. She then announced a protest march on Wednesday, May 15.
As news of the clash reached her while she was addressing a rally in Behala, Banerjee said, “Amit Shah’s rally is full of people from Rajasthan, UP, Bihar, and Jharkhand.”
Swearing revenge, she asked, “Do you, the goonda leaders of Delhi, know who Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar was?” adding, “If you lay a hand on the heritage of Bengal, you will have to face my wrath. If they attacked Vidyasagar, I am forced to call Amit Shah a goonda.”
Senior Trinamool Congress leader Derek O’Brien tweeted: “Desperate BJP goons from outside Bengal smash statue of Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar inside the college. Violent mob of BJP ‘outsiders’ in presence of Pukeworthy Shah. How little you know about Bengal, its rich history, its culture. Bengal will never forgive for what you did today.”
A cultural icon
“Vidyasagar College, Kolkata, was the first private college in India which was run by the Indians, where the teachers were all Indians, and it was financed by the Indians. The college was founded by Ishwarchandra Vidyasagar in 1872. It was formerly known as Metropolitan Institution. Today BJP goons, a part of Amit Shah’s road show, burnt its gate down, vandalised its offices, and demolished the bust of Vidyasagar,” Facebook user Tathagata Bhattacharya wrote.
The site of Tuesday’s violence used to be a hostel before college authorities decided to turn it into a second campus in 2000. The bust is therefore nearly 20 years old.
For those unaware of Vidyasagar’s place in Bengali culture, it suffices to say that every child in the state begins their education with his alphabet book Bornoporichoy.
Born as Ishwar Chandra Sharma in 1820, he was awarded the epithet of Vidyasagar (Sea of Knowledge) for his indispensable role in Bengal’s social and educational reform since the British era. As one of the key figures of the Bengal Renaissance, Vidyasagar is an icon most Bengalis encounter in their everyday lives even today as it is his standardised Bengali alphabet that remains in popular usage.
Hailing from a poor rural family, Vidyasagar’s own resolve and determination to educate himself, is the example every Bengali parent cites. Besides his contribution to education, he also devoted his life trying to abolish the caste system, child marriage and ‘Sati’ practice, and introduce widow remarriage and women’s education in a deeply hierarchal and patriarchal society.
The attack on Vidyasagar is thus being seen as an attack on the Bengali language itself, and a manifestation of the very Hindu obscurantism and orthodoxy he fought against.
Nativist pride and identity politics
If the BJP has mastered the art of politicising its military achievements and the Indian army for electoral gains, the TMC has been quick to play identity politics over the attempt to tarnish Vidyasagar’s image. Much like Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s #MainBhiChowkidaar campaign, Trinamool leaders are now changing their Twitter display pictures to Vidyasagar.
Trinamool is using the incident to paint the saffron party as a force that does not belong to Bengal, as part of its Bengali nativist messaging and painting itself as a Bengali party and the BJP as an organisation of outsiders.
The vandalisation of statues is not new in the BJP era. Over the last five years, memorials of leaders revered by liberals and the Left have been torn down with increasing frequency and impunity. Lenin, Periyar, Ambedkar, Phule, Tagore and Gandhi were a few of the targets of the saffron brigade in their attempt to rewrite history and supplant regional pride.
But it is also worth noting that most of these events occured in states where BJP is in power, and no arrests were ever made; that is what sets Bengal apart, claims many political observers who are enraged by the recent desecration.
The destruction of Vidyasagar’s statue has now become a major issue, and the BJP must have perceived it too because fake profiles posing as VU students soon started spreading rumours that the entire incident was staged by TMCP cadres.
How BJP has reacted
BJP leader Rahul Sinha was reported as saying, “A few youths from the college attacked our rally without provocation. The bust was kept in the union room and it was broken by Trinamool and displayed in front of the office to frame charges against us. We demand a judicial probe.”
Amit Shah, in turn, has thanked the CRPF for ensuring his safety when his convoy was allegedly attacked, calling it an open attack on the BJP and an attempt to “strangulate democracy”.
Shah also accused the state police of acting as ‘mute spectators’ during the clashes, for doing nothing to protect BJP workers who did nothing wrong and were attacked without any provocation by university students.
All these claims have since been debunked.
“The fact that every other State has concluded polls peacefully and yours has not, reflects on you (WB government), not on BJP,” Shah added, raising questions on the impartiality of the Election Commission in acting on complaints of poll violence in West Bengal.
Some critics have questioned why campaigning wasn’t halted immediately after the political violence, but only after PM Narendra Modi’s has finished his poll events.
TMC also sought a meeting with the EC Tuesday night, over the destruction of the statue.
An alternate vision of Hinduism is at play in Bengal
That said, Shah has fallen behind Banerjee in wielding the culture weapon; while he makes mistakes about Tagore’s birthplace in his speeches, Banerjee speaks about Goddess Durga and other Hindu Bengali gods (never, Lord Ram) and has women ululating in her rallies, in an attempt to drum up support for an alternative Hindutva. Whether this will work in favour of Banerjee, remains to be seen.
Besides, a campaign song from the regional party explicitly asks people to vote for or against Bengal, suggesting it is a battle for regional identity. And that is not entirely wrong.
Last week, a BJP leader of the state voiced his desire to ban mutton in the state, while the saffron party has always expressed its disdain for Banerjee’s propitiation of Bengal’s large Muslim population. It has courted opposition on multiple fronts for its Ram Navami processions, that bathed the streets of the capital in saffron and children bearing swords, for the first time in history.
How BJP is slowly making inroads
After being forced to postpone his rath yatras numerous times, Shah’s “Save Republic rally” finally took place in West Bengal before the last phase of the Lok Sabha polls in Kolkata.
It was, according to NDTV, a mega show complete with saffron balloons, BJP flags, and artistes dressed as Hanumans dancing to “Jai Shri Ram” beats, all showered by marigold petals. It was the first of its kind in Kolkata, which has witnessed hundreds of political rallies by the Left and Trinamool.
The Left has further blamed TMC for allowing this to happen, reminding that it was Mamata Banerjee who had saddled with the BJP decades ago to take on the Left, thus allowing the saffron party to make its first inroads in the then red state.
Nonetheless, the consolidated and considerably weakened left front on Wednesday condemned the incident. Taking to the streets, they opposed fascism, endorsed freedom and democracy in educational institutions and criticised TMC and BJP for allowing their rivalry to devolve to this level.
Congress joined the protests, thus consolidating the opposition against BJP in the state. They were followed by the Bengali intelligentsia including artists Kabir Suman, Joy Goswami, Shubhaprasanna, Saoli Mitra, and Arindam Sil, who addressed a press conference to protest what they perceived as a fascist attempt to overthrow Bengal’s culture identities.
West Bengal has seen a very bitter Lok Sabha election campaign over the 42 seats. Banerjee is maintaining her tight grasp on the state’s law enforcement and legal machinery to make election campaigning a difficult exercise for the BJP.
On Monday, the government had allegedly withdrawn permission for a rally led by Amit Shah in the Jadavpur constituency. No permission was granted either for the landing of Amit Shah’s chopper either.
If BJP fails to increase its seat tally in the state, that could dash its chances at balancing predicted losses in several northern states, while loss of existing seats could imperil TMC’s chances of retaining power in the state in the 2021 Assembly elections.
After a month of trading barbs and blows, the Trinamool-BJP rivalry has now come down to Kolkata, but the lack of political success in West Bengal continues to haunt the North Indian party.
It is no big secret that cultural and linguistic identities hold much greater sway over Bengal’s electorate than religious polarisation, which makes the vandalisation of Vidyasagar’s statue a foolish move on BJP’s part. It also betrays utter cluelessness in their repeated attempts to bring religious divides and conservative values to the eastern state, which after Tuesday is doubly cautious of the dangerous precedent of cultural revision that BJP is trying to set.
Prarthana Mitra is a Staff Writer at Qrius.