Sarbani Bandyopadhyay1 and Meghna Roy
“The best propaganda is that which, as it were, works invisibly, penetrates the whole of life without the public having any knowledge of the propagandistic initiative.” Goebbels
On the 14th of February the Hindu Samhati (henceforth Samhati) of West Bengal called a rally on Rani Rashmoni Avenue (RR Avenue) in Kolkata to mark its ninth anniversary. Their objective is the prevention of the ‘Islamisation’ (Islamikoron) of West Bengal and all its activities are geared toward this end. Central to their agenda is the ‘unification’ of ‘Hindu’ society through the continuous othering of Muslims. We witnessed this othering for a short time. Interspersed with abuses hurled at the Prophet, it had many ingredients about the ‘Muslim’: The Muslim is always treacherous; the Muslim is innately violent; the Muslim is essentially sexually aggressive, indeed they have a special attraction for ‘Hindu’ women and all women end up in the ‘harem’; the Muslim has no respect for women; the Muslim is a threat to humanity. As its materials on the Samhati website demonstrate, the urgent call is to ‘resist’ the Muslim now for if the Hindu waits for them to reform the Muslim would erase the Hindu from the face of this earth. The call is to cleanse the country of Muslims. At the rally this was clearly and unmistakably perceived by the crowd. From the stage Tapan Ghosh, president of Samhati (and former head of the RSS unit in Sonakhali, Sunderbans), gave the call to Hindu men to play love games with Muslim women: it was to be a Hindu counter-offensive to the so-called love-jihad and to organise ‘resistance’ against Muslim ‘appeasement’ and Muslim ‘violence’. Three main speakers at the rally were RSN Singh, the former officer of RAW, a Panun Kashmir leader and Tapan Ghosh. We reached late since our college got over at 3pm and the meeting was scheduled to start at 12. Still we could be there for about an hour and half and witness that fanaticism and talk to some organisers and participants/foot-soldiers there. Newspaper reports stated that the rally witnessed a massive turnout and the city air was filled with cries of “Jai Shri Ram”. Within nine years Samhati has increasingly spread its tentacles in both the northern and southern districts of Bengal which are home to a large section of Dalits as well as to substantial sections of the Muslim population. Earlier they used to hold their rallies in areas that could hold a small crowd of about one-two thousand; for the last two years they shifted to bigger venues and this time it was on RR Avenue which could hold more than 5,000 people.
Social composition of the crowd
The whole of Rani Rashmoni Avenue was closed as public thoroughfare and we saw people wearing headbands of Hindu Samhati sitting outside the cordoned area in small groups and spread across the long stretch of road till the other end of the crossing. Even around 3:15 pm we found the venue to be quite full.
Men outstripped women easily. They appeared to be mostly between their early 20s and 40s with a few older men there as well. Most of the crowd thronged from outside Kolkata from the districts they had the badge saying Kolkata Chalo for the Hindu Samhati rally. We asked people around where they came from and what they did for a living. Those we asked came from Baruipur, Sonarpur, Dakshin Barasat, Basanti, Aamtala- all mixed districts with high Dalit and Muslim population. Most were actual tillers of the soil, some were non-agricultural manual workers and some belonged to the artisanal castes. We saw buses lined up a few metres away from the cordoned area. We waited till the end and heard the organisers calling out to the crowd to take the buses for various routes: none were for the city proper. Each private bus (the usual ones commuters travel by) was packed to capacity when they left with people from the rally. We counted some 20 such buses leaving but then we got busy talking to others who were still there waiting for their buses so we lost count of them then. Something very interesting was being dished out from the stage to the crowd just when the rally was breaking up: “Bagdi, Dom, Muchi, Namasudra, Paundra, Rajbanshi [all Dalit castes] are all Hindus; we have only one identity we are Hindus; we shall save West Bengal from Islamisation”. This slogan was being repeated with a lot of zeal by the crowd accompanied with “Jai Shri Ram” slogans; these slogans were ringing out from the buses too when they were leaving the venue.
The Samhati worked primarily among the marginalised castes. And has a strong base particularly among the refugee Dalits from Bangladesh. Being in their 20’s to 40’s, these Dalits who form the backbone of the organisation have little access to the other histories of Bengal about which we write in a subsequent section. Some middle class Dalit refugees we spoke to described only how Muslim violence backed by state-power forced them to leave their homes and come in this country as refugees. Muslim violence thus was conceived as the root cause behind the current troubles Hindu refugees (read Dalit) faced. Hindus therefore needed a “homeland”. Two of the dalit refugee organisers Prabhat Mandal and Tapas Sarkar told us the “fear” that grips ‘Hindu’ refugees now: that even here they were faced with the imminent danger of becoming refugees once again because of the (alleged) “Islamisation of West Bengal”. It is the imparting and imbibing of a dangerously selective history and its deployment into the present that lies at the heart of ‘Hinduisation’ of Dalits, their problems and politics.
Political nature of the gathering
“Modi has handed the Hindus of this state over to Didi and thanks to her (Mamata Bandopadhyay, the Chief Minister of West Bengal) that she is pushing the Hindus of this state towards a war,” remarked Tapan Ghosh. Despite having declared the rally as an apolitical one aimed solely at securing a ‘Hindu unity’, most part of the speech by him was sprinkled with one political remark after another. He asked if culprits who have burnt police cars at Kaliachak and Bhangur were arrested under the new law against the vandalism of public property. “I am afraid the CM has now realized that the Hindus will not keep shut. Every action has an equal and opposite reaction,” he added.
Tapan Ghosh emphasized on an alleged disparity in the distribution of funds to Hindu and Muslim victims of violence. He recalled that Mamata Banerjee had denied any mishap in Dhulagarh. “She did not pay any heed to the assault to Hindus at Dhulagarh,” he accused. “The bereaved Hindu families have been granted Rs. 35,000 each. Those dead during Haj are compensated with Rs. 10,00,000.” He announced that the Samhati would take up the responsibility of education of the surviving children in families of Hindus killed in Dhulagarh riots, rejecting the doyar daan (charitable alms) offered by the state.
Trinamool Members of Parliament Sultan Ahmed, Ahmed Hassan Imran, Idris Ali (and Partha Chatterjee, deputy leader of the house at the West Bengal legislative assembly and minister in charge of Higher Education and School Education Department, Government of West Bengal, whose name was not mentioned by Ghosh) had attended a rally organized by Muslim clerics at Rani Rashmani Road in defence of the Quran and sharia laws against the abolition of triple talaq. Samhati leaders recalled such events to argue for their accusation of “Muslim appeasement” by the state government. The posters donned slogans demanding a uniform civil code. They expressed a concern to avoid West Bengal from turning into another Kashmir.
The speakers encouraged Hindus to go on the offensive if required. Video messages from former police and army officers such as KPS Gill and GD Bakshi welcoming the organization were played out. The suggestion offered in the rally was to drive out “pro-Pakistan” Muslim out of the land. It struck a chord with Trump’s policy of purging Muslim immigrants out of the United States of America. One of the banners in the venue read:
“1200 yrs the Hindus are fighting against the Islamists
Last 10 yrs Hindu Samhati is on grounds
People of every race, colour and gender
Stand with Donald Trump in the war against the Islamists.”
Their battle using the ‘Western concept’ of Valentine’s Day was against ‘love-jihad’. Their army even had women with infants in their laps. Their dress code had shades of saffron ranging from t-shirts with jersey-like prints of “Jai Shree Ram” to flashy headbands with religious inscriptions on them. Their coat of arms had Hindu Samhati written; festoons appeared all the way from S.N. Banerjee Road to the venue of protest. Their inspiration? Bal Thackeray and other Hindu fundamentalist leaders. Posters of such leaders sold out like hot cakes at the gathering.
The aforementioned agendum was reinstated when Ghosh in a gendered tone urged Hindu men to get intimate with Hindu women in order to evade the allegedly sexually aggressive Muslim men who make advances. He also cautioned Hindu women that such nicknames like “Bapi” or “Paltu” may be misleading- a “Sajjad” or “Hossain Ali” may have such nicknames too. “If the Muslims cross their limits, our boys will also forget discipline; they will become unruly,” said Ghosh to passionate applause from the predominantly male audience.
Muslims are accused of indulging in incestuous practices. This is one of the many reasons why Muslim men should be avoided by Hindu women. A book by Dr. Radhe Shyam Brahmachari was available for sale at the rally. It elucidates through arguments claimed to be scientific as to how breeding between consanguineous kin among Muslims has produced genetically mutated babies. The validity of these claims remains uncertain.
Even if one ignores the heteronormative and communal nature of the contentions, it is difficult to neglect the fact that incest has culturally specific definitions. The fictive kinship practised by the Bengali bhadralok allows persistence of dada (brother) as a form of address to husbands. Furthermore, the second largest tribe in India, the Gond tribe which happens to have Hindu affiliation, prescribes cross-cousin marriages.
The politics of building ‘Hindu unity’
The organisers of this rally requested all those who came from Baruipur to visit on their way back those “brave Hindus” who were in the Baruipur General Hospital; their visit would show these “brave” ones that Hindu society was by their side. Curious we asked one man by the name Prabhat Mandal who came up to us and asked us if we were journalists, why some people were admitted to the General Hospital at Baruipur. Mr. Mandal a former IT teacher with an NGO said that the procession for the rally which began at Baruipur was attacked by Muslims. Further persistent probing indicated the possibility of provocation from the procession’s side through slogans and posters. It seems that the ritual of violence is built into anything a ‘Hindu’ organisation such as the Samhati attempts to do. This is, however, not surprising given that the Samhati believes in upholding violence as the means of preventing the “increasing dominance of Muslims” in West Bengal, indeed throughout India. On their website too, the Samhati clearly states that what Hindus needed was “a reactionary Hinduism”, one that would set aside “its long history of tolerance” for it alleges that the “practice of tolerance” and “empathy” had only led to the “ruination of Hindus and their religion”. In fact the Samhati attempts to uphold/impose a homogenised Hinduism which is North Indian Hinduism. Festivals worshipping ‘Bajrangbali’ has become quite predominant in West Bengal; festivals around non-Brahmanical deities, which were popular festivals in rural Bengal, have become marginal in the religious life of Bengal and the sects such as marginal sects Sahajiya, Baul etc. have also become less significant in the lives of the marginalised communities.
For the Samhati as it was for the Bharat Sevashram Sangha (BSS) in 20th century undivided Bengal the resurgence of the ‘Hindus’, of their ‘religion’, of their ‘community’ could only occur through violence directed against the Muslims and that this resurgence would be brought about by the castes once shunned by ‘Hindu’ society.
Eastern Bengal till before the Partition in 1947 had witnessed vibrant forms of Dalit politics that destabilised and crippled the dominance of the Bengali bhadralok (gentleman). Appropriating this politics was necessary to stem the challenges from below. Central to this appropriation from the early 20th century had been the externalising of and redirecting to the Muslims the violence that is internal and essential to ‘Hindu’ society. In this way the primary enemy of the Dalit becomes not the caste Hindu but the Muslim. The brahmanisation of the anti-Brahmanical radical materialist Matua philosophy that began soon after the death of the Matua leader Guruchand Thakur in 1937 also aided the Hinduisation of dalit politics. The founder Harichand Thakur had explicitly ordered Matua followers not to worship Hindu deities and not to take pilgrimage to Hindu holy sites. But unfortunately later Harichand Thakur and Guruchand Thakur began to be portrayed as the reincarnation of Brahma and Shiva by the Matuas and their leaders. The impact of this Brahmanisation can be seen even today in this particular case of the Hindu Samhati as well. Tapan Ghosh was a special guest at the last Shyamnagar Matua Sanmelan.
The Samhati like its elder cognates such as the BSS does not use Dalits merely as foot-soldiers. And it is here in this form of appropriation that the perverse nature of Hindutvadi/Hindu politics becomes visible: marginalised castes in this politics become the willing authors of their own destruction. After the death of the BSS founder Pranabananda, the one who succeeded him was Bedananda who belonged to a caste ranked much low in the caste hierarchy of Bengal. Based on the writings of Bedananda it can be safely claimed that he was centrally involved in scripting the communalisation of marginalised caste politics in undivided Bengal and later in West Bengal. It is not mere coincidence that the vice-president of Samhati is Bikarna Naskar, a Paundra by caste, which was formerly considered ‘untouchable’. Bikarna Naskar’s speech in an earlier rally (available on the website) shows striking similarities with Bedananda’s politics. These Hindutvadi organisations could literally show that Hindutva is not an ‘imposition’ but is an ideology and action that has appeal to marginalised castes, including Dalits. And yet as the past and the contemporary times show, belonging to ‘Hindu’ society for the marginalised, in particular Dalit, castes could occur only through their contribution to anti-Muslim politics. Thus any form of political solidarity on the part of these oppressed castes with the Muslims as an oppressed community or an anti-Hindutva political imagination gets precluded.
Prabhat Mandal’s claim that Hindus need a “homeland” is not a new one. In 1946, the bhadralok campaign for Partition of Bengal was based on this claim: a homeland for Bengali Hindus which would be West Bengal. What gets expunged from bhadralok history-telling/writing and from memory is the role the bhadralok played in ensuring the Partition of Bengal sans an exchange of population. A small section the Hindu bhadralok of Eastern Bengal opposed to the Partition issued an appeal and refutation of the pro-Partition agitation in their “Seven Point Statement” that condemned the move for Partition. Point 6 of the same statements says “the Partition will seriously affect the interest of the Scheduled Caste Hindus who form a predominantly large percentage of Hindus in East Bengal. In case of Partition the well to do section of the caste Hindus will naturally be inclined to move out of East Bengal and migrate to West Bengal leaving the poorer caste Hindus and the Scheduled Caste Hindus (who are mostly poor) to their fate in an area which for all practical purposes will be a Pakistan. The move for Partition will thus undermine the gulf between the Scheduled Caste Hindus and the caste Hindus at a time when we are seriously trying to do away with all inequalities and caste distinctions”. The final seventh point clinches the argument against Partition: “an examination of the Census figures reveals that the Hindus in the proposed Eastern region and in the proposed Western region are about equal in number. The theory of a separate ‘Homeland for the Hindus’ becomes thus absolutely untenable”.
Yet, the majority of the bhadralok were poised in favour of Partition. The demands of the Scheduled Castes that in the unfortunate event of Partition all Hindu majority areas should be included in west Bengal and Muslim majority areas be included in Pakistan or that there be an exchange of population were dismissed by bhadralok organisations such as the strongly influential Bengal Partition League and West Bengal Provincial Conference to which the “saviour of Bengali Hindus” Shyama Prasad Mukherjee also belonged. The motive is crystal clear: the bhadralok wanted a homeland for the caste Hindus and in that the Dalits had no place. It was the bhadralok who sacrificed the interests, the safety and the security of the Dalits to what they considered the only enemy of ‘Hindus’: the Muslims. Yet the bhadralok have been robbed of their powerful role in bringing about the violence against Dalits in East Pakistan. We need to do justice to the bhadralok too and therefore they must be given back the place they deserve in history.
How can a “Hindu homeland” be established in the small state of West Bengal? Prabhat Mandal said the Samhati wanted to fight for the rehabilitation of “Hindu refugees in West Bengal”: it was to be their actual homeland. How can this “living space” for Hindu refuges be created here? The living space or to borrow the German word the Nazis had used “lebensraum” could only be created by driving Muslims away, this was the indication Prabhat Mandal and Tapas Sarkar gave and it was clear from the rally: from the organisers and the crowd. Occupying the lands of Muslims in the remote districts, killing them using the sickle or the boti (an instrument used by Bengalis to cut vegetables, meat and fish), and forcing them to leave their homes were part of some conversations among the crowd that we overheard between members of the crowd. The ‘Hinduisation’ of Dalit politics has been attempted since the beginning of the 20th century in Bengal. One of the participants of Sarbani’s doctoral research Sunil Roy likened these attempts to that of the embrace of the python. That this call for ‘Hindu unity’ is renewed time again targeting the Dalit population shows one thing, and only one: that ‘Hindu unity’ is a political impossibility. ‘Hindu’ society is incapable of achieving this unity because it is essentially a caste society.
The ‘virtuous’ Ambedkar and the ‘evil’ Jogendranath Mandal
Jogendranath Mandal, a lawyer and a popular leader of the Namasudra peasantry made his debut as a legislator by contesting the 1937 elections from a General constituency. His election stunned the bhadralok as he won by a comfortable margin defeating Congress candidate Saral Dutta the nephew of the Swadeshi legend Ashwini Kumar Dutta. His politics both in the Bengal Legislature and that of mass mobilisations had considerably undermined bhadralok politics and remained a source of major threat to the bhadralok till 1947. From 1943 he was the president of the Bengal Scheduled Castes Federation; as a legislator he proposed and introduced, along with other Dalit legislators some radical legislations. When in 1946 Ambedkar’s electoral defeat in the Provincial elections almost eclipsed his political career and the Cabinet Mission rejected his claims to be the representative of the Scheduled Castes, Mandal invited Ambedkar to contest for a berth in the Constituent Assembly from the Bengal Legislature. Mandal himself could have contested but he considered Ambedkar his leader to be far more equipped to handle the Dalit question at a critical juncture. However, in Bengali (Hinduised) Dalit and bhadralok politics the increasing trend has been to malign and delegitimise Mandal by juxtaposing him and his politics against that of Ambedkar’s.
This is most effective and dangerous form of appropriation of Ambedkar and the disinheriting and disavowal of Jogendranath Mandal in West Bengal. Mandal, a dalit himself, whose disillusionment with the Congress led him toward Ambedkar’s All India Scheduled Caste Federation defied all forms of appropriation either by the Left or by the Right. Ambedkar is alleged to be the saviour of ‘Hindus’ and Hinduism2 and therefore ‘virtuous’ and Mandal as the embodiment of ‘evil’ who allegedly led the ‘Hindus’ (the Bengali Dalits) straight into the Muslim slaughter house. Ambedkar’s writings, in particular his Thoughts on Pakistan and his positions on Jinnah, on Muslim League, on Hyderabad and his silence on Jogendranath Mandal’s politics3 around the major issue of rehabilitation of East Bengali Dalits have allowed for this kind of appropriations and vilifications. This binary that the Hindu Right establishes between Ambedkar and Mandal must be challenged. It is false and politically debilitating for Bengali Dalit politics. We bought a book at the Samhati rally titled Bharat Bibhajan Jogendranath o Ambedkar by a Paundra leader Bipadbhanjan Biswas where this kind of mischievous rightist politics finds an expression. The book is so full of lies and half-truths that a full-length monograph against it would be sorely insufficient. But we would highlight a couple of such lies/half-truths for we are convinced it is important that Mandal’s anti-caste politics should be evaluated in proper light so as to prevent a mass appropriation of Bengali Dalit politics through its ‘Hinduisation’.
The book begins with an alleged quote attributed to Ambedkar. It does not mention the source. It says that although Mandal considered Ambedkar his leader Mandal did not seek Ambedkar’s opinion before joining the Interim Muslim League Cabinet. It further claims that Ambedkar clearly disapproved of Mandal’s move. We searched the internet with this quote of disapproval but found no such quote to exists. Ambedkar is quoted to prove he was anti-Islam and deeply suspected Muslim intentions and mentality and Mandal is placed against him as one who had declared in 1946 that the scheduled castes preferred to live under the jurisdiction of Muslims or some other community with freedom and dignity rather than living a life of indignity under the Hindus. The fact however remains that Mandal had consulted Ambedkar on important aspects of Provincial politics and that, till his death in 1968, he remained loyal to Ambedkar whom he had considered his leader. Indeed after the Wavell Plan was declared in June 1945 Mandal discussed with Ambedkar the future of Bengal politics and Ambedkar wrote to him on 8th July that so far as Bengal was concerned the political negotiations would have to be carried out with the Muslim League. Bipadbhanjan Biswas and his Hindutvadi patrons including the former Deputy Registrar of Calcutta University Dr. Dinesh Chandra Sinha are liars bent on promoting a distorted history among Bengali Dalits.
If Ambedkar was against Mandal joining the Interim Cabinet as a nominee of the Muslim League, then how do we explain Ambedkar nominating Mandal as the Chairperson of the All India Scheduled Castes Students Meet in Nagpur, 25-26 December 1946? The Interim government was formed earlier on 2nd September 1946. And indeed Mandal had asked for Ambedkar’s advice to join the Cabinet and Ambedkar gave his nod to it. Further, Mandal was given the guard of honour in Nagpur by the Samta Sainik Dal, and the National Muslim Guards and welcomed by leaders of the Scheduled Castes Federation, Muslim League and government officials.
A second point Biswas claims that Mandal lacked a popular base and popular leadership, and stating from there that Mandal was not interested in ‘politics’ but in grabbing power. Indeed he relegates all of Mandal’s politics into mere bureaucratic instances. Biswas seems to have forgotten that only two candidates from the Ambedkar’s party were returned to the Assembly in 1946, one was Mandal. Ambedkar himself had lost the election from his home turf. Mandal won despite the massive Congress-Hindu Mahasabha conspiracy against him a theme Dwaipayan Sen (US based historian whose thesis is on JN Mandal) has dealt with in details. In 1946 the Congress swept the elections even in Scheduled Caste constituencies. In Bengal 24 out of 25 of its candidates were elected in 1946 as against the 7 out of 30 in 1937. Mandal was often trusted (and always betrayed) by the Communist Party: he was called upon to speak at different meetings the Communist Party organised for he was considered by the CPI as an important leader having popular support of the Scheduled Castes and the Muslim sharecroppers and labourers. However, Mandal could never get the support one could have expected from the CPI. If these do not prove Mandal’s popularity, it becomes an imperative to question Biswas what he means by that term.
Third, Mandal is accused of being hand in glove with the Muslim League in partitioning and sacrificing the cause of the Dalits. He is quoted where he congratulated Jinnah and Muslim League for the founding of Pakistan. He again places Ambedkar against Mandal and attaches two letters from Mandal to Ambedkar. Interestingly there are no letters printed by Biswas that deal with Mandal’s anxieties over Partition and the fate of Scheduled Castes in East Pakistan as well as the destiny of the Dalit movement in West Bengal once its eastern part was severed from it. Mandal was against the Partition and his organisation was involved in mobilising support against it and calling meetings on a regular basis. In one of their meetings organised at Harinarainpur 24 Parganas, Mandal decalred that “the present scheme for the Partition of Bengal was only to crush the Scheduled Castes and to get all power in the hands of the Caste Hindus. Most of the Scheduled Castes lived in East Bengal and by separating them from their brethren in West Bengal both would fall an easy prey to the Muslims in East Bengal and Caste Hindus in West Bengal… A United Bengal was necessary in the interests of the Scheduled Caste people of the province.” (West Bengal State Archives File No. 1128/46, Files on Bengal Partition League and Scheduled Castes Federation). This statement should be read in the context of the 1946 Great Calcutta Killings that had its impact on other districts of Bengal and even outside the Province. Mandal’s fears reflected the fact of the deep communalization of relations (that the Hindu organizations could achieve) between Dalits and Muslims particularly in Eastern Bengal. Mandal was also suspicious of caste Hindu intent in the new East Pakistan. The bhadralok campaign for Partition is the final evidence of the nationalist public secret, that the Dalits remained outside the ‘Indian nation’ and the ‘nationalist’ imagination. Mandal was only too aware of this fact. Mandal was advised finally by Ambedkar to accept the Partition and work in alliance with the League and demand special minority rights from the East Pakistan government. Later events were to prove Mandal right. This book and anti-Mandal politics in West Bengal has obliterated this aspect from Bengal’s Partition era history.
Unfortunately, the Bengali Dalit refugees failed to get rehabilitation unlike the bhadralok refugees; most still languish in camps and many had been packed off to inhospitable and hostile terrains in Dandakaranys, Andaman Islands and other regions. Many such refugees had been forced to settle on the areas bordering East Pakistan/Bangladesh where they could act as the buffer population in the event of a war breaking out between the two countries. In such a moment of crisis for the Dalit refugees the lack of communication between Ambedkar and Mandal has led to the further political isolation of Mandal, it aided his adversaries, the caste Hindus and the ‘Hinduised’ Dalits. Of all the Dalit leaders who had co-operated with the Muslim League only Mandal earned the nickname Jogen Ali Mollah and it was coined by Apurba Lal Majumdar whose initiation and growth in politics happened literally under Mandal’s auspices. From the late colonial period till now no Dalit figure has been so vilified by caste Hindus and ‘Hinduised’ Dalits alike as Mandal. Surely, that could happen only because Mandal defied any form of appropriation whether it is a Hindutvadi one or a Leftist one. Perhaps Mandal’s politics still has the potential to reverse this self-annihilating trend among Dalits: that of their ‘Hinduisation’? For this Mandal’s politics, his trajectory, his isolation must be re-visited and evaluated in fresh light. This re-visiting should avoid the trap of either deifying Mandal or demonizing him.
The ‘Good’ Hindu and the ‘Bad’ Muslim: Some Reflections
The Samhati monthly newspaper Samhati Sambad (later Swadesh Samhati Sambad) carries anti-Muslim/anti-Islam quotes from eminent persons on the right side of the front page. In its issue of September 2015 the main news item was on the commemoration and rehabilitation of a murderer of Muslims named Gopal Mukherjee also known as Gopal Patha. Gopal Mukherjee is credited with being the Hindu face of terror in north Calcutta in the Calcutta riots of August 1946. That he would be celebrated by the Samhati is not surprising. What we find dangerous is that this very issue on commemorating a violent anti-Muslim figure carries a quote by Ambedkar from Thoughts on Pakistan: “The brotherhood of Islam is not the universal brotherhood of man. It is the brotherhood of Muslims for Muslims only. There is fraternity but its benefit is confined to those within that corporation. For those who are outside the corporation, there is nothing but contempt and enmity.” Together, the legitimisation of Gopal Mukherjee as the saviour of ‘Hindus’ against the Muslims can now be more easily pushed for among Bengali Dalits by invoking Ambedkar.
At the rally people we spoke to invariably cited ‘personal’ stories of betrayal by Muslims: their own, their relatives’, their neighbours’, their friends, people they knew or stories they heard from random others. These are not merely idiosyncratic, personal stories. Through stories we create our selfhood, our selves. Therefore such ‘personal’ stories are also collective and political stories. Such stories can be placed alongside public statements or writings of eminent figures, in our case against Islam and Muslims, to make these stories tend to achieve value for being more ‘real’ and ‘universal’, they can then have regulatory power over other ‘less valuable’ ones that can undermine the real and universal nature of some personal stories.
The first author, SB recollects a handful of stories that give a different narrative. The aim is not to say, oh! Muslims aren’t that bad after all. What we aim to do here is something simple, very simple. These other recollections are meant to teach ourselves about the false binaries of the ‘good’ Hindu and the ‘bad’ Muslim that we have grown up with.
The following part is written in first person by SB. In August 1947, a conspiracy was hatched in the house of the Qazi of Shologhar village, Bikrampur, Dhaka to abduct my maternal aunt, (mashi) once Pakistan was formed. The news of this conspiracy reached my grandfather: the Qazi’s younger brother a Congress activist passed this information to my grandfather through the common Muslim milkman, Moula. Moula, my grandparents and their sons chalked out a plan to send mashi to Calcutta. On 13th August 1947, in the dead of the night Moula, mashi and her two elder brothers left for the khal-paar (the canal). There Moula handed them over to the four boatmen (khalashi) all Muslims who were entrusted with the task of crossing the canal over to Dhaka city from where Mashi and my uncles were to take the train to Sealdah station in western Bengal. They arrived safely at Sealdah on 14th August, 1947. Six Muslim men masterminded the escape strategy putting their own lives at stake for a Hindu woman.
When 2002 happened and I gave mashi the stories of massive, unimaginable forms of violence unleashed against Muslims and Muslim women in particular her only reaction was that she was saved by Muslim men way back in 1947 when relations between the two communities were marked by mutual hatred and suspicion. She remembers that and she wants us to remember that too. This remembering is a political act and is a political duty.
December 1992: The Babri Masjid was demolished on 6th December. Part of my maternal family lived in Beckbagan, Park Circus, known as mini Pakistan. I once lived there. After riots broke out in Park Circus we learnt from our relatives there that Beckbagan was free of violence because Qayuum (who owned a small grocery shop and was a very helpful neighbour) and small groups of Muslims (all Biharis4) stood guard at the different entry points to Beckbagan. They confronted ‘outsider’ Muslims and refused them entry. Can we conclude that Muslim fraternity was only confined to the Muslims? Why should a Qayuum here, a Moula in Shologhar place their lives at risk to save those who were not part of their community? The politics of Partition, the ‘Hindu’ attempt at appropriation of Dalit politics and the discriminatory patterns reflected in the rehabilitation of Dalit refugees do all these not show that Hindu fraternity is a caste-based fraternity limited to only caste-Hindus?
When Qayuum and other Muslims were defending Beckbagan, rather, the Hindu families residing there, a few kilometres from there in Tangra an entire Muslim slum was burnt down. Overlooking the Tangra Housing complex a Bihari dalit goon locally known as Bhalluk who was working for the CPI(M), aided by police office by the name Gadai De and a CPI(M)5 leader from Tangra Housing Sukharanjan Chakraborty, known as Ranjan da, burnt down the slum. The exit through Beliaghata was blocked by Gadai De’s police force and the slum dwellers had no other option than to see their homes being burnt down. Those who ran toward their homes were attacked by Bhalluk’s gang and the police. At least two Muslims died but nobody knows what happened to their bodies. These people took shelter in the slaughter house situated on a nearby field. The organisation called DAFODWAM [Democratic Action Forum of Dalits, Women and Minorities] then known as Dalit Minority United Front went with food and water when curfew was lifted for two hours for the Friday prayers and they stayed with the homeless Muslims in the slaughter house for 17 days without being able to change their clothes. They had not anticipated the situation would worsen and that they would not be able to come back with some more food supplies. They naturally had not brought any extra clothes with them either. When curfew was lifted finally after 17 days the organisation members got more relief and continued working there among the Muslims and the Bihari Dalits. After working for one and half years these Bihari Dalits who had aided Bhalluk forced him to leave the city; the organisation’s campaign against the police forced the transfer of Gadai De. But the solidarity that the organisation could build among the Muslims and the Dalits in that area is the real measure of their success. This implies that despite the continuing ‘Hinduisation’ of Dalits it is possible to reverse the trend.
Photographs have been taken by the authors.
Sarbani Bandyopadhyay teaches Sociology in St. Xavier’s College, Kolkata.
Meghna Roy is a 2nd year Honours student in the same department.
1 A substantial part of the article draws on some arguments made in Sarbani Bandyopadhyay’s doctoral thesis.
2 In an interview to the first author Bhabesh Maharaj of Bharat Sevashram Sangha (February 2013) claimed that Ambedkar saved the Hindu religion by leading the conversion of Dalits to Buddhism, else they would have left the Hindu fold by converting to Islam.
3Mandal fled from East Pakistan in 1950 after one of the worst riots that took place in East Pakistan after the Partition.
4 Urdu speaking Muslims, in particular Bihari Muslims are seen by Bengalis (Hindus and Muslims) as a despised ‘other’.
5 This is not to deny that there has been Left leaders and activists who tried to prevent communal polarizations, but the Left’s ideological orientation has remained largely Brahmanical which makes such anti-communal activism an exception rather than making it integral to Left politics.