Battle for the Bhadralok

The historical roots of Hindu majoritarianism in West Bengal

Historically, many among the Bhadralok, predominantly upper-caste, liked to imagine themselves as the mirror image of Victorian middle-class professionals. This Kalighat painting from the nineteenth century depicts a Bhadralok with a fashion sense combining British and Indian mores. Heritage Arts / Getty Images
Historically, many among the Bhadralok, predominantly upper-caste, liked to imagine themselves as the mirror image of Victorian middle-class professionals. This Kalighat painting from the nineteenth century depicts a Bhadralok with a fashion sense combining British and Indian mores. Heritage Arts / Getty Images
29 November, 2019

INDIAN PARLIAMENTARIANS ARE NOT particularly known for their parliamentary behaviour. But what unfolded during the swearing-in ceremony of members of the seventeenth Lok Sabha this year was truly exceptional. Throughout the proceedings, the treasury benches heckled elected representatives from the opposition with Hindu-majoritarian slogans. Most Muslim members of parliament responded to the frenetic sloganeering of “Jai Sri Ram” and “Bharat Mata Ki Jai” with invocations of Allah. Leaders of the All India Trinamool Congress, however, introduced a new twist: “Jai Sri Ram” was countered with “Jai Ma Kali” and Sanskrit verses invoking the divine mother.

The Trinamool Congress managed to win a majority of West Bengal’s Lok Sabha seats this time, despite suffering heavy losses to a newly resurgent Bharatiya Janata Party in the state. Under the leadership of the current chief minister, Mamata Banerjee, the party came to power in West Bengal in 2011, defeating the Left Front, the longest surviving democratically elected communist-led regime in world history. After 34 years of continuous rule, the Left Front government was mired in controversy, especially over land-acquisition policies favouring corporate capital. Banerjee’s election strategy championed the causes of the rural poor, appropriating much of left-wing rhetoric that still had considerable public legitimacy. In less than ten years, there seems to have occurred a decisive change in political discourse; Ram and Kali were the choices on offer in the 2019 election.

A shift towards the hard-line Hindu Right in West Bengal’s political culture was in evidence throughout the campaign leading up to the general election. The BJP called upon the electorate to embrace an essentially north-Indian Hindu majoritarianism. The Trinamool Congress, on the other hand, appealed to a regional cultural chauvinism that, in its paternalist moods, could extend tokenistic recognition to a Bengali Muslim identity. In Trinamool propaganda, BJP’s Hindutva stood in contrast to a peculiarly Bengali articulation of an upper-caste Hindu culture. The party’s project was to pose as the protector of this tradition, the roots of which could supposedly be traced to a nineteenth century “Bengal Renaissance.” The BJP, on the other hand, made continuous attempts in its West Bengal campaign to appropriate the leading figures of this so-called renaissance as the ideological forefathers of Hindutva. By claiming to be the direct inheritors of this tradition, it hoped to convince Bengali voters that its leaders alone could realise the unfulfilled dreams of their nineteenth-century heroes. The contest was over the historical interpretation of what this so-called renaissance represented. And at the heart of this was the battle for the loyalties of the Bengali bhadralok.

Often loosely translated as “gentlefolk,” scholars have always encountered difficulties in defining exactly who the bhadralok are. One historian described them as “the upper crust of Bengali society” and their social dominance as a “despotism of caste, tempered by matriculation.” Few exceptions notwithstanding, the bhadralok almost always hail from upper-caste groups; they would have typically received at least a smattering of Western education. Historically, many among them liked to imagine themselves as the mirror image of Victorian middle-class professionals. While some were, indeed, successful professionals, most of them supplemented their often-meagre salaries and professional earnings with income from agricultural land. After Partition in 1947, many among the bhadralok lost their connection with land and became exclusively dependent upon professional income. But what continue to unite the bhadralok are their predominantly upper-caste status and a shared disdain for manual labour. Thereby, they mark their distance from the vast number of Hindu lower-caste groups, tribal communities and Muslims. Otherwise, the bhadralok as a sociological category is notoriously flexible and defies definition. A highly successful professional and a petty clerk can both claim bhadralok status. So can a celebrated literary figure as well as a part-time hack. For our current purposes, we can use categories such as “bhadralok” and “Bengali upper-caste Hindu elites” more or less interchangeably.

The question to be asked is how did the bhadralok manage to exercise disproportionate influence on the historical trajectories of politics in Bengal, far in excess of their demographic significance? The current electoral success of the BJP has to be understood in terms of the political choices that the bhadralok seem to be making to preserve and perpetuate their dominance.

THERE IS SOME AGREEMENT among historians that nineteenth-century Bengal witnessed unusual cultural and intellectual efflorescence, though many express reservations about the appropriateness of the word “renaissance” for describing this phenomenon. Most importantly, its impact was limited to a narrow section of upper-caste Bengali men, for whom critique of colonial exploitation was not top of the agenda. All such “renaissance men” remained steadfastly loyal to the Raj even during the revolt of 1857. In fact, they mostly saw the colonial state as the providential agent that could rid India of its social backwardness. The liberal reforms they championed, therefore, were directed at their own upper-caste-Hindu milieu, and they saw colonial legislation as the means to bring about major social transformations. Moreover, a closer look at liberal reformist ideas shows that they were never completely insulated from strands of thought that would later become the mainstay of Hindu communalism in Bengal.

Take Ram Mohan Roy for example. He led the campaign for abolishing sati and forced the colonial government to enact a law banning this barbaric practice. Roy was very much a product of Mughal high culture—his earliest writings were in Persian; he died in England as an emissary of the Mughal emperor Akbar Shah II, who had conferred on him the title of “Raja.” Yet, some of his later writings contain references to “Muslim tyranny” and describe British rule as deliverance from it. This concept remained in currency throughout the nineteenth century until it was made the central plank of Hindu communal propaganda by its final decades.

A more important limitation, perhaps, were the terms of debate employed by liberal reformers in arguing for social change. This was partly structured by the kind of “evidence” that early colonial officials privileged in arriving at legal principles governing lives of their colonised subjects. As a result of the obsession of early colonial rule with Hindu shastras, widow immolation could be declared illegal only when it could be shown that Hindu scriptures did not consider sati to be an obligatory practice. Roy set about this task, therefore, by unearthing passages in the Dharmashastras that glorified ascetic widowhood, thereby proving that Brahminical scriptures permitted widows to remain alive after their husbands’ death. However, this very exercise, as the historian Sumit Sarkar argues, created considerable difficulties for further social-reform initiatives—passages from the shastras idealising the virtues of chaste widowhood limited Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar’s options in his fight to legalise remarriage of Hindu widows. Moreover, debates around liberal reforms, framed around Sanskrit texts, naturally limited their scope to a narrow stratum of upper-caste Hindus.

Vidyasagar featured quite centrally in election propaganda in Bengal this year. On 14 May, days before Kolkata was to vote in the last phase of the elections, a BJP rally led by Amit Shah clashed with Trinamool supporters. In the fiasco, a BJP mob entered Vidyasagar College and smashed a statue of Vidyasagar, the college’s founder. This provided an opportunity for Mamata Banerjee to display yet another proof of her claim that the BJP had no respect for Bengal and its luminaries. BJP supporters were put on the back foot, attempting to shift the blame onto Trinamool workers despite there being considerable evidence of their own culpability. Narendra Modi himself declared his dedication to Vidyasagar’s vision and promised to install a grand statue made of panchdhatu—a five-metal alloy, typically used for making temple idols—at the same spot. After the elections, Banerjee immediately reinstated Vidyasagar’s statue inside the college. While talking about the reformer’s legacy in a speech, on 11 June 2019, she called upon intellectuals and artists in Bengal to follow his footsteps to inaugurate yet another renaissance, and drive out the BJP from the state.

Having lived a life of genteel poverty, Vidyasagar emerged as the preeminent educationist, philanthropist and social reformer of his time. Nevertheless, his uncompromising fight for widow remarriage, and against child marriage and polygamy, stands in contrast to his willingness to make strategic compromises on the caste question: he opened the doors of Sanskrit College—of which he was the principal—to Kayastha students, in addition to Brahmins and Vaidyas, but pushed no further to enrol lower-caste aspirants for fear of rebellion among orthodox teachers and upper-caste students of the college. While this shows the limitations of Vidyasagar’s agenda, even more revealing, perhaps, is the nature of opposition he had to face against his reform initiatives.

Resistance came not only from the conservative Brahminical milieu but also from lower-caste groups. Contrary to current perceptions, the roots of Brahminical hegemony ran deeper into Bengal’s social fabric than in many other parts of the country. Here, many lower-caste groups had for long practised Brahminised social practices, and lower-caste patriarchy remained unwilling to let liberal reforms loosen control over their womenfolk and thereby frustrate their ambitions of social mobility.

The caste question is, of course, absolutely central to Hindu communalism. Hindu right-wing groups have historically held up an image of a unified and homogeneous Hindu community. Caste distinctions have repeatedly foiled such projections, when lower-caste groups have asserted themselves as a distinct group, disenfranchised and oppressed by Brahminical orthodoxy. At such conjunctures, Brahminism has typically attempted to manage the ideological crisis by raising the spectre of the Muslim enemy while, at the same time, trying to win over dissident lower-caste communities. Therefore, it is no coincidence at all that the era that marked the end of liberal reform initiatives and the dominance of Hindu-revivalist and supremacist voices in Bengal coincided with growing lower-caste assertions against caste-Hindu dominance, alongside challenges from a section of Bengal’s Muslims. As such resistance increased by the early twentieth century, Hindu majoritarianism acquired an increasingly adamant disposition and gained greater acceptability among the bhadralok.

A wave of conservative revivalism gained prominence in Bengal by the late nineteenth century in the wake of the age-of-consent controversy. Staunch opposition was organised by orthodox Brahminical elites in the 1890s, led by people such as Sasadhar Tarkachuramani, against the attempt to raise the legal age for marriage and cohabitation of young girls from ten to 12 years. The argument was that this legislation would violate the garbhadhan ritual prescribed by Brahminical scriptures that made it obligatory for all women to consummate their marriage immediately after they start menstruating—as some girls could start menstruating before they reached 12 years of age. The Hindu revivalists insisted that the suffering—and even deaths—of young girls due to rampant sexual abuse by their often much older husbands was not argument enough to dispense with this ritual obligation, as its violation would render future offspring impure.

The campaign that followed to stop the colonial state from interfering with Hindu customs, the historian Tanika Sarkar argues, introduced perhaps for the first time in Indian politics some of the characteristic features of popular mass mobilisations—demonstrations, sloganeering and so on. This “modern form” of doing politics matured by the turn of the century, when the British divided Bengal into two halves, in 1905, and the region plunged into the Swadeshi movement.

As the name indicates, substitution of foreign goods, especially clothes, with indigenously produced commodities formed an important item of the swadeshi agenda, meant to strike at the root of colonial profiteering. This part of the campaign showed up the limits of bhadralok-driven mass politics. Poor, lower-caste and Muslim peasants resisted the attempt to thrust swadeshi products down their throats. The rural poor, oppressed by bhadralok landlordism for decades, could not be convinced that the rejection of cheaper foreign goods would improve their lives in any way. Upper-caste-Hindu activists used every method to arm-twist the peasantry, precipitating violence in the countryside.

The experience of the movement brought the bhadralok to their senses. Despite its apparent success—Bengal was reunited in 1911—bhadralok leaders realised how little influence they had in a world in which they were, after all, only a small minority. Late-nineteenth-century colonial censuses had made it apparent that Bengal was a Muslim-majority province. And if the bhadralok was unable to keep lower-caste groups on their side, their social dominance would be at peril, especially in an era when representative institutions were being introduced at different levels of the colonial administration.

Ram Mohan Roy, considered the quintessential "renaissance man," led the campaign for abolishing sati and forced the colonial government to enact a law banning this barbaric practice. Wikimedia Commons

THE POST-SWADESHI PHASE marked rapid progress of Hindu communal ideology in Bengal. Some of the “common sense” that is prevalent in today’s Hindutva discourse owes its origins to this period. For example, in his book Carving Blocs: Communal Ideology in Early Twentieth-Century Bengal, Pradip Kumar Datta, a professor at the centre for comparative politics and political theory at Jawaharlal Nehru University, traces the paranoiac myth of the overbreeding Muslims, threatening to emerge as a majority community and crushing a vulnerable Hindu population, to one UN Mukherjee. Mukherjee’s Hindus—A Dying Race, serialised in The Bengalee in June 1909, attracted all-India attention and percolated into later texts, including propaganda material of the Hindu Mahasabha.

Hindu communal paranoia increased as the Morley–Minto reforms of 1909 and the Montagu–Chelmsford reforms a decade later proposed the introduction of elected bodies in colonial administration, which, in turn, led to increased pressure from both Muslims—many of whom were now organised under the banner of the Muslim League—and depressed classes for fair representation vis-à-vis caste Hindus. By the mid 1920s, full-fledged Hindu-Muslim riots broke out in the province. Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay’s hymn “Vande Mataram,” which had been a standard swadeshi slogan, was now transformed into a battle cry of riotous Hindu mobs.

In Bengal Divided: Hindu Communalism and Partition, 1932-1947, the historian Joya Chatterji has carefully documented how the worst fears of the caste Hindus of Bengal seemed to be coming true by the early 1930s. As part of a new constitutional arrangement, the British government announced the Communal Award in 1932. It promised representation of various groups in the proposed legislative assemblies according to their “importance.” In Bengal, this meant that Hindus, who constituted 44 percent of the population, were to be given only 32 percent of seats in the new legislature, much fewer than the Muslims. A further blow came with the Poona Pact. Determined to prevent communal electorates for depressed classes, as proposed by the Communal Award, MK Gandhi started a fast unto death. After prolonged arguments with BR Ambedkar, it was agreed that the depressed classes would forgo communal representation in return for greater representation through reservation of a certain number of seats meant for Hindus. In Bengal, its implications were disastrous for the bhadralok. In an assembly of 250 seats, caste-Hindu representation came down from 80 seats to 50, accounting for a mere 20 percent. Bengali upper-caste Hindus would therefore be reduced to a small minority in the legislature of the province, in which they had till then been politically dominant. From the bhadralok perspective, this dystopia turned real with the Government of India Act of 1935. A coalition government of the Krishak Praja Party and the Muslim League came to power in 1937, with caste Hindus reduced to a powerless minority in the new legislative assembly. Since then, the dominant section of Hindu leaders saw no reason any more to keep the lid on their communal biases.

Hindu communalism was fuelled by other important developments as well. Since the early twentieth century, a sizeable section of Bengali Muslims had taken to Western education. Especially in the eastern districts, some Muslim peasants had become prosperous jotedars—wealthy peasants. The Khilafat movement of the 1920s threw up leaders from the ranks of this upwardly mobile section of Bengal’s Muslims. Far-sighted Congress leaders such as Chittaranjan Das had recognised its importance and had struck a Hindu–Muslim pact for power sharing in elected local bodies and official appointments. But the pact did not survive Das’s death, in 1925. This new Muslim leadership eventually grew disenchanted with the bhadralok-dominated Congress and decided to work outside its fold. They came together in the 1930s to form the Krishak Praja Party to organise resistance against Hindu zamindari and moneylender oppression. The mobilisation was so successful that it came to power in the province in 1937 with Muslim League support. Soon enough, the bulk of the Krishak Praja organisation fell into the hands of the Muslim League, which, by then, had started demanding a Muslim-majority Pakistan to be carved out of British India. This provided further stimulus to Hindu communalism in Bengal.

The 1930s also saw the rise of lower—mostly intermediate—castes within the Bengal Congress, a significant consequence of the nationalist mobilisation that was taking place in that period. Birendranath Sasmal was by far the best known of such leaders. Hailing from the Mahishya caste of Midnapore, he came into particular prominence during the Civil Disobedience Movement. But he soon discovered that his prospects within the Congress were bleak, faced as he was with constant humiliation and insults from upper-caste leaders of the party. The Bengal Congress ignored demands of rising agrarian groups of the type to which Sasmal belonged, continuing to remain under firm caste-Hindu leadership.

The tide changed decisively against bhadralok dominance by the late 1930s. Attacks came from all directions, including agrarian groups under the Krishak Praja leadership and, later, the Muslim League. This predominantly Muslim-peasant political formation grew in strength with its alliance with the Namasudras—perhaps the best-organised Dalit caste group in undivided Bengal—who had found new strength by identifying themselves with Ambedkar’s Scheduled Castes Federation. This new consolidation challenged bhadralok dominance in every sphere that they cared about: politics, land relations, education and white-collar employment.

After a brief period of Bengali entrepreneurial success in the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth century as underlings of Company trade, prospects opened up by the Permanent Settlement had made the bhadralok turn towards landed wealth as their main source of social power. However, by the late nineteenth century, agrarian productivity of the Bengal delta had declined. Tenancy legislations meant to protect tenants from landlord exploitation made zamindari holdings less profitable. By the 1920s and 1930s, many such zamindari estates had become economically unviable. But land remained a source of immense social prestige. For economic survival, on the other hand, the bhadralok had to depend almost exclusively on their privileged access to Western education and professional employment. And control over all this required political clout. The attacks of the provincial ministry on bhadralok vested interests from the late 1930s, therefore, endangered the very survival of the bhadralok as a dominant group.

For a short period after the Krishak Praja–Muslim League coalition ministry assumed office in 1937, the Bengal Congress demonstrated some radical inclinations, attempting to win back Muslim-peasant support through a mass-contact programme. But anti-bhadralok legislative onslaughts by the new ministry put many caste-Hindu groups on the defensive. The need of the hour, they thought, was an uncompromising shoring up of caste-Hindu privilege. The ground was fertile for explicitly Hindu communal groups to take root in the province.

Vinayak Damodar Savarkar launched the Hindu Mahasabha in Calcutta on 27 December 1939. Shyama Prasad Mookerjee, a disenchanted Congressman and son of the legendary vice-chancellor of Calcutta University, Ashutosh Mookerjee, took over its provincial leadership. With generous donations and support from Calcutta’s Marwari big business and wealthy caste-Hindu zamindars, the Mahasabha quickly became powerful. The Congress, fearing the defection of its traditional social base in Bengal, quickly changed course and transformed its provincial unit into a blatantly caste-Hindu organisation defending bhadralok interests. But while the various Congress provincial governments resigned in 1939, the Mahasabha desperately tried to open up some channel through which it could access political power. It successfully negotiated its way into the Bengal ministry; Mookerjee served as the finance minister in Fazlul Huq’s Progressive Coalition government in 1941–42. The Mahasabha gained further when the Congress was banned by the colonial government following the 1942 Quit India movement.

Soon after the Second World War, the Congress was legalised once again. The British government was keen for a negotiated transfer of power in India. Election results in late 1945 and early 1946 demonstrated that the Bengal Congress was still the party of choice for Hindus. Those who had joined the Mahasabha during the war had come back to its fold. They were convinced that the Congress, with its all-India influence, would prove to be a far more effective champion of Hindu causes. The Congress did not disappoint them in Bengal. Joining hands with the Hindu Mahasabha, it began a vigorous campaign for partitioning Bengal. It is hardly remembered today that it was not the Muslims of Bengal who wanted the Muslim-majority districts of eastern Bengal to be taken out of the province and merged with Pakistan. The initiative came almost entirely from Hindus led by the Congress and the Hindu Mahasabha, and supported, very significantly, by the Communist Party of India.

Vidyasagar featured quite centrally in election propaganda this year in Bengal. On 11 June, Mamata Bannerjee, West Bengal chief minister, led a rally with a new bust of Vidyasagar after an old statue had been vandalised during Amit Shah's road show in the state. Samir Jana / Hindustan Times / Getty Images

AS BRITISH RULE CAME TO AN END, West Bengal was carved out of the Hindu-majority districts of the province, merged with India and handed over to the Congress leadership. The Muslim-majority eastern districts were exorcised out of India and made a part of Pakistan. There were reasons for the bhadralok to breathe a sigh of relief. First, not only was the bhadralok spared “Muslim rule,” any talk of Muslim rights became illegitimate. Now that the Muslim demand for a separate nation state had been granted, the Hindu bhadralok of West Bengal insinuated, the Muslims who stayed back could make no more claims upon the new government. If they felt deprived, they were free to leave.

Muslims who stayed back were routinely vilified through false rumours of rapes, abductions and forced conversions of Hindus. A letter to the editor of Hindustan—a right-wing Bengali-language newspaper—accused the government of neglecting its duty of chastising Muslims, as “nothing could be more insulting for Hindus than having to endure Muslim oppression of Hindu women within the territory of Hindustan.” In the view of many Bengali Hindus, British India had been divided into Pakistan, a Muslim state, and Hindustan, a Hindu state. Protection of Muslims by the Indian government was proof of the latter’s unnecessary generosity, not duty. An editorial, once again in Hindustan, declared that continued Muslim depredations were the result of “the timidity of Hindu men and the Congress government’s weakness for Muslims.” Such vicious anti-Muslim propaganda kept up the pressure on the government to refuse any help to West Bengal’s Muslims, even security of life and property.

Second, the stiff challenge that the bhadralok had faced from a combination middle peasant groups—Muslim and lower caste—was now gone. The road was clear for a reassertion of dominance of Bengali caste elites. And now they had something they never did before—a state machinery completely at their disposal. The bhadralok leadership made good use of it, not to assert brute dominance but to extend its hegemony. Excluded groups were to give consent to their own exclusion, more or less without a fight.

In an article titled “Partition and the Mysterious Disappearance of Caste in Bengal,” the political scientist Partha Chatterjee has made some acute observations about the process through which Bengali caste elites managed to perpetuate their hegemony in West Bengal. He argued that bhadralok interest was never expressed in terms of the interest of a privileged caste elite. It was always presented as the interest of the society as a whole, which would be realised under an enlightened “cultured” leadership. It was an elite that was supposed to be non-parochial, selfless and rooted in what was best in Bengal’s heritage—the true champions of progressive values in public life. Theoretically, with the right kind of education and refinement, anyone could become a member of this elite. But for all practical purposes, it remained a closed group that carefully monopolised all avenues to access such cultural resources.

The Congress ruled in West Bengal for a good twenty years after independence. But the post-Partition context posed unique challenges—being a partitioned province, West Bengal soon became the destination for waves of Hindu refugees from East Pakistan. Unlike in the northwest, refugee migration in Bengal was a slow but continuous process; a deluge would be followed by years of trickles. But the first influx, from around 1947 to the early 1950s, consisted predominantly of upper-caste migrants. Sometimes, they already had connections in West Bengal. Those who did not settled in the vicinity of Calcutta, establishing the first refugee colonies in the suburbs of the city. This had a huge impact on the politics of the state.

At the national level, there was a curious bias against refugees in Bengal. The Indian government recognised the difficulties of Hindus in west Pakistan and therefore took some steps, however inadequate, to integrate the migrant population within India. But when it came to refugees in West Bengal, the Nehru cabinet refused to admit that Hindus in East Pakistan had any reason to fear for their lives and property. The Indian government resisted attempts by Bengal’s refugees to stay back in India. Party discipline, however ad hoc and weak it may have historically been within the Congress, precluded the possibility of Congress leaders in Bengal acting as defenders of refugee rights. Also, in the aftermath of Gandhi’s assassination, right-wing groups experienced a massive pushback, both by the government and civil society at large. Thus, despite caste-Hindu refugees supposedly fleeing Muslim tyranny in East Pakistan being the ideal population group to woo for the Hindu Right, the time was not propitious for them to be won over. In the end, the mantle of championing refugee rights in Bengal fell into the hands of left-wing groups under the leadership of the CPI. The significance of this was momentous in the history of the region.

Communist leaders realised that if demands were made exclusively for the refugee population, the chances of success were very little. Large uprooted populations occupying state and private land, and competing with old-time residents for education and jobs, will never be favourably looked upon by the state or the locals. Therefore, refugee demands were presented as demands for the poor in general terms—the fight of the refugees for colony land was made part of a wider demand for progressive socioeconomic reforms and zamindari abolition, and against speculation in land and property. This enabled the CPI, and later the Communist Party of India (Marxist), in alliance with other Left parties, to forge a larger alliance of refugees, peasants, the labouring poor and clerical white-collar workers. This combination mounted a formidable challenge to the Congress government in West Bengal.

In time, upper-caste Bengali leaders who came into prominence through the refugee movement began exerting disproportionate influence over the machinery of left-wing parties. Thus, the Left Front government came to power in West Bengal under the leadership of a distinctly upper-caste Bengali elite, which came to dominate the CPI(M) organisation throughout the state. Chatterjee observes that this resulted in a curious power structure in the state that was at variance with conventional understandings of the relationship between socioeconomic status and political power in India.

Social scientists usually see political power as a function of social dominance; that is, locally dominant groups translate their socioeconomic status into political power. But the relationship was turned upside down by the Left Front. Here, political power seeped into all local institutions, both urban and rural. The strategy was to plant party members into all kinds of local groupings—from panchayats and municipalities to local youth clubs and even committees for organising public religious festivities. This subordinated the social to the political. Political power, tightly controlled by a caste-elite leadership of a centralised party machinery, flowed from its centre in Calcutta through tentacles that ran deep into the districts. This gave the urbane, cultured bhadralok of Calcutta an unprecedented amount of power over the entire territory of West Bengal. And the language of politics remained rooted in left-wing progressivism—non-parochial, pro-poor, even universalist.

Leave alone assertions of upper-caste privilege, the left-wing bhadralok leadership delegitimised the language of caste itself. Jyoti Basu, the charismatic chief minister of West Bengal, plainly told the Mandal commission that in Bengal there were only two castes: the rich and the poor. Caste politics were firmly subordinated to class politics, but in a way that continued to perpetuate elite dominance.

A shift towards the hard-line Hindu Right in West Bengal’s political culture was in evidence throughout the campaign leading up to the general election. The BJP called upon the electorate to embrace an essentially north-Indian Hindu majoritarianism. DIBYANGSHU SARKAR / AFP / Getty Images

LOWER-CASTE GROUPS, substantial in number but scattered, without a common cause to unite them and marginalised in this new left-wing political discourse, could not mount any significant challenge to this “progressive-minded” bhadralok leadership. But the question of religious minorities could not be brushed aside so easily. Despite Partition, a substantial number of Muslims stayed back in West Bengal. Pushed to the wall, often through explicit physical violence and intimidation, the Muslim minority attempted to find safety in numbers. Huddled together among co-religionists, they found themselves in ghettoised spaces. Yet, this created small pockets throughout West Bengal where they became large minority populations. The principle of one person, one vote and one value embraced by the postcolonial Indian state ensured that Muslims, concentrated in specific constituencies, remained politically significant. And since they were marginalised explicitly for their religion, they continued to express themselves as Muslims, which sometimes meant that they were preyed upon by a distinctly conservative leadership.

The strategy of the Left Front government was to placate this conservative Muslim leadership, throw some loaves and fishes to keep them quiet and go about its business, ignoring the real problems of Muslim citizens. The hollowness of the Left Front government’s apparent concern for the Muslim poor—and a large section of them were poor and deprived—was demonstrated by two developments. The first was when the Left Front government ignominiously surrendered to conservative Muslim clerics in hounding out the persecuted Bangladeshi writer Taslima Nasreen from West Bengal. The second was the Sachar committee report, which clearly pointed towards the dismal condition of the Muslims of the state.

The CPI(M) leadership made some feeble attempts to find faults with the Sachar committee’s findings on Bengal. By then, however, the Left Front government was already in trouble. Its land-acquisition policies had led to state-wide protests, and it was losing support from all sides. It was at this conjuncture that Mamata Banerjee emerged as the champion of the poor and appropriated much of left-wing rhetoric. Her Trinamool Congress simultaneously pursued similar strategies towards the Muslims of the state. However, there was a significant difference. The Left Front’s political discourse had always chosen to play down religious rhetoric. Even when it made attempts to pacify conservative Muslim clerics, it was dressed up as catering to the sentiments of a relatively socioeconomically deprived group.

Banerjee, on the other hand, brought back issues of religious identity into the vocabulary of Bengali politics. And so, she opened the Pandora’s Box. Religious identities, so long brushed under the carpet, came to the forefront. Trinamool propaganda used images of Banerjee supervising Kali Puja at her home as often as her offering namaz. While it provoked charges of “Muslim appeasement” by the Hindu Right, such gestures of symbolic inclusion essentially remained a celebration of Bengali cultural generosity, which, in turn, was always located within a sublime Hindu “Great Tradition.”

The bhadralok has never been a homogeneous sociological category. It includes a variety of groups with varying dispositions towards the cultural achievements it valorises as its defining features. It is important to keep this in mind while analysing politics in contemporary West Bengal. The social base of the erstwhile CPI(M) leadership stands in some contrast to that of the Trinamool, though there certainly is a great deal of overlap in terms of cadre. The CPI(M) leadership was often drawn from the old privileged literati, well versed in the region’s intellectual, literary and artistic traditions. Trinamool leaders, on the other hand, are drawn primarily from a humbler stratum of the bhadralok. Aware of past glory, but ill at ease with the high culture that was its supposed hallmark, this bhadralok often has little to show for its gentility except for its upper-caste status. The Harvard professor Sugata Bose, or even the investment-banker-turned-politician Mahua Moitra, are exceptions in the party. Banerjee’s desperation to appear “cultured” through her injudicious forays into painting, her linguistic blunders in naming Kolkata’s streets, her even more disastrous attempts at “nonsense poetry,” her decision to play the songs of Rabindranath Tagore at traffic signals across Kolkata and the installation of a replica of the Big Ben right in the middle of one the city’s thoroughfares are all looked down upon by the high-brow bhadralok with a mixture of amusement and scorn.

The significance of this in West Bengal’s politics is far more serious than it appears. Now that the presumption of cultural superiority has been reduced to a caricature, the hegemonic influence that this cultural formation—and its bhadralok protagonists—had on Bengal’s politics has weakened considerably. This might, at least in part, explain the rise in political violence across the state. While political violence was never absent in Left-ruled West Bengal, the Left Front government in its heyday never really required the use of overt violence in asserting its power. Whatever feeble opposition there existed could easily be tackled by its social hegemony and political control over the state apparatus. In Trinamool-ruled West Bengal, the upper-caste-dominated ruling party, in contrast, now requires far greater force to secure its dominance. Consent to its rule is no longer so easily forthcoming.

Interestingly, the challenge to the current ruling party in West Bengal has not come from subordinated groups, but from rival claimants for the allegiance of the bhadralok. Much of this increase in violence is the result of the upper-caste social base of the Trinamool defecting to a much more hard-line agenda under the BJP banner. The BJP hopes that the bhadralok will bring lower-caste groups under its influence. But what the BJP cannot claim is the allegiance of Muslims. And it is precisely because of this that the cultivation of Muslim electorates has become so urgent for Trinamool politics. It must be remembered that the Trinamool Congress has no natural affinity for Muslims. Banerjee had no qualms about holding ministerial posts under Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s National Democratic Alliance government, even after Gujarat exploded in communal violence in 2002. If the Trinamool’s efforts at bettering the lives of its Muslims voters are to be investigated today, it is unlikely to yield a better picture than during Left Front rule. Its symbolic support of Muslims is purely strategic.

Why the electorate of West Bengal is giving up its left-wing inclinations and siding with right-wing political forces does not seem to be the right question to ask. It seems that the real question is whether the Bengali caste elite will continue to rule through its time-tested hegemonic strategies or whether it would choose to shed all pretence to reveal its biases, whether the bhadralok will continue to present its own interest as the general interest of society at large or reveal its agenda for what it truly is: the perpetuation of bhadralok dominance to the exclusion of all other groups, enforced through a regime of fear ushered in by the construction of a homogenous and vilified Muslim Other. It seems that the balance is tilted in favour of the latter. The bhadralok have come to believe that siding with the BJP at this juncture is more profitable, given its hold over the state machinery and the coffers of the central government. Also, the defeat of the mahagathbandhan—grand alliance—in Uttar Pradesh during the 2019 elections has given the bhadralok hopes that embracing Hindutva would not necessarily erode its ability to retain hegemony over lower-caste groups. Given the muted nature of lower-caste assertion in contemporary West Bengal, the bhadralok does not see much of a fear of any backlash. At this juncture, it seems that Hindutva might serve the bhadralok rather well. It will not be surprising at all if the BJP secures greater electoral success in West Bengal in the years to come.