Battle for the Bhadralok

The historical roots of Hindu majoritarianism in West Bengal

29 November 2019
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

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.

Ishan Mukherjee is an assistant professor at the Jindal School of Journalism and Communication. He has a PhD in History from Trinity College, University of Cambridge.

Keywords: West Bengal Trinamool Congress Hindu right wing cultural history Bharatiya Janata Party
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