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What does it mean when the CM of West Bengal is rattled by an MP from Karnataka?

You cannot even begin to talk about Bengal’s politics without mentioning bomabaazi (crude bombs). Crude bombs have sort of become Bengal’s political signature. In no other state does this happen.

Didi – Mamata Banerjee has been a household name since the 1990s. She was younger at the time. People called her “Agni-kanya” (the young one with fire in her) Even when Jyoti Basu ruled the state with an iron hand, winning, crushing majorities one after another, people knew there was somebody with the guts to stand up to CPM. Then, they got around to calling her “Didi.” A generation has passed since then and younger folk in Bengal now call her Pishi now, meaning father’s sister (bua).

She has been an institution in Bengal, a brand for 30 years.

Can you imagine what it takes for a brand such as this to be shaken? That too by a young MP all the way from Karnataka?

Today, Kolkata is a war zone. The city has been shut down, barricaded. Tear gas and water cannon everywhere. And of course, the crude bombs.

You cannot even begin to talk about Bengal’s politics without mentioning bomabaazi (crude bombs). Crude bombs have sort of become Bengal’s political signature. In no other state does this happen. Literally. Not in UP. Not in Bihar. Unthinkable in Karnataka, Maharashtra, Gujarat, Rajasthan or Madhya Pradesh. But in Bengal, the smoke from crude bombs is sort of the standard backdrop for all politics.

Every few days, a cottage somewhere blows up, taking 1-2 young men with it who were engaged in the making of bombs. On Sunday, the police stopped a truck going from Bardhaman to Birbhum with 39,000 detonators in it. Yes, 39,000 detonators! Yes, goons in Bengal have better equipment than some small country armies. If ever we are at war with Bangladesh, we won’t need the Army. TMC goons can easily take care of it. Thanks in advance.

Today, Kolkata is a war zone. And for what? Because Tejaswi Surya has come to lead a BJYM march on the state secretariat (Nabanno).

Any other state government would have laughed it off. Can you imagine say Sharad Pawar being rattled by a first-term MP from Bengal trying to lead a rally in Maharashtra?

It’s Mamata Banerjee’s overreaction that is stunning. More than anything else, it tells you the mental condition of the Chief Minister and the strength of the BJP’s rising tide.

TMC’s jumpiness is a total giveaway. The party has been camping in Hathras in Uttar Pradesh and facing constant taunts from the public asking about the situation back home. On Sunday night, BJP’s Manish Shukla was gunned down in front of Titagarh Police station by masked assailants in full public view. The Barrackpore bandh that followed shook the administration and had saturation coverage in local media: ABP Ananda, Zee 24 ghanta and the newspapers such as Ananda Bazar Patrika, Bartaman. The 12-hour bandh basically took up more than two days of the media feeding frenzy.

(Side note: do not confuse the orientations of the Delhi versions with their Kolkata versions. You may find that those you consider “friends” in Delhi are your foes in KolkataPower is a complicated game.)

For a Bengali, this is a very strange, refreshing and new experience. We hear familiar names, such as Barrackpore, Santragachi, Howrah Maidan and all. But the political colours are different. We know the rhythm of “cholbe na” (no more!) and “jog din…jog din” (join us, join us). Any Bengali knows the exact sing-song voice in which these words are said. These slogans are still there – but they are preceded by Vande Mataram! That slogan probably has not been heard in Bengal since the independence movement.

Then, there is the pronunciation – Vande instead of the Bengali way of saying it – Bande. The funny part is the workers are Bengalis, deliberately using a slight Hindi accent to taunt the TMC. Believe it or not, as TMC immersed itself in Bengali language chauvinism, “Hindi culture” is sweeping the state. Young Bengalis deliberately using a slight Hindi accent to taunt the TMC with “Jai Shri Ram” in place of “Joy Sree Ram.”

Bengal today is ground zero for the most fascinating change in Indian politics. For decades, the state has been the citadel of “secular intellectuals.” Today the gates are open and a big change is coming. The implications for the intellectual class are HUGE and they know it. Losing Bengal is not like losing UP or Bihar or even Karnataka.

For the secular side, losing Bengal is losing everything. Once they lose Bengal, six decades of Indian ‘secularism’ will have to be rewritten. These two contrasting headlines will give you an idea of the existential threat that BJP’s rise in Bengal poses to the rotten edifice of Indian ‘secularism.’

The Wire article headline

This headline is from 2017. You know, before the BJP got a 40% vote share in Bengal. That’s when they were complacent that the BJP would always be an outsider in Bengal. Now, look at this headline, which is from a few days ago.

The Print article headline

What? How did Hindutva go from an outsider in Bengal to being the original insider? Click that article, which is an extract from a recent book, and you will find that Tagore’s whole family and Bankim Chandra Chatterjee and other Bangla luminaries were apparently Hindu nationalists all along.

What? And these original Hindu nationalists were misunderstood all these years? Ha! What were our historians and intellectuals doing?

You can almost see the embarrassing hurry to rewrite the history of Bengal to catch up with the shifting political realities. This is both hilarious and a lesson for the youth today who want to understand how India’s history was written. The history we have been taught doesn’t mean anything. It was retrofitted by a certain class of people to suit the politics of the day.

See with your own eyes how Bengal’s history is being transformed from “most secular” to “most communal.” What changed? Surely, the Bengalis who have been dead for nearly a hundred years have done nothing new. Then, why change now?

I know liberals use the words “Hindutva” and “Hindu nationalist” as if they are hate labels. But, never mind. They are right about one thing. The Hindutva movement is coming home. To its original home. To Bengal.

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Abhishek Banerjee
Abhishek Banerjee is a math lover who may or may not be an Associate Professor at IISc Bangalore. He is the author of Operation Johar - A Love Story, a novel on the pain of left wing terror in Jharkhand, available on Amazon here.  

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