Interview: Ranabir Samaddar: ‘Bengal sees a fight between ‘Baro Bhuiyan’ and the Hindu right’

Ranabir Samaddar
Ranabir Samaddar

West Bengal is set to witness perhaps the most communally polarised election in 2021 since India’s partition and independence in 1947. Bengal’s society – known for its academic excellence, high cultural achievements and tolerance – is a divisive society today. Why? What polarised the society to this damaging extent or was the society as divisive always as it is in the winter of 2021? Prothom Alo spoke to eminent social scientist, political analyst and chief of Kolkata-based social science institute, Mahanirban Calcutta Research Group, Professor Ranabir Samaddar.

We continue to hear about West Bengal’s cultural class – it is very liberal, culturally driven, tolerant etc. especially the middle class. But on ground we are witnessing something very different – a state that is deeply communally polarised, hatred among communities is high and as someone said, “it is totally divided on the Hindu-Muslim lines?” Is that the West Bengal of 2021?

You are partly right. Despite the Communists being in the state for a long time and (despite) running reform programmes among the middle class, the memories of partition, division of one country, riots, riots in Calcutta etc. were there. The word secularism is a problematic one, but I am using it here. The Communists managed to secularise the society with some degree of enlightened policies, by preaching tolerance, peaceful coexistence. There was an inflow of refugees and the colony areas – Jadavpur, Bagha Jatin etc in south Kolkata – developed. Indeed there was a Hinduised development in those areas.

And it came back in a span of a few years. Why?

These colony areas developed. Peoples’ lives changed, they have had some land. It was partly because of the government’s policies, partly (it happened) naturally, across the state. Standard of living improved. Simultaneously, a neo-liberal upper and middle class emerged. Not just in Bengal but across the country. With that, we started experiencing an aggressive Hinduisation. We witnessed an emergence of money and muscle power, powered by Hindutva. The money came from the upper and middle class and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) managed to get the Dalits and the indigenous population together to support them. The muscle power came from these people. This is not really new. You call it Crypto-Fascism, Fascism whatever. It aligns in this way only with the mass base. Interestingly, I find the hooligans (goondas) who were with the CPI-M and Trinamool are now with the BJP.

You know, poor people always suffer in many ways, they naturally have complaints. Now since the Muslims are visible, they tend to blame the Muslims when told that Muslims are responsible for their problems.

Ranabir Samaddar

Ranabir Samaddar

If it is so, then it has to be accepted that BJP is doing well. What is Mamata Banerjee doing, you think?

She is trying many things. For example, all these schemes – from food programmes to free and universal health care – majority of lives are touched by these schemes. Importantly there was no discrimination in such schemes. As a result, the political participation has increased. True it is the politics of populism but then that is Mamata’s politics. This politics has an element to move with all, there is some form of inclusivity in these policies.

This is also very important to understand that this government allows you to do everything…one can say anything, do anything, protest at will…these are not small issues in today’s India as we can see in other states that it is not easy to do what you want to do freely. Key thing is Mamata is anti-right. She is trying to unite all from Bimal Gurung in the hills to Siddqullah Chowdhury in the plains to Dalits, indigenous people, civil society and many others…across ideology, religion, ethnicity.

To my opinion, this is centuries’ old Bengal politics of Baro-Bhuiyan, the warrior landlords of this region, pulling themselves together to put up a fight against the Mughals coming from outside. Mamata is trying precisely that. Also a bit like what Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman did against the outsiders, he united all in the name of Bengali identity.

However, I am not indicating that outsiders are not welcome in Bengal. Do not think that is Mamata’s intent either. People from other parts have been in Bengal for ages…they should come but the identity of the region and state has to be maintained. The Communists did this by engaging the middle class and the subalterns, by promising an inclusive society. They have been successful.

Do you think Mamata Banerjee has ruined her organisation. She did not try to structure it properly. Possibly the Left would have made it more difficult for the Hindu right?

Partly you are right. Mamata has damaged the organisation. But to expect that she would be having an organisation-driven party like CPI-M is a misnomer. Also note that when a gigantic crisis emerges, the organisation cannot hold – look at Soviet Union, the most robust country collapsed. CPI-M too collapsed when a crisis emerged…moreover CPI-M did not experience this aggressive, right wing Hindutva force.

On the other hand what is Trinamool when it comes to organisation? Precisely nothing. It has no ideology as such. What is this ideology ‘Ma, Mati, Manush’ (Mother, Earth, Mortals)? Anything with an alliteration of ‘M’ works as an ideology. Indeed, an amorphous ideology. But if you look at the inflow of people in Trinamool, it is outstanding. Thousands are still coming to this party. Who are they? The poor, the rickshaw pullers, the workers, the tanga-wallahs, the marginal farmers. They continue to support this party. All those who could not access the fruits of globalisation are its supporters, they have given birth to Trinamool and Trinamool continues to serve them. From the day Mamata came to power she started giving things…school buildings, colleges, hospitals, rural health centres and what not. She is continuously borrowing money and giving it to people. Whatever people expect or want, she gave without surrendering to the central government and that is the ideology.

That is why it is not an organisation-centric party. It cannot be; this kind of unplanned service delivery perhaps would not have been possible in a structured party with elaborate planning and policy. If Trinamool had an ideology, they perhaps could have now gone to the people and said that ‘this is your party and you have to protect it.’ But they don’t have and thus saying ‘we gave you this and that.’ Mamata is fighting against an exceptionally centralized, Hindutva-driven, neo-liberal, proto-Fascist government with her populist form of governance. In the process she possibly neglected the organization. That is inevitable as Trinamool does not have two Mamatas, one for the government and the other for the party. Difficult to say how long can she manage to resist the BJP as this is like Titumir’s fight from bamboo fortress. He could resist the mighty British once or twice, but not indefinitely.

What is the real possibility of this politics of Banerjee, of having people from various sections and to move forward?

This may work till a point, possibly not after that. The reason is, this is not just a matter of controlling power or the government. There will be a time when this divisive politics will expose its ugly side and we can see it in other states; the question is, how would one control such a force then? The state government is far less powerful than the central government and how long can it continue to fight. I don’t know, especially when there is an institutional approval of Hinduisation. I know I am a little pessimistic

There is this enormous pressure on Trinamool. What do you think may happen?

Trinamool is still ahead in the race. Parliamentary politics however has this limitation. If they are ahead in 30-40 seats, then I am not sure if they can survive. The way this practice of buying and selling of Assembly (Bidhan Sabha) representatives is going on in India, it is alarming. If all the political parties – the Left, the Congress and the Trinamool – could come together, the situation would have been different. But that did not happen…the Left or the Congress is going all out to defeat Trinamool. If this is good for them or the state (that) time will tell. As of now, Mamata is the main leader, main face and it is basically a fight between her and an elaborate machinery of the BJP.

But Trinamool is collapsing…

True, pressure is exerted at multiple levels. But that the leaders are deserting Trinamool is – in a way – good. This is purging and no party survives without purging. Chinese Communist Party had this Cultural Revolution. In India Communist party disintegrated, as did Congress. When a party is purged, cleaned, it loses baggage, weight…which is not necessarily bad. Look at the BJP, it cleaned itself too. Te old leadership has been replaced by Narendra Modi. I guess this will help Trinamool in the long run.

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