Ram Navami violence: Why Hindutva forces are fanning communal flames in West Bengal

The RSS-BJP has certain misunderstandings about Bengal’s culture and history.

 |  7-minute read |   28-03-2018
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A saffron invasion is going on in Bengal that aims to re-engineer the cultural fabric of the state. For the past couple of years, Ram Navami has become the annual occasion and the nodal point to assert the socio-cultural engineering mission of the RSS-BJP.

They want to "convert" the Bengali Hindus in the image of Hindi-speaking Hindutva-Hindus, "colonise" Bengal with the help of the fast-mushrooming RSS shakas (more than 1,350 in 2017) and "conquer" the "never-conquered-by-the-right-wing" state by winning elections on the communal plank: "Islamist threat" and the "Hindu identity".

The RSS-BJP has certain misunderstandings about Bengal’s culture and history. They don’t understand that a Bengali is a Bengali first, before he or she is a Hindu. In fact, a Bengali can be a Hindu, a Muslim, a Brahmo, a Vaishnav, a Buddhist, a Christian and an atheist, and yet share the common "Bengali language and culture".

ramnavami_032818060949.jpgWoman devotees blow conches during a religious procession to celebrate the Ram Navami festival at Bolpur in Birbhum district of West Bengal on April 6. (Credit: PTI photo)

The RSS-BJP doesn’t seem to understand that all Bengalis are not Hindus, and all Muslims in Bengal are not "jihadists from Bangladesh".

Last year, when the Ram Navami processions - organised by the saffron brigade - made news due to the aggressive display of swords and tridents, West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee voiced the common feeling among the Bengalis. Speaking about the saffron brigade, Didi had said, "They don’t know Bengali culture… All they know is to roam around with swords."

There was no violence last year, but things have become progressively worse. This year, violence erupted during the Ram Navami rallies, a couple of people died, the saffron outfits clashed with the police in several places around Bengal, chiefly in Murshidabad and Bardhaman districts.

"Violence for votes" in the name of Ram seems to be the strategy of the saffron brigade in Bengal. This has thrown up an enormous challenge to maintain peace and harmony - without which the state will struggle to develop and to progress - and to protect the traditional liberal cultural ethos of Bengal from being mutilated by Hindutva, a recent import into Bengal from the Hindi-speaking regions of India.

Bengal’s culture of Shakti worship

Ram is not worshipped in Bengal, like he is worshipped in north and western India. Bengal has devised her own way to celebrate Ram Nabomi via Annapurna Puja - a form of Shakti. This cultural tradition is followed by millions of Bengalis.

In Bengal, we have this popular saying "baro mashe, tero parbon". It means, that in Bengal we have, "in 12 months, 13 festivals". The culture of festivities and melas is also strongly related to the socio-economic system.

The annual flow of various festivals - panning all religions and sub-cultures - is going on for a long time. This lies at the heart of the secular and plural fabric of Bengal’s culture. Bengal has been worshipping Shakti - the feminine force of existence - for centuries. The Bengali language and the culture was first developed under the Buddhist Pala Empire (750–1174 CE) that had ruled Vanga for 424 years, much before the arrival of the Mughals and the British.

Sanskrit was spoken in Bengal since the first millennium BCE. During the Gupta Empire, Bengal was a hub of Sanskrit language. The Bengali language evolved between 1000-1200 CE from Sanskrit and Magadhi Prakrit. Proto-Bengali was the language of the Buddhist Pala Empire.

Buddhist Tara was worshipped. There was an original shrine of Tara in Tarapeeth, before the popular Ma Kali temple was constructed.

Darjeeling was Dorje-Ling meaning "land of the thunderbolt". It had an ancient Mahayana Buddhist monastery on the Observatory Hill, where now a Buddhist Mahakala Temple -  with fluttering prayer flags - looks towards the "Five Treasures of Snow", or the Kangchenjunga.

The esoteric Tantra philosophy of Buddhist Vajrayana was developed in Vanga. The influential Buddhist philosopher and saint who went to Tibet was Asita (982-1054 CE). He was a Bengali with the name of Dipankar.

Tilopa (988–1069 CE) - an exponent of Annutara Yoga Tantra - wrote the 28 verses of "The Ganges Mahamudra". He was also a Bengali. Tilopa’s disciple was Naropa, who wrote extensively and was an abbot of ancient Nalanda University. He too was a Bengali.

The Nalanda University that was in Bihar, from Buddhist Vihara, profoundly influenced the ancient intellectuals and philosophers of Vanga. The tradition of Shakti worship has continued in Vanga/Bengal for centuries since the time of the Pala Empire.

After the decline of Buddhism, goddesses from both Buddhist and Sakta traditions were combined to form the 10 goddesses of the Mahavidya, better known as Dasha Mahavidyas (Ten Great Wisdoms).

Now, Ma Kali and Ma Durga are the most popular goddesses in Bengal while Lakshmi and Saraswati are also worshipped.

Bengal, a place for Shakti or the feminine principle of the universe, has also contributed to a couple of key social reforms that benefitted the women of India. Rammohan Roy started the campaign against sati that eventually abolished the practice by law in 1829. Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar campaigned for the right of widows to remarry that led to the Widow Remarriage Act of 1856.

This happened during the Bengal renaissance that challenged the existing orthodoxies and brought about an era of radical ideas, revival of spirit and evolution of consciousness. The Bengal renaissance inspired monumental strides in literature, science, social reforms, religion, art and spirituality.

Bengal has also a unique tradition of worshipping an indigenous pantheon of "non-Brahmanic" folk gods and goddesses - Dharma-Thakur, Shasti, Manasha, Chandi, Shitala, Basanti and Bon-bibi.

The higher classes of Bengalis in towns and cities don’t worship these folk deities. They are largely the deities of rural Bengal and the poor. The overwhelming majority of these folk deities are feminine. This also follows the Shakti worshipping instinct of Bengal.

Now, after knowing the history and culture of Bengal, one feels really disturbed, when during the RSS-BJP-organised Ram Navami rally last year - the patriarchal Hindi-Hindustani-Hindutva brigade - on the soil of Bengal, had the audacity to utter slogans like: "Na Durga, na Kali, keval Ram aur Bajrangbali."

The plot of the story

An attempt is being made to engineer Bengal away from her ancient traditions and make her embrace patriarchal male gods in the image of Hindi-speaking Hindutva heartland.  The culture of Bengal is being sought to be changed to mirror the Hindi cow belt. Many right wing cultural "lessons" are being sought to be imparted.

However, Bengal doesn’t need lessons on nationalism and Hinduism from the saffron brigade. From Vivekananda to Aurobindo, and from Subhas Chandra Bose to Maulana Azad, there have been countless personalities from Bengal who have devoted their lives to the service of nationalism and Hinduism.

I feel it is a futile attempt to convert, colonise and conquer Bengal in the name of Hinduism and nationalism. This won’t work, the backlash will be swift. The vote share of BJP is likely to fall, not increase.

Having said the above, I also know that Bengal has entered a trail of fire - almost like Sita’s Agnipariksha - when the traditional ethos of Bengal is being tested by the well-organised and well-funded campaign by the Hindutva forces.

If Bengal has to remain as Bengal, she has to smother the cultural and the political growth of the RSS-BJP in the state. She cannot afford to bring upon itself an era of regressive ideals, communal polarisation and societal unrest.

But there is no doubt that a challenge has been thrown by the RSS-BJP. Mahabharata is breaking out in Bengal in lieu of Ramayana. As 2019 General Election and 2021 Assembly elections approach, the battle will intensify. The spectre of violence and turmoil looms in the horizon.

There is no scope for complacency anymore. Everyone in Bengal has to wake up to the circumstances and do what he or she can to avert the "cultural transformation" that is being engineered by the saffron brigade.

The saffron conquest of Bengal is required for the dream of Hindu/Hindutva Rashtra. As long as Bengal holds out against Hindutva - along with a couple of southern states - the Indian Constitution will remain safe.

The future of India, like it has been many times before in our long history, might depend upon the future of Bengal. The stakes couldn’t be higher, than this.

Also read: 15th Finance Commission: Why the southern states of India are fuming

Writer

Devdan Chaudhuri Devdan Chaudhuri @devdanchaudhuri

The writer is the author of 'Anatomy of Life'. He is one of the contributing editors of The Punch Magazine and lives in Kolkata.

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