The growing fundamentalist clout in West Bengal

Just about a month ago a protest rally on the on-going anti war crime trial in Bangladesh took place in Kolkata about which there was conspicuous silence on the part of the mainstream media – both print (with a rare exception of an OP-ED article by Garga Chatterjee in The Hindu) and television. One did, fortunately, stumble upon a few commentaries on the net and a few blogs (say, one by Dr. Anirban Ganguly and another by Praveen Swami). Efforts by the present writer to elicit a response in this regard from several media groups in Kolkata were met with silence.


These articles/blogs described the event and its background in sufficient detail, analyzed with clarity and perspicacity what this rally signified for the politics of this country in general and West Bengal in particular. Surely, we need to watch keenly about how Bangladesh government carries through to its logical conclusion this well-publicized trial of the war criminals and collaborators with the Pakistan Military at the height of the Bangladesh freedom movement, including handing out and executing the punishment to known war criminals like Delwar Hossain Sayeedi. It is also notable that this trial has significant mass support among the Bangladeshi population, especially among the students and youth who have been agitating against any leniency shown to the proclaimed offenders by the trial court. The Shahbag protests in Dhaka and the corresponding reflection in the social media have made for an unprecedented display of the resurgent conscience of the nation rooting for bringing to justice those who would be found guilty of genocide and war crimes that happened 40 odd years ago.


Whether the Bangladesh government keeps its nerve and faces up to its real challenge from the fundamentalists, spearheaded by Jamaat-e-Islami and supported by the Bangladesh National Party (BNP) in its bid to recapture power is of great significance to India. Through this trial the government is trying to bring closure for the progressive and secular people of that country many of whose members suffered abominably in the hands of the Muslim fundamentalists who had blatantly joined forces with Pakistan Military in their massacre and ethnic cleansing of minorities (mainly Hindus), killing and torture of sympathizers of the freedom movement. From well documented sources, both Bangladesi and Indian origin there seems to be ample accumulated evidence that is now being used during the trials to prosecute some of the major offenders, many of them being directly and indirectly associated with Jamaat. No wonder that Jamaat and its affiliated student wing are at the forefront of the anti war crime trial agitation.  


With this backdrop what arrests one’s attention is that organizers for the Kolkata rally could muster, from most accounts, a massive congregation (that of 16 Islamic organization members, Madrassa students, students from the newly formed Aliah Madrassa university, etc), speakers spewed undiluted venom against the Bangladesh government for daring to arrest, conduct a trial and hand out severe punishment, including possibly death penalty, to stars and heroes of Jamaat-e-Islami, Bangladesh, who according them is the sole authorized protectors of Islam. And that Islam is in danger in that country, according to them, is of course obvious.


And this rally could take place in Kolkata of all places in India. The speakers felt emboldened enough to declare, not only their intent of beating the hell out of the supporters of the Shahbag protests in this country but also their resolve not to allow Sheikh Hasina to set foot in this country, especially Kolkata, should she dare to do so. Clearly, being about 25% of the West Bengal’s population, Muslims form a formidable vote bank for the Trinamool Congress party (TMC) in their electoral calculations – the looming Panchayat election already overdue and then the loksabha election due next year. TMC’s track record since they came to power about two years ago shows anything but abject appeasement to obscurantist fundamentalist section of the Muslim community (doles for the Imam and not allowing Salman Rushdie to visit Kolkata to attend a seminar during Book Fair earlier this year are just among the recent examples of this trend). The police allowed a couple of month ago members from some Muslim organizations (and provided security cover to boot) to take out a procession to hand over a memorandum to the Bangladesh Deputy High Commission against the war crime trial and the Shahbag protests. But a similar effort by some students and youths during late March supporting and showing solidarity with the Shahbag protesters were disallowed by the police. The state administration’s complicity as configured by the political calculations of the ruling party was clearly in evidence.


Congress party’s effort to pander and appease the Muslims purely for electoral advantages has been a constant in Indian politics, but their recent experience of failure of using such blatant appeasement during the last UP election does not seem to have taught them some hard lessons. But what is perhaps more worrisome is why the Left parties chose to ignore these developments. Since being overthrown in the May 2011 assembly elections, the Left in West Bengal appears to be more comfortable being reactive to the countless misdemeanor and mismanagement of the incumbent TMC government. Apart from clearly being on the run from the murderous assault from the TMC supporters and hoodlums on the party men and their offices and organizations post assembly elections the left parties are acutely aware of their disconnect with the Muslim masses, both rural and urban. They probably dare not further antagonize them on a seemingly emotive issue of ‘Islam under attack’ being actively propagandized by the obscurantist, conservative and fundamentalist sections of the Muslim organizations in West Bengal.


Sadly, one had not heard any sane liberal voice (left or otherwise) from West Bengal’s conscientious civil society ever ready to join political issues taking on the fundamentalists’ newest incursions into state’s famed secular preserve. True they have no elections to win, but probably their silence will prolong the status quo of a corrupt and unprincipled political set up that, for years (Sachar Committee report took away the fig leaf) only paid lip service and gave token relief to the Muslim community, used them as vote banks and criminally made them vulnerable to the fundamentalist preachers and ideologues. Starting with the policy of hounding out Taslima Nasreen from the state a few years back, with active support from the then left front government, to Kolkata police administration advising Salman Rushdie not to attend the Book Fair seminar at the instance of the TMC leadership there seems to be a great continuity in state administration’s approach, methods, justifications despite the parties running the government claiming to be as different as the chalk and the cheese ! Silence on this latest issue all around would be encouraging for the fundamentalists of all hues in the state which is a sad postscript to its progressive and secular history.

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