In the elections, much violence is being done to the mind of Bengal, to its thinking wires, its feeling nerves, its very soul
Election time in West Bengal has, for decades now, meant violent time.
There is violence during the campaigning, violence during the polling, violence during and after the counting of votes. The level of election-related violence and its duration vary but it is there.
So what does that fact show? What does it establish?
That Bengal is a violent state and Bengalis are a violent people?
Not just Bengal-centric
They are no more violent than any other part of India or section of Indian society when provoked, instigated, manipulated to think, speak and act violently. One has to only refer to the speeches made on the eve of Direct Action Day in 1946 at the Maidan, in Calcutta, to understand what I mean. Within hours of those incendiary speeches the city was bleeding. An estimated 4,000 people were killed. Very shortly thereafter, incitement and instigation doing their worst, the Noakhali region of East Pakistan saw appalling violence perpetrated on the Hindu minority there, with an estimated 5,000 killed. Bihar responded with matching fury, killing, according to information given to the British Parliament an equal number of its Muslim minority and, according to The Statesman, twice as many. A peace-cherishing province was leveraged thus into peace-shattering violence.
Battered as it was, Bengal was ‘bettered’ by other areas. The worst instance of Partition-time violence among all regions, took place in Punjab. “Virtually,” says Wikipedia, “no Muslim survived in East Punjab (except in Malerkotla) and virtually no Hindu or Sikh survived in West Punjab.” All this was around the partitioning of India. Much later, in the anti-Sikh riots in 1984 an estimated 2,800 were killed in Delhi, and another 3,350 nationwide. These are official figures, the actual numbers are likely to have been much bigger. In the Gujarat riots of 2002, official estimates put the toll at 1,044. The actual numbers, again, are perhaps much bigger.
So, let no one tar Bengal and Bengalis with the sweeping description of ‘violent’ . They are only as violent or non-violent as any other part of India or its people, not a whit more. Maoist violence, the other ogre that has menaced life in Bengal, is not by any means confined to the State where Naxalbari lies, but is spread across over 200 districts across nine States.
The violence that marred phase four of the eight phase elections now being held in the State is most unfortunate and to be bemoaned. But our distress over it misses another far more important, much more serious and infinitely more dangerous form of violence that is accompanying the elections in West Bengal.
That violence is being done to the mind of Bengal, to its thinking wires, its feeling nerves, to its very soul. It is being done by the unrelenting spread of the virus of communal hate, of sectarian animosity of the ‘line’ that Hindus and Muslims are different breeds of human species. Whichever side of the communal divide it comes from, hatred as an idea and a strategy is no less violent than ‘plain’ violence. Once planted, it incubates in the minds and hearts of people, like a virus, and then erupts with an uncontrollable febrile frenzy.
The Partition years
The then Muslim League Premier of undivided Bengal, H.S. Suhrawardy, had much to explain for the violence that disfigured Bengal in 1946 and 1947. On Suhrawardy’s last day in that office, August 14, 1947, he had on his hands a challenging ‘guest’ — Gandhi, who was staying in Hydari Manzil, at the Muslim quarter of Beliaghata in Calcutta. At his prayer meeting that evening, over 10,000 people gathered in the grounds around that house to hear him. It was the month of Ramzan. Pyarelal records in his iconic biography (Mahatma Gandhi – The Last Phase, Navajivan, pp. 368-9), that some in the congregation shouted, “Where is Suhrawardy?” Suhrawardy was inside that house at the time, engaged in namaz. Gandhi told them that. After the prayer meeting gave over and Gandhi returned to the house, there was an uproar. Many had surrounded the house, which at Gandhi’s behest was un-policed, and demanded that Suhrawardy appear. Gandhi opened a window and got Suhrawardy to stand beside him, resting one hand on the outgoing Premier’s shoulder.
One of the crowd to the Premier: “Are you not responsible for the Great Calcutta Killing?”
Suhrawardy: “Yes, we all are.”
‘Will you answer my question, please?”
“Yes, it was my responsibility”.
Pyarelal writes: “This unequivocal, straight and candid answer by one who had made arrogance and haughtiness his badge and never known humility had a profound effect on the crowd.” But the incubating virus was working still. Riots broke out within days in Calcutta, viciously. Two young men, Sachindranath Mitra, 37, and Smritish Banerjea, 38, interposing between rioting mobs, were killed on the spot. On hearing that a truck carrying Muslim labourers had a bomb thrown on it in the same area — Beliaghata — killing two of them, Gandhi went to the scene. A four anna piece was lying near one of them that had rolled out of the daily wager’s waist band. Gandhi started a defining fast. It was in complete and exact harmony with the mind and soul of Ramakrishna’s, Vivekananda’s and Tagore’s Bengal. And equally, with the stoic Bengal of the two simple, humble but absolutely true Bengalis, Sachindranath and Smritish.
“There should no longer be any more Hindu-Muslim riots in Calcutta…” the fasting Gandhi told Bengal’s leaders who implored him not to fast . “I shall terminate my fast if all of you accept this responsibility.” Seventy or so hours after his fast had begun, a group of leaders came to him to report that the innate good sense of the majority of the people of the city had prevailed over the furies let loose by the rioters. The mob that killed and burnt was not Bengal. The majority that stilled the mayhem, was.
“We the undersigned,” the leaders said in a paper they gave to him , “promise to Gandhiji that peace and quiet have been restored in Calcutta once again. We shall never again allow communal strife in the city. And shall strive unto death to prevent it.” Among the signatories were Suhrawardy and N.C. Chatterjee, the Hindu Mahasabha leader. Netaji’s elder brother, Sarat Chandra Bose, was a third.
Bengal then and now
That was and is Bengal. Its antibodies against the virus are strong. Its immune system is active. But if the load of the viral inoculum is huge, the balance can get affected. It can collapse.
Beliaghata 1947, representing Bengal’s immune system, checked the virus. It has, by and large, remained in check. In 1971, 50 years ago, the virus all but disappeared, with the State hailing the return of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib Rahman to Dhaka and the birth of Bangladesh, even as another Tagore composition — “Amar Sonar Bangla” — became the national anthem of the new nation.
Bengal’s immune system should be spared the challenge of an overload of the communal virus. It is one thing to go through an election that seeks to win its favour; quite another to have a Radcliffe Line of hatred cut through its mind and torment its soul.
Beliaghata 1947, Bangladesh 1971 and the ballot for Bengal 2021 bear witness to its covenants with life unto death.
Gopalkrishna Gandhi is a former administrator, diplomat and governor