By Nasima Islam
On the occasion of the 6th Rituparno Ghosh Memorial Lecture, 2019, Pratyay Gender Trust invited Ravish Kumar as its chief guest-speaker. The event took place on October 19 at the famous Basusree Cinema Hall, Kolkata. It was not for the first time that Kumar, the recipient of the prestigious Ramon Magsaysay award for journalism this year, visited Kolkata. Apart from his personal visits, he has been invited on the soil of Bengal many a time to deliver talks on different pressing issues. Kumar, one of the rare voices in the domain of fearless and uncompromising journalism in the country, has always won the hearts of hundreds of Bengalis by virtue of his sincere advocacy for democracy, freedom of expression, his sense of humour, his written books and, of course, his unprejudiced analysis of different aspects of current political scenario. Without an iota of fear he has relentlessly tried to hold the mirror in front of us in order for us to recognise that something is rotten in the state of Bharat.
Therefore, this year too expectations were high to listen to what Ravish had to say in his latest visit to Bengal, specifically given the critical politico-ideological juncture Bengal is in at this moment and the shifting political loyalty the majority of Bengalis seem to endorse. An NRC-haunted Bengal was truly looking forward to hearing him out. As per the organisers’ own admission, all the passes quickly vanished for the Ravish event and they had to arrange for extra chairs in the hall keeping in mind the huge number of audience that were going to turn up. As expected, indeed, the hall was packed with people and a charismatic Ravish was greeted with much enthusiasm.
So what was it that he actually said to this room full of apparently warm, welcoming Bengali audience? If we simply summarise his speech we would see that he actually had a very basic but extremely crucial point to make: Bengalis at this specific politico-historical moment are facing a moral degeneration, a crisis of conscience. In his own words, he said, “Bengal me vivek ka akaal aya hai.” He mentioned that since last five to six years there has been a drastic degeneration in the Bengali collective conscience. What did he mean by that exactly? He referred to the latest visit of the Home Minister, Amit Shah, to Bengal where he in his speech tried to convince the audience that they don’t have anything to worry about the NRC. However, the twist was that he consoled people from almost all the major religions residing at Bengal except for one – the Bengali Muslims. It was an indirect way of saying that none but only Muslims residing in Bengal have reasons to worry about the NRC. Probably, the obvious hint was that the strategic timing of Citizenship Amendment Bill (CAB) will be implemented to safeguard all but Muslims.
Referring to this episode, a clearly disappointed Ravish asked the Bengali bhadrolok audience gathered there at Basusree Hall how such an audacious speech was delivered on the soil of Bengal which is home to crores of Bengali Muslims as well. He directly looked into the eyes of the audience and posed this extremely overwhelming question as to why there was no conspicuous protest, any demand for accountability from the learned public of Bengal, the state that has always been well-known for its progressive intellectualism, and a tradition of syncretic culture. He reiterated that the kind of Bengal that used to take pride in its history of progressive politics, intellectualism and cultural superiority should have resisted by all means such a narrow and vulgar display of divisive politics. He exclaimed that a Rabindranath Tagore’s Bengal, a Vivekananda’s Bengal, an Ashutosh Mukherjee’s Bengal, and most importantly, the name that Ravish forgot to mention but should have emphasised for better, a Kazi Nazrul Islam’s Bengal should never even allow, let alone believe in the rhetoric of such heinous communal hatred. He was astounded to notice that Bengal too was fast falling for the trap of communal polarisation that has eclipsed almost the entire country by now, and the conspiracy to forge a Bengali consensus for an overt anti-Muslim agenda seems to be in the making, if not already made. He made a passionate appeal to the collective conscience of Bengali bhadroloks saying that if they shunned away from their immediate responsibility to save their fellow Muslim inhabitants from such malignant, state-sponsored political conspiracies, the essence of Bengal will be destroyed. In order to salvage the quintessential ethos of Bengal, Bengalis must resist tropes of communally motivated politics. A pained Kumar seemed desperate to appeal to the good sense of the supposedly progressive Bengali collective conscience again and again. As if he was advocating on the behalf of all those bereaved and vulnerable Bengali Muslims residing in Bengal for centuries now, whom a large chunk of their own Hindu Bengali co-statizens have failed. Only time will tell if all of them who helped to usher in BJP’s inroads into the state had an unambiguous anti-Muslim agenda in mind. However, it goes without saying that their voting behaviour was not very wise if at all they were concerned about a syncretic Bengal that was to be saved from communal polarisation, curses of casteism, growing cases of hate crimes, on one hand, and state-sponsored horrendous mechanisms like the NRC that jeopardises the lives of many in the state – a state which has ironically witnessed the trauma of two partitions. Bengal exactly knows what it is to be divided on the pretext of religion and ethnicity.
That said, I would like to unpack and problematize this so-called “collective conscience” of Bengalis that Kumar tried to move. Without demeaning the much-needed power-packed speech that Ravish delivered, here I would like to critique this notion of “Bengali vivek” or Bengali collective conscience that he addressed. First of all, let us ask, whose collective conscience it is that is being talked about? What is the popular imagination that is available to us when we come across the word “Bengali” or “Baangali”? Honestly, despite Bengal being home to at least 3 crores of Bengali Muslims, it is still the Hindu Bengali that is synonymous with the word “Bengali”. It has always been the upper caste, upper class Bengali Hindus who have enjoyed the hegemonic monopoly of being called the representatives of the category, “Bengali”. In other words, the imagination of Bengaliness or bangaliwana is a luxurious exclusive category that is constructed by the bhadrolok Hindus completely disregarding the heterogeneous life-worlds and life-ways of the fellow subaltern(-ised) Bengali Muslims belonging to different OBC (Other Backward Class) categories and other marginalised lower caste groups, most of whom are rural inhabitants doing odd jobs for livelihoods. If one looks closely, one would notice that these Bengali Muslims have been denied their fair share of participation in almost every important aspect of Bengal despite sharing an intimate co-existence side by side for centuries. Be it the canonised Bengali cultural life; be it Bengal’s prestigious academic spaces reserved for quality higher education; be it Bengali media houses; governmental and non-governmental job sectors in Bengal; mainstream political parties; or let us say, its bhadrolok public sphere – everywhere Bengali Muslims are meagre in number compared to the proportion of their population in the state. This under-representation has lagged them much behind their fellow Hindu citizens.
For a holistic grass-root picture one may consult the report entitled “Living Reality of Muslims in West Bengal” (2016) that is coproduced by Noble Laureate Amartya Sen’s Pratichi Trust and Association SNAP. Sadly, most of the Hindu population of Bengal have been extremely ignorant to this living reality of their fellow Bengali Muslims at best and they have played a direct systematic role in discriminating against the latter, at worst. In either case, there has been a huge gap between the universes of these two main religious populations of the state where they have lived together but, separately. Therefore, when a hurt Ravish exclaimed in pain that it is only in the last decade that there has been a moral crisis in the collective conscience of Bengal, we must not forget that Bengal has always been communal both in overt and covert ways in its treatment of Muslims residing under the same sky. Otherwise, how would one justify the classic question almost each and every Bengali Muslim kid has been brought up hearing from their non-Muslim friends, colleagues, acquaintances, landlords, employers and even complete strangers: “Oh tumi Muslim, ami toh vebechhilam tumi bangali?” (“Are you a Muslim, I thought you are a Bengali?”). The construction of this extremely humiliating binary between the two categories of “Bengali” and “Muslim” – as if they are mutually exclusive to each other – has only deepened an already created unfortunate sense of non-belongingness in the psyche of so many of Bengali Muslims of West Bengal. This sense of non-belongingness has instilled in them some form of identity crisis. It compelled them to struggle with a complicated negotiation that they had to do between their hyphenated identities of being a Muslim while simultaneously claiming to be a Bengali. They have been denied houses on rent, jobs, access to selling and buying of properties in desirable locations and so on and so forth due to their Muslim identity despite being Bengalis.
The question, however, is who is responsible for this. I am not sure if the collective conscience of Bengal is capable of owning up to what it has done to rupture the sense of belongingness of a Bengali Muslim and scar her self-perception as well. The fact that various civil society initiatives like Apnar Protibeshi ke Chinun (Know Your Neighbour) are still relevant, rather, extremely necessary for an average Hindu Bengali to know the lifeworlds of its subalternised Muslim-Other says a lot about the former’s ignorance about the latter. Also, the fact that much-needed initiatives by Sanghati Avijaan and People’s Film Collective and campaigns like Open a Door are the only hope for Muslims to get a rented apartment in the heartland of Kolkata – the hub of Bengali bhadrolok progressivism – is a critique in itself of the Bengali collective conscience.
Besides, Bengal has been casteist as well, where lower caste people despite sharing a common Bengali and Hindu identity have been discriminated against on the basis of their caste location. There are umpteen numbers of incidents of casteism some of which are reported and some are not, on a daily basis in Bengal. It is almost normalised to an extent that people even fail to recognise that they are being casteist just like they can afford to be Muslimophobic without even realising that they are. In apparently even “progressive” spaces like universities, classrooms, intellectual spheres, “liberal” collectives, party offices, organisations, you will never see a lot of Muslims or Dalits in important positions of decision-making. Why? It is because despite the façade of progressivism, Bengali bhadrolok consciousness was careful enough to love, marry and appoint people in important positions only from their own caste, and community. Even a quick look at the Bengali matrimonial columns will prove Bengal’s obsession with caste and, of course, religion. Often we hear our non-Muslim friends narrate how their parents and relatives from an early age had cautioned them, “Ar je castei biye kor baba, dekhis jeno Muslim biye kore ghore tulish na” (“Whichever caste you choose to marry from, please do not marry and bring home a Muslim”). We used to laugh at this crude joke where the “progressive” Hindu Bengali conscience is discountist about inter-caste marriages but never about inter-religious ones. Nonetheless, one may ironically notice that both the upper caste and the lower caste Hindus have been often united in their shared dislike, if not hatred, for Muslims.
Now, when an expectant veteran journalist like Kumar having a fan-following among the elite Bengali audience appeals to its ethico-moral sense, let us not forget that it provides for a heightened sense of self-gratification to them – the very same people who have failed the Bengali Muslims. If one noticed the audience composition, one would realise that so many of them were from upper caste, upper class, English-speaking, Hindu Bengalis residing in the heartland of Kolkata having secured jobs with accumulated cultural and social capital. It is the sheer privilege of their location that affords them a heroic moment where they can engage themselves in rescuing the minoritised Other, the vulnerable, the easily disposable lives of Muslims that are under threat, especially in the wake of the NRC. There is a scope of narcissistic, altruistic pleasure to be revelled by an upper class, upper caste, apparently progressive savarna Hindu Bengali who is now entrusted with this knightly duty of helping to protect the distressed Muslim homo sacers. Of course, if he (obviously it is a “he”, probably a hetero-patriarchal cis male conscience) at all pleases to do so. He may not! This heroism is a privilege, this progressivism is a privilege and so is this self-imposed guilt of the audience, which went absolutely silent every time the conscience-pricking words of Kumar hit them hard on the face. Even this “conscience” itself, let me argue, is a privilege. Had it been otherwise, it would not have taken a non-Bengali journalist’s visit to Bengal and his impassioned advocacy to a hostage fan-audience for the latter to achieve that romantic, epiphanic moment where they would suddenly feel that “we must save our state, and our fellow Muslim Bengalis”. I wonder if it was a revelation to them that they must fight against the larger threats of communalisation in the state which has always been anyway communal to its marginalised other and, therefore, contributed to its marginalisation and vulnerability! The fact that Ravish had to spell it out loud and clear is itself reflective of the fact that Bengali Hindus have already failed their fellow Bengalis who incidentally happen to be Muslims, too. And, mind you, the process of it did not start just half a decade ago, as was pointed out by Kumar, but a long time back.
To conclude, I would like to point out that as Kumar said, the forces of communalism has already engulfed other states to a large extent and Bengal must take its lesson from them to reverse, if possible, what is at stake. Bengalis unitedly must do so not because one fine evening they chose to get mobilised by the emotionally charged-up speech of a favourite veteran journalist, but because otherwise Bengal will be torn and annihilated – if not geographically then at least culturally, socially , politically, and spiritually. Bengalis including everyone residing in Bengal while remaining auto-critical to their internal mistakes must in all strength, be united and resist all sorts of “narrow domestic walls” that tries to divide its own abode. Can Bengal do that? Only history will witness. As Kumar said, “Nothing is more powerful than an idea whose time has come” and for Bengal, that time is NOW.
Nasima Islam is Assistant Professor at the Department of English, Acharya Girish Chandra Bose College (formerly, Bangabasi College of Commerce). She is currently pursuing her PhD on Postcolonial Censorship at the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta (CSSSC). Her research interests include Subaltern studies, Dalit literature, Minority literature, studies around different kinds of New Social Movements in India, Postcolonial gender question, Queer Rights, the Muslim Question in India and the postcolonial Censorship Studies.
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