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Home » How the ‘Othering’ of Bangladesh Has Been the Backbone of Hindutva’s West Bengal Campaign

How the ‘Othering’ of Bangladesh Has Been the Backbone of Hindutva’s West Bengal Campaign

by Amila Herath
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Kolkata: After clashes broke out over Ram Navami processions at Shibpur area in Howrah district and Dalkhola in Uttar Dinajpur district of West Bengal on March 30, one of the first things the chief organiser of the Shibpur rally, Indra Deo Dubey of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), told journalists is that the incidents proved that Hindutva groups’ repeated warnings that West Bengal was turning into “West Bangladesh” has come true.

“Just imagine that Hindus in West Bengal, their homeland, are coming under attack for observing their festival. This is what happens to Hindus in Bangladesh. And now this is happening to Hindus here every year,” he said.

The next day, the BJP national vice-president and Lok Sabha MP from West Bengal, Dilip Ghosh, posted on Twitter a photo of Ram Navami processions in Bangladesh and wrote, “Surprisingly there was no attack on Hindus (in Bangladesh). It is clear from this that the Hindus of Paschim Banga are in more (sic) danger than the Hindus of Bangladesh! Only Mamata Banerjee is responsible for this.”

Referring to atrocities on Hindus in Bangladesh and comparing them with developments in West Bengal is nothing new. Not only is this a ploy in use since 2014 – the year Narendra Modi came to power – but it has been one of the central themes of the Sangh parivar’s Bengal campaign.

The narrative runs like this: Syama Prasad Mookerjee, the founder of the BJP’s organisational predecessor, Bharatiya Jana Sangh, “saved” Bengali Hindus during Partition by ensuring western Bengal remained part of India, that West Bengal was created as a homeland for the Bengali Hindus (and Bangladesh for Muslims), and that the successive Left and Trinamool Congres (TMC) rules in West Bengal had sabotaged the very idea of West Bengal as a homeland for Bengali Hindus. Hindus in West Bengal have become refugees in their own homeland and would soon be packed off, just like Hindus in Bangladesh have been. In short, Muslims have run Hindus out of eastern Bengal and now they are going to take over western Bengal, the last refuge of Bengali Hindus. Only the BJP can save West Bengal from turning into “West Bangladesh”.

At the centre of their narrative is the message – Bangladesh is an evil land whose people betrayed Bengali Hindus. Bengali Hindus of West Bengal should take no inspiration from or pride in any shared cultural heritage. Rather, it is something Hindus of West Bengal should be wary of.

The word Greater Bangladesh is also used interchangeably – to mean both parts of Bengal under one rule – though Paschim Bangladesh has been used more widely.

Such campaigns have been intensified in times of incidents of communal clashes, for example at Dhulagarh of Howrah in 2016 and Baduria-Basirhat in North 24-Parganas district in 2017. However, it did not always need a communal clash or violent protest for the BJP and other Sangh parivar organisations to warn against “West Bangladesh”.

In 2017, when a class VII book in the new syllabus replaced the word Ramdhonu (ram’s bow) with Rongdhonu (the bow of colours) to describe the rainbow, the same allegation was made. It was repeated when, in 2017, chief minister Mamata Banerjee adopted the slogan ‘Joy Bangla’, an iconic slogan of the Bangladesh Liberation War that was later used by Bangladesh’s founding-president Mujibur Rahman’s Awami League party. Hindutva leaders alleged that Banerjee adopting the Bangladesh ruling party’s slogan was another step towards turning West Bengal into West Bangladesh.

In 2020, when Banerjee adopted the slogan Khela Hobe (Game on!), which was initially popularised by the TMC’s youth leader Debangshu Bhattacharya and district leader Anubrata Mandal, the BJP pointed out that the slogan was originally given by Bangladesh’s Awami League MP Shamim Osman some time ago. This was further proof of their allegations.

Even organisations outside the Sangh parivar, such as Hindu Samhati (whose head Debtanu Bhattacharya contested the 2021 assembly election on a BJP ticket), have held rallies to “prevent West Bengal’s transformation into West Bangladesh”.

The plot and the spokespersons

Among the most-known spokespersons of this theory are former RSS pracharak Dilip Ghosh, who served as the BJP’s Bengal unit president between 2015 and 2021; Mohit Ray, the BJP’s refugee cell convenor for many years who is also known as part of the Bengal RSS think-tank; and former Meghalaya and Tripura governor Tathagata Roy. However, leaders of all ranks from almost all Sangh parivar organisations have used this analogy.

Ahead of the 2016 assembly election, commenting on the rape of a minor in the Cooch Behar district and an alleged incident of beef being thrown at a Hindu temple, Ghosh alleged that Hindus in Bangladesh-bordering areas were not safe and that such incidents could be part of the conspiracy to turn West Bengal into West Bangladesh. In February 2018, after a centuries-old temple in the Jalpaiguri district caught fire, he raised the same question.

While addressing a crowd at Megutola in the Kaliachak-2 area of Malda district ahead of the panchayat elections in 2018, Ghosh said, “During Kaliachak Riot, police had to run away from the police station when Jihadis attacked them. Vote for the BJP in Malda if you don’t want to turn Paschim Banga into Paschim Bangladesh and become refugees again.” He repeated it throughout his campaign across the state. At Jalpaiguri’s Mandalghat, he said, “Neither the dignity of our mothers and sisters nor our Dharma is secure in Paschim Banga under TMC Rule. Paschim Banga is on the verge of becoming Paschim Bangladesh.”

Mohit Ray has been elaborating on the theory from ideological and strategic perspectives. In June 2014, a Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS)-backed oganisation, Paschim Banger Janya (For West Bengal) was launched under his leadership with the principal aim of drawing comparisons between West Bengal and Bangladesh, especially with regard to the treatment of minorities. One of the first events they organised that year was to celebrate June 20 as Paschim Banga Dibas or West Bengal Day, a celebration earlier unheard of.

June 20 is the day when the erstwhile Bengal assembly in 1947 decided to bifurcate the state, with the Muslim-majority eastern part going to Pakistan and the Hindu-majority western part staying in India.  At the 2016 event on the organisation, it was described as a movement “to reclaim West Bengal.”

In 2017, the RSS-linked Bharatiya Sanskriti Trust published a booklet that Ray authored, titled “Poschimbanger Ostitwo Rokkhay Notun Kore Bhabtei Hobey (A rethinking is necessary to save West Bengal’s existence).” This booklet quite thoroughly elaborates on the theory, saying that the share of the Hindu population has decreased in both Bangladesh and West Bengal since 1947, and calls upon people to take up the BJP flag and membership to save West Bengal. “Without Hindutva, the very existence of the Bengali would be wiped out. There will be people who are Bengali-language speakers but not Bengali,” he wrote. In April 2019, during the Lok Sabha election, Ray wrote an article headlined “West Bengal will turn into West Bangladesh if NRC is not implemented.”

The campaign intensified when some anti-CAA protests turned violent in West Bengal.

In the June 15, 2020 issue of Swastika, the mouthpiece of the West Bengal RSS, an article by Binay Bhushan Das was headlined “Paschimbanga Kyano Chai” (Why do we need Paschim Banga), while Ray said even if a BJP government comes to power in West Bengal in future, the problem will not be solved if the importance of Paschim Banga Dibas was not internalised.

Ahead of the 2021 assembly elections, most BJP leaders, including Lok Sabha MP Saumitra Khan and state unit general secretary Sayantan Basu, repeated this charge, even when speaking of political violence.

This strategy did not change after the BJP’s dismal showing in the 2021 assembly election, in which they managed to get only one-fourth of the state assembly seats despite a high-voltage campaign. The new state unit president, Lok Sabha MP Sukanta Majumdar, started repeating the same claim soon after assuming charge.

In 2021, when chief minister Mamata Banerjee declared August 16 as Khela Hobe Dibos, in memory of the tragic August 16, 1980 incident of the death of 16 football fans in Kolkata due to a stampede during a match, BJP and the Sangh Parivar organisations pointed out that August 16 had greater significant – it was the day when in 1946 the Great Calcutta Killing happened due to the Muslim League’s Direct Action Day call. By giving a Bangladeshi slogan on August 16, Mamata Banerjee was giving a call for similar anti-Hindu violence, leading West Bengal to the path of West Bangladesh, they said.

In December 2021, when Bangladesh was celebrating 50 years of its liberation war, Paschim Banger Janya organised an exhibition in Kolkata to remind people of the 1946 Noakhali riots targeting Hindus in eastern Bengal.

Even in December 2022, during a street corner meeting in the West Midnapore district, the BJP’s district unit spokesperson Arup Das said, “We will never allow the conspiracy to turn West Bengal into West Bangladesh.”

This year, in February, veteran BJP and RSS functionary Debashis Chowdhury shared a video message on Facebook, describing stories from his recent visit to Bangladesh. The post was headlined: “Do whatever you want, do not let West Bengal turn into West Bangladesh.”

A significant number of Bengalis in West Bengal, especially Hindus, have an emotional connection with February 21, which is globally celebrated as International Mother Language Day in memory of the death of four Bengali youths in then East Pakistan in 1952 while demanding official status for the Bengali language. For several years, February 21 has been enthusiastically celebrated in different parts of West Bengal, even by government departments.

However, Ray in a 2023 Facebook post criticised its celebration in West Bengal.

He wrote that the struggle for the Bengali language in eastern Bengal was merely a battle for Pakistan’s national language and had nothing to do with love for the Bengali language. Even the Bangladesh Liberation War of 1971 had nothing to do with the Bengali language, he opined.

“A number of sculptures have been set up in Kolkata and different parts of West Bengal in copying the style of the Shahid Minar in Dhaka in memory of those killed in the national language movement of East Pakistan. On the one hand, there is Islamic aggression to turn West Bengal into West Bangladesh, and on the other, there is this cultural aggression. One of the spearheads of that cultural aggression is the secular enthusiasm in West Bengal over February 21,” Ray wrote.

He also argued that Bengalis of West Bengal should connect more with the Bengali language movement martyrs of Silchar in Assam – 11 of them died in police firing on May 19, 1961, while protesting the imposition of Assamese on the local Bengali population – because they were all Hindu refugees from Islamic East Pakistan.

Source : The Wire

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