The Collapse of Secularism in West Bengal
The Collapse of Secularism in West Bengal
Can West Bengal’s traditions of religious tolerance and equal rights survive the rise of Hindu nationalism?
When he was a young man, during the 1950s and ’60s, Krishna Pada Sinha Roy did not wear shoes. It was common where Roy lived, a rural district of the Indian state of West Bengal called Birbhum, to go barefoot. But not for someone like Roy: he came from a line of aristocrats who made themselves into bankers, contractors, and politicians.
Unlike his relatives, but like many Bengalis of his generation, Roy was a communist. Working as a high-school economics teacher, he educated young people about the divide between the rich and poor. After class, Roy organized street hawkers, rickshaw pullers, and rollers of bidis, rustic cigarettes made from tendu leaves and loose tobacco. He sparked protests over wages and taught Marxism to workers, frequently persuading them to join the Indian communist movement.
Roy’s idea of justice consumed his life. His refusal to wear shoes, for example, was an attempt to become “declassed”—to remove all markers of privilege and integrate himself with peasants and laborers. Roy had two children, including a son he named Lenin, but he didn’t see his family much. Instead, he spent evenings walking miles across the countryside to attend workers’ meetings. Afterward, in the dead of night, he pasted communist posters around Birbhum. “What I did, I did it like a madman,” Roy told me. “I’d forgotten everything.”
After the British consolidated control of Bengal in 1765, the region became India’s political and cultural vanguard. The Bengali Renaissance of the nineteenth century inaugurated religious reform and literary and artistic bloom. Political agitation soon followed, based largely in the shared British and Bengali capital, Calcutta (now Kolkata). In 1911, the British shifted their capital to Delhi in an attempt to rid themselves of the nuisances posed by Bengali dissidents.
This move did not succeed in halting protest. If anything, the assertive egalitarianism of so many Bengalis seemed to become the mood of the entire country. When India won independence in 1947, it became the world’s largest socialist democracy.
India did not go on to solve poverty or hunger, as its founders had hoped. Its success was more moral than material: establishing equal rights and a shared identity for people who belonged to different religious, ethnic, and linguistic groups.
This vision of India dimmed in the 1980s and ’90s, with a series of interfaith riots and the rise of Hindu extremism. But it remained for many the vision of West Bengal.
The Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) hardly existed in the state, never winning more than two of West Bengal’s dozens of parliamentary seats. When the rest of India descended into communal bloodshed, West Bengal tended to remain peaceful. Following a rare outbreak of violence in 1992, cities across the state were occupied by Bengalis holding hands, seeking to make a show of force for the old value of communal harmony.
“Looking right, looking left, it looked like the line went to infinity,” said Vijay Prashad, fifty-one, an academic and journalist who participated in the hand-holding rally. “It felt like electricity.”
Those days are over. In May, the BJP won a second term leading India’s parliament by a stunning margin. Its greatest achievement came in Bengal, where it captured eighteen parliamentary seats, establishing a significant presence for the first time in one of India’s largest and most left-wing states. For comparison, imagine Trump-supporting Republicans suddenly winning nearly half of New York’s congressional seats. It’s now hard to say if there’s any state in all of India that can permanently resist the magnetic pull of Hindu nationalism or its standard-bearer, Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Last spring, I sensed this was coming. I’d lived in India for two and a half years working at local newspapers, including Kolkata’s English-language daily, The Telegraph. To understand what was vanishing and why, I spent a month traveling in rural West Bengal. My trip focused on Birbhum, a district with special qualities suggesting that the “madman” idealism of Krishna Pada Sinha Roy’s political career represents a broader tendency in the cultural foundations of Bengali life.
Consider, for instance, the Bauls. Baul is a Bengali word for “mad.” It is also the name for a diverse group of musicians, spiritual adepts, mendicants, and gurus native to greater Bengal—both the Indian state of West Bengal and the neighboring Bengali country, Bangladesh.
In contemporary South Asia, religion and caste are the most prominent sources of identity. Bauls, however, come from all groups: Hindus, Muslims, and people of any caste. No less remarkably, given the patriarchal nature of much of South Asian society, Baul men exalt and in many cases aspire to become more like women, without at the same time deifying women as if they are something other than fully human. As the early-twentieth-century Baul songwriter Mani wrote: “First comes the worship of the one who eats, sleeps, shits, and speaks with me.”
A kind of humanism pervades Baul life and thought. Their traditional songs frequently address manus, the Bengali word for human being, which the astute scholar of Bauls Jeanne Openshaw describes as a “category denying category.”
Birbhum has been nicknamed “Home of Bauls” for its preponderance of singers and musicians. This reputation is largely due to Bengal’s most beloved figure: the polymath Rabindranath Tagore. Born in Kolkata in 1861, he spent the last decades of his life in Birbhum, where he created a university, Visva-Bharati (“The World and India”), and developed a town around it, Santiniketan (“Abode of Peace”).
In his romantic imagination tempered by a propensity for analytic critique, in his feelings of devotion and appearance of eccentricity, Tagore came to symbolize the social type of the Bengali idealist. Tagore himself worried that wealth and urbanity could alienate him from the “uneducated, authentic heart” of his homeland, which he found in the Bauls. They were the surest proof that “the ideal of humanity” Tagore wrote of was not a uniquely Western concept, but rather one that could be found in an unsurpassably realized form among India’s indigenous groups.
Tagore wrote plays with Baul characters and assumed their roles in performance. His music, known in Bengal as Rabindra Sangeet, takes inspiration for its themes and tunes from Baul music. The songs are so popular that several dozen traffic signals in Kolkata play one of them whenever the light turns red.
During one of my visits to Birbhum, a circle of spectators and Baul musicians gathered at Visva-Bharati University under a large mango tree. In the center stood a middle-aged gentleman, mostly bald, his blue button-down tucked in, a black briefcase under his arm. He seemed the sort of middle-class uncle I might see at a Kolkata teahouse reading an English-language newspaper. Yet here he was, conspicuously adjacent to a cross-dressing Baul. A flute, harmonium, and drums made an entrancing melody. The man seemed diffident at first, covering his mouth with his right fist as the cross-dressing performer twirled their hands in their air and swayed their hips. But when the music reached a crescendo, this uncle raised his hand to the sky and sang of sonar Bangla—golden Bengal.
The Birbhum headquarters of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), or CPM, looks like the temple of a forsaken religion. Photographs of Lenin, Stalin, Mao, and other prophets of communism stare down from the top of the walls as if gods observing mortals. The conference room sits unoccupied. The ashtrays are empty. A thick, visible film of dust coats every surface.
Over tea, three officials and I discussed the rise and fall of the CPM, the faction of Indian communists who broke away from the Communist Party of India (CPI) mainly due to their rejection of compromise with the center-left Congress Party, which led the national government. In the mid-seventies, the CPI supported a period of authoritarian emergency rule declared by the Congress—a disgrace that was never forgotten.
The CPM’s anti-Congress line, meanwhile, helped bring them into power in West Bengal after the 1977 election. Leading a coalition known as the Left Front, the party gave new rights to sharecroppers and enforced a ceiling on land ownership. The Communists became known for severe, almost comical enforcement of a secular posture. Forbidden from attending Bengal’s joyful religious festivals, party members set up stalls outside of them to distribute Marxist literature.
Goutam Ghosh, a scrawny, bespectacled veteran of the Birbhum CPM, reminisced about the feeling of possibility that infused those days: “We used to close our eyes and see that the revolution was coming.”
The CPM found itself the standard-bearer of Bengali independence and social justice—the analogue in politics to Tagore’s command over culture. Representatives of ultimate ends, they could justify doing anything that bolstered their power. Party members controlled much about everyday life: who ran local schools and universities, which plays were shown at theater festivals, how construction jobs got distributed.
During the party’s thirty-four-year rule, dissenters, investigators, or people who simply knew too much repeatedly disappeared. Occasionally, there were massacres. In the year 2000, one occurred in Nannoor, a town in Birbhum, where CPM party workers killed eleven landless farmers who supported a rival regional party called the Trinamool Congress (TMC).
Violence signified and guaranteed party power—until it finally overtook politics entirely, rendering the CPM not just grotesque, but absurd. Hoping to transform Bengal’s largely rural economy, the CPM began an aggressive bid for industrialization in the mid-2000s. The campaign ran into an unyielding obstacle: because of the party’s own policies, it was difficult for anyone to own enough land to build a factory on it.
Rather than resolve this contradiction, the CPM sought to impose its will. The party seized land from poor farmers, its traditional base, provoking mass protests that police and party cadres tried to crush. Around two towns in particular, Singur and Nandigram, clashes led to the death of at least fifteen villagers, including Tapasi Malik, a teenage protester who was raped and burned to death by CPM workers.
This gave an opening to Trinamool, and particularly to its energetic founder, Mamata Banerjee. Trinamool claimed for itself the CPM’s own language of social justice, but, in an ominous sign, it also engaged in religious gamesmanship, advertising support from imams to the roughly 30 percent of Bengal’s population that is Muslim. In a 2011 election, Trinamool won across Bengal, bringing an end to the CPM’s rule and the state’s old style of secular politics.
After we finished talking, the CPM politicians and I walked to the grandest room of the party headquarters to take a photograph. One official closed a set of ratty, red velvet curtains to shut out the afternoon light. A swirl of bats immediately burst out of a crevice of the window. I covered my face and ducked; the CPM politicians, unperturbed, grouped together to pose for the camera.
Today, Krishna Pada Sinha Roy is eighty-two. He runs an old outlet of Manisha Granthalaya (roughly translatable as “Wisdom Bookstore”), formerly a chain that received nearly all its wares from the USSR. Soviet books, and particularly Russian children’s folktales, were once a regular feature of Bengali life. Roy’s store, which sits on the main road of the Birbhum city of Bolpur, presents an eerie archive of that time: since 1991, when the Soviet Union collapsed, it has not received any new books.
Pick something off the shelves and out puffs a cloud of dust. The titles are redolent of a bygone era: Karl Marx’s Great Discovery, In Search of Holy Mother Russia, Are Our Moscow Reporters Giving Us the Facts about the USSR? The store is open only from around 5 p.m. until 8:30 most days. “It became a place for sitting with books,” Roy said to me on one of my visits. “People come and talk about issues. We have discussions and arguments every day.”
As for customers, Roy’s given up: “There isn’t interest in books anymore,” he said. Roy’s not sure what will happen to the store after he dies. His son, Lenin, could take it over, but he is a computer engineer. He might not be interested.
For a time, Roy hosted Russian classes at the shop, stimulating interest in the language among students at nearby Visva-Bharati University. But there was a curious pointlessness to the endeavor, since nobody ever went to Russia. At most, they became teachers of Russian to other Bengalis who presumably also did not go to Russia. The exercise appears to have been one of self-cultivation, rather than action.
Much though he devoted his life to ideology and radicalism, Roy retained a sense that personal virtue was worth more than political victory. “I was sincere in politics,” he said. “I was a particular lover of the people. And there is no corruption in my life. There is simplicity in everything.”
Even as the CPM surged in popularity, Roy remained in the CPI, whose members struggled for relevance both in and out of a fractious alliance with the CPM. Refusing to join the dominant local political force caused Roy to lose power in Bolpur, where he was a popular chairman of the municipal government. What he gained, however, was more valuable: the freedom to speak his mind about the CPM’s suppression of democracy and use of violence in West Bengal.
Roy watched those in power trumpet, betray, and finally discredit his values. He feels keenly the implications of the CPM’s failure. “There was the left government before, now they are crying for democracy,” he said. “But they were the murderers of democracy. We hoped that this left government would be a model government of India, and we will say to our people, ‘Just look. Here is a government.’ But it became corrupt—more corrupt than Congress rule, more sectarian, more violent.” As a result, Bengal has become a “hotbed of reaction,” he said. “Rightist forces will capture power. That is the apprehension.”
At his home, and at Trinamool’s major offices in Birbhum, the district party boss Anubrata Mondal sits in a wooden throne. His minions surround him in plastic chairs. Servants pick up his shoes from the floor beneath him; according to one visitor, they also collect his spit, when he chews tobacco, in a bucket. Tall and flabby with a low hairline, he wears a bushy mustache, seven rings, and many layers of necklaces. In normal conversation, he shouts.
In Birbhum, Mondal is respected, feared, and reviled. Outside it, he is a small-time media hound. He claims to have studied the rhetorical style of Gabbar Singh, a famous Bollywood villain. “I will break open their houses and burn them down,” he was filmed bellowing about politicians who visited local protesters. “If they create trouble, I will break their arms and legs!” After a previous threat along these lines was followed by the killing of a political rival, Mondal was suspected of murder, but ultimately evaded responsibility.
I met Mondal twice. After our first interview, in February, he requested I attend one of his rallies. I explained that I was riding around on totos, slow-moving rickshaws with electric engines. No problem, said Mondal; he’d give me a car. I fidgeted without knowing what to say. His advisers whispered among themselves. Mondal’s eyes gleamed with recognition. “You have a problem taking my money?” he asked. “I’m a journalist,” I explained. “I can’t take money from politicians.” “Oh!” Mondal exclaimed with a smile, and repeated sardonically, “Journalist, journalist!” My assumption that this word connoted uprightness appeared to be a joke.
Insofar as Trinamool has an ideology, it is a cult of personality surrounding Trinamool’s chairperson and Bengal’s chief minister, Mamata Banerjee. “I will give my life, my blood for Mamata if she wants. I will pay for what she is giving us in my blood,” Rekha Sadhu, a forty-six-year-old housewife, told me at a Trinamool rally in Birbhum.
Worship of Banerjee is encouraged by the state apparatus. Banerjee has declared, for instance, that “blue and white signifies happiness,” and all of West Bengal has now been painted blue and white: bridges, schools, trash compactors, trees, police barracks, curbsides. People who paint their own houses blue and white have gotten tax breaks.
Banerjee’s charisma is multifaceted. It comes from her modest dress, her plainspoken manner, and her reputation as a “street fighter” gained from opposing the brutal CPM. Her combination of homespun familiarity and strength of will is enshrined in her nickname, Didi, Bengali for elder sister.
What this character seeks to protect, above all, is Bengaliness; and Bengaliness, according to Banerjee and her surrogates, gains its nobility from its intrinsically secular character. “Bengalis are great intellectuals,” Kakoli Ghosh Dastidar, a Trinamool member of parliament, told me. “Our teaching is such that secularism is ingrained.”
Not everybody thinks so. During multiple recent rallies, including at least one in West Bengal, BJP President and newly appointed Home Minister Amit Shah told voters that undocumented immigrants from Muslim-majority Bangladesh are “termites” who should be thrown into the Bay of Bengal. Shah specified that immigrants who are Hindu, Jain, Sikh, or Buddhist—the four principal groups that belong to the Hindu nationalist conception of Hindutva (Hinduness)—should receive citizenship.
Zealotry’s victory has remade the Indian center. The president of the Congress Party, Rahul Gandhi, recently made highly publicized trips to temples and began publicly identifying himself as a Brahmin worshipper of Shiva—an unthinkable stance for the Congress only a decade ago, when its pluralist rhetoric was substantiated by the backgrounds of its leaders. As the ruling party of a country roughly 80 percent Hindu, its prime minister was Sikh and its party president Catholic.
Today, when the BJP is successfully dividing India along religious lines, storming to victory through what is popularly called “Hindu consolidation,” Trinamool’s continued vocal support of Bengal’s Muslim minority—along with its dependence on Muslim votes—counts as a rare and valuable thing.
Yet this is also one of many areas in which Trinamool represents the farce following the tragedy of the CPM. The ruling party of West Bengal mobilizes Muslim support through direct religious appeals. Within a year of taking power, Banerjee announced that imams and muezzins would start receiving monthly allowances from the government. Imam bhata (imam allowance), as the policy became known, was a not particularly subtle attempt to meld the roles of religious leader and party spokesman.
Kolkata’s high court ruled that the handouts were unconstitutional, violating the provision that the state not discriminate among citizens on the grounds of religion. But Banerjee refused to give in. Imam bhata is now distributed by the state waqf board, a charitable group that looks after Muslim affairs. The waqf board, in turn, has received a large but indeterminate sum of money from the government.
Multiple high-ranking Trinamool politicians I met declined to defend imam bhata. If anyone should feel committed to the policy, it is Nadimul Haque, a prominent Muslim member of parliament for Trinamool, the editor of an Urdu newspaper, and a member of the waqf board. But when I asked Haque if the payments were a good policy, he paused before saying, “I’m not sure.”
The reticence is due largely to the effectiveness with which the BJP has charged Trinamool with “Muslim appeasement.” Trinamool has countered the narrative that they patronize minorities by plunging deeper into religious politics. During the recent campaign, Mamata Banerjee boasted of her ability to recite orthodox Hindu chants and promised millions of dollars to committees organizing Hindu festivals. In Birbhum last year, Anubrata Mondal organized a convention for thousands of Brahmin priests, distributing freebies and praise.
To Kakoli Ghosh Dastidar, this is just how politics works: people complain, then the government throws money at them. Hindu priests, she suggested, could get the same handouts as imams if only they launched a persuasive campaign: “The mother feeds the child when the child is hungry and cries.”
Judging by the recent election, Trinamool remains the most popular political force in Bengal. This success, however, bears little relation to the Bengali imagination once gripped by communism. Trinamool learned from the CPM not how to inspire, but how to dominate.
I saw this firsthand during my Birbhum trip, which occurred during elections to panchayats, rural local councils. The CPM once managed to win 11 percent of panchayat seats uncontested—an indication of fear, not lack of desire, since poor villagers see these elections as a rare chance at social advancement.
Trinamool made this antidemocratic travesty look positively humane. It won by default in over a third of races. Birbhum achieved distinction as the least democratic district. In the district-wide panchayat, the body of greatest authority, Trinamool won all forty-two seats unopposed.
Interviews with dozens of eyewitnesses indicated that thugs acting on behalf of Trinamool rigged the election in its favor. The Telegraph reported that at least thirty people died during clashes.
Brutal violence, and threats that serve as reminders of it, are tools of Bengali politics first mastered by the CPM and other communist revolutionaries, then brought to a new stage of refinement by Trinamool. I experienced for myself the effect of these tactics during an interview with Abhijit Sinha, Mondal’s deputy. He has the thick neck and jowly face of his bulldog, which is named VIP.
Sinha and I had a fairly pleasant conversation. I said little about my travels across Birbhum and investigations of government repression. After our interview, I excused myself to the bathroom. Sinha turned to a translator I’d brought with me. “The administration is really worried about him,” he said, referring to me. “The situation is really tense before an election, so he gets noticed easily. And he is going to places, asking questions. He visited Shibtala, where there is a land problem. That’s when the administration became really alert. But I’ve made it very clear that there is nothing to be worried about, that he is a very good boy here to support development.”
This confirmed what I’d suspected: that I was being spied on. After my first reporting trip to Birbhum, the police called several of my sources to ask about me. These people declined to meet me afterward. I was surprised that Sinha knew about my trips to Shibtala, since the farmers I met there assured me we’d found a concealed spot. It’s clear that government surveillance enjoys a far reach. After my first interview with Mondal, I agreed to use his car and driver so long as I could pay for it. My chauffer was a police constable.
I met Mondal for the second time the day after my interview with Sinha. Dozens of men lined the periphery of the room with Mondal enthroned at their center, flanked by Sinha and another lieutenant. I sat in the room’s empty interior. In his half-comical, half-tactical manner of bombast, Mondal assured me that he was a peaceful man. “I’ve never killed anybody,” he said. “I’ve never even killed a fly.” A cup of tea was brought to me and placed on a stool. Whenever I reached for it, my trembling hand caused the teacup to rattle against its coaster. The sound was loud enough for everyone in the room to hear it.
During the monsoon of 2016, a flood submerged thirty-one villages in the northern Bengali district of Malda. Around one hundred homes washed away. One of them belonged to Swadhin Sarkar, who had been elected to Bengal’s state assembly only a few months earlier. On gaining power, Indian politicians often discover what Anubrata Mondal, justifying his own wealth, called a “knack for business.” In Sarkar’s position, most would have found a way to acquire a new home.
Yet when I met Sarkar—“one year and nine months” after the flood, he remembered exactly—he was still living in a little room in his friend’s house. There was a fan, a couch, and a bed, but not quite room for a desk. Sarkar wore boxy glasses, closely cropped hair, and a plain white undershirt. He spoke in a measured but insistent voice.
Sarkar is a member of the BJP. He told me that he’s rejected large sums to defect to Trinamool, but that many of his fellow politicians in Malda—people who did not lose their homes in a flood—have been purchased by the ruling party. “In our sub-district,” Sarkar told me, “whatever leadership was there in Congress has gone over to Trinamool. All opportunists.”
In his self-sacrifice, moral purpose, and ideological conviction, Sarkar resembles the communists of old. But the great truth of Bengali politics, to Sarkar, lies not in class conflict but in Hindu nationalism. He was one of three members of the BJP elected to Bengal’s state house in 2016; previously, there had been none.
“Hindus feel that under the leadership of Mamata Bannerjee they are not protected,” he told me. “They feel helpless.” If Mamata Banerjee remains in power, “West Bengal might become like Bangladesh,” the country of Muslim Bengalis on West Bengal’s border. But “if Mamata Banerjee is appeasing the Muslim community, she should always remember that 70 percent of the population”—the fraction of West Bengal that is Hindu—“lies outside this appeasement.”
Adda is the Bengali word for intellectual conversation. The existence of adda as a discrete concept reveals a basic truth about intellectual conversation in Bengal, and perhaps everywhere—that its practitioners often seek not an interlocutor’s opinion, victory in debate, or even the truth, so much as the experience of discussion itself.
Bengalis cherish adda as a representative creation of their culture, and nowhere symbolizes the tradition of adda more famously than the College Street Coffee House. Though widely agreed to be past its glory days, the Coffee House still hosts the remnants of Kolkata’s world of vernacular intellectuals. Above the rickety chairs and grimy tables, a gigantic portrait of Tagore hangs alone on the back wall—suggesting, perhaps, that the shabbiness of the space shows a sensibility concerned only with higher matters of thought.
On a spring afternoon, I asked patrons whether Mamata Banerjee was “secular”—that is, whether she represented the values represented by the Coffee House. Every single person I spoke to in the mostly Hindu crowd said no. Not wanting, however, to sound like Swadhin Sarkar decrying “appeasement,” many patrons struggled to answer straightforwardly. “That is a very difficult questions in this scenario,” said Ranesh Ray, a medical representative in his early fifties. “She relies a lot on a certain community for getting votes, but I don’t want to name that.”
At Paramount, a nearby sherbet shop, I got a more direct response. “Honestly, she’s playing a game,” said Kousik Majumdar, a genial middle-aged man whose family owns the establishment. “These Muslim guys are getting an advantage. She has been using them as hooligans, goons.”
When I visited Park Circus, Kolkata’s most prominent Muslim neighborhood, I received the opposite answer. Every single person I spoke to said that, yes, Mamata Banerjee was secular. “She is focusing on peace and harmony by promoting all religions,” said Azaz Jeelani, a thirty-three-year-old mechanical engineer. Sabina Khatun, an eighteen-year-old student wearing a hijab, agreed: “As far as I have seen, she is trying hard to get all religions to get along, and to get them development.”
It was a great and disturbing irony that “secular,” the very term Indians use to denote communal harmony, had become the subject of total and complete division.
Months before Swadhin Sarkar was elected, a rally was held in a nearby town called Kaliachak to protest insults made against the Prophet Mohammed by a Hindu nationalist in another part of India. Between 100,000 and 150,000 people attended the rally, far more than the organizers had anticipated. A mob—according to some analysts, one associated not with the rally but instead with a local criminal group—burned down a police station and vandalized several properties in a nearby Hindu neighborhood.
Both locally and nationally, the reaction was virulent. Journalists referred to “carnage,” despite the lack of casualties, and argued the incident represented the “Islamization of West Bengal.” This, according to Sarkar, is how he gained power. “After seeing the Kaliachak incident, the Hindus of my constituency united and decided they must elect a BJP candidate here,” he told me. “Even the party people, the cadres, those who are associated with the Congress or the CPM or the TMC but were from the Hindu community—even they have voted for me.”
Muslims in Malda are increasingly scared. This is the result not only of Kaliachak and the rise of the BJP but also of the fate of Mohammad Afrajul, a migrant laborer from Kaliachak who, like many residents of the area, moved out of Bengal for work. In Afrajul’s case, it was to the Indian state of Rajasthan. In December 2017, during a period of BJP control, a local Hindu taped himself alleging that Afrajul was romantically involved with a Hindu woman—part of a conspiracy called “love jihad,” common on the Hindu right—and proceeded to hack and burn Afrajul to death. He circulated a video of the killing on social media.
The episode served as a disturbing illustration of the danger faced by Muslims in the BJP’s India. Yet on a visit to Afrajul’s family in Malda, his relatives told me that the only way to make a living was to leave Bengal. Mohammed Belal Hossain, Afrajul’s brother-in-law, kept working in Rajasthan after Afrajul’s death. When I asked Afrajul’s widow if the BJP was changing India, she started sobbing.
Bengal’s Muslims still feel safer than their coreligionists in other parts of India. Nadimul Haque, the Trinamool parliamentarian, told me what many Bengalis say: that Muslims’ security in Bengal comes from immutable features of the local culture. “I think Bengal was always secular,” he told me. “We’ve always had an atmosphere of cordial relations, and culture and language have been given more importance than religion.”
Yet evidence piles up challenging the notion that Bengali tolerance will endure. Incidents of Hindu–Muslim violence have risen sharply in recent years, threatening to convert West Bengal’s habit of unrest during elections into something darker. This February, following a suicide bombing that killed Indian troops in Kashmir, local mobs attacked and authorities detained Bengalis who made comments considered unpatriotic on social media. In Birbhum, students were disciplined at the historic center of Bengali enlightenment, Visva-Bharati. A senior university official warned against behavior that could be construed as “anti-national.”
Even if pluralism truly is a Bengali custom, it’s not clear how much Bengalis will continue identifying with their regional history—particularly when Trinamool, the loudest spokespeople of Bengaliness, are so thoroughly compromised.
During my trip to Malda, I visited a rally of BJP supporters in their early twenties. They’d been talking about establishing a controversial temple to the martial Hindu god Ram—not traditionally a deity emphasized by Bengalis—in the faraway, BJP-run state of Uttar Pradesh. Fired up, the young men chanted “Jai Shri Ram!” (Victory to Lord Ram!)
Like most of his peers, Goutam Adhikari, twenty-three, had rebelled against his family, which supported the Congress and the CPM, and immersed himself in the BJP’s ideology. That’s where Adhikari found meaning—in the promises of Hindu rituals, the glory of myths, and the wickedness of the old secular elite, whom he blamed for his inability to secure a job.
These dreams and grievances, inflamed by social media, added up to the same basic disposition shared by young men across India. I asked the group whether they saw themselves more as Bengalis or more as Hindus.
“Hindus!” they shouted instantly, in unison. “If they can give greater importance to their religion, why can’t we?” said one of them about Muslims. “We are Hindus first, Bengalis after.”
Alex Traub is a frequent contributor to the Metropolitan section of The New York Times. He’s worked on the editorial staffs of The Telegraph of Kolkata, The Hindustan Times, and The New York Review of Books.