The Bengal I have never known

Trying to divide Bengal on communal lines for narrow political gains is like trying to reinvent the wheel: Do it at your own peril

Police personnel patrol after a clashes and incidents of arson over Ram Navami procession at Raniganj in Burdwan district on Monday.

It was the autumn of 1986. Kolkata, my place of birth, and the rest of Bengal was resplendent in the spirit of Durga Puja – one of the biggest Hindu festivals on the calendar in India. And like the other years, my pandal-hopping spree had brought me to the nerve centre of Central Kolkata, where Mohammad Ali Park, on Chittaranjan Avenue, happened to organise one of the biggest celebrations and observances of the autumnal extravaganza that had, over the centuries, transcended from being a mere ‘Hindu’ festival to something more esoteric and universal in its appeal, verve and tenor.

Coming back to Mohammad Ali Park. I was quite surprised to see about a dozen bearded youths in their ubiquitous prayer caps, managing the crowd and some of them even helping the priest on the podium in arranging the paraphernalia. “Baba, aren’t those men Muslims? So, do they also celebrate Pujo?” I asked my father. Bemused by my astonishment, pat came the reply: “That’s the beauty of Bengal. There’s no ‘us’ and ‘them’ when it comes to celebrating Pujo, you see!” And he had this to add: “Have you ever wondered why Zakaria ‘uncle’ [one of my father’s colleagues] brings those delectable mutton delicacies for us every Eid?”

I had had my answer.

Having been born and brought up in Kolkata, I have had the good fortune to experience what communal harmony means and what mutual respect for one another’s religious beliefs stand for — in its most rudimentary and unorthodox sense. As I grew up, the full import of the significance of those youths in prayer caps helping the priest on the podium or keeping the queue in order at Mohammad Ali Park dawned upon me with all its idiosyncrasies and honesty.

Decades later, standing outside The Statesman House – the office of the venerable colonial-era English newspaper that had very kindly offered me my first job – I watched a Muharram ‘tazia’ pass by, with traffic on that same stretch of Chittaranjan Avenue having come to a complete halt. No one complained. None honked. Not one vehicle moved an inch. A spontaneous show of respect for a religious event observed by members of a minority community.

That’s the Kolkata and Bengal I have always been proud of. That’s the Kolkata and Bengal that has been baked into my DNA, ever since I heard all those horrifying tales of partition from my father.

Born and brought up in what is now known as the sovereign entity of Bangladesh, my father and all the other 15-odd members of his joint family left the suburbs of Dhaka within a night’s notice as the marauders came baying for the blood of the members of a specific community in the aftermath of the 1947 Partition of India. “For an entire night, our immediate Muslim neighbours were our saviours, protecting us from those unsheathed daggers and swords – sometimes even at great personal loss. Weeks later, as we took shelter at a refugee camp in the southern Kolkata neighbourhood of Dhakuria, the tables were turned. Some hoodlums from the majority Hindu community were on a door-to-door hunt for Muslim men or women who might have gone into hiding. We stood on their way and offered our lives instead. Confronted by unarmed souls with fire in their eyes and the threat of an imminent do-or-die, the scums of the earth retreated,” my father said.

Those are the kind of tales I have grown up with. I have been fortunate enough never to have experienced the trauma of partition, but I have been born into a family that has had to deal with the scourge first-hand. And the tales I were told were enough for me to understand one basic truth: Hatred and bigotry can and should never be tools to assert one’s religious or ethnic identity.

And Bengal, in these seven decades since partition, has very zealously maintained the spirit of that truth. Bengal’s determination to not let the fabric of communal harmony be damaged by the vitriol of divisive politics and shameless opportunism has been phenomenal.

That is why when I am confronted with reports of violence leading to even deaths over something as innocuous as Ram Navami processions in Bengal, I am hurt and ashamed. Deaths in Kakinara, Raniganj and Purulia over the observance of a Hindu ritual that didn’t even warrant a mention on the inside pages of many newspapers until recently, are now front and centre! Brandishing of weapons, chanting of inciteful slogans and provocative postures during recent Ram Navami celebrations tell the tale of a social discourse that has gone terribly wrong and bear the stench of a brazen and shocking political opportunism that seeks to polarise communities along religious lines. This is certainly not the kind of Bengal or Kolkata I had grown up in. This is not the Bengal that comes to a standstill to let a Muharram ‘tazia’ pass through with as much patience and spontaneity as the smile on the face of that unknown passer-by who has just been sprinkled with the colours of Holi by a truant child.

The Bharatiya Janata Party and all its cohorts, who have suddenly felt the need to paint Bengal in the monochrome of cultural rigidity and communal obscurantism, take note: Bengal can never be won over by fear-mongering and a language of majority-appeasement. Try reinventing the wheel at your own peril!

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