Two villages in West Bengal’s Birbhum district, Madanpur and Chishti, situated on either side of the two-lane Panagarh-Morgram highway, have often explained the prevailing political atmosphere in the state. Since 1988, I have visited and lived in these villages to carry out research for my upcoming book, Cultivating Democracy, and found that they have served as a lens to understand the shifts in West Bengal’s politics. Despite the district being a communist bastion, both villages had voted for the Trinamool Congress in the 2011 assembly elections, which ended the 34-year reign of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and the Left Front coalition. Amid the ongoing Lok Sabha elections, I visited these villages in April seeking an explanation for the Bharatiya Janata Party’s rise in West Bengal.
In the capital city of Kolkata, several people told me that the BJP’s West Bengal unit comprised entirely of former Left Front cadres. While the CPI(M) had indeed become a moribund party in the state, I could not imagine that any of the Left Front sympathisers I knew would now align themselves with the Hindu majoritarian ideology of the BJP. “You will never find a Leftist saying Muslims should go to Pakistan,” Magaram Bagdi, a 44-year-old sharecropper from Madanpur, had repeatedly told me since the BJP first made its foray into the state in the 2014 general elections. So who, then, were these new BJP supporters in West Bengal?
Madanpur and Chishti both comprise predominantly of a Muslim population, with a substantial presence of two Dalit minority communities—the Bagdis and the Doms. The first indication of a Hindu presence emerging in the state that I witnessed was an innocent and entirely pious celebrations of Ram Navami, a festival celebrating the birth of the Hindu deity Ram, on 14 April. The worship of Ram in this part of India seemed out of place, given that Hindu scriptures and mythologies do not record the deity ever visiting Bengal, and instead, goddesses tended to dominate the Hindu religious landscape here. Yet, the two Dalit communities eagerly celebrated it with much pomp, complete with a public-address system that blared out music and a modest feast paid by contributions raised from everyone, including the Muslims, in the village.
This was not entirely unprecedented because the Bagdis and Doms have previously held such celebrations for Saraswati, the Hindu goddess of education and learning—partly inspired by the joyous celebrations of Eid, in which the two communities always included. These Dalit communities form the agricultural workforce of the villages, and when they started celebrating their own festivals, too, the landowners and sharecroppers generally supported these celebrations in a gesture of goodwill. As a result, I did not think too much of these new Ram Navami celebrations.
What was startling, however, was the ensuing celebration a day later for the deity Hanuman in a neighbouring village, TKname, which had a sizeable Hindu population. The celebrations fell on the first day of the Bengali new year, and were conducted on a much bigger scale. The village was holding a veritable fair surrounding a Hanuman shrine—though the activity seemed to be focused mainly around food and music that was loud enough to be heard from the highway. Even the residents of Madanpur and Chishti returned from the fair agog with excitement, describing to me forked red flags that they had seen fluttering in the breeze on top of all the Hindu homes.
The festive celebration of Hanuman puja by residents of Madanpur and Chisthi was particularly startling because the deity previously had no presence in these villages. Moreover, the celebrations did not mark any festival associated with Hanuman, but were simply a routine prayer ritual. “The flag brings good fortune and protects the household,” Sandhya Dom, a resident of Chishti, told me. Curiously, Sandhya’s husband, Okho, was an influential sharecropper who had done well after communist-led land reforms in West Bengal, who had also told me on earlier occasions that Leftists would never “do politics with religion.”
On visiting the celebrations myself at TKvillagename, I found a neglected idol of Hanuman standing under a tree. I asked two young men nearby how long the shrine had been in the village. In a strident tone, one of them told me that it “fallen from a passing truck” around one year ago. Reading this as an omen, the young men added, the residents then instituted the worship of Hanuman in the village. The men were dressed in jeans and fitted t-shirts, and seated on a motorcycle that had two forked red flags attached to the handlebars of their bike. They smiled when I asked them about the flags, remarking at how well they fluttered as the bike sped and how it was a worthwhile purchase at Rs 50.
A closer look revealed that the flags had a picture of Hanuman carrying a mountain—a reference to an episode in the Hindu epic Ramayana—with the words “Jai Shri Ram” written in Devanagari script above it. They zoomed off before I could ask them any further questions, but it was not long before I met another set of young men, similarly attired, and also riding motorcycles with the same flags. This group of bikers claimed that the tradition of Hanuman puja began in their village after the idol had just appeared out of the blue one day, following which they pointed to the red flags to indicate their devotion.
I pointed to the words inscribed above the image asked them if “Jai Shri Ram” was a common greeting in the area, knowing full well that it was not. They responded with indignation insisting that the image was of Hanuman. I asked if the flags had any relation to the BJP and Narendra Modi—the prime minister is known to use the phrase in his speeches, and it has become a crucial part of the party’s campaign in the state. Immediately, the scowling faces broke into schoolboy grins. “Yes, of course it does,” one of them said. “We love him!” I asked if they would vote for him in the Lok Sabha elections, and they responded with an enthusiastic chorus of “Yes!” before zooming off.
Over the next few days, as I made my way by road across the length of West Bengal to its northern border with Nepal, through the districts of Bardhaman, Malda, North Dinajpur and Siliguri, similar scenes were repeated in many rural places. I encountered several such young men on motorcycles with little forked red flags, all of whom enthusiastically supported Modi. When I asked about them about the chief minister Mamata Banerjee, they were dismissive, blithely stating that she only works for the Muslim community.
Something new has indeed taken place in the villages of Madanpur and Chishti, as across West Bengal—to put it simply, more people may be voting for the BJP, a party that has been peripheral to their political vision until now. The Trinamool support base appears to have remained unaffected, and the main supporters of the BJP will indeed be drawn from traditional Left Front households. This support, however, is likely to be largely from its younger male members, who have no memories of the communist-led struggles for land reform or the increase in daily wages, while the older voters may continue to vote for the Left Front out of loyalty.
Party loyalties run deep in West Bengal, and for the twenty years that I had known them, nearly everyone from the older generation I met spoke of its importance. But the imagination of the younger members of the same households appeared to have been captured by Narendra Modi and the worship of Hanuman. A combination of brawn and devotion seemed to have given them a platform to express a new political identity, and one which is a departure from the older politics of struggle, demonstrations and meetings that dominated the Left Front and Trinamool Congress years. Their parents, whose politics are utterly different, appeared to find it hard to persuade or censure the new found piety and energy of their sons, who, while unwilling to slog in the fields, utilised their time to arrange fairs and feasts for the community.
Time spent with these young men, such as Okho’s son Deb and his friends—whose homework I used to help with some years ago—revealed that they were careful not to discuss politics at home to avoid arguments with their parents. But they were all well versed in the BJP campaign, and the phone messages that the party has been disseminating during the 2019 campaign. “Modi is the first and only strong and capable leader of India,” Deb told me. His friend Bishwa Bagdi added, “In Balakot, India proved it was unafraid to go inside Pakistan and attack it on its own territory,” referring to the Indian Air Force’s aerial strike in Pakistani’s territory in February this year. Several young men I met repeated the same phrase, noting that they had received the message on their phones: “India’s glory in the world began in 2014.”
Despite their proclamations of faith for Hanuman, the young men I met were not versed in knowledge about the deity. For instance, they did not pick up on a reference to the deity that I made, when I told them that as Pavan Putra—the god of wind—Hanuman would blow away the clouds that threatened to rain on their open-air cooking pots for the feast. It was evident that their enthusiasm was not about religion or the Hindu faith. It was for the fluttering forked flags on their motorcycles and on rooftops, for the figure of muscular Hanuman, for the brand new slogan of “Jai Shri Ram.” It was these aspects of their new political identity that had brought novelty and frisson to a new generation of young men—a generation that was tired of the old Bengali tensions between the Left Front and the Trinamool Congress, and eager for something new that they claim to be their own.
This article gives the views of the author and not the position of South Asia @ LSE blog, nor of the London School of Economics. Please read our comments policy before posting. Featured photo credit: author
‘A shorter version of this article appeared in The Indian Express on Friday 17 May 2019’.
Mukulika Banerjee is author of Why India Votes? and inaugural director of the London School of Economics, South Asia Centre.