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Why do recent communal clashes in West Bengal surprise me

Baduria communal clashes Photograph: (Facebook)

Delhi, India Jul 13, 2017, 06.35 AM (IST) Debraj Bhattacharya

The recent communal clashes in Baduria Block of West Bengal came as a surprise to me. Surprise, not because I think that Hindus and Muslims never fight and hate each other unless instigated. No. That would be simplistic and utopian. Religion does cause animosity and hatred and there is a long history of Hindus and Muslims disliking each other in Bengal. Organisations, political or otherwise, can provoke and manipulate tensions in order to push people towards violence but they cannot do so unless there is a latent feeling of mistrust between them.

So, why was I surprised?

Towards the beginning of this century, I had taken a somewhat unplanned decision to start working in the rural development sector. I felt that I needed to spend time in rural areas in order to develop an understanding that one cannot get from academic literature such as Subaltern Studies. After a brief stint in Birbhum district, I landed up in an NGO in Baduria Block, named Swanirvar. If one takes a local train from Sealdah station towards Bongaon, one can get down at a station named Machlandapur. There is nothing special about the station. It is crowded with the unplanned growth of shops around it, a familiar sight in southern Bengal. One sweet shop was particularly popular though. After getting down from the station platform, I usually got into a “trekker”, an illegal four wheeler which managed to fit in an absurd number of people inside it. Sometimes, I used to stand on the back and enjoy the lovely wind as the “trekker” moved towards Baduria. It usually took about forty minutes.

So, once more, why was I surprised to hear about the communal clashes? This is because, although I had seen a lot of rivalries of different kinds in Baduria, I never saw communal rivalry
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I usually got down a few stops before Baduria, at a village named Andharmanik. By West Bengal standards, this is a fairly developed area. The landscape is lush green, the soil is fertile, there are big ponds which are used for fish farming. Three crops a year is usual and poultry farming is also popular. But there are problems – arsenic poisoning of ground water being the most serious one. Also, population density is among the highest in the country and, therefore, landholding size is quite small. Over time as properties have become fragmented the size of agricultural land per household has shrunk further and further. The input of agriculture was already going up when I started working there, and it has gone up even more over time.

Swanirvar, by West Bengal standards, was a medium sized NGO, with 60-70 people working there. Except for two persons, who were Kolkata-based bhadraloks, and one person who was a local rural middle class, the rest of the staff were local villagers spread over Baduria and a few other adjoining Blocks. They worked on issues such as sustainable agriculture, pre-primary and primary education, adolescent boys and girls and Self Help Groups. In Andharmanik village, there was a large building which was both a training centre and the main office of the NGO. This is where I also stayed when I went there. I mostly worked with the microfinance team, trying to rescue a programme in bad shape, apart from helping out in documentation and setting up a small library.

I was not there to do ethnography but I had a good exposure to the rural society as well the semi-urban society of Baduria. This place was located only about 50 kilometres from Kolkata, and therefore the residents were not far away from metropolitan city life. However, they did not have the benefits that a Calcuttan like me had. There was a sense of grudge and perhaps even jealousy which came out every now and then. Their condition was much better than the condition of most villagers in West Bengal, but they preferred to compare themselves with Calcuttans rather than with the villagers from other parts of West Bengal. Among the young people who worked there this sense of deprivation was quite acute. It took me a while to realise that I was a bhadralok elite from Calcutta. It took quite a lot of time for some of the staff to accept me.

Hindus and Muslims sat down every day to have lunch together, Hindu and Muslim women belonging to Self Help Groups stayed together in the campus to have residential training
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 As this was my first serious exposure to rural society, I was quite surprised by the amount of animosity I saw among villagers. Once I went to document a farmer who had won an award his sustainable agriculture practices. I found that although he was an award winner, his own brother was not willing to accept his practices. When I asked why he explained that there was jealousy involved. His brother was jealous of the success he has had and therefore, stubbornly refused to adopt his practices. Later on, I have found this to be quite common in West Bengal. There were other cases of rivalry as well. Anyone trying to do pond based fish farming had to be on the guard against rivals poisoning their ponds at night.

And of course, in those days there was a party based rivalry. However, it was not as if party affiliation determined personal rivalries all the time. It could be the other way round as well. Same family but different party affiliation was not uncommon either.

So, once more, why was I surprised to hear about the communal clashes?

This is because, although I had seen a lot of rivalries of different kinds in Baduria, I never saw communal rivalry. The NGO I worked in had staff, both male and female, who were Hindu as well as who were Muslims. There were rivalry and competition among them. But this was never along religious lines. In a faction fight inside the organisation, a Hindu and a Muslim could be in one faction trying to supersede another faction consisting also of Hindus and Muslims. Hindus and Muslims sat down every day to have lunch together, Hindu and Muslim women belonging to Self Help Groups stayed together in the campus to have residential training. This was not the result of any special culture developed by the NGO. This was normal.

Why was this normal?

To explain this, we must avoid the trap of liberal sentimentalism. No, the innate humanity of the people did not bring Hindus and Muslims together in an enlightened alliance. This was because the primary identity of the people of Baduria was that of a Bengali. The Bengali language was the only language they knew. There were some who knew a little bit of English or Hindi but most people were at heart a Bengali. Since this was their primary identity, it was not unusual for Hindu and Muslim women to stay together for SHG training or the staff to have lunch together cooked by a woman named Jahanara who looked like a Hindu married woman. In fact, I never asked her whether she was Hindu or Muslim, the question itself never arose.

Local Bengalis have helped each other. It is their local pride, that their locality should not earn a bad name
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Is the society fundamentally different today? There is no clear answer. There are stories of both Hindu and Muslim extremist organisations developing their strongholds in the region. However, my source, a former colleague, told me that the riot was engineered by outsiders and there are plenty of media reports available now to suggest that Hindus and Muslims have helped each other to bring Baduria back to normalcy. There is one small problem with such reporting. I will say local Bengalis have helped each other. It is their local pride, that their locality should not earn a bad name, that has motivated them to help each other. But we need ethnographers to spend more time there than journalists typically do to get a firm answer to the question.

Debraj Bhattacharya

Debraj Bhattacharya is a historian and consultant with Riddhi Foundation, Kolkata. He is the author of the book ?Exploring Marxist Bengal?.

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