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Manufacturing Polarisation in Contemporary India: The Case of Identity Politics in Post-Left Bengal

  • Dr. A. P. J. Abdul Kalam Government College

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This article explores ethnographically the manufacturing of religious polarisation and violence in West Bengal, India. Since 2014, India has experienced a rise in religion-based identity conflict. Although West Bengal experienced riots during the parti- tion of India, it remained unaffected during the subsequent three decades of Left rule. More recently, however, secular demo- cratic forces have been marginalised and riot-like conflicts have emerged. We argue that identity consolidation in West Bengal is part of an increasing trend of religious polarisation in the country. To bridge the gap between scholarly discussions on the concepts of secularism and communalisation, the paper presents micro-narratives illuminating the background of religious po- larisation and violence. We provide ethnographic details of the mechanisms by which religious identities are consolidated. With a case-based approach, this article unearths the mechanisms of identity-based polarisation, and its politicisation in a region which has not experienced this level of violence for several decades. Keywords: religious polarisation, identity politics, riots, secularism, West Bengal
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Manufacturing Polarisation in Contemporary India:
The Case of Identity Politics in Post-Left Bengal
Suman Nath, Dr. A. P. J. Abdul Kalam Govt. College, Rajarhat, New Town, Kolkata@
Subhoprotim Roy Chowdhury, AAMRA ek Sachetan Prayas, An Assemblage of Movement
Research & Appraisal, Kolkata
Vol. 13/2019
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Author Information: Suman Nath, Dr. A. P. J. Abdul Kalam Govt. College, Rajarhat, New Town, Kolkata
Subhoprotim Roy Chowdhury, AAMRA ek Sachetan Prayas, An Assemblage of Movement Research &
Appraisal, Kolkata
Suggested Citation: APA: Nath, S., Chowdhury, S. R. (2019). Manufacturing Polarisation in Contemporary India: The Case of Iden-
tity Politics in Post-Left Bengal, 2019.
International Journal of Conict and Violence
13, 1-9.
doi: 10.4119/
Harvard: Nath, Suman, Chowdhury, Subhoprotim Roy. 2019. Manufacturing Polarisation in Contemporary In-
dia: The Case of Identity Politics in Post-Left Bengal, 2019.
International Journal of Conict and Violence
doi: 10.4119/UNIBI/ijcv.652
@ Suman Nath:
This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution—NoDerivatives License.
ISSN: 1864–1385
IJCV: Vol. 13/2019
Nath, Chowdhury: Manufacturing Polarisation in Contemporary India: The Case of Identity Politics in Post-Left Bengal 1
Manufacturing Polarisation in Contemporary India:
The Case of Identity Politics in Post-Left Bengal
Suman Nath, Dr. A. P. J. Abdul Kalam Govt. College, Rajarhat, New Town, Kolkata
Subhoprotim Roy Chowdhury, AAMRA ek Sachetan Prayas, An Assemblage of Movement
Research & Appraisal, Kolkata
This article explores ethnographically the manufacturing of religious polarisation and violence in West Bengal, India. Since
2014, India has experienced a rise in religion-based identity conict. Although West Bengal experienced riots during the parti-
tion of India, it remained unaffected during the subsequent three decades of Left rule. More recently, however, secular demo -
cratic forces have been marginalised and riot-like conicts have emerged. We argue that identity consolidation in West Bengal
is part of an increasing trend of religious polarisation in the country. To bridge the gap between scholarly discussions on the
concepts of secularism and communalisation, the paper presents micro-narratives illuminating the background of religious po -
larisation and violence. We provide ethnographic details of the mechanisms by which religious identities are consolidated. With
a case-based approach, this article unearths the mechanisms of identity-based polarisation, and its politicisation in a region
which has not experienced this level of violence for several decades.
Keywords: religious polarisation, identity politics, riots, secularism, West Bengal
The authors express their gratitude to the anonymous reviewers for their valuable suggestions and Dr Sarah Marsden of Lancas-
ter University for the kind help she has extended to improve the quality of the article.
1. Introduction – Constructivism and West Bengal
Across the world, religious violence has been on the rise for
decades (Juergensmeyer 2000, 2010). This includes India,
where religious conict is not uncommon, and Hindu-Muslim
conict has the capacity to split the country in two (Chhibber
and Petrocik, 1989; Varshney 1998; Guha 2016). Since the
formation of the pro-Hindu BJP-led government in 2014,
there has been an unprecedented proliferation of Hindutva,
which has included riots and lynching (“Lynch Mob Rashtra”,
Frontline, 1 July 2017). The results are signicant, as Guha
(2016, 39) explains: “Perhaps for the rst time in our history
as an independent nation, serious, well respected writers are
murdered, physically eliminated for their views.
These events are particularly alarming as practices of secu-
larism have been diluted (Nandy 1998; Bhargava 2010). Al-
though there have been attempts to separate state affairs
from religion in India, in practice, secularism is largely alien
to the country (Madan 1987, 2006, 2009; Nandy 1998).
Thapar (2010) nds Indian secularism to be too Brahmani-
cal to bring communal harmony. As a consequence, India os-
cillates between the Indian National Congress’s accommoda-
tive secularism and a form of Hindu nationalism, most con-
spicuously promoted by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)
(Copley 1993; Ganguly 2003; Gupta 1996). Distorted histo-
ries, invented traditions, a particular form of “pseudo-nation-
alism”, and of late, “post-truth” hoaxes are used to stoke
communal tensions (Thapar 2014; Hobsbawm and Ranger
1983; Thapar, Noorani and Menon 2016). Benei (2008) de -
scribes some of the mechanisms which increase tension be-
tween identity groups. These include the use of symbols such
IJCV: Vol. 13/2019
Nath, Chowdhury: Manufacturing Polarisation in Contemporary India: The Case of Identity Politics in Post-Left Bengal 2
as the “mother country”, the national ag, and sports includ-
ing mock warfare, all of which are prominent manifestations
of the effort to promote Hindu nationalism in Kolhapur, Ma-
Compared to the rest of the countr y, the consolidation of
identity groups in West Bengal is more recent. It manifests it-
self through the intentional construction of cleavage, which is
both historically informed (Laitin and Posner 2001; Thapar
2014), and has electoral intentions (Brass 2005; Pai 2013;
Wilkinson 2004). The rise in the ‘construction’ of social cate-
gories, with pre-existing ethnic boundaries, has resulted in
the consolidation of identity categories and increasing ten-
sion between groups (Fearon and Laitin 2000). The construc-
tion of communal tension is informed by broader structural
features of civil society and government, making it important
to better understand the mechanisms which shape the po-
tential for communal violence (Fearon and Laitin 2000;
Brass 1991, 2005; Anand 2005).
Constructivists explore the mechanisms of stereotyping
and its relationship to identity construction and marginalisa-
tion (Banerjee 2008), and communal violence (Robinson
2005; Gupta 2011; Gayer and Jaffrelot 2012). However,
ethnographic studies of identity consolidation and the mech-
anisms which inform how and why riots emerge are limited
(Chatterjee 2017). Berti, Jaoul and Kanungo’s (2011) edited
volume addresses a) the propagation
of Hindutva through cultural and artis-
tic expressions; b) the appeal of
charismatic personalities afliated with
Hinduism; and c) some forms of resis-
tance to such propagation. Scholars
like Eckert (2009) and Roy (2017)
draw on ethnographic principles in
their studies on polarisation. However,
the dynamics of manufactured polari-
sation in a state like West Bengal,
which has not experienced this kind of
conict for decades, have received
much less attention. Furthermore,
there is a gap between studies on the-
oretical issues focused on secularism
and the effects of religious polarisation
and violence. While there are broader
frameworks that seek to explain the symbolic-cultural and in-
stitutional mechanisms of polarisation, its everyday practices
demand more attention (Benei 2008, Berti, Jaoul and Ka-
nungo 2011).
This paper seeks to address the lack of ethnographically
informed studies on religious polarisation and its interface
with politics in West Bengal, one of the twenty-nine states of
India. Because West Bengal has recently begun to experience
a rise in identity polarisation and violence (see Figure 1), it
has the potential to provide important insights into the
mechanisms by which fundamentalist forces rise and dis-
place secular and democratic forces. Taking a constructivist
approach based in ethnographic research, we unearth three
dimensions that inform the recent increase in religious con-
ict in West Bengal: a) mechanisms, b) organisational base
and c) everyday practices of identity consolidation. The paper
illustrates these dynamics by setting out details of two such
conicts, to help develop a broader understanding of the
mechanisms and everydayness of religious polarisation.
2. Recent Polarisations in West Bengal and the Present
West Bengal has experienced a rise in the number of com-
munal riots in recent years (see Figure 11). Following an aver-
age of eighteen incidents per year in the period 2008–2014,
subsequent years have seen a rise in the number of riots,
1 Source: calculation based on data from documents of the Parlia-
ment of India:
Figure 1: Incidence of communal riots in India and West Bengal, 2008–2017
IJCV: Vol. 13/2019
Nath, Chowdhury: Manufacturing Polarisation in Contemporary India: The Case of Identity Politics in Post-Left Bengal 3
meriting special attention to understanding the dynamics
that have shaped this violence. In the following we therefore
explore the constructions of polarisation through ethnogra-
phy during the period 2014–2017.
Communalisation was a prominent phenomenon in West
Bengal in the 1930s, and during the period of partition and
independence. Subsequently, three decades of Naxalite and
Left Front rule reduced the prominence of identity issues in
the state’s political discourse (Bose 1986; Pal 2017; Das
1991, 2005; Roy 2017; Bhattacharyya 2009, 2016). How-
ever, through the second term of the Trinamool Congress
(TMC) in the state in 2016, and BJP’s rule in the centre since
2014, West Bengal has witnessed a rapid change in the pub-
lic and political spheres. Armed Ram Navami rallies in 2017
and 2018 and a series of riots represent prominent manifes-
tations of these changes (“Ram Navami Rally: One Killed,
Five Injured in West Bengal as Bajrang Dal Members Clash
With Police”, The Wire, 26 March 2018).
With a Muslim population of 27 percent, West Bengal has
a substantial presence of Muslim minorities (Census of India
2011), and consequently a history of co-habitation (includ-
ing the development of several syncretic traditions) as well
as occasional conicts between the two communities. How-
ever, during the three decades it was in power, Left Front put
religious and identity politics on the back foot by installing
what Chatterjee (2004) termed a Political Society and Bhat-
tacharyya (2009) described as a Party Society. Bhat-
tacharyya (2009) argued that unlike other states in India,
political parties in West Bengal transcend identity-based mo-
bilisations. He notes several unique characteristics of Left
Front politics in West Bengal, one of which is “lack of political
focus on caste, religion or ethnicity-based social divisions”
(Bhattacharyya 2016, 126).
Through ethnographic study, Nath (2016 and 2018), ar-
gues that TMC has politicised “cultural” expressions through
a process of “cultural misrecognition” diverting popular at-
tention away from issues of public service delivery. An in-
crease in budgetary allocation for the Ministry of Information
and Cultural Affairs from rupees 61 crores in 2010–2011 to
rupees 300 crores in 2016–2017 is one indicator suggesting
a politicisation of the cultural apparatus. Keeping in mind
the substantial Muslim population, the TMC-led state govern-
ment devised populist policies such as provision of a
monthly allowance to imams and muezzins. The interpreta-
tion of these measures as “Muslim appeasement” partly ex-
plains the rise of the BJP and the Hindutva forces, as mani-
fested in recent election results (see Figure 22) and Ram
Navami rallies (Roy 2017). Meanwhile there have been in-
2 Source:
Figure 2 Percentage of vote share between major parties in different elections in West Bengal
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Nath, Chowdhury: Manufacturing Polarisation in Contemporary India: The Case of Identity Politics in Post-Left Bengal 4
stances of forced religious conversions, and riots that have
gone unrecorded (AAMRA 2015, 2016).
It is in this context that we explore the dynamics of reli -
gious conicts to understand the mechanisms by which po-
larisation is manufactured, as this represents a new dimen-
sion to the state’s politics. The study is based on ethno-
graphic research in two places where riot-like conict took
place: Naihati-Hajinagarin in North 24 Parganas district and
Rejinagar in Murshidabad district. Our aim was to uncover
the inner mechanisms associated with growing polarisation
and violence. To do so, we made repeated visits over a num -
ber of weeks in different phases in 2016 and 2017. As well
as several week-long stays, we also made weekend visits and
kept regular contact over mobile phone to track phenomena
relevant to the manufacturing of polarisation. Furthermore,
one of the authors resides both in Naihati-Hajinagar and in
Murshidabad, which makes this study, to a signicant extent,
participatory in nature.
However, the study is not a classic example of participant
observation; rather the work is rooted in an ethnographic
sensibility that goes beyond face-to-face contact (Schatz
2009). Through ethnography, we unearth the ways in which
religious polarisation is manufactured by mainstream politics
as a political strategy hitherto unused in West Bengal. We
have adopted a case-based approach, elucidating the quali -
tative dimensions of the core issues of religious polarisation
through interviews, group discussions, and tracking of impor -
tant events as they unfolded. In the following section, we
present two cases of polarisation in brief and then describe
the core mechanisms associated with the construction of po-
larisation in West Bengal, which reects a wider trend across
the country.
3. Hindu-Muslim Riot-like Conict: Naihati-Hajinagar,
North 24 Parganas
The Naihati-Hajinagar conict began in 2016. It was followed
by a signicant number of smaller incidents of violence, and
one large conict in the district of North 24 Parganas. Nai -
hati-Hajinagar represents a good example of how communal
sentiments are constructed in a multi-ethnic population. The
place falls within the TMC-held Assembly constituencies of
Naihati and Bijpur. Hukum Chand Jute Mill, the largest of its
kind in the world, brought people to the area from Bihar, Ut -
tar Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Nepal and Orissa. This is one of the
reasons why a local teacher says that the place is a “mini In-
dia”. In a group discussion in March 2017, the same inter-
viewee argued:
there has always been innate ssure between Hindus and
Muslims at Hajinagar. However, since 2011 it has become more
conspicuous and aggressive. … Not even the Left-inclined trade
union leaders are able to make people think beyond their reli-
gious identities – neither during the Left regime nor at present.
In fact, they also promote religious hatred at times, I have seen
Although Hajinagar is traditionally a Muslim dominated
area, there are also isolated Hindu-Majority pocket where
pan-Indian organisations like Viswa Hindu Parishad, Bajrang
Dal and Durga Bahini organise their Hindutva campaigns. Ev-
idence of these groups’ activities is seen in the proliferation
of pro-Hindu slogans in local festivals. Another group discus-
sion with both Hindu and Muslim participants revealed how
religious sentiments have been fuelled since 2013, when Ba-
jarang Dal organised a large-scale Ram Navami procession.
Local people took us to some of the places on the banks of
the River Hooghly (a tributary of the Ganges) where Bajarang
Dal organises sword-ghting practice. Local leaders of Ba-
jrang Dal believe that these practices are needed to protect
Hindus from a possible Muslim attack. However, the perfor-
mance of regular sword ghts by saffron-clad people on the
riverbank appears to be little more than an open display of
arms and muscle to intimidate local Muslims. Attempts have
also been made to initiate “Ganga Aarati” here (the spectac-
ular worship of the River Ganges popular in Varanasi and
Haridwar in North India). Such activities in recent years suc-
cessfully created mutual mistrust and widened the rifts be-
tween the two communities.
Recent riots are an outcome of these everyday practices of
hatred. Conict started to surface with the violation of an
age-old local agreement between Hindus and Muslims re-
garding conduct around the famous Chasma Baba’r Mazar.
The Mazar is one of the important sacred places in the re-
gion, and was until recently a symbol of syncretism. Yousuf
Kamal, popularly known as Chasma Baba, after whom it is
named, is said to have possessed supernatural powers. Be-
ing a
is open to both Hindus and Muslims. In
fact, the famous architecture of the Mazar was built by a
Hindu businessman of Gujarat. Each year during
local people organise Qawwali songs. Under the unwritten
traditional agreement between the two communities, the only
Hindu processions related to life cycle rituals would use the
IJCV: Vol. 13/2019
Nath, Chowdhury: Manufacturing Polarisation in Contemporary India: The Case of Identity Politics in Post-Left Bengal 5
road adjacent to the Dargah, and no Muslims were allowed
to sacrice cows or sell beef near the Dargah. The agreement
was broken in June 2016, when the local Gayatri family al-
legedly took the Gayatri Puja procession through this area. In
response, Muslims gathered in large numbers, after which
the police were called and a curfew was declared.
In response to the Gayatri procession and Ram Navami
processions, Muharram rallies also turned aggressive.
While Hindus started chanting “Jai Shri Ram” [Victory to Lord
Rama] at every rally including the Ram Navami and Durgostav,
Muslims also started organising more conspicuous and armed
rallies to celebrate Nabi and Muharram. … Now political lead -
ers are always present in both the rallies, which they never were
before TMC assumed power. We have never seen Bengali
Hindus shouting “Jai Shri Ram”, nor do we remember such
large Muharram rallies with sword ghts. (70-year-old local
businessmen, February 2017)
In this context of mutual apprehension, rumours made
things even worse. The rst instance of communal violence in
the area centred around an assault by Hindus on a Muslim
youth who had allegedly torn down the Indian National Flag
at the Karbala crossing on August 15, 2016. We knew him
like many others – for his criminal activities and drug addic-
tion. However, it remains unknown whether he actually
touched the ag. When we reached the area, we learned that
the youth had been detained by local Hindus at around 7:30
pm – when the national ag was not supposed to be ying.
We could sense the tension of the situation and left the area.
Later, one local resident reported that about seven or eight
hundred Hindu people suddenly started targeting Muslim ar-
eas to loud “Jai Shri Ram” chants. They were aided by the in-
action of the police, who did not arrive until after 10 pm. This
incident indicates community preparedness to launch an at-
tack on the basis of a relatively minor issue.
Local shopkeepers recall the critical role played at the be-
ginning of the riot by local “goons” working for TMC and Ba-
jarang Dal simultaneously. Backed by local political leaders,
these goons have been involved in organised anti-social ac-
tivities in the region for years. Party cadres clearly say that
they nd no conict in simultaneously being a member of
the ruling TMC and pro-Hindu, pro-BJP groups like Bajrang
Dal. Later, in a group discussion in September 2016, one
said they joined “to save Hindus from Muslims”.
The situation in the area deteriorated in the following
months, and a large-scale communal conagration took
place at the end of Durgotsav 2016, when the West Bengal
Chief Minister made it mandatory to immerse Durga idols on
the day of Vijaya Dashami itself (which is last date for the rit-
uals of the festival). This goes against popular convention,
which is to retain idols for a few more days. The policy was in
fact designed to avoid communal tensions associated with
the overlapping timings of Muharram and idol immersion
processions on the day after Vijaya Dashami. “She [the Chief
Minister, Mamata Banerjee] became symbolically ‘Mumtaz
Begam’ for the Hindus of this region, as one of the Hindu
shop-owners of Laxmigunj Market put it. It appears that this
construction popularised to cultivate hatred against her.
“Mumtaz Begam” later became a popular phrase used to
present the Chief Minister as a “Muslim appeaser”. The shop
owner continued: “… the way she dresses, with the hijab, cre-
ates an image of fear among the Hindus, and this sentiment
was strategically used by Bajarang Dal”. In a group discus-
sion in April 2017, one villager reported:
On Vijaya Dashami, someone from the idol immersion proces-
sion threw a stone at a Mazar near the Indian Paper Pulp In-
dustry works. The impact was massive … the news spread to all
the nearby Muslim localities in a moment. Although nothing
happened on that night, the next day the Muharram rally was
notably large and heavily armed. It started with a bomb blast
and a few goons from the rally targeted Hindu houses and
shops. Opportunists looted and destroyed several shops and
small enterprises. Members of Legislative Assemblies of Naihati
and Bijpur from TMC called for two peacekeeping rallies. One of
them was attended by Muslims, the other by Hindus, and the
situation remained tense. The only glimmer of hope in an other-
wise depressing situation came when even during the long
hours of violence – local Muslims protected their neighbouring
Hindu families and vice-versa.
We found that police refused to report this as a riot and
only recorded complaints of conict between two groups. Fol-
lowing this incident a series of small-scale acts of violence
took place in various villages and towns in the district. Vio -
lence in Basirhat-Baduriain in July 2017 was the most bru-
tal, and resulted in one death and the injury of many others.
Together, these events illustrate that the construction and en-
actment of communal tension has been gaining momentum
in the district.
4. Muslim-Muslim Riot-like Conict: Rejinagar,
While everyday communalisation and the use of “goons” are
important aspects in the Naihati-Hajinagar riot, Rejinagar ex-
emplies the rise of Islamic fundamentalism and attempts to
construct a monolithic and ideal-type Islam in West Bengal.
IJCV: Vol. 13/2019
Nath, Chowdhury: Manufacturing Polarisation in Contemporary India: The Case of Identity Politics in Post-Left Bengal 6
Here, there was an attack on Muslims who follow localised
and multiple traditions of
(known as the
) by
Sharia followers (or
). To understand these dynam-
ics, we conducted eldwork in various villages in Rejinagar,
Murshidabad, from November 2016 to June 2017. With a
combined population of about 17,000, Teghori, Paschim
Teghori and Nazirpur are three villages located in the south-
east of Rejinagar, under the Andulberia II Gram Panchayat,
Beldanga II Panchayat Samiti of the district of Murshidabad.
The area is part of the Rejinagar Assembly Constituency, cur-
rently held by the TMC. In the three villages there are only
about ten Hindu families, whilst the rest are Muslims. It is
said that there used to be only one old
(mosque) in
the region, but since 2010 there has been a substantial
growth in the number of masjids.
Our research in Rejinagar reveals that a systematic attack
on Pirpanthis was organised by Shariati Muslims. This took
place in the context of a long-running effort by the masjid
committee to persuade Pirpanthis to follow Shariati tradi-
tions. The rst conict between the two communities oc-
curred in 2001, when Pirpanthis were attacked by Shariatis
on the day of Urs. The
tradition of the Urs festival
calls for Qawwali and the use of traditional musical instru-
ments, which the Masjid-based Shariati nd objectionable
(as contrary to the traditions and practices of “true Islam”).
The use of music and dance was declared anti-Islamic by the
local imam. Soon, thousands of Muslims gathered and de-
stroyed the dargah; it was never rebuilt for fear of further ten -
More recently, on 29 October 2016, these villages suffered
three further similar events. On that day, in a discussion
about Islamic concept of achieving
(entitlement to
heaven), one of the local
-tradition Pirs argued that
Nobel Prize–winners like Mother Teresa and Rabindranath
Tagore would achieve jannat because they were pleasant and
honest individuals. Immediately, the masjid microphones
were used to declare these comments to be anti-Sharia,
people gathered to protest against the statements, and
Shariatis launched attacks on the three existing dargahs of
the village. Around one thousand people completely de-
stroyed one of the bamboo-structured
gahs, and partially destroyed another. They attempted to de-
stroy the third, but failed because of strong Pirpanthi protest
from the western side of the village of Teghori. Two of the
followers were taken to a nearby
masjid and beaten up. A man in charge of one of the
tradition dargahs reports:
They took us to the local mosque and then beat us with leather
sandals. They declared that we are no longer Muslims. Police
did not take up FIR [First Information Report, which starts a po-
lice inquiry] against the people who belonged to Shariati tradi-
tions. They simply told us that we are only about ve percent of
the population, so we should try to adapt with them and follow
their instructions.
During our eldwork, local imams and masjid committees
argued that, according to the Quran, non-Muslims are not
entitled to go to heaven. The local Pirpanthi followers and
those in-charge of the dargahs were asked to chant
as they were declared to no longer be Muslims. It is notable
that even this year (2018), during the Urs festival, people
from Hindu localities, as well as the Shariatis, participated in
large numbers. Such participation indicates that these com-
munal incidents are the result of consolidated identity poli-
tics among the Muslim population which is of relatively re-
cent origin. Administrative inaction suggests there is an igno-
rance of identity consolidation which has resulted in the de-
struction of folk and multiple traditions of
Marfati and Chis-
While trivial issues are systematically used to launch at-
tacks on relatively open and syncretic traditions, it is notable
that the Shariatis have largely failed to foment permanent
social cleavage. Village-level everyday interactions bring peo-
ple closer together, in ways that go beyond their religious
identities. However, the Rejinagar violence does indicate: a)
an organised move to consolidate Islamic identity and un-
dermine local and syncretic variants; b) the cultivation of in-
tolerance between different identities; and c) administrative
ignorance of the need to address these issues. Each of these
issues has the potential to disrupt the close-knit social rela-
tions within the villages.
5. Conclusions: Polarisation in West Bengal, the Broad
These two cases in post-Left Bengal are informed by the
wider political backdrop in India. The rise of the BJP has
been associated with an increase in sectarian politics, which
the party has historically found gives it an electoral dividend.
The retreat of the Nehruvian secular consensus – seen espe-
cially in the Hindi heartland (Pai 2013) also seems to be
at work in West Bengal. Such retreat has given rise to growing
IJCV: Vol. 13/2019
Nath, Chowdhury: Manufacturing Polarisation in Contemporary India: The Case of Identity Politics in Post-Left Bengal 7
levels of communal violence. Our analysis shows a signi-
cant increase in the number of riots in West Bengal, and an
increase in the BJP’s share of the vote share in each of the
recent elections in the region.
Recent riots seem to take two major forms: those spread
by hoaxes shared through social media (Basirhat, North 24
Parganas, 2017), and those in the context of aggressive Ram
Navami rallies (in Asansol-Ranigunj area of Paschim Bard-
haman district in 2018) (“Ram Navami Rally: One Killed, Five
Injured in West Bengal as Bajrang Dal Members Clash With
The Wire
, 26 March 2018). We have attempted to re-
veal the qualitative dimensions of the core issues that shape
these dynamics through two ethnographic case studies. We
nd that three major factors interact to create communal
tension in India: a) everyday fostering of religious sentiment
by social media; b) politicisation of cultural expressions and
identities along with a promotion of “invented traditions”;
and c) administrative inaction. In the following section we
present some of the essential dimensions of the two ethno-
graphic cases.
First, there has been a deliberate attempt to consolidate
identities. The conict in Rejinagar exemplies an attempt to
construct an “ideal-Muslim” prototype and punish those who
deviate from it. The Naihati-Hajinagar case, on the other
hand, illustrates the attempts to consolidate Hindu and Mus-
lim space, behaviour, and rituals. Such consolidations do not
have clear economic associations, as argued by scholars like
Bose (1986) and Das (1991), but are the outcome of a vari-
ety of invented traditions, the spread of rumours, and the
promotion of ideal-types or prototypes of religious identities.
Rooted in everyday practices, these constructs are fuelled by
occasional conicts.
There is a vicious cycle at work, in which people’s everyday
cultural expressions are structured by ideal types of religious
identities. These everyday cultural practices result in the con-
solidation of identity. Sentiments associated with consoli-
dated identities enable the rapid assembly of individuals be-
longing to the same religion, which can often lead to com-
munal violence. Communal violence further polarises identi-
ties. These dynamics are linked to the unclear denition of
secularism in Indian democracy (Bhargava 2010; Thapar
2010, 2016), which engenders a distinctive kind of misinter-
pretation of secularism. Examples include the symbolic pro-
jection of the Chief Minister as a Muslim appeaser because
she often appears wearing a hijab in public. TMC workers see
the hijab-clad Brahmin Chief Minister as an image of secu-
larism. A sizeable portion of the common people nd this a
threat to Hindu existence itself. The government order to stop
the Durgotsav idol immersion further solidied this percep-
tion. The differences in perception regarding the Chief Minis -
ter’s appearance indicate that there is a complex and multi-
layered understanding of identity issues and its interface with
secularism in India.
Second, looking at the mechanisms of identity consolida-
tion in both cases, a variety of social and cultural mecha-
nisms are used. In Naihati-Hajinagar, invented traditions
played an important role in consolidating identity-based poli-
tics. In Rejinagar, social exclusionary mechanisms were used
to identify the “deviant” form of Islam, which subsequently
led to violence. Both of these mechanisms are well planned
and executed, involving the promulgation of fear and the cul-
tivation of mistrust. Once these mechanisms have surfaced,
they serve to further consolidate identity boundaries.
Third, there is clear evidence of invented traditions (Hobs -
bawm and Ranger 1983); what we have done is to explore
how these traditions are invented. We nd that an organisa-
tion-based approach can be active in creating invented tradi-
tions that help fuel tensions. The promotion of little-known
religious practices in Naihati-Hajinagar, and masjid-based
movements in Rejinagar, indicates the organisational struc-
tures which instigate communal violence. Currently, the local
and micro-dynamics of oscillating political alignments, which
move between the TMC and a variety of pro-Hindu, pro-BJP
organisations, indicate the changing nature of the interface
between politics and religion in West Bengal. This is informed
by a blurring of boundaries between people’s roles and their
political afliations. If we look at the partisan nature of West
Bengal’s politics and administration, as vividly discussed by
Bhattacharyya (2002), the administrative inaction in the
face of riot-like conicts indicates the politicisation of iden-
tity issues.
Fourth, the rise of identity based politics results in con-
certed attacks on relatively open and often syncretic reli-
gious traditions. Such traditions represent avenues for the in-
tegration of different currents, including the Hindu-Muslim di-
chotomy and form barriers to the construction of mutually
exclusive consolidated identity constructs. While the Pirpan-
this and their dargahs in Rejinagar are open to both Hindus
IJCV: Vol. 13/2019
Nath, Chowdhury: Manufacturing Polarisation in Contemporary India: The Case of Identity Politics in Post-Left Bengal 8
and Muslims (and to women), Chasma Baba’r Majar in Nai-
hati-Hajinagar represents another syncretic tradition. Both
riot-like conicts undermined and sought to destroy syncretic
traditions. The attempted demolition of several dargahs in
Rejinagar and the violation of age-old unwritten agreements
regarding the use of space near Chasma Baba’r Majar are
symptomatic of such endeavours.
Finally, the use of goons and the spreading of rumours in -
dicate planning behind the violence and reinforce the organi-
sational base for the conict. These factors indicate that the
everydayness of identity consolidation and occasional spur
of invented tradition is part of a long-term political process.
This is a new political mechanism, distinct from the dynamics
at work under the state’s earlier Left regime.
These ve major dimensions of increasing polarisation re-
ect the mechanisms that inform growing intolerance in West
Bengal and across India. With more riots in 2018 associated
with Ram Navami rallies – an invented tradition for West Ben-
gal – it seems clear that West Bengal’s festivals are becom-
ing increasingly riot-prone (as Jafrellot 2005, studied else-
where). Further, there is a simultaneous process of promoting
such new traditions and attacking existing syncretic tradi-
tions to reinforce Hindu-Muslim cleavage. We would argue
that the ve dimensions can be used to explain similar is-
sues elsewhere.
West Bengal stands at a crucial historical juncture, wit -
nessing an organised, conscious effort to polarise identity
groups. The rise of identity politics in West Bengal must,
therefore, be seen in contrast to the three-decade long Party
Society. Issues such as polarised peacekeeping rallies, con-
spicuous presence of Members of Legislative Assemblies and
other leaders in religious festivals, alongside administrative
inaction, reect indirect support for growing communal ten-
sions. The alleged connection between Bajrang Dal and the
local TMC, and the lack of administrative measures to stop
such conicts, are symptomatic of both BJP’s and TMC’s pro-
motion of sectarian politics.
Importantly, the sectarian politics frequently attributed to
the rise of the BJP often has localised formulations and dy-
namics. Dual membership of TMC cadres indicates these lo-
cal dimensions. Present conicts are therefore fabricated to
consolidate religious and ethnic identities, and must be seen
as conscious attempts to “invent” a purposively disturbed
present to shape the future potential for conict. As Thapar
(2014) says, we use the past to legitimise our present social
order. We argue that the religious conicts in West Bengal
must be seen from this perspective and should not be re -
garded as simple incompatibilities between two different ide-
ologies and identities or as a simple outcome of electoral
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... The result of this rather fuzzy conceptualisation of secularism and religious practices, the blurred boundary between state and religion and public and private religiosity is a sublimation of intolerance and spur of religious violence every once in a while. Politically, India has seen a lack of trust in the constitutional secularism over the years as the number of communal conflicts has been steady over the years (Nath and Roy Chowdhury, 2019a). West Bengal's relatively recent rise of the communalisation is both unique and closely linked to the steady growth of religious intolerance in India. ...
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This study examines the evolving dynamics of political campaigning in the state of West Bengal in eastern India. West Bengal offers an ideal case to trace the rise of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in India and the implications of this development for political campaigning since, until recently, the political culture of the state, profoundly shaped by 34 years of continuous Left rule from 1977 to 2011, had, at least institutionally and organisationally, eschewed open expressions of identity-based politics. Nonetheless, West Bengal now stands at the cusp of a major political transformation with the emergence of the BJP as the main opposition party in the state. Our analysis identifies two crucial ways in which the rise of the BJP has altered the dominant mode of political campaigning in the state since the 2016 state assembly elections. First, the state has witnessed a dramatic professionalisation of campaigns, with the BJP being a clear frontrunner on this dimension. Second, political violence, a distinctive aspect of campaigns in the state since independence, has taken a sharp communal turn in the post-2016 period, departing from the partisan violence of elaka dokhol (area domination) that was the hallmark of the pre-2016 period. We argue that both these shifts were facilitated by a rapid increase in smartphone usage for consuming news, with the BJP leveraging the technological shock to streamline its organisational resources, and by extension, to set the tone of campaigns. We note that these trends have been accentuated during the recently concluded 2021 state assembly elections.
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After the end of 34 years of the Left Front rule, West Bengal has seen a renewed emphasis on agriculture. A decade-long ethnographic study conducted during and after the political transition unravels the reasons why such emphasis fails to benefit the small and marginal farmers, at places where farming is still profitable. The local elites, through a particular nature of land–water–debt network and influence on local governance, continue to affect the political economy of farm-based resources. Therefore, the policy preference for agriculture, without addressing such local and micro issues, would not be fruitful for small and marginal farmers.
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The assembly elections in West Bengal in 2016 were historic not only because the Trinamool Congress was given a second chance with a massive mandate, but also because, for the first time in decades, a single political party managed to win the election. Moreover, the TMC secured victory in most of the traditional left bastions, making the Left Front virtually insignificant in state politics. While populist and direct-benefit schemes are most prominently seen as the reasons behind the party's success, there also exist the hitherto unaddressed alternatives to the Left Front government's systematic development of “party society.” The promotion of traditional cultural expressions conceptualised as “cultural misrecognition” helped the TMC sustain its control and also attracted votes of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes of the state who traditionally constituted the support base of the left.
Revealing why Hindu-Muslim riots in India break out when and where they do, Steven Wilkinson demonstrates why some state governments in India prevent Hindu-Muslim riots while others do not or even help to incite violence. Wilkinson asserts that riots are manipulated to help win elections, and that state governments decide whether to stop them--depending on electoral calculations concerning the loss or gain of votes. He tests this claim using a dataset on riots and their causes as well as case studies of several Indian states. © Steven I. Wilkinson 2004 and Cambridge University Press, 2009.
The changing conditions in two villages of West Bengal - Galsi and Adhata - give a picture of the emerging issues and dynamics of the state's rural political economy. This paper attempts to explain these complexities in the light of the idea of a "party-society". It also shows that the initial impetus of land reforms failed to result in productive investments in agriculture and the marginalised sections feel increasingly alienated from the institutional politics of the party-society.
This is the text, with a few verbal modifications, of a lecture delivered by T. N. Madan at the President's Panel in Honor of the Fulbright Fortieth Anniversary Program, on the occasion of the 1987 meeting of the Association of Asian Studies in Boston. T. N. Madan has invigorated the social sciences in India for many years by his research, writing, and teaching. As an author he has written on such themes as Hindu culture, culture and development, ethnic pluralism, family and kinship, and the professions. As editor of Contributions to Indian Sociology , he has attracted to its pages distinguished research and writing from an international pool of contributors. This achievement is related to his capacity to combine discriminating intellectual taste with a friendly capacity to insinuate the journal into the publishing program of outstanding social scientists. It is also related to the fact that his anthropological understanding is combined with a wide-ranging methodological sympathy for other social sciences as well as the humanities.
Preface and Acknowledgments Introduction 1. Terror and God CULTURES OF VIOLENCE 2. Soldiers for Christ 3. Zion Betrayed 4. Islam's "Neglected Duty" 5. The Sword of Sikhism 6. Armageddon in a Tokyo Subway THE LOGIC OF RELIGIOUS VIOLENCE 7. Theater of Terror 8. Cosmic War 9. Martyrs and Demons 10. Warriors' Power 11. The Mind of God Notes Interviews and Correspondence Bibliography Index
The global rise of religious politics is found in every religious tradition, spurred on by the widespread perception that secular nationalism is an ineffective and insufficient expression of public values and moral community in a global era in which traditional forms of social identity and political accountability are radically transformed. Religious violence is an expression of this anti-secular protest and the symptom of a longing for a renewed sense of morality and values in public life.
Journal of Democracy 9.3 (1998) 36-50 India has long baffled theorists of democracy. Democratic theory holds that poverty, widespread illiteracy, and a deeply hierarchical social structure are inhospitable conditions for the functioning of democracy. Yet except for 18 months in 1975-77, India has maintained its democratic institutions ever since it became independent of Britain in 1947. Over those five decades, there have been 12 parliamentary elections and many more state assembly elections. Peaceful transfers of power between rival political parties have occurred seven times at the central (i.e., federal) level. Since 1967, the party that ruled in New Delhi has not ruled in nearly half of the states. Since 1977, moreover, incumbent governments have been repeatedly defeated in elections. The press has remained vigorous, free, and unafraid to challenge the government, as even a cursory sampling of morning newspapers will show. The judiciary, despite periodic pressure from the federal executive branch, maintains institutional autonomy. Election turnout keeps rising, exceeding the levels typical in several advanced Western democracies. Having started at 45.7 percent in the first general elections (held in 1952), turnout now often rises above 60 percent. Predictions of an imminent collapse of India's democracy have continued since the 1960s. When Prime Minister Indira Gandhi suspended democracy in June 1975 and declared a state of emergency, it seemed that India was finally starting down the path that most of the world's poorer democracies had already traveled. Yet democracy returned 18 months later, and emergency rule proved to be a conjunctural aberration rather than an emerging structural trend. To be sure, danger signs remain. When unpopular ruling parties are thrown out, hope that the new incumbents will govern wisely and well too often gives way quickly to anguish, marked by troubling questions. How long can democracy survive if public trust in India's political leaders continues to decline? How long will short-term benefits -- rather than long-term insight -- determine the behavior of politicians? Scholars speak of India's democracy as ungovernable, and clearly its health is not what it was in the 1950s and 1960s. But one should not expect a textbook model to work if there has been a serious rise in political participation and a near-breakdown of the caste hierarchy that long acted as the glue of the social order. Indeed, rising participation by once-marginal groups such as the "lower" castes is, if anything, a sign of how much the democratic process has succeeded. Rising political participation, its desirability on grounds of political inclusion notwithstanding, nearly always comes at the cost of disorder. Therefore, the yardsticks for judging India's democratic health today should not be derived from the glory days of the 1950s. "Lower" castes, tribes, minorities, women, and citizens' groups are all exercising their democratic rights to a degree that was unheard of in the 1950s and 1960s. That India still practices democracy is in and of itself unique, and theoretically counterintuitive. The closest parallel cases among developing countries in terms of democratic longevity seem to be those of Venezuela since 1958 and of Costa Rica since 1948. Both, however, are many times richer than India, and therefore less anomalous in the view of democratic theory. Given all this, it is hardly surprising that no less an authority than Robert A. Dahl cites as a leading contemporary exception to democratic theory "India, where polyarchy was established when the population was overwhelmingly agricultural, illiterate, occupationally much less specialized than in a [developed] country, and highly traditional and rule-bound in behavior and beliefs." Larry Diamond, Juan Linz, and Seymour Martin Lipset come to the same conclusion in their multivolume survey of Third World democracies. Finally, the historical novelty of Indian democracy was noted by Barrington Moore: Why has Indian democracy survived amid these unfavorable...