Keep the Baul-Fakir Tradition Alive in West Bengal

The battlelines are drawn and getting deeper every day. The BJP is throwing in some mighty punches while the TMC is preparing for rear-guard action as many of its stalwarts are deserting the mothership. The Congress and the erstwhile Left Front have joined forces after having been bitter enemies during the long years of the Left Front rule in West Bengal. BJP moved early when it launched its Mission Bengal in early November last year. Within a month TMC intensified its outreach through the Duare Sarkar (Government at your doorstep) programme. There is already news of many scuffles. The BJP president’s convoy was attacked last month when he and other leaders were on their way to a meeting near Kolkata. It promises to be a long and bitter struggle till voting takes place in the first half of this year.

(Image from TripAdvisor)

Hindutva, Voting and Politics of Contestation

Voting is a political act, but in India, citizenship is being increasingly conflated with cultural identity. India being a vast and varied land, ‘Hindutva’, soft or hard, is now seen as the most potent means of unifying this diverse political landscape. The western states were the first to fall prey to this, the central states followed. The southern states, it can be argued, with their strong regional ethos, egalitarian traditions and greater religious diversities have resisted the more North Indian Gangetic version of Hinduism with Rama and Hanuman that Hindutva entails. Now its battle-ground West Bengal with state elections due in early 2021.

There was a tectonic shift in electoral fortunes during the last national elections in 2019 with BJP winning 18 out of 42 seats on the Hindutva ticket. Mamata Bannerjee had upended 34 years of rule by the Left Front when she won the state elections 2011. The egalitarian rhetoric of the Left Front has over the years been assimilated by the TMC. However, many well-meaning people feel that governance at least at the lowest levels has been infected with the same rot of amorality, corruption and violent retribution against perceived and actual opponents. This is what exactly what had happened, they say, in the later years of Left Front Rule providing space for TMC to gain ascendancy. The same well-meaning persons also feel that TMC has been indulging in perverse vote-bank politics through ‘muslim appeasement’.

The Hindutva agenda harks back to a glorious past and a tradition pre-dating the arrival of Muslim conquerors. This forms the core of the exclusionary logic of Hindutva. The TMC Supremo’s assertion of ‘muslim appeasement’ perversely reinforces the same dichotomous logic. The bigger question during this round of election is whether this dichotomous approach will be sufficient to push back against the more exclusionary but politically unifying logic of ‘Hindutva’?    

Voting is a contest and about victory and loss. It makes electoral politics perfectly amenable to a binary framework. Constitutional imperatives of equity, equality, solidarity and rights are rarely used as political logic in India. Instead, caste-based claims and kinship relationships are more important as electoral considerations. The Hindutva logic aims to undermine solidarity between the economic underclass by creating a perception of persecution among the Hindus who are a numerical majority. Citizenship is sought to be defined through a religious-cultural identity rather than by constitutional logic.  This defines politics and by extension citizenship as a ‘contest’ defeating the shared aspiration of a constitution.

Constitutional Aspirations Revisited

But politics in India is also about consensus and coalition. In many states and at the national level coalitions are in favour and even BJP accommodates partners in the NDA. The way forward for political parties opposed to BJP has often been to also lay claim to the Hindu identity. The Congress has been alleged of using this ‘soft Hindutva’ approach repeatedly. Even the Aam Admi party as been alleged to use this approach to appeal to a ‘Hindu’ vote bank. Caste and religion-based vote bank politics sharpen dichotomous divides and have been  useful for parties to negotiate the hustings. However, it is time for the political process to reclaim the Constitutional imperative within the electoral process. This will require putting citizenship at the centre and claiming common ground between citizens of all hues rather than reinforce differences. If the Constitutional imperative is not brought back into focus India will slip back many centuries into the time when there was no separation between church and state.

The logic of religion which led to the partition of India at independence, did not hold good in Pakistan which chose to be an Islamic republic, when Bangladesh was formed. India which opted to be a secular republic now seems headed in the direction with the increasing popularity of the ‘Hindutva’ logic at the hustings. The coming elections in West Bengal can prove to be a particularly significant milestone in the preservation of Constitutional values, either as a roadblock to its decline or as another push on the accelerator speeding its descent.

Today we are at an important juncture. All of us who believe that Constitutional morality is the underpinning of citizenship need to revisit our own political choices. Unfortunately, the mechanism of voting creates victors and losers. Democracies are supposed to provide platforms for diverse opinions, debates and dissent using the framework of Constitutional morality. There is process of renewal through the electoral process. However, the juggernaut of ‘Hindutva’ , abhors debate and discussions and is substantively different from the universal ethos of Vasudhaiva kutumbakam found in the Rig Veda and Upanishads. If the election in West Bengal is fought on the basis of divisive values of Hindutva and muscular contests, the tradition of political renewal through debate, dissent and the electoral challenges may well be lost. It is vital that values of solidarity, compassion, and vasudhaiva kutumbakam are integrated into the political process because they resonate with the articulations of the Indian Constitution.

Reclaiming a Syncretic Bengali Identity

West Bengal is a border state. Its border is with Bangladesh, a country where people also speak Bengali but in contrast the population there is mostly Muslim. Many in West Bengal and in Bangladesh have their ancestry in the other country. A significant proportion of the population in West Bengal is also Muslim. These diverse regional and religious identities of the Bengali were once represented in the football ground in Kolkata maidan through clubs like Mohun Bagan, East Bengal and Mohammedan Sporting. Today while the first two are flourishing within a corporate friendly eco-system, the third of the famous trio has not surprisingly been less fortunate.

When I was young the football field was a battle ground but outside it the rivalry between fans of different clubs was friendly banter and joust. They were many similar ‘ghoti’ ‘bangal’ jibes which no one took very seriously. The Bangals took their Purbo- Bango identity very seriously. I remember the large crowds which welcomed Bongobondhu Mujibar Rahaman when he came to Kolkata after the liberation of Bangladesh.  I was then a schoolboy and was part of the crowd that lined VIP Road in February 1972. If I remember correctly, and my memory is probably tinged with my own romantic vision, there was a sense of pride that ‘India’ had defeated ‘Pakistan’ and that a new Bengali speaking nation has been created.

Having been born in India and having lived a large part of my childhood and adulthood outside Kolkata I have been very intrigued by my Purba Banga ancestry. My family three generations ago lived in the Chattogram (Chittagong) area which has been a port from time immemorial. I have often speculated whether I could be of mixed ancestry from the sailors who came to this port from different regions across the world. Ibn Batuta from Morocco is said to have come here, and it was frequented by the lashkars from middle east and the olondaj from Europe.  I have convinced myself that my physiognomy is testimony to this miscegenation. This mixture of Europe and India, of Islam Hinduism is visible if one comes down the Hooghly river from Bandel to Howrah. I feel that the unifying and exclusionary ideology of Hindutva, which seeks reinforcement through electoral contest and political consolidation is a serious threat to the hybrid vigour and social solidarity which embodies the Bengali ethos.

This syncretic Bengali ethos is all around. The favourite food of Kolkata is the biriyani. The argument is which Muslim owned eatery makes the more delectable one. Rezala and chaanp are on an equal footing with sondesh and rosogolla as perennial favouries. During Christmas Park Street is as resplendent as any of the more well-known pandals during Durga Pujo. Lalon Fakir is an icon across both sides of the international border. He has a far recent history than Kabir, and is probably more popular in contemporary times. Kazi Nazrul Islam is considered second only to Rabindranath Tagore as a poet and there are numerous literary giants with Muslim names. Satya Pirer Panchali is a heroic ballad similar to the ‘chalisa’ or religious Hindu ballad or hymn of North India. Here the ode is to an Islamic sufi saint uses the same style as the one to the Hindu goddess Lakshmi (Lokkhir Panchali). This medieval ballad is still sung, and I have heard it at Poush Mela in Shantiniketan, where Bauls and Fakirs, medicants from the Hindu and Islamic tradition sing in turns on the same stage.

In Bengal even if one goes to a time before the Islamic influence began, there was a vigorous Buddhist tradition. The North Indian Gangetic version of Hinduism, much is in favour now, does not find much historical reference.

West Bengal is state of many other diversities as well. The old favourite Ganguram sweets was set up by a halwai from Varanasi in UP. Chhana, or curdled milk without which it is impossible to imagine the sweet-toothed Bengali, is supposed to be of Portuguese origin. Jamini Roy’s paintings as well as Ramkinkar Baij’s famous sculpture illustrate how the Santhal peoples are central to their imagination of Bengal.

West Bengal is a world into itself, rising from the sea to the mighty Himalayas. The Gorkhas who live in Darjeeling, Kurseong and Kalimpong and speak Nepali are as much a part or cultural West Bengal as the chau dancers of Purulia. It would be a tragedy to stifle this vibrancy of West Bengal with the saffron monochrome of Hindutva.

Bengalis revere Rabindranath. Rabindranath represents a globalised humanist tradition. A tradition which is under threat from Hindutva and similar dichotomous ideologies. The elections which are around the corner in 2021 need to be framed beyond the partisan logic. The discerning voter in West Bengal needs to see beyond the symbols of the grass roots or the lotus flower or the hammer and sickle and the hand. They need rise above the slogans of Ma Mati Manush or Jai Sri Ram or Inquilab Zindabad and find causes and images which resonate with the more human values of fellowship, based on solidarity, diversity, and syncretism. In 2020 the Poush Mela was cancelled because of the Covid pandemic but the various syncretic traditions are alive in all corners of the state. It will not take much effort to highlight them and reinforce our common identity. Otherwise, we stand to lose. The fakirs may not sing with the bauls, anymore.


  1. This reflects how the Bharat Jalao Party is desperate to win Bengal at any cost, by destroying it's syncretic, plural & all accepting culture.

  2. Loved this one - cant get enough of the syncreticism of our culture. Good for you and please keep writing in this vein. We need it at this political moment. Thanks


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