Bajrangbali in Bengal

Smita Gupta | Updated on April 26, 2019 Published on April 26, 2019

Battle lines: The Trinamool, which had in its early years focussed on capturing the Muslim vote, now finds that the BJP has successfully polarised Bengal   -  PTI

Trinamool Congress is trying to woo back sections of voters with Hindu festivals and symbols

Signs of revelry litter the streets of Champdani. A day after a Hindu religious procession snaked its way through the town in West Bengal’s Hooghly district, the roads are flanked by saffron festoons and enormous cutouts of a flying Hanuman.

Arch-enemies came together for the April 17 Bajrangbali (another name for Hanuman, the monkey god) procession and the Ram Navami festivities that preceded it. The rally and celebrations were organised by supporters of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the ruling Trinamool Congress.

There was a time when Bengal knew little about Ram Navami and few saw Hanuman as a deity. But after the BJP came to power at the Centre, and its party units and many Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) affiliates got a boost in West Bengal, the state has been witnessing — and revelling in — Ram Navami and Hanuman Jayanti festivities.

The Champdani processions mark the turn it has taken in recent times. The rallies are marked by a display of arms, with the young — largely unemployed youth — wearing saffron bandanas and dancing on the streets to the strains of techno music.

“It was the biggest procession I have seen in my life,” gushes Vikas Shaw, the local Bharatiya Janata Yuva Morcha secretary. “I guess since it’s election time, the mood was hot.”

In front of the busy Champdani Bazaar on the Grand Trunk Road are two roadside temples, Jai Bharat Club and Jai Mahabir Sangh — suggesting that they do double duty as local youth centres. The residents of the town are largely descendents of immigrants from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar who came to Bengal during the last century in search of jobs in the jute mills and other factories, most of which have since closed.

I enquire about the local organisers of the procession, and am directed to the electrical goods shop of Trinamool activist Ashok Shaw, an immigrant from Bihar. He is out, but his son, in his early 20s, is there — and vocal about the festivities.

The young man declines to disclose his name but stresses that, as a Trinamool activist, he has been asked “to back the Pujas vigorously”. In West Bengal, Durga, Kali and Saraswati are the most worshipped deities — when did Ram and Hanuman enter the Bengali pantheon of gods, I ask.

His voice drops. “There is a lot of jagrukta (awakening) now. There is Hindutva inside all of us,” he says, tapping his chest solemnly. “First religion, then comes the party,” he adds.

His father is a member of the local puja committee that organised the procession, but the driving spirit was the Champdani municipality chairman and Trinamool leader Suresh Mishra, who is “very religious” and “believes in Hindutva”. But Mishra, he hastens to add, also organises Ramzan and promotes Hindu-Muslim unity.

The young man’s mother is sitting next to us and closely following the conversation. “Why are you so interested in Ram Navami and Hanuman Jayanti?” she asks. “Is there something wrong? I love watching Ganapati Bappa Morya celebrations in Mumbai on TV — so why can’t we also have some fun?”

I make my way through the bazaar to Vicky Book Centre, a tiny hole-in-the wall stationery shop run by Vikas, whose father, Shambhunath Shaw, is an RSS leader. “We are all from the RSS, and I have been attending shakhas since I was a child,” says Vikas.

The local authorities gave his father and Ashok Shaw permission for the Bajrangbali procession as they are both members of the Bajrang Bali Sewa Samity, he says. Mishra was present at the festivities as a guest, he adds.

I pose the same question that I’d asked Ashok Shaw’s son. How is it that Hanuman is being worshipped with such vigour in Bengal now? “Earlier, Bengalis just dismissed him but now they are worshipping him, and they are shouting ‘Jai Sri Ram’ along with BJP workers. Narendra Modi has brought deshbhakti back,” Vikas says.

Two doors away, another Shambhunath Shaw runs a small tailoring shop. He is furiously stitching saffron pennants and flags inscribed with ‘Jai Sri Ram’ and ‘Bajrangbali’. Earlier, he says, he used to sell clothes but now finds the religious market a lot more lucrative. He is critical of Trinamool leader Mamata Banerjee, who, he says, turned the atmosphere “communal” by imposing restrictions on Durga Puja festivities, postponing the idol’s immersion to accommodate a Moharram procession.

“She is campaigning for Modi, helping him,” he says.

The Trinamool, which had in its early years focussed on capturing the Muslim vote, which stands at 30 per cent in the state, now finds that the BJP has successfully polarised Bengal. Clearly, the ruling party realises that if it does not do something to retain some of its Hindu support base, it will be in trouble. The solution, it believes, lies in pandering to those being swayed by the BJP.

At Champdani, the Trinamool Congress MP from Serampore Kalyan Bannerjee, who is also the party’s candidate this time, shares space with Hanuman on an enormous hoarding. Ratna De Nag, the Trinamool MP who represents the neighbouring Hooghly seat, also made it a point to attend the festivities, locals point out. The party’s official line, however, is that these religious celebrations have nothing to do with the elections.

So, who is winning from Serampore, I ask the unnamed Trinamool activist. It’s a contest between his party and the BJP, he says. The Left and the Congress have clearly been wiped out.

What about his own vote? He looks mysterious and says, “I hope you got my drift.”

Smita Gupta is senior fellow, The Hindu Centre for Politics and Public Policy

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Published on April 26, 2019
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