West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Bandopadhyay has taken several steps to woo the Brahminical upper-caste Hindus after her Trinamool Congress (TMC) suffered an ignominious debacle due to the ascent of the Hindutva fascist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) during the 2019 Lok Sabha election. The TMC regime’s decisions, like paying a monthly allowance of Rs 1,000 to around 8,000 Hindu priests––Brahmins to be precise––and Rs 50,000 dole to local clubs for organising Durga Puja celebration amid the COVID-19 pandemic exemplify how it’s trying to shrug-off the “minority appeasement” tag and identify itself as a Hindu party.
Bandopadhyay, a Brahmin herself, declared that her government will pay a monthly allowance of Rs 1,000 to 8,000 Brahmin priests of the Sanatana Dharma. She said that the government will also allocate land to the community near southern Bengal’s Kolaghat to build a religious place for pilgrims. This decision has raised eyebrows. Her decision to provide Rs 50,000 to 37,000 clubs organising Durga Puja in the state is also questioned as a frantic attempt to consolidate the support of the majority community before the crucial 2021 West Bengal Assembly election.
The TMC is experiencing a massive erosion of support due to the aggrandisement of the BJP leveraging upon the communal polarisation done at the grassroots by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS)––its parental body and the chieftain of global Hindutva fascism––throughout the state. The RSS’s social-engineering scheme, which widens social and religious fissures and amplifies hatred against the minority Muslims, helped the BJP to augment its vote share in the state and become a principal political force to reckon with despite having no remarkable presence in the state before 2014. In a bid to safeguard itself, the TMC has resorted to soft Hindutva peddling since 2017-18.
Beginning with North Indian upper-caste Hindu festivals alien to Bengali Hindus, the ostracised Namasudras––Bengali Dalits––and tribals, like Hanuman Jayanti, Ram Navami, etc, the TMC went on organising priest conferences, etc, throughout the state and increased doles to Hindu religious functions from the state’s exchequer. Though these moves were welcomed by many and ridiculed by even more Hindus as hogwash, the BJP and the RSS derived mileage from them. The Hindutva fascist camp portrayed these steps taken by Bandopadhyay and the TMC as damage control measures to halt its growth and expansion. The creation of the Hindu vote bank, which the TMC has enabled the BJP to do, has proved to be fatal for the ruling party.
The TMC was compelled to take such steps after its initial attempts to consolidate the Muslim vote bank backfired. The TMC had the support of the Muslims during the 2011 West Bengal Assembly election, in which it ousted the 34-year-long Left Front rule. The Muslims, who constitute 27% of the state’s population according to the 2011 Census, became a crucial vote bank for the TMC and with the rise of the BJP gloating over Muslim corpses, rallying the scared Muslims under its banner became a cakewalk for the TMC. However, the BJP checkmated with a clever move. It accused the TMC of being an ardent “Muslim appeaser”, using narratives based on lies and slanders.
Bandopadhyay’s previous decision to give an allowance of Rs 10,000 to the state’s 70,000 Muslim clerics helped the BJP and the RSS to spread Islamophobic hysteria using falsehood. Bandopadhyay’s government didn’t pay Rs 10,000 though, rather it managed to pay Rs 2,500 to the Imams and Muezzins––those who call the faithful to prayer––of mosques built before January 2012. This amount was supposed to be paid through the state’s Wakf Board, which is the default legatee of rich Muslims who donate their property or money for the welfare of the community.
While the issue got a lot of media limelight as it got enough ammunition to carry out Islamophobic firework, nearly 70% Islamic clerics refused to accept the offer as they considered receiving money for anything, except for religious endowments, as un-Islamic. Only 20,000 Imams and Muezzins applied for the amount, especially those close to or affiliated with the ruling party. Therefore, despite the BJP and the RSS’s vitriolic propaganda regarding “Imam Bhata”––as this endowment is called in Bengali––the majority of the Muslim clerics declined it.
Despite the Islamophobic cacophony over the Imam Bhata, it’s the fund of the Muslim community that’s paid out to around 30% of Muslim clerics in the state. The Imam Bhata didn’t come from the taxpayers’ fund, rather from the community itself, but that didn’t stop the Hindutva fascists and their lackey, the official left from vilifying the community under the pretext of attacking the TMC. But the Hindutva fascists won’t speak a word when the taxpayers’ money is used to pay allowances to Hindu priests. This shows their hypocrisy.
Bandopadhyay couldn’t hide the sheer Brahminical leaning of her regime, which only considered Hindu Brahmins as priests and not the tribal priests, who are non-Brahmins but conduct the services for the tribal worships. Mostly belonging to the masthead of tribal communities, these priests, despite enjoying social prestige within the communities, are economically downtrodden. Why didn’t their plight count?
Whatever tricks Bandopadhyay and the TMC may employ to woo the upper-caste Hindu votes, quite a small number vis-à-vis the collective votes of the lower-caste Hindus, the Namasudras, tribals, Muslims, Christians, etc, it won’t be able to undo the BJP’s Hindutva fascist polarisation using these methods. Rather, by showcasing this endowment to Hindu priests as a victory of its muscle-flexing tactics, the BJP will manage to consolidate its vote bank and use its influence to normalise Islamophobic bigotry at all levels. What West Bengal needs is not soft-Hindutva to combat the hardcore Hindutva fascist juggernaut of the BJP-RSS. Rather, it needs a strong anti-fascist political front fight against the predatory Hindutva fascist camp. Such a movement can’t be built up by wooing one or the other community but by vigorously arousing the exploited and oppressed masses.