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This Election Could Change The Idea Of What It Is To Be A Hindu And Muslim In Bengal

Photos of the election campaign rallies are sourced from Mamata Banerjee's Facebook page and the BJP West Bengal Facebook page.

In Kolaghat, East Medinipur, West Bengal, I run into a woman with a gentle smile who calls herself Meera. She cleans a highway washroom and is on duty from 7 a.m. in the morning to 7 p.m in the evening, twelve hours each day for which she gets the wage of Rs 9000. She says she’s happy with her life and is a huge fan of Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee because ‘Didi is like a mother who looks after her children.’ Meera has two daughters and one of them got a free cycle from the TMC state government and that has absolutely sealed her adoration for Didi. 

Then Meera wants to know who I am; I am Saba from Delhi, a journalist, I say. Meera smiles sweetly and says I am actually Ajmeera but I am also Meera. So are you hiding your real name, I ask? ‘No I am both Meera and Ajmeera, I am a Bengali Muslim and both names are mine.’ I don’t press the issue because I’ve seen and written about this phenomenon in Bengal, where the Muslim has not purged all the Hindu origin traditions. It’s the land where some syncretistic traditions still survive among local Muslims.

In West Medinipur, there is Nyaya village that has been the traditional home of artists who are both Hindu and Muslim according to their own description. These were not delusional split personalities but a small community that has lived at the periphery of two religious identities. The Patachitra painters are unique to Bengal. They paint on scrolls that tell a story, usually from Hindu mythology, but say they are “really” Muslims. They have two names, the professional one and the “real” name: so Amar Chitrakar would be Omar, Roopa Chitrakar would be Rehima and Dukhoram Chitrakar would be Osman. Naturally, the Islamic purists look down on them and say they are not “really” Muslims and neither here nor there.  

But go further into the land and in the magical Sunderbans we will find a Muslim Goddess, named Bonbibi, said to be the protector of those who enter the forest. Bonbibi’s simple makeshift shrines dot the landscape of tiger infested islands and rivers heading into the Bay of Bengal. She seems to be part of the Shakti figures worshipped in the state. But no, local people insist Bonbibi is a Muslim Goddess with her own local narrative and tale, never mind that one of the tenets of Islam is against idol worship!

Popular Islam in Bengal was about fakirs and Pirs and magical goddesses and included loads of traditions drawn from impulses of idol worship and wish fulfillment. There have been several reformist movements to purge what sociologists call the “little traditions” of Islam to make the belief system more dogmatic. The syncretistic vs orthodox battle involves making Muslims self conscious about their beliefs; as the attempt is to make the “incorrect” believer feel a sense of shame. But it’s a work in progress that has not entirely transformed some ways of life and living. 

That is why Ajmeera can be Meera and be apparently comfortable with that dualism. 

No I am both Meera and Ajmeera, I am a Bengali Muslim and both names are mine.

I meet her in the last week of March as a fierce election had begun in the state, and one of the fault lines on which the dance of politics is taking place lies between Hindu and Muslim. But who is the Muslim enemy here? Ajmeera or Bonbibi, Roopa Chitrakar or those little roadside shrines of Bengal? Does the reality of their lives matter in the face of polarisation that ignores the “little traditions” as it profiles the Muslim “Other” as a monolith? 

The conundrum is that where do these people belong unless they are packed into little boxes labelled Hindu and Muslim. This is a polarised election in a state that is not yet drenched in the hate familiar to those from the Hindi heartland. The language and symbols of Uttar Pradesh have arrived in Bengal–and what’s more they are getting traction. 

Bengal has been partitioned in British India, first in 1905 and then during the Partition of 1947, that still left behind millions of Muslims. But the Congress, the Communists and Didi, all those who have ruled this state,  held the peace on the communal front. That may no longer be the case, as the BJP is set to emerge as a strong force, be it in the opposition.  It is however an opportunity given to them because of anti-incumbency but Hindutva is the element they bring with them.  

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After my sweet little encounter with Ajmeera/Meera, I travel to Nandigram and get a reality check. In Suvendu Adhikari’s office, his manager says they are sweeping the election because all the Hindus are united. There is only one community that stands in the way, he says. Which community, I ask, the same one that your candidate said would make Bengal into Kashmir if Didi won? 

I am travelling with media friends, all typically upper caste Hindus, with Brahmin names. My name has not registered, so the man has let his guard down and speaks openly without any shame. Indeed, he is proud of the Kashmir statement and says that all Hindus are scared of the Musalman. It’s a hot day and we have travelled a long distance, my irritation starts showing. Tell me please, I ask, if all the 70 percent Hindus are united, why are they scared of 26 percent Muslims?

My friends signal that it’s time to leave. 

It’s not just Islam that been changing in Bengal, even the idea of what it is to be a Hindu is.

It’s not just Islam that been changing in Bengal, even the idea of what it is to be a Hindu is.

Two days later I am in Tarakeshwar to cover the campaign of my former colleague, Swapan Dasgupta. He’s living in the town and enjoying what he describes as the process of changing the direction of Bengal politics. His is one of the names mentioned as a potential CM candidate should the opportunity arise (it is said that PM Modi personally asked him to put all his energies into Bengal).

I ask if he’s part of the process of upturning the model in Bengal where both the Left and TMC reached out to the state’s large Muslim population. He says the answer to that would be known on May 2 but it’s known that Muslim support for the BJP is “rather thin.” But certainly, he says, the Hindu is undergoing a transformation because the “passive non offensive identity has been delegitimized in the political sphere.”

 That’s a polite way of saying the aggressive Hindu has arrived in Bengal.

Saba Naqvi is a Consulting Editor with India Ahead News. The views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author.

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