Kolkata: Amidst thunderous applause, Bangladesh cricket star Shakib Al Hasan cut a ribbon and lit a lamp at a Hindu puja pandal in the northern neighbourhood of Kankurgachhi on 12 November, two days before the city’s popular Kali Puja.
The organisers proudly introduced him as “a Bengali who is one of the world’s top all-rounders”. The puja was organised by Paresh Pal, a prominent leader of the state’s ruling party, the Trinamool Congress and the MLA from Beleghata. State urban development minister and Kolkata’s outgoing mayor, Firhad Hakim, were also present.
Back home a day later, Hasan received death threats and some Muslim fundamentalists laid into him on social media, after which he denied inaugurating the puja and offered a public apology.
“There is a controversy because the idol was seen in my background,” said Hasan. “But I was on the pandal for merely two minutes and for the rest of the time I was on an adjacent dais. You may say that my going there was not right, and I agree that probably it was not right for me to go there at all. I sincerely apologise for hurting your sentiments.”
“I had no intention of glorifying another religion at the cost of belittling my own. We Muslims should remain united,” said Hasan. “In future, I will try to act responsibly as a proud Muslim.”
In West Bengal, Hasan’s apology became the latest weapon for Hindutva organisation against secularism—coming as it did after a series of attacks against Hindus in Bangladesh (here, here and here) and in time to buttress their campaign that Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee is an apologist for Islamic fundamentalism.
Hindutva organisations linked to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) are attempting to displace Banerjee’s government, which has run the state since 2011. State assembly elections are due in the first half of 2021, as the new government must be formed before 26 May.
Due to a common language and a shared cultural heritage, news from Bangladesh routinely finds its way into Bengali media. Sourish Mukherjee, the spokesperson of the south Bengal unit of Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), shared two Bangladeshi reports about criticism of Hasan and his video apology on Facebook.
Mukherjee added a variety of comments. One read: “Shakib says he can’t think of inaugurating a Hindu puja since he is a conscientious Muslim”. The other said: “Mora ek-e brinte du-ti kusum (Hindus and Muslims are two flowers on one stalk).”
The last comment is a quote from a Bengali poem by Kazi Nazrul Islam, the national poet of Bangladesh and a revered poet in both parts of what was once unified Bengal and is now Bangladesh and West Bengal. It is a verse that CM Banerjee repeats at her public rallies, and Mukherjee used it to mock her.
Hundreds of Hindutva supporters in West Bengal followed Mukherjee’s cue, sharing on Facebook and WhatsApp groups news stories from Bangladesh on Hasan’s climbdown, asking people to see through the “hollowness” of the concept of Hindu-Muslim coexistence.
“The hypocrisy of the sick-ular lot in India exposed! Bangladeshi all-rounder Shakib Al Hasan had to issue a public apology after receiving death threats from one Mohsin Talukder for attending a Kali Puja inauguration in Kolkata,” read an 18 November tweet by Tathagata Roy, a Bengal BJP veteran who after serving as governor of Tripura and Meghalaya is now waiting for the party’s permission to re-join politics.
Intensifying A Consistent Campaign Of Islamophobia
The controversy around Hasan came three days after the VHP and its youth wing, the Bajrang Dal, launched an agitation in Kolkata on 10 November before the Bangladesh deputy high commission, the culmination of a social-media campaign since July 2020 alleging atrocities against Hindus in Bangladesh.
Similar protests were staged statewide. On 9 November, the Bajrang Dal organised a protest march in Tamluk town of East Midnapore district and Rampurhat town of Birbhum district. The next day, the VHP took out a rally in Cooch Behar district and on 11 November,the Hindu Jagran Manch rallied in Asansol town. On 13 November, the Bajrang Dal staged a demonstration in Durgapur town. Poster campaigns were reported from other districts.
“Secularism is one of the central themes of the battle for Bengal in the 2021 Assembly elections, and the chain of events in Bangladesh seems to have handed the Hindutva camp a mighty weapon,” said a Trinamool Lok Sabha member of Parliament (MP) who spoke to Article 14 on condition of anonymity.
The Hindutva groups’ consistent campaign in West Bengal on the state of Hindus in Bangladesh is aimed at blunting the campaign of the Trinamool and two other opposition groups, the Congress and the Left—all of whom have been campaigning to protect “Bengal’s secular character”.
The VHP, Bajrang Dal and Hindu Jagran Manch, like the BJP, are affiliates of the Hindu nationalist RSS. Since 2014, these organisations have been contrasting the case of Islamic Bangladesh with that of “secular” West Bengal.
They warn Hindus of West Bengal of what they term “rising jihadi influence”: they refer to the rise in proportion of Muslims from 19.85% in 1947 to 27.01% in 2011 and the perceived empowering of Muslim fundamentalists during CM Banerjee’s regime.
The BJP and its affiliates regard West Bengal as a homeland for Bengali Hindus, created by Syama Prasad Mookerjee, founder of the BJP’s ideological and organisational predecessor, the Bharatiya Jana Sangh (1951-77). Mookerjee played an instrumental role in partitioning Bengal on religious grounds when Indian was divided into two countries in 1947.
Earlier this year, Bengal BJP’s refugee cell convenor Mohit Ray said that Hindus in Muslim-majority districts like Murshidabad live in as much fear as those in Bangladesh.
Justifying CAA, NRC
On 17 November, a public gathering was organised in the Ranaghat area of Nadia district, which borders Bangladesh, by the Nikhil Bharat Bangali Samanyaya Samiti (NiBBSS), an organisation representing Hindu migrants from Bangladesh and aligned with the BJP since 2019. The BJP’s Ranaghat MP Jagannath Sarkar also attended the meeting.
During the event, organisers cited the recent attacks on Hindus in Bangladesh to justify the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), 2019, a controversial law passed by Parliament in December 2019, and demanded that the Centre frame the rules for the CAA before the Bengal Assembly elections.
“The latest round of atrocities on Hindus should help open the eyes of those who were still opposing the CAA,” NiBBSS leader Subodh Biswas said. “They should now realise why the Hindus had to leave Bangladesh and come here and why they should be granted citizenship.”
The CAA is also expected to play a polarising role in the coming assembly elections. The Trinamool, the Left and the Congress are opposed to it. The Trinamool maintains that, apart from the legislation being discriminatory towards Muslims, no one needs fresh citizenship because they already have official documents, including such as voter-identity cards, Aadhar, PAN and ration cards.
The BJP and other Hindutva groups are running a campaign saying those opposing CAA, despite knowing the sufferings of the Hindus in Bangladesh, are “anti-Hindu”.
Psephologist Biswanath Chakraborty, a professor of political science at Rabindra Bharati University (RBU), said the events in Bangladesh over the past few months will help the BJP politically.
“It will help the BJP strengthen the polarisation of Hindu votes and to justify the CAA and the proposed pan-India citizenship screening exercise, issues on which they were facing opposition from the Trinamool, the Congress and the Left,” said Chakraborty. “Those preaching secularism will find themselves on the back foot.”
A Battle Over Secularism
Perhaps sensing a political repercussion in West Bengal, the Congress’ Lok Sabha leader and Bengal state unit president Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury, a native of Murshidabad, the district with India’s highest Muslim population—4.7 million in 2011, 66.27% of the total in the district—wrote to the government of India and took to social media demanding that the Centre takes up the matter of atrocities on minority Hindus with Bangladesh.
“There are rumours pouring in that hindus have been attacked over the issue of decapitation and Macron's statement in France. The veracity of the news is yet to be clarified,” Chowdhury wrote in a tweet on 2 November.
He added in two following tweets, “It is reported that hindu families in Bangladesh have been targetted (sic) by fundamentalist forces resulting in the arsoning (sic) and other violence as a reprisal of the stand taken by our govt. Indian govt should take up the issue with Bangladesh govt as immediately as possible so as to prevent further escalation.”
The Trinamool’s Paresh Pal—organiser of the Kali puja where the cricketer, Hasan, made an appearance in Kolkata—criticised fundamentalists in Bangladesh for creating a controversy “out of nothing”, although he clarified that it was not the cricketer but a Hindu priest, Brahmachari Mural Bhai, who inaugurated the Kali idol.
“Our party has been against all forms of fundamentalism,” said Pal. “He did no wrong by attending the event.”
A leading organiser of one of Kolkata’s largest community Durga pujas and the city’s first Muslim mayor, Firhad Hakim, said he was unaware of the controversy around the cricketer in Bangladesh but criticised religious fundamentalism.
“A section of the media is creating a hullabaloo about Bangladesh,” said Hakim. “Our party is opposed to any form of fundamentalism. I personally have been organising Kali puja since my youth.”
Human-rights activist Ranjit Sur said that incidents in Bangladesh had always influenced the situation in West Bengal but “now, in the age of social media and a concerted campaign to highlight the untoward happenings in Bangladesh, the impact will be all the more”.
“I also note that there is no news of the government of India taking up the matter with Bangladesh,” said Sur, a vice-president of the Association for Protection of Democratic Rights, the state’s largest human-rights advocacy. “My question is, does the Centre want things in Bangladesh to go on as they are for another few months?”
(Snigdhendu Bhattacharya is a Kolkata-based journalist and the author of two books. His most recent book is Mission Bengal: A Saffron Experiment.)