India’s Secularists Have an Authoritarianism Problem

Indians are increasingly forced to choose between Hindu nationalism and egalitarian dictatorship.

Hundreds of thousands of Indian Trinamool Congress Party (TMC) supporters attend a mass meeting addressed by West Bengal chief minister and TMC chief Mamata Banerjee in Kolkata on July 21, 2016.
Hundreds of thousands of Indian Trinamool Congress Party (TMC) supporters attend a mass meeting addressed by West Bengal chief minister and TMC chief Mamata Banerjee in Kolkata on July 21, 2016. (DIBYANGSHU SARKAR/AFP/Getty Images)

BIRBHUM, India — Anubrata Mondal is the undisputed ruler of Birbhum, a poor and rural district of around 3.5 million people in the Indian state of West Bengal, yet he has never run for office. The unelected local party boss of the All India Trinamool Congress, a regional outfit that dominates Bengali politics, Mondal flaunts his arbitrary power. When he visits his party’s local offices, they are arranged like the durbars of Mughal emperors, with a wooden throne for Mondal and little plastic chairs for other functionaries and politicians. Mondal, who is the size of a bear, literally looks down on his inferiors.

West Bengal is India’s fourth most populous state, making Trinamool a significant force in national politics. It rules in the name of an increasingly precious social agenda: supporting India’s minority groups. Since it took power in 2011, Trinamool has condemned the majoritarianism of India’s ruling party, the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP); elevated Muslims to positions of leadership; and celebrated symbols of liberal Bengali culture such as the poet Rabindranath Tagore. More substantially, Trinamool has also expanded the number of Muslims in the civil service and higher education.

The moral authority the party might earn from these measures is being undermined, however, by Trinamool’s use of violence and intimidation to retain power. During a month of travel through rural Bengal earlier this year, including two trips to Birbhum, I saw decadence in the ruling party and disaffection in its rural base. The BJP, meanwhile, is effectively spreading its ideology while working to discredit Trinamool.

West Bengal has long been seen as the citadel of India’s tradition of secular politics. If the BJP ultimately takes over the state, many Indians would fairly conclude that Hindu nationalism had become firmly entrenched as the country’s new political consensus.

I met Mondal on May 14, the day of West Bengal’s elections to panchayats, the local councils that govern rural India. He and his fellow party leaders were solemnly facing forward in their appointed spots, with proximity to Mondal signifying each person’s place in the hierarchy. There was none of the commotion normally associated with political parties on the day of the polls. “In my Birbhum,” Mondal said happily, “there is no election.”

This was more than a figure of speech. Across West Bengal, the Trinamool candidates for 34.2 percent of seats had run entirely uncontested. Of the state’s 23 districts, Birbhum was the least democratic. Trinamool reportedly faced no opposition in more than 87 percent of panchayat seats elected from villages and sub-districts. In the districtwide panchayat, the highest level of the body, the ruling party won each of the 42 seats by default. Winning a panchayat vote guarantees prestige and access to development funds, which is coveted in the impoverished Bengali countryside. The elections occur only every five years. That so many people would pass up such a rare and valuable opportunity is almost inconceivable.

Trinamool leaders from all over the state attribute the startling lack of competition to their party’s popularity. “It’s not our duty to field opposition candidates,” Kakoli Ghosh Dastidar, a Trinamool member of parliament, told me before the elections. “They have no organization, and people don’t like them.” As for Birbhum, Mondal gave me the same diagnosis: “I’m telling you a fact: There is so much development that no one wants to run.” Regarding Bolpur, the area where Mondal lives — and where every single seat was uncontested — the party boss said, “The development rate is so high that 100 percent uncontested is too little. It should have become 110 percent.”

In situations less formal than an interview with the foreign press, Mondal has suggested he tampered with the election. “There is a mosquito net in place to prevent mosquitoes from coming in,” he told the Hindustan Times in a discussion of why members of the opposition could not get nominations in Birbhum. During one rally, he said that politicians from other parties could not file election papers because they found “development” was blocking their path on the road — a double entendre referring to both economic growth and the goons who were widely reported to have blocked paths to the administrative offices that candidates were required to visit.

Interviews with local journalists, political activists, and at least two dozen eyewitnesses to violent attacks, some of whom supplied video and photographic evidence, all indicate that West Bengal’s election was rigged by bruisers acting on behalf of the ruling party.

Trinamool’s behavior gives Narendra Modi, India’s prime minister and the most popular figure in the BJP, good reason to claim — and his followers good reason to believe — that “democracy was murdered” in the West Bengal panchayat elections. This is a pattern in Indian politics. India’s pluralist parties — including the Rashtriya Janata Dal, the Samajwadi Party, the Bahujan Samaj Party, and the Indian National Congress — have long faced accusations of thuggery and graft. Voters have responded: These parties are all at a low ebb of power, particularly the Congress, which led the federal government for most of Indian history but is now steadily diminishing under the questionable leadership of Rahul Gandhi, the great-grandson of India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru. Even though the BJP also faces allegations of financial malfeasance and, as I’ve written elsewhere, undemocratic conduct, it benefits from the lack of a credible opposition. Trinamool’s bogus victory suggests that the BJP’s harshest critics are themselves unfit to govern.

Bengali politics have been tarnishing the reputation of India’s left for decades. The Communist Party of India (Marxist), Trinamool’s predecessor as West Bengal’s ruling party, slowly degenerated from radical grassroots activism into the pursuit of power for its own sake. The coalition the party led, known as the Left Front, became infamous for its “scientific rigging” of elections, which included manipulating voter rolls and threatening the personnel of polling booths. In the 2003 panchayat elections, conducted under the rule of the Communists, 11 percent of seats went uncontested — a shocking figure at the time.

The CPI(M) was gradually undone by the violence its rule entailed. The climactic moment came in 2006 and 2007, when local police and CPI(M) cadres killed at least 14 villagers who were protesting the government’s appropriation of their land for industrial development. Trinamool founder Mamata Banerjee — who remains today a figurehead of the party — went on a hunger strike and led a campaign to highlight injustices committed by the CPI(M).

Banerjee was already a symbol of courage in the face of political violence. In 1990, a CPI(M) supporter repeatedly hit her on the head with an iron rod, inducing a bloody injury to her skull that might have been fatal. Again and again, Banerjee was getting into fights in the street, starving herself, and leaving her home in Kolkata to stay in poor rural villages, all with the stated aim of removing the CPI(M) and ending the debased political culture they had created.

Yet since Trinamool gained power, the party has found itself accused of the very absolutism it once inveighed against. Two years after Trinamool took office, in 2013, the panchayat elections were again nearly 11 percent uncontested, approaching 2003’s worst-ever rate under the CPI(M). In this year’s election, when the veteran leader of the CPI(M) from Birbhum, Ram Chandra Dome, accompanied fellow members of his party to a local administrative office to file nomination papers, he was the one given a grievous head wound by supporters of the ruling party. Bengali papers the next day featured pictures of Dome covered in blood. In an interview with Foreign Policy, Dome named two local Trinamool leaders he saw during the attack whom he accused of being “masterminds.”

Many accuse Trinamool of having co-opted the local enforcers used by the Left Front. In Birbhum, Mondal’s deputy is Abhijit Sinha, who was formerly the deputy of a locally powerful Left Front politician. Sinha told FP that the members of the previous dispensation who had not joined another party were those deemed to be a “spoiled child.”

While candidates tried to file their nominations last month, local news reports were full of horrifying anecdotes. The 7-year-old son of Tumpa Guha Majumdar, a Congress candidate, had a pistol pointed at his head. Many other nominees said they had received death threats from Trinamool supporters demanding they withdraw their candidacies. Violence reached a crescendo during and immediately after the election, when there were at least 30 deaths. The BJP alone said that 52 of its supporters were killed. People died from gunshot wounds, bomb explosions, immolation, and gashes caused by “hacking.”

Interviews with politicians and voters in four sub-districts of Birbhum indicated that, for some, violence is seen as necessary to effectively oppose Trinamool. In at least two sub-districts, armed processions of hundreds of supporters were needed for candidates to file nominations. On a visit to Kadamhir, a village of members of the Santal indigenous tribe, I met Shibu Marandi, a 46-year-old farmer. Marandi showed me his aahpharee, a traditional bamboo bow and arrow. He and his fellow villagers said they’d all brought their weapons to the local administrative office to help the BJP candidates of their choice file nominations. As rudimentary as these weapons look, they appear to make a powerful impression in Birbhum, where bombs and pistols are handmade, few people have expertise in shooting, and the Santal are viewed as exceptional marksmen.

The BJP’s ideologues greatly hope to bring India’s indigenous tribes, which have their own distinctive religious traditions, into the Hindu fold. Marandi and his fellow villagers, for their part, have found in the BJP an amenable political alternative to Trinamool. Birbhum’s Muslims, on the other hand, have nowhere else to go. In Nutan Dihi, a village near Kadamhir, I met a group of eight Muslims who, like most of their coreligionists in West Bengal, once supported the Left Front and then switched to Trinamool. The group quickly grew disenchanted with the new party. “There is huge corruption in the party,” said Khursid Mia, who described himself as a truck driver’s assistant. “Whatever money was there for development of the people or the village was captured by the leaders.”

After protesting these conditions, the eight men said they were threatened. They tried going back to the Communists, but “when we were fleeing, our CPI(M) could not help us out,” said Jiaul Ansari, a farmer and trader. “They didn’t have the money or the manpower.” Fearing for their lives and in need of political support, the Muslims made a surprising decision. “We joined the BJP,” explained Ansari, “because we saw the CPI(M) could not provide us with shelter.” Anyway, he reasoned, “It’s better to join a party that’s gaining power.”

I brought up with the men the story of Mohammed Afrazul, a West Bengali Muslim who was working in Rajasthan, a state ruled by the BJP, when a Hindu fanatic murdered him and filmed the killing, claiming that Afrazul was romantically involved with a Hindu woman. There was an awkward silence. “We felt sad,” said Ansari. “That’s a bad thing, that someone went to be a migrant laborer and was murdered in such a brutal manner.” But he declined to extrapolate: “How can we talk about something that happened so far away?”

Yet the virulent strain of Hindu nationalism that has taken over so much of India is encroaching on West Bengal. The BJP, for example, has held thundering marches there — some, Hindu nationalists say, with at least 600,000 supporters — for Ram Navami, a Hindu festival without much history in Bengal during which some worshippers brandish swords and tridents. “If Ram Navami does lead to polarization, let it be. We will do it,” state BJP President Dilip Ghosh told the Indian press. “Lord Rama carried bow and arrow. So how can his puja [religious ceremony] be done with empty hands?”

Such frightening displays of Hindu militarism provide the best justification for keeping Trinamool in power. Yet it’s a troubling irony that West Bengal’s tradition of high-minded secularism is devolving into an electoral ploy, while crude chauvinism is waging, and winning, the war of ideas.

Alex Traub has worked on the editorial staffs of The Telegraph of Kolkata, The Hindustan Times, and The New York Review of Books.

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