Home >Opinion >Columns >Opinion | Bengal’s Hindutva icon can be BJP’s trump card in 2021

Curious histories attend those who fought for Bengal—some for its unity, and some for disunity and its greater purpose in the subcontinent’s communal divide that formally began in Bengal, in 1905. Two preceding columns highlighted the root causes of religious vote banks and tension that afflict West Bengal to this day, and will likely be leveraged as the 2021 assembly elections approach.

Among the key cast of characters that will inevitably be displayed for the political shoot-out between the incumbent Trinamool Congress and primary challengers, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), BJP icon Syama Prasad Mookerjee will likely be leveraged. Mookerjee wasn’t just involved in the process of ensuring a Hindu-majority West Bengal that exists today, instead of becoming part of a Greater Bengal or East Pakistan in the run-up to Partition in 1947. Mookerjee remains literally the heart and soul of BJP’s play in Jammu and Kashmir that nullified Articles 370 and 35A of the Constitution this August.

Disillusioned by Congress politics, which he judged to be moderate in politico-religious terms, Mookerjee joined the Hindu Mahasabha in the 1930s. This followed remarkable interludes: being called to the bar at Lincoln’s Inn, London, and in 1934 becoming the youngest ever vice-chancellor of Calcutta University, aged thirty-three. We discussed his subsequent pre-Partition journey in last week’s column. It included a temporary alliance with Muslim politicians—and even accepting for a while a ministerial post in a shaky, Muslim League-influenced Bengal government of the time. It was all in an apparent bid to minimize the influence of the League and its growing demand for Pakistan. Mookerjee was then an independent member of Bengal’s assembly.

Mookerjee’s penchant for unlikely alliances continued after India’s independence. To the surprise of many, he joined the Congress-led cabinet of his Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, as minister for industry and supply. But he resigned in April 1950 after bitterly disagreeing with the government’s approach to Kashmir—of according the territory special status: its own flag, ensuring power to its premier and providing a separate constitution.

Mookerjee founded the Bharatiya Jan Sangh in 1951—and within a year, had won seats in the first elections to the Lok Sabha. The Jan Sangh is a precursor to the BJP. As the political commentator and pro-BJP Rajya Sabha legislator Swapan Dasgupta once observed in an essay, the Jan Sangh and BJP are the real inheritors of the ideology of “political Hindutva" espoused by Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, leader of the Hindu Mahasabha and, indeed, nurturer of “the creature that has come to be known as the political Hindu—an uncompromising modernist who, at the same time, shuns the melting pot of cosmopolitanism". Mookerjee, much like his latter-day hardline disciples, comfortably fits that self-aggrandizing, somewhat delusional mould.

Then arrived the incendiary swansong. In May 1953, Mookerjee tried to break a cordon and enter Kashmir to protest against Kashmir’s special status, and controlled entry for outsiders, despite a ban on his entry. He was arrested and jailed by Kashmir’s government of the time: Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah was prime minister of Jammu and Kashmir. Mookerjee’s iconic status for Hindu nationalists was sealed when he died in June 1953, as a result of medical complications while in custody. Several prominent BJP leaders have over the years alluded to death by conspiracy. Many in BJP and the Sangh Parivar view the annulment of J&K’s special status as a tribute to Mookerjee.

Among his pre-Partition peers, Mookerjee stands out with his near-puritanical mien. Take, for instance, Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy, a future prime minister of Pakistan, credited with sparking off Partition riots in August 1946 in Kolkata, as part of the “Direct Action" call by Muhammad Ali Jinnah. Scion of a family of lawyers in Dhaka, Suhrawardy was a character.

The political commentator Nikhil Chakravarty, who worked as secretary to a League official in Kolkata, had a colourful take on Suhrawardy in Joya Chatterji’s excellent book, Bengal Divided: Hindu Communalism and Partition, 1932–1947. Chakravarty, who claimed to know the inner workings of the League, described Suhrawardy as “totally unscrupulous, but not communal or religious. He ate ham and drank Scotch and married a Russian actress". He did marry the actress Vera Alexandrovna Tiscenko of the Moscow Art Theatre in 1940, the year the Lahore Resolution of the League for a separate homeland for Muslims was announced.

This column focuses on conflict situations and the convergence of businesses and human rights.

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