Refugee megacity

Kolkata's place in the new idea of India

James Bradbury

Amid the flatlands of the Ganges delta, the city of Kolkata sits at the mercy of a river that nourishes as much as it sweeps away. Its conventional story is one of perennial decline, but the tired tropes of a dying city miss the obvious: After decades of marginalization, Kolkata is once again central to the struggle to define India. The city now stands in tension with a rising, exclusionary idea of the nation, vested in the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which leads the national government in New Delhi. The BJP seeks to make India a Hindu nation, redressing what it sees as centuries of subjugation by Muslim and colonial rulers and marginalization at the hands of a secular state. This Hindu nationalism resonates in the conservative, Hindi-speaking plains of northern India: the so-called “cow belt.”

By contrast, Kolkata has long been a haven for uprooted people. Since its foundation during the colonial era, the city has absorbed migrants from its rural hinterland as well as through its docks. As a result of competing visions of the nation among Hindus and Muslims in the lead-up to independence in 1947, the British-led boundary commission carved the Bengal delta in two, leaving Kolkata as the capital of the threadbare Indian state of West Bengal. Many Hindus were left in the predominantly Muslim region then known as East Bengal—which would later become Bangladesh—and have been slowly but surely crossing the riparian frontier into India ever since, bringing their own culture into the mix. Kolkata has therefore acted as a refuge not only for people: Its coffee houses and campuses have continued to nurture distinct promises of the Indian nation itself.

Until now, the BJP has been unable to gain a strong footing in the delta. But as it seeks to extend its influence eastward, the party has played on interreligious tensions as its way in, while portraying Bengal’s porous border as a threat to the integrity of the nation. Kolkata’s long-stagnant political culture, which was reared on opposing such divide-and-rule tactics, is now stirring to meet the challenge.

Hostage to history?

Kolkata’s political legacy is far removed from the “shining India” of the BJP. The city sees itself as modern and forward-thinking, even as it romanticizes its history and holds fast to its provincial culture. The progressive attitudes of its middle classes are encapsulated in a saying coined at the turn of the twentieth century, when Bengal was a vast undivided province at the heart of the British-led Subcontinent: “What Bengal thinks today, the rest of India thinks tomorrow.” Now, non-Bengalis often quote this saying ironically, to imply the opposite: While the rest of India charges ahead, Bengal is stuck in the past. 

Kolkata’s sense of self is rooted in the nineteenth century, when its population comprised a cosmopolitan blend of communities. Migrants coming from deep within the Indian hinterland to work in the city’s factories and jute mills met merchant communities: Afghans, Armenians, Baghdadi Jews, Greeks, Portuguese, and Parsis, not to mention the Cantonese traders and Hakka refugees who settled the Subcontinent’s first modern Chinatown. Although Bengalis were one group among many, they continued to run institutions like the Hungarian deli or the Jewish bagel shop long after their founding families moved on. Whereas some Indians decry the narrative of a diverse nation as a way of downplaying the country’s Hindu culture, most middle-class Bengalis continue to celebrate and defend these inheritances. 

Such cross-cutting influences inspired the Bengali middle classes of the nineteenth century, which gave birth to religious reformers and anticolonial freedom fighters who are celebrated to this day. The city’s intellectuals refashioned the region’s Hindu goddess into the icon of “Mother India,” whom revolutionaries vowed to liberate from British rule—producing a distinctly Hindu brand of nationalism from the outset. However, some of these revolutionary cadres would later eschew religious symbolism and, after the Bolshevik revolution, become the Subcontinent’s first secular left-wing activists. The post-partition refugee settlements that today form Kolkata’s southern suburbs carry the names of illustrious nationalists—Netaji Nagar, Chittaranjan Colony, or Baghajatin, to name a few—as do the metro stations that pass through them. 

Over time, the city’s nationalist fervor would prove costly. In the early twentieth century, the British administration mounted a concerted effort to strip the recalcitrant Kolkata—then the capital of the British colony—of its political weight. In 1905, they split the province of Bengal in half, in an apparent attempt to neutralize a simmering insurgency through a policy of divide and rule along religious and linguistic lines. But partition produced mass protests and boycotts of British goods—a backlash worse than the unrest it sought to contain. The authorities were forced to change course: While reuniting the Bengali-speaking provinces in 1911, they moved the imperial capital to the purpose-built New Delhi. Kolkatans, long accustomed to a privileged position in the nation’s political life, retreated into more provincial concerns; faraway New Delhi has been the center of power in India ever since.

The city's nationalist fervor would prove costly

Bengal’s reunification coincided, ironically, with the emergence of increasingly disruptive social fissures: While economic tensions flared between Muslim tenant farmers and Hindu landowners in rural areas, religious and caste-based quotas for political representation fueled increasingly bitter competition. New political formations—namely the Muslim League and the Hindu Mahasabha (a forerunner of today’s BJP)—sought to capitalize on these divisions. In 1946, the League’s call for a general strike in support of a Muslim autonomous region (which would include Bengal) led to days of interreligious bloodshed on the city’s streets, known as the Great Calcutta Killings. The violence triggered retaliations in the countryside, prompting waves of upper-caste Hindus to seek refuge in the city. By the time of Indian independence in 1947, intercommunal tensions had reached levels that made Bengal’s final, irreversible partition—into West Bengal and East Pakistan—inevitable.

This new boundary, however, was not clear-cut. Whereas on India’s western border with Pakistan, the transfer of population and property was brutal and swift, the eastern partition was much less conclusive. Kolkata’s middle-class Hindus had long developed a tradition of moving fluidly between the city and their ancestral villages. After independence, many Hindu families chose to remain in what had become East Pakistan; others hedged their bets, sending relatives to establish themselves in Kolkata while staying behind to manage their rural properties. Many eventually gravitated west across the border, uprooted by major communal riots in 1950 and 1964, as well as the Bangladesh War of Independence in 1971. Muslims in Kolkata, meanwhile, were often displaced by incoming refugees and communal tensions. 

Partition thus created a vicious cycle whereby tightly-knit socioeconomic structures unraveled, making it more and more difficult for religious minorities to eke out a living on the wrong side of the border. This consolidation of increasingly homogeneous nation-states never stopped: Bangladesh’s sizeable Hindu population continues to seek security and opportunities across the border, just as India’s Muslim population feels ever-more insecure and marginalized. Yet Kolkatans still cling to a version of nationalism that does not hinge on narratives of religious conflict. Remarkably, this inheritance owes much to the refugees who held onto their hopes for an inclusive nation and remade the political culture of the city in that image.

Claiming their nation

India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru had pledged to welcome East Bengal’s Hindus into the independent nation. But he offered little tangible support when thousands of refugees arrived in Kolkata on trains coming in from the east. The government gave only the most basic relief—rice, molasses, and a small stipend—to these newcomers, whom it funneled into unsanitary camps. This treatment stood in contrast with the government’s efforts to integrate Punjabi refugees who had overwhelmed New Delhi, and whom the authorities swiftly and permanently resettled within the city. Their counterparts in Kolkata were thus alienated from the ruling Indian National Congress, the very party that had ushered the independent nation into existence.

Nonetheless, this vast population of displaced Bengalis would exert an outsized influence on India’s subsequent trajectory. In the early 1950s, enterprising refugees belonging to the middle class and upper castes cleared jungle and squatted on privately-owned fallow land on the city’s southern fringe, giving rise to what became known as the refugee colonies. Residents removed snakes’ nests, dug out ponds for water, and paved over rudimentary roads. Women assumed essential roles: They blew conch shells and banged pots and pans, to warn that the angry landlords’ thugs were on their way to destroy a colony; they formed human chains to stop the police from entering; and they collected money from commuters on the city’s trams, buses, and streets to build schools. Whenever landlords razed these colonies, residents rebuilt them overnight. 

Meanwhile, refugees worked tirelessly to win over native Kolkatans through a sense of shared culture. In local newspapers, they wrote essays describing their experiences of displacement and life within a Muslim state, where they could not, they lamented, abide by their Hindu values—worshipping family gods in the home or organizing their annual community festivals. Many in the West Bengal government were sympathetic to the refugees, some of whom had been influential figures in the independence struggle. When West Bengal’s governor visited a colony, the residents showered his car with flowers. Moved by this display, he acquired land to set up the city’s first formal refugee settlement, the Naktala Government Scheme.

Not all found their place in the city, however. In 1958, the Indian government sent lower-caste refugees to work on the Dandakaranya Project, an agricultural development project in central India’s plains. While they farmed arid, alien land and built infrastructure, they were forced to reside in aptly-called Permanent Liability Camps. Out of desperation, some of these refugees walked back in the late 1970s to the mangrove forests south of Kolkata. Staking their own claim to belonging, they erected a settlement on the island of Marichjhanpi, named after a famous Bengali freedom fighter, Netaji Nagar. But they were not heard: In 1979, the police forcibly evicted some 40,000 refugees from the island, killing around one hundred in the process. Those who survived dispersed into Kolkata’s slums and nearby towns.

Even those Bengali refugees who successfully integrated in Kolkata lacked any clear anchor in mainstream Indian politics. As such, they embraced the communist and socialist parties, which in turn organized the displaced population through relief work, rallies, and protests. These parties formed committees to represent the colonies’ interests in the Refugee Relief and Rehabilitation Department of West Bengal. In most cases, party cadres and colony leaders were one and the same. Meanwhile, the refugee masses lent considerable demographic weight to the popular movements of the 1950s and 60s, helping rebrand a pulsating Kolkata as the “city of processions.” The communists’ parades of red flags, protesting anything from refugee rights to food security to rising tram fares, would regularly shut down the city. 

Such representation solidly rooted refugees into Kolkata’s political landscape, even as it brought them into conflict with the central government. When the Indian state took an authoritarian turn in the 1970s and outlawed opposition parties, the refugee communists suffered first: Police crackdowns on the colonies prefigured the declaration of the National Emergency of 1975-77, in which Prime Minister Indira Gandhi ruled without parliament. As democracy was restored in 1977, the refugees helped elect the Left Front—a coalition of four communist and socialist parties—to the West Bengal state government, where it would remain for an unbroken thirty-four years. The Left Front formally incorporated the colonies into Kolkata’s municipality; by granting refugees deeds to their land, it also folded a vast electorate into the city. Many top ministers were from East Bengali backgrounds.

Refugees worked tirelessly to win over native Kolkatans

The dominance of communist cadre left little room for alternative political actors and ideologies to emerge in the tightly-knit colonies. One elderly communist recalled how, in the early stages, some fellow refugees had squatted in a mosque and harassed local Muslim families. These “communal-wallahs,” as he derogatively called them, were chased away by communist leaning refugees, who accused them of peddling interreligious hatred. The Left Front went on to cement a secularist culture which had long been part of the Bengali ethos. This secularism—which kept religion apart from politics but remained tolerant of everyday forms of piety—spared Kolkata the worst communal violence that wracked the Subcontinent in recent decades: the 1984 anti-Sikh pogroms in Delhi, the 1992 massacres in Bombay, or the 2002 Gujarat riots. 

The refugees’ politics were not about setting themselves apart—as East Bengalis, communists, or secularists, for example—as much as finding their place in the city. They drew upon cultural affinities with the prior residents, such as their appreciation for the same songs and theater or their shared religious and educational values, while reminding West Bengalis of all that they had sacrificed to bring the nation into being. Nowadays, the cultural split between refugee households and West Bengal families often goes no further than slight variance in cooking styles: extra chili in East Bengali kitchens; a pinch of sugar in their dal for the Westerners. Younger generations were especially quick to shed the rural intonations of their parents, forgetting their backstories and blending in. Communists quip about this seamless assimilation: “tumi to koloni, age keno boloni—why didn’t you say you were from the colony!”

If memories of displacement and struggle sustained Kolkata’s distinct political culture, the amnesia that comes with successful integration has also caused its militancy to fade. What is more, communist cadres became gradually more arrogant and overbearing, and thus less tolerable for an increasingly well-established, middle-class population of refugees and their descendants. After decades of uninterrupted rule, the Left Front was finally defeated in the 2011 state election; few residents of Kolkata shed a tear at the passing of a political movement that had gained too strong a hold on their personal lives. As one son of a refugee explained, “there are still pockets of influence, but communism won’t come along again.”

Mother India returns home

Despite being so close to the country’s eastern frontier, Kolkatans—whether deep-rooted residents or post-partition refugees—exuberantly celebrate their city’s role in Indian independence. But theirs is an idea of India that is not always shared with other parts of the country. This becomes clear through the city’s main annual festival, Durga Puja, in which the city’s residents worship the ten-armed goddess and her four children. Durga represents a beloved daughter who returns from her conjugal residence in the Himalayas to be with her family—a city full of devotees. She is none other than the symbol of “Mother India” in Kolkata’s nationalist imaginary. 

Just as the goddess comes home for the festival, so city-dwellers used to return to their ancestral villages once a year for this religious occasion, until the border prevented such movement. Refugees organized Durga Puja from the very first years of resettlement, reinforcing a sense of community among themselves while announcing their arrival in the urban fabric. Local puja committees go door-to-door to collect money for neighborhood festivities and for the construction of pandals, temporary pavilions dedicated to public rituals. Long-established aristocratic households host statues of the goddess and her family in their ornate courtyards, which they open to all.

There are now around 4,000 individual pandals in the city every year, as each neighborhood competes to host the goddess in innovative, artistic ways. The goddess is “awakened” into statues, made from the bountiful clay of the Ganges riverbed, and worshipped over the course of five days by Brahmin priests. While families perform their ritual duties, such as fasting and flower offerings, the far more important activity is pandal hopping: dressing up in new, festive clothes to wander from one unfailingly surprising display to the next. Turning a corner, a devotee may come face-to-face with the goddess housed either in a Mughal palace, a deck of the Titanic, or a European cathedral, all made from cloth stretched over bamboo scaffolds. As rituals reach their climax, the statues are dramatically immersed in the river—and Durga leaves until the following year.

Festivals, while joyous and convivial, are also intensely political, in ways that have evolved over time. During the pujas of the colonial period, those fighting to liberate “Mother India” worshipped weapons as literal incarnations of her power. Their pandals hosted exhibitions of locally-made or “swadeshi” commodities like cotton, which had been decimated by colonial imports. During the Left Front, communist cadres led the puja committees, despite their secularist bent; even those party members uncomfortable with public religion refrained from challenging the festival’s centrality to social life, and contented themselves with Marxist bookstalls set up alongside the pandals. Recent years have seen LGBT-themed pujas and pandals organized by third-gender groups and sex workers. Prominent feminists have called for all women to take part in the rituals—not just married women, as per tradition. Mamata Banerjee, the current Chief Minister of West Bengal’s local government, has often been portrayed as a Durga in her own right.

Festivals are joyous and intensely political

Despite its undeniably religious nature, many Hindus today describe Durga Puja as an inclusive and almost secular cultural event. The poor are anything but excluded: They sell offerings like flower garlands and saris, or are employed constructing the pandals. Historically, Muslims were always involved in organizing village pujas, and Muslim youth today are just as likely to go pandal hopping as their Hindu counterparts, even as religious identities are becoming more rigid on either side. Every once in a while, joyous processions which take the goddess statues for immersion coincide with Shia Muslims’ public mourning for Moharram. Kolkata’s residents express pride that Hindus and Muslims do not come into conflict—even when Hindus grumble that Mamata Banerjee postpones Durga Puja immersions to allow Moharram processions to take place. “Whether someone goes to temple, mosque, or church—that isn’t religion,” asserted a Brahmin priest who makes and sells clay statues. “Religious practices are simply what allow you to live well in the world.” 

Durga Puja enchants and energizes people from all walks of life. Kolkata’s youth count down the days to the festival on social media, and later share photos of the best statues in their thousands. One Kolkatan in her forties, a granddaughter of freedom fighters who now lives in Copenhagen, called the pujas “the last good thing left in the city.” Beyond Bengal, however, the goddess has become an icon of a more exclusivist religious politics: Punjabi refugees worship the same goddess under the name of Sheranwali Mata in Delhi, where Hindu nationalist paramilitary groups have appropriated her as an icon. The same Mother India symbol that represents coming together in Bengal is important for other refugee groups precisely because it places Hindu-ness before other aspects of national identity. The slogan Bharat mata ki jai—Victory to Mother India—originated in Bengal as an anticolonial rallying cry, but is now a watchword of Hindu chauvinism across the country.

As national politics devolve into nativism, Kolkata—once at the vanguard of Indian nationalism—has remained on the sidelines. Indeed, the city’s once vivid political culture now runs the risk of falling into a romantic stasis. To this day, the songs of Kolkata’s beloved poet Rabindranath Tagore, penned at the height of the anticolonial struggle, resound throughout the suburbs. But these songs, cherished as they are, also seem to lull the city into a nostalgic slumber, while the rest of the country is captivated by Bollywood’s rapidly changing repertoire.

Culture wars

Today, India’s ambitious, aggressive new leaders are trying to make inroads in the east. A new political self-confidence energizes much of the nation—from young farmers in the northern plains to a new generation of tech workers in the dynamic cities of the south. But this India, which is proudly Hindu in its identity with Hindi as its national language, alienates many Bengalis and goes against much that they have stood for. Although some Kolkatans actively push back, they have retreated for the most part into a defensive posture—focused on preserving their city’s distinct identity while showing few ambitions to move the dial in national politics.

The BJP has used West Bengal’s diversity to its advantage, by appealing to social divisions in ways that, for most Kolkatans, were not salient in the past. Kolkata’s football teams have served that purpose, as one of the few arenas where some semblance of distinct identities remains. The oldest club, Mohun Bagan, is popular with the city’s “natives;” Muslim residents back the Mohammedan Sporting Club; and the East Bengal Football Club is the last bastion of a refugee identity. As the East Bengal club celebrated its centenary in 2019, the prominent BJP politician, Tathagata Roy, vented on Twitter: “Has it struck the club’s office-bearers or any of its supporters why they are supporting East Bengal while sitting in West Bengal?” He told the club’s supporters that they should remember they were driven out of East Bengal because of their religion, in an attempt to instill in them the kind of resentful politics that their parents and grandparents had largely rejected.

Such agitation has gained little ground, in part because the BJP bases its identity politics on a North Indian style of Hinduism which is far removed from popular religion in Kolkata. The latter’s attachment to the fierce tantric goddess, Kali—whose images adorn the city’s taxi dashboards, wrapped in blood-red hibiscus garlands—has little in common with the ascetic devotion to Ram and Krishna that characterizes the north. Kali devotees sacrifice goats to the goddess at her major temples, and the meat is later consumed as a delicious, sanctified stew that would be unimaginable in many parts of the country where stringent vegetarian diets have become the norm. During Durga Puja, middle-class Kolkatans strike a balance between observance and indulgence: fasting in the mornings but then relishing chili chicken, chow mein, and ice cream in the evenings. Kolkatans defend these moments of joy against what they see as “pure veg” puritanism.

Kolkata’s Hindus are not totally immune, however, to Hindu nationalist theatrics. Since 2017, the BJP has introduced in West Bengal processions for Ram Navami, another festival centered on the god, Ram, in which devotees (including children) parade brandishing swords. In Kolkata, secularist observers have condemned what they frame as incursions of aggressive Hindu nationalism. Many middle-class Bengali Hindus object that Ram is more of a mythic king to them than a god. Mamata Banerjee’s party, the Trinamool Congress, nonetheless tried to beat the BJP at its own game by starting its own Ram Navami processions, claiming the political dividends of such religious politics for itself. In 2018, two competing, partisan processions clashed, with a police officer losing an arm during the fray. A doctor in Kolkata lamented at the time: “It used to be Hindus versus Muslims, but now Hindus are fighting among themselves!”

Kolkata is not immune to nationalist theatrics

Secular Kolkatans have started to push back against these trends. A communist activist who came from Bangladesh as a young man in the 1990s now organizes a celebration of Bengali secular culture in the colonies, called Mongol Shobhajatra. Streets are painted with geometric designs, and people take to the streets with masks, papier-mâché models of tigers, elephants, and owls, as well as letters of the Bengali alphabet. This carnival concept originated in Bangladesh in the 1970s, to promote unity through non-religious symbols in a country which had been torn apart by civil strife. The first Mongol Shobhajatra marched through Kolkata’s refugee areas in 2017, as a counterpoint to Ram Navami. Organizers—most of whom are part of residual communist circles—aim to extend such processions across the state within five years.

While the secularism of middle-class Kolkatans gives way to rising religious tensions, their linguistic pride remains sacrosanct. Constitutionally, India has twenty-two languages with official status, of which Bengali is one. However, non-Hindi states begrudge the gradual encroachment of Hindi, which is backed by government policies and takes on a prominent role in many industries, leading to employment bias in both the public and the private sectors. Resentment toward Hindi is neither new nor unique to Bengal, but the average middle-class Bengali parent now worries about the ability of their children to speak Bengali to a standard which would give them access to the literary riches of their mother tongue.

Bengal’s brand of identity politics thus remains more concerned with language than religion. Bangla Pokkho (The Side of Bengali) is a small but growing movement that has demanded Bengali be the first language on train station signs, medical prescriptions, and examinations opening access to state government jobs. But even linguistic pride has been drawn into communal games. Activists often characterize Hindi-speakers in Bengal as a kind of fifth column playing into the hands of Hindu nationalists. Such trends would have seemed narrow-minded in a city where aging leftists, reared on communist internationalism, once learnt German to translate Das Kapital. But as the new idea of India divides the population, Kolkatans are forced to either capitulate to the BJP’s narratives or craft a story of their own.

Politics pulling apart

While Kolkata has seemed to turn inward, its own political culture has transformed from within. Mamata Banerjee, who holds the old communist left and new religious right in equal contempt, embodies the shift. Her deep hatred for the communists, despite sharing many of their political instincts, stems from their henchmen beating her to an inch of her life in 1990. She acts as a thorn in the side of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his notorious Home Minister, whom she once called “as literate as donkeys” when it came to Bengal. A populist herself, she appeals to the poor through her coarse language and permissive political attitudes; after allowing hawkers to take over the streets, she waved fines for taxi drivers who refuse to take fares on the meter. All of this perturbs the middle classes, whom she simultaneously assuages through shallow forms of cultural politics: playing Tagore songs at major crossroads in central Kolkata, and penning her own Durga puja theme songs.

In contrast to the Left Front’s efforts to remain altogether aloof from public religiosity, Mamata has instituted a home-spun model of secularism in which the state government actively engages with all different religious groups—thus bringing religion to the fore even as it refuses to favor one over the other. Accordingly, the state has given large sums to social clubs to conduct the annual Durga Puja festival, while also granting stipends to imams and funding madrassas. As religion assumes center stage under the Trinamool government, communal incidents have risen steeply, particularly in the small towns surrounding Kolkata. Some fear it is only a matter of time before major clashes take place in the city itself.

The situation has left ardent secularists—such as Bikash Ranjan Bhattacharya, a child of refugees, a prominent lawyer, and former mayor of the city under the Left Front—in a political no-man’s-land. Bhattacharya challenged the imam stipend and puja patronage in the courts, calling them unconstitutional. In 2015, he also staged a beef-eating festival in front of the city’s historic Tipu Sultan Mosque, after a Muslim was lynched by a Hindu mob on suspicion of having eaten beef. Muslims were angry that he associated their mosque with an act that would antagonize even liberal Hindus. When he stood for election in the refugee colonies four years later, he came third, having effectively alienated both religious groups.

Kolkata's political culture has transformed from within

Polarized positions are now a staple of everyday conversation. Communist supporters, especially on university campuses, are pejoratively called “sickularists” by religious-minded Hindus on social media. BJP officials claim that Mamata Banerjee appeases Muslims, treats Hindus as second-class citizens, and purposely brings illegal migrants across the porous border with Bangladesh to vote for her, and even establish terror cells with impunity. Bigoted commentators dub some Muslim-majority (and mostly Hindi-speaking) neighborhoods of Kolkata “Little Pakistans,” evoking a sense of otherness, disloyalty, and threat. In this toxic atmosphere, BJP supporters call their opponents “anti-nationals” and “urban Naxals,” in reference to the Maoist insurgents that continue to mount guerilla attacks out of Central India’s forests. 

These labels only fuel further radicalization among younger generations, notably on Kolkata’s highly politicized, left-leaning campuses such as Presidency College and Jadavpur University. Bengalis are often disproportionately represented among the leftist militants in other elite institutions, such as New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University, which has recently been the arena for violent conflict between communist and BJP-affiliated student factions. More generally, the relentless attempts to polarize the electorate along religious and partisan lines have led some Kolkatans to talk in stronger terms than ever before about Bengali autonomy and breaking away. 

The center steps in

The deficit of trust between Kolkata and the New Delhi government plumbed new depths in the first half of 2020. The irony is that a city which just a century ago incubated an anti-colonialist insurgency is today regarded by the country’s government as dangerous and disloyal: The same ideologies and values that once placed Kolkata at the vanguard of Indian nationalism now put it at odds with the new, exclusionary nationalism that radiates from the capital.

As part of its divide-and-rule strategy, the BJP inaugurated in late 2019 citizenship reforms in which all Indians would have to prove their origins to claim nationality. Hindus without documents would be granted refugee status and a path to citizenship, unlike Muslims. The legislative process has been paved with rhetorical attacks against Bangladeshi Muslims who had immigrated illegally: the BJP home minister called them “infiltrators” and “termites,” in stark contrast to Bengal’s historically tolerant experience of cross-border migration. Few Kolkatans fear spectral Islamist threats from across the border; they worry far more (especially among Muslims) about producing evidence of their Indian citizenship. Even those who can prove their citizenship administratively know that their identity will continue to come under attack more generally, for their secularist values and proximity to the border.

The covid epidemic has only heightened anxieties

The covid epidemic has only heightened anxieties around the central government’s designs on the eastern state. While Mamata Banerjee instructed police to implement the national lockdown “with a human face,” seeking to soften its socioeconomic repercussions by allowing businesses to operate, Hindu nationalist commentators pointed to bustling Muslim neighborhoods and meat markets as flagrant violations, to which the state government was turning a blind eye. Some busied themselves with popularizing the hashtag #CoronaJihad online, accusing Muslims of spreading the virus intentionally. “The center must step in,” right-wing opinion leaders crowed, effectively asking the national government to suspend democratic rule and take over the state’s administration.

So, when Cyclone Amphan tore through Kolkata in May 2020, nature seemed to follow the most aggressive right-wing forces in wanting to wipe the city from the map. While Mamata Banerjee announced from her control room, aghast, that “everything is destroyed,” the central government’s response was palpably apathetic. The Prime Minister did not declare a national emergency, which may have unlocked relief funds and drawn media attention to the region’s plight. Right-wing memes gleefully declared West Bengal and Bangladesh a “cancer eliminated” from the Subcontinent. Kolkatans were left to ask themselves if they were, indeed, Indians for the rest of the country. 

* * *

Once the seat of power in colonial India, Kolkata has once again moved to the center of the nation’s political life. Now, it is integral to a struggle to define the Indian nation. What engenders this struggle in the first place is arguably Kolkata’s living repository of experiences, memories, and ideas—everything that the city preserves and that contradicts the BJP’s political agenda. This political tradition is kept alive in the chatter of the city’s coffee houses, tea shops, and campuses, and lodged in the collective memories of independence, displacement, resettlement, and renewal.

And it is indeed fragile. As the BJP’s electoral juggernaut rolls eastward, it will inevitably alter Kolkata’s political culture: Hindu nationalism will play a greater role in coming years, stirring up underlying religious tensions and politicizing questions of citizenship and belonging along the border. But this vision of India will also face a natural bulwark in the refugee megacity, where some voters and activists will stubbornly adhere to their time-honed ideas and reject attempts to rule them by sowing divisions. Kolkata may, in this process, rekindle some of the rebellious energy that has characterized its history. In its midst, it continues to shelter ideas that were important to India’s nation-making past, and which are likely to re-emerge in one form or another to shape its future.

14 September 2020

James Bradbury is the editor at Synaps

Illustration credits: author's own photographs / licenced by CC.

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