India is probably the most complex country in the world, consisting of many sub-national (religious, ethnic, linguistic, caste) identities. This delicate balance has been disturbed by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its programme of re-definition of Indian national identity as an exclusively Hindu, ethno-religious identity. The BJP’s ethno-religious nationalism–similar to the US Republicans’ White Anglo-Saxon Protestant nationalism that excludes all non-Whites, non-anglo-Saxons, and non-Protestant as bearers of the American national sovereignty –aims to exclude all other religious groups in India as bearers of the Indian national sovereignty and isolate them on the margins of Indian society.
The aggressiveness of such nationalism and the fact that the BJP and its leader Narendra Modi currently control the Indian national government inevitably lead to negative reactions of other religious groups, primarily Muslims as the biggest non-Hindu group. That was certainly predictable and those in the BJP advocating a redefinition of India as a Hindu national state undoubtedly counted on that, taking into account even a possible risk of an eventual breakup of the Indian union along religious lines.
However, a less predictable and more interesting development, one that requires a careful analysis, is the phenomenon of regional rejection of BJP’s programme, expressed through explicit political resistance in particular Indian states, in the form of articulation of sub-national identities that are not inspired by religious, but rather by regional, attachments.
It is particularly interesting to observe the phenomenon of the ongoing resistance to the BJP’s nationalism coming from Bengal, populated with 70% Hindus and 27% Muslims, where Mamata Banerjee, the leader of the ruling All India Trinamool Congress party (TMC) defined the BJP as „outsiders“, claiming that „Bengal will be ruled by the people of Bengal, not by outsiders“. In a typical proto-nationalist manner, which strictly distinguishes between ‘outsiders’ and ‘insiders’ and excludes the former, the leader of the TMC has thus articulated a narrative that practically claims Bengalese sovereignty in rejection of the rule by ‘outsiders’. In this way, „the people of Bengal“ are practically declared as a proto-nation, consisting of various religious groups and rejecting the religious division inserted into the Bengalese society by the ‘outsiders’ from the BJP ranks.
Therefore, the outcome of the forthcoming elections in Bengal, in April 2021, will be significant as a pattern for the future, not only for India but also for the rest of the world. For, if the BJP wins a majority of votes in Bengal, and presumably a majority of votes among the Hindus, it will be a proof that the age of aggressive, ethno-religious nationalism is approaching, and that secular, civic identities, such as the Bengalese one advocated by the TMC, cannot survive.
Inversely, if the TMC wins a majority, it will testify that secular and civic identities have a future, not only in India but also in other multi-religious societies. If the narrative that „Bengal will be ruled by the people of Bengal, not by outsiders“ strengthens further against the growing pressure exerted by the BJP and the central government in New Delhi through its policy of aggressive ethno-religious nationalism, it may also function as a proof that sub-national, regional identities can evolve into proto-national identities, which may claim not only autonomy, but rather sovereignty and independence from the centre.
Therefore, the central questions that will be raised at the forthcoming elections in Bengal are linked primarily to the issues of identity and how the people of Bengal perceive themselves when faced with the pressures by Modi’s ethno-religious nationalism. Although these issues will be to a great extent addressed by the very choice that voters make at the elections, between the BJP option and the TMC option, the election results will, in a much broader way, illustrate how the people of Bengal perceive and project their future. These results will practically provide responses to the question of how they see India – as a Hindu state, or a state for all its groups, or a state for all its citizens; then, to the question of how they see themselves – as Indians, or Hindus (or Muslims), or Bengalese; then, to the question of how they see the future of Bengal – as a part of India or a sovereign, independent state, or, perhaps, as united with East Bengal (Bangladesh); also, to the question of whether they see West and East Bengal (Bangladesh)as a single historical unit or as two separate units; finally, to the question of whether they see immigrants coming from East Bengal (Bangladesh) as foreigners to whom the borders should be closed, or as brethren to whom the borders should be open, or simply as an economic problem, so that their influx must be strictly controlled.
These results will demonstrate to what extent ethno-religious nationalism can trigger a counter-narrative based on multi-religious and civic values, and whether the strength of that counter-narrative can grow further, in the direction of proto-nationalism that advocates a greater autonomy or even sovereignty. If this growth takes place in a scope that will strengthen the idea of Bengal’s sovereignty, it will be possible to witness a phenomenon that may be termed nationalism-in-the-making, which rarely occurs in practical-political life. In any case, given the geopolitical importance of India and its global influence, the results of the elections in Bengal, and the pattern that will arise, will certainly have implications for other multi-religious regions and multi-ethnic countries in the rest of the world, as well as for the entire global geopolitical order.