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14 May, 2024 13:27

Who let the Brits in? How Modi’s opponents took on India’s colonial past

Issues of corruption, women’s harassment and inflation were sidelined by the 1757 Battle of Plassey and its colonial aftermath in this West Bengal constituency
Who let the Brits in? How Modi’s opponents took on India’s colonial past

India’s ongoing parliamentary election pits Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) – who are seeking a third consecutive term in power – against an alliance of national and regional opposition parties.

One particular constituency in West Bengal has been the scene of a bitter political clash that harks back to the 1757 Battle of Plassey, in which victory led to the erstwhile British Empire’s colonial Raj.

On one side is the Rajmata (Queen Mother), a descendant of an 18th century king who betrayed the local Nawab (a Muslim Governor) and facilitated the Raj: Amrita Roy, BJP candidate for the Krishnanagar Lok Sabha (Parliament’s lower house) constituency. Her opponent is the sitting MP, a former investment banker and a trenchant critic of Modi: Mahua Moitra of the Trinamool Congress, headed by West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee. 

These two candidates have put the otherwise quiet and calm town of Krishnanagar in the eye of the storm in the ongoing Indian election. Voters chose between them on Monday, May 13 – but the results will only be tallied on June 4.

Krishnanagar has been slow to catch up the race of real estate construction, a marker of growth in small-town India. The headquarters of Nadia district, a center of ancient Sanskrit learning, is close to the Jalangi River and is famous for its clay dolls. The town is sparsely dressed in banners and flags, as if preparing to end the elections without much fanfare.  

Moitra won this seat in 2019 by over 60,000 votes. This time, the BJP has put up a tough fight.

RT

Amrita Roy, aka Rajmata, did not have much of a political career before this. Her husband, Soumish Chandra Roy, is a descendant of the erstwhile feudal zamindar (a large landowner), addressed as king, Krishnachandra Roy. Krishnanagar is named after him.

This candidature catapulted the contest back to the 1757, an epochal moment in the history of colonialism in the subcontinent. The British East India Company, headed by Robert Clive, fought against the last independent Nawab of Bengal, Siraj-Ud-Daulah, whose loss ensured the consolidation of British rule. 

In this battle, Krishnachandra was said to have been part of a group that included the merchant Jagat Seth (who financed the British side), Siraj’s kin Mir Jafar, and others who sided with Clive. They ensured an easy victory for the East India Company. 

RT

The Trinamool was quick to pick up on that history and, during the campaign, attacked Krishnachandra as the betrayer of an Indian ruler. Roy did not refute the charge. She retorted by attacking Siraj ud Daulah, saying that Krishnachandra had to do what he did to save Hindus from Siraj’s oppressive rule. 

“At the time of Maharaja Krishnachandra Roy, there was no concept of nationhood or country,” Roy told a news magazine. “His actions were driven by the need to protect his subjects and uphold Sanatan Dharma, not by allegiance to any colonial power. Siraj ud-Daulah was an outsider like the Mughals. And I have read that he couldn’t even speak Bengali. So he was a very treacherous person whose only aim was perversion.”

RT

This is a deviation from Siraj’s popular image in Bengal, an image that has prevailed for decades. The nawab was seen as a hero by many anti-colonial freedom fighters like Subhas Chandra Bose. He found a place in Bengali literature and theatre. Mir Jafar, on the other hand, became an archetype traitor. 

Her party does not contradict Roy’s position. A similar view was shared by the national convener of the BJP’s IT cell in a tweet in February claiming that Siraj used to kidnap Hindu women when they came to bathe in the Ganga River.

On the campaign trail, CM Mamata Banerjee responded to the BJP’s claims. “Do not take the shelter of lies,” she said. “If you do that, I will be forced to flip through the pages of history (for a fact-check), and if that happens there will be no space for you. The people will reject them outright.”

The voters in Krishnanagar have reacted mildly to the conflict in historical narratives. While people oppose criticism of the local feudals and their traditions, they do not appreciate the attack on Siraj-Ud-Daula either. 

“People here have grown up knowing about Krishnachandra and associate him with the palace that exists,” local businessman Suman Sadhukan tells RT. “There are fairs and religious festivals on the property. This is the first time this has become so political.” 

RT

Though it helps politically, if you are writing history, it is useless to try and find heroes or villains from a complex event centuries ago, Santanu Sengupta, assistant professor of history at Polba Mahavidyalaya in Hooghly district, tells RT. 

“There is no material strong enough to suggest that Siraj was more communal than his contemporaries or was a tyrant,” he says. “There were Hindus and Muslims in both camps. In fact, there were Armenians in both camps. Bengal during that period was a hotspot for trade and was an extremely cosmopolitan center. If the nawabs (who were Muslims) were such tyrants, one cannot explain the way Jagat Seths or Krishnachandra Roy (both Hindus) flourished financially.”

Sengupta says that a reason Jagat Seth and Krishnachandra Roy sided with the East India Company is that they both benefited from trade with it. 

Additionally, voters have little time for the historical debate. Many who were unhappy with the state government spoke about corruption and women’s safety, which the BJP has been highlighting. They were also unhappy with the BJP’s central government for inflation, particularly the rise in prices of medicines. And there are hyperlocal issues, like a long-awaited flyover.

Mohua Moitra was dismissive of Roy during her campaign. “The candidate is irrelevant,” she said. “The TMC versus the BJP is the fight. But our fight is against the symbol, the candidate is irrelevant.”

Psephologist and professor of applied statistics at the Indian Statistical Institute, Subhamoy Maitra, does not however dismiss lightly the use of political narratives in a situation of high religious polarization. 

“Though we do not have a measure of how effective this messaging has been, we have seen such narratives working, particularly in areas which have seen some religious tension in the recent past,” he tells RT. “But even for that to work there has to be a strong communication system on the ground which was missing for the BJP in the last couple of years.” 

Maitra also felt that despite the family history, fielding Roy, an outsider in politics, as a candidate could have been a compulsion for the BJP as they were struggling to find strong candidates. 

Eventually, whatever the impact of Roy, a factor that remains one of the strongest influences for BJP voters in Krishnanagar is Modi’s image. “I have voted for the Communists in local elections but in the national elections I vote for Narendra Modi who has turned India into a stronger country,” says Bijay Dey, a battery-run rickshaw driver in town. 

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