Bengalis, scattered over two countries and elsewhere, are full of contradictions. They were never a martial race, but were at the forefront of violent struggles to dislodge the British, and later, during the Naxalite movement. Hindus and Muslims lived largely in peace over centuries there, but one of the worst communal riots in history happened in Bengal. Bengalis are often brilliant individually, but are collectively marginalised in most spheres.

This blog is an attempt to understand the people and their mind.

Tuesday, 17 January 2012

Immersion of governance?

On 6 November 2011 in Kolkata, a noisy procession is on its way to immerse a Jagaddhatri idol late in the evening. It has a disc jockey playing loud music, contravening anti-sound-pollution laws. After the group burst firecrackers in front of Chittaranjan National Cancer Research Institute, the biggest government-run cancer hospital in Bengal with hundreds of critical in-patients, police intervene. The people in the procession attack the policemen and chase them into the nearby Bhawanipore police station. They also pelt stones and bottles, damaging vehicles.

The Act 2 of the drama has been telecast, though not live. The policemen, most of them in mufti, but wearing helmets, were trying to close the collapsible gate of the police station from within, but the mob was trying to open it and get in. There were several women in the group that attacked the station, proving, if proof was necessary, that women of Bengal have arrived. The rabble kept throwing things at the cops within, but the latter were strangely subdued.

After some time, some policemen rushed out, wielding lathis. The TV footage didn’t show them seriously hitting anyone, but the mob was scattered all the same. Then the chief minister of the state walked into the police station, shouting and gesticulating, her face glistening in sweat. She could not be heard in the commotion.

Two days later, The Indian Express reported: “Bhawanipore police station in Kolkata had an unusual visitor. It was Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, who came storming in, blasted the police and reportedly got two youths, who had been picked up for rioting during an immersion procession earlier, released. … the youths … were Trinamool Congress activists.”

It was also reported that the puja was managed by a veteran offender with several criminal cases against him, who is also a crony of one of Mamata’s brothers.

The news was virtually blacked out by most of the vernacular media, who are in an extended honeymoon with the new state government that came to power in May 2012. The spin followed soon in the shape of a police report. According to the same newspaper, an inquiry report prepared by a senior police officer “is learnt to have indicted officers of the Bhawanipore station for the violence and their failure to control the mob, and criticised them for being rash with those leading the procession. … An officer of the police station has also been booked for misbehaving with the mob …”

The CPI M that ruled Bengal for 34 years was guilty of many misdeeds, the principal one being they replaced the rule of law with a rule of the party. The inevitable question that arises is: What then is the difference between the old government and the new?

Well, even the worst communist chief minister won’t be so unwise – to use a parliamentary word – to personally storm a police station to rescue arrested party workers. They would find malleable police officers and silently work behind the scenes to achieve the same result without making headlines. Communists actually managed to keep things under wraps for a long time in Bengal, until overconfidence led to their misadventures in Singur and Nandigram, besides botching up the Rijwanur Rehman case.

The fact that the new ruling party acted so stupidly perhaps offers Bengal a tiny window of hope. They won’t be able to “manage” the bureaucracy or police with much finesse, and might make fools of themselves repeatedly in similar situations. And it should take the electorate much less than the 34 years they needed to show the door to the Left Front government.

The last period of Congress rule in the state, 1972-77, is etched in the collective memory of Bengal as the hoodlum years, when Youth Congress leaders called the shots in public affairs. Muscle power was their only strength and a rather thin line would set many of them apart from professional thugs. I remember a public meeting where a so-called leader was delivering a speech wearing a short kurta. As he spoke, he raised his arms repeatedly to lift his khadi kurta and show two pistols strapped to his waist.

Later, their descendants, the Trinamool Congress (TC) organised numerous bandhs and countless road- and rail-blockades to disrupt public life in the name of political action. Throwing stones at trams and buses was a regular feature of TC bandhs. At least on one occasion, they even threw a petrol bomb at a bus in Tollygunge in Kolkata. Once, a leading light of the party – presently a minister – personally beat up an ordinary citizen whose only sin was to board a public bus during one of these bandhs. Let us not forget that Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee too earned her spurs as a firebrand student leader of the Congress in the 1970s.

The second question that arises is: Does the Bhawanipore incident foretell a return to the hoodlum years?

We do not know the answer yet. But it has been proved beyond doubt that in a democracy, even in a flawed one like ours, a determined electorate can check political dadagiri. It is therefore imperative that people register their protest against the CM and her party for what happened on 6/11.

Although I voted for Mamata in the last election, there were several question marks about her, given her political baggage and methods. She hasn’t really disappointed me. But people like me did have faith in the leaders of the amorphous collective called the “civil society”, who exhorted us to bring about a change in Bengal. Their eloquence helped us make up our mind in the heady summer of 2011. Now that the winter is around, there hasn’t been a murmur of protest from them even after the person elected to uphold the rule of law subverted it with such disgraceful disdain for governmental propriety.

The West Bengal chief minister is no longer a student leader. She led the people’s struggle to excise a malignant government from her state. Her personal integrity has never been questioned and it does seem her heart beats for the poor. But she is also the inheritor of the hoodlum politics of the seventies. If she cannot decide herself on which side of the law she should be, her electorate must force her to.

Wednesday, 15 June 2011

Education for the highest bidder

A report in the Statesman, Kolkata on 12 June 2011 carries these nuggets.

Kerala health minister Adoor Prakash purchased a post-graduate seat at Pariyaarm Cooperative Medical College in Kannur for his daughter for Rs 80 lakh because it is “the responsibility of any father to ensure a better future for his children.” The minster runs a chain of liquor bars which I guess somehow qualifies him to be the health minister of a state that has overtaken Punjab as the biggest consumer of alcohol.
Unfortunately, Prakash had to give up the seat because of criticism even from his party, the Congress, which as we all know, believes in austerity and value-based politics!

The comedy of ironies doesn’t end there. The seat was sold to him by the CPI M-controlled college, headed by party leader AV Jayarajan.

Education minister Abdu Rubb is under pressure from his party, Muslim League, to return the MBBS seat which he got for his son at the Jubilee Mission Medical College, Trissur. The Christian management of the college charges Rs 50 lakh to Rs 1 crore for an MBBS seat, but cynics allege that the seat has been gifted to the minister for supporting its stand that it can sell even government seats. (I presume this refers to the seats allotted to students who find themselves in the merit list prepared by the government.)  But to his credit, the education minister hasn’t yet succumbed to the pressure.

The DYFI, the youth wing of the CPI M, marched to the medical college demanding that the minister’s son not be admitted. The commendable protest by the DYFI against the sale of medical seats lost a bit of sheen when it was revealed that its state treasurer, VV Ramesh, too had bought a seat from the Pariyaram Medical College for his daughter under the NRI category, which costs Rs 50 lakh.

Ramesh, poor fellow, had to forego the seat at the instance of CPI M leadership. He said he had been driven by a father’s instinct when he had sought the seat rather than the discipline of a comrade. “The moment I realised my flaw, I corrected it by giving up the seat. For a communist, the party is above everything,” said he. It is sad that the people of Bengal and Kerala, who have seen the comrades closely, do not notice these simple virtues amongst them. BTW, the said Ramesh is also the director of the college.

In Kerala congressmen, communists, the Muslim political elite, padres, you name them, have their hands in the education pie. It is worth noting that these political parties / pressure groups have ruled the state alternately since the 1950s.

The situation is no different elsewhere. In Karnataka, possibly all the private engineering colleges are owned by congressmen and politicos other than from the BJP, who are Johnnies come lately in the state. The BJP chief minister therefore has developed a soft corner for the aspiring engineers of the state. He instructed the private engineering colleges to charge Rs 30,000 for meritorious students, that is, those who qualified through the common entrance test (CET). The colleges demanded they be allowed to charge between Rs 50 and 80 thousand. Ultimately, the chief minister arm-twisted the private colleges to accept the following fee structure:   

45% of engineering seats [will go] to students who have cleared the CET for Rs 35,000 and the remaining 55% seats under Comed-K and management quota for Rs 1.25 lakh. In addition, a supernumerary quota of 5% mandated by the All India Council of Technical Education will provide free seats [to] economically backward students.  (Deccan Herald, Bangalore, 3 June 2011)

In West Bengal, most of the private engineering colleges were set up by the CPI M leaders and their cronies during the second half of their 34-year regime. (Engineering colleges and cold storages were the only businesses that flourished in rural Bengal, both cornered by comrades.) In 2010, the reds read the writing on the wall. They knew they would be thrown out in the assembly elections in 2011. So they did something neat. They increased the annual tuition fees of private engineering colleges from Rs 56,000 to Rs 70,000. No protests, no wrangling, and no arbitrator to decide what the fees should reasonably be! Today, a student studying at a private engineering college in Bengal may reasonably ask why they should pay twice as much as their counterparts in Karnataka. 

Lots of good things have happened in our country since independence. And lots of bad things. The worst perhaps is commodification of education.

When we were young, a bright young boy or girl considered higher education their right, as college education, including at the IITs, cost next to nothing. One only had to be smart enough. The situation has changed. Higher education is now something that the rich can buy for their children so that they qualify for a job.

If you can afford it, you can buy a comfortable future for your offspring, just as you can buy a house or a car. Is anything wrong with that?

Well, till the other day, young Indians, who had neither houses nor cars, had the option to work hard and arm themselves with technical education to make a decent living. That option has been taken away, for all practical purposes, the official sop of 5% supernumerary quota notwithstanding.

Nobel laureate economist Amartya Sen has said a time might come when one part of India will resemble California and the other part will be like sub-Saharan Africa. If that ever happens, privatisation of education, rather, making business out of education will contribute much to the process.

Friday, 11 March 2011

The Magical Spell

Santanu Dasgupta

[In popular perception, rocket science stands for the ultimate, unfathomable, and mysterious frontier of science. If we wish to convey something is not really complex, we say: It’s not rocket science! By extension therefore, rocket scientists are amongst the most brilliant, profound, and creative people. Thanks to my years in Thiruvananthapuram, I have come in close contact with some rocket scientists of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO). And I believe they belong to the intellectual cream of their generation.

Dr. Santanu Dasgupta, one of them, is highly regarded by his peers. But unlike most of them, he wears several other hats too. He is an accomplished singer, a brilliant story teller (a field in which his wife Shyama gives him a good run for his money), and regularly pens plays that are staged by the Trivandrum Bengali Association. After retirement from the ISRO, he has been teaching at an engineering college in Thiruvananthapuram.

Here is a sample of his writing. I thank Santanuda for allowing me to publish this story.]

Whenever Tagore songs are being talked of, it is a cliché to say: “Oh! There is a kind of magic in them.” Much has been written and said about the magic of Tagore’s songs and poems, but I have been fortunate to have witnessed real magic woven by a Tagore song.

It was the morning of Rabindra Jayanti a few years ago. Even inTrivandrum, we could feel music in the air. Duly dressed and armed with books like Geetobitan, Sanchoita etc., we, the Bengali families had gathered in Tagore Theatre in Vazhuthacaud for yet another celebration of Rabindranath Tagore’s birth anniversary.

Children ran up and down the dark aisles of the auditorium chasing each other. Mothers sat in groups, most of them in animated conversation. Men moved around looking bored and showed interest only when their wife or children were on stage. All waited for the next event, politely clapping after every song or dance. … Generally speaking, Tagore was far from any serious thought of most, except one ….

As I learnt later, his name was Ashokan. Of about seventy years, he was very frail, had unkempt hair and he carried a small book of Geetanjali with him. He had translated it himself from Bengali to Malayalam, he said.

I had heard of translations of Bangla literature into Malayalam by many eminent scholars and poets of Kerala. Ashokan was certainly not one of them. Had he learnt Bengali? I wanted to find out.

‘A little, just to translate some of the poems,’ he said apologetically. Would I care to read his translations?

My knowledge (rather, ignorance) of Malayalam even after being in Kerala for over forty years is well-known. But courtesy demanded that I accept a copy of the book offered by the author himself. And I did.

‘I see that many of you can sing. Will you please sing one particular song for me?’ Ashokan was very polite in his request. The song he wanted to hear was Ami rupe tomay bholabo na (I will not entice you with my looks, but with my love)Rupe tomay is a difficult song to sing and I was not surprised when none of our singers could oblige him. I explained to him that without proper notations this song cannot be rendered and hence the reluctance of our singers to sing it in public.

His face paled and I could almost hear one of his ribs crackling in pain. He had come here hoping to hear that particular song. ‘Where can I go to listen to this?’  He despaired. Turning to me he said. ‘Will you please come to my home and sing it for me? I have the notations in Bengali.’

A stranger invites me to his house and wants me to sing one of Tagore’s most beautiful compositions for him. ‘Trust not’ said my intellect, for he is a stranger. ‘Why do you feign love and admiration for Rabindranath if you can’t fulfill this humble request?’ said my soul.

Soul prevailed over mind and soon I was ushered into a small dingy room laden with books and dust. Amidst the clutter and papers strewn all over the place stood a harmonium. It was an ancient piece in desperate need of overhaul.

Ashokan fumbled his way through the clutter. He was in a state of excited anticipation, much like a child about to be handed over an ice-cream. As I turned the pages of the book of notations to trace the right page, his eyes lit up. I bellowed the first two notes of the song which were a serene sa nicorresponding to the words ami …. His eyelids slowly came together and by the time I reached bholabo na … tears welled up behind those closed eyelids. I knew only the first few lines of the song but I sang them repeatedly for him. Tears rolled down his chapped, wrinkled cheeks in meandering lines.

For a long time after I had finished my song, Ashokan sat in a trance. We sat in silence until he woke up with a smile of bliss written on his face.

As he held my hands to bid good-bye, a realisation dawned upon me. What chord the song struck in Ashokan’s heart I may never know, but what I did witness was a magical spell that can only be cast by a Tagore song!