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.