Saturday, May 26, 2012

Bankrupt Bengal

Times of India - 24th May 2012
Jug Suraiya

Bengal is bankrupt. Thanks to the profligacy of the previous government, the state is so broke that it can barely afford to pay the salaries of its employees. But today Bengal faces a bankruptcy much worse than economic: it faces intellectual bankruptcy. Bengal has long prided itself that in the realm of thought it led India: what Bengal thinks today, the rest of the country will think tomorrow was the promise that the state made to itself and to all those — Bengalis and non-Bengalis alike — who lived in it. Calcutta as it was known then was the intellectual capital of not just India, but perhaps of Asia.

Its crowded and congested streets harboured borderless mental and cultural horizons. Its eclecticism, born of the Bengal Renaissance, championed political causes ranging from protests against the American engagement in Vietnam to apartheid in South Africa. Calcutta was a never-ending dialectic, a constant ferment of ideas. At its celebrated coffee house addas, the main item of consumption was not the beverage served in cups but the debate and discourse that were the real reason for the rendezvous.
Dissent — against anything from the rising price of hilsa to 'Coca-Cola imperialism' — was the order of the day. It was said that one Calcuttan was a monologue, two Calcuttans were an argument, and three Calcuttans were four arguments because one of them simultaneously held two points of view, just for the heck of it.

Calcutta played gracious host to diverse communities: Anglo-Indians, Armenians, Jews, Chinese. This heterogeneous mix — rather like the jhaal-muri snack the city was famous for — gave Calcutta a savour and a zest that were uniquely its own. The city was a true Mahanagar, a megapolis of the mind. When and how and why all that changed are open questions. Like a musical instrument put out of tune, did Calcutta lose its cosmopolitan rhythm, its cross-cultural fluency, with the advent of the Left Front, one of whose ministers was later to demand a ban on singers like Usha Uthup because, according to him, they represented 'apasanskriti', a transgression of traditional norms?

Doctrinaire narrow-mindedness which brooked no digression from its diktats, coupled with trade union radicalism, led to a flight of capital, both economic and human, in the 1970s and 1980s.

When Mamata Banerjee stormed the Marxist stronghold in an exhilarating electoral victory, she was hailed as the great liberator from over decades of communist repression. The euphoria was tragically short-lived.
Bengal's new-found idol has been seen to have feet of a clay so malleable that it can be made to fashion a conspiracy out of anything: a rape case (see this link) , a harmless cartoon (above), an innocuous and perfectly legitimate question asked by a bright student (see the video and the open letter below) who is accused of being a 'Maoist' by the chief minister for daring to ask it.

The Trinamool's thought police and its goon squads are reportedly on the prowl like tracker dogs sniffing out the whiff of what is deemed to be outlawry by the chief minister's whims. Will the stifling climate of fear and suspicion created by Banerjee's paranoia precipitate a second, and final, flight of Kolkata's already dwindled social capital?

All those who've loved the city and all that it has stood for can only hope not. They can only hope that 'poribortan' spelt as 'paranoia' does not turn a once and future Mahanagar into a barren desert of mind and spirit.


If you're wondering what Jug is talking about, see this video of the bedlam:

All I can say is that I am ashamed and dejected!

Here's the open letter that the student wrote to Didi that was published in The Telegraph:

Sorry Ma’am, but I am not a Maoist

- Open letter to chief minister
Taniya Bhardwaj asking the question. Picture by Pradip Sanyal
Question Time Didi, organised by CNN-IBN at the Town Hall on Friday evening, was meant to be a platform for Mamata Banerjee to field questions from a cross-section of Calcuttans on the eve of her completing one year as chief minister. But less than 12 minutes and five questions into the event, Mamata stormed off, accusing some students of being “Maoists and CPM cadres”.

Taniya Bhardwaj, a Presidency University student whose question about the conduct of some of her ministers prompted Mamata to take off her lapel microphone and leave, writes a letter to her chief minister via The Telegraph:

Sorry Ma’am, but I am not a Maoist.

That is what you, the most important person in Bengal, labelled me at the CNN-IBN question-answer session on Friday at the Town Hall.

What exactly did I do to deserve this honour? I just asked you a question.

I had gone to the Town Hall on Friday just over a year after attending the CNN-IBN Battle for Bengal panel discussion at the same venue on April 21, 2011, and then a few days later, voting for change.

This is what I had written on April 28, 2011, in The Telegraph: “Changeathon 2011 is the most anticipated in recent history…. What makes it particularly exciting is the prospect of a revamped Calcutta ‘in 200 days’, the large number of fresh faces contesting the elections, the renewed hope for industrialisation…. I will vote with my fingers crossed — hoping for paribartan in the truest sense. And when I head to the polling booth, it won’t merely be a voting room, but more like a ‘changing room’.”

I had also written: “We want change, but are scared that we will move from a frying pan to a burning stove. Call me a sceptic, but I don’t see either political party as a positive alternative for Bengal.”
Sadly, a year later, you have proved — on national television — how right I was.

What did I do to earn the label of a Maoist and a CPM cadre from you?

I merely asked you whether affiliates of your party, specifically minister Madan Mitra and Arabul Islam, who wield power should act/should have acted more responsibly.

I, like many others, was greatly disturbed when Madan Mitra pronounced his own judgement on a rape victim before the police were done investigating. The Arabul Islam case, of course, is still making headlines.
I asked you what had been on the minds of most people around me, people who had voted for paribartan. Is this what we expect of our leaders? The ones who set examples and who people follow. This is all that I wanted to know.

What I got to know, instead, was that in Bengal today, asking a question can be equivalent to a Maoist act.
You also spoke of democracy. The answers you gave to the questions you took before mine were sprinkled with words like “people”, “democracy”, “Bengal”. But one of the most important features of a true democracy, which I have learnt as a student of political science, is the freedom of expression. This freedom means to be able to express oneself, to be able to question, to not have to mince words out of fear of authority, to be able to enjoy a chuckle or two at a cartoon about important public figures.
Sadly, there seems to have been a dramatic failure of this aspect of the democratic machinery in the state. And just like I won’t become a Maoist simply because you called me one, the state too won’t epitomise democracy unless it is truly democratic in all spheres.

All said and done, what you did was in haste, and it made me the centre of attention. And as you stomped off in fury, you automatically assumed the role of the spoilsport. Had you stayed on and heard us out, many of us would have left the Town Hall honestly believing that you are “a Chief Minister with a Difference’’. Instead….

You have spoken of the brain drain from Bengal so many times. I hold offers from the University College London and the School of Oriental and African Studies to study development and administration. I too will probably leave, and now you know the reason why.

A simple woman
(Presidency University, political science)