OH BENGAL!

For the Left and for Bengal, it's Future Tense
Amit Sengupta Delhi

"Capital has no ideology or colour": Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee's pathbreaking 'communist' doctrine finally devastated him at Jadavpur, his own constituency, and in all of West Bengal, in an unprecedented but inevitable defeat for the CPM-led Left Front. But that is not the only reason why the Orwellian big brother lost so badly in what was once the imagined revolutionary landscape and utopia of the Bengali conscience and dream, ravaged and ruined by the theory and praxis of the 'Official Left' itself.

The armed gangs of the CPM, the Harmads - aligned with, patronised and protected by the state police and bureaucracy in all these years of extra-constitutional subversion of the party and State apparatus all over the remotest corners of the state - could not even retrieve for them the underground 'Maoist terrain' of Lalgarh and Jangalmahal, nor even their own traditional bastions of Purulia, Bankura and Midnapore. In recent times, after the first relentless police atrocities against innocent adivasis, following the landmine attack on the chief minister's convoy at Salboni, the entire area has been reeling under the onslaught of multiple violence by the Maoists, the CPM goons, and security forces. Many Maoists, CPM cadre, ordinary villagers, and alleged informers have been killed in cold blood, fake encounters, revenge, left as mementos on streets and village bylanes for the world to see, in a mindless bloodletting which has often stalked the CPM regime's legacy in the last 34 years.

That they are still finding arms in ponds, rooftops, homes and offices of CPM local cadre, in this area, is testimony, that Maoists are not the only 'armed' outfits operating in the Bengal countryside. This does not deny the fact than several CPM cadres have been killed brutally by the Maoists in this endless blood game of multiple murders for territory and political power. Ironically, even as Manmohan Singh calls Maoists the 'biggest internal security threat', its main ally in Bengal actually aligned with the Maoists, including in this election. The truth is, the Maoists have struck a chord with many sections in Bengal, including the middle classes.

Add the atrocities in Lalgarh, and this area (including Purulia, Bankura and Midnapore) was made to order for the Maoists. Trapped in abysmal poverty, backwardness and malnourishment, the poor eat cooked rice soaked in water (panta bhaat) in the evening itself, instead of in the morning, perhaps, if they are lucky, with a boiled potato. This, after a hard day's work on daily wages, where the NREGS has lost momentum. Even CPM insiders will tell you that Jyoti Basu somehow held the broken and shattered scaffolding together; Buddhadeb just let it go asunder, especially after Nandigram. Witness the food riots in Bankura and Purulia, against corrupt CPM goons who had captured the public distribution system. Or the simmering anger against the 'red jotedars' - new landlords who subverted Operation Barga, land reforms for the farmers.

Near Kolkata, in villages near Chengail, where the Hoogly flows, live hundreds of jobless jute workers of shut factories, turned rootless. Some committed suicide. There was no red flag to show them the way.

In Radhanagar in district Hoogly, the birthplace of Raja Rammohan Roy, and a landscape which marks the great history of the Bengal Renaissance, death due to snakebites are common, especially during floods, and the pathetic state of the government medical system is stark; even in case of ordinary fever, often the poor paramedics actually cook a little rice for their patients, as they sleep with them on the floor all night in a thatched hut, waiting for the fever to subside. In the evening they assemble at the Raja Rammohan Library to tell their tragic tales, aware that they are 'illegal' - "But what to do, we can cure small diseases, what to do with the big ones, when a snake bites?" In other places you would find them cycling with their patients for miles, often crossing flooded rivers wearing nothing but a towel, and looking for 'higher, professional medical help'. People die of minimalist diseases in poor villages, even as the hospital systems have all but collapsed.

Across the no man's land of the Bengal-Jharkhand border, in the villages Pakur and Gumani, close to Bolpur and Tagore's Shantiniketan, where they break the black mountains and make bidis in sprawling sweat-shops in sub-human ghettos, tuberculosis is rampant among emaciated children and women who roll the tobacco inside the leaves. Among the men who break the stones, malnourishment is strikingly visible like an epidemic. And you know that the so-called communists have little to do with humanity or social change here. There are no medical centres and schools, the administration cares too hoots, and the red flag is always missing. 

Look at the relentless poverty on the filthy pavements in Kolkata. People actually jump over newborn babies and walk on. You would think, this kind of poverty and injustice would rock a communist's heart. No, not the heart of the CPM. Three decades plus in absolute power.

Across the fertile landscape of Bengal the story unfolds in multiple narratives. In Nandigram and Singur, the Dalits, Muslims, sharecroppers, landless, led the vanguard. And Nandigram has a history of peasant struggles - the great Tebhaga movement is a shining landmark. Indeed, these were all traditional CPM-CPI 'territories'? What happened?

Beyond the land question, and the doctrine that capital has no ideology and colour, the CPM had basically crushed the inherited essence of the Bengali conscience, its revolutionary past and utopian imaginations, its inherent ideological and political instincts of suppressed rebellion, its anger against social injustice, inequality and poverty, its cultural effervescence, and epical knowledge systems. This was reflected in Bengal's shamelessly mediocre contemporary cinema, its declining literature, music, philosophical discourse, its coffee house and 'rock adda' conversations. Its dead politics of revolution and dreams. It was all suspended in an eternal, shallow quagmire.

No wonder, the finest writers, artists, actors and academics joined the mass protests against the atrocities, killings and rapes in Nandigram and Lalgarh. That marked the rupture. After decades of intellectual and cultural suffocation and stagnation, whereby the CPM had throttled or co-opted all streams of consciousness, especially dissent, Bengal erupted like an enraged animal. An animal, suddenly, rediscovered its hidden instinct and imagination.

The heart of Bengal beats in the politics of rebellion and dream. In the relentless movement of the intellectual and cultural dialectic. To turn it into a capitalist and party black hole was a grave mistake. That is why, a streak of radical current still runs like a shooting star in the political unconscious here. CPM betrayed the streak and celebrated this stagnation in one-dimensional arrogance, bankruptcy and illiteracy. The party, thus, had to be finally defeated to liberate this rotting history from its Orwellian shackles. 

However, the whole of Bengal knows, including those who have backed the extraordinary mass leader and fighter Mamata Banerjee with their bodies and souls, that she too might betray Bengal inevitably. The choice of her finance minister (among others) - a man who has in the past backed the entire corporate-political nexus in India, from Ratan Tata to Narendra Modi - is just one prophetic pointer. In the days to come, the pointers might become uncanny question marks.

That is why, for the Left and for West Bengal, once again, it's Future Tense. A Tense Future.

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: JUNE 2011

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