Yesterday, Kolkata woke up to shocking news. This weekend, the Election Commission will send five senior cops to West Bengal to ensure that before the assembly elections in May, illicit arms are seized, non-bailable warrants executed and political thugs taken into preventive custody. Has famously cultured West Bengal fallen to the status of neighbouring Bihar, with its infamous private armies? An absurd question. The answer, absurdly enough, is yes. So the cops will be accompanied by the Chief Electoral Officer of Bihar, who kept the last elections there violence-free. For us cultural supremacist Bengalis, who disparage Biharis as ignorant rustics, this is the unkindest cut.
In absurd times, we must ask absurdly difficult questions. In West Bengal, the ruling party seems to have raised a heavily armed private army, which first came to national attention this month after a massacre in the village of Netai. And the Maoists have thanked Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress for supporting their cause. The CID has confirmed the link.
Binayak Sen was put away for life for receiving a general expression of thanks for his good work, in a letter purportedly sent by Maoists. But it is weak evidence alleged to have been planted, and the nature of the ‘work’ was not clarified. Since Sen is a rural doctor, it could have been the pursuit of public health. But in the case of Banerjee, currently Union railway minister, Maoist spokesman Bikram has unequivocally thanked her party for its support, right from the movement against land acquisition at Singur and Nandigram.
Now, should Banerjee be slapped with the myriad charges that Sen faces? And should Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee face charges for maintaining a private army, which could not have been raised without his knowledge? These are absurdly difficult questions, but elementary in comparison with the dreadful question facing the electorate — which patron of thugs should they vote to office?
West Bengal is heading for watershed elections which may end more than three decades of Communist rule. But in this crucial election, the voter has no real choice. Both the CM and the CM-in-waiting seem to lean on criminal violence — or at least permit its use — to illegally settle matters which should be decided democratically and electorally.
It appears that the election may cause a change of guard in Kolkata’s Writers’ Buildings, but change very little on the ground. Whoever is in office, West Bengal politics will remain less than democratic and the state may need electoral oversight as much as its western neighbour. No matter how civilised Bengal considers itself, it must acknowledge its culture of organised violence and dismantle it.
Shopping in a south Kolkata fishmarket recently, I protested loudly at the sticker shock. In these parts, the price of fish is taken as seriously as the GDP or the repo rate, so the fishmongers immediately gathered for a brief conference on the state of the Bengali nation. “Things have come to such a pass that we need a monster in office,” they concluded. “A real monster. A daitya.” But perhaps West Bengal needs to exorcise its monsters instead of welcoming them to office, and make room for a third alternative to be born.
(Pratik Kanjilal is publisher of The Little Magazine)
*The views expressed by the author are personal