For the first time after Partition, two of the highest constitutional posts, those of the President and the Chief Justice of India, have occupants hailing from West Bengal. Altamas Kabir is a Muslim from the state, hailing from one of the most elite families in the subcontinent. But this unlikely moment of crowding at the apex comes at a time when West Bengal’s shadow on the subcontinent is at its shortest.
There are good reasons why Bengal’s long shadow would not be a good thing, at this point. Its institutions are now ghostly reminders of their former selves. Its secondary education board, which was once the prestigious ‘Bengal board’, does not regularly update itself, having been reduced to a cesspool of political appointees of the CPI(M), something that the Trinamool Congress looks eager to replicate. As pan-Indian boards of education start getting an advantage due to the central syllabus policies, this ‘Indianisation’ has been taking place together with ‘deprovincialisation’ — a process whose damaging impact takes a direct stab at the plural reality of the subcontinent.
In higher education, the debt-ridden state continues to pay less to its college and university academicians vis-à-vis even third-rate central universities, causing a brain-drain of epic proportions. The autonomy of educational institutions is still a pipe-dream in Bengal with excellence always losing out to servility to the incumbent government — the most recent casualty being Chinmoy Guha, former vice-chancellor of Rabindra Bharati.
In healthcare, it is the paradise of a low-grade unaccountable private healthcare mafia. Once famous institutions like Calcutta Medical College Hospital now are places where only the very poor would go. There is huge medical traffic from West Bengal to Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu, a trend unthinkable a few decades ago.
Cities and towns in West Bengal are more ‘Bengali’ than ever, indicating a loss of employment and entrepreneurial opportunities. Non-Bengali migrants helped create the semblance of a cosmopolitan culture along the Bhagirathi-Hooghly for centuries. A Centre that discriminates has not helped matters.
On the cultural-linguistic front, excellent bilingualism that helped people interpret both the world of Bengali and the world made available by English, is near extinction. Ashok Mitra and his ilk, who can write beautifully in Bengali and English, are rare, resulting in a loss of access to many intellectual and interpretative spaces. The fall in the genre of translation of contemporary world classics in Bengali is a symptom. In the name of uniformity and ‘ease’, the Bengali language is being denied its position as a medium of public life, education and commerce under the undemocratic patronage of Hindi, that itself has decimated language diversity in the cow-belt. Those whose cultural world is embedded in Bengali increasingly find themselves second-class citizens.
West Bengal has been one of the few regions in the Indian Union where long-dispossessed caste groups are still far from power, let alone being effective king-makers. For all its ‘progressiveness’, post-partition Bengal has only been able to produce Mamatas and Buddhadebs, not Mayawatis and Karunanidhis. More than anything else, this democratic deficit seriously cripples Bengal’s potentialities. Being ruled by middle class/upper-middle class forward castes, its primary concerns are also of those groups. Its cultural icons are also from that small group, thus resulting in state-sponsored cretinisation of the myriad other cultures that constitute Bengal.
The same week when two Bengalis ‘reached the top’, a Hindi film actor eyeing a tax break from Bengal for a private cricket team entity he ‘owns’ and operates, produced a ‘promotional video’ as the state’s ‘brand ambassador’. Banalities about ‘mishti doi’ aside, this failure of imagination is not accidental. Bengal has lost the confidence to look inward for inspiration and when it looks outward, it only imports kitsch.
Garga Chatterjee is a postdoctoral fellow at MIT, US. The views expressed by the author are personal.