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Counterpoint: And the bandhs play on

india Updated: Aug 31, 2008 01:34 IST
Vir Sanghvi
Vir Sanghvi
Hindustan Times
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The moment I saw that TV bite of Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee attacking the bandhs organised by his own party, I thought back to my early reactions soon after I had moved to Calcutta over two decades ago.

I shifted to Calcutta from Bombay, so I was no stranger to violent trade unionism and bandhs. In the 70s and the 80s, the likes of Datta Samant had turned industrial action into a mafia-like business. Dr Samant would encourage workers to make unreasonable and unsustainable wage demands. When companies said they could not meet them, he would urge the workers to a) strike and b) beat up their superiors, assault managers, and in at least one case, knife the owners.

So, strikes were a part of the landscape where I had lived. So too were bandhs. The most effective bandhs, from the 60s onwards, were the ones called by Bal Thackeray. When the great man declared that he would close Bombay down, shopkeepers trembled with fear and taxi drivers worried for their safety. Shiv Sena cadres would fan out across the city handing out violent retribution to anybody who dared defy the Senapati’s edict.

Even so, Calcutta came as something of a surprise to me. While strikes in Bombay were nasty, bloody affairs, bereft of any ideological context, trade unionism in Calcutta was a steady, exhausting, negative presence. About all it had in common with the Bombay variety was that it was as ideologically bereft. Periodically, agitating workers would wave red flags and mouth the odd Communist slogan, but nobody was preparing for the revolution.

Actually, they weren’t preparing for anything — they were too lazy to bother. The defining characteristic of

Calcutta’s work culture in those days was that there wasn’t any. People did as little work of any kind as they could and entrepreneurship was so rare as to be almost unknown.

(A mythical Statesman headline from that era could have read: ‘Entrepreneur Sighted in Calcutta: Left Front Launches Inquiry’.)

It was the only place where workers aspired not to get rich but to become petty babus. Most companies had little worker committees of solemn little men who would investigate any manager who dared upbraid a member of the working classes. (I once lost my shirt with my peon. He complained to the union. The committee called on me. “You used very, very bad language against him”, they said accusingly while I tried to remember what four letter words I had used. “You called him a nonsense,” they said, finally. I protested that while I may have used the word ‘nonsense’ in our encounter, it was not my idea of an abuse. They were disbelieving.)

What, I wondered, in that dismal era of phones that did not work, power-cuts and pot-holed roads was modern Bengal’s contribution to the world? The answer seemed to be: the single-file morcha.

Elsewhere in the world, demonstrations consisted of groups of men and women thronging the streets angrily. In Bengal, they took the form of obviously bored men walking in single file, keeping gaps of six feet between themselves.

Consequently, a procession of say, 40 people could block traffic for a full hour because morchas always had right of way. And that was the point of the exercise: to cause as much disruption for as long as possible. In Bombay, you died because Datta Samant’s men attacked you. In Calcutta, you died of boredom, waiting for the rally to pass.

As somebody who knew Bengalis, outside of Bengal, to be bright, hard-working professionals, I was stunned by how different the atmosphere was in Bengal. Most bizarre of all was the attitude of the state government. In the rest of India, we regarded the CPI(M) as paragons of virtue. Within Bengal, many were corrupt (the M in CPI(M), I was told, stood for ‘Marwari’, after the people who had to pay them off) several encouraged thugs within their cadres and nearly all were incompetent.

In Bombay, when the Shiv Sena called a bandh, the state government did its best to foil the bandh. Here, many, if not most, of the bandhs were called by the CPI(M) itself. The state machinery connived in closing the city down and the police beamed cheerfully as CPI(M) cadres beat up anybody who dared venture out. If there was ever some all-India bandh, I knew at once that while other cities would function normally, the state government would ensure that Calcutta was paralysed. Flights to every city would fly as scheduled but nobody would operate to Calcutta. (This happened again last week.)

The only exception was when Mamata Bannerjee called a bandh. Then, even if shops closed spontaneously, the cadres would try and re-open them. The police would help. On one memorable occasion, the Calcutta police beat up Mamata so mercilessly that she was hospitalised for months. The CPI(M) treated this as a huge triumph.

For a man who belongs to a party whose calling card are negativity (the CPI(M) slogan, I think, should be “Hobay Naa”; Prakash Karat can provide the Malayalam translation), laziness and thuggery, to get up and say that he disapproves of bandhs but has to ‘keep mum’ because of the party, is an act of extraordinary courage and honesty. In standing up for progress and hard work, Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee is going against decades of CPI(M) dogma.

Small wonder then that his party has been quick to disown him. Biman Bose, a senior commissar, declared that “this is not the view of party” (thanks; we’d never have guessed!) and the central leadership has resorted to all the standard rubbish about working men having the right to withdraw their labour.

But while many strikes are about working men asserting their rights (and let’s not kid ourselves; workers in many industries have much to complain about), a bandh is totally different. It is, in theory, supposed to be like a general strike where nobody works all day and if it were that, I would support it.

But that’s not what modern bandhs (and when it comes to bandhs, there’s no difference between the CPI(M) and the Shiv Sena) are about. They represent shows of strength in which political parties and their workers (and in the case of Calcutta, the police) physically restrain law-abiding citizens from conducting their daily business through violence and intimidation.

If they were not organised by political parties, they would be regarded as criminal acts. Think about it: a don asks his thugs to close your shop down or to stone your car. Wouldn’t we want the don prosecuted and the thugs locked up?

Of course, we would. But what do you do when the don is a minister? And the thugs are party cadres? And the cops are their accomplices?

You learn to live with it.

And sadly, that’s what we’ve all done, in most Indian cities. Courts have tried to make political parties liable for the hundreds of crores wasted as a consequence of each bandh. And there’s been talk of outlawing bandhs altogether.

But nothing seems to have come of such initiatives. The problem is that India’s politicians need their periodic shows of strength. And all of us have to pay the price.

Calcutta is the worst off. The Shiv Sena has moved away from its goonda days and most other political parties call bandhs much less often than the Left. Besides, when bandhs are called in other cities, the police do not usually make common cause with the goondas as they do in Calcutta.

So I salute Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee. I have no doubt that Jyoti Basu felt the same way. But he never once had the guts to get up and speak as frankly as his successor. It is no secret that Bhattacharjee is not the favourite of the commissars who run his party at the Centre. Now he is in trouble with state commissars as well. And they’ve already declared that they’ve ‘censured’ him.

But at least he has told the truth. And spoken up for you, me and everybody else who pay the price for the irresponsibility and machismo of India’s politicians.