The other day Prakash Karat came to Calcutta and fired off a salvo in defence of his beleaguered comrades of the West Bengal CPI(M). Standing next to the Chief Minister, Karat took a swing at locals critical of his party and the state government: “Some people, including a section of intellectuals, said what is happening in Bengal is similar to what is happening in Gujarat. They have compared Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee to Narendra Modi and described both as fascists.” These intellectuals, according to Karat, “are the enemy of the society and the country.”
I’m always hesitant to climb on to any bandwagon, and I’ve always had a Grouchovian allergy to all the various clubs of Bengali and Calcutta intellectuals. But in this instance I find myself running after the crowded bus marked ‘Enemies of the Society’. If there are no seats on this jam-packed bus, I’m willing to stand, I’m willing to hang out from a door, risking life and limb like a proper Calcuttan, my fingers curled desperately around the dhoti, shirt-end or jhola of the nearest securely fastened buddhijibi. And as I cling on, let me shout out loud and clear so that there is no room for misunderstanding: the CPI(M) ruling Bengal are fascists.
Okay, no. It’s not fair to compare a thinking, erudite, witty man such as Buddha babu to Modi. Narendra Kasai oversaw the planning and execution of his ‘pogramme’. He most likely gave instructions to his party goons to go and kill fellow Gujaratis. Buddha babu did no such thing. He never had any control of his cadres in the first place. He sat there at the centre of the bhadralok tier of the party from March to November, leafing through his books of prose and poetry while his goons let loose murder and rape on the people of Nandigram.
In Gujarat, Modi played a blood-drenched ‘one-day game’ against his own people and the whole thing was over in a couple of months. In West Bengal, the CPI(M) has been playing a Test match of the old, limitless variety. They have spent the best part of 30 years eroding values, principles, justice, all solely for the greater glory of the party and its leaders. The Sangh parivar’s modus operandi in Gujarat is quite different from the CPI(M)’s in Bengal and Calcutta — the organised, cold-blooded, clamp, grip and brutality of the party boys more closely resembles that of the Shiv Sena in Maharashtra and Bombay. In fact, you could argue that the Thackeray Thugs took the model from the CPI(M) across the 80s and early 90s, and that the Sena then tried to improve upon the original but failed, at least in terms of repeated election slam-dunks.
For anybody involved in observing and documenting culture in West Bengal, the writing has been on the wall for as long as about two decades, and quite unmistakably from December 1992 onwards. The Left Front honeymoon that began in 1977 was long, unnaturally stretched by the return of Indira Gandhi and the resurgent fascism of the Congress and their death-bhangra with the Khalistanis; given ballast by the horror of the communal riots in Gujarat across the 80s; given flattering contrast by recurring incidents such as the massacre of working class Muslims by the Provincial Armed Constabulary in Meerut. But, as the rest of the country burned, as Kashmir became a suppurating mess, as Bofors cannoned into our consciousness followed by the after-blast of Mandal followed by the cancerous radiation of Hindutva, what the CPI(M) was doing in Bengal was quietly following a one-point agenda: making sure that no other satrap came within sniffing distance of political power for a generation.
This was managed at a criminally huge cost — to cultures, both traditional and contemporary; to society, both rural and urban; and to any genuine braking system of conscience, across the state, class and communities. It is not a coincidence that there has come no great cinema out of Bengal since the CPI(M) took over: there was no money, no space for cinema, forget of dissent but even of quiet truth-telling of the kind Satyajit Ray strived for. It is no coincidence that the once vibrant Bangla theatre has shrivelled; nor that so many rural crafts traditions have died or face imminent extinction; nor that several rural performative traditions have met the same or worse fate as the ones in Rajasthan and Gujarat. If an art form didn’t fit with the crude propagandist ‘progressive aesthetic’ of the Left, it wasn’t going to be supported. If the tradition or innovation was subversive in any way, it had to be uprooted or starved of water till it died or mutated. Some of this was conscious, some of it just came from a cretinous disregard for the fine, fragile weave of memory and grace.
Looking back, a Modi, a Thackeray, an Ayatollah or a Maoist Naxaliban couldn’t have done a better job of burning down potentially rich rainforests of creative endeavour. In the communists’ West Bengal of the 80s and 90s, Art, surreptitiously, became a Class Enemy. This was because real art is about disagreement, about holding up an accurate (though not necessarily realist) mirror, about taking risks and, in turn, about enticing people to think outside the box. The CPI(M) could not afford that. In 1977, the Left Front inherited a culturally damaged Bengal. Instead of working to resuscitate that culture, they raped it. It is from this violation that come the subsequent strippings and rapes of Birati and Bantola, and now of Nandigram.
It all became, as it too often does, about the money that brings power and about the power that brings money. The people of the state, their multifarious needs, the principles upon which those needs could be met, all went out of the equation years ago. The worst elements, the jihadis and Hindutvats, were quietly coddled: “Within your community, you can do what you like,” they were told, “build revanchist madrasas, fund the VHP, capture real estate, whatever. Just make sure you support us, vote for us, keep our coffers lined, we who give you this space, this private playground.” And now, to each side this government throws scraps: to the millionaires they give the situation that throws up the body of Rizwanur Rahman; to the Muslim underclass they will now gift a missing person, a Taslima-shaped hole.
In the meantime, we, the enemies of country and society, are expected not to point out the huge nexus between powerful people in the party and industrialists. We are expected to give the ‘Lal Salaam’ to anti-American rhetoric; we are expected to see Nandigram as a ‘natural reaction’; we must now say that the rioting mobs of November 21, even though manipulated by the Opposition, had a genuine grievance. Oh, and yes, we have to accept that if we call both CPI(M) Bengal and BJP Gujarat fascist, we don’t really understand the meaning of fascism.
Ruchir Joshi is a writer and film-maker