Decline of Bengal, death of the bhadralok

From Rammohun Roy to Satyajit Ray to Tapas Pal, in Bengal the gap between an inherited ‘culture’ of the past and the social reality of today is probably greater than any other state, writes Sagarika Ghose.
By Sagarika Ghose | None
UPDATED ON JAN 03, 2015 06:48 PM IST

There is shock that West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee has not acted more firmly against Tapas Pal, the filmstar-turned-TMC MP caught on camera openly threatening rape. Pal has now unreservedly apologised, but a state with its first woman chief minister is today among the top three states in crimes against women.

Political discourse in Bengal has crashed to abysmal depths, cut-throat street violence finds a mirror in bloodcurdling threats and counter-threats. But why blame only the Trinamool for this degraded political culture?

Has there ever been and is there any traction on the ground in Bengal for acting against a politician who uses foul language against women? Not really. Banerjee has herself been the victim of foul abuse from CPI(M) leaders almost all her political life, Jyoti Basu refusing to even name her, instead calling her “that woman”.

CPI(M) leader Anil Basu has publicly raged about Banerjee and her “clients”. The language used by the Left for Banerjee belies the claim that the babus of Alimuddin Street are committed to bhadralok values.

In fact, the Tapas Pal incident reveals the death of the bhadralok in Bengal. Perhaps, it also sadly reveals just how shallow and fragile this bhadralok culture was in the first place. From Rammohun Roy to Satyajit Ray to Tapas Pal, in Bengal the gap between an inherited ‘culture’ of the past and the social reality of today is probably greater than any other state.

Why does a state, which was the birthplace of the Bengal renaissance, of Tagore, of Vivekananda, harbour and perpetuate such degraded politics? Mulayam Singh Yadav and Sharad Yadav are known for brazenly making anti-woman statements but neither Uttar Pradesh nor Bihar saw the kind of sweeping movements for social change as Bengal did.

The Bengal renaissance in the 19th century, the period of social and intellectual ferment, in many ways became the precursor to the national movement. The reformist Brahmo Samaj of Raja Rammohun Roy, progressive movements led by Derozio, laid the ground for politicians like SN Banerjee and CR Das.

Bengal’s greatest resource has been its educated class. The bhadralok (and some bhadramahilas), marked by his fluency in English and Bengali, passionate interest in the world, the connoisseur of fine fish and classical music, was once Bengal’s defining symbol.

Yet the bhadralok culture did not see a modern efflorescence because of the economic decline and grinding deprivation Bengal found itself in. Culture can hardly flourish in conditions of extreme poverty. In a glaring political failure, the bhadralok of the Left mobilised the masses not by raising them to higher levels of education and refinement, but by playing to low and base inclinations.

While the Bengali’s image is of an ‘intellectual babu’, yet now a determined anti-intellectualism and loutish machismo seem to have become fashionable. This is because Renaissance refinement never did become a mass movement. Satyajit Ray was possibly Bengal’s last Renaissance man, yet few of his films really resonated with a mass Bengali audience.

Bengal’s culture thus at this moment is not culture in the sense of a value system that informs society. ‘Culture’ is simply a flag, a political manifesto. Bengal’s political leaders do not use culture to reach out to the masses, instead if the Left flaunted Marx then the TMC now brandishes Tagore to beat down the opposition. So culture is not used to awaken the masses to a higher level of enlightenment of thought and speech. Culture is the political manifesto for opposite camps.

After three decades of Left rule, society’s organic roots to the past have been hacked and institutions are deeply politicised. Politicisation is the mentality of only-my-politics-is-acceptable.

Politicisation is so endemic that the TMC has inevitably ended up ushering in its own version of it. The larger social tragedy, in which excellence is considered elitism, where the rich and poor are seen as mortal enemies, where violent protest has been legitimised as the only method of so-called pro-poor politics, carries on.

The TMC not only won a massive victory in 2011, it has also consolidated its political dominance in municipal and civic polls since. But the promise of social poriborton remains to be realised. Instead, the political landscape in Bengal is becoming sharply competitive. With the BJP scoring an impressive 17% vote share, the TMC is on a collision course with the ruling party at the Centre.

In a highly volatile political climate, it is perhaps inevitable that language will plumb the lowest depths. Yet the continual attacks and abuse of women in the land of Durga continue to be a chilling reminder that Bengal’s famous gentility and sophistication remain restricted to the thin social strata, and the bhadralok has failed to carry his message of civility to the greater public.

It was a Bengali Congressman Abhijeet Mukherjee, son of the Rashtrapati, who called anti-rape protestors “dented painted women”, Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, the famously erudite chief minister, didn’t carry his intellectualism to his public rallies, and a highly educated TMC MP showed a terrible lack of gender sensitivity for the Park Street rape victim. When Sharad Yadav bellows “who amongst us has not chased a girl,” it’s hardly surprising.

The Hindi heartland’s anti-modern mindset is well-known. But when Tapas Pal goes even further than Hindi heartland leaders, Bengal’s cultural decline seems evident.

Today, Rabindra sangeet is played at traffic signals, school and higher secondary syllabi have been overhauled and there are efforts to make Presidency University a centre of excellence.

Yet it seems politicians are creating a new official language in Bengal, a language that subdues the voice of the ordinary Bengali, a language that is aggressive and crude and subjugates civilisation to competitive politics. Such language would indeed make Rabindranath Tagore turn in his metaphorical grave.

(Sagarika Ghose is a senior journalist. The views expressed by the author are personal.)

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