Bengal is in focus once again. And once again it is because of an issue related to intolerance â€“ intolerance of dissent and the related right to express freely views and opinions that may be unpalatable. Thus the virtual abolition of Salman Rushdie from Kolkata, where he was supposed to be in connection with the release of Midnightâ€™s Children.
There are two ways of looking at this problem. One looks back at history; the other grounds itself in contemporaneous times. The mythology of the historical view would speak of Bengalâ€™s â€˜proudâ€™ history of intellectual toleration, radical ferment and its robust tradition of protest. The other would speak of parochialism, narrowness of vision, insularity and a kind of cultural pride detested in other parts of India, if not the world. There is truth in both these perspectives, but letâ€™s begin with the latter.
The facts of the Rushdie case are not clear yet. But we know that the writer was supposed to visit Kolkata but could not because there was some kind of intervention to prevent it. Trinamool Congress MP Sultan Ahmed was on television castigating Rushdie for his literary output and congratulating West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee for keeping him out. Rushdie has described the situation in the country as â€˜cultural emergencyâ€™.
The point here is that Bengal has not been the land of free thought and cultural innocence that many people have imagined it to be. There have been high-profile cases of cultural censorship: the Left Front government ejected Bangladeshi writer Taslima Nasreen after protests by Muslim groups a few years ago is one such. But the point is that you should not focus on these cases. Intolerance in Bengal has had many faces â€“ not all incidents get reported in the national media.
After the Left Front came to power in 1977, and Left student unions similarly started dominating campuses through the state, a Bengali phrase started gaining currency â€“ apasanskriti. The word literally means bad culture or degeneracy. Any form of life that did not meet with the approval of the mandarins of Alimuddin Street â€“ especially the legendary state secretary of the party and the architect of Left ascendancy, Promode Dasgupta â€“ was apasanskriti. This encompassed matters sartorial, gastronomic, and musical â€“ the whole shooting match as it were.
Much after PDGâ€™s untimely demise, a principal of a Calcutta college sent home a female student because she wasnâ€™t wearing a sari. There were multiple repetitions of such incidents with respect to female students and teachers in a variety of educational institutions. This kind of institutional intolerance is not regime-specific â€“ it happened repeatedly during the 34 years the Left Front was in power; it continues to happen under the current dispensation.
The point then is how does this square with Bengalâ€™s supposed heritage of free thinking and unrestrained intellectual ferment. A part of the answer must be located in the mythology itself. Bengal had never been and is not some kind bastion of progressive thinking. Alongside the advance guard of â€˜progressionâ€™ there has always been a foundation of conservatism. The Left movement actually encompasses the two trends â€“ of cultural conservatism and political radicalism. The idea of apasanskriti neatly encapsulates this contradiction.