Bengal is in focus once again. And once again it is because of an issue related to intolerance – 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 Midnight’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 Bengal’s ‘proud’ 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 let’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 ‘cultural emergency’.
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 – 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 – 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 – especially the legendary state secretary of the party and the architect of Left ascendancy, Promode Dasgupta – was apasanskriti. This encompassed matters sartorial, gastronomic, and musical – the whole shooting match as it were.
Much after PDG’s untimely demise, a principal of a Calcutta college sent home a female student because she wasn’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 – 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 Bengal’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 ‘progression’ there has always been a foundation of conservatism. The Left movement actually encompasses the two trends – of cultural conservatism and political radicalism. The idea of apasanskriti neatly encapsulates this contradiction.
In other words, Bengal is not that different from the rest of India. It is true that the Left Front government did manage ‘communal’ contradictions in the state so that there were no major eruptions of violence, but this also meant that the minorities, Dalits and tribal people continued to remain marginal in the public space. The fact that the political convulsions that northern India witnessed in the 1980s did not happen in Bengal meant that social contradictions had to be managed through a different kind of politics of accommodation. And this accommodation often translated itself as many kinds of appeasement – of all ‘communities’, let us hasten to add.
To return to the present, Rushdie’s banishment is of a piece, in Bengal, with several other kinds of intolerance that scar the state’s public life. Nasreen and Rushdie are victims of a climate of political and public intolerance that is pervasive. Thus ministers in Bengal call for the social boycott of people belonging to opposition parties in much the same vein that the previous dispensation used infiltration into all walks of life as a political strategy to ensure monopoly of power – schools, colleges, neighbourhood clubs were not exempted.
In other words, what drives public culture in Bengal is not so much some kind of reasoned debate as visceral inimicalities. This ‘us-and-them’ trope of politics in Bengal and its attendant violence has deeper roots, going back at least to the political instability of the late 1960s when Congress hegemony in the state started disintegrating through much of northern India.
This last reference to ‘northern India’ is important. It tells us that we should not look at Bengal as some oasis of political sanity – public life in Bengal is not that different from public life in the rest of the country. India, as a whole is being steadily overtaken by a culture of political intolerance and a degeneration of public life. There is no reason for Bengal to be different.
It would be tempting to ascribe, in the particular context of Bengal, this degeneration to impoverishment, immiserization and deprivation. These may play some part in creating a volatile constituency prone to random violence. But that is not, surely, the whole story. The most economically advanced states in India – Gujarat, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu – are home to greater incidences of mass violence.
In Bengal, which is where we started from, however, the politics of random violence will be difficult to overcome unless the politics of the public sphere undergoes a transformation away from instinctive confrontation and towards thought-through consultation. Political leaders cannot be blamed in entirety because confrontation as a form of conflict-resolution pervades the public sphere.
Unfortunately, ‘civil society’ has now become embroiled in this political conflict, to the extent that it finds itself unable to provide a space for debate. It seems unlikely that new political forms can be fashioned soon to provide public space for political deliberation.