Mainstream, Vol. XLVIII, No 38, September 11, 2010
An Open Letter to Mahashweta Debi, D. Bandyopadhyay, Suvaprasanna, Sujato Bhadra and Other Friends...
Friday 17 September 2010, by#socialtags
[(Sumanta Banerjee, an eminent political activist-cum-author and journalist, has written the following open letter to distinguished intellectuals, literary figures, artists and human rights activists of West Bengal criticising their current alignment with Trinamul Congress chief Mamata Banerjee with the objective of electorally defeating the CPI-M in the forthcoming Assembly polls next year. We are publishing, for the benefit of our readers, this piece along with a reply to Sumanta Banerjee by a noted academic of Kolkata, Dipanjan Rai Chaudhuri, that was sent to us for publication. —Editor)]
It is with a certain sense of trepidation and misgiving that I have been watching your decision to support Mamata Banerjee of the Trinamul Congress in order to oppose the misrule of the criminal and corrupt CPI-M-led Left Front Government. Your backing of Mamata Banerjee has sinister implications and will bode ill for West Bengal politics. One expects Bengali intellectuals of your stature to have the courage to chart out an independent course of action and form an alternative platform (committed to the values of socialism, democracy and secularism) that would restore morality in Bengali politics, and be free of control of an unscrupulous and opportunist politician like Mamata.
Let me explain my stand on the present situation in West Bengal, and clarify the points raised by me above. First, I strongly feel that the CPI-M must not only be ousted from power in West Bengal, but politically exposed on the national scene as a party that does not deserve to be called Leftist any more. It has besmirched the cause of socialism by resorting to fascist atrocities and crass corruption in two States it rules—West Bengal and Kerala. It has built up a wealthy party bureaucracy that sustains on the support of a well-organised gang of armed ‘party-cadres’ (goons and extortionists known as ‘harmads’ in West Bengal), and agents of the corporate sector (who bribe the CPI-M leaders and Ministers to worm their way into the heart of the economy of Kerala). A query under RTI has revealed that the CPI-M is the fourth richest political party in India after the Congress, the BJP, and the BSP. As evident from its policies as a ruling party in West Bengal and Kerala, it has given up the cause of the poor and the commitment it made in its party programme to establish a ‘People’s Democratic State’. The CPI-M today has therefore reduced itself to a party that is irrelevant to the cause of socialism and the democratic movement in India.
In these circumstances, I share your concerns about the plight of the villagers of Singur, Nandigram, Lalgarh and other places who have been facing repression by security forces in connivance with the CPI-M ‘harmads’. I also join you in protesting against the suppression of democratic rights of intellectuals and others in the name of repressing the Maoists in West Bengal. I also strongly condemn the killing of the Maoist leader Azad and the journalist Hemchandra Pande in a ‘false encounter’ organised by the Andhra Police under the go-ahead signal from Chidambaram’s Home Ministry in Delhi—an incident that has been quite understandably drawn protest from many among you. The silence of the CPI-M leaders on this atrocious incident speaks volumes about the party’s callous attitude towards the issue of human rights.
HAVING said this, I would now request you to consider the following questions:
First, by backing Mamata Banerjee, and some of you sharing public platforms at meetings organised by her party—the latest example being the August 9 rally at Lalgarh—are you not openly campaigning for her electoral success? Despite her claim that the rally was non-political and was held under the auspices of some organisation called ‘Santrash Birodhi Manch’ (or under some such designation), those of you who attended the meeting must have certainly observed the signs of domination of the rally by the Trinamul—the party’s flags furling all over, and Mamata being the main speaker. Surely, being intellectuals, you should have realised that you were being roped in for what was virtually a rally for the Trinamul’s electoral propaganda. So, am I to understand that you are asking the West Bengal electorate to vote for the Trinamul in the coming elections—in the name of ‘paribartan’ or change? Please make your definition of ‘paribartan’ clear in ideological and political terms.
Secondly, apropos of your present policy to support Mamata Banerjee, may I ask you whether you seriously believe that Mamata Banerjee and her Trinamul Congress are the desirable substitutes for the CPI-M? I am sure that most amongst you, who are veteran participants in West Bengal’s political and cultural developments during the last three or four decades, are aware of the nefarious role that Mamata Banerjee had played in the State’s politics. She started her political career as a Youth Congress leader, coming into limelight by leading a bunch of hoodlums in attacking Jayapraksh Narayan’s car in April 1975, when he came to address a meeting in Calcutta to protest against Indira Gandhi’s dictatorial policies that were to lead to the declaration of Emergency a few months later. She climbed on the bonnet of his car and danced while her followers smashed the windscreen and JP had a hair breadth of an escape. (The incident is recorded in contemporary newspapers, and must be known to Mahashweta Debi and others who lived through the horrors of that era.) All through the Emergency, Mamata remained a loyal storm-trooper of the Sanjay Gandhi-led Youth Congress brigade of gangsters which terrorised West Bengal and killed Leftist cadres. Ever since then, Mamata had honed her skills as a street-smart politician, depending on the muscle power of her followers, mouthing populist slogans and indulging in exhibitionist acts. Riding on this wave of populism, she managed to win her way to the Lok Sabha, and displayed her ugly opportunism by being a partner of the BJP in the Union Cabinet during the notorious regime of the NDA, and then after the electoral defeat of the BJP, switching over to the Congress-led UPA at the Centre today to occupy the coveted post of the Railway Ministry. What is her record as a Railway Minister? As everyone knows, in her populist zeal to inaugurate new railway lines, she is totally ignoring the safety requirements which is leading to increasing accidents. Besides, she is least interested in the responsibilities that she is required to carry out as a Railway Minister at the Centre.
She is sticking to her Ministership, which allows her to distribute largesse to her minions in West Bengal, and enjoy the protection of Central armed forces wherever she goes in West Bengal to address her (pre-electoral) meetings. How could you intellectuals—expected to be discerning in your judgment—believe that the August 9 public meeting at Lalgarh was a ‘non-political’ rally to protest against atrocities both by the CPI-M harmads and the CRPF in their joint operations? Didn’t you observe the hundreds of Central security forces—deployed by the same Central Government—to protect its Minister Mamata Banerjee and her convoy during her journey to Lalgarh and at the site of her meeting? So, what sort of a protest was this? A rally to oppose the CPI-M under the auspices of a Central Minister and under the umbrella of the Central security forces? Did any one from among you who shared the dais with Mamata, ask her directly why is she still a part of a Central Government which sends armed forces to Lalgarh to suppress popular protest? Why does she allow herself to be surrounded by the same security forces? If she is so concerned about the plight of the victims of the Central security forces, why isn’t she resigning from the Central Cabinet? Surely, you can’t have your cake and eat it.
LET me come to the other issue—the hope for a ‘paribartan’, a change for the better, under the Trinamul. Even before capturing the Writers’ Building (Mamata Banerjee’s dream), her party had a chance to set a model of better governance through capturing the panchayats. Her candidates did win a majority of the panchayats in West Bengal—riding on the wave of popular discontent and anger with the nepotism of the erstwhile CPI-M panchayat pradhans. But the record of the newly elected Trinamul panchayat pradhans and members is not covered with glory. Charges of corruption and intimidation—the same allegations that were leveled against their CPI-M predecessors—are already being voiced by villagers in several panchayats. (In fact, one of the Trinamul MPs, Kabir Suman, himself is on record, having protested against the greed and avarice of his party’s elected panchayat members.) Through the panchayat polls, West Bengal’s villagers have thus changed one set of cheats and oppressors with another. Do you want a repetition of a similar change—‘paribartan’—in the next Assembly elections, with the avaricious goons of the Trinamul (replicas of the CPI-M) becoming the ruling party?
Before concluding, let me answer another set of arguments that I often find being voiced by many from among your midst, in defence of Mamata Banerjee. These arguments have been eloquently expressed by the well-known intellectual, Asru Kumar Sikdar, in an article published in the journal Frontier (August 8-14, 2010). In support of Mamata’s credentials as a subaltern spokeswoman, Sikdar says: “She does not possess any pedigree or degrees from Oxbridge or Harvard…she did not have any godfather…” and then he elevates her to the status of a `phenomenon’, (echoing the sociologist Andre Beteille), as someone “who has consolidated the rise of the subalterns and antipathy of the people against the CPI-M into a solid mass…”.
Can I now please interrupt Asru Kumar’s outpouring of pro-Mamata sentiments by pointing out a few factual errors? First, even if Mamata did not have a “minor degree from the Presidency College”, in order to impress the urban intellectuals during her electoral campaigns in the 1980-90 period, she did flaunt the possession of a degree or doctorate from some US university —a claim which created a minor controversy in the newspaper columns in those days, with some reporters checking the facts with the university and finding her claims to be rather dubious! Secondly, Sikdar’s other contention that “she did not have any godfather” does not cut ice, since everyone acquainted with the political developments of West Bengal in the 1970s knows that the `godfather’ of the Congress in those days was Siddhartha Shankar Ray, who picked up and groomed characters like Mamata Banerjee, Priyaranjan Das Munshi, to be the leaders of the Youth Congress. Mamata did not suddenly arrive on the West Bengal political scene in the 2000s as a saviour of the poor— as Asru Kumar would have us believe. She has quite a long political career behind her, which had been shaped, and patronised at different stages, by Siddhartha Shankar Ray, Pranab Mukhopadhyay, and other Congress leaders. She had been reared upon the belief in muscle power alone to defeat political rivals and in populist slogans to woo the masses. What surprises me is that how can you forget this history of Mamata’s rise to power? Do you find any fundamental change in her beliefs, tactics that would make her and her party any different from the CPI-M?
I am not blaming Asru Kumar Sikdar (whom I respect as an eminent writer), or you who are my friends. I’m just expressing certain misgivings about the stand that you (Left-minded and liberal intellectuals) are taking in supporting Mamata Banerjee. Your stand reflects a dilemma which you are facing, and which you are trying to escape from by coming up with a rather simplistic rationalisation; since the Left has failed in West Bengal, the only alternative is the Trinamul. In order to justify this, you have to elevate Mamata to the status of a subaltern leader. As a member of your community, I can quite understand why you are resorting to this strategy. Guilt-ridden under the burden of our ‘Mirjafari Ateet’ (as described by the poet Samar Sen), we want to make penance for our past role as a class of toadies of British colonialism and our present role as a privileged community. In our efforts to identify ourselves with the under-privileged, in the past we joined the communist movement. In the present political scenario of West Bengal, where the leaders of the established Communist Parties have abdicated their role to represent the interests of the poor, you are looking for an alternative icon with a pro-poor image. Mamata Banerjee, in your opinion, fills that bill. Although she doesn’t come from the labouring classes, but from a typical urban educated Bengali family, she has managed to give voice to the raw anger of both the rural poor and the urban middle classes who are frustrated with the criminal and corrupt rule of the CPI-M. But, devoid of any ideological motivation, and lacking any far-reaching concrete programme of economic changes in West Bengal, she is merely concentrating on her short-term objective of winning an easy victory to power in the State in the next elections by whipping up a mass frenzy with her populist slogans. As for you, the Bengali intellectuals, who are rallying behind her today, I think you are again on a guilt-trip. The last time the trip had ideological moorings—Marxism. Today, it is stripped of any ideological motivations. So, you are willing to abandon ideologies (whether Marxism, Gandhism, or any social democratic ideals), and opt instead for valorising an unthinking populist tub-thumper. But, please don’t identify Trinamul’s vote-catching slogans and lumpen tactics with the basic problems of the rural and urban poor and the necessity for an enlightened and long-term solution to them. Some among you may be nurturing the hope of advising Mamata Banerjee and transforming her into a Chief Minister who would subscribe to your concept of ‘paribartan’. But, if you keep in mind her reputation of utter inefficiency as a Minister in the Union Cabinet, and her present single-track ambition of merely replacing Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee to occupy the coveted post of the Chief Minister in West Bengal, I don’t think you can hope from such an individual and her party any ‘paribartan’ that would lead to a better change for the poor.
LET me remind you in this connection of the bitter experience of the Left and liberal intellectuals outside West Bengal in the 1990s when they, in a similar fashion, elevated Shibu Soren, Laloo Yadav, Mulayam Singh Yadav, Mayawati as the subaltern leaders of the tribal communities, OBCs, and Dalits respectively. What happened? These so-called representatives of the oppressed were successively brought to power in Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and other States —supported by the Left and liberal intellectuals (your counterparts in these States). But once coming to power, these Chief Ministers have replicated the same model of governance as set by their Congress or BJP predecessors. Their regimes in Jharkhand, Bihar, UP are marked by scenes of horse-trading on Assembly floors, and tainted by cases of nepotism, financial scams, suppression of popular protests. Is Mamata Banerjee any different? Given her past record as a typical weathercock in Indian national politics, and the present record of her party as a corrupt functionary in West Bengal’s panchayats, can you seriously accept her as a leader of the Bengali oppressed poor to bring ‘paribartan’ in our State? Once elected as the West Bengal Chief Minister, she is likely to replicate the same model.
In these circumstances, shouldn’t you, as the intelligentsia of West Bengal, give a lead to an alternative movement? A movement for a third option? In the present bi-polar political situation in West Bengal, the people are left with no choice but the CPI-M or Trinamul only. There is an urgent need for an alternative strategy that restores morality in Bengali politics, puts an end to the goonda-raj of both the CPI-M and Trinamul varieties, and re-establishes the values of a socialist, democratic and secular society. Instead of clinging to Mamata Banerjee’s anchal, don’t you have the courage to create such an alternative platform by bringing together both Left-minded people and liberal democrats? A platform that will demarcate itself from the discredited CPI-M-led Left as well as from the opportunist politics of Mamata Banerjee. A platform from which, a new generation of political activists may emerge to work towards a basic change in the socio-economic structure in West Bengal.
August 22, 2010