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Mainstream, VOL LI, No 14, March 29, 2014

Culture of Political Vendetta overtakes Cultural Vibrancy of West Bengal

Reflections on Prof Sunil Ray’s article

Wednesday 2 April 2014

by Rajeshwar Mishra

The Background

I am quickly bogged down by the mathematical modelling and theoretical complexities explain-ing human behaviour pertaining to society, economy, politics and culture. When, therefore, somebody is able to explain, in non-jargonised fashion, complex social phenomenon I feel encouraged to engage myself. It is in this context that I appreciate Prof Sunil Ray’s article on the culture of political vendetta in West Bengal as published in Mainstream. (‘Who Gains when a Poor Kills another Poor?: Reminiscing the Past and Reflecting the Present’, Annual Number, December 28, 2013) The simple non-jargonised style in which he narrates and explains a complex political phenomenon is, beyond doubt, equally interesting and simple to understand discourse even for those not trained in political epi-stemology.

While Prof Ray has had his own understan-ding, I had an opportunity to share my observation with him quite some time ago and discuss about the rampant fragmentation of social relationship in general and how the Bengali society, in particular, is losing its integrated and robust cultural endowment. My intention was not, however, aimed at belittling the culture but was by way of expressing my concerns which we incidentally shared. I am so much influenced by the cultural vibrancy and rich repertoire of the Bengali society that I aspire having their reflection in concrete ways of life. I have no deep exposure of the scholarly literature nor do I have any formal training in the study of culture except that my wife speaks fluent Bengali and dresses like Bengali women do. My admiration for the society and culture of Bengal, therefore, is based more on my emotional calls and can be dismissed as lacking in depth and objectivity. I am ready to risk this.

Having read his article I decided to share the same with wide groups of people including SHG members, PRIs, social activists and with those whom I have been freely chatting on several issues. This I did during my recent visit to North Bengal and tried to have the views of a cross-section of people on the article and the concerns shown in it. This, in any way, was an attempt at validation—it was to share the concerns and provoke some forward thinking.

Wider Agreements

I have no allegiance to any political party and therefore my interaction is diverse and wide, cutting across political affiliations. There is growing concern expressed by people at the fast depleting social capital. Political affiliation, as I see, is no more an article of faith or call to a particular ideology. It is, rather, a matter a convenience. When I ask a rural woman, who till recently belonged to a political party but immediately shifted to another one, about her change of affiliation she was candid in her response: ‘How can I swim against the current? It is difficult and I want to survive, not to be hoodwinked and marginalised.’ She cited several examples which have witnessed retaliation by the dominant political parties. According to her, Panchayat after Panchayat have shifted their loyalties and only the banners and symbols have changed, not the people.

A social activist, Subrata Majumadar, from Jalpaiguri town says he is surprised: ‘Where has the political ideology gone?’ What was the level and depth of political recruitment and tra-ining—he asks to himself. He cites the example of one of his friends, a teacher at the local degree college, who was considered a firebrand ideologue and champion of a party and is now comfortable with a new party where he sees a fertile future.

While sharing the article with women-members of an SHG, I found some of them becoming so emotional. Amader Sabkichhu Nasto Kore Felichhe (they have spoiled everything for petty considerations)—occupying a seat in the school committee or getting a position in the local committee is all that matters to them. With such a short-term vision how can the society pride in its cultural endowments? The confidence has run out so much and assumed such fragile proportions we feel traumatised—where is our society heading to—they sadly asked.

A very senior leader of a powerful political party was honest in saying that ‘our party ensured minimum sustenance and dignity but we did not see the world beyond petty interests. Our recruitment process and training of the cadre has dwarfed their thinking and vision to the most basic level. This is what has cost us enormously.’ He quickly suggests that built on these weak ideologies the political structure is going to play havoc on the cultural and social edifice of the society which has been so vibrant and strong! But how can a vibrant society become so brittle and collapse so soon?

A cultural activist offers quite a plausible explanation. The cultural institutions have been co-opted and the management and financial controls have been usurped by the state controlled by the political party in power. The addas and clubs that used to pursue and follow cultural activities have been relegated to being extensions of political identity.

The recruitment of political cadre is consi-dered to take place through the college and university unions. They no longer represent the interest of the students—they are extensions of the agenda of the political parties and the dominant party tries to usurp and twist the majority in its favour. The young minds become tempted to an exalted but vulgarised political position which offers status and authority rather than an institution for larger social change.

During my last visit to North Bengal I went to take dinner at a restaurant located near a city college. I found a crowd of students on the road with motorcycles parked around even during the late evening. I apprehended some problem. When I asked, somebody standing nearby observed—the counting of ballots for the election to the students union is going on and there is a rumour that there has been a tie between two parties and the counting has been stopped for recounting the next working day. Queried further, he and others in hushed tones predicted that the outcome would go in favour of the ruling party. ‘This is going to spoil our children at the hands of the political bosses and we feel helpless—if the students don’t support a particular camp they will be taken to task.’ The punitive action may range from denial of basic benefits to physical manhandling and thrashing. This is a cause of concern as this dynamics stifles and nips in the bud constructive political orientation.

Needless to say such an environment is an antithesis to creativity and innovation which the Bengali society has been proudly endowed with in the past.

Coming out of the Web of Pessimism—Is there a Possible Way Out?

Everything does not, however, seems to have been lost. Beyond politics the society has the knack for creative engagement in the socio-cultural aspects cutting across political conside-rations. Consider some of the secular and neutral nouns and pronouns—Bengal presents a unique feature. These are used for different religious groups. Use of Thakurmaaforgrandmother and Dadufor grandfather are used by all religious groups. Durgapuja has the enthusiastic participation of all the religious groups. Football, perhaps, is the favourite game that they prefer to play and nostalgically watch. The tarnished image created by the recent incidents of violence against women has definitely proved to be a slur but the girls in Bengal still enjoy freedom and a sense of equality in the society. A for peaceful coexistence the Uttar Banga Terai Mahila Samittee (UBTMS) has Saudamini Burman as its Secretary and Lakhi Rani Roy as the Vice President—they subscirbe to distinctly different political ideologies. The executive members have similar mixed combinations. At no point of its more than ten years of existence has there been any conflict generated by the ambivalent political composition. This is important to understand the dynamics of peaceful coexistence and a melody of diversity.

What I am trying to convey is that Bengal offers great examples of the basics being reasonably in place. What Prof Ray’s article has done is this: it has flagged off issues and underlying urgencies. The way people have responded to his observations point to the presence of reason and sanity to the real-life issues and cultural endowments which the intellectuals and those in touch with the field realities need to collectively work with and in tandem. Prof Ray passionately brought out issues while I tried to take the message across in order to feel the pulse of the people vis-a-vis the issues as portrayed. People offered constructive responses either by denouncing the creeping discordant situation or by at least displaying agreement with the views and inevitably by being on the side of the concerns—the party did not come in the way of objective and rational perceptions.

This offers a case for synergy among those who strongly feel about the mounting maladies and those who want to use the intellectual investigation and analysis to expose the people and thereby create critical consciousness. Bengal may again be the harbinger of a renaissance which alone can set the maladies right. Change of parties in power does not seem to guarantee the prosperity of the people and tranquillity and harmony across communities which continue cultivating false a sense of grudge based on unfounded sense of insecurity.

To me, the rich intellectual and cultural endowment of West Bengal needs to be preserved and the intellectual rhetoric should be oriented and tuned to reach the people in a simple-to-understand fashion. Prof Sunil Ray and the likes of him have a much larger role to play in working on the sensitivities of the people.

A social scientist, formerly working with the A.N. Sinha Institute of Social Studies, Patna (Bihar) with a brief stint at the Central University of Bihar, where Prof Ray teaches. He has been working with the North Bengal rural communities for over 19 years first as the Social Development Adviser of a bilateral project and is now associated with a community-based Centre for the Development of Human Initia-tive (CDHI) in Jalpaiguri. Mishra is also the non-Bengali friend Prof Ray has referred to in the article.