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Mainstream, Vol XLVIII, No 42, October 9, 2010

Role of the Intellectuals in West Bengal

Thursday 14 October 2010


by Debraj Bhattacharya

Dipanjan Rai Chaudhuri, in his reply to Sumanta Banerjee’s Open Letter to the intellectuals of West Bengal (Mainstream, September 4, 2007), has tried to convince us that the only way in which the movement for democracy can be strengthened is by supporting the TMC in its quest for power in the next Vidhan Sabha elections. Rai Chaudhuri, a radical Leftist, is of the opinion that firstly CPI-M must be overthrown by supporting the TMC and then “people will learn that storming the state is much more than changing a government”. In other words, after defeating the CPI-M by supporting the TMC to come to power the people of the State will then start the movement for deepening democracy in the State. In my opinion, he is dangerously wrong.

As things stands now, there are three distinct possibilities in the next election—(a)the Left Front retaining power with a narrow margin, (b) the TMC plus INC coming to power with a narrow margin, and (c) hung Assembly. What the result will be will, to a large extent, depend on what the rural voters ultimately decide and I am afraid that urban intellectuals will have very little influence on the process. The question before them is: what should be their intellectual position at this historic juncture? The intellectuals of West Bengal are likely to remain divided in 2011 without any clear opinion on either side. To think that they can actually change the political fortunes of the State is to indulge in megalomania.

In my opinion, what the intellectuals, assuming that they do not want power and perks from any particular regime, should focus on is what the State of West Bengal needs at the moment rather than on which party should come to power. The intellectuals, especially of the Leftist variety, need to prove that instead of neo-liberal industrialisation it is possible to have socialist industrialisation. They need to show how the gram sansads can become nerve-centres of people’s participation. They need to research and find out ways in which the PDS system can be improved. They need to show how the education system and the health care system can be improved. The intellectuals need to show how Kolkata and other urban areas can become a model for urban living for rest of the country. Intellectuals need to take to the streets in order to fight for better implementation of the flagship programmes such as the NREGS and NRHM. In other words, intellectuals need to use their intellect to solve the problems that the State is facing currently and oppose all forms violation of human rights by the political parties. They need to stand up and say, and give the people the courage to say, that a better democracy is needed in West Bengal.

THE idea that firstly the CPI-M has to be removed and then only everything else will follow is a dangerous line to take. Why not start building a civil society movement even before the elections are decided? Instead of focussing on strengthening the civil society movement which had sprung up during Singur, Nandigram and the unfortunate death of Rizwanur Rahman, the intellectuals have ended up strengthening the TMC as they believe that only if the TMC wins and the CPI-M loses that West Bengal can hope to have a better future. The answer is clearly no. The future of West Bengal will depend on how far the people of West Bengal are able to push their government (whichever be the party in power) towards better governance.

In order to do this it is absolutely imperative that the intellectuals remain independent from any party umbrella and avoid any kind of favours offered to them by the political parties. Unfortunately in West Bengal a large number of intellectuals have failed to do this. In the process they have lost the ability to criticise all political parties and have become partisan. This is particularly shameful in a State which boasts of its intellectual heritage.

I am reminded here of the role that Rabindranath Tagore used to play as an intellectual. He was capable of criticising both the colonial as well as the nationalists if he felt that he needed to do so. He wrote against the atrocities of British rule as well as against the wrong political practices of the nationalist leaders. He never hesitated to argue against the nationalist leaders on the pretext that this would strengthen the colonial state. Surely, Tagore is not a bad role-model for today’s intellectuals of the State to emulate.

The author belongs to the Institute of Social Services, New Delhi. He can be contacted at e-mail:

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