Govind Nihalani’s fashionably depressing 1998 film on the Naxalite movement starred Jaya Bachchan as the benighted mother of corpse number 1084. It was based on Mahasweta Devi’s Jnanpith Award winning book (1974), released just after the Left Front assumed power in West Bengal, in 1973. Hajar Chaurashir Ma (Bengali, Hazaar Chaurasi ki Ma in Hindi) described the murderous class-war, compared to which above-ground Communist rule seemed moderate.
Did the Left Front redistribute the agricultural land from the much-maligned zamindar to the small farmer? Yes, but in the interests of labour-intensive farming, it left out the productivity of mechanisation and innovative practices. Result: continued poverty with a new set of mai-baap. And an economy based on rural cadre-based goonda enforcers channelling State deficit-financed handouts for compliance, and block votes.
However, at the time, playing to the persistent illusions of a liberal-left universe, the book and film endorsed the Naxalite message of overthrowing the established order. All for the sake of justice, equality, dignity, in a utopia to come.
Of course, the self-same Naxalite movement has not died. It has morphed into today’s Maoism, replete with its China-supported guerrillas. It has urban cheerleaders in leftist universities. Writer Arundhati Roy described them gushingly as “Gandhians with guns” in a cover essay in Outlook.
The Naxalites/Maoists still operate from jungle hideouts and conduct pitched battles of attrition with the Indian state. The Naxalite, for all his bloodthirstiness, has to a remarkable extent captured the Bengali imagination. Since the mid-sixties, the intelligent Bengali brain has been fevered, like that of a 19th-century consumptive, with fitful dreams of revolution, behind glittering, bespectacled eyes.
That this revolution has been betrayed continuously seems of little consequence to the Bengali. It has been sold-out, not so much by the hated “bourgeoisie”, although the parlous Indian middle-class, through the decades of socialist India, was hardly fit for the moniker. No, the whole sorry business was betrayed by his own lack of betterment, his pedestrian penury.
[pullquote]The Bengali, given to excitability, grandiloquence and melancholia at the best of times, gradually developed a victimhood psychosis. This was not helped by the national side-lining of its heroes by Nehru — Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose and Syama Prasad Mookerjee amongst them.[/pullquote]
Nevertheless, with stubborn loyalty, generations of Bengalis have allowed themselves to be willingly swallowed up by resounding ideas from Marx and Mao. These were imbibed on doorsteps and parks and the tiny tea shops of their youth. The ideas echoed in their heads even as nothing changed for the better, and their physical environment decayed around them.
When these impractical, mostly unsuccessful, but otherwise decent folk became old, the arguments wore thin. Now, they sometimes shook their heads in doubt and anger. But it was difficult to denounce a life-long infatuation gone wrong.
It is a grand prejudice after all. The result: if not outright poverty then something like it. The goal never changed. Yet, like in George Orwell’s Animal Farm, there were those who were evidently more equal than others.
There is something in the Bengali temperament that, in common with the Punjabis, dreams of justice. Theirs is, of course, the other state scarred by Partition. Both people are capable, if their blood is aroused, of doing themselves more harm than good. Did it begin with resistance against the Moghuls in undivided Punjab? Did it segue into attacks on the British Raj in the 19th and early 20th centuries? After Jalianwala Bagh, something definitely happened.
In undivided Bengal, it was revolutionary bomb-making and pistol work against the Raj too. This, even as a section was accomplished, rich, subtly debauched, collaborators.
Then the first partition came in the shape of Curzon’s action of 1905. Next, the Capital was moved away to Delhi, in 1911. And then, both Punjab and Bengal got it in the neck in the Partition of 1947, courtesy Mountbatten, Jinnah and Nehru.
The Bengali, given to excitability, grandiloquence and melancholia at the best of times, gradually developed a victimhood psychosis. This was not helped by the national side-lining of its heroes by Nehru — Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose and Syama Prasad Mookerjee amongst them.
Then, with the onslaught of the Naxalites, their brutal suppression that killed off the flower of Calcutta youth, and prolonged the left rule, its industry fled. To date, old Calcutta hands from all over the country and some foreigners too, prefer living and thriving in Mamata Didi’s Kolkata. However, some of them, originally Marwari trader-industrialist Bengalis, relocated their factories to Gujarat at the first signs of trade union trouble. Others, grand Raj names like Metalbox, just died. British owned tea majors sold out to the Marwaris.
Only cigarette major ITC stayed on, refusing to shift its HQ, even in 2019. The company’s grand white building on Chowringhee, its posh flats, the annual general meetings announcing fat profits, its denizens hobnobbing at Tollygunge Club, still impart a whiff of the old imperial Calcutta.
Just when it seemed nothing could ever change, the left front was thrown out of power after 34 years, lock stock and barrel. Curiously, its replacement, the Trinamool (Congress), seemed, if anything, to be a more extreme version, despite professing reasonably vanilla centre-left credentials.
It was extreme in all except the name, and its preference for the colour blue — in a cerulean shade. It was granted an election symbol of three nursery book flowers, (jora ghas phul). This replaced the left’s hammer and sickle, often accompanied by Mao’s profile and translations out of his Red Book, on all the wall campaigns in West Bengal.
[pullquote]For the people, the BJP rule may well usher in a renaissance, the likes of which have not been since the British Raj centred itself in Calcutta with Job Charnock. West Bengal will receive massive investment under the BJP rule as the metropolis and entrepot for the east and north-east of India.[/pullquote]
Almost another decade has gone by since 2011 when Trinamool first came to power. It won 184 seats in the 294-seat legislature at the head of a 227-seat alliance with others, including the Congress.
But, like the BJP is about to now, Trinamool, that originally broke away from Congress, won 19 Lok Sabha seats in 2009 for the first time. As the political climate changes, what can we expect in future?
It has been a long, if unfulfilling, partnership with the communists by any name, lasting nearly half a century. The people were reluctant to dissolve such a long partnership, but when Mamata Banerjee put the rights of the Muharram processions ahead of the Durga Puja bisarjan (idol immersion), it was the first of the last straws.
Today, people are remembering, prompted by a Jai Shri Ram shouting and Ram Navami procession organising BJP, that it was Bengal that was the original home of the Hindu Mahasabha. And that Syama Prasad Mookerjee was its leading light. That Mookerjee went on to establish the Jana Sangh that became today’s BJP, before dying early, at the age of just 53 in Kashmir, gives the forward march of the BJP in West Bengal a special fervour.
It is likely, after it wins about half of the Lok Sabha seats in 2019, that the BJP will win the next Assembly election too. It has its strategic heart set on not only capturing the State but also securing most of its 42 seats to Parliament as well in due course.
For the people, it may well usher in a renaissance, the likes of which have not been since the British Raj centred itself in Calcutta with Job Charnock. West Bengal will receive massive investment under the BJP rule as the metropolis and entrepot for the east and north-east of India. The net effect is going to be like the lifting of an ancient curse, a Sleeping Beauty coming to life, liberty, and prosperity, after a lost fifty years. The BJP will move to never be parted from this hard-won, spiritually inspiring, key State again.
The communist excesses and dangerously subversive Islamic ways of the past will be checked. Transformations will be wrought just as in Tripura and Assam. The National Register of Citizens will be strictly applied. West Bengal will become the hub of India’s Act East Strategy, and its linkages with Bangladesh, Myanmar, Thailand and who knows, even China.
This is a new dawn that promises to lead to a long season of glorious days.