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JUST KEEP LEFT

Hopelessness comes naturally in Bengal. Still many Calcuttans had hoped, over the last couple of weeks, to regain some sort of control over improving the quality of their everyday lives in the city. But this brief phase of hoping has now ended — because something that is being called democracy has triumphed. The “people” have proved more powerful than an irate judge. It is alright again for Bengal’s political parties to hold rallies as and when and where they please. The legendary political-mindedness, and the equally legendary patience, of the people of this city will therefore remain in place, with their constitutional rights intact. They will be allowed to protest and also to move freely. There is something almost reassuring about this reinstated normalcy, with all its familiar irritations and absurdities. To some, perhaps most, Mr Amitava Lala’s fit of annoyance will be a mere ripple in the flow of the city’s civic history.

Yet this fruitless chapter raises disturbing questions about politics, law, citizenship and democracy for the government and civil society in West Bengal, and indeed about the relationship between these two entities in the state. Whom does the chief minister represent' Whom do the political parties represent' And how should the judiciary function in relation to these on the one hand, and to the people on the other' Who is the law and order machinery, particularly the police, accountable to' In the tussle for power, quite literally, over the streets of the city, in what relation do the citizen, the judge, the policeman, the chief minister and the party cadre stand to one another' How do the rights and prerogatives of each relate to the idea and practice of democracy'

In the last two weeks, the city has been witness to several forms of political and civic action and inaction, though not for the first time. It has seen vengeful lawlessness by party leaders and cadre; it has seen the brazen inability of the police to control, and even to acknowledge, this lawlessness; it has seen the chief minister first remaining silent over his party’s blatant flouting of the law, and then equivocating about this silence fancifully and meaninglessly. Through all this, the idea of democracy has been repeatedly invoked, linked to the politics of protest and of constitutional rights. Yet what the entire episode has pointed up is the chronic debasement of the very act of protesting, robbing it of all political meaning and effectiveness. In West Bengal today, it has become impossible to distinguish between the mindless and violent disruption of civic life from something as universally and humanely “political” as a peace march. The hijacking of protest by partisanship has rendered vital forms of public activism futile, forcing civil society to treat them with exasperation or indifference. A judge can do something with the anger that he feels when held up on his way to work, whatever may then be the outcome of his reaction. But most people in Calcutta have learnt to live with a sense of impotent and unhealthy outrage. They will now simply have to continue doing so.

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