West Bengal prides itself on not being Gujarat. And although the chief ministers of the two states have recently shaken hands ' the National Integration Council makes strange bedfellows ' pogroms and communism have never quite gelled. So, Mr Qutubuddin Ansari ' the 'face' of the Gujarat massacres ' had been given refuge for a while in Calcutta, the fabled secular haven. Yet, every now and then, there are slippages within the prevailing image of this secular, casteless state that speak of a darker reality. Since early last week, Ms Moushumi Misra, of Panipur in West Bengal, has been boycotted by some of the staff and parents of the school in which she teaches, together with other inhabitants of her village, for not making a secret of her romantic relationship with Mr Rafikul Mondol, a teacher from another school in Panipur. It has been deemed, collectively, an offence for a Hindu woman to be so openly in love with a Muslim man ' and for that love to be fearlessly reciprocated. One section of the parents has raised its voice against Ms Misra for being such a corrupting influence on her students. Even the local rickshawpullers have refused to take her to school. The general demand has been for her dismissal. The threats to her safety within the local community have forced her to take the help of the police. The teacher-in-charge of her school has taken a rather evasive line that does not really confront the main issue ' it is unlawful to agitate against 'personal matters'.
The shocking interference with Ms Misra's 'personal' liberty as an adult exposes a set of attitudes in her community that instantly transcends the personal to become a public and political issue. From schoolteachers to rickshawpullers, a consensus has been reached across distinct social strata on the implications of Ms Misra's behaviour. This West Bengal does not quite square with the prevalent happy myths. Yet this is the West Bengal where schoolchildren are barred by their parents from eating their mid-day meals in school because these meals have been cooked by women from a lower caste. And these are not 'stray' incidents, as the government would like to believe in its state of outrage. Nor will this unpleasant reality be transformed by 'settling' these disputes 'amicably' in the local shalishi courts, tacitly patronized by the party. The malaise lies deeper.