There are always some words and phrases that change meaning or lose it completely at certain points in history. For West Bengal right now it is the phrase, ‘work culture’. It is important for the employee to have a workplace, otherwise it is impossible to show off the highly developed skill of not doing the work for which he or she is paid. That is a serious point of pride. Actually doing the work one is paid for is to give in to the Establishment; the real triumph lies in having employers — mantle-bearers of the Establishment — shoulder the responsibility of their employees’ livelihoods while the employees come and go, talking of protests and prices, if not of Michelangelo. Or not come at all. If there is even the whisper of a bandh, for example, it is only polite, gentlemanly, to let it succeed.
While ‘work’ means nothing at all, ‘culture’ in this state means music, dance, the visual arts, highbrow cinema or amateur theatre. As though any of this could have been produced without ‘work’, but then, West Bengal does not encourage logic. Which is why the hard logic of the remarks made by the chief justice of the Calcutta High Court, A.K. Mishra, may have sounded an alien chord. There is no point in passing orders about strikes in a “country” where there is no work culture, the chief justice is reported to have said.
The chief justice’s remarks were made in response to a public interest litigation brought against the bandh on February 20 called by the Left. There was enough in his apparent tone of resignation to shame West Bengal. A lack of work culture, however, has a lack of shame as corollary. The chief justice did not mention the name of the state, but the cap fits only too well. Mr Mishra made the people responsible for work culture. By reportedly saying that the “common people” need to realize how these strikes disrupt their lives, the chief justice hit a double target. That is, only if the people of West Bengal concertedly resist the disruption to work will bandhs and hartals fail and political ploys become irrelevant. In a democracy, the will of the people will always have primacy; no political leader will dare go against it. Work culture will triumph if the people are willing, and if they are, politicians will have to bow to their will.
A culture of bandhs is indicative of the politicians’ distance from the people, for the loss caused by disruption of work affects the people the most. And this distance is a problem in a different way too. The deep politicization of a state like West Bengal means that venturing out on the day of a bandh called by a political party may result in difficulties, even violence, for “common people”. So, defending work culture implies both commitment and strategy in a region that has forgotten what it means. Bandhs are a form of political bullying; only concerted resistance can defeat this.