An image-change is always tempting. It gives the impression of a fresh start, a hint that old promises may now be fulfilled, and old habits thrown out wholesale. Calcutta had been making tentative moves towards such an image overhaul quite frequently in the recent past. A new work culture coupled with budding infrastructural improvement provide the essential features of Calcutta’s new image. In this context, to be known as the city of strikes, bandhs, rallies and processions was no longer considered a desirable mark of distinction, it turned investors away. For a short while, it almost seemed that Calcutta was going to make the changeover, and actually become — even if not in a day or a week — a smooth-running, businesslike, comfortable city where civic and urban values would be regarded as priorities. The number of bandhs and political rallies in the very recent past, however, should have indicated to the optimistic that Calcutta has been unable to shed its old skin. The anti-war rally yesterday, which routinely caused enormous traffic disruption for a few hours, showed that the image-change had been a mere illusion. Calcutta is back to business, the business that it knows best.
It is true that demonstrations and rallies against the attack by the United States of America and the United Kingdom on Iraq have been taking place in urban centres all over the world. But processions and rallies are not commonplace in these cities, any public rally in a serious cause is therefore bound to have a completely different impact in those places. Calcutta’s special history is its own enemy. Protests here have no edge, they are perceived merely as routine noises and as cause of welcome or unwelcome disruption. And there is another angle as well. Delhi too saw an anti-war rally yesterday, in which the organizers had strictly forbidden any political posters. Calcutta’s rally was characteristically conducted by 19 left parties, its colour was unmistakeably red. A protest against war, to be taken seriously, must also be seen to rise above regional and national politics. Paradoxically, this is a political position that must be taken without the party flag, because that is irrelevant. However sincere in their intentions the organizers may be, there is always a level at which a protest by a conglomeration of particular political parties would be seen locally as a show of political strength. Which is an invitation to another such rally by other political parties. Until Calcutta can get out of this spiral, rallies and demonstrations will remain just another sign that Calcutta continues to be the city it always was.