The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Calcutta’s propensity to hark back to its past may be a reflection of the fact that it has a sterile present and a non-existent future. Only this can explain why certain people and organizations of the city protest in the most bizarre of ways. Some political parties and groups and certain individuals with left affiliations have decided to express their disapproval of the war the United States of America has unleashed on Iraq. They have the right to disapprove and to express their disapproval. Thus they march on the streets, hold up traffic and remain blissfully oblivious that their protests cause hardship to other people. If to protest is a right in a democracy then presumably the right to enjoy the civic amenities without let or hindrance is an equally important democratic right. But such considerations have little place in an atmosphere charged with simulated anger against an enemy very far away. Calcutta is the city where vicarious street battles are fought and never won. There is no other way to describe the shameful attack on a shop selling American-made sportsgoods or on a multinational bank. These forms of violence were very popular in the city in the Sixties and the Seventies. That was the period when communists, later to become ministers, chief ministers and advocates of law and order, chose to destroy public property and burn trams and buses as a form of protest. That was the period when students expressing allegiance to China attacked the United States Information Service and other known US-sponsored institutions. The results of this kind of violence are well known. Capital fled and West Bengal became an industrial desert. Calcutta has, or sections of its population have, chosen to revive this form of protest.

Some communists, in an ironic twist of fate, have turned Gandhian. They have called for a boycott of all US and British made goods beginning with of course, the most iniquitous, Coke, and going on to banks and so on. This is laudable, but where should one draw the line' Nandan, the cinema hall built and maintained by the Left Front, is currently showing an American film which is nothing if not a celebration of American culture. The state finance minister holds a degree from a US university; among the eminent persons who have called for the boycott are people with degrees from Britain’s two ancient universities and with books published by British publishers. The problem is that Gandhian forms of protest are, by definition, somewhat absolutist. When Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi called for a boycott it was aimed as an attack on all things Western, including science and education. Moreover, his boycotts had mass support. They were not a rhetorical posture.

Rallies, boycotts, protests and violence have become an intrinsic part of Calcutta’s political culture. Patronage from the left has given to such acts a certain legitimacy. Once this did immense harm to the economy and the image of West Bengal. The task of repairing had just begun when antiquated and dangerous forms of protests have been brought out of the closet. This time the harm may be irreparable and reduce Calcutta into a Sixties relic.

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