The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Gandhian lesson, in candlelight

Move over Marx, Mahatma Gandhi’s good old politics is here.

It may be too early to say if it will stay to set a trend, but Gandhian politics has clearly won a big round in Indian Marxists’ very own city. And this should worry both the Marxists and Mamata Banerjee if their brand of politics is losing its steam.

Given the fact that the Marxist rulers were so humbled by this peaceful protest, it is tempting to dramatise it as Calcutta’s first Velvet Revolution, a la East Europe in 1989.

Political leaders in Bengal have no easy explanation how the non-political protest over the Rizwanur Rahman case grew from strength to strength without the participation of any party or organised group and finally forced Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee to bite the dust.

They admit, though, they were irrelevant to this show of the public spirit. Calcutta, the city of protests, has seen nothing like this one for as long as one can remember.

The unnamed individuals who had hit upon the idea of the citizens’ vigil outside the gate of St Xavier’s College were anxious to keep the politicians at bay. Opposition politicians who sought to sneak in there to lend their names to the protests were politely told to go away. Even when they went elsewhere — to Rahman’s home at Tiljala or some other place — they failed to strike a chord with the mourners and protesters.

While the setback for Bhattacharjee is obvious, the political implication of this successful non-political intervention may take time to sink in. The obvious explanation, though, is that the peaceful protest succeeded precisely because the politicians were not in it and that it signalled a rejection of Bengal’s familiar, mostly violent, form of oppositional politics.

The symbolism of the candles burning outside a Jesuit-run college — no roadblocks, no siege of the police station across the road, no stone or bomb-throwing mobs — is too Gandhian to be missed even by the ruling Marxists.

Mamata, too, tried a familiar Gandhian form of protest, when she was on a 25-day hunger strike at Esplanade last December to protest against the eviction of farmers in Singur. Nothing about it was Gandhian, the politicians and the people knew, except the form.

First, the politics of fasts has become so routine in India that the people have almost forgotten its Gandhian association. More important, the antecedents of politicians always colour the public perceptions of their agitational forms.

Mamata’s politics of street battles is too well-known for her fast to be taken seriously as a Gandhian protest. Even as she fasted in Calcutta, her partymen fought the police with bombs and stones in Singur.

The Marxists can worry even more about the success of the protest. They have long benefited from the Opposition’s aimless politics of street violence and the people’s growing aversion to it.

In a way, Mamata’s kind of politics has been their best bet. Large sections of the people who had resented many of the Left’s policies and politics were as disgusted with Mamata’s antics. She was not their alternative to the Marxists.

The result was that the so-called civil society had practically no role in matters relating to Bengal’s politics and government. And, that, as always, helped the rulers.

Even when small sections of this society did speak up, the voice was so feeble and the number so small that the rulers had nothing much to fear from them. Even in the early days of the vigil outside St Xavier’s, CPM leaders hoped that this anger of the “genteel class”, as one of them put it, would do no better than the noises in the seminar circuit over Singur and Nandigram.

The government had to back down from the proposed chemical hub at Nandigram, the party’s leaders told themselves, not because of the chattering classes, but because of the resistance by the villagers on the ground.

After the Rizwanur story so far, they cannot sit pretty on their old assumptions. In the age of televised revolutions and riots, no protests are just urban or rural.

Nobody, not even those who took part in the candle-light vigil, would claim that candles — and not stones, bombs and roadblocks — would henceforth be the most potent political weapon in Bengal. Or, that organised party politics would lose its place in the state’s politics.

But this protest seems to have taught Bengal’s politicians two basic lessons — that they cannot take any section of the people for granted and that the people, pushed to a corner, would invent new forms of politics or go back to some old, Gandhian ones.

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