| Burning questions
Go, go, go, said the bird: human kind
Cannot bear too much reality
— T.S. Eliot, “Burnt Norton’’
People have episodes in their history that they try to forget but cannot. These episodes are ineradicably etched in historical memory. Bengal too has such episodes. I am not going back in time to rake up Mir Jafar’s treachery at Plassey or other such incidents. I am looking at more recent history and trying to list a few incidents that have brought collective shame and disgrace to those who live in Bengal.
There are three happenings which I want to put out of the way because they were too big and too momentous to bear any retelling. I also think there will be very little difference of opinion about the choice of these three events and their terrible significance.
First, the great famine of 1943: the horror of which remains as a permanent trauma in the consciousness of all Bengalis. The fact that it was manmade only adds to the horror. It was perhaps the first time that Bengal’s modern intelligentsia saw the reality of poverty and death move from the villages of Bengal into Calcutta. The second one came three years later and has come to be called the great Calcutta killing: the Hindu-Muslim riots that began in Calcutta on August 16, 1946. An outcome of the Direct Action Day called by the Muslim League, the riots, lasting for nearly a week, saw an orgy of violence on the streets of Calcutta. Suddenly, the people of the city saw the face of collective communal violence. The third is the most recent: the violence in Nandigram. By this I do not refer to only the violence in November, but to the sequence of events that began in early 2007 and made the area into a war zone while the government of West Bengal, by design or otherwise, passively stood by. Even the CPI(M) and its supporters, while they will differ with their critics about the responsibility of the violence, will agree that Nandigram was not an episode of which West Bengal can be proud.
I want to move on now to five more events that are not so much written about, but will continue to rankle in the conscience of the people of West Bengal.
First, May 1, 1968: the foundation of the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist). There was nothing wrong, of course, with the announcement of the formation of a new political party. It was what it signified and what it brought in its train that brings to mind those haunting lines of Yeats, “A terrible beauty is born.” It inaugurated the rule of terror in West Bengal and completely transformed public life in Calcutta and the districts. By rule of terror I refer, of course, to the killings carried out by the Naxalites and to the counter-insurgency measures that followed. The terror produced brutal killings on both sides, the Naxalites and the police. It also saw, in Baranagar and elsewhere, armed political cadre belonging to the Congress carrying out mass murders while the police looked the other way.
Second, at the end of January 1979, there took place a massacre of refugees from Bangladesh in an island in the Sunderbans called Marichjhampi. The Left Front had been about two years in power then, and it wanted to reclaim the island on which refugees had been settled. When the settlers resisted, the place was surrounded by the police, no food and drinking water were allowed to enter it, and then many of the refugees were shot as they tried to escape. The number of deaths is still unknown.
Third, on April 30, 1982 in broad daylight in Ballygunge about 18 Ananda Margis were burnt to death. What precipitated this act of brutality and who precipitated it remain a mystery even today. Reports at that time said that there had been rumours in the area about the kidnapping of small boys and the people of the locality suspected the Ananda Margis, who became victims of “popular anger”. The Ananda Margis were steadfast in their allegation that the CPI(M) was responsible for the act of savagery.
Fourth, the bewildering death of Rizwanur Rahman on September 21, 2007 and all that led to it. It might appear to be only the death of an unknown and ordinary young man, but the connivance of some police officers in the attempt to break up the marriage of two adults, the police officers’ defiance of the Constitution, the suspicion that money may have played a part in all this and the prolonged passivity of the government on the issue made it a cause célèbre.
Fifth, the hasty and undercover departure of Taslima Nasreen from Calcutta in the aftermath of the violence on November 21, 2007 and the CPI(M)’s shoddy complicity in her exit raised a big question mark about West Bengal’s commitment to secularism and freedom of speech. There was near-unanimity that it was a moment of disgrace for West Bengal.
Having made this list of five, let me now try and distinguish between the events and their impact. The Naxalite movement and its suppression produced a two-fold response. One was the outright condemnation of the police terror — the disregard for the rule of law, the faked encounter deaths and the not-so-tacit sanction given to Congress goons to kill. The other was a kind of romanticization of the Naxalites — in poetry, in plays, in films and other forms of art. An entire cult grew up around the Naxalites, and this cult ignored the terror the Naxalites had spread through their butchery, their destruction of libraries and laboratories in educational institutions, and the complete waste of a generation that the movement represented. It is now clear that despite the participation of many bright young men and women, the intellectual basis of the movement was shallow, if not non-existent. Beyond violence it had nothing. This celebration of violence by large sections of the Left intelligentsia is difficult to believe, coming as it does from a people that prides itself on its civilization and its learning. This is why the event is a big black blot on Bengal’s history.
The massacre at Marichjhampi and the burning of the Ananda Margis fall into a separate category. Not only did they represent an inconceivable brutality, but they were also remarkable for the muted response that they evoked from the society at large. There was no major hue and cry. No one went on a hunger strike. No major demonstrations took place. The intelligentsia that is crying genocide over Nandigram was not vocal in its condemnation of a Left government that killed refugees, and an administration that stood by to watch people being burnt in broad daylight. The two events have also made a quiet exit from public memory. Even members of the intelligentsia who walked in protest against Nandigram on November 14 did not dredge up the events of Marichjhampi despite some obvious parallels.
The responses to the death of Rizwanur Rahman, the departure of Taslima and, of course, Nandigram stand in sharp contrast to the situation described in the previous paragraph. In these three cases, the people of Calcutta — in Rizwanur’s case the ordinary city folk and in the other two the intelligentsia — raised their voice in protest to preserve West Bengal’s commitment to tolerance, secularism and democratic rights.
The contrast is significant because it points to an undertow of change occurring in Bengali urban society. Sections of it are being forced to drop its Left blinkers. Scholars writing on the 19th century have noted how the goal of social engineering eluded men like Vidyasagar because of the inadequacy of the civic-social forces of the time. That inadequacy has continued to haunt the history of Bengal. Are we seeing, at last, the emergence of a civil society that is conscious, self-reflective, responsible and open, a civil society not willing anymore to turn its face away from reality, even its own follies'
History’s dark patches perhaps hide sunlight. In the words of a contemporary writer, “We stand in darkness surrounded by light.”