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BENGALIS VS BENGALIS - The main opposition to Bhattacharjee comes from within his party

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  • Published 17.12.06

When men make plans, an old saying goes, god laughs and proceeds to destroy them. Taking divinity out of that statement, it is possible to say that when a Bengali makes plans, another Bengali has a laugh and proceeds to make the implementation of the plans difficult, if not impossible. Hence the question, how can Bengalis save themselves from Bengalis?

This is, by no means, a flippant query. The seriousness of the question can be illustrated by examples from history. In the 19th century, when Bengal encountered the world of modernity, two eminent Bengalis attempted to carry out two pieces of social engineering to clear Bengal’s path to enter the modern world. One was Rammohun Roy, who started the movement to reform Hindu society, and this eventually led to the abolition of sati in 1829. The other was that remarkable Brahmin pundit, Iswarchandra Vidyasagar, who initiated the Hindu Widow Remarriage Act of 1856.

Rammohun’s attempts at reform and the abolition of sati were by no means smooth. He was opposed and ridiculed by orthodox Bengalis who were led by Radhakanta Deb and Ramkamal Sen. Neither Deb nor Sen were unenlightened persons. Both took leading parts in the foundation of the Hindu College. But in other spheres, especially in matters of religion and social custom, they were upholders of tradition. Under their leadership there was a systematic and impressive campaign against Rammohun and the abolition of sati. The petition against the abolition of sati had wide support from some of the most powerful elements of society. In fact, it can be argued that the abolition would not have come through without the intervention of the governor-general, Lord William Bentinck, who had arrived in India with an agenda to reform Indian society along the lines of Western enlightenment.

Similarly, Vidyasagar was the victim of vicious lampooning by orthodox Bengalis, cutting across sections of society because of his advocacy of widow remarriage. He won the legal point because an act was passed permitting Hindu widows to remarry, but he failed to win the social battle. He himself went into debt sponsoring widow remarriages, and even today, widow remarriage remains something that is frowned upon outside an urban enclave.

Thus, the two great icons of Bengal — Rammohun and Vidyasagar — faced hostility and ridicule from fellow Bengalis who failed to recognize what they were trying to do. Indeed, the history of the 19th century shows that by the close of the century, projects of social engineering had disappeared.

Another different kind of example can be given. It is a matter of record that a question paper of the University of Calcutta in the early 20th century had gobbets in Bengali which candidates were asked to render into “chaste Bengali”. All such passages were taken from the writings of Rabindranath Tagore. The paper had been set by a famous scholar of Bengali who later confessed, somewhat shamefacedly, that he had done so at the instructions of the most famous Bengali vice-chancellor of the university. This was perhaps one of the reasons for Tagore’s reluctance to accept the felicitations of the university after he had won the Nobel Prize. The point of this anecdote is again to show how petty and silly the opposition of Bengalis has been to the work and achievements of other Bengalis.

These bits of history are worth recalling to understand events in contemporary West Bengal. The state is now experiencing a wave of buoyancy and optimism. Much of this is the direct outcome of the vision that has been presented by the chief minister, Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee. The vision is made up of a new West Bengal that is investor-friendly and averse to irresponsible trade unionism. Some parts of the dream are already becoming a reality. Investors are seriously considering West Bengal as a destination with tremendous potential. Salt Lake has already emerged as an important IT hub. The buoyancy and the optimism are derived from these developments. Suddenly, for the people of West Bengal, the future beckons.

Or does it?

Against the project of Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee are ranged a number of forces, all driven by Bengalis. (To ward off an irrelevant controversy, it should be clarified that Bhattacharjee is not being placed here on the same pedestal as the three icons mentioned earlier. History will decide on Bhattacharjee’s role in the making of a new West Bengal.) The most obvious opposition comes, of course, from Mamata Banerjee, who sees herself as an icon. She is on a fast because she is against the giving away of agricultural land for industry. She is yet to offer to the people of West Bengal an alternative plan of development. She has carved out for herself the position of being the sole spokesman against the Left Front government in West Bengal. But, to date, she has failed to present any plan or vision of development that is radically different from the one chalked out by the left. Yet, if election results are any indicator, she has the support of thousands of Bengalis. It will not be an exaggeration to say that those who support her — and they are mostly all Bengalis — and she herself are only working to destroy whatever plans Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee has for the development of West Bengal. This is one more example of how Bengalis work against Bengalis.

But it would be simplistic to assume that Mamata Banerjee (fasting or post-prandial) is the main opposition that Bhattacharjee’s vision faces. The main opposition comes from another set of Bengalis who are entrenched within Bhattacharjee’s own party. These forces came out openly on Thursday during the bandh whose sole aim, declared or otherwise, was to mangle and distort the picture of West Bengal that the chief minister is trying to project to the world of investors and industrialists. It is important to underline that a bandh had not been called on Thursday, the call was for an industrial strike. But in West Bengal, it became a bandh that brought normal business and commercial activities to a standstill. Workers in shops or banks who cannot be called industrial were forced to stay away from work by the Centre of Indian Trade Unions, which spearheaded the strike. What is worse is that many of Bhattacharjee’s cabinet colleagues stayed away from work in sympathy with the strike.

Thursday’s events, taken together with Mamata Banerjee’s sustained campaign, conveys the impression that there are powerful sections of the political class in West Bengal that are opposed to the changes that the chief minister is trying to bring to the investment climate and work culture of the state. Unfortunately for Bhattacharjee, these sections are all Bengali, and he can draw little solace from the fact that Bengalis greater than he had, in the past, faced similar hostility from fellow Bengalis.

There are other aspects of the past that offer no relief to Bhattacharjee. Not only is the Citu, with its proneness to strike and to scupper industries in a sundry other ways, the only legacy of Bhattacharjee’s immediate past that hinders his plans to build an industrialized West Bengal. There is also the entire legacy of land reforms which helped his party (led mostly by Bengalis) to build its agrarian base. Fragmentation of land holdings/ownership and the giving of rights to sharecroppers will both be major hurdles in the path to industrialization when land has to be moved from agriculture to industrial use.

Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee is keen to make history. As he goes about his business, he must recall those words of one Karl Marx (does the name ring a bell in Bhattacharjee’s mind?): “Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living.’’

The weight of the past is especially heavy among Bengalis. They like to pull down anyone trying to get out of the comfortable wicker basket. Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee has to abandon the tug of the past and the opposition of fellow Bengalis which is a part of that past. Does he have it in him to do so? On that question hangs the future of West Bengal.