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BEYOND POLITICS - Right or wrong, not Right or Left

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By Tapas Majumdar
  • Published 25.06.09
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My most distinguished student at Presidency College, I saw in my morning paper, had been recalling his own college days in Calcutta. While doing so he mentioned several distinguished members of the intelligentsia of Calcutta of that time — some of whom could be called “leftish”, others Leftists. In this group, even at that young age, he already belonged. He obviously can still identify himself with this remarkable set of people.

Political orientation could not have been the only reason for his attraction for Calcutta’s intellectual life in the Fifties. As one who had lived through those times oneself, albeit more modestly, I would suggest possibly there were other considerations too — other dimensions to Calcutta’s intellectual life, two of which I will mention, that unobtrusively had made it so attractive.

First, let me explain why I think Right and Left have always been a very inadequate description even of political activity. The political lives of modern humans were perceived to be divided into these two non-overlapping sets as the parliamentary, as well as its variant, the elected presidential, form of sharing State sovereignty came into vogue. As a consequence, two different political “classes” of opposing interests came to be defined in the West by the end of the 18th century which was more convenient for the populace than realistic.

The right wing and the left wing, as many will know, were descriptions first defined by the way members sat in the French National Assembly of 1789-91: the nobles in the wing to the right, the common people to the left, of the president of the Assembly. In course of time, as parliamentary democracy unfolded, the left wing came to be referred to as “a group or party favouring radical, reforming or socialist views”, as the Oxford Dictionary succinctly tried to put it.

To go back to what I started with, two other considerations of civilized life had gripped people’s minds even from the date of the parliament’s emergence as the main source of sovereign power. One was the dimension of social rights apart from the right to vote for the Right or the Left. These rights either existed or were actively sought in all “argumentative” societies, as Amartya Sen has taught us. Calcutta had provided a forum.

The other dimension was that of the responsibility of citizens as well as of the powers that be — responsibility for determining who is lying and who is telling the truth — of laying down democratic rules of social choice — to decide what was Right and what was Wrong; and consequently, what is Crime and its Punishment.

Thinking about all this my mind travels back to the Calcutta I knew and loved 60 years ago. The intelligentsia then were significantly young. Young people — teachers, doctors, poets, artists, all thronged places like the Coffee House in College Street and plenty of other lower-grade eating places and tea-shops and gossiped without the fear of being bludgeoned by someone in rage for doing so. A few of these people were veterans like Bishnu Dey, who did not easily stir out of their residences — the younger ones had to come and listen to the lions in their own dens.

These were the “open sub-societies” of Calcutta if I may plagiarize from Karl Popper. I still miss them. Many of my closest friends and students of those days were, like me, noted for negligible political instinct, but we still would all want to come and listen avidly to the gossip in those addas.

I particularly remember some of my most thrilling listening experiences in Bishnubabu’s unbelievably small but cosy parlour many an evening. Who can forget those smiling, always well-mannered, but telling, digs at people he had known and observed closely among his own friends, and also among some of the rich and mighty of Calcutta society. Occasionally, he would pick on some of his poor listeners too. Bishnubabu’s strong ideological affiliation was known, but he did not make much of it in his delightful conversations with those who did not share his political views.

This brings me to the last part of my story. I was attracted by a comment of Rudrangshu Mukherjee recently in this column on the centenary of P.C. Joshi and his considerable stature within the Left movment of post-Independence India. Apparently, the centenary had been a low-key affair and Mukherjee was surprised. I am not surprised at all.

P.C. Joshi, obviously, was drawn to communism by urges of his own. But I want to share here with the readers an experience that had left me wondering what other causes might have had secretly excited him too. This was in the early Seventies, when Shivatosh Mookerjee and I were recent arrivals at Jawaharlal Nehru University from Presidency College. We were neighbours in the New Campus. Sometimes we would take a stroll together in the evening.

On one such evening we saw a familiar-looking elderly person walking steadily towards us from the opposite direction. Shivatosh made a move towards the gentleman with a gesture of greeting, whispering “P.C. Joshi” in my ear. That was how we first met.

Joshi was then completely out of politics and was guiding a history project at the JNU. He knew Shivatosh and told me he had once, at the age of 15, visited Asutosh Mookerjee. He fondly recalled that meeting and the delicious plate of sandesh he was ordered to finish off. He told us he had to face a kind of oral examination too. That meeting with Sir Asutosh, whom he regarded as one of the greatest figures Bengal had produced, remained, he confided, one of his fondest memories. P.C. Joshi in his day could be an embarrassment to both the Right and the Left.

The intelligentsia of Calcutta were to become a relatively aged, more mature and very much more powerful section of Bengali society. Many among them have really “arrived”. But from all I can surmise from a distance, for many among the intelligentsia, the bonding with manush (human being), to use the more modern term for Tagore’s janagana (people), has not been lost.

I cannot make out how exactly today’s manush, in turn, relates to Calcutta’s intelligentsia. But one can see how the state’s political apparatchiki can take on the teachers, the doctors, the poets, the artists on the assumption that connections between such people and Manush have simply vanished.

Let me end with a wish: the Right-Left dichotomy is old and difficult to dislodge — but why not redefine Right and Wrong from the standpoint of social justice and responsibility, and in that light redefine Crime and Punishment in the Indian Penal Code? That may yet set the cat among the pigeons — of all colours. Am I asking for too much?