BENGAL IN JEOPARDY – SOMETHING IS ROTTEN

THE TELEGRAPH, CALCUTTA

26 April 2021

Sukanta Chaudhuri

 

A very thought-provoking and realistic editorial in the Telegraph Calcutta today.  It reads: " One assumes that whatever their deeper calculations, all political parties would express formal grief at deaths by police firing. Astonishingly, the Bharatiya Janata Party set up a virtual chorus of exultation, not only justifying the deaths but guaranteeing more such incidents and even complaining why so few people were killed. This accords with the aggressive macho tenor of the party's campaign against India's only woman chief minister, backed by a promise to cleanse Bengal of crime if they come to power. Their state president hopes to accomplish this feat in a week. To rectify this in seven days would demand an excess of police action at which the imagination recoils: mass arrests, overflowing prisons, almost certainly deaths, perhaps staged police `encounters'. Even at that dire level of State-sponsored violence, seven months would not suffice — as it has not in BJP-ruled states held up as models."  Isaac Gomes, Associate Editor, Church Citizens' Voice.

 

I had not planned to write this article. In fact, I was due to write another on the havoc wreaked by the pan- demic on our already fragile education system. That problem will not go away. I have, therefore, shelved it for something more immediate.

What changed my mind was Bengal's interminable election, especially the events at Sitalkuchi. I will not discuss the actual killings or the roles of the security forces and the Election Commission. One should not comment lightly on such matters amidst a fog of crosscharges and disinformation. But some related issues concern all citizens.

One assumes that whatever their deeper calculations, all political parties would express formal grief at deaths by police firing. Astonishingly, the Bharatiya Janata Party set up a virtual chorus of exultation, not only justifying the deaths but guaranteeing more such incidents and even complaining why so few people were killed. This accords with the aggressive macho tenor of the party's campaign against India's only woman chief minister, backed by a promise to cleanse Bengal of crime if they come to power. Their state president hopes to accomplish this feat in a week.

No one can dispute that Bengal is bedevilled by political violence (not so much of other kinds). To rectify this in seven days would demand an excess of police action at which the imagination recoils: mass arrests, overflowing prisons, almost certainly deaths, perhaps staged police `encounters'. Even at that dire level of State-sponsored violence, seven months would not suffice — as it has not in BJP-ruled states held up as models. Years after their initial spate of suppression, of encounter killings and unsparing vigilantism, the world wakes up virtually every week to new reports of horrific violence and misrule in those parts.

The reason is not far to seek. Such rapid-fire cleansing is not possible within the ambit of the law. It requires law-keepers to operate massively outside the law, aided if not supplanted by vigilante groups bound by no law at all. The earlier lawlessness gives way to a more pervasive anarchy, now underwritten by the government. The law itself is weaponized to this end, and new laws passed defying natural justice and our democratic Constitution. Bengal's last-phase voters must ask themselves if this is indeed what they want.

There is more. BJP members consistently suggest that the paramilitary action in Sitalkuchi and various decisions of the Election Commission bear out their own agenda, as though they had planned it themselves. It would be misguided to indict the Commission on the basis of such loose talk. What concerns us is that the BJP should be at such pains to persuade us of their complicity.

There is also the matter of the chief minister's intercepted phone call. As the mischief she was allegedly planning did not occur, she can at most be charged with a thought-crime. But we may well ask how the BJP obtained the recording. The party's fondness for invading citizens' privacy is amply testified, including dormant projects like the Social Media Surveillance Hub. We may wish to know how their current escapade accords with the law.

We are contemplating a regime that erases the line between law and lawlessness. So what's new about that, we may ask. For four decades and more, governance in Bengal has straddled that porous border. Countless citizens negotiate it daily under the current regime. Does it matter if, dropping the denial mode, we openly legitimize or even legalize wrongdoing under cover of the public good? One might argue that it matters immensely, for it robs us of both moral and legal protection against such iniquity. The malfeasance that seeks some cover or subterfuge shows a nagging insecurity, a lurking sense of wrongdoing. To enthrone it openly celebrates it as a model or an ideal. To work our way back to a humane and democratic order becomes that much the harder. You can reclaim a derelict house occupied by squatters. If you pull down the house, there is nothing left to reclaim.

Contrary to belief, authoritarian and even totalitarian rule seldom arrives through military coup or armed revolution. It commonly proceeds by gradual, unsuspected steps from a familiar structure of misrule: we cannot tell when we cross the watershed. Bengal today may be at that decisive moment. We may be crossing another wa- tershed too. Elections in Bengal have been increasingly fragmented: seven instalments in 2019, eight this year. This is supposedly to control political violence, but may be counter-productive. To hold public interest, each phase must outbid the last in rhetoric and, alarmingly, in disorder: the contenders grow ever more strident and reckless. Has a state election ever attained such nationwide hype? The `All-India' Trinamul Congress hardly exists outside Bengal: one understands their stake in the turf battle. But why should the party commanding the Union and several states be so desperate to add this one to the tally? We have lost count of the prime minister's campaign trips. The Union home minister is virtually camping in the state. Why are two of India's astutest and busiest men engaged in this apparently grotesque overkill? What are they planning for our state? On seven years' evidence, it cannot be unmixed concern for the well-being of Bengal.

The immediate outcome is rather the opposite. Political violence has arguably exceeded the appalling level of the 2018 panchayat elections, the adversaries being now more evenly matched. The threats and profanities are by no means one-sided: a TMC stalwart has bested their own record by offering to chop off the hands of Opposition voters. This menace will not abate after the elections. And more frightening by far, a new poison of communalism is corroding the state in accord with electoral algorithms.

There is a story of a little girl watching Hamlet. Half-way through, she remarked: "I don't know how it'll end, but it can't end well." That child's comment has a sombre relevance to Bengal's current predicament. I am overcome with fear: for myself, my state, and my country.

The author is Professor Emeritus, Jadavpur University, Calcutta.

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