Change–Looking Back

Bengal : A Divided Civil Society

Biswajit Roy

How to resolve the dilemmas of the democrats when they are torn between their commitments to a popular regime and democratic principles? What are the pitfalls and advantages of continued moral and political obligations to a government that has born out of an anti-hegemony mass awakening but fast losing its democratic credentials? How long the fear of return of the autocrats and logic of TINA factors should continue to dictate the dilemmas of the conscientious friends of ‘Joan of Ark’ when she has begun behaving like Caligula?

To be precise, how to assess a maverick mass leader turned populist leader when h/she is pro-poor and anti-elite but also an epitome of intolerance, arrogance and paranoia? Are the people of Bengal destined to be the Sisyphus of late Bourgeois world where masses would fight psychopathic dictators, totalitarians and regimented rulers only to follow demagogues and benevolent autocrats? Is it an opportunist and utopian idea to think of an independent civil society linked to non-partisan mass movements given the increasing fault-lines of the polarized polity and growing gulf between the elected representatives of all hues and their electors across the world and closer home too?

These questions arise when one goes through a Bengali booklet titled Paribartan—Phire Dekha (Change—Looking Back), published by the Friends of Democracy [FOD], a forum of civil society activists that joined campaign for regime-change in Bengal quite actively and extended critical support to Mamata Banerjee government. The booklet is an appraisal of the two years of change of guard in Bengal. Edited by veteran educationist Asokendu Sengupta and leading human rights activist Sujato Bhadra, it offers a report card of the Trinamul dispensation on the implementation of its pre-poll promises.

Some FOD members who are among the leading lights in their fields have recorded their individual expectations and degree of their feeling of fulfilment while balancing their judgments. Sujato Bhadra, Bibhash Chakroborty and Bhanu Sarkar dealt more with democracy and human rights while others have focused primarily on their respective areas of expertise.

They include Kalyan Rudra (water management), Asokendu Sengupta and Malabika Mitra (education), Debashis Bhattacharya (development in Junglemahal), Subrata Bagchi (Darjeeling Hills), Sanjoy Mukherjee (economy), Anindya Bhattacharya (industry), Tushar Chakroborty (agriculture), Dr Sidhartha Gupta (health), Rabin Mazumder (environment) and Kalyan Sengupta (employment). Ranabir Samaddar in an interview to Sivajipratim Basu also offered some new insights into post-Paribartan political churnings while calling the Trinamul as the party of 'small proprietors but not petty bourgeoisie'.

The FOD Scoreboard on its members' collective Pratyasha and Prapti (expectations and fulfilment) recorded partial (kichuta) achievements in the field of'end(ing) of one-party rule (Dalatantra) and formation of impartial, pro-people, transparent and sensitive administration'. The qualifying remark says:" the initiative is satisfactory and intensity (of partisan culture) has been reducing". Similar moves have been recorded in educational fields. But 'worries' were expressed against 'individual-centrism'.

More 'satisfactory' is the state government's role in the 'fundamental reform in the land acquisition act as well as opposition to the SEZ, polluting industries and protection of Jal-Jungle-Jamin against plunders' as well as in resistance to FDI in retail and GM crops. Some 'positive initiatives' were found in 'prioritizing development of the tribals, poor and marginal people', development of internal market and water resources conservation.

In contrast, failures were found in account of 'implementation of the human and democratic rights and no use of draconian detention laws', ' withdrawal of joint forces from Junglemahal and creation of democratic atmosphere conducive for dialogue, unconditional release of political prisoners and plan to stop political violence and clashes'. 'Hoyni' (it has not been done), goes the mark and the corollary comment says: "Frustrating. Poll promises not implemented. Except opposition to Centre's NCTC".

Similar red marks are given in some other accounts too—'end to crirninali-zation of politics and promotion of healthy political culture, misuse of power, corruption and speedy and impartial trials for those accused of mass murders and other heinous crimes', 'publication of Tata-(LF)Government agreement (on Singur)' as well as punishment for those 'responsible for one-party rule and corruption in education and formation of long-term, transparent educational policy'. In the first account, the comment goes: "style (of crirninali-zation of politics) have changed, not the methods (prakaran)' while in the second, it's 'not satisfactory'.

The overall assessment, as the booklet displays, is a mix of achievements, laudable in some accounts and not-so-satisfactory in others as well as non-performance in some. It also reflects the hopes that FOD members had placed on the new government and level of their satisfaction or unhappiness. It refrained from tabulating the aggregate marks or pronouncing the promotion or demotion on that basis. Nonetheless, it airs the examiners' overall impression: Mamata government passed quite well despite poor show in some crucial subjects.

Bhadra tried a balanced judgment in his piece—Paribartaner Bachargulote manabadhikarer halhaqiqat (A reality check on Human Rights in post- change years).

According to him, the 'government of change can be given pass mark with good grade' in view of the government's land policy, no to FDI in retail, chemical hub in Nayachar and nuclear power plant in Haripur, repeal of 2003 SEZ law, wetland preservation initiative, constitution of several judicial enquiry commissions to probe into massacres which took place under the earlier regimes, withdrawal of LF-era appeal to SC against High Court order that condemned Nandigram police firing and formation of human rights courts etc. But he considered it a 'partial picture' and criticized the government for failing primarily in upholding democracy.

"In parallel, the government or its police-administration is carrying the continuity of its predecessor on the questions of protection and expansion of democracy, tolerance to opposition opinions, on dealing with the dissent against various comments regarding rape and other crimes against women. The new government can't be given pass marks in these accounts. It has failed," Bhadra said.

He calibrated a long list of specific failures that included six incidents of police firings that killed some people, custody killings, absence of government policy not to send police to foil mass movements on legitimate demands and maximum restraint to use of force by 'cruel and aggressive' police while dealing with 'public agitation', increasing denial of police permission to hold rallies by mass organizations including those working in the field of human rights and women's rights. "The permission to the ruling party to hold rallies in Dharmatala (at the heart of Calcutta) while banning others is absolutely discriminatory," he commented.

Bhadra's examples of government's 'acute intolerance' included its order to government-run and aided libraries not to subscribe to critical newspapers and support to chit fund-run papers at the expense of the exchequer. He also took exception to the 'arrest of anyone just for questioning the government' and referred to detention of Shiladitya Choudhury (a farmer) in Junglemahal and Ambikesh Mahapatra (a teacher in Kolkata), labeling of Tania Bharadwaj (a college student) as 'Maoist' as well as threatening words to noted writer Mahasweta Devi after the latter had pulled up the government on an issue.

Expressing worries over 'increasing incidents of rape and other violations as well as the government and ruling party's penchant for raising questions about the characters of the victims', Bhadra felt that the current dispensation was repeating the mindset of the erstwhile regime. He also called the government's dealing with the women protesters in Kamduni 'condemnable'.

Instead of taking 'pro-active steps towards curbing rapes and other crimes against women and announcing its resolve to implement justice Verma Commission's recommendations in this regards, Bhadra found that the government took 'populist' stand and declared the prosecution would ask for hanging of the culprits in Kamduni rape and murder case, while the CID's faulty chargesheet made room for government's embarrassment.

On the dealings with the Maoists, Bhardra said: Mamata tried talks with Maoists that failed, 'mainly due to the state government'. "The government did not give importance to the cease-fire agreement while MPs (Trinamul) made irresponsible statements during a month-long ceasefire by the Maoists. Demands were raised for their arms surrender as the low-key operations by joint forces continued. Together these had increased the mutual mistrusts."

He obliquely held the government responsible for 'the killing of Kisenji [the CPI (Maoist) politburo member] in a fake encounter' and later 'murder of Judhistir Mahato in the similar fashion'. "The government cannot deny the responsibility of killing of Kishenji even as it denies any knowledge, of his murder at that time," Bhadra commented.

He also delved into another contentious issue: unconditional release of the political prisoners. Referring to 'intense dissent (asantosh) and bitter debate' among the rights activists on two conditions (for the committee that chief minister had set up 'to review the cases of the political prisoners) and the composition of the committee' he cited the panel's recommendation to release all undertrial and convicted political prisoners as well as non-political undertrials who had been languishing in jails for three to 14 years.

But, he also lamented that 'unfortunately, the government has implemented a small part of the recommendations' except withdrawal of criminal cases in Singur and Nandigram, some in Jangipara and release of 50 political prisoners from north Bengal.

"Chatradhar Mahaho and many others, involved in a just and democratic movement against police atrocities in Lalgarh are still languishing in jails in connection with numerous cases. The government has not taken any initiative (for withdrawal of cases). No such move is afoot in regard to the 100 prisoners booked under Unlawful Activities Prevention Act by the former regime. In the meantime, the new government has also arrested some others under the UAPA. The arrests of villagers as suspected Maoists in Junglemahal has been continued from time to time," Bhadra noted.

His overall evaluation of Mamata's is quite critical: "In this overall scenario, it can be said with certainty, the state government not only failed in protecting and expanding democratic rights and conducive ambience but also tried to shrink it several times."

Nevertheless, he declined to make any comparison between the Left Front era and two years of the new regime when pressed for it by the media on release of the booklet. "Time has not come for such comparison considering 34 years of LF attack on democratic rights since Marichjhapi", he said.

Co-editor Asokendu Sengupta too tried to maintain a balance between government's achievements and failures as well as between his hopes-fulfilled and belied. He recorded partial rollback of one-party rule in educational institutions, but found the continuity of 'dhakhal karar rajniti' (the politics to forcible occupation of student unions and organizations of teaching and non-teaching staff's as well as control of other institutional position) while fearing the growth of personal hegemony of control freaks. "In fact, there has been no change in the mindset and culture. This has led to the continuity of the earlier regime's politics of occupation in college and university campuses," Sengupta said.

But on the release of the book, he claimed 'feedback' from the ground about decreasing ruling party hegemony and partisan administration inviting contesting questions from the media. "The one-party rule has lessened. Administration has become responsive to the people to some extent. Police is taking public complaints in general. Rural people are now enjoying peaceful sleep," Sengupta claimed. As media persisted on contra evidences, he conceded:" We can't say about total ground reality. Neither we have statistics to support our observation." Bhadra came to his rescue. "Scale and intensity of Dalatantra have come down but it has not stopped altogether", Bhadra added.

Avi Dutta Mazumder, a valued voice against the reigning neo-con developmental model and its proponents in his write up went further than Sengupta on claiming 'sleeping-in-peace scenario'. It's a big achievement for common people that they have got back their right to free expression while peaceful sleep has returned to the rural population?"

If one goes by the instances of 'acute intolerance' that Bhadra has listed, these claims will be seriously challenged.

Kalyan Rudra's candid observations compromised them further." Trinamul is not a regimented party like the CPM. People wanted to return to democracy from one-party rule. Not even the most vocal supporter of the Trinamul will claim that successful moves have been made to that direction," the river-expert commented. Echoing many others' concerns about the 'self-serving crooks and weathercocks' who are now deluging the new regime, he said:" Altogether, it's beyond doubt that the popularity of the new government is plummeting. I fear the return of the years of suffocation that we experienced during the CPM rule".

The question still remains, how a government that failed so terribly in restoring and expanding democracy, even snatched away some earlier achievements of rights movements, latest being the highly skewed and narrow redefinition of the political prisoners and political movements in the jail law, can be awarded 'pass marks with good grade' in other accounts? How can a student who fails miserably in key subjects secures 'good grade' from an independent-minded examiner like Bhadra, particularly when the massive mandate for Mamata was primarily aimed at ending the regimentation of the CPM era and restoration of democracy in every day public life?

It's true that every government works under contradictory pulls and pressures while lobbies within the government and bureaucracy are integral part to the larger interest groups operating outside. Nonetheless, can it justify the compartmentalization of good and bad deeds of a ruling party and its government, particularly when both are highly controlled by the Supremo? Unlike the regimes led by Congress, BJP and CPM, Mamata is the unquestioned fountainhead of all policies and decisions of Trinamul and its government.

Though, the chief minister herself has become the personification of 'acute intolerance', instances of which Bhadra has listed, he and his friends have fought shy of naming her in their equivocal indictments. Bhadra has mentioned her only once in the context of peace initiative with rhe Maoists in which he had participated as a member of the interlocutor team. Many may question the motives behind this impersonal and oblique criticism of the 'government' when Mamata and her regime are completely synonymous in the public eye.

The veteran singer Pratul Mukherjee in his poetry has made subtle criticism of Mamata's infamous mercurial temperament which many, including the growing number of disillusioned members of post-Paribartan civil society consider indicative of her autocratic mindset a la her idol, Indira Gandhi. But he has not named her. Respected and loved for his unique role in serving the peoples' movements for long, Mukherjee's rendition—Joyi Habe Tumi (You will win)—is pregnant with candid observation and message.

Mukherjee wished her to be 'restrained in her words and temperament', keep away from 'arrogance of power'. Recalling her role in the struggle against the 'hegemony' (read CPM rule), he reminded the Opposition leader-turned chief minister that 'now it's your fight against yourself and you are alone in this fight'. He further conveyed the "hopes of her well-wishers that tolerance will win against arrogance". If one tends to read more between the lines, the poetry reflects the quintessence of the dilemmas of the FOD members, both moral and political.

Subtlety is the heart of poetry. But in politics or political commentary, it is not always considered a necessary virtue or a required skill, especially when situation demands unequivocal position.

Both Bhadra and noted theatre personality Bibhash Chakroborty have picked up clashes with their detractors within the pro-Paribartan civil society including human rights activists who had pulled up them for joining Mamata camp. Bhadra accused the FOD's not only of lacking the 'initiative' for the regime-change in 2011 but also of 'harboring the hopes for the return of LF government with lesser margin'.

In his write up–Jara Andha Sabcheye Beshi Aaj Chokhe Dekhe Tara (Those who are blind see the most today) Chakroborty has also rattled his sabre with pro-LF intellectuals as well as 'newly independent' (read former admirers of Mamata) for attacking the FOD members.

However, Chakroborty revealed another source of agony for his team. "Now we are being criticized from both sides. Other side is saying don't think you people brought the change just because you walked for it one or two days. But we will offer both support and criticism as there are gaps between expectations and their realization," he said at the media interaction without naming these torments. But unmistakably he was alluding to Mamata's public rebuke to her disillusioned supporters among intellectuals whose tribe has grown as the government approaches its mid-term. Now that she is dismissing her friends as hangers-on, those who still harbor the hope to play well-meaning conchies are feeling shortchanged for their role in Paribartan.

A benign Sengupta, however, hoped for 'open and frank discussion' on the consequences of the regime-change while admitting the 'confusions' among some pro-changers about its outcome. He acknowledged that the people's yearning for change did not end with the regime change. "The other yearnings are still there as the stars of the night are always present beyond the glares of the Sun", he commented. However, he has perhaps stretched his imagination by virtually comparing the current Bengal scenario to the post-Napoleon period of French Revolution. "No one will accept that another Napoleon has occupied the throne."

The anger and anguish of the FOD members reflect their quandaries. Their cycle of self-justifications and self-doubts may add to the glee of their critics among the pro-changers. But the latter will be proved equally myopic if they indulge in scoring brownie points rather than seeing the vicissitudes of the post-Paribartan situation. It indicates larger crisis of social-political imagination of the civil society in Bengal. Most of its members have failed to get out of the fixations that they have inherited from the state's bipolar politics and its corresponding social-political-cultural milieu.

Singur-Nandigram had broken the jinx of bipolarity. The tumult offered the opportunity of a non-partisan public space led by an independent civil society. But both the pro-changers like the FOD and the no-changers of CPM variety were either hostile or cynical about such a possibility. The cry for the regime change was genuine and felt across the society. But in their zeal to get rid of the 'disease of status quo', the FOD and their fellow travelers lost the feeble freedom and tentative independence of the long-servile civil society as they joined the Trinamul's poll campaign.

They did not bother to ponder over Mamata's democratic credentials despite her moves to end the plurality of the popular resistance in Singur and Nandigram and usurp the public discontent for her electoral gains. They could have lent their weight to the pro-change public opinion without mortgaging their independence. But their de facto identification with her in turn helped Mamata to tempt and sway some more vulnerable members of the civil society into her party and government.

The specter of CPM's return to power has still kept her increasingly uneasy friends glued to the regime. But notwithstanding their murmurs of protests and disillusionments as well as their dilemmas and torments, the missed opportunity is urging them again to regain their integrity and take the calls this time. The CPM's dream of clawing back to power is remote on the horizon. There is hardly any effective opposition to her. Trinamul has just consolidated its support base in the rural elections.

In this vacuum, a dispirited Opposition and a divided civil society would further tempt Mamata to be more intolerant and arrogant. While the Opposition parties and other critics must recognize her massive mandate that has been largely renewed in the rural polls, this is high time for a non-partisan and united civil democratic initiative against the chief minister and her government's undemocratic moves.

Friends of Democracy should not allow others to perceive them as the friends of the government first and friends of democracy later. Fall of CPM regime at any cost was their justification for identifying with Mamata. Now that CPM is still licking its wounds, the FOD no more has that alibi.

Civil society, as the hub of urban intellectuals and middle class professionals, is expected to work as public watchdogs against the misuse of power and other misdeeds of any government, bureaucracy and the political class in general. It will stand for the probity, plurality, tolerance, transparency and accountability in public life, direct public role in policy matters in order to make people's sovereign power functional, particularly, in respect of State decisions that affect lives of the millions.

Now that the gulf between the ruled and rulers have been widening across the world irrespective of the political systems, the composition of the civil society has broadened. Its engagements with larger mass organizations and movements have widened the scope of its appeal and action as well as its durability or sustainability.

Vol. 46, No. 20, Nov 24 - 30, 2013

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