Rest of India in Judgement: What is wrong with West Bengal?

Bhaskar Majumder

I find a type of judgement in society at large, both inside West Bengal and in the rest of India on the perceived decline that West Bengal has been experiencing. Surely, it is a matter of concern for the state that showed the path to the rest of India cannot be allowed to decline. I am afraid also for the decline, actual and perceived, may become a political issue in India’s federalism and hence the trajectory may be attempted to be rectified – put on politically warranted trajectory – by truncation within. It is not to be read as secession of the state from the country but allowing micro regions within the state newly framed to allow the micro components function better and show to the rest of the country micro-achievements if state-macro fails. We need to examine the question.

A state is judged for several reasons – it took off on the development trajectory and declined; it expanded its frontier of education and declined; it had high moral values and it declined; it was in peace and now has become violent and all that. Though not readily understood what the focal point in critiquing West Bengal is, it seems to be a decline of the civil society in West Bengal. If it is so, let me examine in inter-temporal and cross-sectional frame.

Obviously all the indicators that encompass the socio-economic-political-cultural cannot be captured in a single canvas as I propose here. There is no denying of course that West Bengal is well behind states like Punjab and Gujarat in economic terms while behind Kerala on education ladder. These are well known. These are also not put forward by the critiques outside West Bengal though inside middle section is experiencing employment loss and forced migration at the bottom even in a situation of influx of people from both the sides – on the east from Bangladesh (whether or not acknowledged) and on the west Bihar. The in-migrants have not only crowded out many of the workers in the labour market but have become large in size to offer a base for visible problems. Of course, the in-migrants did not import problems for they used to live very simple life that too often not on a regular basis. The problems seem to have been injected of late by cultural parameters.  

Obviously the linear ascending trajectory cannot be sustained over time and hence whatever took off had to land. But it seems crash landing – not a safe or a smooth one. The experts may explain this unsafe landing in a number of ways. As a non-resident Bengali since past two decades, without forgetting my national identity, and visiting many areas of West Bengal several times over this period what I could gather are assimilated below. It is unstructured and memory-based.

The first two post-independence decades that coincided with aspirations of people in the Nehru era (1952-64) with Dr. Bidhan Chandra Roy as the CM of West Bengal till end-1962, voice of less dissent was audible in West Bengal and rest of India. Notwithstanding the effects of Partition 1947, Indo-China conflict 1962, Indo-Pak War 1965, the society in West Bengal remained calm. The people in refugee camps and colonies post-1947 and post-1971 waited to see a better day. The wait was over after two decades. Because of linguistic proximity the refugees mostly remained within West Bengal, most of whom in and around the city of Calcutta/Kolkata and its adjoining districts, Howrah, and 24 Parganas (North and South). West Bengal became politically vibrant since the late 1960s that got a breeding space for food scarcity, drought, radical movements (1966-72) followed by erratic political-cultural behaviour (1972-77), ending in the re-emergence of the uninterrupted Left Rule (1978-2000). Crises erupted again in the 21st century for vacuum in political leadership within the Left, the wing that somehow managed the system at its bottom by economic standard, allowing rent-seeking and all that (2001-2011). In parallel, the new generation post-1977 declined to be a part of the Left ideology (the circulation of newsprints like Ganashakti and Kalantar may prove the point). But these are normal phenomena in the polity. Why should West Bengal decline for this?

My explanation essentially lies in the domain of the civil society or in the cultural space. This space covers mainly educated people that transmit and exchange views. It has to be kept in mind that West Bengal is a border state, bordering post-1971 newly independent Bangladesh where the residents are mostly Bengali-speaking. A type of hatred had been generated, may be associated with alleged political appeasement of Bengali Muslims in West Bengal, since past few decades that developed pro-Hindu campaign open and secret. The rightists could reap benefits from this – fished in troubled waters. The idea is, I cannot be both pro-Hindu and pro-Muslim. It has to be kept in mind that many districts in West Bengal are inhabited by Muslims in large number. In my understanding, the number had nothing to do with the spread of hatred along religious lines. Now consider the linguistic groups. Most of the manual workers like workers in jute mills, rickshaw pullers, head load workers, roadside vendors, taxi drivers in greater Kolkata, and districts of Howrah and Hooghly come from Hindi-speaking belt that communicate with the original Bhadraloks of West Bengal in Bengali but nourish their own language for mother tongue cannot be disintegrated from the person by birth. But it is not linguistic separation between the Bengali-speaking and the Hindi-speaking that ignited the current decline of culture as perceived for they lived together in peace during the whole of 20th century. Of course, the resident Bengalis avoided slogans like Jai Sreeram or suffered from the ignorance about the sacred Hanumanchalisa but that hardly had been the cause of cultural-political turmoil in West Bengal.Many of them used to join the Michil (political procession) during late 1960s and late 1970s opining secretly, ‘’Larne ke liye Laal Jhanda, Vote dene ke liye Tiranga’’ and some of them shouted ‘’Maach Bhaat, Laal Bhaat’’ (what they heard for Marx-baad, Lenin-baad).The Bengali Bhadraloks did not erupt anytime against the influx of people from both the sides – east (Bangladesh) and west (undivided Bihar). What it did unconsciously was self-delinking from the mass base that was now constituted significantly from influx from both the sides. Political authority convincingly utilized this people already on the margin for carrying flags and getting survival opportunities. In parallel, the resident Bengalis got marginalized for many of them were crowded out from the labour market; this continued parallel to what the Left rulers committed decades back decidedly destroying the local socio-cultural space that existed as local cultural clubs, community libraries etc. Of late, some of the Kolkata-based left radicals from within Bhadralok category started re-linking with the mass society for collection of data through primary survey.

A geographic space that was considered to be ‘secular’ or religion-neutral in governance could not abruptly absorb the shocks of religious slogans in the public domain. In my memory, after the 1946 Noakhali-Kolkata riots (on religion-partition axis), no riot was observed in West Bengal that meant independent India could be proud of West Bengal at least on this issue. But probably this is not a yardstick at the national level to judge the merit of a state. Also, I did not observe any clash between the resident Bengalis in West Bengal and influx of Bengali-Hindu refugees from East Pakistan immediately after 1947 and again after 1971. It was not that West Bengal had enough land to accommodate all – most of who had to leave East Pakistan occupied tiny space in refugee camps/colonies in and around Kolkata glimpses of which may be found in Nandan Nagar at Belghoria, Gandhi Nagar at Sodepur, Azad Hind Nagar at Agarpara to name a few. The unnamed colonies on both sides of railway tracks on Sealdah division (both north and south) and Howrah division are unnumbered. West Bengal had perhaps the highest population density among all the major states by Census data 2001. This episode of ‘’forced struggle’’ is unknown to most of the youth in India.

But what we experienced as an ascending journey by education had to experience decline also – this is not limited to West Bengal as an exception. Education has its duality – while it stabilizes the society, it ignites the concept of human rights. In a favourable environment that expression of rights often takes the shape of violence notwithstanding a pledge for non-violence in education-content. History does not repeat itself mechanically. So was the case of West Bengal. West Bengal could not reproduce itself over centuries – what had been observed in the 19th century started declining decisively since the past few decades. The thinkers (read ‘’middle class’’ who often remain confused or some self-protective) could not be manual workers, the Bengali-speaking people could not be Hindi-speaking people, the Bengalis remained non-savers. While most of the phenomena remain unnoticed or ‘’chalta hai’’ in the Hindi-heartland like lynching-kidnapping-honour killing-rape-murder, the single phenomenon as such triggers public outrage in West Bengal. Extra-constitutional surveillance is common in many of the states in the heartland that is not generally questioned or even if questioned feebly hardly shows outcome in favour of the victim. While one state remained in questioning mode, many of the others followed conformism or maintained silence. Competitive degeneration accepted as normal elsewhere started showing its ugly face in West Bengal centred on discussions around Hindu-Muslim, Bengali-Non-Bengali, and insiders-outsiders and so on that had only nuisance value in the public domain. A state like West Bengal that accommodated people in one compartment notwithstanding changes in political power now started bracketing people by religion-region at its own peril.  

There was nothing wrong for the resident people in any particular state being different within a single country called India that is Bharat. India is a federation of not only states and UTs but more so federation of culture. I believe the states in rest of India do not need any particular state as an enemy. If the rest of India parrots by common indicators or some specific slogans that must not be forced on any particular state for those common indicators may not necessarily reflect universal values.

If a state could withstand the evil effects of imposed Partition (1947), if a state could withstand the border effects of 1971 War, if a state could show a path free from parochialism-casteism-communalism, if a state could show gender sensitivity, if a state could acknowledge the rights of the people at the bottom of the economic ladder, then there is no reason why that state has to be homogenized. I often hear beauty of food and people (by public help) of West Bengal when I am in heartland and other locations in India. I feel proud for that (at the level of my sub-national identity). I advocate cultural pluralism in a federal structure that has beauty. My advocacy is based on my experience by living in almost all the regions/states in India over past six decades.    

I decline to conclude that West Bengal has declined for it includes people who showed and still have the capacity to show to the rest of the country what best may be attained in terms of culture based on human values. It is a different question if the vision of the vibrant in the culture space that includes education as culture is utilized by the dominant political apparatus in West Bengal or in India. I would like to see West Bengal regain its apparently lost glory as an integral part of India.               

 Bhaskar Majumder, Professor of Economics, G. B. Pant Social Science Institute, Allahabad - 211019

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Sep 1, 2019

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