Sunday, December 2, 2007

What Lies Beneath

Over the years, Sauce!, a founding member of The Be Serious Society, has shown remarkable restraint in demonstrating seriousness of expression or purpose. We (that is to say, I) at Sauce! have always shown by our (that is to say, my) actions that Sauce! believes there is enough serious discourse on our immediate and larger societies on several thousand blogs, and a few more paltry sentences would not be missed. We -- or to give credit where it's due, I -- have instead striven to entertain, and I don't mind saying I imagine I did a halfway decent job of it.

It is with uncharacteristic sombreness, therefore, that I must warn you that the following post is long, and is most un-Sauce!like. Read at your discretion.

If you were in Calcutta during the last two weeks, there is a fair chance you may have walked alongside nearly a hundred thousand others on the 14th of November, Wednesday, from College Square to Dalhousie, silently protesting against the bloodbath and the willful, brash destruction of civil liberties at Nandigram. Almost everyone I know, and people they know, and their neighbours and friends and grandparents were at the march. Indeed, such disciplined spontaneity from a city used and subjected to bands, strikes and chakka-jaams as expressions of dissent was as astounding as it was heartening, even though there seemed to be a degree of disparity about cause espoused. Some marched in protest of the State government's open and unapologetic "paying them back in their own coin" course of cadre-brutality action, some decried the collapse of democracy, quite a few matched in protest of police action in Nandigram on the 14th of March this year and partisan behaviour since. I didn't walk that day, but my reasons were personal. I supported the walk, if such support counts, in spirit.

If you were in Calcutta last Wednesday, the 21st of November, you would have been in a state of cold panic all day, as rumours and news poured in from every available source about an escalating number of people injured, cars burnt, houses set fire to, the sealing off a section of the city (which contains, apart from all of Mother Teresa's Missionaries of Charity buildings and the offices of three prominent media houses, several of the city's schools, all in mid-session. To see how they're situated, click to enlarge the map here), the deployment of the Rapid Action Force, and finally, the Army. The panic-calls shot up to almost 60 per cent the usual volume, clogging the cellular system.

I was out on the streets from late morning till evening last Wednesday, and I saw the anxiety, the suppressed excitement, the traffic blockades and the unusual sight of chaperoned highschoolers going home at twelve noon first hand, all the while following the news third or fourth hand and several times embroidered. I also did not miss the customers at Subway and Pizza Hut, or, travelling in a bus crammed with corporate commuters returning early, the cars parked outside Eliot Park from which children scrambled out, a mere four hours before curfew was due to start on the other end of Park Street.

The local electronic media has earned my respect by not beaming footage of the latter, especially the aforementioned clientèle of international food chains, in order to demonstrate either
the "resilience of the people of Kolkata" in an imitation of those of Mumbai, or the much-hashed "social indifference of the upwardly mobile slaves of global capitalism", which is a steady literary vein that still adorns the novels in various Puja editions of every publishing house, the political and economic behaviour of said houses notwithstanding.

The day after the riots, when the national print media woke up to the news, I found they had discovered a vital angle to the recent happenings in and around Calcutta (I refrain from saying 'in West Bengal' for obvious reasons -- there is a great deal of ethnicity-based violence, especially in the north, which has little to do directly with the recent turmoil at Nandigram and Kolkata) that we had been missing since March. The NDA in it's wisdom -- and it certainly has the requisite amount, given it's political history and that of it's constituent parties -- has declared that Muslims were the worst hit in Nandigram atrocities, and that this challenges the secularism of the state's Left Front government (for an example of how much currency this point of view has quickly gained see this article on, second paragraph). Of course, the NDA's concern for minority communities is understandable when one takes into account the impending consequences of Tehelka's Gujarat expos
é, and in the hands of the Left no less, but before making such potentially incendiary comments, the NDA would have done well to have taken into account the basic ground situation at Nandigram, as would a few other earnest protesters of the doubtless heinous atrocities that went on there, and those that seem inclined to blame the police for Wednesday's riot.

First, the minority angle did not make headlines in the local media because it is common knowledge that a large section of the farmers and share-croppers at Nandigram on each side of the political divide are Muslims. It is not a fact that needs underlining -- in fact it is a common thread of pride in this city that communal politics has found little space in it -- and all partisan behaviour so far has been on grounds of political allegiance, not religious. Which is to say, Hindus and Muslims of and on the side of the CPI(M) -- who according to their political conviction should not, indeed, have a religious identity at all -- fought, killed, raped and looted Muslims and Hindus of what can best be described as the non-CPI(M) side. A little contextual understanding would have prevented the NDA embarrassment and saved the State unnecessary communal tension.

Second, the Bhumi Uchhed Protirodh Committee (Committee for the Prevention of [Land] Eviction). Just so we're clear on this, the BUPC is not an apolitical platform of 'the people of Nandigram', farmers who want no part of politics and are merely defending their livelihood. The BUPC is an unstable faction of Trinamool workers, CPI(M) defectors, the SUCI, farmers/share-croppers, and are now also said to have had strong Maoist affiliations. The instability of this Committee is due in part to the shifting loyalties of a section of its members, most of them CPI(M) defectors who returned to the fold (as it were) either for benefit or under duress, after the forced breaking-in by the police earlier this year, and by the CPI(M) cadres' motorbike gang a few weeks back.

What mystifies me is the insistence on equating the BUPC, and therefore State-enforced victimisation, with meek suffering, because from ground zero personal reports, the BUPC is not meek in its resistance at all. And let me here add that if they wanted to resist eviction successfully, they could not afford to be unarmed or meek. The 'collapse of democracy' is, in fact, being mourned very belatedly. In rural areas, and I can bear personal witness to this, there has been very little democratic living with space for 'the voice of dissent' or even clinically detached apoliticalism. The supposed apolitical inclinations of The Common Man has been ground to dust, if it ever existed, in the rural areas of Bengal, where things such as being served by shopkeepers, finding labourers to work for you, putting your child in school, all depend on your politics. The civil democracy that is India according to it's Constitution does not exist much beyond it's urban centres.

Third, and this is where the assumed safety of urban centres falls apart: creating and encouraging, whether purposefully or inadvertently, a sense of marginalisation bordering on social exclusion; and the role of rumour in fuelling social insecurities. Contrary to popular belief, the battle rages on at Nandigram not because the land is still under threat, but because an alienated Nandigram is a seat of power that the sectarian forces (Maoists or Maobaadi, whose presence in the area and contact/collusion with the local Trinamool Congress seems to have been satisfactorily established), eager to establish a stronghold and threatened by rumours of attempted takeovers/evictions in the future (strenthened by the fact that, despite the Chief Minister's claims of "acquisition only after discussion", popular consent is not required for governmental acquisition of land) were not ready to let go of.

On Wednesday, it now appears that the carefully pre-planned violence (for The Telegraph's report of the Kolkata Police's opinion, see this, and click to enlarge the map to see how the riot spread) depended on rumours of evicting the busties along and around Bridge No. 4, otherwise known as the Park Circus connector, to kick into action. Police reports and interviews of protesters indicate that a systematic spreading of rumour and panic worked the areas adjacent Park Circus into frenzy. Demographically, Park Circus, Ripon Street, Entally and the CIT Road/Darga Road area are amongst the economically disadvantaged sections of the city, and from a social context of large families with low income, it also houses a good section of the city's school dropout and formally unemployed youths -- a group whose sense of being victimised by the State is easy to work on. On Wednesday close to 12,000 (The Telegraph puts the number between 12,000 to 15,000) of these young men took to the streets, taking positions of low rooftops and darting into bylanes, hurling bricks and soda bottles from carefully accumulated stacks.

Although the protest -- organised by the All India Minority Forum, the Furfura Sarif Muzadeedia Anath Foundation and the Jamait Ulema-i-Hind -- had a twelve-point protest agenda, and Idris Ali (President of the AIMF and member of the Congress Party) kept repeating his solidarity with the people of Nandigram on television, creating a vague cause-and-effect correspondent between the Nandigram violence and 21st's riot, the rioters' cry demanded only the eviction of Tasleema Nasrin. Given the profile of the average protestor-turned-rioter, it is doubtful they read Tasleema's book (and this is not so much to show intellectual condescension as to point out that the book, apart from being generally unavailable, is written in Bengali, and most of the rioters did not seem to speak much Bengali), a doubt sustained by the media, who had swarmed the areas since the beginning of the rally and followed the riot through its course. When asked why they were calling for the writer's expulsion, the young men retorted that their leaders asked them to, since she had abused Islam. On being asked whether they had read her books, they said they did not. While in this case the rumour may have been sustained by a degree of truth, the point is that to the people who took to the streets demanding her expulsion, Tasleema's disparaging of Islam was unverified information taken at face value. Thus, what fuelled Wednesday's Islamic youth fury was two pieces of received information: one, that a part of their living area would be demolished and they would be evicted, and two, that a woman of the faith had abused their religion.

Finally, the police. It is no secret that in this State the police is almost always in compliance with the party currently in power, and it is widely held that they employed unnecessary violence on the 14th of March and since (see the CRPF officer in charge of Nandigram's reaction to police behaviour here), and have been drawing flak from all public quarters, especially the local the combined forces of the city's 'intelligentsia' and Star Anondo.
The police didn't do themselves any favours by arresting about sixty of the city's prominent glitterati from the Nandan compound during the Calcutta Film Festival for protesting against the Nandigram violence, something which in part led to the march on November 14th. However, what people tend not to remember is what the media rhetoric was before 14th March. The Telegraph -- and indeed it's electronic counterpart, Star Anondo -- who have recently been retrospectively critical of the police for their actions on March 14th, had this (text and link archived at Development Dialouges here) to say in February, going so far as to begin the editorial with "Violence has only one antidote: counter-violence".

On Wednesday, however, the police showed a great deal of restraint, if reports are to be believed, and since the reports came from media houses which have been their harshest critics recently, there is not much space for doubt. It is certainly true that all the police had permission to use was their batons and tear gas, even when the trouble escalated into a riot-situation, when open-firing is considered a justifiable course of action. When questioned about the paltry number of police -- 250 -- deployed to control the situation and the reluctance to open-fire, Police Commissioner Goutam Chakravarti said, not without bitterness, I should imagine, that the Kolkata Police did not open-fire even when provoked because "It would have been called unconstitutional". The adjective had, in fact, been used by the High Court to describe police action in Nandigram on 14th March, and not without reason. This might in part have prompted the State government to ask the Army to mediate in what some consider haste, but if the police were denied means to control the situation -- video footage actually shows them running for cover from the pre-planned sustained missile attack -- the decision of calling the Army in does not seem particularly hasty.

There is space for debate about whether a non-partisan police force would have the moral authority to deal with the riot as established methods demanded. First, I cannot credit the existence of a police force that is completely unbiased. Functioning as it does under the elected government, no tool of administration can make independent decisions. Secondly, once outsiders -- and I use the term deliberately -- like the NDA's representatives begin commenting on minority exclusion or community-specific losses, falling in, for once, with a section of the liberal media and public-domain academics who tend to decontexualise each religious, ethnic or racial issue and seek to address them with the same rhetoric of oppression or marginalisation or victimisation, the entire issue of police firing on or even lathi-charging a mob in a Muslim-dominated area would become the chief source of fuel to the communal/partisan politics fire.

At a time of such inter-community tension (I am obviously not talking merely of Hindu-Muslim relations here) and especially when the Home Ministry reports a growing base of fundamentalist infiltration of Bengal and India via the porous Bangladesh borders (not that it was a surprise),
we can ill-afford to create such a volatile political and religious situation. We have enough militant religiosity of both the Hindu and Muslim kind, enough sectarian forces battling it out with the State's defence mechanisms and enough legacies of race/caste hatred as it is. Freedom of expression is a very, very valuable right that the liberal democracies have won for their citizens, and all I ask is for it to be used with consideration and responsibility, with a horizon beyond immediate short-term gains in mind.

I ask this, not of politicians, for I don't believe in fairies any more, but I do ask this of the national and local media, and I ask this of our intelligentsia: academics, actors, directors, artists, authors, singers. And I ask this of teachers and community leaders. Or we're headed down the road to perdition, global capitalism et all, and there will be few breaks on our way.