Reign of intolerance
SUHRID SANKAR CHATTOPADHYAY
|Mamata Banerjee's eleven months in power in West Bengal have been marked by actions that undermine democracy.|
MAMATA BANERJEE. PEOPLE wonder if this is the "poriborton", or change, she promised.
IN West Bengal, Didi, or Big Sister, is watching you. As such, one should be extra careful about what one says in public or in private and be doubly cautious about forwarding or sharing jokes through e-mail or on social media.
Ambikesh Mahapatra, a professor of chemistry at Jadavpur University, learnt this the hard way by spending 16 hours in police custody. He forwarded an innocuous joke on Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, affectionately known as Didi, though e-mail. Mahapatra's travails have taught the people of West Bengal a valuable lesson: if they wish to stay out of trouble, they better laugh at only what Didi and her government say is funny. It would also serve the people of West Bengal better to read only those newspapers Didi and her government choose for them; watch only those television channels that Didi approves of; and, most importantly, believe only what Didi and her government tell them, for all else are lies and conspiracies.
When Mamata Banerjee promised poriborton (change in Bengali) in the State and tied up with the Congress and toppled the 34-year-old Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led Left Front government in the Assembly elections in 2011, many people perhaps did not understand what she fully meant. But in less than a year's time, most of the confusion they may have had about the kind of poriborton they were promised has certainly cleared. After all, in just 10 months Mamata Banerjee herself claimed that 90 per cent of the work she had set out to do had been finished and that she had completed 10 years' work in 10 months.
On top of the many promises and assurances that she made in the run-up to the Assembly elections was "restoring democracy". However, less than a year later, it has turned out to be a change of a different flavour – one that people are finding a little unpalatable. From forbidding government-funded libraries to subscribe to major national and regional newspapers to detaining human rights activists, the State government has been displaying signs of an attitude not quite compatible with democratic norms. But it is the arrest of the professor that has brought to the fore the darkest and most sinister nature of the intimidation of civil society, which even the most dedicated Trinamool Congress supporters in the urban middle class have found difficult to approve of.
On April 12, Ambikesh Mahapatra was arrested by the police for forwarding a cartoon strip relating to the Chief Minister's insistence on removing Trinamool leader and Union Railway Minister Dinesh Trivedi from the Cabinet and replacing him with Mukul Roy, another Trinamool Member of Parliament. The joke was a spoof on Satyajit Ray's famous film Sonar Kella (Golden Fortress) and lifted certain dialogues from the film and applied them to the recent political developments surrounding the Railway Ministry. The cartoon was forwarded from the official e-mail id of the housing society where Mahapatra stays.
Around 12-40 a.m., the police arrested Mahapatra and Subrata Sengupta, the septuagenarian secretary of the housing society and a retired engineer of the Public Works Department, on charges of outraging the modesty of a woman, defamation and hacking (using the Internet to spread defamatory messages). Before being handed over to the police, Mahapatra was allegedly beaten up by suspected Trinamool workers who, the professor claimed, forced him to sign a statement that he was a supporter of the CPI(M). While he was kept in police custody for 16 hours before being produced in court, four of his assailants, including a local Trinamool leader, who were later arrested, were released on bail after two and a half hours.
Speaking to the media after his release, Mahapatra said, "I do not regret forwarding the mail. It was done in good humour only." The real reason for the whole incident, it became clear later, was rivalry between Mahapatra and a group of Trinamool Congress-backed building material suppliers who had apparently been trying to seize control of the board of directors of the housing society.
Even as cries of alarm arose from sections of Mamata Banerjee's most ardent middle-class supporters at this brazen display of intolerance, the Chief Minister and her government remained unapologetic. Mamata Banerjee, who was touring the districts at the time, went into her usual defensive mode. As has become her wont, she hinted at a conspiracy by the CPI(M) and sections of the media, her latest bete noire.
"If someone commits some mischief, what will the police do? Will they not arrest him? And then the CPI(M)'s two news channels and some of the newspapers will start a slander campaign against us," she said at a function in Durgapur. Back in Kolkata, some of her Ministers defended the arrest, even as academics, intellectuals and ordinary citizens took to the streets in protest. Many of them had attended rallies and public meetings of Mamata Banerjee. She was grateful for their support then, today she does not seem to care for their opinion. "It is only the white-collar urban people who are protesting," a senior Trinamool leader told Frontline, insisting that the e-mail was demeaning though he could not explain how. It appears nobody can explain, without stretching the bounds of credibility, how the joke can be construed as offensive. The eminent academic Sukanta Chaudhuri of Jadavpur University said, "If this could lead to such consequences, then who is safe? Any normal activity that we carry out might bring retribution, or be a pretext for retribution, as the actual cause seems to lie in the affairs of his [Mahapatra's] housing society."
Leader of the Opposition and CPI(M) Polit Bureau member Surya Kanta Mishra said that such a measure was "laughable and childish". Even the Trinamool's ally, the Congress, condemned the incident. Pradesh Congress president Pradip Bhattacharya called it an "assault on the political culture of Bengal". Intellectuals such as Sunanda Sanyal, once identified closely with Mamata Banerjee's programme of poriborton, have expressed dismay and even disgust at the whole incident. "We have perhaps reached the abyss. Nothing can be worse than this. For some time now anarchy has taken over the State, but the arrest of the professor for forwarding the cartoon is perhaps the last nail on the coffin," he is reported to have said.
AMBIKESH MAHAPATRA, PROFESSOR of Chemistry in Jadavpur University, who was arrested for sharing a political cartoon.
Mamata Banerjee has never been one to tolerate uncomfortable questions or criticism. On her road to Writers' Buildings, the West Bengal secretariat, her relationship with the media was "roses, roses all the way" – barring a few short periods of animosity, like when her agitation in Singur led to the departure of Tata Motors' small car project from the State. When certain glaring discrepancies between what the State government was saying and what the press was seeing, as in the case of suicides by farmers, came to the fore, Mamata Banerjee lapsed into her defensive mode and accused those newspapers that did not toe the State government's line of conspiring with the insidious CPI(M).
The government made known its displeasure with such national and regional newspapers by removing them from the list of publications subscribed to by the 2,500-odd State libraries. The only English newspaper on the list of the 13 papers that have been approved by the State government is The Times of India. Influential and popular regional and national dailies such as Anandabazaar Patrika, Bartaman, The Hindu, The Telegraph, Hindustan Times and Indian Express have been omitted from the list. Though the government maintained that none of the newspapers included in the list was aligned to any political party, the editors and proprietors of three of them – Sangbad Pratidin, Akbar E Mashriq and Sanmarg – are Trinamool Congress members in the Rajya Sabha.
"By this, the State government clearly wanted to send across a message to all those newspapers that have been critical of it," a source in the State administration said. The government, however, claimed that it was a decision taken to promote smaller local newspapers, an argument that did little to convince most people.
The decision came under severe criticism from all quarters. Mahasweta Devi, noted writer and recipient of the Jnanpith Award and the Ramon Magsaysay Award, said, "There is no way such a decision can be supported." Mahasweta Devi supported some of the agitations led by Mamata Banerjee when the Left Front was in power, including the agitations in Singur and Nandigram.
Mamata Banerjee is apparently unmoved by all the criticism. She struck back, saying that there may come a time when she will have to tell the people what to read as well. "We are not telling people what to read. But the manner in which personal attacks are being made, a conspiracy is being staged, we may just have to take the decision of telling people what to read," she said in an interview to select television channels. This further exacerbated the public outcry against the arrest. A new joke, coined by the Congress MP Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury, started doing the rounds in the State – "Amra harmad shoriye Unmad enechhi" (In the place of armed goons, we have brought in loonies). No arrests have been made so far.
Even those who voted for her have found it difficult to come to terms such intolerance. "I voted for Mamata thinking she would make a difference. However, she has done quite a few things wrong, and we as citizens have a duty to tell her so. All she is expected to do is to listen. If she can't do that she has no business heading a democratically elected government," the writer and academic Rimi B. Chatterjee told Frontline.
Mamata Banerjee's perceived authoritarian attitude and her government's apparent refusal to take heed of outside opinion have affected its relationship with the Pradesh Congress. In the past 11 months, the relationship between the two allies has degenerated to the point of a near break-up.
In yet another instance of intolerance, and this one in less than a week after the arrest of Ambikesh Mahapatra, Food and Supplies Minister Jyoti Priya Mallick stirred a hornet's nest with a "hate" speech against the CPI(M). In his address to Trinamool Congress workers, he directed his diatribe not just at CPI(M) activists but also at CPI(M) supporters. "You should boycott the CPI(M). You must not mingle with them. If a CPI(M) supporter invites you to a wedding or any other programme, do not go there. Do not associate with them in any way. Do not sit beside them at social events to have food; do not even have tea with them at the local tea stall," he said. His rationale for suggesting a social boycott was that maintaining friendly relations with the CPI(M) "would weaken one's resolve to extract revenge against them".
Mallick's speech has not only drawn flak from all political quarters but has shocked civil society. "Various people with different political views live in close proximity to each other in society. There is constant exchange of viewpoints and ideas, which is the way it should be. This is a kind of political communalism, and such an attitude promotes violent political hatred. He should be more responsible, particularly since he is a Minister," Suchetana Chattopadhyay, an assistant professor of history in Jadavpur University, told Frontline.
Although Mamata has alienated a section of the middle class and the urban youth, her mass appeal has remained intact. Huge crowds assemble at her rallies. In what appears to be a frantic endeavour to win the applause of the crowds, she lists, at regular intervals, all that she has accomplished. After 10 months in government, she claimed she had completed 90 per cent of the work she had set out to do. She is the examinee, the invigilator and the examiner rolled in one.
Many people feel that the government is concerned more with its image than with real problems. At a time when the "debt-stressed" West Bengal needed over Rs.23,000 crore for debt servicing (2011-12) and the need of the hour was nothing less than a severe austerity drive, Mamata Banerjee announced, among other things, around one lakh new jobs in the government sector and a grant of Rs.2 lakh each to 700 local clubs. Though this may draw applause at the rallies, the measures will further burden the State exchequer. But then she can put pressure on the Congress, her alliance partner at the Centre, to bail her out.
In less than a month after coming to power, the State government passed the Singur Land Rehabilitation and Development Bill, 2011, raising the hopes of the reluctant land losers for whose cause Mamata Banerjee fought against the Tata small car project. The farmers had refused to collect their compensation, putting their faith in her pledge. However, six years since the Singur agitation started, the farmers have received nothing. Even as the Calcutta High Court upheld the constitutional validity of the Singur Land Rehabilitation and Development Act, the Tatas have not given up the legal battle. Time and again the land-losing farmers have rejoiced only to have their hopes shattered. Most of them have now begun to doubt whether Mamata Banerjee will actually be able to return to them the land taken away for the project. According to reports, some of them have even expressed regret at not having collected the compensation and allowed Tata Motors to set up its factory.
Repeated inconsistencies in words and actions have begun to affect Mamata Banerjee's credibility among a section of the electorate. One of the most glaring examples is the way she has dealt with the Maoists. Before coming to power, she strenuously campaigned for the withdrawal of the security forces from Maoist-affected areas and insisted that there were no Maoists in West Bengal. Yet, after coming to power, she has used the very same security forces to corner the militants and has directly appealed to them to lay down arms (thus acknowledging their existence). While it is true that the Trinamool Congress is not the first political party to take advantage of the presence of the Maoists and secure a strong base for itself in certain regions, her volte-face has surprised some of her admirers.
There is a feeling among quite a few that Mamata Banerjee's government is obsessed with inconsequential issues and glosses over the important ones. On the one hand, it denies the fact that farmers are killing themselves under the burden of debt. On the other, it pledges to "convert Kolkata into London". Fancy street lights, which consume more electricity, adorn many parts of Kolkata, but they have not made travelling any more comfortable. Amid much fanfare, she changed the name of West Bengal to Pashchimbanga (which means West Bengal in Bengali) – a name already in vogue.
But it is the perception of a direct assault on certain democratic rights of citizens that has created the biggest furore in the State. Mamata Banerjee was not the prime mover either in the case of Mahapatra or in the case of newspaper subscription by State libraries. But, she did ratify the decisions apparently without thinking of the precedents they would set.
Remember her words on the day the Assembly election results were declared in 2011: "Our motto is to restore the democratic situation. Here [in West Bengal] autocracy is going on. And the Marxist government is a government for the Marxists, of the Marxists and by the Marxists. They have politicised the administration. Our motto is to restore the impartiality of the administration." And remember that her government detained the eminent scientist Partha Sarathi Ray for 10 days in prison for allegedly participating in a demonstration seeking compensation for a group of people evicted from their homes, and that the incident prompted intellectuals such as Noam Chomsky and Aruna Roy to write to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to secure his release.