Sunday, January 08, 2012

What India thought yesterday, Bengal will think tomorrow

A development which has been irking me for the last few days – is the community twist that is being given to the #AMRI case. In what appears to be an orchestrated campaign a PR spin is being is being given – as if it’s a conspiracy against a particular community – namely, the Marwaris. So much so, I was quite astounded to see a front=page anchor story headline in the Economic Times, of all papers, “Marwaris feel the heat, as Didi breathes fire” click here to read (. Very unbecoming of a respected national newspaper, I thought and sent SMS texts to that effect to their editors.)

There is a larger legal question on the accountability of directors – on which I can hold forth – but that’s not my topic of discussion here. (click here to read) What’s bothering me is the gradual change of  Bengal’s social fabric.

To finish off the Marwari angle first. I was mildly embarrassed by a couple of pointed reference to that community in the comments to my blog on the #AMRI tragedy. (To the best of my recollection and belief –  in my post read here – I had not raised any pointing fingers at any one group  - but that’s beside the point). Even then I didn’t pay much attention there. There has always existed a tacit animosity between the ethnic Bengalis and the Marwaris – often translated in disparaging remarks about each other in private – but over time they have developed a symbiotic relationship. This kind of social stress exists in all mega cities – where migrants come to play a greater economic role. But, there is no overt confrontation and over-time they learn to co-exist, even if a bit uneasily,  without treading on each others’ toes (or snatching another person’s bread to put it more crudely). Calcutta has been no different in that respect – neither more nor less, I would say.

Changing gears slightly – a friend from Bihar, always told me – you Bengalis know nothing about caste system. I take that as a compliment. For myself – I first came to appreciate the realities of class conflicts, when as a Management Trainee I went to live in a village in the backward Etah District of UP – way back in 1984. Sadly, things have only deteriorated since then rather than improving , I am told, with newer denominations among Dalits and “Maha-dalits” emerging. When as a young couple we went to live in Pune in the mid-80’s – we were quite bemused at the ‘caste profiling’ even among the educated and elite Maharshtrians. How easily people typecast between Kokanasths, Saraswaths, Deshasths and CKPs. And, they had difficulty in fitting us into any of those classifications – as we were quite blissfully oblivious of our caste origins.

Last year, before the elections, Ashish Chakravarty – the much respected Senior Editor of The Telegraph – made a very incisive observation on a TV talk-show. He said, traditionally, Bengali Muslims never voted along communal lines. They were politically conscious and  concerned citizens as anyone else. But, this has changed in the recent past – with political parties trying play the minorities card even in West Bengal. Trinamool’s success in the last 2 elections has been largely a function of swaying some of this minority vote in their favour as statistics would reveal. Therefore, you now see bill-boards and posters of Mamata Banerjee wearing head-scarves – greeting people in Eid or welcoming back “Haj” pilgrims. She kind of turned the tables on the CPM by doing this – as they could,  by philosophy, not play the “religious” game – but had turned a blind eye on illegal immigration from across the border in the interest of creating a vote-bank for themselves. The strategy boomeranged when the Sachar Committee report indicted them for the poor lot of Muslims in West Bengal, which Mamata was quick to capitalize upon.

Well, I don’t think the issue needs further elaboration. I am afraid the secular credentials of Bengal are under risk of being surreptitiously subverted. In my private conversations, with some of my business associates from the Marwari community, I find a growing support for the BJP – as they feel the need for having a voice of their own in the state polity. Before, every elections now – we find the Lalus and Paswans making forays to the state to mobilize the Bihari and UP-ite constituency in Calcutta and North Bengal.

It would require a great measure of statesmanship – to arrest this disturbing trend – which, I am not sure, if the present Chief Minister ( or to be fair to her, any other leader of the present generation ) has it in her. Therefore, it is for the citizens and intelligentsia of the state to rise above these parochialism and re-assert Bengal’s cherished culture of egalitarianism – if indeed we are serious about regaining some of the lost glory of the state (even if turning it into a London or Switzerland remains a pipe dream of Mamata Banerjee). And, to do that – the media has to play a major role. But, in their pursuit for ‘eye-balls’ - TRPs and circulation – wonder if anyone has the time for such old world values.

It’ll be a real set back if we lose it though’ – as it would, like so many other things have, turn on its head the old saying of  Gokhale - which would now have to be re-written as “What India thought yesterday, Bengal will think tomorrow”.