A failure of imagination / A moment of Bengali glory?

[ Hindustan Times, 15 Oct 2012 ]

Sometimes moments of apparent glory also underline deeper failures. But very often the big hurrah is the last hurrah. Let me come to the point. For the first time in the post-partition Indian Union, two of the highest constitutional posts, that of the president and the chief justice of the supreme court, have Bengalee occupants. Altamas Kabir, the incumbent chief justice, is a Muslim from Bengal, hailing from one of the most elite Muslim families of the Subcontinent. If your grand-father was awarded a badge of service and loyalty by the British – a  Rai Bahadur or a Khan-Bahadur, it still matters in inexplicable and indeterminate ways, in terms of who you are, where you are and where you can get to. That there is a Bengali chief justice after more than twenty years was not greeted with much enthusiasm in Paschimbanga. There are very few Bengali Muslims from Paschimbanga who rise to such levels. Many possibly did not know he was a Bengali.  Structural disparities also colour attitudes and expectations. Kabir babu was sworn in by Shri Mukherjee. However, none of the two Bengalis are in directly elected posts. Still, this unlikely moment of crowding at the apex comes at a time when Bengal’s shadow on the subcontinent is at its shortest.

However, that is nothing to lament. There are a few good reasons why West Bengal’s shadow over the rest of the Indian Union would not be a good thing, at this point. If it looks to the east, East Bengal (whose geo-political avatar is the People’s Republic of Bangladesh) now matches if not surpasses the West in numerous indices of human well-being. When they were separated during the 2nd partition of Bengal or in the aftermath of 1971, very few would have bet that indices would turn out to be this way. But there they are.

Institutions of West Bengal, which for a long time were peerless in the subcontinent if not beyond, now stand as ghostly reminders of their former selves. In the secondary education front, the ‘Bengal board’ is one which does not regularly update itself, having been reduced to a teeming cesspool of political appointees of the CPI(M). This is something that the Trinamool looks eager to replicate. As pan-Indian boards of education start getting undue advantage due to central government policies, this process of ‘Indianization’ has been happening together with de-‘Bengalizing’ – a process whose full impact will not be evident till it is too late, a process that takes a direct stab at the plural reality of the Subcontinent. In the name of uniformity and simplicity, Bengali language is being denied its position as a medium of public life , education and commerce, under the undemocratic patronage of Hindi, a language that has decimated language diversity in the cow-belt itself. In higher education, the debt ridden state continues to pay less to its academicians vis-à-vis the central institutions, thus causing a Bengali brain-drain of epic proportions. Mukherjee and Kabir, have reached the pinnacle, outside Bengal – a point that should not be lost on the readers. Third-rate central universities pay their academicians more than Presidency University or Calcutta University – institutions that produced the pedagogical foundations of contemporary formal academics for much of the Subcontinent. Autonomy of educational institutions is still a pipe-dream in West Bengal with excellence always losing out to servility to the government of the day – the most recent example being that of the upright Chinmoy Guha, the ex-vice chancellor of Rabindra Bharati University.

In matters of  health, it is the paradise of low-grade unaccountable private health-care mafia. Its institutions of pride like the Calcutta Medical College Hospital being places where only the very poor and the helpless would go. There is a lot of medical traffic from West Bengal to Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu, a trend unthinkable a few decades ago.

Cities and towns in West Bengal are more ‘Bengali’ than ever before, indicating a loss of employment and entrepreneurial opportunities for non-Bengali migrants from Hindustan and beyond that created a semblance of a cosmopolitan culture for more than a century on the two banks of Bhagirathi-Hooghly. A union centre that discriminates has not helped matters.

On the cultural-linguistic front, excellent Bilingualism thereby which people could interpret that world of Bengali and the world made available by English, is near extinction. Anglophone elites retain nominal Bengali-ness and those whose cultural world is embedded in Bengal increasingly find themselves second class citizens in a scenario where Hindi is the language of political power and English is the language of socio-economic ascendancy. Ashok Mitra and his likes who would at ease write beautifully in both are rare, thus resulting in a collective curtailment in intellectual and interpretative space. In this context one notes the fall in the genre of translation of contemporary world classics in Bengali.

In the political sphere, but for the specific numbers in the present Lok Sabha, Bengal’s general clout has been, for decades, disproportionately small in proportion to its population in the Indian Union. The easy parallelism between ultra-centrism and the Congress system is to blame, but the long rule by the CPI(M) that pawned Bengal’s interests by not claiming the requisite pound of flesh, so that it could engage in ‘doctrinaire’ inner-party posturing has certainly assisted that. West Bengal has been one of the few regions in the Indian Union where long-dispossessed caste groups are still far from power, let alone being an effective power-brokering block as such. For all its ‘progressiveness’, post-partition West Bengal has only been able to produce Mamatas and Buddhadebs, not Mayabatis and Karunanidhis. More than anything else, this democratic deficit seriously cripples West Bengal’s potentialities. Being ruled by middle class / upper-middle class forward castes, its primary concerns are also of those groups – why Bengali IT graduates work in Bangalore and so forth. Its cultural icons are also from that small group, thus resulting in state-sponsored cretinization of the myriad cultures that constitute Bengal.

The same week when two Bengalees ‘reached the top’, a Hindi-film actor eyeing a tax break from West Bengal for a private cricket team entity he ‘owns’ and operates, produced a ‘promotional video’ as the state’s ‘brand ambassador’. Banalities about ‘mishti doi’ aside, this failure of imagination is not accidental. This is the greatest sign of decline. West Bengal has lost the confidence to look inward for inspiration and when it looks outward, it only imports kitsch.

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Filed under Acedemia, Bengal, Caste, Culture, Delhi Durbar, Kolkata, Language

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