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News & Views on the Revolutionary Left

One step forward, two steps massacre

Even Left-leaning intellectuals join the chorus of protests over Nandigram

Rajat Roy Kolkata

Three days after the Nandigram massacre, a few thousand students, intellectuals, poets and artists assembled in front of Metro Cinema in the heart of Kolkata and condemned the Left Front government in no uncertain terms. It was a scene the city has not witnessed for a long time. Prominent among the protesters were some Left intellectuals who have never been seen taking an anti-Left position.

Theatre personalities Bibhash Chakravorty and Kaushik Sen made public their decision to resign from the state-sponsored Bangla Natya Akademy. Poet Shrijato read out the resignation letter of eminent poet Sankho Ghosh from the post of vice chairman of Bangla Akademy, another state-run body. Ashru Kumar Sikdar also resigned from Bangla Akademy and Shashi Anand resigned from the advisory body of Nandan (a cultural complex of the state cultural department). One after another, poets like Joy Goswami and others expressed their anguish at the brutal treatment meted out to the villagers of Nandigram.

Later, a similar meeting was held at Sujata Sadan, a theatre hall in south Kolkata, where playwright and actor Manoj Mitra and many others from the world of theatre condemned the Nandigram massacre. Students have already started demonstrations and more organised agitations are being planned once the exam season is over.

The significance of this development cannot be ignored, as for the first time in the last 30 years of the Left rule in West Bengal, artists and intellectuals with Left leanings have come out openly to oppose the ruling Left party. People like Mahasweta Devi and Saoli Mitra never aligned themselves with official Left and didn't hesitate to criticise the ruling Left Front whenever the occasion demanded. As expected, they also joined the anti-government movement in Singur and Nandigram. But generally Left intellectuals did not take any clear position before the Nandigram massacre. They were seen as active supporters of the Left. Many enjoyed a good rapport with Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, and seemed to be happy with the state patronage.

They happily obliged the left whenever there was some need to mobilise public opinion in favour of the regime and remained silent when the state resorted to repressive measures against its own people, be it the Kamtapuris or Naxalites or the mainstream opposition parties. The people in Bengal got used to this band of Left intellectuals who were forthcoming in their protest against the demolition of Babri Masjid, Gujarat riots or even America's war on Iraq but were found wanting when it came to protesting the undemocratic acts of the Left Front government. The Nandigram episode has finally forced them to sever their relations with the Left Front government.

The Bengali intelligentsia has a long tradition of acting as the conscience-keeper of the people. During the freedom struggle, the leadership came from Rabindranath Tagore himself. He famously returned his knighthood to protest against the Jalianwallabagh massacre. That tradition was carried forward after independence by a new generation of intellectuals, whose sympathy lied mostly with the communist movement. The peasant movement of the late 1940s and early 1950s, known as the Tebhagha movement, was supported by a whole lot of artists, musicians, writers.

But the passion for causes gradually dried up. During the Naxalite movement, when a section of Naxals started vandalising and beheading the statues of the leaders of 19th century and meaningless killings became rule between the Naxals and the police, Bangla intelligentsia by and large remained silent. During the emergency, only a handful of courageous intellectuals like Amlan Dutta and Gourkishore Ghosh, known for their liberal bourgeois leanings, and radical Left playwright and actor Utpal Dutta and Leftist intellectuals like Samar Sen and Ashok Mitra showed courage in protesting the curbing of citizen's rights.

When the Left Front came to power in 1977, the Left intellectuals became active. Their partisan position was evident from the beginning. The CPI(M), true to its ideological moorings in Stalinism, tried to monitor the intelligentsia closely, sometimes with hilarious consequences. For instance, in the early 1980s, a left leader labelled pop singer Usha Utthup's stage performances as apasanskriti (decadent culture). The then state secretary of the CPI(M) entrusted one of the younger leaders with the task of defining the distinction between "progressive" and "decadent" culture. They then realised their folly and dropped the idea without further ado. Interestingly, that young CPI(M) leader is today's chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, who continued to cultivate good relations with the intelligentsia.

Buddhadeb's pet project Nandan became the centre of state sponsored cultural activities in Kolkata. Natya Akademy, Bangla Akademy and other government cultural agencies were formed, which accommodated senior artists, poets and writers, playwright and stage personalities. A series of government awards were instituted to reward the "right" kind of people.

It paid rich dividends to the party. The massacre of settlers who came from Dandakaranya to resettle themselves at Marichjhanpi in the Sundarban, the murder of Anandamargis in broad daylight in south Kolkata, both in the early 1980s, or even a violent attack on Mamata Banerjee by a known CPI(M) cadre in Calcutta in the 1990s could not break the silence of these intellectuals. The Orwellian world the Left tried to create in Bengal made them selective while taking a moral stand. Although there was growing disillusionment among Left intellectuals about the regime, nobody dared to speak out.

In the early 1990s, Subhas Mukhopadhyay, a noted poet and onetime darling of the communist parties (famous for his revolutionary poems) openly criticised the Left for its sectarian and corrupt practices. Although he made some valid criticism of the Left, he was vilified as senile. Also, his joining hands with arch anti-communist political forces were not appreciated by most, which successfully blunted the edge of his criticism.

Now, after living under the Left rule for 30 years in Bengal, it seems the disillusionment of the people has grown to such an extent that, not withstanding the absence of a viable political opposition, the civil society has started taking more active role. The vocal protest of Left intellectuals is indicative of that. The Bangla intelligentsia has started speaking out its mind.

Eminent theatre personality Bibhash Chakraborty is known among theatre lovers of Bengal for his successful productions like Chak Bhanga Madhu, Madhab Malanchi Kanya and many others plays. On March 14, when the police crackdown on villagers of Nandigram was flashed on television, Bibhash Chakraborty recorded his protest by resigning from the state-run Bangla Natya Akademy. In a candid interview with Hardnews, Bibhash Chakraborty explained his reasons for resignation and the cultural atmosphere in Bengal under the Left Front regime. Excerpts:

Why did you resign from the Bangla Natya Akademy?

The issue of the land acquisition has been agitating me for quite some time. I have been writing about it in newspapers, voicing my discontent about the forcible land acquisition process initiated by the state. I call it land grabbing by proxy on behalf of big industry. So, when I saw the barbaric attack on the villagers, children and women on TV, I was extremely disturbed. I realised that the least that I could do was to resign from the Natya Akademy, which is directly under the state government's department of cultural affairs.

In the last 30 years of Left rule we have never seen artists and intellectuals of left inclination speaking out against the Left Front. Do you think this incident was first of its kind that called for such protests?

In retrospect, I think there were a few occasions that deserved protests, such as the Marichjhanpi incident. But we remained silent. I repent that now. However, through my plays I tried to criticise the deviation and corrupt practices of the Left.

Do you think the left has become more intolerant to dissent over the years?

Yes. Earlier, we could talk to them and discuss various issues. Nowadays, there is a perceptive change. They have somehow started articulating the words of Bush (Those who are not with us are against us).

What is your next course of action?

I don't know. We are individuals united for a cause and not a political party. It is very difficult to fight against the well organised and heavily oiled party machinery. But one thing is clear: the way the villagers have resisted the government's move, it won't be easy for the state to snatch agricultural land forcibly anymore. Perhaps the government would come to realise that without initiating proper dialogue with the people, they cannot move forward. The people have lost faith in the administration, legislature and media of our state. The only hope we have is with the judiciary. Let's see. Hard News

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posted by Resistance 4/03/2007 01:42:00 PM,


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