Calcutta and the Left


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TO begin with a story. The year was 1977, the Left Front had just been installed in power in the state. One afternoon a Congress MLA posted an insinuation in the state Assembly: the Left, a bunch fed by imported ideology, had little notion of what true patriotism is. A Front minister stood up and threw a challenge: let there be an on-the-spot test of strength on the issue of patriotism. Add up the number of years spent in prison before independence and on political grounds by incumbent Left Front and Congress MLA’s respectively and the average worked out for both sides; it would be seen that the average number of years a Left Front MLA had spent in prison in the freedom struggle was twelve times the average for the Congress legislators.

An additional fact often missed out is that, in the first decade following independence, a considerable body of Congressmen in West Bengal and elsewhere had joined the Communist party; several amongst them were imprisoned during the Quit India movement in 1942. Those belonging to the Left are not therefore an exotic element in the Bengal and Calcutta milieu. True, they were no particular votaries of the cult of non-violence; they have worn militancy as their traditional badge of honour. And it is an open question whether the British chose to quit our shores because they were bowled over by Congress gentlemanliness or for other lethal reasons.

Since the epicentre of their political activity was in Calcutta, the city’s urges and impulses are in large measure the product of Left thought and praxis. Calcutta is what it is on account of the Left, period. Prim New Delhi, the nation’s capital, has throughout the post-independence decades had strong reservations about Calcutta. Such reservations were fully justified. The eastern city was in the habit of reminding those ensconced in power in New Delhi of the radical pledges of the national movement. Some of those pledges were watered down in the Directive Principles of State Policy included in the country’s written Constitution, and were hardly ever taken seriously by the ruling junta in New Delhi. The most important of them – India would be a full-fledged federation with residuary powers resting with the federating states, went out of the window and the obnoxious legislation ordaining detentions without trial was retained. Land reforms, promised in the years of yore, were put on the back burner. State control over industry was reduced to a farce: licenses were earmarked for favoured cronies and subsidies were used to ensure greater accretion of wealth for the rich.

Calcutta, the heart of the Left, did not yet have the power to hit back against the perpetrators of such retrogression, but it was capable of rendering pinpricks. Strikes and bandhs became an integral part of its existence; the unending processions Jawaharlal Nehru was derisive of were a reminder of the art of resistance the pre-1947 national movement was proud of. The intense trade union activity in and around the city, the agrarian upsurges in its neighbourhood, the radical literature and revolutionary plays Calcutta poured out, all added up. The strong network of organisation of the refugees from East Pakistan abandoned by the callous Central authorities, proved the point that communal canker need not contaminate these hapless millions provided the Left were around. The ranks of the middle classes, bereft of employment opportunities, remained mute elsewhere, but not in Calcutta.


The Left taught Calcutta the language of protest. The poor and the underprivileged were told that they constituted the majority of this nation, they mattered; should they be taken for granted, they must not take it lying down, they must rise in revolt. The rebellions that took place would often be of a scattered kind, ephemeral, spasmodic, getting out of breath after going twenty paces forward. Even so, the country’s conscience spoke via this language of the Left that became the language of Calcutta. As a result, unlike citizens in most other parts of the country – including the other metropolitan centres – the average Calcuttan is by instinct a wanderer along the radical path. It is almost cerebral; whatever the season and whatever the occasion, the Left is prone to cast its vote against conformism and, simultaneously, opt for experimentation. In that sense, Calcutta has been, and remains, the laboratory of the Left.


Consider the general picture in literature and the arts. Most literary stalwarts in Bengal in the post-Tagore era have either been firmly committed to the Left ideology or at least have been unable to stay away from radical contamination. Even a devotee of ‘pure’ literature such as Buddhadeva Bose, had gone through a stint of experience with the anti-fascist writers and artists in the pre-World War Two days, and the past is not easily repudiable. Annada Sankar Ray, a member of the Indian Civil Service, was a prim member of the bourgeoisie if ever there were one; yet he had composed, in the early 1950s, a celebrated doggerel lampooning the Congress regime’s obsessive communist phobia. For that other towering figure in the anti-communist intellectual camp, Sudhindra Nath Datta, Stalin was of course anathema, but it was Datta and his close friends who had founded, three-quarters of a century ago, the journal Parichaya which could take credit for introducing in Bengali serious scholastic discussion on aspects of Marxist ideology and praxis.

Since then, the great majority of Bengali poets and fiction writers, with Manik Bandyopadhyay and Bishnu Dey in the lead, have helped build an imposing edifice of Left tradition in literature. A Congress-minded mohican of a novelist, Tarashankar Bandyopadhyay, parted company with the Left fairly early in his career, but the tales he narrated of decadent feudalism and evolving new class alignments bear the signature of Left convictions. A later literary celebrity, Samaresh Basu, changed camps, but could not quite unlearn his early grooming in Communist Party cells.

It is no accident either that the three leading thespians who were the rage of Calcutta in the second half of the twentieth century – Sombhu Mitra, Utpal Dutt and Ajitesh Bandyopadhyay – each had kept company with the Indian People’s Theatre Association during some phase of their career. The Group Theatre movement as it has emerged is a fusion of Left ideology and Bengali impulse. The major singers in the state too have been solidly with the Left. True, the Bengal film industry has gradually lost ground to Bombay, but there was a latent cause of pride in this defeat in the world of commerce. Nargis Dutt complained in Parliament: it was demeaning that Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali, making a fetish of India’s abysmal poverty, was drawing adoring crowds in Europe and America, and yet the government was not doing anything about it. Some of Ray’s later films were actually even more overtly Left. He was however a pale ‘pinkie’ compared to many of his later contemporaries.


The Left taught Calcutta to vocalise doubts and shoot questions. Writers and artistes apart, the hoary Presidency College has also collected plaudits because of its long list of Left-leaning alumni. Much more than the tribe of intellectuals though, it is Calcutta’s ordinary men and women one should more talk about. It is they who have seen through cant. Exposing hypocrisy has come easily to them. They have, through the decades, swelled the ranks of the Left, and the Left has provided them with nourishment of thought and forthrightness. It was left to Calcutta’s Left to question the rationale of India’s altogether quixotic armed skirmish with China: Indian officialdom’s zeal to claim as their own tracts snatched in the past by British brigands from a fractured, weakened China had the stuffing of an eleventh rate melodrama costing the country heavily over the long run. The rest of the nation had then gone berserk; Calcutta’s Left alone chose to stay rational and cheerfully marched to prison.

But forget the past. Has not the long and yet-to-end tenure of the Left Front regime in West Bengal driven an even more substantial lesson home about the Left’s contribution to the stature of Calcutta? It is a record till now unsurpassed: an uninterrupted spell of the communists triumphing time and time again in democratic elections. Neither New Delhi’s high-handedness nor solid media opposition has been of any avail; the Left effected meaningful land reforms, decentralised the administration and provided a dignity of living to the common people – all of which have made it, at least for now, a non-vanquishable entity.


It is elements of the Left again, with their concentrated strength in Calcutta, who have battled consistently against the pervasive authoritarianism latent in the two national parties – the Indian National Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party. While other political formations have looked the other way, the Left has fought, fought and fought again to establish a healthier norm of Centre-State relations, that we are a nation peopled by heterogeneous nationalities. The Constitution, although it alludes to federal principles, has in effect often become a tool in the hands of the Centre for overriding the rights of states. Power tends to go to the head. Those who come to occupy positions of power in New Delhi develop a habit of forgetting to honour and respect the spirit of the federal concordat underlying the Constitution. By misinterpreting even patently straightforward Articles of the Constitution, they attempt to tilt the scales further against the states. There is little realisation about the fact that the discontent simmering in different parts of the country is more often than not the outcome of a purposive suppression of the hopes and aspirations of India’s constituent nationalities. Even as most others have feigned indifference, the Left has been extraordinarily conscientious in warning about the likelihood of a perverse turn of events, should the basic problems be left unattended.


It is once more the Left, particularly the Left entrenched in Calcutta, which is fighting against the country’s gradual capitulation to international finance capital under the hegemony of the world’s only super-power. Thanks to the stock market boom induced by the generous inflow of hedge funds and the BPO explosion, the country’s upper classes have never had it so good. They have assumed that the arcadia is right here and the rest of the national agenda could be dumped in the dust heap of history. The withdrawal of practically all restraints on private and foreign economic activities and other neo-liberal policy measures have led to a burgeoning of elitist consumer demand and spiralling of service income, leading to the creation of the optical illusion of a rate of domestic income growth touching seven to eight per cent per annum. But agriculture, still providing the livelihood of two-thirds of the national population, continues to languish. The magnitude of distress the agrarian community has been experiencing has been aggravated by the machinations of such external conspiracies as the World Trade Organisation.

Voices need to be raised against those who are actively collaborating with this grand design of national disaster. Calcutta, led by the Left, continues to exert itself to demolish the TINA (there is no alternative) myth. There is not just one but several alternatives to the process unleashed by international finance capital. The pursuit of such alternative roads, however, calls for a rejection of hedonism and a re-dedication to the commitment of national self-reliance. This is an obligation the Left cannot afford to forsake; nor can Calcutta.


If you scan the media, you will not discover the Left. This is the consequence of a deliberate class decision. The Left nonetheless is alive and kicking; the bandhs and strikes Calcutta successfully organises from time to time are a testimony to the Left’s pulsating existence. Till as long as the nation’s majority is leading a sub- marginal existence, the Left will refuse to die; Calcutta, too, will refuse to go silent. In these difficult times, even within the Left, some wobbling while reaching hard decisions should not surprise; segments even within the Left might be temporarily enamoured of the magic allegedly performable, for instance, by the Information Technology industry. The illusion, however, is bound to soon wither. The IT sector provides succour at most to a couple of million out of India’s total workforce of 400 million. And, while absorbing this tiny fraction of job-seekers, it is displacing each year much greater numbers in banks, insurance firms, government and commercial offices and elsewhere.

To sum up what the paragraphs above have tried to articulate, since a great many of the activities of the Left have evolved around Calcutta, the city’s urges and expressions are in great measure the product of Left thought and praxis. It is thus only natural that Calcutta in course of the post-independence decades turned into a bastion of anti-Congress sentiments. From the 1950s onwards, particular class forces asserted their dominance within the ruling Congress party; in due course feudal and capitalist elements as good as captured the party, and the Directive Principles, as mentioned earlier, went the way of all flesh. The Bharatiya Janata Party has been worse; its reactionary economic views put into shade by its religious obscurantism. And these two parties have monopolised power in New Delhi.


Against the onslaught of the Centre, Calcutta, the hard belt of the Left, without wielding any power, has retained sufficient capability to hit back, and with modalities it, and Calcutta, knew best. The message the Left – and Calcutta – has continued to convey is unambiguous. The poor and the underprivileged constitute the majority of this nation; they therefore matter and more since we define ourselves as a democracy. Should the nation’s decision-makers attempt to bypass this admonition, it would not be taken lying down; ordinary men and women, led by the Left and flagged off by Calcutta, would rise in revolt. These rebellions might be spasmodic, getting out of breath after a while. There would nonetheless be a logical texture in these organised and disorganised protests. The country’s conscience would speak via the vocabulary of the Left and the Left would try out this vocabulary in the environs of wondrous Calcutta.

Of late the media have been trying to beam a different impression. Calcutta’s leadership, formally represented by the state government, has, it is being claimed, made up its mind to break away from the Left. This is at best misreading of some recent developments. At worst, it is canard. A very narrow section of erstwhile ideologues, partly bedazzled by reports of the vast strides made by China, are groping around, striving to discover short cuts to growth. Some of them have been told of the ready availability of footloose funds from inter national finance capital, particularly for the Information Technology sector. This section represents a minor fragment of the Left’s superstructure; the base, however, remains deeply committed to their ideological commitment. Awareness is also gradually spreading that Information Technology activities at most provide opportunities to roughly two to three million out of India’s total working force of plus minus 400 million, and these activities are actually employment-eroding in several spheres.


International finance capital would like India to forget that its physical endowment, reservoir of scientific and technological resources and the huge, as-yet unexpected home market constitute an ideal environment for rapid self-reliant economic growth which can, at the same time, ensure distributive justice across classes and regions. This counter-propaganda is aimed at destroying the people’s will to build such a just, prosperous republic. The Left wants to mobilise the nation against this external conspiracy. Calcutta, the cradle of the Left, will lead from the front as this battle is properly joined.

What is the Left’s contribution to Calcutta, did you ask? Last week at Bangalore, an IT tycoon, presiding over a network of call centres, had the hauteur to state that since 97.5 per cent of his revenues come from the United States, Germany and Japan, he could not care less what happened to this country’s poor. No tycoon will dare to make the same statement standing on the soil of Calcutta. That, in short, is what the Left has contributed to Calcutta.