Over the past month or so, two profoundly shocking events have deeply disturbed the collective psyche of a section of the minuscule Bengali intelligentsia. The first, and most recent, was the full display of gratuitous violence in the wake of the panchayat elections across West Bengal, that left 25 people dead.
Flush with electoral victory, the ruling Trinamool Congress (TMC), which is said to have choreographed the ‘dance of death’, and its leader Mamata Banerjee, made no reference to the violence or even expressed remorse at the tragic loss of lives.
Among all states, Bengal has attained the unenviable status of being the only one where the ruling party is the fountainhead of widespread violence.
A Stinking Scandal
The second was a revolting scandal involving the distribution of rotten meat by a group of men whose store of meat came from the so-called dumping grounds for carcasses. As the stink rose to high heavens, nauseating the foodie Bengali, rumours began to circulate that the bulk of the rotten meat, perhaps coming even from dogs and cats, may have already been supplied to restaurants and Kolkata’s sundry roll and kebab kiosks.
In one raid on an ice factory, the police found and seized over 18,000 kgs of putrid meat, though there was no word on whether the flesh belonged to goats or other quadrupeds.
Bengal, it was found, had become the centre of the export of rotten meat to other states such as Odisha, Bihar and Jharkhand and even across international borders to Bangladesh and Nepal. Rotten meat is today a lucrative item of export, not the fine silks, cotton and jute of yore.
The two seemingly disconnected events could be easily dismissed as isolated instances of political violence and greed run amok, respectively.
But these two events also reflect a huge degree of decay – in both the political and cultural spheres – unprecedented in a Bengal which once took pride in haute taste, refinement and genteel sensibilities. My Bengali friends agree with this downward slide, admitting that while violence has historically been central to West Bengal’s political culture, there has been a significant erosion in its high culture, reduced to kaalchaar during the Marxists’ rule and now in the throes of a slow and painful demise.
‘Bhadrolok’ Culture Replaced With ‘Gunda Gardi’
It is no longer a debate related to binaries – degeneration vs evolution, decadence vs progress, sickness vs health, artifice vs ingenuity, false vs true or perversion vs normalcy. Political and cultural edifices and bases are in ruins and on social media, especially Facebook groups, “ruin-gazing” through still images of once glorious buildings — colonial or native — present evidence of decline and collapse.
But they also present a picture of generations of men and women lamenting the decay, their souls crying out for a Bengal-then and a Bengal-now. What were once signposts of bhadrolok culture have now been replaced with grotesque blue-and-white eyesores.
Yet, it is the latter that is being shamelessly glorified on Kolkata’s streets and in government pamphlets and brochures — just because a malignant mind deigns so.
This political and cultural degeneration was inevitable, and its roots are economic.
Much of Bengal’s industrial advantage was largely a gift of the British colonial masters, though we find that several of British Bengal’s merchant babus and gomastas or manager-agents, who cut huge corners in business deals, eventually became prized, respectable zamindars who patronised culture in its myriad forms. There is, however, no doubt that besides Bombay, Bengal turned into a prime industrial hub by the end of British rule.
TMC Revived Worst Memories of Bengal’s Past
The downward slide began soon enough as political one-upmanship, followed by the use of violence to suppress opposition, became the sine qua non of the Congress regime of Siddhartha Shankar Ray and then ably duplicated by the Marxists. What mattered was political control at any cost, not economic liberalisation, prosperity and redistribution of wealth.
In this endeavour, the political elites hired the services of neighbourhood goons and bullies for accumulation of power, a practice not very different from the use of paiks and lathiyals by 18th century intermediate landed magnates, to forcibly extract revenue from an impoverished peasantry.
By the time the dogmatic Leftists – who had reduced Bengal to penury – were kicked out by a woman promising and heralding paribartan (change), Bengal’s coffers were empty. In the seven years that Mamata Banerjee’s party has been in power, she proffered ‘change’ all the time and yet, all she gave us was more — and the worst — of the past.
The result today is that even as Bengalis try to find meaning in her ma-maati-maanush rhetoric, the Mamata Banerjee government’s finances are in dire straits, eviscerating not only the state but also its maanush (humans).
A report of last year revealed, quoting official estimates, that West Bengal’s total debt “will balloon to Rs 3.66 lakh crore in 2017-18, or 1.9 times” that the CPI(M)-led Left Front government left behind.
Not only is the state government buried in debt, so too are many ordinary Bengalis running sundry small businesses which are fast running aground, causing economic dislocations and, frighteningly, a host of social ills, including a “crisis of gentility”.
Unemployment & a Parasitic Existence
Across rural Bengal, instead of schools and colleges and hospitals, more chit fund outlets have cropped up that have duped innumerable ordinary people. The chief minister’s foreign sojourns, touted to be the first steps in Bengal’s great leap forward in its path to industrial rejuvenation, more often than not, ended as farce. From her cultural cubbyhole she exhorted Bengalis to mass produce telebhaja – deep-fried pieces of eggplant or onion rings or mashed potato dollops (all equally toxic in appearance) and sold by the roadside.
What has happened over the years of continuous economic stagnation is that it has had its social, cultural and human consequences: Education fell off the state government’s radar, as did healthcare.
Unemployment and under-employment levels rose as more and more people began to feed off each other – a parasitic existence in which neighbourhood thugs live off the small earnings of marginal shopkeepers. Even women took to dubious means to make ends meet. As wages shrank, so did Bengalis’ hearts and once-famed magnanimity: The size of the tea cups, offered to guests and visitors, turned smaller. Humane intellectualism gave way to lowly cunning.
An Apocalyptic Future
The worldview of supine intellectuals became so constricted that they could not think or act beyond political boot-licking and willful subservience. Each time the chief minister produced a spurious painting, they clapped thunderously. As the levers of government weakened for want of focused attention, an enterprising bunch of middlemen — modern-day gomastas, if you will — began to have overwhelming influence on decision-making, skimming the state’s budget.
Even as flyovers tumbled, Kolkata, which increasingly appeared as a gaudy jatra (local street theatre) stage with miniature Big Bens and bonsai-sized replicas of the Howrah Bridge, was projected as the centerpiece of development.
The rest of Bengal was damned.
If the present is frightening, the future appears apocalyptic to say the least. The slow but steady inroads by the BJP, which could be a direct beneficiary, in the medium- and long-term, of Bengal’s politically violent culture, has already revealed what Bengalis may expect in the months and years to come: An alien culture of swearing by Ram, parades and tableaus in the name of mythical gods and goddesses, and demonisation of Muslims. Some failed cine stars have become the standard-bearers of this trend.
Sadly, there is no 21st century Rammohan Roy who ate beef but certainly wouldn’t have approved of rotten meat.
(Chandan Nandy is a senior journalist who tracks politics, culture, foreign affairs. He tweets @NandyGram. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)
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