Sadly, Bengal is no state for dissent
Mamata Banerjee is a vocal critic of intolerance, but does not always practise what she preaches.
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A few days ago, BJP leader and spokesperson Tajinder Pal Singh Bagga claimed he was deported from Kolkata airport as soon as he landed in the city. He said first he was taken into custody by the police and was told that they (police) had been ordered by chief minister Mamata Banerjee to send him back to Delhi.
Bagga belongs to a different political ideology from the party that rules the state. Yes, probably he had a political agenda too - party spokespersons usually do. But what of that? Is the state of West Bengal closed for political opponents, or for ideologies that are not approved by the Trinamool Congress chief?
Political opponents are not enemies. And as for the TMC's ideology, the less said the better: a look at the list of elected representatives with criminal cases and assets should prove my point. The fact is that no ideology exists, it is only about convenience. Recently, the now-sidelined founder member of the Trinamool, Mukul Roy, in a jibe, remarked that without the support of the BJP, a nascent Trinamool would not have found its feet.
Whether the statement will have consequences for Mukul Roy is to be seen, but the fact remains that he has touched upon a very raw nerve of the Trinamool chief, the new champion of "seculars". Seemingly, between 1998 and 2006, there was nothing wrong with the BJP. But as soon as Mamata Banerjee consolidated her position as the West Bengal chief minister, she quickly woke up to the virtues of secular politics.
Banerjee remains a very popular chief minister - Didi to the people. Photo: India Today/File
Smarting under the court ruling against her orders for the second straight year, she was looking out for a scapegoat, and Bagga happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time. The I-word comes into focus once again - intolerance. The feisty CM has, on more than one occasion, slammed the "rising tide of intolerance" in the country.
Her's has been a voice that has championed equality. She stood by the oppressed during her long and fruitful — but often combative — political career. This is one of the reasons why she remains a very popular chief minister - "Didi" to the people. Didi, who shows scant regard for her own safety and security to stand by their side during any crisis.
However, there has been a darker side to the state politics - aversion to dissent. Dissent of any hue. It is not a malaise that can be associated only with the ruling party in the state. During the Left Front rule, people have been witness to vitriol against dissent, both verbal and often physical. Flashback to the treatment meted out to professor Ambikesh Mahapatra, Taslima Nasreen or branding farmers (Shiladitya Chaudhury) and college students who question her as "Maoists", Mamata Banerjee does not always practise what she preaches. Sanatan Dinda would agree. The well-known visual artist was showing a short video installation on the Kolkata flyover collapse when the police stormed the venue and stopped it.
The show continued, but Dinda and people at large discovered that even proximity to the chief minister will not make you immune to coercive action by the administration in an increasingly intolerant state.
Ask former Congressman-turned-TMC's Rajya Sabha member Manas Bhunia, who was an accused in the murder of a Trinamool worker. But better sense prevailed and the charges were dropped once he changed his party. Such instances have become too common for all of them to make it to the media.
Stifling dissent has its own pitfalls. It did away with the opposition, Left and Congress, in the state. This created a void, and by sheer numbers, the BJP seems to be the party that has gained the most from the political vacuum.
Was it through polarisation? I shall not get into that debate today - there was and is polarisation, and from both sides. This is just an example of how wiping out dissent can work against an ideology.
That the "unified opposition" sees Mamata as the icon of liberalism is an irony not lost on anyone.
Meanwhile, Bengal threatens to become like so many other states in the country where uniqueness is being replaced by uniformity.