Twenty-two years ago, my fellow comrades and I set a bus on fire in Kolkata. It was not far from where BJP president Amit Shah’s convoy was reportedly attacked on Tuesday. We did it because either the Calcutta University had raised the price of admission forms or to protest George Bush’s Iraq policy. My memory fails me today.
I should have been put behind bars. But I wasn’t.
Only because the colour I proudly wore was the dominant political colour in Bengal at that time. I was spared because people who swore by Marx like me had been absolved of much worse crimes before.
So, as I watched the news flash on my phone last evening, those wasted days popped up like a surprise WhatsApp hello from a toxic ex.
And I realised, in horror, nothing has changed.
BJP President Amit Shah during an election roadshow in Kolkata. (Photo: PTI)
Here is what happened that evening: Clashes rocked Kolkata during Amit Shah's road show when BJP and Trinamool workers engaged in a fight and vandalised Vidyasagar College. The college was ransacked and Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar's bust was broken.
Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress was quick to blame the BJP for desecrating Vidyasagar's statue, while the BJP blamed Trinamool.
So, who broke Vidyasagar’s statue? Your guess is as good as Marx’s ghost or mine.
It all went bust: The ruling TMC and the challenger BJP have accused each other of attacking Vidyasagar College. (Photo: PTI)
But what was perhaps as disturbing as the incident itself is that Trinamool and many of its supporters on Twitter blamed “outsiders” for the violence.
And who is the outsider, you ask? Well, he is a “gutkhakhor, Jai Shri Ram-chanting, illiterate non-Bengali” who has come to destroy “Bengali culture”.
22 years ago, those were my words (Except the Jai Shri Ram bit). As the once-great city of Kolkata (and the rest of Bengal) degenerated into a wasteland, industry fled, work culture deteriorated and fresh graduates took the first train or flight out to another state or another country for economic opportunities. Meanwhile, CPM’s street thuggery ended after 34 long years, only to be replaced by Trinamool’s syndicate raj, hatred for outsiders and falling back on culture becoming the Bengali’s raison d'être.
In Bengal, you are either a Bengali or a non-Bengali/Hindustani. 'Hindustani' is not a synonym for an Indian. For the nativist Bengali, an outsider speaks Hindi, chews gutkha, is uncultured, a Modi Bhakt and immensely avoidable in adda circles.
But if you visit Kolkata today, you will hardly find a Bengali in the city’s prime real estate. Park Street, Alipore, New Alipore, the tall towers along the Eastern Metropolitan Bypass are all owned mostly by the Marwaris or Gujaratis who have made Kolkata their home despite its obvious failings as a city, and prospered. Meanwhile, the Bengali has either left the city or is still talking Tagore in Coffee House and dissing the Hindustani.
Park Street, a popular hangout for people in Kolkata since pre-Independence times. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
Many of us, who settled outside Kolkata and visit the city occasionally for nostalgia-hunting, still go to the Coffee House or Park Street’s Olypub to relive olden days, but ask those who have to stay in the city and see it wither before their eyes. My friend Seemantini Bose, who is a digital marketer, rues the career opportunities she has to let go because she chose Bengal over other states. She is a Bengali, yes, and proudly so, but she is also a Hindustani. And no, like the majority around her, she does not believe the Hindi-speaker is an outsider.
“The problem lies within, why deride a hard-working Bihari, UP-ite or Marwari for our failures? They are as much a part of Bengal as we are,” she says.
Well-known journalist Indranil Roy believes Bengal needs a new political narrative. “Communism has corrupted us. Left Front destroyed Bengal as Kolkata watched plays and read literature. Nothing has changed even after they left. But we will never look within. Our defence mechanism is to blame the Hindustani for everything. The Khan Market gang should not opine about us sitting in Delhi!”
After the Tuesday fracas, Mamata Banerjee roared from the pulpit: “Bengal is not Bihar, Tripura or J&K. Bangla is Bangla!”
That is exactly the problem.