2020 has been an exceptional year. The entire world is shut in; with governments tearing their hair out trying to figure out how to fight this pandemic. No one foresaw this. Don't believe anyone who tells you otherwise.
But the test of a leader is always in a crisis. West Bengal's leader Mamata Banerjee has failed this round. At least in the eyes of North Bengal that expected the pandemic will force the perpetual neglect of the region to take a pause as we Bengalis will come together.
The first coronavirus-positive case in Bengal was reported on March 17. That was two and a half months ago. The entire country had the same amount of time to scale up preparations for this fight against the unknown invisible. No one had a foolproof plan. No one knew what to do. But the policymakers and higher powers began working on something.
Back home in Kolkata, Mamata Banerjee was fighting a different fight. First, there was the hiding of numbers. All of Bengal was a 'green zone', announced the administration. The state, a much-forwarded Whatsapp joke said, was like a watermelon. Green on the outside, red when you step in. The reason was simple. The less you test, the less figures you have. You have zero if you don't test anyone. Simple.
Hospital after hospital had patients whose symptoms screamed Covid-19, only to be declared dead of co-morbidities. The number stayed low. But the reality was different.
The test of a leader is always in a crisis. West Bengal's leader Mamata Banerjee has failed this round. (Photo: Reuters)
My district, Cooch Behar, has a population of 30+ lakh. Till last week, the coronavirus numbers on the state dashboard said '0'. After local media laid their hands on reports from the North Bengal Medical College that 32 cases from the town had tested positive, the official numbers went up. The North Bengal Medical College is in Siliguri, at a distance of 170 km from Cooch Behar. In North Bengal, for its eight districts - Cooch Behar, Alipurduar, Jalpaiguri, Darjeeling, Kalimpong, Malda, Uttar Dinajpur, Dakshin Dinajpur - there are five testing centres allocated. The testing centre in Siliguri has had to put a cap of 50 tests per day because the place doesn't have the capacity to deal with the number of tests coming in.
The state of West Bengal has 43 testing centres for its 23 districts today, according to the ICMR website. A logical argument would tell you it should be a simple case of maths: about 2 per district. The reality: 5 centres for the 8 districts of North Bengal; 38 for the 15 districts on the other side of the divide. Together, the eight districts of North Bengal are home to more than 2 crore people.
Congress leader Priya Ranjan Das Munshi tried to get the Centre to set up an AIIMS in Raiganj, his hometown. By 2014, the proposed location had moved to Kalyani in Nadia, at a distance of about 50 km from the state capital, from the 400-km-from-Kolkata Raiganj. This AIIMS came up in Kalyani and became functional in September last year. Das Munshi's dream stayed unrealised.
Every time we saw the flesh trade in the tea gardens, we realised where we stood. (Photo: Arabinda Bhattacharya)
We grew up with ideas drilled into our heads on how West Bengal is one state. But every time we stepped out on the streets and saw the flesh trade in the tea gardens, where families sold off their teenage daughters for a thousand or five, we realised where we stood. This step-motherly treatment for the districts on this side is nothing new. We have grown up with neglect and indifference. From Congress, through CPM, to TMC. When TMC was voted in power in 2011, all of us believed in Didi. Her mantra of Poriborton - Change - made us all envisage a different future. But the last nine years of Poriborton have only resulted in disillusionment and a sense of resignation. Nothing is going to change. Poriborton, like all those grand ideas, is just that: an idea.
For North Bengal, it has always been a matter of acknowledgement. (Photo: Arabinda Bhattacharya)
Mamata Banerjee's brand of politics is different. It is based on revenge. The reason why North Bengal got this injury after the insult of years is simple: all these districts voted for the BJP in 2019. This was her way to show them their place. So whatever people thought about a pandemic not being the time to do politics, is pointless. On the surface, you will see a 'lot' being done to handle this pandemic. In villages, schools have been turned into quarantine centres. The reality: no one stays at these centres. People come to the centre for meals, and go back home. No one knows what to do. No one cares.
For North Bengal, it has always been a matter of acknowledgement. After years of the CPM, when we voted TMC into power, it was because we needed anyone, someone, who could acknowledge us, speak of us as their own. When this part of the state voted for the BJP last year, it was not because we were particularly enamoured by the divisive politics of the ruling party, but because Modi began his Bengal campaign from Cooch Behar. The Cooch Behar, which had seen only neglect from the Congress rule, through the Left and then the Trinamool, did not know how to hold themselves back from expressing their gratitude. When the Prime Minister of the country strategically made it to the town's Rash Mela Maath one day before the state's Chief Minister could, the people smiled a smile of understanding yet again.
We know the Cooch Behar Rajbari will never get the status accorded to a Victoria Memorial. (Photo: Arabinda Bhattacharya)
Most of the people echoed the same thought: No one has ever acknowledged us. Modi did. Today, they are paying for that vote. In the politics between the Centre and the state, the state weighs way more in such times. And the state has turned away, or rather is not bothered.
They had not voted for the hope of development, you know. North Bengal gave up on the dream of development long ago. We know the Cooch Behar Rajbari will never get the status accorded to a Victoria Memorial. We know an Amiya Bhushan Majumdar will never be spoken of in the same breath as a Mahashweta Devi. We know Dooars will never be more than the picturesque two-day jungle safaris. We know Siliguri can never be Switzerland and Darjeeling will get a blink-and-you-miss cameo in state tourism ads. We know the city folk will keep coming back, looking at us with wonder, click us on their phones and go back. As relics. As showpieces. As parts of memory. But never as people with an identity. Despite being in our own state, we have always been the stranger.
This pandemic has been yet another awakening of sorts for North Bengal. Perhaps Banerjee herself knows what it is. It is that same thought that a Danny Archer had after looking for his own share in Blood Diamond: "Sometimes I wonder, will God ever forgive us for what we've done to each other? Then I look around and I realise... God left this place a long time ago."
The government left this place a long time ago. A pandemic isn't going to bring it back.
(Photos by Arabinda Bhattacharya)