The Burning Bus and Bengal

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December 10th, 2009 Devjyot Ghoshal

Once upon a time in West Bengal, the State, as Max Weber chose to define it, had monopoly over violence.

The legitimacy of this ascendancy of the administration within its demarcated territory is a question that events at Singur, Nandigram and, more recently, at Lalgarh have raised. It is altogether another matter that we, as a democracy, have been unable, or maybe unwilling, to suitably answer this. The hustings in 2011 will decide, is the refrain.

However, there is a far more fundamental, almost tectonic, change that is sweeping though the capital city of West Bengal. The transformation of a landscape, a return to the volatile days of the 70’s, based on a principle that has, unfortunately, been an integral part of our political heritage: violence.

It would be decidedly naive to detach arms from the man who casts India’s ballots, but there is a riveting nexus between the ubiquitous government bus and the fabled Kolkata bandh that is hard to ignore. Far more fascinating, though, is the intellectual ability of the city to accommodate such discord with an unreal sense of ease.

Last week, BJP activists stalked Kolkata with an authority that has no precedent for them. Not in recent memory has India’s saffron party stormed the red, and now greening, bastion with any intensity. That the Babu would not go to buy fish because men with lotus-emblazoned flags roamed the streets was close to unthinkable. But, last Monday, the Right took on the Left, and succeeded.

In July this year, the Congress, too, pulled off a similar coup. Mamata Banerjee watched from afar as her former party men struck at will, while Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee ruminated quietly at the elegant Writers’ Building. A volatile vacuum was created. It continues to fester.

It is from within this chasm created by the abdication of duty on part of the government and the Opposition, that a new regime of the political underling has emerged in Bengal. A space where political legitimacy is once again based on the disruption of public life. A system where political respect is gained out of the number of road-blocks enforced. Realpolitik, here, now consists school boys jostling for authority on a playground that is the state. The penchant for games on the Maidan is unmistakable.

But in these riots that have rattled the establishment, it is the decrepit and derided government bus that is the bell-weather of success. Not unless a few of these are set alight, preferably on Howarh Bridge, that icon of Bengali pride built by the British, is a lock down close to being complete. A suitable strategy though; a photograph of a contused automobile, framed under the steel rafters of amongst Asia’s busiest bridges, is definitely Frontpage material. The customary 300-word article is almost always an accompaniment, too.

“The CPM has done it before. So has the Trinamool. The Congress did it, too, you know. And now, we have done it. So the next time the BJP calls for a bandh, they’ll know we mean business. It’s not the first time buses have been burnt. But yes, attacking the IT Park was a bit too much,” a saffron party worker nonchalantly observed.

Indeed, intimidation now is the ideal route to indoctrination.

The bullet is stronger than the ballot. Lincoln, who said the opposite, was killed by the former.

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8 Responses to “The Burning Bus and Bengal”

  1. shyam Says:

    a beautiful piece from expert, true bengal lover

  2. Swaraj Says:

    Bengal - This is where my heart belongs.

    People who can do it i.e the intellectual bhodrolok has become silent observer and has brought it only to drawing room discussion topic.

    People of Bengal has taken 32 years to blink their eyes and minds and try to potray the altenative to the red bastion which does not have the bandwidth to run a progressive state govenment which delivers for the aspiring young Bengali.

    Excellent article. This should be read by all (specially Alimuddin Street folks) to get their sting back into their spinal cord and embrace change.

  3. Venkat Says:

    Absolutely great piece.

    A different manifestation of this ‘intimidation doctrine’ is now visible in Andhra Pradesh where we have turned a Satyagraha tool - fast-unto-death - to achieve a purely political goal. While the goal of Vallabh Patel was different to form different states and unifying them into India, what is now happening is just because someone wants to be a chief minister, he ends up demanding a new state. Fast-Unto-Death is now the in-thing! Look at Gorkhaland demand, and then the demand to not ‘bi’ but trifurcate UP into three further pieces. As you said, in Bengal bus burning is the current norm, but I am thinking, pretty soon, we will have more fast-unto-death launches to achieve political goals.

  4. Swapna Says:

    Excellent !

    (1) Probably, the Commies, the Trinamool, the Congress, the BJP (if there is any difference) use the same goondas to burn buses - good business to outsource! The “quote” for a person’s head is only a few thousand rupees, right? Can’t be much for a few buses.

    (2) I wonder why political parties are not given a bill for any destroyed property after a demo rather than taxing everyone. Maybe, that is the price of democracy.

    (3) Also a Catch 22 situation: how many news channels would report about an issue unless a few buses are torched? Don’t we have a great appetite for terror.

  5. Joyee Says:

    a brilliant word picture!

  6. Shine Jacob Says:

    When a weakened state government is trying to cling on to power, an aggressive opposition is eager to catch a train to Writers’ at any cost. Somehow, I feel that the common man here is also sitting in the volatile vacuum, playing a wait-and-watch game. At the same time politicians, making use of their numb attitude, realised the fact that violence is the only road to crown themselves in Bengal.

  7. Achuth Says:

    A nicely written piece. Simple but brilliantly evocative. Puts into perspective how apathy from the government can lead to the emergence of undesirable but undeniable identities within society.

  8. Tuna Says:

    Well written and lucid. Lovely last line.


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