Post-intellectual West Bengal

The new post-intellectual intelligentsia ruling West Bengal are demonstrating the heights to which they aspire:

NDTV: West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s nephew Abhishek has publicly threatened to “gouge out the eyes and chop off the hands” of anyone who dares to hurt Bengal’s interests. … “Those who dare to glare at us, we can gouge their eyes out and throw them on the road. Show us your hands and we can cut them off,” Abhishek said, adding, “But remember, it is the common man who will have the last word.” …

… Last year, Mamata Banerjee and the Trinamool Congress had to face many embarrassing questions after a prominent parliamentarian, actor Tapas Pal, said at a public meeting: “If the CPM people touch a hair on the head of my workers, I will set my boys upon their women to rape them.”

The West Bengal of today is not the intellectual or cultural powerhouse it once was. I finished my schooling in Calcutta long before it had been ravaged to be called Kolkata. I have been a regular visitor since then and was last there in 2014 for the 50th anniversary of graduating from school.

I grew up knowing – and living – with the intellectual legacy of Swami Vivekananda (Narendra Nath Datta), Rabindranath Tagore and Jagadish Chandra Bose. Satyajit Ray and Ravi Shankar were living legends. But they were all of the old school of Bengali intellectualism. Since then West Bengal was first plagued by 5 decades of a very peculiar Marxist communism. Just two layers of society were recognised. First came the agricultural masses who were all organised into almost-martial cadres and then there were the politburo and its hangers-on who amassed their corrupt wealth. The middle class and those who actually contributed to growth and culture and thought were reviled and oppressed. Marxist communism collapsed in on itself after years of decay. The communists were then replaced by an even more peculiar bunch, the Trinamool Congress. They are led by the narcissistic Mamata Banerjee with the slogan “Ma Mati Manush”  which is supposed to mean “Mother, Motherland and People” but where the sub-text says “Me, Me and Me”.

As an aside, I note that in spite of the efforts of post- nationalists, Theatre Road is still Theatre Road to all taxi drivers. It was renamed as  Shakespeare Sarani during my time there in the 1960s but that is only for maps and road signs. More than 50 years after the name was changed, the Post Office will still deliver your mail addressed to Theatre Road. Lansdowne Road is still Lansdowne Road and many don’t even know it is now called Sarat Bose Road. Lower Circular Road  is still referred to as such, though it is officially Acharya Jagadish Chandra Bose Road. Who does not know Park Street (officially Mother Teresa Sarani and earlier Burial Ground Road) and Park Circus? Camac Street and Free School Street were part of my schooldays beat and are still there – though the building we lived in no longer exists. Officialdom can be schizophrenic and is often irrational. High Courts are set up by Acts of Parliament and their names cannot be changed so easily. So it is the High Court of Calcutta in Kolkata. The Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose International Airport is the mouthful rarely uttered for what was Dum Dum airport and is still designated CCU.

In the 1970s post-intellectual Bengal produced a vicious and violent movement – the Naxals – who considered themselves intellectuals but who in reality were anything but. They considered themselves Maoist communists, engaged in a permanent revolution (a la the cultural revolution) and naturally opposed to everybody else, including the Marxist communists in power in the state. Mayhem was the name of the game. Culturally they were the Bengali Taliban. Many of the starry-eyed, self-styled and self-proclaimed “intellectual” leaders were killed by vicious police and army actions in the early 1970s. Some of my class mates were among them. This revolutionary communist movement still exists in pockets and has spread to other states. But the movement lacks any intellectual content or realism.

In recent times intellectuals from West Bengal have been few and those few have been relatively lightweight. Amartya Sen may have received a Nobel prize but it was only for economics which does not really count. His theories suffer from the confusion of his wanting to be a capitalistic socialist and he ends up being nothing of anything. Pranab Mukherjee was a disaster as a Finance Minister and is nondescript as President. Intellectually, just a bantam-weight.

It is a post-intellectual, post-nationalist West Bengal struggling to find a new role for itself.

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