34 Years of Left Rule – Sociology of a Bengali

The media says that the imminent change in government in West Bengal after an unbroken, unshaken, unchallenged rule of the Left Front for thirty four years will be a historical wonderment. To my mind, however, the wonder lies more in the long tenure of the Left Front during which it has only moved from strength to strength. In a democracy such as India, where competitive politics ensures strong anti-incumbency tendencies, an uninterrupted reign through the popular mandate is not only unusual but downright unique. The moot point here is not why people are voting the Left Front out after having reposed such faith in it, but why did they show such an unflinching loyalty for so long?  To look for a possible reply to this question, one must delve deep into the moorings of the Bengalis, their sociology, their culture.

Bengalis, like the north eastern hilly people, call the rest of Indians as “Indians”. The common Bengali term for the Hindi speaking simpleton is Hindustani. Accordingly, whosoever converses in Hindi is associated with her poorer fraternity and treated condescendingly. Like in the tribes of the Nagas, or Meitis, or Khasis and Garos, the Bengali has a definite category of a “non-Bengali”. The suggestion here is that a Bengali ideally would like to live as a tribe when in a collectivity. A possible reason for this, inter alia is a large space within the hierarchical society of Bengal occupied by a certain social class that would like to project itself as the quintessential Bengali middle class. This is the lower middle class, a class born out of its peculiar dependence on salaried employment either in the state run institutions or as a cog in the wheel of a large private sector “merchant office”. This class through the peculiarities of history has developed a strange desire to concentrate within it cultural power and expectedly, a monopoly over the Bengali culture has emerged as the primary politics of this class.

Bengal, since the “Company” viz; the East India Company has been at pains to emerge as a worthy contender of the colonizers. Indeed, in his letters to Gandhi, Tagore lays bare his strategy for Independence, which is to strengthen one’s intellect and refinement to such an extent that the British would automatically be overtaken. This was not merely a poet’s imagination but constituted the larger fantasy of a people that would develop a distinct vernacular identity of a Bengali. In pursuit of such competitive cultural refinement, Bengal started developing a distinctive culture that would serve as the marker between those who deserved to belong and those who did not do so in the middle class “samaj”, or society. The Bengali culture works something like a club, with clear markers of not only insiders and outsiders but also of a hierarchy of who wears what weave of a sari, what cut of trousers, reads which books, or watches what kind of cinema. The large middle class of Bengal actively pursues its cultural refinement through its music and dance classes, art tutors and affiliation of its wannabes in performative groups. One of the most familiar sounds of Kolkata in the evening is of little children practicing music on the harmonium. The apparent cultural capital of the people actually conceals a definite politics that revolves around caste, social opportunities, land rights, property issues, gender conflicts, the city and the village tussles and the public sphere and even unemployment and education. It is this connection between culture and politics that one must understand in order to draw inferences on the long rule of the Left in Bengal.

The present Bengali society is the product of processes of intricate social dynamics. One is the continuous migration of people from the village to the city in which the city becomes the Eldorado of opportunities. In Pather Panchali, the first novel of the Apu Trilogy, Harihar tells his wife that the family better migrate to the city for better access to food ! It seems that millions migrated into the city looking for alms during the Bengal Famine of 1943. To be in the city is the dream of women who are looking to buy silken bangles and other fashion accessories as Asha Bhonsle sings for R.D.Burman. The city is the space of dreams for villages that have been starved by the zamindars of the Permanent Settlement. But to be in the city needs education, a refined speech, sharpness of the intellect and alertness of the mind. The Bengali cultivates these skills to be in the city just as so many of us try to imitate the American accent so that Universities and companies in the US may mistake us as their own.

Along the other axis lies the concealed competition around the caste. Bengal has known some terrible caste wars around the middle of the 19th century and many of such conflicts were not over land but over fortunes in cash earned by some families that made them suddenly very rich and powerful. Power was linked to English speech and fashion and hence a berth in the Company as its servant or associate and how the Company treated you depended on the way how you presented yourself in an ostentatious image. Dwarkanath Tagore’s “Lifestyle” was not entirely conspicuous consumption but also an investment for an image that the British would favourably respond to. The Bengali learnt early on to acquire cultural signs for himself to be “selected”. This giving in of oneself to appear as the right person happened only because Bengalis depended far too much on a monopoly employer rather than on self employment. The proud farmer, the self contended grocer, the self employed tailor or the businessman operating out of his family capital are images of poverty, pity and simplicity. They are not images that one pursues; they are categories that one does not want to fall into. Bengali becomes respectable through his “chakri” or salaried employment. Every moment, millions of Bengalis are dedicating themselves to pages and pages of mathematics and physics and biology to qualify the IIT Entrance or the Joint Examination only to get a job somewhere. In such a society, when a person enters the middle class, it is culture and the right looking signs those he picks up ensures him the worthiness to be considered as a potential employee.

The politics behind acquiring a culture was dictated by employers who held monopoly in their respective fields, namely the large capital or the State. Bengal’s politics is therefore so closely related to its culture, the substance from which one draws one’s entitlements to compete against one another, to decide on the insiders and outsiders and to bargain in the social sphere. The Partition of India in 1947 aggravated the tendencies for the politicization of culture, with not only the mission of separating the village from the city, the Muslim from the Hindu but also to assert the power and control of that vast class of clerks who were eager to claim Calcutta from its entrenched elites, namely the Renascent Bhadralok of the Bengal Club.

Bengal never won Independence like “India” did; instead in 1947, it had the Partition. Like Apu of the Apu Trilogy portrayed in cinema by Satyajit Ray, the Bengali could never forget that because there was Independence, there was also Partition. Culture, came in handy for the masses of displaced respectable people albeit with means smaller than that of the bhadralok, and helped them assume a moral upper hand by lionizing the displaced, the wronged, and the struggling middle class. Ritwik Ghatak’s cinema, Salil Choudhury’s music, Uttam Kumar’s stardom, Shankar’s novels expressed the sentiments of this new middle class, the underclass of the Bengal Club elites. The CPI(M) with its huge cadre, its deep infiltration into social spaces, artistic expressions, family matters actually stepped into the cultural space of the middle middle and the lower middle class. The long duration of the CPI(M) was because of its politicization of the culture of the Bengalis that divided and united them into competitors of the social mobility game, whose rules they all consensually agreed to abide by.

Today that Bengal has decided to change. The “Poriborton” goes much beyond who occupies the Writer’s Building. The change of culture that comes in today, irrespective of whether the TMC will be able to deliver the goods or not, is a change in the way Bengalis would want to negotiate with the world. This change is a change in the world view and it is quite possible that Mamata Banerjee might not be able to politicize this culture entirely like the CPI(M) did. The CPI(M) had defined too much, spoken too much, covered too much and organized too much. It had covered so much of the culture space that it left very little space for the new to come in. Every job went to its sympathizers, every thought had to reflect their agenda, every dream must be theirs, every conflict resolved their way. Slowly the Left Front took over so entirely, that culture lost its flexibility to evolve and emerge into something new. The vote for Mamata is a desperate search for some breathing space.

Mamata Banerjee’s politics revolves around very large moral questions those started off with Singur and Nandigram challenging our very development agenda, very path of globalization, the very strategy of privatization. Sonia Gandhi called her over to share a berth in the UPA and today Rahul Gandhi courts arrest over exactly the same issues in western UP. Mamata’s questions are echoed by the Indian National Congress; Bengal always wanted to be this way, what it thinks today the rest of India would think tomorrow.

About secondsaturn

Independent Scholar. Polymath.
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