FEAR OF FREEDOM- The architect of the Left's defeat is now threatening liberty
There is nothing more frightening than being frightened. Fear takes away the powers of rational thinking. It makes one pause before one performs acts that were previously considered routine. Does one forward an email containing a cartoon or a joke about a political leader who holds the most important job in the state of West Bengal? As a journalist, does one dare to write an article that is critical of her ways and her policies?
These questions, even in the darkest days of communist rule in the state, had not occurred to one. Not that the communist regime was free of oppression and intimidation. The cadre of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) bullied people and tried at times to infringe on the basic rights of individuals and institutions and they successfully controlled the latter through shrewd manipulation. But all this did not lead to any major transgression of fundamental rights. If it had, Mamata Banerjee would not be where she is today.
No one can deny that Mamata Banerjee came to power through democratic means. She led a relentless campaign against the Left and her campaign would not have been possible or successful if the Left had effectively stifled democratic rights and expressions. When she sat on a hunger strike in Esplanade and then later blocked a major highway for days on end, the state administration did not send in the police to break up the protests and neither did the CPI(M) let loose its goons on the demonstrators. Moreover, the media were left free to report on these agitations in ways that they deemed fit. Some supported the protests and some didn't. There was no external interference in editorial decisions.
One cannot readily recall the Left Front government or communist leaders being overtly interested in what was circulating in private mails and in what was being written (or said) in newspapers and on television. There was one notorious case of a young man being detained because he had posted something abusive about Jyoti Basu on his website. This was roundly condemned and never repeated. The Left had its own organs of expression through which it articulated its views and often ridiculed what was written in what it dubbed "the bourgeois press''. All this was considered par for the democratic course.
This situation seems poised to change even though the widespread expectations were of a change in a completely different direction. The Bengali word, paribartan, has suddenly come to acquire very ominous overtones. When the people of West Bengal voted overwhelmingly to overthrow the Left Front, they did not quite expect that they were ushering in a regime that would be irresponsible, intolerant of criticism and would display a pronounced propensity for authoritarianism.
The three adjectives used in the previous statement need to be explained separately. A woman is raped and the chief minister describes the incident as being staged (sajanois the Bengali word she used) by a section of the media. This was irresponsible because there was no need for the chief minister to have made any comment on this. Her extreme intolerance to criticism is shown first by her decision to banish from government libraries those newspapers that are critical of her, and second by her condoning of the arrest of a professor who had forwarded by email a set of cartoons that poked fun at her. Her authoritarianism is manifest in her refusal to listen to anyone. She acts as if she knows everything.
The incidents given above are by no means isolated. On the contrary, they are part of a long series. Similar instances could easily be multiplied. There is no need for that. What is more important is that the true character of her regime is revealed by the fact that her party cadre repeatedly attack and beat up people who they think are opposed to the Trinamul Congress. The police take no action against those who perpetrate such acts of violence. In one case, the police refused to take action against a group of people who attacked journalists in spite of an FIR; in another the police stood by while a demonstration on Hazra Road was attacked. In both cases, TV footage exists to identify the attackers. But in other cases, the police act with alacrity on an FIR even when they know that the charge is flimsy.
This suggests two conclusions. One, the political cadre, like the Blackshirts and the Stormtroopers, are taking law into their own hands to settle political scores with opponents and dissidents. Two, the police force has become an extension of the party in power. It is not acting to uphold law and order and not behaving in a manner to protect citizens from violence. It is acting to promote the interests of the ruling party. There is a remarkable similarity between this and the way things were under the aegis of the CPI(M).
It is difficult, if not impossible, to believe that all this happens without the knowledge of the chief minister. In fact, there are grounds to suspect that most of these things happen at her behest. Her utterances condoning some of the worst manifestations of arbitrariness and breach of the rule of law are proof of this.
Any student of history with a modicum of familiarity with pre-Second World War European history will recognize in the developments discussed above the emergence of a form of rule that completely destroyed democracy in the 1930s in Italy, Germany and Russia. In these countries, everything was made subservient to the interests of the party and to the whims and insecurities of one individual.
There is no denying that some elements of authoritarianism and its attendant intimidation were present during Left rule in West Bengal. But in spite of attempts to suppress dissent and to subvert individual rights, the spirit of democracy could not be quelled. The Left was dislodged even though it took an inordinately long time for that to happen. But in a bizarre irony the very agent who made the defeat of the Left possible is now threatening democracy and freedom.
The people of West Bengal, like people all over the world, have the right to dissent, to laugh, to mock, to criticize and, above all, to speak and write freely without the fear of the State and the bullying of party cadre. The present political regime appears to have scant regard for these rights. It wants to create an ambience of fear and to rule through terror. For this alone, the present dispensation has to be opposed.
In a little-known incident during the Emergency, a group of villagers turned their backs on Indira Gandhi when she came to address them. The same fate awaits Mamata Banerjee: the people of West Bengal will turn their back on her. And they will do it earlier than she imagines. Sometimes, even in benighted West Bengal, change can come before 34 years.