Forpeople who are generally known to be gentle, genteel, soft-spoken ‘bhadraloks’ with a liking for sweets like ‘sandesh’ and ‘rosogolla’ and Rabindrasangeet (Tagore’s songs), Bengalis are also suspected of having a mutinous streak in them.
This explains why a number of “revolutionaries” – Khudiram Bose, Prafulla Chaki, Kanailal Dutta and others – emerged to fight the British, rejecting the Gandhian concept of non-violence.
It is not a coincidence that the origin of the Naxalite movement was in Naxalbari in West Bengal. Evidently, the “anarchism” of the freedom fighters flowed seamlessly into Left extremism.
Jawaharlal Nehru noticed this trait. “The Bengali terrorist mentality of extreme emotionalism”, he said, “colours their so-called Communist viewpoint and makes them look sometimes quite insane. There is a violence and an intense hatred looking out of their eyes.”
The “revolution” against the colonial rulers found expression even before the British left when the peasants of undivided Bengal rose against the landlords during the “tebhaga” movement, demanding a two-thirds share of the crops produced.
The rise of the Communists from the mid-1960s was marked not only by violence directed at the Congress-led government but also by clashes among the Leftists themselves once the Left Front came to power after contesting the 1967 elections in two groups opposed to one another — the United Left Front led by the CPI-M and the Progressive United Left Front led by the CPI.
However, although the “Left” and “Right” Communists buried the hatchet after coming to power, the Naxalites emerged from the CPI-M in 1967 and formed their own party two years later. Their targets at the time were the other “revisionist” Communists.
The state, therefore, saw no respite from violence till the Congress Chief Minister, Siddhartha Shankar Ray, started his policy of “fake encounters” in 1972 (which has had other emulators) to eliminate the Naxalites.
But for the Emergency of 1975-77, the Congress would undoubtedly have continued in power because it was not only the Naxalites who were cowed down but also the other Communists.
But the “tanashahi” (dictatorship) of Indira Gandhi enabled the Communists to return to power in 1977 and hold on to it till 2011. During the three decades of their unchallenged dominance, there was no overt violence, but their cadres made it clear to dissenters that it wouldn’t be beneficial for their well-being if they indulged in protests.
As the Congress and other parties meekly surrendered, Mamata Banerjee was the only one who broke away from the Congress and opposed the Left tooth and nail and was nearly killed when she was hit on the head by a CPI-M follower during a street demonstration.
It was as an indomitable “street fighter” that she did unto the Communists what they had done to others — Communists and non-Communists alike — overtly between 1965-66 and 1972 and covertly after 1977.
However, in the process of ousting the “enemy” by Mamata Banerjee, in which she had the covert support of the Naxalites and Leftists like those in the Socialist Unity Centre, the long-prevalent seeds of violence in the state were watered yet again.
What the country is witnessing today is the ruinous outcome of the kind of policies which both the governments and their opponents have followed in West Bengal, leading to the “flight of capital” in the late 1960s because of the militant trade union tactics of the Marxists, and the flight of the Tatas from Singur in 2008, which has spelt doom for West Bengal’s industrial revival.
What is sad is that the state now seems destined to live under the shadow of the pipe gun and home-made bombs in the foreseeable future as both the incumbent and the challenger — the Trinamool Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) — try to browbeat the other with the only method which their predecessors had used from the time when the Congress and the Left faced each other.
The result will be that the industrial heights which West Bengal had reached before the mid-1960s when Calcutta rivalled Bombay – as the two cities were known then – as the hub of mercantile offices, a cosmopolitan ambience and a glitzy night life, will be out of its reach. One can see glimpses of this life in Satyajit Ray’s “Seemabadhha”.
Ironically, it was a Marxist Chief Minister, Buddhadev Bhattacharjee, who tried to rectify the follies of his comrades by calling the industrialists back to Singur and Nandigram.
But his recourse to the 1894 land acquisition law and dependence on the cadres to push through his line were grist to Mamata Banerjee’s anti-CPI-M stance, for she used the grievances of the peasants over the loss of their land to build up a movement which finally led to the Left Front government’s fall.
Although she has recently been trying to woo the corporates, even travelling to Mumbai, London and Singapore to do so, there has been little response for two reasons.
One is her anti-industry image and the other is her retinue of lawless cadres who went on a rampage during the earlier panchayat polls and have taken on the equally aggressive saffron groups in recent days. Bengal, therefore, can hardly expect any sizeable investment and orderly growth.