In Marginal Men, his fine history of refugee politics, Prafulla Chakrabarti recounts how Kolkata acquired its by now well founded reputation as a city of protests and protesters. To demand fair compensation and citizenship rights, writes Chakrabati, the leaders of the movement aimed to throw ‘regimented bands of refugees in the streets of Calcutta and to maintain a relentless pressure on the Government…. Processions, demonstrations and meetings, traffic jams, brickbats and teargas shells and [police] lathis coming down in showers, burning tramcars and buses, and occasional firings—these became the hallmark of the city’.
Among all the communities in India, the Bengalis have —at least in modern times—been the least quiescent. Washington once witnessed a ‘Million Man March’, but in the last half-century Kolkata has played host to a million marches. Some of these—as in the great rally against the Pokharan blasts in the summer of 1998—had several hundred thousand participants. Others have been more modest in size, but no less intense in an emotional sense. Day in and day out, some Bengali group or the other is to be found on the streets of their capital city, protesting against something or the other.
Indians from elsewhere have tended to be cynical of the Bengali capacity for protest. It has been pointed out that most of the bombs thrown by the much-extolled revolutionaries of the early 20th century missed their target–or hit the wrong one. More recent rebels have been chastised for being negativist, interested only in stopping rather than getting things done. And it is not unknown for a young radical to become a middle-aged reactionary. As a Gujarati economist once claimed to me, all the Bengalis he knew had written revolutionary poetry or marched for the Party when under twenty, and worked for the World Bank or in a prosperous American university when over forty.
Truth be told, by now even some—or perhaps many—Bengalis have become fed up of the ‘Cholbé Na’ attitude of their fellows. They include entrepreneurs who want to squeeze twelve hours of labour out of their workforce, but also ordinary folk who cannot go about their daily business because of the never ending cycle of ‘processions, demonstrations and meetings, [and] traffic jams’. The collective sentiments of these protestors against protest were captured in the judgement of the Kolkata High Court urging the state to be more selective in permitting bandhs that disrupted the life of the city. Likewise, the West Bengal Chief Minister’s insistence that trade unions shall not be allowed in the key software sector is based on the recognition that a wide swathe of Bengali opinion wants to put the past of endless (or mindless) protest behind it.
As a half-honorary Bengali, I have profoundly ambivalent feelings about the Bengali love of protest myself. At its best, it stokes our moral conscience, reminding us of those Indians who continue to be disadvantaged or discriminated against. At its worst, it is simply a species of voyeurism, designed to deflect attention away from substantive issues towards the personality of the protestor. That said, I have no ambivalence at all about the protests by two Bengalis showcased on the front page of The Telegraph exactly a week ago today. Since that day’s newspaper has probably been consigned by readers to the rubbish-heap, let me refresh their memory. The story I am referring to was headlined: ‘IIT Professors Denounce Modi: Two Women Protest [Gujarat} CM Presence in Chennai Programme’.
A year or two ago, this newspaper invited Narendra Modi to be a featured speaker in its annual debate. The speech Modi was delivering in Chennai was part of a further ‘mainstreaming’ of his image, part of the somewhat successful attempt to make the English-speaking middle-class forget his role in the riots of 2002 by re-presenting himself as an efficient administrator and engineer of economic growth. I forget what the title of The Telegraph debate was, but the IIT Chennai meeting—hosted by the foundation named for and started by the eminent scientist M. S. Swaminathan—was intended to further a technical mission to make ‘Every Village a Knowledge Centre’. Before Modi could speak, two women went up to the stage and held up a placard which read: ‘Mr Modi, We Disapprove’. Later, they told a reporter that ‘we came to protest his Government’s policies. He could not stop the Gujarat communal riots, his handling of the Narmada dam issue is deplorable, and recently he stopped the screening of the Hindi film Fanaa’.
The field of Bengali protest is a very crowded one, in which this most recent entrant stands out. For one thing, where most protesters are young, semi-educated and semi-employed or unemployed men, these were young, highly educated women in reasonably well-paying jobs. For another, the theatre of their protest was not a public street but the air-conditioned auditorium of a prestigious academic institution. It is also noteworthy that they were scientists, from a tribe that, in India at any rate, has tended to be studiously apolitical. One would expect the students of New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University to protest against the entry of Modi into their campus; so would Modi, which is one reason why he has never been there. But who would have thought that this would happen in an IIT, that the protestors would be women, and that they would be Professors to boot?
I believe it was mistaken of The Telegraph to have invited Narendra Modi to speak in their annual debate. I also believe that what Enakshi Bhattacharya and Nandita Dasgupta did at Chennai last week was salutary. It was also very brave—for unlike the typical left-wing protestor, they could not seek the anonymity of the crowd, and had much to lose—namely, a career that was hard won as well as highly prized.
As the elected Chief Minister of Gujarat, Narendra Modi has a right to be present at meetings organized by the Union Government or public sector institutions. However, when it comes to meetings hosted by private or autonomous institutions, an invitation to Modi is a privilege, to be gifted or withdrawn as per the courtesy of the host. These have to judge not just his office, but also his record in office. And that includes not just his collusion in—some would say active sponsorship of—the riots of 2002, but also his continuing attempts to stifle the free expression of opinion in his State, as in the last illustration offerd by the two IIT ladies–the shocking ban on the film Fanaa, enforced because one of its actors thinks that those displaced by the Sardar Sarovar Dam should be decently rehabilitated.
Governments can be promiscuous when dealing with politicians, but those whose profession is the search for truth should be more discriminating. The discrimination must be consistent; politicians who suppress free expression and intimidate citizens should be shunned regardless of their ideology. If it was right for those two brave ladies to protest Modi speaking at the IIT, it would be wrong for all present to acquiesce if, for example, Fidel Castro was invited to speak at the JNU.
Postscript: The issue of The Telegraph that featured the IIT protest also carried Khushwant Singh’s column, with this peculiarly resonant poem: ‘There are Fascists/Pretending to be Humanitarians/Like Cannibals on a Health Kick/Eating only Vegetables’.