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Arnab Ray On Bengal, Buddhadeb, Mamata And ‘Sultan Of Delhi’

Swarajya spoke to novelist and blogger Arnab Ray, with whom we discussed a host of subjects, including West Bengal politics, the Hindu right-wing, uniform civil code and the state of Twitter discourse today.

Arnab Ray, popularly known as ‘Greatbong’ in online circles, is an Indian author, a popular blogger and a contributor to several national and international media outlets such as Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, the Times of India and Outlook.

Born and brought up in Kolkata, Ray graduated with a Bachelor’s degree from Jadavpur University and then completed his PhD in computer science from Stony Brook University, New York. He is currently living in Washington, DC, and employed at the University of Maryland as a research scientist.

Ray took some time out recently to chat with Swarajya sub-editor Poulasta Chakraborty. They discussed a host of topics ranging from West Bengal politics and the uniform civil code to the state of Twitter discourse and his works of fiction.

So, let me start with your university days in Jadavpur. During those days – which were part of Bengal’s communist era – what was the socio-political rhetoric in the campus like? Were they as sinister as it is today, say, in places like JNU?

In those days, at least in the engineering half of the campus, the communists had two obsessions. Massively global issues – capitalism, globalisation, WTO, General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs), and intensely local issues – not raising library fines above 10 paise per month, and yes it was something as ridiculous as that.

Kashmir, Azadi and other Kanhaiyaisms, which is what I presume you mean by your reference to JNU, was not front-and-centre in the political discourse on campus. Other campuses on Bengal saw political violence centred around local elections because many of the student leaders there were auditioning for positions within the “party”. But in Jadavpur University engineering, politics was typically a rite of passage before inevitable assimilation into TCS and TISCO and L&T, and final settling in the Soviet Socialist Republic of California.

In that case, let me ask you this: How was communist Bengal different from communist China or USSR? Was the repression less or more?

Bengal, being a part of India the last time I looked, even when it was ruled by CPI (M), was ultimately bound by the Indian constitution. So no gulags, secret police or knocks on the door at night. The repression of the Left was more institutional. The CPI (M)’s master strategy, and that is basically why it remained in power for more than three decades, was to embed the “Party” into every institution of the state, be it civil service or police or educational institutions. Unless you were a party loyalist, you had no hope of advancing professionally. And if you were not, you would pretty much be boxed into a corner and then driven out. The flight of Bengal’s true intelligentsia happened during the CPI(M) years, and this is where the communist legacy was at its most malignant.

So, what about the fact of political murders in West Bengal during CPI-M rule 1977-2009?

When I said that the CPI(M) was not like the Communist Party of China or USSR, I did not mean to say that the CPI(M) was not violent. Sainbari, Marichjhapi, too many theatres of extreme political violence to be forgotten. Because the state and the party were indistinguishable, the threat of violence, without any source for recourse, kept people in line. You didn’t need to be violent always; your subjects knew you could be, and there was nothing they could do about it.

Many political analysts have said that the CPI(M) created killing fields in rural Bengal. What is your take on that?

This stereotype of Bengalis as somewhat effete intellectuals with monkey-caps may hold somewhat for Kolkata, but go 20 miles out of city limits, and you are in a whole different country. Violence, often extreme forms of violence, is a fact of life there, and it is only but natural that politics would reflect that. While it would be unfair to say that the CPI(M) was responsible for establishing that culture of violence, it would also not be unfair to say that they played well within it.

In that case, how do you see the current state government that ended the 32-year communist rule?

Well, if you read my blogs, you may remember I once mentioned that Mamata Banerjee, who became famous as Jyoti Basu’s nemesis, in the course of time became Jyoti Basu herself. The similarities between them are uncanny, down to the way they are perceived by their voters and their total hold over the party. Didi’s volatility and a generally more aggressive demeanour make her a tougher sell among Calcutta’s elite than Basu, who was Mr Suave himself. But what she lacks in polish, she makes up in spirit and the fact that she is seen as the only counterbalance to the “communal” politics of BJP, despite her idiosyncrasies. She is perhaps now a more popular leader than Basu ever was, because for large sections of the state, she is much more relatable.

Many political analysts have also said that Mamata became more left-wing in order to oust Buddhadeb Bhattacharya, who many believe was going to change Bengal for the better. You agree with that?

In a way, yes. Buddhadeb did attempt to change the age-old leftist tradition of governance by bringing investment, industrial development and economic growth into the state. But sadly, when push came to shove, in the time of Nandigram and Singur, Buddhadeb defaulted to violence-by-party in order to establish his writ. He wanted things done, and fast, maybe because he felt Bengal needed to catch up with other states, and very quick, but in his hurry, the methods he adopted played right into the hands of Mamata Banerjee.

A greater leader would have realised that the ends do not justify the means, and that one just cannot lathi-charge their way to prosperity. Despite his faults, and there were many, he was still the best chief minister Bengal had after Dr Bidhan Chandra Roy. The only way Mamata Banerjee defeated him was by going more left than the Left, and re-establishing the legacy of Jyoti Basu, which was what Buddhadeb had very consciously tried to pull Bengal away from.

Do you see any notable difference between CPI(M) and TMC?

You see, the formula for Mamata Banerjee’s success is cloning the CPI(M)’s methods. But where the CPI(M) contrasts from TMC is that the CPI(M) was a party of bhadralok, or to be more specific, upper-class, educated men, in particular, with a taste for the finer things in life. They also had a solid intellectual framework, one that encompassed not only politics and economics but also history, law, art, literature and movies.

In contrast, the TMC has no binding philosophy except the slavish worship of Didi as a politician, artist and poet. Which is why Calcutta is dotted with gigantic posters of Mamata Banerjee in the way I cannot recollect during the time I was in Calcutta. In Basu’s days, it used to be Marx, Lenin and the Marxist pantheon of Gods but very rarely Basu himself.

Moving on from Bengal, you have written in your blog as well as in a piece during the launch of Swarajya’s online portal, that you have been unfairly tagged as a ‘Hindu right winger’ due to your views on issues like Kashmir, Naxals and Pakistan. Can you elaborate your stance on these issues?

Let me do it one by one.

On Naxals

Naxals are not ‘Gandhians with Guns’, no matter what romantic narrative you spin around them. They are an organised gang of criminals, with ties to foreign powers, that subsist on terror and extortion. The CPI(M), despite being leftists, realised that, and one of the things Jyoti Basu did was mercilessly dismantle the last vestiges of Naxalism when he first came to power. The TMC, despite being very, very left, do too, which is why Didi, who once used to say there were no Maoists in Bengal – this was during the Nandigram days, now is fond of saying “You are Maoist” to anyone who she does not particularly like.

On Kashmir

The separatists claim they want plebiscite and self-determination. To that, my answer is that the day the Kashmiris threw out their minorities, the neutral assumptions under which a plebiscite was promised had been changed irreversibly.

Now, as to the principle of self-determination through plebiscite: If Kashmiris be allowed to vote on which country they want to belong to, then let’s say Gujaratis should also be given the right to vote on whether they want to establish a Hindu Theocracy or Maharashtrians also be given the right to determine if they want to institute a workers’ “visa” programme for those from out of the state.

The deal is simple. If on principle you give one citizen, just one, the right to “self-determine” any question by direct voting, you must give it to all. There is a reason democracy elects representatives and then lets them decide the issues of the day, as opposed to letting people decide on individual issues directly. If you allow the latter, the majority will win. Every time.

On Pakistan

To put it simply, I do not think aman ki asha will ever work. The burden of history is too much.

Are you a ‘Hindu right winger’?

No, because I think it’s a simplistic label. I have disagreed with the traditional Hindu right-wing or BJP ideology on things as varied as the Babri Masjid, Ram Setu, book banning, FDI in retail, social conservatism, Section 377, cow-protection. I consider it to be immense intellectual laziness to be ‘any wing’, except chicken wing, because that means you have to appropriate the dominant political thinking of the party you associate with, regardless of whether that is something you actually believe in.

On a different note, I would state without hesitation that a government needs to be detached from all religions. That is what secularism is.

In that case, what is your take on other burning issues like the uniform civil code?

Not having a UCC is a legacy of partition. While it may have made practical sense at that point of time, there is really no reason why the state should allow different laws to apply to different religions. Personal laws have become the hiding ground for the most regressive of practices, and it is time, especially for a generation that uses the word “secularism” a lot, to have one country, one law.

But I would like to add here that, in contrast to popular opinions, I am actually glad that there are religious and caste-based parties in India. This gives the concerned communities the chance to address their grievances. In a working democracy, you need to allow every pressure group to organise and express themselves politically. This creates a system of checks and balances wherein every community feels they can affect the democratic process, but because there are other communities playing the same game, one community cannot dominate the system.

Are you saying you are okay with leaders like the Owaisi brothers?

See, I am as uncomfortable with Owaisi as I am with Praveen Togadia. That is because of what they say. But yes, if these parties only focus on addressing the grievances of their respective communities within the limits of the constitution, I am perfectly okay with it.

How would you define yourself ideologically?

I do not think I can easily box myself in the categories of ‘Left’ and ‘Right’. In some cases, I am pro-Government intervention, while in some other cases, I prefer the markets handling them.

Can you briefly explain?

The government is responsible for investing in the common infrastructure a country requires – highways, healthcare, social safety net, primary education and food security. If you leave it to the market, it is not viable to electrify remote villages or construct schools for those below the poverty line or run a train line through the mountains. This is where the government has to invest. However, the government should not be running hotels, airlines and film institutes. Which is what happens in India.

You are very active on Twitter, where you must see a lot of polarised debates. Do you feel people have become too disinterested to engage in meaningful conversations? Who should take the blame for it?

Yes. Let me give you a personal example of how things have changed for the worse.

When I was in seventh grade, I attended an event with my parents with my father’s friends. My father was teaching at IIM Calcutta at that time, and one of his colleagues was one of Calcutta’s most respected Marxist intellectuals. The Marxist colleague was also present at the event. I had just started reading “serious books”, and I was bored out of my wits as the conversation was on poverty alleviation. So I decided to use a modern term, troll him, by asking him how he could, while sitting in a five-star hotel and drinking expensive wine, claim such empathy for the dispossessed. I then said “this is what Marxism is really, a ruse for champagne activism”, words I had just read.

Now, my parents were extremely embarrassed at that, and they were trying their best to hush me up. This gentleman could have been offended, or could have just ignored me. Instead, he chose to engage with me, heard me out, said what he had to say, all without any rancour or “how dare he speak to me like that?” This is what I would call the intellectualism of old-school liberals, who were liberal in the true sense of the term.

The liberals today are hardly liberal. They use every tool available to them to shut down anyone that challenges them. That is because they are not confident in standing up in an open debate. They are too afraid of having inconsistencies in their positions exposed, and their agendas drawn to the surface.

The Indian mainstream media, both print and electronic, is dominated by the people of certain left-liberal persuasions, for whom anyone not aligned with them is automatically a barbarian. I believe I wrote in Swarajya that the ‘appropriation of the word “liberal” to describe a particular political viewpoint that is as closed to dissent is one of the greatest semantic heists of modern times.’

The mainstream media in India does not avoid self-identified representatives of extreme left-wing organisations, making them the guests on prime-time shows, even on topics that have little to do with politics. But in case of the right-wing, only the voices which are crazy and unhinged will be allowed to speak in front of the camera, in effect damning the right wingers even further.

Anyone who tries to call the left-liberal group’s bluff in a respectful manner is termed a troll and accused of fuelling intolerance. This kind of behaviour does nothing but create rifts and, sadly, I see these rifts becoming wider.

Enough about politics; besides being a blogger, you have written four books, the latest being Sultan of Delhi: Ascension. Can you give our readers a glimpse of the story?

Sure, the main plot narrates the rise of Arjun Bhatia, who goes from being an arms smuggler in Uttar Pradesh to the most powerful kingmaker in New Delhi politics, who exerts total control over the government but has immense trouble coping with his family. Set in a world of politicians, government-fixers, deal-facilitators and criminals, Sultan of Delhi represents another shift in genre for me.

(You can buy Sultan of Delhi: Ascension from Amazon)

You have a fifth book coming out as well?

Yes, it’s called Mahabharata Murders, a serial-killer mystery, where plot points are inspired by certain episodes and characters of the Mahabharata. It is being published by Juggernaut Books and comes out in 2017. And I am currently writing the second part of Sultan of Delhi, Sultan of Delhi: Resurrection.

You are already a popular blogger, and additionally an admired author. Now that the option rights for Sultan of Delhi’s cinematic and TV adaptation has been acquired, are you planning to use your writing skills in the cinematic world?

Hopefully. Writing for a visual medium is very different, and it is a challenge I would love to take on.