Bengal: Land Of A Billion Protests

Bengal:
Land Of A Billion Protests Protest in Kolkata (Ashok Nath Dey/Hindustan Times via Getty Images) 
Snapshot
  • While protesting against the GST, Banerjee is adhering to some venerable traditions that have come to characterise Bengal.

    Most of the times, these protests are dictated by another characteristic of Bengal: the resistance to change or the love for status quo.

The goods and services tax (GST) regime is all set to roll out across the country one-and-a-half days from now. And it is only from Bengal that protests, for all they are worth, are ringing out so loudly. Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, known for her histrionics, has dubbed it an “epic blunder”, even though she has no choice but to implement it.

Banerjee, while protesting against and opposing the GST, is but adhering to some venerable traditions that have come to characterise Bengal. The state was, arguably, the crucible of the freedom movement and demonstrations, dharnas, processions (called michchils in Bengali) and even arson characterised the protests against the British.

The tradition of protesting – often without justification, and hence Quixotic in nature – continued even after Independence. The communists and rag-tag bunch of people opposed to the Congress turned Calcutta (as this city was known then) into a cesspool of protests. Most of the times, these protests were (and still are) dictated by another characteristic of Bengal: the resistance to change, the love for status quo.

Culture Of Protests

In the late sixties and throughout the seventies, Bengal continued to be rocked by protests, that time led mostly by the naxals and also the communists. The imposition of Emergency and the despotic rule of Congress chief minister Siddhartha Shankar Ray fuelled more protests. But even after the communists came to power in 1977, they continued with the protests against the Union government’s “step-motherly treatment of Bengal” – a coinage that has endured till date and one that is cited as the reason for all ills afflicting Bengal.

And even as the ruling communists were protesting, leading michchils through Bengal’s cratered streets, a stormy petrel by the name of Mamata Banerjee, who had taken to politics as a member of the Chatra Parishad (the students’ wing of the Congress) when she was in her mid-teens, quietly sneaked up on them to lead her own protests against the commies. Banerjee became the face of protests in Bengal from the nineties until the time she became Bengal’s unlikeliest chief minister in 2011.

However, ascension to the throne did not dim Banerjee's proclivity for protests. The past seven years have seen the lady voicing her voluble, and often intemperate, protest against every single major decision and step of the Union government. Not only the present National Democratic Alliance government, even the United Progressive Alliance II was her target. She is perhaps the only chief minister to have hit the streets of Kolkata so many times to protest against a wide gamut of issues ranging from fuel price hikes and demonetisation to the Teesta accord and ‘intolerance’.

The issues need not always be ones that concern Bengal and its citizenry. The 34 years of communist rule saw protests against ‘US imperialism’, demonstrations in favour of Fidel Castro, stormy protests against US action in Vietnam – in solidarity with Vietnam, full-throated slogans of 'tomar naam, amar naam, Vietnam, Vietnam’ (your name, my name, is Vietnam) ringed through Bengal – and against any issue from across the world that Bengal’s leftists found worthy of protesting against.

The protests were also insidious at times, like the ones against what communists said was “India’s attack on China” in 1962. Many processions were taken out in Calcutta that year in protest against “India’s military adventurism against China”. Later, the naxals infamously marched through Calcutta and the decrepit towns of Bengal announcing “China’s chairman (Mao) amader chairman” (China’s chairman Mao is our chairman). There have been protests in Bengal against US sanctions on Venezuela and in favour of its former president Hugo Chavez, against the breakup of the Soviet Union, against US sanctions on North Korea and, strangely, against the “extra-judicial killing” of Osama bin Laden “in violation of his (Bin Laden’s) human rights”.

Love For Status Quo

The other venerable tradition of Bengal, and one that often drives these protests, is the opposition to change. Bengal, and its long-suffering masses, love the status quo and abhor change. The change could be anything from rise in fares of buses and trams to introduction of computers in offices and, in the latest case, GST.

Jyoti Basu infamously led protests in 1953 against a one-paise rise in tram fares; 11 tramcars were torched in Calcutta by his comrades on the day of the protests. Later, in February 1981, Congress activists burnt three dozen buses and tramcars in the city to protest the Jyoti Basu government’s decision to increase bus and tram fares by five paise!

In the early eighties, Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee led a series of protests against introduction of computers in government organisations (computers were “capitalist evil that would rob the poor of their jobs”, proclaimed the communists). Later, 'Information technology’ became the buzzword of his government when Bhattacharjee became the chief minister. And so did industrialisation and luring private capital, even though the communists played a shameful role in driving capital out of Bengal from the late fifties to the eighties and turning the state into a graveyard of factories.

Banerjee wanted farmers in Singur and Nandigram to continue to wallow in poverty by subsisting on their lowly farm incomes. The change that industrialisation would bring to people’s lives was abhorrent to her, and also the intended beneficiaries. Squatters on government land in Bengal don’t want to move into apartments provided to them by way of rehabilitation. Tenants in crumbling buildings that have been collapsing won’t move out to safer dwellings. Banerjee had resisted, as long as she could, introduction of app-cabs in Kolkata and then put many hurdles in their way. Kolkatans opposed government efforts to banish the inhuman hand-pulled rickshaws from the streets. Kolkatans are nostalgic about the smoke-belching and uncomfortable ambassadors that ply as taxis on the streets of their city and want them to continue. Ditto with the ugly metal contraptions that pass off as tramcars; new and sleek tramcars have met with sniggers from the citizenry.

This love for the status quo permeates to fashion as well. Kolkatans, inarguably, are the most unfashionably citizenry in India. It would be easy to find Kolkatans still sporting bell-bottom trousers and shirts with broad ‘dog-collars’, or with the hairstyles of the seventies and eighties. A large section of Bengalis still revere the crumpled kurta, the jhola and the unshaven visage that marked the look of the (shallow) leftist intellectuals of the seventies and eighties. Most Bengali tourists have not forsaken their mufflers and monkey caps. And when it comes to food, Bengali tourists will hunt for their maach-bhaat (fish and rice) even in Ulan Bator, refusing to sample any delectable local fare.

And The Slogan

If there is a defining slogan for West Bengal, it is “Cholbe Na”. The precise translation would read: “This won’t work”, but then this translation does not quite capture the spirit of the slogan that has reverberated as loudly through dingy alleys and muddied paths across the state as it has through the minds of generations of Bengalis.

No one quite knows when this slogan was first coined, but the first record of this slogan dates back to 1928. The voluminous archives at Kolkata’s National Library reveal that this slogan was raised by protesters in Calcutta (as Kolkata was known then) against the Simon Commission that year. A news item dated 24 April 1928 from The Amrita Bazar Patrika on protests against the Simon Commission mentions this slogan being raised during a demonstration in Calcutta’s Chowringhee.

Since then, this slogan has been raised by all protesting Bengalis worth their maach-bhaat cutting across political ideologies. “Cholbe na” became the defining and all-time favourite slogan of the legions of protesters that Bengal has, and continues to, spawn. If it was a popular slogan against British rule before Independence, it was appropriated by the communists who found every action of the Union government in Delhi and the ‘imperialist’ US worthy of protest. Banerjee and her Trinamool Congress now hold the rights to "cholbe na".

Interestingly, Bengal’s “cholbe na” is the literal opposite of North India’s “chalta hai”. Is that why Bengal and North India are poles apart? While the jury is out on that, fact is that along with eeesh (a term used to convey any emotion or reaction ranging from shock and severe disapproval to deep appreciation and love) and “Oh Ma!” (dear mother), “cholbe na” has been the most-used term in Bengal down the ages.

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