Trolling Gujarat Is Old Hat, But Why Are Bengalis Taking Ram Guha’s Put-Down Lightly? 

by R Jagannathan - Jun 12, 2020 02:54 PM +05:30 IST
Trolling Gujarat Is Old Hat, But Why Are Bengalis Taking Ram Guha’s Put-Down Lightly? Are Bengalis not offended by Guha’s reference to the state as economically backward?
  • Gujarat has enough defenders, but one wonders why Bengal does not feel insulted by Guha’s reference to the state’s economic backwardness.

What you tweet often says more about your own attitudes and biases than what is apparently being said in the tweet.

Yesterday (11 June), Ramachandra Guha tweeted a stereotypical and divisive statement attributed to Philip Spratt, a former British communist, who came to India to organise labour unions. The tweet read: “Gujarat, though economically advanced, is culturally a backward province… Bengal, in contrast, is economically backward but culturally advanced: Philip Spratt writing in 1939.”

In two lines, Guha thus reduced both Gujarat and Bengal to caricatures, but the storm was entirely about Gujarat. Are Bengalis not offended by Guha’s reference to the state as economically backward – and that too in 1939, when Jawaharlal Nehru’s policies and mindless unionism were yet to ruin Bengal’s industrial promise?

Later on, as Twitter argued about Guha’s reductionist racism, Guha claimed he had been trying to popularise Spratt for 30 years, but thanks to this tweet and the “trolls” who took him on, this had been accomplished in a day.

This is nothing but an attempt at claiming covert victimhood by mentioning trolls, and then claiming a 30-year struggle to popularise the writings of Spratt which no one seems to have noticed. If that was what he was doing for 30 years, clearly Guha does not know much about popularising anything except his own ignorance.

Let’s be clear, the tweet had nothing to do with Spratt, and everything to do with Guha’s consistent efforts to demean Gujarat multiple times, and all because Narendra Modi is closely identified with the state.

He has repeatedly targeted Gujarat. Guha’s diatribes against Modi and the Gujarat models began almost as soon as Modi looked likely to be declared the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP’s) prime ministerial candidate in 2013, and he has been repeating this at periodic intervals (see here, here).

Two months ago, he again had a go at Gujarat, when he tweeted a reference to his NDTV column headlined: “Give us Kerala model over Gujarat model, any day”. In contrasting the two models, Guha concluded: “The success of the state (Kerala) in the past and in the present have rested on science, transparency, decentralisation, and social equality. These are, as it were, the four pillars of the Kerala model. On the other hand, the four pillars of the Gujarat model are superstition, secrecy, centralisation, and communal bigotry. Give us the first over the second, any day.”

If this caricature and stereotyping of an entire state is not bigotry, one wonders what is. One does not want to use the same brush to tar Kerala, but can the same not be said about many people in this state too, where every religious entity has a separate party, where communists have been engaged in a blood feud with the Sangh, and secrecy and authoritarianism lie at the very heart of the Marxist ideology? And which state in any part of the country does not have superstitious elements?

If there is any troll, it would be Guha who has anointed himself as chief troll of the anti-Modi, anti-Gujarat camp.

However, one has to ask another question about Guha’s tweet with the Spratt quote on Gujarat and Bengal. Why is it that Bengalis have not found the sweeping judgement of Spratt as offensive? Why do Bengalis take the Spratt/Guha statement that the state is economically backward lying down?

Let’s remember, Spratt was writing about Bengal in 1939, when Bengal was one of the leading lights of Indian manufacturing. Apart from the Tatas and Birlas, who founded their industrial empires in the East, there were true blue Bengali industrialists who were no mean entrepreneurs.

From R N Mookerjee of Martin Burn, to Dwarkanath Tagore (Ranigunj Collieries), to Prafulla Chandra Ray (of Bengal Chemicals fame), to Kiran Shankar Roy (Bengal Lamps), many Bengali brand names contributed to making the state a key driver of industrial growth before independence along with Maharashtra, Gujarat, and Tamil Nadu. For the record, Martin Burn was once the country’s third largest industrial house after Tatas and Birlas, according to this writeup on the decline of Bengal.

How could Spratt call Bengal backward in 1939, well before Guha’s hero, Jawaharlal Nehru, plotted the decline of eastern India and Kolkata (then Calcutta) by announcing a policy of freight equalisation, is anybody’s guess.

Mindless trade unionism drove industry out of the state, and the Nehru policy of freight equalisation ensured that it had no chance of rejuvenation after independence.

The policy denied all mineral-rich eastern states (Bengal, Bihar and Odisha) of the benefits of comparative advantage in engineering and metallurgy, and shifted the direction of investments to western and southern India, which had few such endowments.

Freight equalisation, which was not ended till the 1990s, ensured that coal and iron ore were sold at the same price in western India as eastern India, hastening the shift of India’s industrial nodes away from Kolkata.

Kolkata’s decline, of course, began much earlier, when the British, unable to deal with the revolutionaries being thrown up from Bengal, decided to move the administrative capital to Delhi in 1911. Freight equalisation, which came 41 years later, completed that process of denying Bengal its due weight in post-independence industrial growth.

Mamata Banerjee tried to out-Left the Left by opposing the re-industrialisation of Bengal when the Tatas proposed to set up a car plant in Singur. She made the acquisition of land a big issue. Thus when the Left tried to correct its policies, Banerjee made sure that this would not happen. Ironically, Tata chose to move to Gujarat, the very model Guha thinks is unspeakable.

Gujarat has enough defenders, but one wonders why Bengal does not feel insulted by Guha’s reference to the state’s economic backwardness.

There is something amiss here.

Jagannathan is Editorial Director, Swarajya. He tweets at @TheJaggi.
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