If you were born in the early 1990s and had a modest TV set that could catch Doordarshan airwaves, chances are you had seen this TV soap Om Namah Shivay that aired on prime time on a weekday. This was not so for me and had everything to do with Marxist view of idolatry.
My parents were not at all flag-bearers of the communist movement in West Bengal so as to speak, and they were more fascinated with Pramod Dasgupta than the then chief minister Jyoti Basu. Dasgupta’s early demise also meant that they lost whatever interest they had in electoral politics. However, like all educated Bengali middle-class aspirations, the academic understanding of an unequal society and class struggle, and what to do about it, would be often discussed. This was usually over those dinner occasions when friends and extended family would pour in.
On one of those occasions, one of my distant uncles (incidentally a party member) was shocked at me gulping down a harmless TV serial and proceeded to switch it off and sit me down for counseling.
“Where do you see super-human rishis and bhagwans doing such tricks in real life?”
“You would not meet them in real life. Do you really think worshipping clay idol replica would lead to such miracles?”
In the monologue that followed, I was told that humans create such clay statues, and worshipping them as gods instead of their human creators is actually an insult to these living beings. Inside a Marxist mind, humanity is and will be progressing to a sweet end. So, biblical solutions of iconoclasm to the widely prevalent idolatry are very progressive. People worshipping idols they have themselves built with their own hands results in alienation of produce from labour.
My parents were made to understand how such young minds can become gullible to mumbo-jumbo of tantriks and astrologers in want of superstitious cures and ultimately get killed by them or left a pauper for good.
Rethinking now, the self-censorship on televised mumbo-jumbo might also have to do with the Babri Masjid demolition as many Marxist ideologues believe that such assault on secularism wouldn’t have been possible had Ramanand Sagar not made a TV series on Ramayan.
In the entire process though, I was alienated from something I wanted to watch and also perhaps my identity or something that would complement in building it.
So, why did communists take to building statues, one might ask? It was to permeate the discourse and change the direction of it towards communism, of course… Not only statues, Bengali Durga Puja became communist sharod utsav (festival of autumn). Party book stalls hijacked the usual festivities to tell the revolutionary stories and philosophies people ought to and not want to hear. The humble ganashakti (people’s might) akin to the party mouthpiece was peddled along with newspapers. If one reads any newspaper, the ganashakti was mandatory buying on all days in most villages, at least on Sundays in mofussil industrial towns of the districts and a gentle nudge from the newspaper guy to consider buying the Labour Day (1 May) special edition in proper Kolkata. If you are poor because living under a faulty economic regime ultimately makes you so, you could read it free of cost at party established board posts, where the daily edition would be pinned for everyone.
Funds were collected from businesses and people for erecting statues of Lenin (rarely Stalin) and if not possible, a humble shaheed bedi (an altar for the martyrs) by the roadside where communist party workers were allegedly killed either by political opponents or the police when S S Ray was the chief minister. Roads were named after communist ideologues, who can forget the naming of the road on which US consulate stood after Ho Chi Minh of Vietnam?
People in cow-belt area who think the Left means a corrupt minority appeasing Congress which embezzled funds in their 10-year misrule or those in south India who think of it as the church-NGO-Dravidian separatist ecosystem have no idea what people in communist-ruled states have it like. I club Kerala with the south here because alternations in government meant the octopus like grip the communists had in other states would not be as successful.
Communists perfect this tight control on the ruled society by building a mini-cage over the society they live in. Power was chiefly exercised in four ways that formed a cyclical web ultimately making the entire society an echo-chamber of communist design:
1. Institutional: Ex-party cadres or ideologically-aligned people were promoted over neutral ones in all government establishments. Feedbacks from local units of the party were very essential for promotion in the lower bureaucracy. Even more true for the police force that would go on to become as loyal as to not file even an FIR in cases of political violence. If communists ruled a state, all major government organs would be permeated. Institutions higher up or lower down outside their control would become scapegoats for their failures. This was usually the central government and their agencies or that particular municipality the opposition controlled.
In fact, new institutions like the tiered Panchayati Raj in West Bengal were created to absorb the existing cadre base and expand it. It was the first and only one of the handful states, to the best of my knowledge, that allow party symbols to be used in these local polls. In fact, fear of their panchayat derived benefits being cut or tampered, many dissatisfied voters had no option but to support them in the state assembly elections. Communist panchayats thus controlled the script for the brief time the state could not exercise itself due to election codes coming into practice.
2. Monetary: Communists controlled how much you earned and where you spent it. The same local units would select contractors for the government. Ministers higher up had to consult the local party offices for the necessary background check of those willing to make a buck from contracts. You had to donate to the party, party organised disaster relief programmes, those programmes on Lenin, Stalin, End of Nazism and November Revolution, which normal people did not understand but ought to. Incomes of rich farmers were little secret as prices were mostly set by government and a cursory look at their field size would give anyone a good estimate of what they produced and earned. Party offices controlled labour wages and their discontent through trade unions and those of sharecroppers through party agriculturist platforms. In the economic sphere, co-operative societies and banks became what was the panchayats in the political sphere. Self-employed persons professing the right kind of allegiance were given preferential allotment of choice stalls when co-operative or local body developed market complexes came up.
A pertinent cause why the Singur agitation happened was because farmers and locals who were with the opposition knew that their counterparts with the communist establishment would have a huge advantage in bagging the contracts for supplying construction materials to the factory site and would benefit unequally for the average amount of land both were sacrificing.
Just like Tatas, Birlas and Godrej flourished because of a restricted market under Nehruvian socialism, a narrow select group of industrialists benefitted immensely under them and paid back in handsome terms to the party coffers. Access to jobs particularly those of school teachers and nurses were made easy if you participated in the right kind of activities in college under the aegis of their revolutionary student’s wing.
Needless to say but people already trapped in this economic system would not easily opt to increase the uncertainty in their life by voting an opponent who might want to upset the applecart.
3. Discourse And Education: Just like in Lutyens Delhi, an intellectual system was cultivated who were felicitated with state honours on occasion. How ganashakti was peddled has been already said. Theatre groups enacted plays on oppression of common people at the hands of zamindars, moneylenders and the village priest. History books were altered teaching people about French and Russian Revolution. Ancient history was more about Chinese pottery instead of the usual Harappa, and medieval history was largely omitted; forget Partition or the Calcutta riots prior to it.
But the deathly blow had to be the axing of English in primary education in 1982, making the educated middle-class alienated from developments in the world so that the neo-liberal Thatcher-Reagan revolution that was brewing in the West did minimal damage back in the state. Kolkata which had a natural comparative advantage in English because of the British rule lost it over time because a few old men wanted to close the doors of revisionism instead of revising their ideology themselves. The former was an easier way to latch on to power.
Indoctrinated students found themselves in government institutions, in schools, colleges and perpetuated the same cycle again.
4. Brute Force And Intimidation: This was the last resort when everything failed. Hartals and gheraos were the norm in companies whose owner refused to pay up or in colleges where the principal refrained from toeing the party line. The infamous Keshpur model and Garbeta line saw many opposition workers dead in the zeal to capture villages.
Political murders are even popular in Kerala and Tripura as indicated by recent events.
What I am trying to show here is not that communists are a calculative lot but that almost all avenues of human life are interwoven to communist power centres that resonate with each other in developing a resilient ecosystem that is geared to win election and stay in power.
So, when this entire system collapses or at least there is a chink like in Tripura now, people try to widen the hole or cut through the entire net that has so long kept them in check. This is what is precisely happening in Tripura.
These very symbols like the Lenin statue, the shaheed bedis, ganashakti reading boards, the history books which are symbols of oppression bear the front line of attack. People who have not lived in a communist state would never understand why people would react so violently now that the political change has already taken place. When you are in pain and helpless, an animal instinct takes over such that at the first sign of a little freedom, there is an irresistible urge to get out of the situation and overthrow everything oppressive simultaneously.
Such regime changes have happened in East Europe that took to the extreme of felling men associated with the erstwhile regime. The transitionary administration in the state of Tripura must ensure that this does not happen. Inspite of her many failings, Mamata Banerjee had banned any victory procession on coming to power and requested party affiliated clubs to play Rabindra-sangeet to mark the occasion. I am sure she took many steps behind the scenes to ensure peace for events when they flare up once tend to have a domino effect everywhere.
Lenin must fall, but let it be the statue and not a man.
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