Regarded as the finest living Bengali poet, Shankha Ghosh brings up the name of the best-known Bengali poet, Rabindranath Tagore, when he talks about the politics of street protest in Bengal. Tagore would often be seen in public leading protests against acts like the Partition of Bengal, the Jallianwala Bagh massacre, murder, and communal riots; it is Tagore, says Ghosh, who started the practice.
On 21 June, Ghosh carried on that legacy when he led a protest march from College Square to Esplanade in central Kolkata. He was the most prominent face of a march by thousands of citizens protesting against the gang-rape and murder of a college student in Kamduni, a village north of the city, and Bengal chief minister and Trinamool Congress (TMC) party supremo Mamata Banerjee’s subsequent handling of the situation. When faced with local women agitators during her visit to the village, Banerjee labelled them supporters of the opposition Communist Party of India (Marxist), or CPM, and also saw a Maoist-opposition conspiracy. Later, she would brand guests at television chat shows as pornographers.
In 2007, the poet was at the head of an estimated 80,000 people protesting against the killing of 14 villagers at Nandigram in March that year. This was during the Left regime in Bengal.
A time comes, says 81-year-old Ghosh, when a poet like him can no longer remain at home. “Like everybody else, a poet reacts to what is happening around him and has to come out to protest. I was there too in my individual capacity,” says Ghosh.
Theatre and television personality Kaushik Sen traces the influence that poets, writers, artists and intellectuals continue to have on Bengal’s political and social landscape, to the Indian People’s Theatre Association (Ipta) movement.
This was an alliance of Leftist artists and intellectuals that began in the early 1940s; film-maker Ritwik Ghatak equated it in the book, Rows And Rows of Fences: Ritwik Ghatak on Cinema, with the coming of a “revolution in Bengal”, especially after Bijon Bhattacharya wrote the play Nabanna in 1944, on the plight of a farmer’s family during the Bengal Famine of 1943. It is apparent from Ghatak’s essay, My Coming Into Films, that Ipta (he became a member) was looking at galvanizing people through art. “Our colleagues and I roamed extensively all over the place and tried to rouse our people against the ills eating at the vitals of our society,” Ghatak wrote.
Sen, director of Bengali theatre group Swapnasandhani and a vociferous critic of state repression and misconduct during both the Left Front and TMC dispensations in Bengal, considers most artists and intellectuals in the state to be of a Leftist orientation, though not always necessarily aligning with the CPM. Before the Communists decisively came to power in West Bengal in 1977, most artists would be out on the streets protesting against the Emergency imposed by former prime minister Indira Gandhi or the corruption and hooliganism of Congress workers in Kolkata.
The euphoria of 1977’s Communist win in Bengal may have led to a vacuum in artist-intellectual socio-political activism in the 1980s, admit both Ghosh and Sen. The artistic community were, many agree, too blinded by the historic win to document the events even as the Communist government led by Jyoti Basu was accused of a massacre at a refugee settlement in the Sunderbans’ Morichjhapi island in 1978-79 (an episode revived in Amitav Ghosh’s novel The Hungry Tide) and allegedly engineered the killing of 17 members of the Ananda Marga religious organization in south Kolkata’s Bijon Setu in 1982. Though writers and intellectuals like Ashapurna Devi, Moitreyi Devi and Annadashankar Roy registered their dissent, the protests did not escalate to the scale of the mass protests witnessed in recent times.
Ghosh says he first registered his disapproval of the Left Front government after the Morichjhapi episode, through his poetry. In 1991, after then opposition leader Mamata Banerjee was seriously injured, allegedly in an attack by CPM goons, Ghosh read out a protest letter at a meeting of Left intellectuals at the Calcutta Information Centre.
Ghosh lists other occasions when the intellectual community of Kolkata has taken to the streets for a cause—post the Babri Masjid demolition in Ayodhya, severe floods in Bangladesh in the 1990s, and the riots in Gujarat in 2002.
The civil society movement in Kolkata, in limbo for much of the 34 years of Left rule, coalesced around the Singur-Nandigram phase of Bengal politics—the acquisition of land for industry— from 2006. This was also the beginning of a media boom when every incident was under the scanner, explains film-maker and theatre personality Suman Mukhopadhyay, who took part in protest marches during the Nandigram agitation as well as during the recent Kamduni campaign. “Intellectuals and artists have traditionally been vocal in Bengal and the impact of such protests is possibly at a deep sociological perspective. One can also notice the political rhetoric changing from the grossly insensitive to pacifying,” says Mukhopadhyay.
During the last phase of Left rule, plays like Bibhas Chakraborty’s Adbhut Aadhar, Kaushik Sen’s Manush, Mukhopadhyay’s Teesta Paarer Brittanto and Bratya Basu’s Winkle Twinkle had subtly or otherwise reflected the changing moral dynamics in Bengal politics. Post Nandigram, artists and intellectuals, many of whom had been Left Front government supporters, demanded poriborton (change).
Sen has bitter memories of the post-Nandigram artists-intellectuals collective, Swajan, which included people like film-makers Aparna Sen and Mukhopadhyay, writer Mahasweta Devi, poet Joy Goswami, theatre personalities Shaoli Mitra, Arpita Ghosh and Bratya Basu, painters Jogen Chowdhury, Samir Aich and Shuvaprasanna, besides Sen himself.
With the TMC aligning itself with the cultural clan, the party’s success in the Lok Sabha and assembly elections saw many unable to resist the temptation the new power structure held out for them. Basu became minister in the new state government, while others like Mitra, Shuvaprasanna and Arpita Ghosh have taken up plum positions. Swajan, as well as a larger progressive artist-led fledgling “apolitical” movement, was in disarray, says Sen.
A new group, including people like Aparna Sen, Shankha Ghosh, academicians Sunando Sanyal and Miratun Nahar, besides Sen, is now being formalized. “There is a lot of confusion now. But in the group we are realize that any wrongdoing should be protested no matter which party does it,” says Sen.
Sen claims that when Mamata Banerjee was the Union railway minister, she offered him a role in a committee looking at railway security. He refused. His wife, says Sen, was then offered a similar post. She too preferred to keep away.