The Tagore and the Ray that Bengal encashes so very often as evidence of its “riches,” would have lived and died nameless if they subscribed to the ideologies fueling the state since 2011. After a recent visit to the state where I spent the first 21 years of my life and which is currently heading for its most chaotic election ever, I was left with a rather bad taste in my mouth. In this piece, I will try to unburden that. The state of Bengal is in a state of numbing mediocrity. It is as if Bengal is suffering from Stockholm Syndrome, for which it needs a rude cure. Bengal needs to be saved from selfish romanticism and mass indolence slowly suffocating its future.
Bengal played a crucial role in India’s independence struggle, and later on in its formation as a modern democracy. Characters from the eastern state composed the national anthem, the national song, built India’s first independent defense force, among numerous other accolades. India’s first as well as the most recent Nobel laureate also happen to be Bengalis. Cultural riches apart, Bengal for the longest time was a powerhouse of India’s industrial and commercial growth, Agri processing to heavy engineering to minerals. The state also housed India’s leading research laboratories from across disciplines. Bengal was India’s brain.
Now, if you notice, a lot of these achievements are discussed in the past tense. And no, +30 years of communist government is not to be blamed for that, since the state’s intelligentsia continued to flourish during that time. Bengal may not have chased the obvious routes of economic growth like the other Indian states, but it remained a vital center of commercial and research activities. There’s no denying that Bengal paid a heavy price for opting out of the IT revolution early on, still the state nurtured a strong identity and distinct prowess that has been steadily chipped into since 2011 with a minimally-literate lot taking over reigns.
I have this theory, the best way to gauge how society is collectively thinking is by observing the entertainment content it is producing and consuming. And if you look at the content being produced out of Bengal, you would find a sickening obsession with nostalgia and a tendency to run back to the past. You would find stories of the golden days of Bengal (Sonar Bangla), stories of treasure hunt, of princes and princesses. Stories of Non-resident Bengalis musing over their childhood. You would find romanticism of rural Bengal, of Zamindar palaces, of old and decaying neighborhoods, and a whole lot of ancient stuff that should ideally mean very little for a modern and progressive society. However, for an escapist society, this is nectar.
Historical wealth is useful only when it guides future prosperity. But if history becomes the Neverland to run back to, to escape present-day realities, it has outrun its utility. Bengal’s unhealthy obsession over its sages and titans of the bygone era points towards a gaping hole in its present and future. Bengal is blinding itself with feel-good stories of the past since the state cannot comprehend a prosperous tomorrow. Today, Bengal’s cultural and intellectual pride has been rendered damaging as it is being used by minimally-literate people in governance to compensate for their lack of vision and ambition for the state. While all of India is trudging towards some sense of a future, Bengal is doing very little to build a future-ready society.
India is the source of the largest diaspora scattered around the world, estimated at more than 32 million. And this is represented by NRIs and PIOs with roots all over India. These people are engaged in high-end R&D and academic activities, building cities from the ground up, and everything in between. Indians of every faith and every language are creating values worth hundreds of billions of dollars every year. Now, while most of these people are invested in the future and prosperity of their home state, the story is a bit different when it comes to Bengalis. For NRI Bengalis, Bengal is an amusement park which you visit every year or two to relive your childhood and one that should ideally remain trapped in the past offering Rs.2 fritters.
Bengal probably has the highest count of people living outside of the state, simply because there is very little to do in the state and very little has been done to resolve that problem. This has created a trap for people below certain financial strata who often find themselves getting exploited because for them returning home equals hunger and poverty. Meanwhile, for the Bhadralok middle-class, self-preservation has remained the priority. And then there are the posh folks, destined to end up with the best of everything, thanks to hereditary meritocracy. They practice and preach rotten Bengali romanticism, the brunt of which they won’t bear. They glorify poverty they won’t know. The collective apathy has encouraged poisonous forces to take over the future of Bengal.
The void left behind by the apathy and misery of Bhodolok Bengalis is being encroached upon by interest groups unlike any seen in the past. Bengal and Bengalis haven’t been known for their physical industry in a long time, but they led the nation in the intellectual industry, the last decade saw a steady recession in that. Now, that recession is making way for toxic pride to do with religion, caste, race, and so on – unthinkable in Bengal. Witnesses of Bengal’s appeasement politics of the last decade are now warming up to chants of “Jai Shri Ram” at an alarming pace. Hopeless and lost, people are willing to sacrifice their rights and freedoms for any hint of prosperity. Bengal’s current government that failed to offer to the people any sense of future has engineered this degradation.
Slogans and principles that until recently were identified with some of India’s least developed regions have now found a home in Bengal – a matter of great concern. Frustrated citizens are now lining up behind street thugs and career criminals who hold the country’s highest offices with hopes of giving shape to their aspirations, not aware of the fact that it’s just a numbers game for those thugs. As a result, the social and intellectual institutions that Bengal built since the 19th century are now at risk of being replaced. Replaced with ambitions of those actively trying to rewrite the country’s Constitution to establish a Hindu Republic by destroying its democratic structure and secular identity. Bengal is the last bastion standing against that end.
Bengal’s current misfortune is unique in that it’s stuck with two leading poll candidates who are equally lethal, hence no matter who wins, Bengal will lose. On one hand, we have a party that is presently running the state and has pulled it back decades in terms of prosperity, and on the other hand, we have a party that has pulled the nation back on every global chart concerning every metric that matters. At this juncture, the only sliver of hope can be derived from an expectation that a worsening of matters in near future will drive a rebirth of Bengal’s communist party. In its last years, the communist party in Bengal had attempted at something good, but in an unacceptable manner and was routed out. Presently, it is hibernating. Intellectual growth means little when compared with economic poverty, true, so let’s hope that not too much is lost until we start again.
Graphic: Times of India