A Bandh Again Called Despair

"The enemies of Caesar shall say this;
Then in a friend, it is cold modesty."
Julius Caesar, Act III, Scene 1

It should have been amply clear that the four and thirteen parties that threatened to destroy the Finance Bill and, in the process, topple the UPA Government in the Centre, were embarking on a venture that was preordained to fail. The memory of the grimy proceedings surrounding a similar attempt in the not too distant past cannot possibly have faded yet.

Why then did the Leftists decide to play a lead role in the new drama? One suspects that it was an attempt to woo back the poor on the eve of elections. The suspicion deepened, moreover, as one heard out a Left dignitary's statement that, along with food price inflation, the persisting inequality in land distribution was an important motivation underlying the twelve hour Bharat Bandh call. The word "Bharat" of course was a euphemism for the April 27 droplet in the vast, shore-less Sargasso Sea of Bengal Bandhs.

Ever since the occurrence of the economic disaster at Singur and the subsequent fiasco surrounding the Vedic Village, few words have sensitized politicians in this state as the word "land" itself. The deep rooted poverty associated with rural land in particular has affected endlessly many people. And when it comes to democracy, number counts.

After more than 60 years of independence and 30 years of Left rule, the paradox remains that the support base for governments in this country remains entrenched in poverty. More than 60 per cent of India still lives in the rural sector, a majority of them in abject poverty. Following the Singur-Nandigram events, it was the rural poor, supported by a handful of urban intelligentsia, that had put the Left Front on the back foot. And the Left now appears to be playing the poverty card once again to win back lost ground.

Few would disagree that the proximate goal of the present struggle has a human face. Access to food constitutes one of the most basic of human rights. No government can possibly disown its responsibility to ensure this right for all citizens. The question that is relevant in this context though is whether bandhs can help the nation reach the food for all destination.

A simple calculation is in order here. According to the latest Reserve Bank of India data, West Bengal's Net State Domestic product was Rs. 2,74,897 crore in 2007-08 (calculated at 1999-2000 prices). This figure would inflate substantially once the data for 2009-10 become available at current prices. However, even on the basis of the available figures, the average per day production (and hence income) in this state should hover around Rs. 753 crore. To bring the economy to a complete halt for a single day then amounts to an uncomfortably large figure of income loss.

India's labour force has been variously estimated to lie somewhere in the region of 40 - 50 crore, i.e. the labour force constitutes roughly 39 per cent of India's population. Applying this per cent figure to the estimated population of West Bengal (viz. 8.66 crore), its labour force should be of the order of 3.38 crore. Around 90 per cent of the workers, i.e. 3.02 crore, belong to the informal and unorganized sectors. These are the worst victims of inflation, since, according to some, many of them depend on a daily income in the range of Rs. 20-30.

Quite apart from the income loss figure quoted earlier, a bandh deprives more than 3 crore people of the right to earn their hopelessly meagre source of subsistence. In other words, a bandh worsens the already deplorable state of those very people who are the victims of food inflation. Even so, as a Left sponsor of the bandh argued on a popular News TV channel on the eve of the event, a bandh's negative impact on the economy is justified for the same reason for which the terrorist strategies employed during India's freedom struggle were defensible. Indeed, he even mentioned in support of his thesis two of the most hallowed names in the list of India's freedom fighters, Shahid Khudiram, who gave up his life at a tender age, and Mahatma Gandhi, who led the Civil Disobedience Movement during the Salt March in Dandi.

Should a bandh provoked deceleration of the Indian economy be likened to India's freedom struggle, aimed as it was towards destroying the economic might of British imperialism? The question breaks up into several parts.

First, since Khudiram and Gandhi were specifically mentioned in this connection, one cannot help wondering if any of the leaders who organized the bandh (not excluding the one who drew the comparison) measure up, by any stretch of imagination, to these immortal personalities. If they do, then these persons ought to be identified without delay and their portraits published in national dailies in the same manner in which the Railway ministry has been carrying out its brief. Second, Khudiram gave up his life for the cause of his country. In the present instance, although people are dying of hunger, one has yet to come across a leader who has sacrificed his life to protest the deaths. Third, Gandhi is well-remembered for his fasts to oppose the British rule. The latest bandh would have looked far more respectable if those who led it gave up even half a day's meal to draw the central government's attention towards the plight of the poor. Fourth, shouldn't the pathetic millions who were prevented from earning their daily incomes of Rs. 30 have been compensated for their losses?

These questions are trivial at worst though and derisive at best. A far more important issue relates to viewing the UPA Government at the Centre as no different from a foreign imperialist ruler. There can be little doubt probably that corruption rules the roost amongst a large number of politicians in power in Delhi. However, is it possible to justify economic destruction, particularly the earnings of the most vulnerable sections of the population, in order to bring to book real or imagined criminals? Mahatma Gandhi surely worked towards destroying the British economy in India. A bandh organized in independent India, let us not forget, is aimed at damaging India's own economy.  

One should of course not attach too much importance to incompetent arguments. Let us leave this issue therefore and consider other bandhs or disruptive activities. Two such cases present themselves immediately. First, the Singur tragedy is still raw in our minds. The Tatas were forced to leave this state by a group of people who claimed to have engaged in a political agitation in the interest of the farmers. Second, right now the country is tottering on account of the Maoists- unleashed fear. The Maoists too claim to be engaged in an "armed struggle" in the interest of the long neglected adivasi development problem. In both instances, there are well-defined issues at stake and the bandh-like activities are the political weapons employed to serve the cause. The vital question in this context is how does one establish the chastity of one bandh as opposed to the other? 

Every cloud though has a silver lining. The media informs us that the Chief Minister of the State, accompanied by some other Ministers and senior bureaucrats, attended office on April 27. It was this same Chief Minister who had assured us that he would not tolerate bandhs and rebuild the lost work culture of the state. We cannot but help admiring the commitment of the person along with that of a group of his supporters in the government. His presence in the office probably establishes that the bandh had its critics in the government itself. Unfortunately, it points at the same time towards the helplessness of honest people in this society also.

More By  :  Dipankar Dasgupta

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Comments on this Blog

Comment  @ Siddhartha

I am sorry, but I don't think I have followed you very clearly. I must thank you though for reading my article and commenting on it.

30-Oct-2011 10:51 AM

Comment  Most of the communities in the entire Indian sub-continent(such as Bengali) are succumbed in ‘Culture of Poverty'(Oscar Lewis), irrespective of cl-ass or economic strata, lives in pavement or apartment. Nobody is genuinely regret ed or ashamed of the deep-rooted corruption, decaying general quality of life, worst Politico-administrative system, bad work place, weak mother language, continuous consumption of common social space (mental as well as physical, both). We are becoming fathers & mothers only by self-procreation, mindlessly & blindfold(supported by some lame excuses). Simply depriving their(the children) fundamental rights of a decent, caring society, fearless & dignified living. Do not ever look for any other positive alternative behaviour(values) to perform human way of parenthood, i.e. deliberately co-parenting children those are born out of ignorance, extreme poverty. It seems that all of us are being driven only by the very animal instinct. If the Bengali people ever be able to bring that genuine freedom (from vicious cycle of ‘poverty’) in their own life/attitude, involve themselves in ‘Production of (social) Space’ (Henri Lefebvre), initiate a movement by heart, an intense attachment with the society at large is very much required - one different pathway has to create, decent & rich Politics will definitely come up. – Siddhartha Bandyopadhyay, 16/4, Girish Banerjee Lane, Howrah-711101.

25-Oct-2011 14:37 PM

Comment Thanks for the comment and sorry for being late in acknowledging it. I was facing a problem with my internet and just got it back functioning.

Needless to say, I agree with every word you have said. We in West Bengal are tired and sick of these politically motivated bandhs. The politician who spoke about Gandhi and Kshudiram was actually yelling at me in a TV talk show. He finally ended up by calling me an elitist working hand in had with the corporate sector! I wish I were what he called me. I'd much rather be that than a minister.

05-May-2010 08:33 AM

Comment Well written.  When Mahatma Gandhi protested he always said "Satyagraha". I can bet many of our politicians do not even understand the meaning of "Satyagraha" which literally means (Satya) Truth  (Agraha) Guided. In other words when Gandhi protested by way of Dandi March or by way of his various fasts, he was goaded by Truth.  Today's politicians launch bandhs, agitations not the least guided by Truth but for meeting their own vested interests.  Any person with simple economic sense can figure out that in the past 60 years of India's independence trillions and trillions of rupees have been lost due to bandhs / riots / arson benefiting only a handful of the goon politicians or their coitree.  Who cares if the common man who marched with Gandhi in the days of yore, still struggles to get even one reasonable meal a day!

Roy D'Costa
04-May-2010 19:22 PM

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