14 November 2007. The streets of Calcutta reverberated with the sound of the protesting footsteps of 60,000 ordinary citizens. The mammoth rally was organised to condemn the violence that had been unleashed by the state government on the peasantry of Singur and Nandigram. West Bengal’s civil society, lulled into slumber by 30 years of Left Front rule, finally appeared to be waking up. At the colourful mahamichchil (great rally), with lips sealed with black bands and wearing badges crying Shame!, the citizens of Calcutta stood up for the assailed victims of Singur and Nandigram – a direct reflection of this re-awakened conscience.
The poets-litterateurs-artists-playwrights-filmmakers and intellectuals began voicing their protests, one by one. Many of them gave up comfortable, relatively laid back lives after three long decades to come out onto the streets. Many others, who till now had stayed far away from rallies and meetings, agitations or political debates, became active in the civil-society movement, expressing solidarity with the fighting farmers. Overnight, various platforms sprouted, all of which took place without a political party or bloc lending a hand, and unsupported by any political ideology. This citizens’ uprising appeared spontaneous, bypassing the winding alleys of party politics.
Even without understanding the reality of Singur-Nandigram, or never having been face-to-face with the cops and cadres, civil-society leaders can evidently become great symbols of protest. Television channels will gladly send vehicles to bring them to their studios – for the media, too, is a part of this civil society sans politics, sans action plan. The inaction of 30 years will be covered up just as easily. In spite of being nurtured by global capital and enjoying all the fruits of globalisation, Chief Minister Buddhadeb Battacharya’s industrialisation-development policy can be trashed; professional politicians can be ruthlessly flayed; kings and knights can be checkmated with sweet words and clever arguments.
The Singur-Nandigram resistance will, no doubt, draw courage from this kind of muscle-flexing by the civil society. But will the movement really spread, will it discover a new path on which to move ahead? Where the struggle is against the establishment and the ruling party, and where the axe has to aim for the very roots of the social system, the practice of politics must necessarily intrude if society is to transform. And yet the civil-society leaders insist, We will not be smeared by politics. In making such a sectarian declaration, they confound the movement and make it unilateral. It is almost as though the ordinary citizen has no responsibility for the prevailing opportunism, lack of ideals and political bankruptcy; it is as if the blame lies solely with the political leaders and parties. Apparently, it is only by shedding their political responsibilities that civil society’s movers and shakers can hold up their innocent, unblemished faces to public scrutiny.
An ideology that leads people to reject politics outright is also a kind of fundamentalism – the fundamentalism of the apolitical. If the primary goal of fundamentalism is to remain firm in one’s belief, not to allow oneself to become ‘impure’, then those who seek to remain absolutely untainted by the ‘polluting touch’ of politics are sowing the seeds of fundamentalist thought. On the streets of Calcutta, at protest meetings, some erudite and creative individuals at the helm of the civil society are proclaiming, “We are not in politics!” As if the word ‘apolitical’ is the credo of civil society, and if you do not stand by this credo, then in the eyes of these gatekeepers you have stumbled, you are a sinner.
The promoters of the ‘apolitical’ civil society forget that in any mass uprising, the clash of political language, political opinion and political ideology is inevitable. It is through squabbles and debates among various opinions and ideologies that a movement attains new heights, becomes vibrant and locates direction. Unity in diversity is the basic tenet that preserves the democratisation of a mass upsurge. Avoiding the clash of opinion and ideology can never strengthen a people’s movement. The movement cannot advance on its own steam by discarding politics and the ideologically based debates and clashes that are part and parcel of politics.
The day before the 14 November rally, a local television channel broadcast an appeal by a renowned film director requesting political parties and their leaders not to join the rally. This particular director had taken a firm stance on the Singur-Nandigram issue in support of civil society, but why now such an appeal? Evidently, the parties were being asked to stay away so as to avoid giving the rally a ‘political colour’. But then the question naturally arose, Would the rally participants have to carry documents to prove their lack of political identity?
As if in response, a counter-question was posed: If Narendra Modi comes to Calcutta, would he be given space at the rally? While there was little question of Narendra Modi actually coming to the rally, it was not difficult to understand that the ban on politicians was meant to prevent the arrival of the opposition leader, Mamta Bannerji. The previous night, she had announced her decision to join the rally and her presence would have increased the discomfort of the ‘civil’ gentlemen and ladies. If she had come, on the one hand, it would have been difficult to project the so-called leftist leanings of the leading lights of the civil society; on the other, the media spotlight would have shifted to another face, or at best would have had to be shared.
‘Ours’ and ‘theirs’
Two days later, another grand, colourful rally was organised in the heart of Calcutta. In the words of the ruling party, the previous rally had been ‘their’ rally; this one was ‘ours’. ‘Our’ rally, of course, did not express shame with any vow of silence. After the promised ‘new dawn’ over Nandigram and the reassurance (or blustering) of the return of peace, ‘our’ rally resounded with inquilabi slogans. Just as in ‘their’ rally, in ‘our’ rally, too, walked noted artists-litterateurs-intellectuals. And, ‘our’ rally was clearly one up on ‘their’ rally, for it saw the participation of a fair number of famous sports personalities.
To the ordinary observer, there was little difference between the two rallies. Both were in support of peace, both were ‘apolitical’ – even though a few political personalities, mayors and ministers included, could not stay away from ‘our’ rally, joining in on the last lap. It is not as if there was actually no difference: ordinary people came to ‘their’ rally spontaneously, of their own accord, while they were organised to join ‘our’ rally. But scanning the front ranks of both rallies, one would spot more similarities than differences. Every face was upper middle class, each one at the pinnacle of fame, at the crest of her or his profession. It was as if the two rallies were in fact each other’s mirror image. That is why a world-famous film director could easily be present in both the rallies, while a renowned writer could just as easily be absent from both.
The question may arise – it already has – as to which of the two rallies was in fact representative of the Bengali civil society. The answer is both, because civil society is never unbiased or undivided. Even while so vehemently saying no to politics, civil society is divided along political lines, especially when it is in the middle of a civil war. ‘Our’ civil society is in favour of selling off the country to imperialist capital, and backs the conspiracy of the global mafia to destroy the farming community, agriculture and ecology. ‘Their’ civil society supports the anti-globalisation resistance movement, the struggles for life and livelihood, and the safeguarding of the country’s sovereignty. Both of these are entirely political standpoints. Merging the two views by branding both ‘apolitical’ means wiping out the renewed upsurge of civil society that has been triggered by Singur-Nandigram. And yet, the stalwarts of this new civil society, far from clearly stating their political stances, are instead working overtime to provide evidence of how ‘apolitical’ they really are.
It was Antonio Gramsci, the general-secretary of Italy’s Communist Party, who defined the ‘civil society’ of the modern and post-modern era. His main action plan was a revolution in the realm of consciousness; his main weapon, civil society. Gramsci understood that the primary safeguard against the authoritarian domination by the fascist state was the hegemony of a politico-cultural consciousness based on humanist and democratic ideals. And it is civil society that has to come forward to weave this alternative consciousness – the other name of which is ‘politicisation’.
Will West Bengal’s neo-civil society learn a lesson from Gramsci? To end the overwhelming domination of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), which has surrendered itself to global capital, can the new civil-society initiative convert its ‘political’ strength into an unstoppable people’s force? For now, West Bengal’s newly awakened civil society is still not raising its voice loud enough to sing us the song of a new political ideology.
–Sumit Chowdhury is an independent filmmaker, writer and social activist.