By Arup Dey
Arresting a Jadavpur University (JU) professor for emailing an innocuous cartoon that poked fun at Mamata Banerjee is just indefensible. Coming only weeks after the West Bengal chief minister made a thoughtless remark about the victim of a rape incident in the heart of Kolkata — accusing the lady of lying — it has become the second PR disaster for the Trinamul Congress in quick succession. It has also allowed the CPI (M), acting artfully through frontal organisations and sympathiser entities, the opportunity to disparage Ms. Banerjee’s government.
Small time Trinamul leaders have not helped matters by making ridiculous statements that CPI (M) members and their families should be socially ostracised. Another Trinamul functionary was quoted as saying that the party had a team of 500 people across the country (or the world, it was unclear) monitoring social media sites for anti-Mamata content. This was, of course, comic and later denied as misleading reportage, but the damage had been done.
It’s been the best of times and the worst of times for those with a satirical bent of mind. Everyone has had a good few days laughing at a political figure whose sense of humour failure has led to her personifying the cartoons she is trying so hard to prevent us all from seeing. Internet groups have sprung up, emails exchanged gleefully, and a playful sense of collective civil disobedience, albeit a safe version coming to a computer screen near you, has taken hold of a large section of the population. My personal favourite is the one where a newspaper reader is assaulted by a cartoon of the paranoid West Bengal chief minister, whose arm emerges from the paper to grasp the throat of the man who is laughing at her.
That a government so recently elected with so large a majority is led by someone so insecure that any criticism of its leader is unacceptable can be regarded with quiet but cautious mirth. The mobilisation of the machinery of state against professors who parody power (in actuality) or Internet users who casually post cartoons that are readily available and are now doing the rounds of national television channels (potentially) is more disturbing. But it isn’t clear how seriously many people are taking the aggressive noises made by the West Bengal government, and there is an indication that for many in the middle classes, at least, their sense of collective immunity is still in operation.
Out in the real world, a banner at a protest at Jadavpur University, where the professor allegedly arrested for forwarding his collage alluding to a Satyajit Ray film is employed, read “Poschimbyango” — which it is tempting to translate as “Western farce”, though the pun doesn’t quite translate. A bearded German, long dead now, whose name cannot be mentioned in Poschimbyango’s schools any more, once wrote that history repeats itself for the second time as farce.
The first, if that was the tragedy, was Nandigram, where the CPI (M) fired on its own supporters, and destroyed itself. At Nonadanga, where bulldozers have cleared the structures that were once a slum housing displaced persons and activists and protestors have been arrested, the farcical side is visible, but not quite funny. The inhabitants are living under plastic sheets, activists are in jail, and the imagined transformation of West Bengal hasn’t turned out quite the way one might have wanted.
Not that too many people, apart from the hopeless optimists, expected major change: it wasn’t so much that the Trinamul Congress won the election (after the Amul advertisement, it has been suggested they change the party’s name to Trin); it was that the Left Front lost. Voters, activists and commentators agreed before the elections that the Left Front’s long-lasting control of the machinery of the state had to be loosened, and Mamata was merely the person who happened to be there to reap the benefits. Before Nandigram, she was widely considered unelectable; a ranting figure of fun who could be relied upon to burn a few buses or hold up traffic, but hardly worthy of high office.
Let’s hold on to that thought: perhaps the danger of this situation is that, as we see the Poschimbyango Murkhamontri’s descent into a caricature of the caricature that she once was, we are actually tempted to laugh. The aforementioned bearded man also said that the bourgeoisie (the middle classes, to translate for those born in West Bengal after 2011) are driven, as they feel threatened, to take away the freedoms they once granted themselves. This is something that Mamata Banerjee didn’t think up. Marx (there, I’ve said it; but I don’t want to marry a Trin Cong supporter — come to think of it, I don’t want to marry) was referring to the nephew-turned-emperor of an upstart-soldier-turned-emperor in France, long before this phrase could have been invoked to describe Fascism in Italy or Nazism in Germany.
What this means is that we are all willing, in various ways and to a different extent perhaps, to surrender our freedoms when we are told we will be threatened if we don’t. And this relies on our fear of losing something important if we don’t trust the state — which, in a standard middle class act of projection, should be run by “people like us”.
Today, the taking away of freedoms of expression or the press, or of personal liberties, is not worthy of comment; it happens all the time. Anti-terrorism legislation achieves the equivalent of the arbitrary power exercised by dictators, as normal democratic safeguards against arbitrary use of authority are suspended. Those who take comfort in the assumption that “we”, as law-abiding citizens, are above suspicion and have nothing to fear, need to think again. Across the world, governments, under various pretexts like protecting citizens against pornography, or paedophilia, or terrorism, or copyright infringement, seek to find out who uses the Internet for what reason. More and more intrusive laws are invented “for our own good”.
If we have nothing to hide, so the argument goes, we have nothing to fear. And yet, there are plenty of usable laws in existence for all the eventualities that these advocates of exceptional laws for exceptional situations can conjure up to scare us with.
Concrete examples of censorship being used for petty revenge against political opponents are not hard to find. Ambikesh Mahapatra, the academic arrested for forwarding the parody (not Partho Sarothi Ray, the academic arrested for protesting against the bulldozing of the residences in Nonadanga), it was reported, was also assistant secretary of the New Garia Housing Cooperative Society, which had denied corrupt Trin Cong affiliated building materials suppliers contracts for his housing society. INAV