Dhikkar Michhil: One Lakh March in Kolkata – Moinak Biswas

[We present below a participants’ account, by Moinak Biswas, of the massive and unprecedented Dhikkar Michhil [condemnation rally] in Kolkata, protesting the killings in Nandigram. We now know, notwithstanding the cold blooded claims of ‘liberation’, that the operation carried out there was no different from what any marauding army does – kill rape, rape, maim. And so, Kolkata rose up in spontaneous condemnation – AN]

kolkata rally

The organizers were obviously not prepared for size of the turn-out. That it would be big they must have known, as the outrage had reached a boiling point since the second offensive against Nandigram villagers started on the 6th. . But no one could have anticipated the multitudes that would render numbers obscure on the streets yesterday. The organizers didn’t even bring enough of those little badges which just said ‘Dhikkar’ (‘Shame!’). But then who were the organizers? Some familiar faces were using a loudspeaker to issue basic instructions – ‘Please do not carry organizational banners; do not shout slogans; our route will be.. .’ No one was leading. Many people did not know who gave the call for the rally; they still do not know.

No parties joined, no trucks and trains carrying obedient supporters; one lakh people on the streets, smiling in the early winter sun – the smile of release from inaction, from silence. They had been asking constantly over the last few days: Is there somewhere we can go? Do you know if there is something we could do? I saw my cousins, schoolmates, neighbours – many of whom admitted that this was the first time in their lives they had joined a procession.

We exchanged looks across the street, from one row to the other; they smiled and said, ‘Could not stay home’. Commuters, stranded by the endless human stream, often joined in. Someone shouted from an immobilized tram, ‘March on, we are with you’. Flower petals came raining down on the marchers from an old house near Wellington Square. On Nirmal Chandra Street, a group of locals stood by, displaying words of mourning and anger on small placards.

I was near the Calcutta Medical College when Sibajida and Suman Mukhopadhyay called from Dharmatala, our destination, to say they had reached. ‘Reached! But we have only just started here. And how many are still following?’ No one had a clear idea how many; but someone from the back reported that the tail was moving near Hedua, a kilometre behind us. Calls were coming in from all points along the massive meandering stream, ‘Where are you? How long will you take?’ As if one was still receiving calls to leave home and join. You could just inhabit these old central districts of the city and wait for the march to pass through you, making you a part of its open torso. I felt like telling the first-timers that we were also doing this after a long, long time. A call came from Bankura; Dwaipayan Bhattacharya, missing the rally sorely, shouted: ‘When did you last see such a michhil ?’ I passed the question on to Sourin Bhattacharya, 70, walking in front of me – ‘When did we last see something like this, Sir? ‘After Ayodhya’, he says, ‘After Guajarat’; he then adds, ‘But the CPM and the other Left in power joined those rallies in droves. When did one last see a mass of this size without political parties?’ The question is passed on, the students wait for us to remember; we look to our dadas, the quiet, grey brigade walking with us. Maybe the hunger marches of ’66? But even then, they add, there were party workers. Some bystanders are found managing the lines. No one asks who they are, the most irrelevant question on November 14. We look around and find almost every face familiar, but the wonder is we didn’t know so many unknown faces would appear familiar.

That’s where numbers became obscure. We arrived at Dharmatala at quarter to four, the tail end was to come and mix into the sea forty-five minutes later. The protean mass in Dharmatala, standing, squatting on the main thoroughfare, drifting about and chatting, reuniting with friends, forming circles, cheering one another, singing, collecting relief for the affected in Nandigram, created a perfect picture of a rally without a centre, or rather, without the familiar centring. People weren’t even sure for a while if there was to be the customary dais around which we should finally gather. Some suggested that the little truck leading the silent procession with the sole loudspeaker be made the dais; but Medha Patekar was seen already addressing the crowd from a make-shift stage. Let us have one stage then, the truck people quickly decided. It was impossible to go near the spot. The space, recently christened the ‘Metro Channel’ by anti-government protesters, was not meant for such a massive gathering. Indistinct voices came drifting in from there, but it was not designated as a focus for the eddying movements over the stretch between Lenin Sarani and S. N. Banerjee Road. It wasn’t possible to form the usual semi-circle of spectatorship around a single voice. Was it Mahasweta Devi speaking or Sankha Ghosh? Aparna Sen or Joy Goswami? Was it Pratul Mukhopadhyay singing? Anjan Dutt materialized beside us with Gautam Ghose, who was asking anxiously if Nabaneeta Dev Sen had been spotted. ‘She is ill’, Gautam said, ‘We asked her not to come, but she has sneaked out of home’. The stage had its own little circle, like innumerable other circles of students, actors, office workers, little-magazine wallahs, bespectacled teachers, journalists, holding intense transactions of information and wisecracks. The circles opened and closed to allow for a shifting membership, merged into one another. One could not see the neat police circle around the gathering though, like those found in the aftermath of March 14. Why? We were asking ourselves.

The fairly modest gathering outside the Kolkata Film Festival on the 11th had drawn an excessive display of force from the police, who arrested 68 of a crowd singing songs. On the 10th, they arrested stray people walking away from Medha’s fast. Bodhisattwa Kar, who has earned the distinction of getting arrested on both occasions, must have been wondering too: where were the cordons, the neatly lined up law-keepers? The police looked scattered and vaguely distributed over Dharmatala. Were they mirroring the formless discipline of the crowd, a mass that was swelling and flowing on all sides, not tied up into a bunch by a single thread of harangue? Before people dispersed with companions in tow, looking forward to an adda where the narratives would start, they were asking – what next?

A sequence of rallies and meetings, writing, image-making, arguments. But what about a project, something more sustainable? as Sourin babu kept on saying. If one tried one could read many lips in the crowd uttering the same interrogative. The question was no doubt carried over to the addas that followed. Organizing the streets of November 14 into a legible sequence, a story, will perhaps be the small next step in the direction of formulating the ‘project’. One hopes the story does not forget though that there was no one to pass a single thread of yarn from the beginning to the end of the michhil yesterday.

Moinak Biswas
November 15, 2007
moinakb@yahoo.com

12 thoughts on “Dhikkar Michhil: One Lakh March in Kolkata – Moinak Biswas”

  1. Thank you Moinak, for that wonderfully evocative account of the march for Nandigram in Kolkata on the 14th of November,

    As is be clear from Moinak’s posting, at least, or should I say ‘only’ one lakh Bengalis, of whom many would be communist orcommunist sympathizers, and who, like Moinak (or me) would be from families that have had long and close associations with the Communist Parties in Bengal, spontaneously and peacefully took to the streets of Kolkata to protest against the CPI(M)’s reign of terror in Nandigram. The generation of our parents and grandparents who became Communists in Bengal in the 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s and 70s, and who brought us up to own up to the ideas of internationalism, equality, democracy and a hatred of tyranny everywhere (including in states that would describe themseves as ‘Communist’) would have been motivated by the kind of anger and sorrow that brought these one lakh people on to the streets of Kolkata. The continuity of the spirit that made millions of people read Marx, and take the possibility of a revolutionary project seriously in Bengal, resides, not in the CPI(M) any longer, but in those who came unbidden by any party on to the streets of Kolkata for this gathering. Something has changed in Bengal.

    What is interesting in this is that we are beginning to see the
    formation of a response that actually transcends the narrow and
    unquestioned loyalties of ‘traditional’ political affilations in Bengal. The automatic assumption that the left-leaning sections of the Bengali intelligentsia will fall in line when the ‘cadre’ call the shots is no longer working. The CPI(M) lost the working class when the CITU became an organized mafia that protected Capitalist and State Capitalist interests, it seems now to be beginning to lose the peasantry, and the
    intelligentsia, in the wake of Nandigram.

    All it has going for itself is the rump of global Capitalism, an
    ideology that can be identified only with a xenophic state capitalist
    streak of paranoia, with its Kerala, Bengal and South Delhi variations, the ‘backing’ of a murderous match fixer like Ashok Todi and the
    higher echelons of the Police hierarchy, and a few samples of a rentier
    cultural apparatchiki in Delhi. It’s early days yet, and I could be
    wrong, but could this be the first sign of the beginning of the end of
    the stranglehold of the CPI(M) on the Bengali consciousness, and the
    first glimmer of the end of the so called Left Front’s paralytic hold
    on political power in West Bengal? I certainly hope so.

    If you read right till the end of Moinak’s post, you will see the
    tentative evocation of what Moinak calls – the hope for a ‘project’.
    Nothing certain yet, no clear ideas, no ringing manifestos, but the
    hesitant, tentative recognition that something new is possible. For many
    days in the past few months, I have made posts on kafila and on the reader list in
    anger, in sorrow and in irritation. This afternoon, in the sober
    after-light of Nandigram, reading about the whispers of the ‘project’
    that emerged because one lakh people marched spontaneously together, I
    am enclosing these comments with unabashed joy. Thank you once again Moinak.

    best, in solidarity with all those who marched in Kolkata, wishing I was
    there

    Shuddha

  2. What are we to do? What are we to do, Moinakda?
    Sing us a song, and we’ll be marching right beside you.

  3. Its a relief to know the Bengali Intelligentia kept its standards by protesting against a fascist, dictatorial government. This is also a time to analyse what is the meaning of democracy and humanism.
    There is a propoganda that the problem is something related only with special economic zone. I don’t think it’s not a case only of sez. It’s an issue which is deeply related with the concept and practice of development. The entire concept of development is to b changed. Development from within is arrested and a concept which pretends to be development is being imported to society. We are to ask some questions. Whose development is this? Who is addressed by the existing paradigm ofdevelopment? Who is the beneficiary? What is it doing for the welfare of masses? is it true that the loans from outside, plans from outside and workforce from outside can provide a sustainable development? How will the poor, the peasants, the unskilled labourers sustain?
    There is a view among the people who watch political dramas with optimism and analyze it with a nostalgia of moral standards that cpi(m) is providing an alternative space in india.I do hear this frequently. It is nothing more than a belief. Why they pretends to be an alternative is because of the weaknesses in the all india political scenario. where ever this party has gained political and social authority they are never different from fascist politicians. The essence of cpi(m) politics and the way they intervene in Indian politics make me think that it is not necessary to think who is an alternative to cpi m. CPI (m) is a product and participant in the deteriorating political system in india. How can we single out one or two from a pigsty? Because this is a time which we are to think whats the alternative to contemporary politics where hooligans and cultureless crooks dominate.
    Keeping all these facts in mind I do congratulate whole heartedly the timely acton taken by the intellectuals and public to register their anger and protest.

  4. Dear Radical Hypocrite,
    As Shuddha says above, ‘what are we to do’ is a question blowing in whispers. A ground is being cleared where we shall be able to ask the correct questions. Many of us feel that the first step should be a rethinking of the terms in which we have sought the answers so far. This is necessary since questions regarding the political, the public, or the form of mobilization are pressing themselves back into the streets. We cannot afford to lose this momentum in favour of an outworn language of politics or structures of organization that have been historically emptied of meaning. The most usual conundrum is about who comes to power if the Left Front is removed by a popular mandate. That other available parties are unacceptable seems to impose a paralysis on many. I do not think it is an irrelevant question, but this is precisely the point where we should recognize we do not have the luxury of just pressing the button of choice and solve the problem, either way. The point is, the outrage should lead us to question our inheritance of ineffectual languages and structures of politics before we come closer to the image of an alternative. In the aftermath of March 14, it was quite appalling sometimes to hear students shouting slogans staying with us since the seventies. This time the mammoth procession just walked silently. Without suggesting silence as a privileged form I would like to think, at least for now, that this was an advance. We felt the need to dissolve an exhausted idiom into silence before we shouted new slogans. One shouldn’t be wary of the apolitical slant of the demonstration on Rizwanur Rahman much for the same reason. A space is being cleared, which will have to be occupied in a creative way. Alternatives have to be forged.

    Moinak

  5. Thanks Moinakda, I will try to be watchful. It was more of an emotional and instantaneous reflex reaction to your post and I know now it doesn’t make sense except the odd yearning on part of a despondent that an immediate solution is to be had.

    Indeed it’s our left inheritance that bothers us the most— all our feelings and expressions, songs, verses and metaphors, all are permeated by what the melancholy past has taught us to recognise and see in events and actions. And the November 14th rally was a real eye-opener, at least for individuals like me, who thought they had enough of politics in their lifetimes.

    As for my part,I remained acutely skeptical of the nature of the rally till the afternoon of that day, when I chose to join the rally on a sudden impulse.

    The strangest thing was that I found myself in the middle of an inconcievable gathering of people, mostly those whom I once used to detest as ‘apolitical’ insenstivities. And unlike your experience, I couldn’t spot any of those many who had once been my former comrades and friends, and I have no regrets for that. There, I heard the loudspeaker announcements, and laughed to myself— there it goes again. I rudely refused to wear the black badge a girl was forwarding to me and I told her I didn’t believe in symbolisms of that kind. The girl didn’t argue and strenghtened my skepticism. I watched the banners, pictures and posters almost everyone had brought with them, and kept watching.

    But then, something, strange happened as the marchers started to move. I, who had planned to be an onlooker,got drawn in to this ever-expanding dissolving mass, the magical alchemic fluid of silence that will forge newer metals. There were children walking in silence behind me, each one of them carried a small placard that said: Amra mone rakhbo (We’ll remember). Before me there was an elderly gentleman in his seventies who was visibly shaking with emotion, his daughter helping him on, carrying a black flag. There were many others, countless others,of different age-groups who were marching and at one point, I had a feeling that we, yes “we”, and “we” once more, were marching through time. Was it a solitary feeling? I’m absolutely sure it wasn’t.

    Will the whispers be loud enough?
    I hope, I sincerely hope so. And I hope there is a continuation to the November 14th ‘project.’ Yes, we’ve advanced and positions have to be defined more clearly than never before.

  6. Dear Moinak,

    Will you, and the Calcutta intellectuals like you, ever come out of your urban comfort and the amazing naiveness which has dogged you for years to face CPI(M)’s politics please? What do you exactly mean by new political language being forged, and spaces being cleared? We would really like to know. Other than lighting umpteen numbers of candles, and appealing to an apparently apolitical janagan (which in itself is a suspect) what have you the loads of Calcutta nincompoops have ever done or achieved? It’s really time to answer these awkward questions.

    Will you ever have the courage to overcome this “soukhin mojduri”? You will, believe me, forget this incident within months. But CPI(M) cadres, indeed wholetimers, will be there on the lurch for months if not years. You, and your likes, actually don’t pose any threat to CPI(M). Whatever is your self-perception (that you actually gathered one lakh people; that hardly means anything, believe me) means really a precious nothing.

    The pathetic thing about you Calcutta intellectuals is that you have suddenly realised that there is something really wrong with the ruling regime. Though people like us who do not necessarily belong to Calcutta (the so-called cultural and political citadel of Bengal) have gone through a reign of terror by the said CPI(M) for years. You have never been able to think beyond your immediate location. Who would believe you, and others like you, to take charge of West Bengal? Believe me, West Bengal is much more than Calcutta and with your secure and happy intellectual life you will never even be able to fathom the political crisis that West Bengal is going through.

  7. Dear Ullu-da (Ooops!),

    I think Moinakda will respond, this is just an interim…
    I don’t think that was fair! You know, the leading party here in Kolkata is also describing us in these terms: soukhin majduri and others. This ultimately serves nothing but inflate your ego that you are not us: cursing us and describing us as the jokers of the pack.
    We are not merely special people who have just learnt to walk; we are not special at all, we are citizens who reacted in a noticeable way within the co-ordinates which are highly saturated in terms of positions we can take. According to your description of the situation, the rural is the place of realpolitik and the urban is the stage of ineffectual advertisement breaks. Is that really the case? Yes, no one from here can influence what will be going on in Nandigram in the months to come, but is it irrelevant to show that what is going on there has substantial ripples here in the city?
    Just consider this: it is not things in the city which will have its effects in Nandigram, it is the other way round.
    It is easy to say that everyone knew what the CPI(M) is like and we have known it recently. That will be merely demonising the party. This party is not exclusive of us at large. I have voted them to power numerous times and there were reasons enough to do so even if I am not happy with them. Its the part of a longer historical process which has its own logic of duration: this growing impatience with and distanciation from the Left Front, it is neither as difficult a question which cannot lead to a politically decisive act nor as easy an act which you do one fine morning. The party is peopled and sustained by our neighbors and family-members, not by men from Mars.
    Therefore it is a process of negotiation, not of a sudden realization immediately translatable into decisive actions. Probably the citizens are getting more impatient with time. This is more of a process of generating opinion, engaging in arguments, communicating that we are not taking things lying and building a sort of political pressure on the rulers.
    This is an important step historically. Let me cite an example: much ado is being done about the rally in Nov 14 being ‘apolitical’. You know more than me that it cannot be so, it was essentially political. ‘Apolitical’ is a fuzzy and wrong word being used – importantly in want of an apt one – to mean that the rally was not organized by any single party or coalition, no such elaborate party machinery was involved as such. The word is grappling with an idea which is being shaped; the fuzziness of the idea is historically true because it might lead to something concrete later. The inappropriateness of the word was to be encountered.
    This is the question of a ‘new language’ which Moinakda was talking about. He was also saying how the rhetoric of protest had been hackneyed throughout the decades that it hardly registers anything now, hardly means anything to listeners except being lefty-sounding-howls.
    The ineffectuality of means like ‘Bandhs’ and “gheraoes’ also point to that same barrenness of political language.
    I have written too much and waiting for Moinakda to respond, but this brand of all-knowing cynicism does not help much, it disarms us thoroughly and if we need to continue reacting within certain contexts, putting us off in such a fashion would deserve to be ignored.

  8. Moinak’s reply betrays his utter confusion. Without an alternative, no movement can be fought. Sourin Bhattacharya’s (the writer of stale travelogoues in the 70’s) “project” will never come to fruition because both he as well as the so-called participants lack the dynamism and credibility.
    It is easy to criticize CPI(M) and their model of development but what is the alternative?

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