The Sword and the Monk’ s Cowl: Curfew in Kolkata

“Instead of society having conquered a new content for itself, it seems that the state has only returned to its oldest form, to a shamelessly simple rule by the sword and the monk’s cowl. “

-Karl Marx, The 18th Brumaire of Louis Napoleon

We live in strange times. Really strange times. Just as the news from Kolkata was getting better, it got worse again.The sudden spectre of ‘communal rioting’ has reared its head, as if from nowhere in West Bengal. The All India Minorities Forum, a little known entity led by a busy body called Idris Ali materialized yersterday on the streets of Kolkata demanding the deportation of the exiled Bangladeshi writer, on the grounds that she had once injured the sensitivities of Muslims. Crowds attacked police, pitched street battles continued, the Army was called in. Curfew was declared, and on television, Biman Bose, a CPI(M) and ‘Left’ Front hatchet man, declared – “… if her stay creates a problem for peace, she (Nasrin) should leave the state” (see NDTV report at the end of this posting)

Readers will recall that this is not the first time that Taslima Nasrin has had a run in with the Left Front. ‘Dwikhondito’ a book by her was banned under express orders from Buddhadev Bhattacharya in 2004 when it was alleged that it had offended ‘Muslim’ sentiments in Kolkata. Then too, threats were issued by self declared leaders of the Muslim community, who emerged as if from nowhere.Then too, the ban was justified, on grounds of maintaining peace and order. This time, it is the Army out on the streets, curfew, a prohibition on public gatherings, and portents of worse to come. The ‘situation is tense, but under control’.

Just as society in Kolkata was conquering a new content for itself in the wake of Nandigram and even the murder of Rizwanur Rahman, the state (and its shadows), to all intents and purposes have returned to its oldest form in West Bengal. Even as I write, the Army is out on the streets of Kolkata, imposing a curfew, and the past few hours have been spent witnessing (on television in my case) the ridiculous and pathetic spectre of what seems even at first glance to be an orchestrated outbreak of rioting on the streets. Clearly, there will be no more rallies against the CPI(M);s actions in Nandigram in the coming days in Kolkata

For weeks, since the mysterious death of Rizwanur Rahman, allegedly at the behest of a powerful trading family, allegedly with the connivance of the senior echelons of the Kolkata police, allegedly acting under the patronage of the ruling party – the CPI(M) and for days, since the ‘retaking’ of Nandigram by a militia of CPI(M) cadres – the streets of Kolkata have witnessed a flowering of fraternization between young people, students, peasants, activists disturbed by the happennings of Nandigram, intellectuals and cultural workers.In both responses, the response to Nandigram, and in the response to Rizwanur Rahman’s death, we have seen a great deal of involvement by people who happen to be Muslims, and this is in part because of the fact that Rizwanur was murdered because he happenned to be not well off, and Muslim, and because incidentally, a large number of people affected in Nandigram also happen to be Muslim.

What this was leading to was a degree of fraternization between Muslims and others, not on grounds of secterian identitiy or communal harmony, but on banal, and utterly secular issues that had to do with the blatant misuse of power and the realities of having to live with capitalism. In this process, the CPI(M)’s cherished ‘secular’ image was taking a bit of a beating, and an emergent, as yet ephemeral coalition of peasants, working people, young people, minorities and intellectuals – long the mainstay of Leftist politics in West Bengal (and indeed in India) had given rise to the idea of the dawning of a long awaited democratic left alternative to the CPI(M)’s hegemony in West Bengal.

This is the background against which the happenings of the day in Kolkata need to be seen. By suddenly bringing the issue of ‘Taslima Nasrin’ and a threat to her freedom to stay, her freedom of speech, the events of today have cut a deep divide right through the emerging coalition that included as two significant foci – poor Bengali peasant Muslims, and a disenchanted urban intelligentsia. The calcualation works out as follows the ‘Muslims’ will be sought to be mobilized to protect the faith and quran, and the intelligentsia will mobilize around issues to do with freedom of speech, and the rights of a Bengali writer in exile to stay unmolested in the second largest Bengali speaking city in the world.

A simple ‘qui bono’ (who benefits) analysis of the situation suggests that the CPI(M) stands most to gain from the day’s events. First of all, the Army is out on the streets, the state government is a champion of order, the ‘situation’ is ‘tense but under control’. So no more public protests. Secondly, the CPI(M) badly needs an opportunity to play messiah to the minorities in West Bengal, and this comes as a great opportunity. The signal has been given, Taslima Nasrin must leave West Bengal, and the ‘ hurt feelings’ of Muslims in West Bengal have been tended to by the caring ‘Left’ Front government. It is highly likely that a few toothless but useful Imams and Maulanas will now pronounce their benediction on the ruling party’s move to muzzle and deport Taslima Nasrin. The party will have effectively, and cynically played its ‘Muslim’ card after having butchered Muslims in Nandigram, and having intrigued over the death of Rizwanur Rahman.

idris Ali, the busy body who speaks for the so called All India Minorities Forum claims that the mobs on the street today contained agent provocateurs from the CPI(M), and that is why things got out of hand. That may be the case, it also may not be the case. Idris Ali himself may be only a puppet on a very long chain.

Incidentally, the issue of Taslima Nasrin had surfaced again, literally two days after the ‘retaking of Nandigram’ on the 8th of November, when the West Bengal government banned a magazine called Pathasanket, which along with articles by the Left Front chairman Biman Bose and other CPI(M) worthies, also carried an unsigned article endorsing Taslima Nasrin’s views and her right to stay on in India. The Times of India story detailing this development some days ago has not had the attention it should have had. Suddenly, now, it seems very relevant. I will quote it here in toto.


Left magazine’s autumn number banned
The Times of India 9 Nov 2007, 0332 hrs IST,

KOLKATA: An unsigned article published in a Left-sponsored Bengali magazine has prompted the Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee government to ban its autumn number.

This despite the fact that it includes an article by Left Front chairman Biman Bose and a couple of front-ranking CPM leaders such as former school education minister Kanti Biswas and MLA Deblina Hembram. There is also an article by Sudhir Mridha in defence of the chief minister’s industrialisation programme.

This apart, two CPM ministers — Subhas Chakraborty and Debesh Das — have wished all success to the magazine: Pathasanket 1414.

The controversial article, Taslima Prasange Bangladesher Bharatiya Rashtradut, Pradhan Mantri O Moulabadider Prasange, makes out a case for writer Taslima Nasreen, who has come under fire from religious fundamentalists and Bangladesh government that has banished her from her homeland.

The article argues that Taslima’s hitting out at fundamentalist sentiments from scientific outlook cannot be treated as an offence under Section 295(3) of the Bangladesh Criminal Procedure Code.

While doing so, the article takes out a leaf from Osman Gani’s book Mahamanabi to establish how blind some of the episodes related to the life of Prophet Mohammed are. Whatever the logic, the writer makes a vitriolic attack on the Prophet over his marital life, sending shock waves among the Muslim community.

A copy of the article also reached the corridors of power and the government acted promptly on grounds that it contains all the elements that might be construed as an assault on Islam.

The writer probably anticipated all this, which is why he made a passing reference to the Italian scientist Galileo Galilei who was put behind the bars at a ripe age because he refuted the Church’s view that the sun moves round the earth.

Idris Ali of the All India Minority Forum took strong exception to the article. “I am amazed at the audacity of the writer. How dare he write such things against the Prophet? I also can’t understand how such an outrageous piece could come out in a magazine sponsored by senior Left leaders and ministers,” Ali said.

He, however, welcomed the government’s decision to ban the autumn issue of the magazine, but said hundreds of copies have already reached the readers. “The government has to seize all the copies.”

Idris Ali promptly demands a ban. Buddhadev Bhattacharya promptly orders a ban, demonstrating how ‘fair’ he was. Idris Ali commends Bhattacharya’s censorship. But then demands that her visa be revoked. Biman Bose, who, along with the anonymous writer who had spoken up so suddenly for Taslmia, had also lost the readership of his article, clarifies that in fact, he wanted Taslima Nasrin out of West Bengal. No sequence of events can be so convenient in terms of choreographing the CPI(M) tango with so called offended ‘Muslim sentiment’. Willingly, or unwillingly, Idris Ali has danced to the tune of a piper he may have hardly known.

In the light of all this, it is possible, as Tapas Ray has hinted in his posting on the Reader List, that because so much of life in West Bengal is actually like a detective novel, there could really be a cynical move by the CPI(M) to destabilize the rising tide of discontent against its actions in Nandigram by suddenly introducing a non-issue like ‘deportation for Taslima Nasrin’. As of now, this is only speculation, but it is not groundless speculation.

On the other hand, it is also highly possible, that Idris Ali, who has had various associations, but seems to have found some sort of home in the archipelago the Trinamool Congress, may genuinely be disaffected with the CPI(M). But even as that may be, with enemies like him, the CPI (M) in West Bengal (as I have pointed out before here) has hardly any need for friends. In my previous posting (in my response to Sudhanva Deshpande’s rejoinder) I had hinted at the strange urgency to ‘wrest’ Nandigram, and possibly create the grounds for a ‘new consent’ to land acquistion, now that the plan to relocate the Salim Chemical Hub at Nayachar has run aground. Could the latest fracas around Taslima Nasrin be also a part of the ‘collateral damage’ of this sudden urgency?

Whatever the case may be, the only sane response (in my opinion), to the emerging vortex in West Bengal would be to insist that the demand for the deportation of Taslima Nasrin be unequivocally condemned, and simultaneously hope that the movement against the CPI(M)s actions in Nandigram stay its course.

Muslims in West Bengal have a lot to worry about, terrible social and economic indicators (as have been revealed by the Sachar report, and pointed out in the post forwarded earlier by Aarti Sethi earlier here), unemployment, an apathetic government that holds them hostage to the shibboleth of ‘secularism’ and the violence that has scarred and displaced so many poor Muslim peasants in Nandigram. Taslima Nasrin neither steals Muslim bread, nor appropriates Muslim peasants land, nor keeps Muslim kids away from school, nor organizes riots against them, nor condemns them to a situation of studied social apathy. She may or may not be a good writer, and is probably not even by her own self description a ‘good Muslim’ but by raising questions that have to do with exegesis and Quranic interpretation, she is only demonstrating the continuity of her project with the long tradition of reasoned and passionate philosophical enquiries about faith that have been part of Islamicate traditions. The partisans of the All India Minorities Forum, like their Hindu fundamentalist peers, may be performatively pious, but they certainly have no handle on the rich intellectual heritage and history of doubt within the cultures they claim as their own.

Finally, as a Communist, I believe that the liberty and dignity of all individuals to live and work freely wheresoever they please, is of far more greater value than the fetish of visas, passports and nationality. It is time to demand unconditional rights of residence, not only for Taslima Nasrin, but for all Bangladeshis (legal or otherwise) who happen to have made India their home, or who may be sojourning in this country at the moment.

I may or may not agree with Taslima Nasrin’s views or styles of utterance (I do, and I dont) but I think that as a writer she has every right to stay and work freely in Kolkata. I appeal to everyone who is reading this to demand an end to deportations of Bangladeshis from India. That includes deportations of poor Bengali speaking Muslims who are harrassed by the police and the politics of the far right in Delhi, or by the police and the politics of the CPI(M) in West Bengal, as much as it includes Taslima Nasrin.

As someone who lives in Delhi, I would hope that if Taslima Nasrin did have to leave Kolkata (and I hope she doesn’t) at Biman Basu’s diktat, she, like thousands of other Bangladeshis, would consider Delhi a possible home (despite the Delhi Police and the animus of the Sangh Parivar). We have no shortage of thugs in Delhi, but as far as I know, neither the CPI(M) nor any fly-by-night, rent-a-nuisance outfit called the All India Minorities Forum, rule the streets here. Not yet.

Here’s hoping that for an early end to secterian tensions, threats to the freedom of speech, curfews, flag marches by the military, the CPI(M) infinite capacity for intrigue and muslim fundamentalist mayhem in Kolkata.

Situation in Kolkata under control: BuddhadebMonideepa Bannerjee, NDTV
Wednesday, November 21, 2007 (Kolkata)
Kolkata was a city under siege on Wednesday as protests against the violence in Nandigram spiraled out of control.

Reacting to the day’s events, West Bengal Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee said that while the violence was unfortunate, the situation in Kolkata was under control.

”City police Commissioner, who is out on road to supervise law and order situation, informed me that the situation is under control,” the Chief Minister told reporters at Writers’ Buildings.

He said partial or full curfew has been clamped in some areas of the city from 10 pm to 6 am.

”The Army will patrol during the night in the affected areas as also the police,” he added.

Asked if he would order any inquiry into the violent incidents, the Chief Minister quipped ”as in other cases, probe will be done here too.”

Willing to dump Nasreen

Meanwhile, the ruling CPI(M) in West Bengal on Wednesday night said controversial Bangladeshi writer Taslima Nasreen should ”leave the state” if her stay disturbs the peace.

”I don’t want to speak elaborately on the role played by the Centre on Taslima Nasreen’s stay in West Bengal. But if her stay creates a problem for peace, she should leave the state,” CPI(M) state secretary Biman Bose told reporters.

He said when two Union ministers sought Chief Minister Buddhadev Bhattacharjee’s view on the issue, he had told them that if the Centre thought it advisable for her stay, she could do so.

Bose’s comments came after the city witnessed large-scale violence when a mob attacked the police injuring 35 personnel besides torching and damaging vehicles during a three-hour shutdown called by a minority fringe group in protest against the Nandigram violence.

They also demanded cancellation of Nasreen’s visa.

However, the author was not available for comment.

Nasreen, in exile since 1994 after fundamentalists in Bangladesh issued a fatwa against her for the allegedly blasphemous first novel Lajja was ”deeply disturbed” over the violent incidents in the city, sources close to her said.

Fierce clashes

Earlier in the day as fierce clashes gripped the city, within a matter of hours Kolkata resembled a battlefield with hundreds of protestors armed with swords and stones taking on the police.

Vehicles were burnt down as supporters of a fringe group, the All India Minority Forum, protested against the Nandigram violence and demanded the cancellation of Bangladeshi writer Taslima Nasreen’s visa.

”We need to know why Taslima Nasreen is still let to stay in India,” said a protester

All schools, colleges and offices were closed down in central Kolkata and worried parents rushed to pick up their children from school. Many students were escorted back home with armed escorts.

The state government not wanting to take any chances called in the Army, and by late evening, hundreds of soldiers were out in troubled areas staging a Flag March.

However, the AIMF says that they aren’t responsible for the violence and blames other groups for the trouble.

AIMF President Idris Ali claimed the trouble started after police ”without reason” arrested 200 agitators. The administration, on the other hand, has insisted they had no choice.

Governor calls for calm

Meanwhile, West Bengal Governor Gopalkrishna Gandhi on Wednesday described as ‘reprehensible’ the violence that erupted in the city.

”The trauma caused to school children and teachers is particularly so,” the Governor said in a release from Raj Bhavan.

Gandhi urged all to refrain from violence and help maintain peace and harmony in the best traditions of ”our great city.” (With PTI Inputs)

(Apologies for cross posting on the Reader List)

One thought on “The Sword and the Monk’ s Cowl: Curfew in Kolkata”

  1. What a great surprise? The secular party CPIM is worrying about its 22% Muslim vote in the state and showed Taslima the door. CPIM is full of a plethora of contradictions

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