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‘I Still Believe the Left Can be the Alternative’: Soumitra Chatterjee

I am surprised that the man who was in power in Gujarat during the horrific riots of 2002 is now the man on the throne of India. Perhaps people can’t see a powerful alternative. Or they are unable to understand the toxic nature of this politics.
Soumitra Chatterjee

Soumitra Chatterjee. | Image Courtesy: Pinterest

I often think of my childhood friend Benu these days. In these troubled times, his face returns to me, floating before my eyes. We lived in the same neighbourhood in Krishnanagar. Benu – Benu Rahman – was my Fazlukaka’s son. Benu was more Hindu than Hindus. I would get irritated because he followed so many of those rules and rituals. And he would say to me, “Pulu, you should follow some of these,” but I would scold him.

I also think about Rupchand jethu (Rupchand Tapadar). I didn’t meet him when I went home for the pujo vacation. What a scolding I got when he found out!! Rupchand jethu was a Christian.

That was the world we knew.

When elders visited our home, I would touch their feet. It made no difference whether they were Hindus and Muslims and Christians. Yes, I had heard the word ‘communalism’ as a child, but it didn’t really make an impression on my mind. Why? The situation, the environment for the word to be significant was not there. The riots of ’46 had no effect in any part of Nadia. Not in Krishnanagar either. But now? I truly feel despondent about where we are now. What is this darkness in the country I know? And will it ever be able to come out of this darkness? I do not know if I will ever see, once again, the country I knew.

I was very young in ’46. Certainly not old enough to understand what was happening and why. Even when grown up and in college, we did not distinguish between Hindu and Muslim. A question that has always bothered me was why the majority of Muslims were attracted by Jinnah’s ‘Call to Pakistan.’ At the time most of the zamindars were Hindus and most of the subjects were Muslims. So, they were the oppressed ones. They must have felt that a separate state would solve these problems. There would be no question of Hindu rule or Hindu oppression in Pakistan. Later years proved how wrong this idea actually was. So they had to fight another war of independence to liberate Bangladesh in ’71.

It amazes me that the hundreds of refugees who came from East Bengal harbour anger against Muslims. But those on this side of Bengal seem to be angrier. There was hurt in the anger of the refugees from East Bengal, but there was also love. They used to live together. That feeling of closeness was there. Just as there were instances of Muslims who had attacked them, there was also the history of Muslims who had protected them. So, the people who had come from East Bengal had mixed feelings. But the current generation, who have not experienced any of this, only heard of the violence, seem to be more aggressive. Or perhaps, this aggression is being manufactured.

In our Durga Pujo at home, there was no religious separation. Our household had a kind of anti-religious sentiment. All the neighbours, regardless of their faith, would come to our house and take part in the celebration. But more Muslims visited Hindu households; in comparison, less Hindus visited Muslim households. In this sense, the Hindus were more communal. Now we are seeing this communal feeling in its extreme form.

I am surprised that the man who was in power in Gujarat during the horrific riots of 2002 is now the man on the throne of India. The people of India are tolerating him and his party. They are being re-elected. Perhaps people can’t see a powerful alternative. Or they are unable to understand the toxic nature of this politics.

During this pandemic, many people are getting infected, so many are dying. In a word, this is intolerable. But politics in the name of Rama continues in the midst of all this.

The funny thing is, since childhood, we all know the Rama in whose name they want to build a temple. For hundreds and thousands of years, Rama has lived in a space of love and inspiration. Tell me, the Rama who went to live in the forest to carry out the promise made by his father – would he live in a grand temple? Of course, carrying out his father’s words, living in the forest – these are only stories. But our values are shaped by them. They become the symbols of our values. But where are these values now? We are actually letting go of our culture.

If anyone can be an alternative, it is the Left. But where is their steadfastness? Are they inspiring belief in people’s hearts? When I face these questions, I feel despondent. I don’t know where this country is going to end up. The Right is gaining in strength all across the world. We see many forms of injustice – which cannot take place unless the authorities keep their eyes shut. My question is – how will this be remedied?

Religion has some sort of an influence over all sections of people in all countries. But religious fundamentalism is high in India, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia. It is very difficult to explain to someone from Saudi Arabia that being a Muslim isn’t all there is to life. In India too, only a few people can be made to understand what secularism is. Most of them don’t want to understand. Because Rama holds a position of sentiment and love for everyone, the Hindutva forces use him to fulfil their communal agenda. They think that no one will object if Rama is used for political purposes. Because the majority thinks that Rama is our own. In 1992, the demolition of the Babri Masjid took place in an organised manner. Where were the political parties who could stop them? I will keep asking this question. Words are not enough. Are they able to bring people together under their flag?

We were provided with the real image of India in our school textbooks. Many draw parallels between contemporary India and Hitler’s Germany. But I can never make such a comparison. At least Germany was an industrialised nation while we are ruled by businessmen. How can there be a comparison? They needed to conquer the world so that they could sell their wares. But their actions were so abhorrent that the people of the world rejected them. In our country today, we have gau-sevak and gau-rakhshak. We hear that the cure for COVID is cow urine, or that the virus will disappear if we bang plates and light candles. And then we hear claims that India is a great and powerful nation!

As for the current anti-China sentiment: Are they going to war with China? Do they have the power to start a war without the aid of America or some other nation? Boycotting Chinese goods is creating a negative impact on our economy. If we boycott Chinese products, we should also boycott American products. I would say that China is looking at this entire matter in a more restrained manner.

The Congress had ruled the country for 60 years. Many leaders of the Congress are Right-wing. Not openly, of course. But in secret. The time has come to examine history closely. In my opinion, there are some gaps even in the evaluation of the leftists. We had and perhaps still have differences of opinion with Gandhiji. But we cannot deny the honesty of his politics. How many politicians today have such honesty? One has to think afresh. Leftists could have then said that Gandhiji is the leader of the freedom struggle, but we have our differences. Wouldn’t there at least have been the space to say this? Gandhiji never compromised on secularism. Despite being an out and out Hindu, no one can say that he ever engaged in anti-Muslim activities. He knew India in his own way. In this context, one has to also mention Jawaharlal Nehru. There may be frustrations in other areas, but one has to admit that he too had never compromised on the question of secularism. I believe that no one was more secular than Subhash Bose. This is clear from his formation of the INA and his actions. Again, for Subhash Bose, the greatest Indian was none other than Gandhi.

I believe that the decline in the appreciation of classical music is a terrible loss. The practitioners may have been Hindu or Muslim in their private lives. But they were all artists. I remember one incident – there was a Marathi Brahmin by the name of Bhaskar Bua. He went to Agra to train in classical music. Stalwart ustads used to live in Agra. He became the disciple of one such ustad. For a whole year, the master would only make Bua fill a pot with water. This was how he tested how much ‘dil’ the disciple had invested. He was also tested on patience and tolerance. Initiation, education, followed by examination. Bua lived like this for a year. Not once did the ustad say, “I’ll begin that lesson from such and such day.” One day, Bua was sweeping the floor when the ustad said, “I feel like eating some meat. Go bring some.” Bua started to weep – how would a Marathi Brahmin buy meat? It would be an absolute disaster if someone saw him. The ustad said, “You can’t perform such a small task? Then go home. You don’t have to learn anymore.” Seeing that there was no other way, Bua went to buy meat. When he placed it at his master’s feet, the ustad immediately said, “You have to cook it.” Crying as he cooked it, Bhaskar Bua was in such a state that he could have fallen into the kiln. Finally, the ustad said, “Your training will begin from tomorrow.”

I can’t express in words the anger I feel when I see the drama about eating beef. Where else can you get such high protein for such low prices? People around the world eat beef. Most important, who is anyone to decide what others can and cannot eat? A Hindu might object to eating beef. But why should that objection be imposed on someone else? Dictating other people’s food habits – is this the level to which we have descended/ Muslims are being murdered in the name of eating beef. We have not seen this before in India – we saw India at a time when even our school textbooks told us what this nation is built on.

From the day Modi performed the rituals to lay the foundation stone of the Rama temple, there has been a lot of discussion about a poem by Tagore – ‘Deenodan’ [The Gift of the Destitute]. I’m not comfortable with social media. I heard about it from others. One can see the similarities with the current situation. Rabindranath is always very relevant. I think that had Rabindranath not been born into a zamindar family, had he not travelled to rural areas as part of his work for the estate, he would not have become Rabindranath. His relevance would not have been timeless. He would not have been able to love the people of Bengal in the way he did. His eyes opened when he went to Shilaidaha. How would he have understood the nation if he had remained urban? How would he have felt the land and water of the country? Being a Brahmo, Rabindranath never had orthodox views about religion. In fact, he had many differences of opinion with the Hindus. Of course, the influence of English education was also important. It is true that he had gone to Italy to meet Mussolini, but after a Romain Rolland ticked him off, he realised his mistake.

I will also mention Vidyasagar. In spite of being a great pundit of Sanskrit, he laid more stress on teaching English literature. He thought it more important to teach Bacon, rather than the Vedas and Vedanta.

In conclusion, I want to say that religion and politics are being cleverly mixed to produce fundamentalism. Who loves Rama and who loves Rahim should not even be an issue. Again, this is why I feel that only the Left can be an alternative to all this.

This is an edited translation of the Bangla original which appeared in Ganashakti.

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