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Culture Vulture - The Chatterati And The CPI-M
Culture Vulture - The Chatterati And The CPI-M

Saubhik Chakrabarti
The Statesman
February 24, 2000

Title: Culture Vulture - The Chatterati And The CPI-M
Author: Saubhik Chakrabarti
Publication: The Statesman
Date: February 24, 2000

MUCH left/liberal outrage has flowed into the controversy over Water. But does anyone remember the loud protests when a senior CPI-M leader killed the idea of multiplexes in Calcutta on the grounds that they will pollute national culture even further? Or is anyone reminding Jyoti Basu, who belatedly joined other politicians looking for PR brownie points by assuring Deepa Mehta a safe haven, what his party did to Roland Joffe's City of Joy? Do New Delhi's liberal chatterati, who consider the CPI-M an island of sanity in the muddy waters of Indian politics, really know what the party has done in and to West Bengal in the name of culture?

Delhi's drawing rooms were shocked at the Sangh-affiliated students' antics on Valentine's Day in Kanpur. In Calcutta, the CPI-M's police regularly harasses couples for no more than sitting on park benches. CPI-M cadres intervene, often brutally, in local "love affairs". CPI-M ministers have railed against and banned Western popular music events.


Ask any Calcuttan whether he is absolutely sure that were, say, Madonna to suddenly find out there's city called Calcutta and wished to perform there - metal bras, leather boots and all - CPI-M-patronised talking heads would not persuade their government to cancel the event? Or remember what Adoora Gopalakrishnan suffered when he sought to capture Kerala's Marxist decadence in his films.

The point is that in Delhi, the city which claims to influence opinions, there's an alliance of liberal chatterati and Left politicos - the centre of gravity, some say, lies in a well-funded, mostly red brick, central university - that keeps the focus of cultural fundamentalism firmly on the Right. So that a "saffron" ICHR playing mischief with two "Left" historians leads to sloganeering by smartly turned out chatterati but when Shamit Khemka's case came up before the Supreme Court, demonstrative radicalism in favour of freedom of expression was conspicuously absent.

For the edification of the capital's liberal chatterati, Khemka was one of the many young Net entrepreneurs to be found everywhere in India before Calcutta Police swooped down on him and arrested him for disturbing harmony between communities. His "crime": he was commercially associated with a website that attracted a good many surfers who vented their bile against Bengalis in general and the West Bengal chief minister and his son in particular.

Many of the comments and e-mails were undoubtedly in poor taste, some were arguably scurrilous in the context of particular individuals. But why arrest Khemka? His position as the host of the site does not automatically make him responsible for others' comments. Further, then, as even now, the Indian Penal Code lacked any provisions on cyber offences. One would have therefore imagined that the Calcutta Police, which takes recourse to legal fine print to evade actions they should be taking, would have avoided moving against Khemka for what was no more than a few people venting their bile in a website few in the city knew about.


The Internet is chock-a-block with sites far more provocative and hate-mongering than anything the so called "anti-Bengali" site could have offered. Western governments, taking the cue from a US Supreme Court judgement, usually decide to ignore hate sites, for the excellent reason that official notice will only encourage these people. They also subscribe to a mature and considerably elastic view of the freedom of speech principle - unless clearly demonstrable harm can be proven, loonies and kooks have the right to be left to their own devices.

No such consideration applied for Khemka, who was arrested and repeatedly sent back to police custody. No one in Calcutta's ruling establishment and no member of the city's self-appointed vigorous intelligentsia spoke out in favour of his rights. No one questioned the apparently dubious role played by the VSNL in acting as a conduit to the Calcutta Police.

Rather, Khemka was publicly accused by a cultural organisation, which is cosy with the CPI-M, of denigrating Bengali culture, of being an advanced guard of a conspiracy to malign all that is good about the people, their language, their charms infinite. Sections of Calcutta's Bengali media went after Khemka, in the same semi-hysteric manner as they react every time Sourav Ganguly scores 25 and above.

This lengthy re-counting of the Khemka incident was a necessary backdrop to asking what, pray, is the difference, in principle and praxis, between the CPI-M and its front organisations on the one hand and the BJP and its cousins on the other? Like the Right, the Left too poses the question in terms of "us" and "them", disallowing any reference to individual rights or a sensible debate on the limits of expression and the tolerance of communities. The Left, too, has a rigid view of culture it wants to impose on those it thinks are within the reach of state power.


And while Jyoti Basu may be far more personable than Ram Prakash Gupta, you will never, ever catch him speak for the individual against the dominant collective in his state. Yet in the pleasant surroundings of New Delhi's debating and talking fora, in television shows anchored by young journalists, the CPI-M is on the side of the angels as far as matters cultural are concerned.

There is much ideological mingling between the CPI-M and the capital's "progressive" organisations. The latter are absolutely right in taking to the streets every time the Sangh Parivar unleashes a lunacy. But they make a mockery of their high decibel cries for freedom of artistic expression when they, in effect, judge Jyoti Basu's party as above puerile cultural conservatism.

Test out another proposition: say Deepa Mehta's next film is on the women of Bengal who have lost their fathers, sons and husbands to political violence, which has peaked under the Left Front. And she wants to start shooting in the byzantine bylanes of Calcutta. The script is full of local politics, as it would have to be. Will, as shooting begins, the CPI-M keep a respectful distance or, as is more likely, will their cadres intervene, and will their government encourage them? Did Karl Marx have a beard?

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