There is a nifty literary tool in Sanskrit poetics: ‘vyajastuti.’ It is the incomparable art of ‘praising’ someone while actually engaging in intense vilification. And then there is a Bengali saying: ‘jhi-ke mere bou-ke shekhano,’ the incomparable social scientific method of beating up the maid for the purpose of teaching a lesson or two to the daughter-in-law (both perpetual victims to India’s patriarchal extended family-system). On January 17, 2010, media across continents managed a nifty cross-breeding of the above two concepts (the second concept turned upside down in the process). By calling the recently departed Jyoti Basu ‘the last Bhadralok communist’ (a website based in India, the online avatar of a popular television news channel) and ‘the man who was nearly India’s first Communist Leader’ (the website of the most celebrated British news agency), media giants showed absolute disregard to and ignorance of history, politics, and economics, and justified the left’s fear and anxiety of the entire media world becoming the Fox News Channel.
Let’s look at the obituaries and commentaries posted by two networks with widely different backgrounds and apparently different raison d’être. The Indian news channel is the new kid on the block with a flashy red website (which imposes pop-up advertisements on you) and a bullhorn to announce India’s pretensions of superpower-isation and Bollywood (and Hollywood) scandals. The British news agency is the real deal – the vestigial claw of the old lion, the ideological state apparatus of the British Empire and beyond – that pretends to care for democracy, peace, and other good things – not for the Tom, Dick, and Harry of the various Shires, but for everyone in every corner of the world. Call me old-fashioned. I am an avowed postcolonial, but I am not that much ‘post’ the whole colonial thing that I can take a British institution (so what it’s not a governmental institution – neither was East India Company) chipping in their two pounds about world peace.
What did these giants of mainstream media have to say about the death of the Marxist, democratically elected ex-leader of the Indian state of West Bengal? That ‘“he made Communism look respectable,” according to Sabyasachi Basu Roy Choudhuri, a Calcutta-based political analyst.’ That the British channel had to ask the opinion of someone who is capable of making such a daft remark indicates either of the two things: the Brits do not have a clue as to whom to contact in Calcutta for expert opinion, or all the brain has been drained out of Calcutta. The latter is simply not true, and so we are perhaps left with the option of calling up the news agency in London and giving them a list of experts, for the future.
The Indian news website called the ‘last Bhadralok Communist’ as ‘unbending in his principles’ but that ‘his life was complicated and full of contradictions.’ I will pick up the ‘last Bhadralok’ later; let’s just look at the other two phrases. ‘Unbending in his principles’ is just a nice way of describing anyone who is dead and was not a convicted crook (simple indictment without conviction can still earn you this praise). And please, oh please, show me one adult individual, dead or alive, whose life is not complicated and not full of contradictions. The ‘last Bhadralok’ remark is a stone thrown at two birds: on the one hand it is a particularly low hit directed at Buddhadev Bhattacharjee, Basu’s successor and the current chief minister of West Bengal, and on the other hand it simply sounds clever and/or academic, as if the reporters and honchos actually have kept track of the current usage of the word ‘bhadralok’ in the Anglo-American, post-Spivak-Bhabha-Guha-Chatterjee academia.
The British site's quote on Basu making ‘Communism respectable’ is, on the positive side, without pretensions: it does not pretend to be clever, it is simply daft. It simply picks on the fear and anxiety that the word ‘Communism’ incites in the minds of the uninformed and the uneducated (and the right), and rolls giddy with it. Neither of the news channels will ever refer to Manmohan Singh as the man who made servitude to the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty respectable; he will perpetually be ‘the Man with a plan,’ or the ‘gentle Sardar’ (a nice parallel to the ‘respectable Communist’).
The two websites could be forgiven for their idiotspeak and vyajastuti if they had even begun to report what actually happened during the 23 years of Jyoti Basu’s tenure as the chief minister. If only they had mentioned in passing the land and education reforms that Basu’s government accomplished – the kind of actual reforms which are hard to find in postcolonial India’s history. If only they had mentioned the progressive democratic grassroots mobilization that put West Bengal’s rate of literacy and female to male ratio above most Indian states. In the 24 hours that have passed since his death, there have been, in the media, empty clichés on the one hand and blind rage on the other.
I am by no means advocating an all-round eulogy: we must not forget the gross mistakes made during those years. For example, while public K-12 education was made accessible to all children free of charge, English was allowed to be taught only from the 5th grade onwards. By the time the mistake was realized and steps were taken to bring English back in the elementary classes, a generation of students lost their competitive edge. Much was made in those years of the Left Front leaders’ children attending private, ‘English-medium’ schools while the masses tasted only their mothers’ milk (the slogan based on Tagore’s saying ‘mother-tongue is equal to the mother’s milk’ was ubiquitous on placards, and on printed and hand-written posters throughout the state). At the same time however, Teachers’ Unions organized and worked with the government to achieve remarkable reform in the teaching profession itself. Millions of retired public schoolteachers receive pension today because of those reforms. Public schools receive and welcome bright and accomplished candidates every year to teach K-12 children because of the School Service Commission.
There is, therefore, no need for blind eulogy, blind rage, or thoughtless mediaspeak on the departed leader and what his politics meant to West Bengal and India. We should never forget that the massacre at Marichjhanpi happened in Basu’s watch; before Nandigram happened in Nandigram, it happened in Marichjhanpi (I am indebted to Junot Diaz for this turn of the phrase). And let us not forget the Naxalites who continued to rot in prison during the Left Front rule. But these should not make us blind to what came before the Left Front government in West Bengal and what the Front was fighting against. Sadly, mainstream media is not that much into analysis of policy or political history. It is busy serving McNews, to billions and billions.
Rini Bhattacharya Mehta teaches at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, USA.