Wednesday, Sep 28, 2022

Kolkata Korner

There couldn't have been a better day to celebrate secularism; Friday (March 21) happened to be Fateha Doaz Daham (the birth anniversary of Prophet Mohammad), Good Friday (the day on which Jesus was crucified) and Holi.

Super Friday
There couldn't have been a better day to celebrate secularism; Friday (March 21) happened to be Fateha Doaz Daham (the birth anniversary of Prophet Mohammad), Good Friday (the day on which Jesus was crucified) and Holi. With the three communities celebrating their respective festivals with éclat, many--including local clubs and organizations--took advantage of the day to organize common celebrations. The club in my Ballygung para held a day-long jamboree in which Muslim, Christian and Hindu priests spoke on the respective festivals and the tenets of their religion. A painting competition--the theme was secularism--was held and this witnessed enthusiastic participation by many. The club's office-bearers made a special effort to reach out to and ensure the presence of Muslims, Christians and people belonging to other minority faiths in the programmes, especially the cultural programme at the end of the day. It was heartening to see Muslims, Christians, Hindus, Sikhs and Buddhists reciting prayers after the maulana, the padre and the pundit, celebrating the day together and smearing colours on each other. On Friday, I was proud to be a citizen of Kolkata. Because, I'm sure, no other city in the country celebrated the day in such a secular fashion. There may not be any more super Fridays in our lifetimes, but it would be nice if one day of the year is marked out for celebrating secularism.

Ban The Bandh
Our worst fears have been confirmed: two mid-sized call centres are planning to shift away from Kolkata. The reason: disruptions due to frequent bandhs in Bengal. Captains of industry, at a seminar held here recently, have said bluntly that these bandhs reinforce the negative image of Bengal among investors and other states, competing for investments, have been citing Bengal's culture of shutdowns to woo investors successfully. It's learnt that many industrialists and heads of chambers of commerce and industries have spoken to leaders of political parties and issued appeals against calling bandhs. But such appeals have cut no ice. 

The news of the two call centres relocating out of Bengal, and maybe others thinking on similar lines, also wouldn't cut any ice with Bengal's politicians. Because for the politicians, calling a bandh or a shutdown is the only known manner of protest. Never mind the losses it causes to the state or the severe hardships such disruptions cause to people. Speakers at the seminar rightly pointed out that the bandhs don't really achieve their stated purpose and the issues on which they're called never get redressed. 

Take the case of the killings in Nandigram--despite the number of bandhs called by the Trinamool and other parties over the CPI(M)'s depredations there, have the Marxists stopped doing what they've been doing there? Bandhs are a throwback to a shameful and dangerous legacy of Bengal, of the years of flight of capital, and the resultant economic downturn, caused by militant trade unionism and strikes. Unfortunately, our politicians haven't learnt any lessons from history. Truly, Bengal's biggest curse is its politicians.

Chief Violator
The Chief Minister is supposed to lead by example, right? More so when it comes to following the law not only in its letter, but also its spirit. But here in Bengal we have a Chief Minister who says he won't follow the law and, worse still, has no qualms in saying so. Writers' Building, where Buddahdeb Bhattacharjee has his office, was declared a non-smoking zone quite some time ago. But everyone from visitors to peons to babus to Ministers and even the CM himself had been puffing away happily in open defiance of the ban. This prompted the Public Works Department (PWD) to put up notices all over the huge structure proclaiming the ban and warning violators of stiff penalties. The ban extends not only to the common areas at Writers' Building, like the corridors and passageways, but also to the chambers of all bureaucrats and ministers. 

But Bhattacharjee, when asked by scribes if he would continue to smoke, replied defiantly that he would do so inside his chamber. When told about the ban, he said he couldn't care less! If this is what the CM says about a rule or law, can ordinary citizens be blamed if they choose to violate the law? It is not only at Writers' Building that Bhattacharjee puffs away defiantly. The state Legislative Assembly is also a no-smoking zone, but Bhattacharjee frequently steps out of the House and into the corridor to light up in full view of everyone. Privately, Bhattacharjee argues it's his right to smoke. Why, in that case, does he allow his own government to impose such bans? Better still, why doesn't he go to court as a private citizen to challenge such bans?

Murderers Behind Wheels
The last two weeks have witnessed a bloody spate of road accidents, and the ones responsible have been drivers of buses. It seems nothing can stop Kolkata's rogue bus drivers from mowing down people. Senior police officers have gone on record to say that till laws are made more stringent, there's little they can do when killer drivers, after being arrested and charged, walk away on bail and get behind the wheels of a bus once again to maim and kill innocent people. But thanks to the powerful lobby of bus operators and drivers, all owing allegiance to the CITU, our law-makers will never act to make rash driving an offence that will attract, say, a life term or at least a decade behind bars. 

At present, drivers who obtain perverted pleasure from running over people or driving irresponsibly to cause harm barely ever have even their licences suspended. In those rarest of rare cases where their licences are impounded, they simply obtain a fresh licence from another district with the help of CITU leaders, touts and corrupt officials. Many say the reason the drivers drive rashly is because they get paid on a commission basis--the larger the number of passengers they pick up, the higher their earnings. Hence, a driver is in a rush to reach the next stop, especially when another bus on the same route is tailing him.

Paying the drivers and conductors a fixed salary has been touted as an alternative, but bus owners point out this (payment of fixed salaries to drivers and conductors) is the primary reason behind government buses spending more time at the depots and incurring losses. The bus owners have a valid point--without any incentive to earn more, drivers would definitely idle away at the depots or won't bother to halt at bus stops to pick up passengers, like government buses do. Hence, they argue, the commission basis is the only way to ensure the buses run and earn profits for their owners. And, of course, continue killing innocents. But there has to be a way out. Installing speed governors in buses is one, coupled with strict enforcement of traffic rules and making drivers shell out fines from their own pockets for violations. Also, the law ought to be amended to ensure penalties for rash or negligent driving and injuring or killing people, even if unintentionally, become very stiff so that drivers are scared to drive rashly.

An Eye-Wash?
Last week, I had written about SFI goons going on the rampage in college campuses. They lost at Presidency College and, unable to accept defeat gracefully, accused their rivals of rigging the polls. They did more--led by the progeny of two senior ministers, they attacked and assaulted activists and supporters of their rival formations, even entering a hostel to exact revenge. These strong-arm tactics received wide publicity in local newspapers and, perhaps, stung by the criticism, the SFI leadership ordered an enquiry that, wonder of wonders, held SFI members at Presidency College responsible for the violence. SFI leaders have promised action against the guilty and have warned all their activists and supporters against committing similar acts elsewhere. 

The SFI's reaction stumped me. Since when has this organization become so mindful of democratic norms and decent behaviour? SFI activists have, all these decades, reveled in throttling opposition and denying any space in college and university campuses in Bengal to students' bodies of other political parties, even those of junior Left Front partners like the RSP (case in point: SFI's brute and illegal acts at South Calcutta Law College last week). So how come the SFI has become responsive to criticism and an organization that believes in fair play? 

I believe what the SFI's actions in ordering an enquiry into the violence at Presidency and then revealing that its own members were guilty is nothing but a diabolical and sinister game to project itself in a favourable light in Presidency College with an eye on the students' union polls next year. If the SFI is really serious, it should rein in its blood-thirsty cadres in all campuses and, for starters, get all the students' union office-bearers at South City Law College to resign to pave the way for fresh, free and fair polls. They had, after all, won unfairly by blocking candidates belonging to rival students' formations from even submitting their nomination forms. My guess is that the SFI will never do any such thing. It is, after all, affiliated to the CPI(M), a party which openly holds that multi-party democracy and free and fair polls is the only hurdle to its capturing power in all states of India.