Revolution is elsewhere
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In Kolkata, the trade union bandh makes its presence known by silence. A bandh morning in the city sounds, I imagine, rather like Olduvai at the dawn of the human race. There is no sound but birdsong and the neighbours bickering. Occasionally, there's the cheerful whistle of tyres being deflated as party cadres flag down and immobilise transport that has tried to defy the strike, but defiance is unusual. As the day progresses, the sound of cheering and the thwack of leather meeting willow is heard as the empty roads, which are usually jammed bumper to bumper, are turned into public cricket pitches. Apart from this minimalist score, the famously noisy, brawling city is plunged in a primordial, pre-industrial silence.
But Wednesday morning, when the national bandh called by 11 trade unions began, was wholly unreal. The day began to the sound of traffic and the distant roar of a jet overhead. Public transport services were running, people had found the courage to drive and the airport was operating as usual. Though retail took a hit, markets, shops and establishments of all sizes did open, ranging from corner tea stalls to supermarkets. This bandh felt like a very relaxed Sunday. It was eerie to hear that a unionist had been crushed by a bus in Ambala, that train passengers arriving in Delhi were stranded for want of transport. Kolkata, which usually invites you to come and see the blood in the streets, spent a surreally peaceful morning, while the rest of the country agitated over issues dear to it, like inflation.
The trade union bandh has a very special place in Kolkata's history. Here, it was honed into an instrument that wrought economic ruin, from which the Left paradoxically harvested political success for over three decades. Its citizens are accustomed to gingerly negotiating a political landscape littered with bandhs, and they know that obedience of a bandh call is not optional. A strike is not necessarily an expression of public sentiment. Rather, it may be imposed against public sentiment.
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