When the battle is lost and won
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Just before Independence Day, the ongoing freedom struggle in West Bengal intensified. A Midnapore farmer was denounced as a Maoist and slapped with non-bailable charges for asking Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee uncomfortable questions. Shortly thereafter, the State Human Rights Commission ordered her government to compensate a teacher whom she had set the police on for passing around some harmless cartoons. Banerjee retaliated on the eve of Independence Day. Even as President Mukherjee was warning the nation of the dangers of undermining democratic institutions, in the assembly, Banerjee accused the judiciary of putting rulings on sale. She said that she was happy to risk jail for saying her piece, but she simply had to express her opinion somewhere.
It is 15 months since Banerjee wrested West Bengal from 34 years of communist rule. Such cataclysmic change is usually forged by powerful, pervasive, material urges to develop and prosper, to seek the appurtenances of happiness. In West Bengal, these forces had been at work for two decades, to no avail. The tipping point was provided in 2011 by a non-material urge expressed by the intelligentsia — the urge to speak, to be heard and to dissent without fear. After the insupportable violence at Singur and Nandigram, popular actors, poets, painters and musicians like Satabdi Ray, Joy Goswami, Shuvaprasanna and Kabir Suman had stepped out of line and into the street to give legitimacy to Banerjee's politics. But her government has proved to be more of the same. It now faces a tipping point of its own. Ironically, it is again about freedom.
Bengal's stormy politics is played out on the street but the arts provide its weather forecast. The role of freedom of speech as a turning point in politics is visible in two vastly popular plays. Bratya Basu's Bratyajaner Ruddhasangeet (The Stifled Song of the Outcast), based on an autobiography of the same name written by the immensely popular and innovative singer Debabrata Biswas, premiered just before the assembly elections and may have influenced the urban vote. Kaushik Sen's Bengali rendering of Macbeth went on stage this May to suggest that poriborton had changed nothing, that political violence, murder and the suppression of liberties persist.
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