Friday, 26 April 2019

W is for...West Bengal... Why... When...n ...What the Wreck happened here??

First track today is from Habib Wahid - a musician, composer and singer from Bangladesh, with Beporowa Mon (Reckless Heart) - 

Next I have for you Wrong Tuli with a modern version of a golden oldie folk number Tomar Ghore Bosot Kore Koi Jona (How many live in your home). Fun fact - wrong (conventionally transliterated as rong) means colour/paint in Bengali. Tuli means a brush. Some sublime flute playing in there!

Finally here’s Warfaze, among the top ten Bengali bands from Bangladesh, formed in 1984. Take a listen to their Purnota (Fulfilment) -

West Bengal...n... five honest serving men

Recently while on a break back home, colonialism and Calcutta came up during a family chat.  The sum of it was that the Raj affected all regions equally. The city actually had an advantage in being the capital. Other places in India have recovered and moved on, why hasn’t Calcutta? A glorious past, great infrastructure, brilliant, progressive minds, passionate people. Four Nobel Laureates. Trail-blazing entrepreneurs. All manner of creative output.  Why then is the present so dim? What’s happened? Is West Bengal stagnating and why?

The questions are not new – I’ve heard them in various avatars since childhood. In the late 70’s, my father had written to the Dean of a prestigious institution in Calcutta, his alma mater, exploring the chances of his daughter’s admission. The Dean had written back lamenting that Calcutta was not the best place to get an education anymore.

In the mid 80’s, the then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi called it ‘a dying city.’ This caused a furore, the Calcuttans were livid – sure, it was a superdumb, foot-in-mouth remark for a PM to make, but all the Bengalis could do was to trot out the usual dead greats.

From 1948 to 1962, Dr Bidhan Chandra Roy, a follower of Gandhi and also his physician, a Congress Party stalwart, was the Chief Minister and the architect of modern West Bengal. During his tenure cities like Durgapur, Kalyani, Salt Lake, Ashokenagar and Habra were established.

When Dr Roy died in July 1962, West Bengal had recovered from the Partition – land reforms, the smooth accession of princely states, the setting up of a large number of infrastructure schemes like the Durgapur Steel Plant, Damodar Valley Corporation, Chittaranjan Locomotives and a host of other industries, premier educational institutes – all in place.  West Bengal was still the leading industrialised state of an independent India.

One issue that remained unresolved was that of the refugee resettlement. Millions had migrated to West Bengal from East Pakistan at Partition.   Various resettlement proposals had been mooted by the Roy government but were opposed by the leftist parties. Another pending issue was land redistribution.

In the early 60’s, a thoroughly unprepared India was attacked by China. The Indo-China War, which was a spectacular defeat for India, affected the economy and the morale. Illusions of a Sino-Indian ‘brotherhood’ nurtured by a naïve Indian leadership vaporised  - the need to beef up the Indian defence became plain.

Then a relic of Prophet Mohammad went missing from the Hazratbal shrine in faraway Kashmir. Some East Pakistani politicians called it a Hindu conspiracy and sparked off communal riots there.  Hindus were slaughtered in major cities. Sporadic incidents of revenge attacks took place in West Bengal, escalating the violence across the border manifold. As a result, waves of East Pakistani Hindus came into Calcutta again. In the 1967 elections, for the first time in twenty years of independence, a fractured Congress lost West Bengal to a coalition of leftist parties called the United Front. But Congress, albeit weakened, was returned to power in Delhi. The Centre-State relationship dynamic shifted. And then a few months down the line, the Naxalbari uprising happened.

The Naxal movement was an armed uprising which drew inspiration from Maoist philosophy and sought to annihilate ‘class enemies’ in order to achieve an equal society. It found strong support among the students in Calcutta. Thousands joined, the schools in Calcutta were shut down. University machine shops and departments were taken over by the Naxalites to make pipe guns and plan their revolutionary operations. The law and order situation deteriorated to abysmal levels.  

The UF government was dismissed and President’s rule was imposed. In fresh elections, the Congress made a comeback in 1972. The new Chief Minister, mirroring the attitudes at the Centre, treated the Naxalites as terrorists. The police crackdown was brutal, many young people were tortured and killed, and the movement was crushed by the mid-70s. The best of a generation was lost to this violence and counter-violence. People were killed, infrastructure was damaged, militant trade unionism strangled many industrial units. Meanwhile, the violence in the Bangladesh Liberation War had sent further waves of refugees into Calcutta. West Bengal reeled. Several businesspeople, the main target of the Naxal movement, relocated taking the businesses with them. Growth plummeted.


The Left Front, a coalition led by the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPM), came to power in 1977, but nothing changed. Strikes and lock-outs continued, the government carried the baggage of their anti-industry bias. CPM-led trade unions refused to let business owners operate freely. The tools of ‘gherao’ and ‘bandh became overused, and a hierarchy of henchmen became the facilitators to the political elite – a culture of thuggery prevailed. Well-known companies like Philips India, Shaw Wallace, Brooke Bond, Britannia, some of which had been born in Calcutta, gradually left. 

The Left Front ruled West Bengal for thirty years on the back of their focus on the agri-sector, but did little to attract industries. In fact, the long-serving Chief Minister, Jyoti Basu, once famously told a businessman that ‘capitalists were class enemies and should expect no sympathy.’ A confrontational stance towards the government at the Centre did not help either – industry was regulated through licences by the Central government. The state continued to flounder and got deep into debt.

The West Bengal government put together an industrial policy and went scouting for investment only after the Indian economy was liberalised in the early 90’s. But by then it was altogether too late, West Bengal’s reputation was in tatters. The joint debacle of the Tata Nano automobile project  at Singur and the Nandigram SEZ were the final nails in the coffin. The government had  tried to acquire agricultural land for these projects but local villagers opposed it. The protests were supported by many activists across India. Trinamool Congress (TMC), a breakaway faction of Congress, took up the cause. After much bitter wrangling and violence, the Tata’s withdrew and set up their plant in North India. The Nandigram project did not materialise either. The CPM government was duly booted out in the next election, TMC came to power in 2011.

Since then, the TMC leadership has tried to woo industrialists. However, given the population density and that the major part of the state is farmland, land acquisition for any project remains a constraint. The work ethic continues to be an issue. The debt situation is still a concern. The politician-middleman-thugs unholy nexus continues unabated. More and more young people break away from Kolkata and go elsewhere to pursue studies, jobs and dreams. The whole of West Bengal increasingly resembles a retirement home.  Overall growth in GSDP has seen some modest progress, but really there is an entire Everest to climb still. A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step...I guess I'd be happy to see baby steps, they are better than no steps at all. Read more here and here.

Posted for the A-Z Challenge 2019


  1. Oh how sad. How I hope that Kolkata can be revived, but wonder how...

  2. warfaze was formed the same year i was born :)

    Joy at The Joyous Living

  3. It sounds hopeless here.

  4. Yes it is a widely believed perception that Kolkata and West Bengal haven't 'progressed' like many other cities and states. Whether one agrees with that or not depends on what one means by 'progressed'.
    One impression of the state is that it's a land of protests. A reason could be the strong influence of the Left. Not surprisingly, Kerala, too which has a strong Leftist influence too gives a similar impression.

    1. Protest for the sake of appearing labour-friendly seems to me a bit self-defeating...