They were desperate to find some work. They had been displaced from their regular manual works–digging, masonry, etc. – during the lockdown. They came in a group to Kolkata, where they were offered a job that involved cleaning the manholes of the sewerage system.
Never acquainted with such work, and more so, without any guidance and cautionary alert from their employer–a private contractor who was working for the Kolkata Municipal Corporation – they simply got down to work. The manhole had killer gas in store – four of them instantly died, three could manage to save their lives. Yet, the deaths and the criminal incidence found little space in electronic and print media.
Unreasonable? No. This is West Bengal, and more so, it’s 2021. Even the most ‘apolitical’ one cannot help talking about politics (not the politics of labour). The general social climate of West Bengal, people know well, is highly charged with political (over)currents. The political-ness of Bengal society is all pervading: voting percentages or political mobilisations, feverish cacophony in the TV channels or intra-party violence in the city and the hinterland alike, road blockade making normal life terribly disturbed or the I-know-everything kind of gossip-mongering in the teashops and every ‘non-political’ gatherings – big or small. But, 2021 had something – in fact a lot – more in store, and cannot afford talking about petty matters like labourers’ death.
First, the fully flourishing of a political fair, if one chooses not to call it a trade fair. In these facilitations a large-sized population of political leaders and their followers – mainly, but not exclusively, of the ruling Trinamool Congress (TMC) – have been switching their loyalties, rather anxiously, in favour of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Indian public is not unaware of the Ayaram-Gayaram phenomenon, but the way BJP has managed to mainstream the henceforth thin course of dal-badal is simply awful. It has developed a tremendous machinery to make the MLAs or MPs from other parties to support the BJP.
Despite losing the confidence of the voters it has managed to form government in states after states, including Goa, Karnataka, and Madhya Pradesh. The space for asking the moral question as to how persons elected by voters favouring a particular party can change their loyalty has gradually as shrunken as closed. Some of the non-BJP parties are seen to have adopted the same method – as and when possible. Let us take the case of West Bengal.
Ever since the TMC has come to power in West Bengal, it has consistently been ‘winning over’ elected members of other parties, namely the Indian National Congress (INC), and sections of the Left. It is a tragi-comedy that the BJP, a far powerful player in this game, has been out-maneuvering the TMC every day. The BJP has already managed to ‘attract’ a large number of TMC ministers, MLAs, MPs, and others. Widespread change of loyalty of the party-functionaries has perhaps made the definition of political morality obliterate.
Second thing to notice is the eagerness of the film and television starts to ‘serve’ the people. Again, the feature is not unknown to us, Indians. The trend was set by the shehansah of Indian cinema in the 1985 general election, and now it has become a ‘new normal’ to make the film stars party candidates in various elections. Although at the national level then BJP is much ahead of others in capitalising the stardom, in West Bengal it is the TMC, which has been the main political abode for the stars, though some have found to build a political carrier with the BJP.
But, in 2021, the BJP started an aggressive hunt and managed to secure support from quite a number of film artists. In addition, it has collected the support of one of the superstars of the yesteryears, Mithun Chakraborty, who began his adult life as a Naxalite, then supported the CPM at one point, and became a Rajya Sabha MP from the TMC, but resigned from the post.
While the above two features appeared for the public as sources of entertainment, the third development has generated a kind of scare-mongering. It is the formation of a third front, Sanjukta Morcha, by the Left Front, Congress, and a new born political outfit – the Indian Secular Front (ISF). The bone of contention is the ISF: since the builder of the outfit, Abbas Siddiqui, happens to be a descendant of the Siddiqi’s of the Furfura Sharif, a holy shrine and an important religious centre of the Musalmans, the renaissance-born Hindu-Bengali elites appear to be more than sure that the outfit, namely ISF, is an organsation of the Musalman fundamentalists!
The ISF’s openly declaring itself as a secular organisation, with the aim to fight injustice against the marginalised people including Dalits, Asdivasis, and Musalmans, and making an Adivasi its president did not help. The social construction of the Musalmans in West Bengal is not very different from the Indian state’s construction: a Musalman is always a suspect! The Left Front, as the largest partner of the Sanjukta Morcha, is at the receiving end of the abusive attack for ‘partnering with the fundamentalists’. Even the declared enemies of the Left have suddenly started sorry for the latter for its ‘moral degradation’!
Morality is a relative idea. No moral issue is raised when social arrangements leave four-fifth of the Musalmans of West Bengal to eke out their living by selling hard but cheap manual labour; elites do not feel ashamed when more than one third of the Adivasis are kept out of the ambit of literacy; they do not find it immoral when Dalits are forced to carry on their lowly caste occupations.
The enlightened Bengali is quite comfortable with maintaining the status quo. And, that’s the problem. Any dissenting voice, any word demanding justice, any demand articulating the rights, are often labeled as fundamentalist, separatist, casteist, and so on. And, change of party-loyalty or film-stars’ anxiousness about the people are all part of the status quo: ruling the powerless by the powerful. No matter, if the jobless workers – it happened so, they were Musalmans, but could be Hindus or others – are forced to die in manholes.