In an already politically charged atmosphere of the panchayat elections in West Bengal, a public exchange between a poet and a politician has generated much commentary in newspapers, television channels and social media. In a recent issue of a Bengali Little Magazine Setubandhan, veteran poet Shankha Ghosh wrote a poem titled “Mukto Ganatantra” (“Free Democracy”). In tongue-in-cheek manner, Ghosh referred to allegations of widespread violence in the run-up to the rural polls, writing, “Open all three eyes, and see, if you can / Development stands blocking your road, machete in hand” – a thinly veiled allusion to the claim of Anubrata Mandal, a prominent Trinamool Congress leader from the district of Birbhum that when people come out of their homes, they can see unnayan or development standing right in front of them.

As these lines were replayed ad infinitum by the electronic media, Mondal lashed out at Ghosh during a public meeting, questioning his credentials as a poet, triggering a storm of protest against what was perceived as a slur against Bengal’s most respected living poet. This in turn led to a few voices speaking up in support of Mondal. The famous singer and songwriter Kabir Suman, currently affiliated to the Trinamool Congress, responded with a poem of his own, alleging a tacit alliance between the CPI(M) and the BJP by using the portmanteau “BJPM”. According to him the criticism of Mondal is a reaction of the elitist “bhadralok” to the rise of the cultural subaltern.

Amid the freewheeling vituperation that has become the new normal of Indian electioneering this may not seem much, but the responses across the media as well as social media alluded to the throttling of dissenting voices and the role of the intellectual in polarising times. Such heightened reactions are to be contextualised against the strategic construction of literature as a haloed zone and the litterateur as the magnanimous free agent who from time to time purifies the political with the catholicity of the literary.

In a sense such a construction operates on a false binary between the literary and the political. All literature is embedded in its political milieu and adds to that milieu. But this binary is an extension of a more fundamental dichotomy between civil and political society.

Writers in Bengal’s civil society

Much has been written about what Sudipta Kaviraj calls a “combination of colonialism, capitalism and liberalism” that spread a certain idea of civility in non-western settings which became coterminous with citizenship, the aspirational horizon of the colonial middle class. The “colonial middle class” was not economically or socially homogenous. Its caste and class privileges could be normalised only by sublimating internal differences through a more benign category. The literary could provide that esoteric veneer.

Increasingly the spheres of the literate and the literary, writers or ledger-keepers of the mercantile offices and the Writer as the conscience keeper of the civil society get irrevocably separated. Bankimchandra Chottopadhyay writes in Bangadarshan in 1880 that the responsibility of the writer is to create “the reader” out of those who can merely read. It is for him to show the Bengalis the right course of social and political engagement.

This latter function of the Writer had already been on display during the controversy around Dinabandhu Mitra’s play Neel Darpan (1860), depicting the plight of the indigo farmer. It became a cause célèbre for the embryonic public sphere of Bengal. Rabindranath Tagore talks of this “public sphere” in an essay in the magazine Sadhana in 1894: “Our society is oriented towards the home…but now a new flood has entered it. It’s called the public. It’s a new concept, a new name.” Tagore has engaged with the sphere of the “public” in many ways throughout his life – not just through his writings but also as part of many forums, giving public lectures on many occasions.

Intellectuals and their ideologies

The public role of the writer went through several turns in Bengal through subsequent political churnings – from the days of Swadeshi and extremist politics, through Gandhiism, to the rise of the Communist Party in the years leading up to Independence and immediately after. These turns generated debates, often bitter and rancorous, while shaping the fault-lines of public discourse. The formation of the Indian People’s Theatre Association in 1942 was an important milestone in this regard.

The eventual and very public split of several artists from the IPTA bears proof to the complex negotiations between the creative and the political commitments of a writer. Writers like Tarashankar Bandyopadhyay and Buddhadeva Bose, whose ideological inclinations were divergent, joined the anti-Fascist movement of the 1940s with Marxist writers. The same Tarashankar Bandyopadhyay was openly criticised in the journal Natun Sahitya by “Musafir”, a Marxist critic, for his speech delivered at the Congress party’s literary meet in 1954.

Historian Partha Chatterjee recalls the controversy generated by the participation of the poet Subhash Mukhopadhyay in a rally held in 1977 demanding freedom for all political prisoners, due to his association with the CPI. Gradually the term “buddhijibi” (“intellectual”) gained currency, though it had entered the discourse much earlier. The Marxist poet and journalist Samar Sen, in his discussion of Stephen Spender’s Forward from Liberalism, published in Parichay in 1961, had said that it was “written mainly for the class between the capitalist and the labour. The buddhijibi belongs to this class” – and that the same “reactionary class is the life force of Fascism”. When historian Susobhan Sarkar proposed the term “buddhibaadi”, or economist and educationist Amlan Dutta floated the term “chintak”, both were trying to assign a certain benign quality to the intellectual as a classless entity.

After the 1977 Assembly elections bringing the first Left Front government to power, such debates took place mostly within the carefully calibrated broader consensus of what could be considered a Left public sphere. The breakdown of the international Communist establishment created a serious crisis in that consensus, though the hints had been there throughout, during the split of the Communist Party of India in the 1960s, and then the Naxalbari movement of the 1970s.

However, that consensus really broke down on March 14, 2007 as the police opened fire on the agitating farmers of Nandigram, killing at least 14 people and injuring many more. West Bengal was then under the Left Front government. In protest, Shankha Ghosh resigned from the Bangla Akademi, eight prominent dramaturges resigned from the Natya Akademi, and film-makers boycotted the Calcutta Film Festival. On November 14, a protest rally was called by Shankha Ghosh, along with poet Tarun Sanyal, actor-director Aparna Sen, actor Kaushik Sen, and many others.

In response, a counter procession was called by pro-government intellectuals of the time, such as film-maker Tarun Majumdar, poet Subodh Sarkar, folk singer Shubhendu Maity. Filmmakers Mrinal Sen and Goutam Ghosh took part in both rallies. Writer Sunil Gangyopadhyay supported the Left Front government in the pages of the Bengali newspaper Anandabazar Patrika. The division became sharper before the 2010 Assembly elections, as Mamata Banerjee’s anti-Left Front government slogan for change or poribartan was floated. The rest is, as they say, history.

The post-ideology public intellectual

If we look at that the Nandigram moment a bit more closely we find the terms buddhijibi and nagarik samaj (civil society) being hailed by the corporate media as liberal cure-alls to all political evil. Surreptitiously but, presumably, tactically, buddhijibi was later replaced by the term biddwajjan, literally meaning “the learned people”, making it vaguer and thus sounding nobler. One would remember that around the same time, in 2011, another “civil society movement” led by one Anna Hazare rocked the country.

The iconic post-Nandigram rallies set in motion the practice of processions without organisational flags, effectively imposing an invisibility of political affiliation to claim legitimacy and neutrality. Imagining civil society as completely divorced, even antagonistic, to political society is historically unsound; it denies the embedded nature of civil society in the political status quo. The literary, turned into the most esoteric of all the pursuits of “civility” suffers the most in defining its political role.

After the call for change was gratified through the overthrowing of a regime, the panacea of poribortan seemed insufficient to provide a sustainable discursive frame to shape the relation between the two. Meanwhile newer political challenges emerged, such as the deepening polarisation of the polity along communal lines. This created an ideological vacuum in which the buddhijibi lost their hegemonic role, giving rise to a constant fracturing of the public sphere.

There are innumerable instances of this today in Bengal. There is a political turf war in the theatre world, down to the quotidian concerns of theatre such as hall bookings, call shows and government grants. On April 4, 2018, in a joint press meet at the Calcutta Press Club, a famous singer-songwriter and a novelist were embroiled in a public spat. On April 8, Shankha Ghosh joined a march against communal violence in Asansol. The list of signatories to this protest revealed many a political realignment.

On May 16, 2018 the “Save Democracy” forum, whose members include theatre-person Rudraprasad Sengupta, Kaushik Sen, and poet Mandakranta Sen, called a press conference at the residence of Somnath Chatterjee, the former Lok Sabha speaker and CPI(M) stalwart, where they severely criticised the violence in the panchayat polls as well as the rise of Hindutva forces in the state.

These fissures are concomitant with a rising anti-intellectualism on public platforms; a trend that is palpable on a national scale as well. This latter development is often seen as self-assertion of the political subaltern against the cultural elite with class and caste privilege. Interestingly, the claim of a subaltern identity seems impervious to the reality of political dominance and control over the state apparatus. Equally paradoxical is that such claims are staked while simultaneously celebrating the so-called Bengal Renaissance, in the process attempting to forge a pure “Bengaliness”.

It is easy to locate these discrepancies in the shifting allegiances of the literati or the changing reactions of the political. However, these are symptoms of the larger depoliticisation of civic engagement, where issue-based support or protest has replaced longer and deeper political commitment.