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Handpulled rickshaws, old buildings and a city on the cusp of revolution: Held back by ‘Aantels’ who romanticise poverty, dream of ‘Shonar Bangla’ lives on

Kolkata is a city that holds special significance in the heart of every Bengali, whether they live there or not, whether they have even set their foot on the city or not.

Kolkata is on the cusp of a revolution. The smell of it is in the air and regardless of the results of the assembly elections, the city is all set to change forever. Bengalis can feel it, even if they don’t necessarily live there. It is a moment of great significance for the entire community because at the end of the day, Kolkata is a city that holds special significance in the heart of every Bengali, whether they live there or not, whether they have even set their foot on the city or not.

The West Bengal Assembly Elections, in more ways than one, will play a pivotal role in the history of the Bengali Hindu community. With twisted demographic trends, persistent unemployment and enduring poverty, Bengal is at siege. And Kolkata, the heart of Vanga, has suffered the brunt of it. But that could change and Bengal could be set on the long road to prosperity by the results of this year’s election. However, there is the danger of regression as well.

Coffee House’r shei adda ta aaj aar nei?

There are certain imageries that have become symbolic of the change currently underway in Bengal. One of the most significant came on Monday when BJP supporters entered Coffee House and raised slogans after they were stopped from pasting posters inside.

Others may not be able to grasp the true import of the event but for Bengalis, it is pretty hard to miss. For decades, Coffee House has been Ground Zero for leftwing ideologues to engage in ‘intellectual’ masturbation. While it is iconic for the numerous occasions when Bengali stalwarts have graced it by their presence, it is renowned for the ‘addas’ as well that usually involve fantastical ideation.

The location of Coffee House is significant as well. College Street, dominated by universities and educational institutions, was in the thick of the turbulence during the Naxalbari movement. The memories of it are still kept alive in the nook and crevices of College Street.

There are plaques that can be found in honour of the ‘martyrs’ of the Naxalbari movement. Sometimes, even posters glorifying Charu Mazumder can be spotted, no doubt put up by some deluded morons studying in some university. But that has been the story of West Bengal and why the rise of BJP is so significant.

It might appear improbable in 2021 but it is true that once upon a time, the Left Front was essentially a front for Bengali Hindu politics. The refugees from Bangladesh organised themselves under the banner of Communist parties and established political parties towards that end. It is entirely a different matter that the brand of politics in and of itself appeared inimical to the interests of the community itself.

And after all these decades, the Bharatiya Janata Party has emerged as the front for Bengali Hindu politics in the state. While the party may itself beg to disagree and insist on its ‘secular’ credentials, which we have no reason to doubt, it is undeniable that its cadres and vote-base are primarily Bengali Hindus. Under the Left Front, the community had organised around abstract outlandish ideals but this time around, they have unified along communitarian lines.

But it is not just communitarian concerns that are the focus of the current elections, development and ‘Shonar Bangla’ are major talking points as well. The ‘Intellectuals’ of Kolkata have often been guilty of romanticising poverty and where the average Bengali sees misery, the dreary turmoil of lives beleaguered by poverty, the ‘Intellectuals’ feel a sense of romance surrounding the city. Bengalis have a specific name for such special nutcases, ‘Aantel’ we call them.

Romanticisation of Poverty by Kolkata ‘Aantels’

There have been much discussion on social media of late regarding the handpulled rickshaws that are unique to Kolkata. While most Indian cities have moved beyond such modes of transport, Kolkata has been hesitant or rather unwilling to abandon the vestiges of its past. While it is understandable that such visuals might spark innate disgust from people in other cities, Kolkata has far greater problems.

And truth be told, India is still a developing country and first world concerns do not suit the citizens of a country where even toilets were a dream for the overwhelming majority of its citizens until very recently and drinking water is a prized commodity that is yet to reach every household. There are extremely disturbing visuals of poverty that abound across the country, and even in Kolkata, a man making an honest living through handpulled rickshaws is not one of them.

Handpulled rickshaws, Kolkata on the cusp of revolution
Imnage Credit: Soumya Shankar Ghosal/Sahapedia

Even so, the romanticisation of poverty is an extremely convenient ruse for incompetent politicians. They can augment their own stature among the populace by harking back to claims of preserving cultural hallmarks while the masses continue to labour in destitution. And given the pitifully little Bengali Hindus have had to celebrate over the course of the past century, even several centuries, it comes as a respite from harrowing reality.

However, what cannot be denied is that Kolkata has fallen off its perch. There was a time, not too long into the past, when Kolkata was at the forefront of the Great Indian Story. But now, after decades of poor governance by the Congress party, the Left Front and the Trinamool Congress in turn, Bengalis have finally decided that enough is enough.

The despicable cycle of poverty cannot be permitted to manifest itself for another generation because the people deserve better, Bengal deserves better. And thus we stand at the precipice of another revolution.

How ‘Aantels’ brought Bengal and Kolkata to the cusp of another revolution

In many ways, Bengal has been experiencing continuous revolution since the beginning of the past century. It began with the Partition of Bengal in 1905 and then continued into the independence era which culminated with the communal massacre in Kolkata and elsewhere.

The influx of Bengali Hindu refugees following the partition of the country heralded another phase of revolutionary zeal. The Naxal movement resulted in great bloodshed and it continued well after the Left Front came to power.

Mamata Banerjee burst it into the scene in 1990s and she brought with her the Trinamool revolution. The Nandigram movement in 2007 propelled Trinamool Congress to power in the next assembly elections and after a decade in power, Bengal is on the verge of a Saffron Reckoning.

There is good reason why Bengal is set for a revolution in 2021. A part of it, certainly, is because revolutions have been a part and parcel of Bengal’s political life for a century. Despite a hundred years of bloodshed and turmoil, the revolutionary zeal is yet to be satiated.

The blame for it, of course, lies with the ‘Aantels’ of Bengal who have preferred to build bridges in the firmament of their marvelous imagination rather than help improve the lives of the citizenry. Sloganeering and glorifying endless protests, escapism became the fodder for their existence.

While they quenched their thirst of idealism by crawling under the safety of their own ramblings, Bengal’s descent into decline was uninhibited and the aura of grandeur around Kolkata began to decay. Revolutions foment more revolution and the endless cycle of violence managed to convince the Aantels of Bengal that they were on to something great.

While they engaged in romanticisation of poverty in a bid to avoid coming to terms with their own failure, they failed to notice the fading support of the unwashed masses. And after years in power, they find themselves surrounded by a disillusioned citizenry gathering around the rallying cry of ‘Jai Shri Ram’.

Shonar Bangla or regionalist politics?

Kolkata has suffered unspeakable atrocities over the course of the past century. Its streets have been littered by corpses, women have been left bereft of their husbands, mothers have lost their sons, daughters have lost their fathers and Bengal has still not been able to shed the violence of its cursed past.

But there is a dream that every Bengali holds in his heart. Political violence that has become endemic to the state will cease, poverty that tarnishes the rustic beauty of the City of Joy will be a thing of the past, Kolkata will again become an intrinsic part of the Great Indian Growth Story and Bengal will rise again.

That is a sentiment that is overwhelmingly persistent among widespread sections of the Bengali Hindu community and it is this sentiment that the Bharatiya Janata Party has decided to capitalize on. The Trinamool Congress, on the other hand, has chosen to embrace the regionalism card, a plank that is unlikely to work because it is alien to Bengal’s DNA. Quite obviously, whoever is advising the Prime Minister appears to be far more in sync with the sentiments of Bengal than Prashant Kishore.

Nevertheless, the much awaited revolution could take two forms depending on the results of the elections. A BJP victory in May will usher in an era of Saffron Revolution in the state but should Mamata Banerjee succeed in retaining power, she will interpret it as an endorsement of her regionalist politics and double down on it moving forward. Thus, we could see the birth of truly regionalist politics in West Bengal.

‘Shonar Bangla’ or regionalist politics, the form the impending revolution will take will be clear only on the 2nd of May.

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Searched termsHandpulled rickshaws
K Bhattacharjee
Black Coffee Enthusiast. Post Graduate in Psychology. Bengali.

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