The Trinamool Congress government in West Bengal led by Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee has gone on a statue-building spree, starting with the reinstatement of the vandalised bust of 19th-century reformer Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar a month ago. Statues of other Bengali icons will be erected at some of the other educational institutions in Kolkata.
Banerjee’s party colleagues say this is her attempt to claim the legacy of Bengali icons and position herself at the vanguard of Bengali culture. They claim this is being done to counter the rise of Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the state after it put up a stupendous performance by winning 18 of the 42 Lok Sabha seats.
By erecting statues of prominent Bengali figures from the field of academics, art and poetry like Rabindranath Tagore, Vidyasagar and Ashutosh Mukherjee, she is trying to ensure she does not cede even a single inch of mindspace among the intellectuals and Bengali bhadralok – the quintessential Bengali – who played an important role in the ousting of the Left front and propelling her to the chair of Chief Minister.
“We have already spoken to the vice-chancellors and principals of universities and colleges. Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee is keen to set up statues of the Bengali icons from different fields at these institutions,” said state education minister Partha Chatterjee.
Any shift in political power in West Bengal is preceded by territory domination with the emerging force breaking into bastions like the transport union, teachers’ union and students’ union.
A Trinamool Congress MLA close to Banerjee said statue politics is Banerjee’s attempt to shield intellectuals from the BJP. “The BJP is fast emerging as the main political opposition force in the state. They have not only poached MLAs and councillors but also penetrated the transport and hawker unions. Mamata is, however, desperate to maintain a grip on the intellectuals in the state as they influence opinions through their art. Didi has been able to keep them on her side by bestowing them with awards and recognition. So much so that even if somebody from the culture clan dies, he or she is accorded a state funeral with gun salutes,” the MLA said requesting anonymity.
Mamata latched on to the legacy of Bengali icons when a mob vandalised a bust of Vidyasagar during a road show by BJP president Amit Shah in Kolkata. Mamata went on an overdrive announcing not only the reinstatement of the vandalised statue, but announcing two new ones; one full-size statue of Vidyasagar just outside the Vidyasagar College, and another on the approach road of Second Hooghly Bridge, which is also known as Vidyasagar Setu. She announced a statue of Rabindranath Tagore at the entrance of Presidency University and that of Ashutosh Mukherjee at the entrance of Calcutta University.
Mamata Banerjee has carefully chosen institutes of higher education in Kolkata for her statue-building spree, which are extremely political. The universities and colleges are not hotbeds of political churns, but the crucible of student rebellions.
During the Naxalite movement in the 1960s and 1970s, students of erstwhile Presidency College – now Presidency University – fought pitched battles with the police on College Street and gheraoed the college principal and senior staff saying they were the agents of imperialism.
The first protest during Amit Shah’s roadshow came from the students of Calcutta University who showed black flags and clashed with BJP supporters.
“Educational institutions in Bengal are still political with students never hesitating from taking a stand. Protests against the imperialism of the USA and Israel are still common in our campuses. The college unions were once dominated by the Left front, which switched over to Trinamool Congress in 2011. Despite several efforts, the BJP has not been able to breach this bastion. The Chief Minister wants to retain her grip on this one solid block,” said Tirnankur Bhattacharya, the president of the Trinamool Congress Chhatra Parishad, the party’s student wing.
The influence of the students’ community in West Bengal politics has been well documented over the decades. The 1960s and 1970s, when it was the peak of the Naxalite movement, are often referred to as the golden age of student politics in the state.
Through the statue-building spree, Banerjee is trying to deflect from the variant of identity politics, which the BJP is doing and replacing it with another form of identity politics – Bengali nationalism – which she feels will find resonance with a much larger group of those who speak their mother tongue.
“The surge of the BJP in the state riding on the Hindu-Hindutva identity has taken Mamata Banerjee by surprise. The Bengali nationalism card is her last-ditch effort to stall the rise of BJP. This is the reason that in a recent meeting she had said that if one stays in Bengal, one will have to speak in Bengali making her campaign against the BJP more intense,” said Hasnain Imam, a city-based political scientist.
But it is too little too late, feel her political adversaries. “She paved the way for the BJP into West Bengal with her policies. The Frankenstein she has created is now threatening her,” said Mohammad Salim, former CPI(M) MP. (IANS)