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Kolkata leads the way in anti-intellectualism

opinionKolkata leads the way in anti-intellectualism

The value of intellectuals is measured in terms of their contribution to the ruling political class.

The abysmal poverty of intellect in West Bengal, its political system to be specific, has now even been shaming the word “nadir”. It is in fact a bottomless pit. It was displayed recently from Spain by one of Kolkata’s recent icons, cricketer Sourav Ganguly, in presence of the state’s Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee. A favourite road trodden by West Bengal’s Chief Ministers since the days of late Jyoti Basu is an annual sojourn abroad, ostensibly in search of investment in the state. As a part of this ritual, Mamata Banerjee too left for Spain with a team of courtiers. Sourav joined them and announced that though unknown to most he was in fact an industrialist and would set up a “steel” plant in the state on land surrendered by India’s steel behemoth, the Jindals. That an announcement of a Kolkata resident “cricketer turned industrialist” had to be made from Spain illustrates the vacuity of the Chief Minister’s investment hunting trip. What is more, that the people of the state, which claim the highest density of intellectuals on Earth, would let such “investment hunting” pass as Spanish capital coming to West Bengal exhibits the low grade the political leader of the state gives her people. This is even more curious since Sourav, hailed as a cricketer with brain, would join in mocking the people of the state.

But that is not an isolated example. There are many, leaving aside Mamata Banerjee’s nonchalant concoctions on incidents like landing on the moon or historical events like Gandhi’s fast in Kolkata in 1947. Mamata said that Tagore had offered fruit juice to Gandhi for breaking his fast—Tagore who passed away in 1941. On moon landing after Chandrayan-3 the Chief Minister claimed two persons from India, one was our late Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, had landed much before the ISRO’s unmanned vehicle. The state’s dense population of intellectuals digest such information without a murmur. No wonder that they even acknowledge their home grown Sourav as an investor from Spain.

Such political gimmick targeting a population stuck in malnutrition and ignorance goes unchecked in media and popular discourse by “intellectuals” who flock every roadside tea stall. Thus the state government can keep harping on the Union Government’s failure to hand over Rs 1.15 lakh crore worth dues. “Repeat a lie often enough and it becomes the truth”, is a law of propaganda often attributed to the Nazi Joseph Goebbels and is now perfected in Kolkata. Research has shown that repeating a claim increases that claim’s perceived truth value. And such truth-by-repetition (TBR) effect works on virtually any kind of claim, even highly implausible ones.

Hence Mamata’s heir apparent Abhishek Banerjee wants to demonstrate in the national capital against the Modi government’s failure to pay the state’s dues. That the city of Kolkata, which breeds an intellectual faster than a minute digests such claim illustrates the quality of intellect that haunts the state today. Harbinger of modernisation Raja Rammohan Roy must be shuddering in his grave in Bristol.

What could be the reason for the state plunging into such a bottomless pit? Also why whatever intellect is left there refuses to acknowledge this downslide? The value of intellectuals is measured in terms of their contribution to the ruling political class. In order to enforce loyalty, educated students are kept at less than starvation level. For example, payment for a college lecturer in the state is Rs 100 per class taken. Point to note is that the minimum wage in the state is Rs 340 to Rs 455. Clearly, education is least among the priorities of the state. The recent tension between the governor and the state government should be read in this context. Education in West Bengal is even worse than neglected, resulting in exodus of students who can afford to migrate outside the state. Courses fail to attract students since colleges do not have teachers. The state’s entire team of administration of education system are behind the bars for selling jobs of school teachers. Clearly, quality of education matters little to the political class and their collaborating officials. For them, earning money by selling teachers’ jobs is priority.

Judging by the character of the Trinamool Congress government of West Bengal, one is constrained to conclude that it is guided by “anti-intellectualism”, that is hostility to and mistrust of intellect, intellectuals, and intellectualism, resulting in deprecation of education. The contempt of intellect could be seen when West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee received the Bangla Academy Award for her “relentless literary pursuit”. Also when educational institutions like the Calcutta University or the St Xavier’s University confer D. Litt (Doctor of Literature) to the Chief Minister. This is an interesting anomaly since anti-intellectuals present themselves as populists against political and academic elitism, tend to see educated people being detached from the concerns of ordinary people, yet persons like Mamata Banerjee seek recognition as intellectual. And by meekly surrendering to such whims and fancies, Kolkata which pioneered “renaissance” in India, has brought in retrogression that seems thriving.

How could in a democratic set-up the entire system be trampled to this extent? There are examples of communist Russia replacing Tsarist intelligentsia with people without much formal education. Or the infamous cultural revolution of China. Mussolini’s philosopher of fascism, Giovanni Gentle rejected individualism, and accepted collectivism, with the state as the ultimate location of authority. But in a democratic set-up such anti-intellectualism has a limit, results in debate, more so in this digital age where anybody can express views without rigorous censorship. Strangely, not if you are in West Bengal.

Serious students of political discourse will perhaps research on the meek surrender of West Bengal intellectuals to a philosophy where individualism has yielded place to one person’s whims, subjugating the entire ecosystem of the state. More than Mamata Banerjee’s enforcement of her wishes, what is shocking is this ready resignation of intellectual thoughts or whatever is left in the state to such political pressure and that too in a democracy.


Author Sugato Hazra’s latest book is “Losing the Plot: Political Isolation of West Bengal”.

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