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The Dangerous Compromises of a Harvard Professor

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How is a Harvard Professor of history to makes sense of the grammar of Indian electoral politics? There is the retail end of things, the door-to-door campaigns, the street meetings, the processions through congested streets and the back-door deals cut with this or that power-broker. Harvard Yard might be a den of conspiratorial faculty deal making, but it is a far cry from the hustle and bustle of Indian electioneering. Nonetheless, Gardiner Chair of Oceanic History Sugata Bose is now the Lok Sabha (parliament) candidate for the Trinamul Congress (TMC). He will run to win the Jadavpur constituency in West Bengal. A previous Harvard professor and US Ambassador to India, John Kenneth Galbraith, wrote in 1958 that Indian society is “the world’s greatest example of functioning anarchy.” How is Professor Bose to navigate this chaos?

Professor Bose is no stranger to Jadavpur, the home of one of West Bengal’s most important universities. His mother has been the Member of Parliament for the district three previous times. When he arrived from Cambridge, Massachusetts to take up the cudgels for the TMC, the party workers greeted him with the slogan, Netaji-er gharer chhele ke vote din, vote din (Vote for the boy who is from Netaji’s family). They referred to Bose’s granduncle, Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose, who is a beloved nationalist leader. Netaji, as he is called, oscillated from bourgeois nationalism (he was the president of the Indian National Congress) to socialism (he founded his own Forward Bloc party). The Forward Bloc party is now in the Left Front alliance, the adversary of Professor Bose’s TMC. Sugata Bose and his mother, Krishna Bose, are both authors of books about Netaji, with Sugata Bose’s His Majesty’s Opponent: Subhas Chandra Bose and India’s Struggle for Independence arriving with the imprimatur of Harvard University Press in 2011. Professor Bose is aware of the power of his inheritance. “You elected my mother from here three times,” he says in the middle-class neighbourhood of Garfa, “I’m hoping that you will bless me in the same way.” In his biography of Netaji, Professor Bose sneered at the Congress for being “under dynastic control” of the Nehru-Gandhi family. Nothing so bad when one is advantaged by a legacy.

But the bequest of this seat from his mother – with the aura of his granduncle around him – seems insufficient. And herein comes the problem. Professor Bose faces the CPI-M’s Dr. Sujan Chakraborty, a bio-medical engineer, a leader of the trade union movement and an active participant in the All Indian People’s Science movement. Apart from that, Dr. Chakraborty lives in Baruipur, a small town in the Jadavpur Lok Sabha constituency. He studied in Jadavpur University and has been the Member of Parliament from Jadavpur in the 14th Lok Sabha (2004-2009). Dr. Chakraborty is a hometown leader. The road to Delhi for Professor Bose could not only be paved with ancestral authority. It needed more.

Professor Bose’s Allies.

Electoral democracy is a peculiar institution. In the abstract, it is wonderful – people are urged to go as citizens into the polling booth and vote anonymously for their preferred candidate who has already laid out an agenda. Social power gets in the way of the civic books. Political science sections of the library are well endowed with books on Electoral Fraud and Political Corruption, on voter intimidation and voter suppression. No wonder that the United Nations Department of Political Affairs and the European Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights train and deploy election observers in any number of countries (there was a threat to deploy UN observers in the United States for its 2012 election). In India, it is the task of the Election Commission to monitor election campaigns, the vote process and vote counting. On April 1, members of Professor Bose’s party attacked Election Commission workers in Howrah, West Bengal, as they removed illegally placed posters. The Commission workers filed a case against their attackers, “unknown Trinamul activists,” wrote the police in their First Information Report. Nothing will come of it. Violations by the TMC have become routine in West Bengal.

Everyday political corruption is insufficient for the campaign of Professor Bose. He is of course aware of the cesspool that the TMC has created. At a campaign stop he said he wanted to change the face of a part of his constituency “which often makes headlines in newspapers for incidents like clashes and murder.” What he did not say is that the culprits in this violence are frequently the TMC political muscle, and they are often people led by a former Member of the State Assembly, Arabul Islam. Mr. Islam represented Bhangar, a part of the Jadavpur Lok Sabha constituency.

Arabul Islam’s name is itself threatening. The charge sheet against Mr. Islam is so long that it would take up more than this space to explore each of his alleged violations. The word “alleged” will come up a lot in what comes below because few of his acts of violence and intimidation have reached a courthouse – let alone a judge or a jury. Mr. Islam is protected by a political safety net that is inviolable. Professor Bose welcomed Mr. Islam to one of his rallies, saying cryptically, “Arabul has a history of struggle.” Might be worth considering the nature of Mr. Islam’s struggles. Professor Bose is an educator, so it would be sufficient to list some of Mr. Islam’s interventions in the educational business.

Arabul Islam is the President of the government-run Bhangar Mahavidyalaya. Over the past three years, Mr. Islam has sought to excise the teaching establishment of any CPI-M member or sympathizer. His adversaries, however, need not have any link to the Left. They are simply people whom he does not like. Here are three examples over the past three years of his behavior toward teachers:

* (April 2012). Mr. Islam accosts Debjani Dey, a geography teacher at Bhangar Mahavidyalaya, in the staff room. Dey and her colleagues complained about the management at the college. “He walked into the staff room,” Dey said, “and started rebuking us in filthy language. When we protested, he hit me with a jug and hurt my chin.” Dey’s outspokenness vanished in a day. Mr. Islam filed a defamation suit against her. A teacher at the college says that Mr. Islam’s men threatened them to be quiet. The West Bengal College and Universities Teachers’ Association stepped in. But they could not make a mark.

* (August 2013). Mr. Islam removed Luna Kanyal from her post as teacher-in-charge at Bhangar Mahavidyalaya. Kanyal was accused of all kinds of mid-deeds, but the rumor in the college is that she was ousted because Mr. Islam said she was a “CPI-M cadre.” She was not given the chance to defend herself. Mr. Islam replaced her with Nanda Ghosh, whom other teachers say is close to Mr. Islam. Kanyal moved the High Court on the issue, since there was “no serious charge against her.”

* (March 14, 2014). Mr. Islam barged into the examination hall at the Narayanpur High School with a group of his associates. They went floor-to-floor telling the invigilators to help students who were doing their examinations. The teacher-in-charge, Gopa Roy, was rattled by the incident. When she asked Arabul Islam why he had come into the examination hall, he “verbally abused and threatened me before leaving.”

Sugata Bose and Arabul IslamArabul Islam is on the right and Professor Bose is on the left at the MC rally in Bhangar.

Ten days after this last incident, Professor Bose shared a dais with Mr. Islam. When asked about his association with Arabul Islam, Professor Bose said archly, “I am requesting everyone to maintain respect and decorum.”

Arabul Islam’s star has been somewhat tarnished by his antics, but he is not out of favor. He continues to be the boss of Bhangar. To cross swords with him would spell electoral trouble for the TMC, and for Professor Bose.

Mr. Islam is not alone in Mamata Banerjee’s West Bengal. Due west of Jadavpur in Garden Reach and Chetla, Mamata Banerjee relies upon her political associate, Firhad (Bobby) Hakim. He, in turn, relies upon his local leaders, such as former councilor Mohd. Munna Iqbal – alias Munna Bhai. In February 2013, the TMC and the Congress got into a battle at Hari Mohan Ghosh College in Garden Reach during student election season. The police came in to stop the battle, when, it is alleged, local councilor Munna Iqbal and his men fired at the police and shot to death police sub-inspector Tapas Chowdhury. Munna ran to Bihar, and after a deal was cut with Mr. Hakim, he reappeared to court. This process did not take long. Munna is now back in charge of his streets.

Mamata Banerjee could not afford to lose Bobby Hakim, who had to stand by his man on the ground. Rather than take action in her party, Mamata Banerjee secured the transfer of Kolkata’s chief of police, R. K. Pachnanda. His fate was the same as Detective Damayanti Sen, who forthrightly investigated the infamous Park Street rape case only to be transferred to the police training school. It is not a promotion. The police and judiciary fear that if they do not do Mamata Banerjee’s bidding, they will be sent to the other end of the moon. It is what allows Munna Bhai and Mr. Islam to act with impunity. It is part of the machinery that is working to send Professor Bose to Delhi.

Professor Bose experienced a negative election as soon as he got to Kolkata. When Mamata Banerjee took charge of the state, she sought to take charge of Kolkata’s premier educational institution, Presidency College. To advise the administration, Mamata Banerjee appointed a board of Mentors, led by another Harvard Professor Amartya Sen. Professor Bose joined the Mentors. When he came to Kolkata, the students at Presidency held a non-binding election to ask him to resign from the board since he had now entered electoral politics. Twelve hundred students out of fifteen hundred voted for him to resign. On April 10, 2013, as part of the attempt to take over the college, TMC men came onto the campus, threatened students and trashed the Physics laboratory – one of the most storied departments of the campus. The Student Federation of India put up a poster on campus on the day Professor Bose’s nomination was announced: “Shame! The Mentor has secured a Lok Sabha ticket by the grace of those who vandalized your college on April 10.”

Vijay Prashad is the author of The Poorer Nations: A Possible History of the Global South (New Delhi: Leftword, 2013).

Vijay Prashad’s most recent book is No Free Left: The Futures of Indian Communism (New Delhi: LeftWord Books, 2015).

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