From Byword- India Today (August 12)
Colour in Tuesday the 9th of August as a green-letter day in the history of Bengal (red-letter might be too provocative a suggestion). The first SMS joke about Mamata Banerjee was fired into cyberspace circulation that day. It is always reassuring to witness a return of laughter after some unremitting awe.
Perhaps laughter is too strong a word; the sms was more of a feather tickle along the ribs. It said: 'Mamata wants Kolkata to become like London. It seems her wish is coming true-London is becoming the Kolkata of old'. The wit was careful. Note the 'Kolkata of old'.
Hyperbole comes easily to politicians, even to the sincere, particularly at the start of their terms, when their world is young and every horizon is just a wish away. Dr Manmohan Singh promised to turn Mumbai into Shanghai, and Mamata Banerjee assured the descendants of the true capital of the British Raj that London was within their reach without the trouble of buying an airline ticket. Mumbai is still Mumbai, and a bit worse for the rancid wear and tear of seven Manmohan years. Every city is SUI generis, fruit and flower of its own socio-economic realities.
The Bengal CM's fantasy may have been doubly misplaced, however, for London, the great model of civic virtue and capitalist triumph, is straining at the seams across the BBC screen. The news has moved. Calm is news. The BBC headline, as I write, is that the capital is quiet after four nights of violence, which at best is pyrrhic relief since it is morning in London and the bonfires are lit in the evening. The Birmingham Test that began last Wednesday was sold out, but the stands had pockmarks of vacant space, which became larger after tea, for the centre of Birmingham had been alight for two nights.
British Prime Minister David Cameron's response was unadulterated muscle. He mobilised police, ordered water cannons to stand by and summoned his top security committee, called cobra. The acronym is conscious. cobra strikes fear; reality is less lethal: England does not have enough policemen to control an insurrection of the underprivileged. This was evident in the tv coverage of young people walking down besieged streets with cool confidence, as watching policemen wondered what to do. The most interesting image I saw was of a policeman hitting a black youth hard with his baton, and then retreating when the boy's girlfriend protested. The couple resumed their walk. They did not cower, or run. Voices from the establishment cried out for the Army: what next?
Britain's violence will not cease because of Cameron's bluster about "sickening scene" of "looting, vandalising, thieving, robbing" or promise to send these "criminal" to jail, as if British jails had the space. It will end when the poor have delivered their volatile message.
Law and order is a self-functioning mechanism. When people respect the law there is order. Mass upsurge can be dangerously destructive, or even life-threatening for a nation, but it is not crime in the conventional sense. Those children stealing trainers in Liverpool are the eye of a larger storm. They have a different definition of loot. They have watched bankers waste the nation's wealth, get bail with people's money and then re-reward themselves with egregious bonuses. If the rich can get away with loot, why not an extra pair of shoes or television set? The welfare of the stock exchange has primacy over the welfare of the people; profit is the one commandment left in the code. Cameron cuts social services with a hatchet while luxury goods are the only goods that fly off London shelves. Wealth has become dysfunctional. Loot and chaos is not the cure, but it is a symptom.
Dear Bengal Didi: May every dream of yours come true. But please don't make Calcutta into another London. Here's a thought. Why not make Calcutta tomorrow just what it was yesterday: with arms of steel and a heart of gold?