"It's a Melancholy Ride, You and I are Included in it": A Slice of Ashok Mitra’s Writing

Ashok Mitra’s contribution to the Economic Weekly, the EPW and the EPW Research Foundation was immense and unforgettable. Below, we present glimpses from a few of his articles in Calcutta Diary, spanning decades. (These articles have been taken out of paywall)

 

On “streetcars named Jyoti” | 1967

The trams are in most parts of the world an obsolete form of public transport. Only Calcuttans know that they are a part of life. It is still possible to meet Bengalis who will say that the buses are "vulgar", good only for Bangals from the wrong side of the river, the Padma. The CTC never quite appreciated this emotional attachment of a large number of Bengalis to a particular form of transport, however obsolete; and both the Government and the company have gone about the whole business in a singularly unimaginative manner. If Friday was Jyoti Basu's finest hour, it is still to be doubted whether he knew just what he was doing and undoing in transforming the city's trams.

 

On Calcutta dying during the rains | 1973 

As the rains come, the elements take over the city; once more, the abundance of its squalor is made explicit. True, Calcutta is dying all the time, through all the seasons. But if you happen to be a part of it, yourself represent a part of the process of decay, you do not, mercifully, feel it every day of the year: you develop your own defence mechanism, the mechanism of passing-it-over. The rains, however, are a great tormentor: they do not leave you alone, they do not let you forget your heritage. Once the rains start beating down, you are no longer in a position to turn away from the assault of reality. The roads, even the major arteries, are flooded within the space of a brief 15 minutes' smart shower; traffic stalls at all points; drenched and desolate humanity stare from everywhere, marooned in their misery; they wait without hope, sullen and resigned to their fate; the drainage, whatever little there is of it, gets choked; the slums become indistinguishable from the sewerage; prices soar; pestilence stalks large parts of the city.  

We, all of us, are going to decay along with the city — so, by implication, you will be told by the municipal employee, by the superintending engineer of the public works department,
by the inspector of drugs, by the toll collector at the bridge, by the planning and development officer of the commercial bank, the college teacher, the housewife, the building inspector, the railway goods clerk, the poet. We shall be drowned and nobody wil l save us. This being the case, how does it matter if the files do not move? How does it matter if the roads are not repaired in time, the sewers are not laid, the water taps are not fixed in the slums, the Corporation does not bother to collect its revenues, the garbage is not cleared, the trains do not arrive, the goods do not reach the market? What is the particular hurry? I will die, you will die, each one of us will die. 

On the West Bengal Land Reforms Act | 1973

What follows is an authentic story. To every age its personalised sermon: protecting the little fellow, uplifting him, deploying the total weight of the administrative and judicial process so that the scales of justice could be always differentially tilted towards him, is the approved version of applied philosophy today. But does that at all disturb the placidity of real things and actual events? The story of lndra Lohar, a petty share-cropper, wouldsuggest that it does not. 

This case is neither gossip nor heresay, Indra Lohar's story is narrated in a study which was undertaken for the Task Force on Agrarian Relations, the Planning Commission and the Working Group on Land Reforms, National Commission on Agriculture by a group of state government officials. This is how, in the study, the curtain is drawn on Indra Lohar's story : When he was admitted to the hosptal after being wounded, Indra's prognosis was uncertain. It is not so now. Persecuted by his Jotedar, assaulted and plundered by his hired hoodlums, harassed and intimidated by the police, restrained by Civil Court from preferring his legal claim before the appropriate legal forum, hauled up by the High Court of Judicature at Fort William in Bengal for lowering the 'dignity and prestige' of the Court, Indra Lohar lost his will to fight for his right. He paid rather dearly for his temerity to assert bus notional rights embodied in law. Maimed and feeble, defeated and dejected, Indra has now bowed down before the majesty of the established order and stands dispossessed of his land.  

 

 

On the 1973 Economic Survey not leaving a single cliche out | 1973 

In Hindu epistemology, a category of individuals are designated as the knowing sinners, jnancipapi. There is not one sin that they will not commit, but they do so in full awareness of the gravity of what they are doing. Depending upon one's point of view, you can describe them as the great or noble ones, for they wade through the experience of sinning despite the fact that it would bring them eternal damnation. Or, again, you are perfectly at liberty to treat them with infinite contempt, since these individuals, despite possessing knowledge of the heinous nature of the lollies they are about to embark upon, do not nonetheless try to garner the strength of mind to stay away from the temptation: for them, the flesh is always weaker than the spirit.

The Government of India obviously belongs to this species of knowing sinners. This year's Economic Survey is, almost to a fault, replete with economic wisdom and awareness. It says all the right things that need to be said. Not one heroics is missed, not one cliche is left unchurned....., the Economic Survey almost appears to argue, the luxury industries having taken all this time and spent all these resources to sprout their capacity in the body economic, it would be the height of rudeness to liquidate them at one stroke. Hence the apologia of not letting resources go to waste, along with the urging that the capacity of these industries be earmarked for the export sector. "

 

On "extremists" killed by police | 1974

Suffer us not to mock ourselves with falsehood. The format is always  the same. For, the reports always  emanate from the same source. Three  dangerous 'extremists' have been shot  dead in an encounter with the police;  a dozen of them have been nabbed;  five of them have been injured - three fatally - when the border security force were compelled to open fire in self-defence; two of them have been killed while attempting a jail break; the body of a dead 'extremist' has been found in an abandoned house. Day after day spokesmen of the police feed such reports to the Press; day after day, newspapers faithfully reproduce the version. Corpses are incapable of issuing rejoinders.  

If someone killed in cold blood by the police is described as an extremist, that is only a description. All one can say is that another life has been confiscated by the representatives of law and order, and the corpse has to be given an unsavoury name. Once you identify a corpse as that of an extremist, that by itself is a retroactive justification of trigger-happiness. In this country of six hundred million, human lives are cheap: shoot a couple of bodies before breakfast, another four some between breakfast and noon, two or three more before sundown. Weariness has entered the soul.

 

On the morality of young Indians migrating to the west |1974

He who escapes, lives : so goes that adage in Sanskrit. Young people from middle-class homes evidently are sold on it. The travel regulations are pretty rigorous; to arrange a passport can take months; foreign countries — even those who were generally hospitable in the past — have gradually clammed up; most of the time an uncertain future awaits the young men and women who migrate. Still they are not deterred. It is not so much the pull of distant lands: the reason for their eagerness to take the plunge is more humiliating. 

They want to escape from their native plate, from its hopelessness and claustrophobia.These youngsters are a near desperate lot, bonds of emotion do not detain them, they want to forsake their heritage. …. One can rail against them. One can berate their lack of dignity, castigate them for their selfishness, be aghast at the poverty of their ideals. To sit injudgment over the conduct of others as however a hazardous occupation in all seasons. Moral issues are hardly ever resolved through polemics or through a show of hands. 

….

 The nation has been captured, and is being led, by a claque of crooks: motion approved again. The nation is altogether lacking in moral principles, for this is what the leaders have reduced it to: again, the proposition wins, hands down. The nation docs not any longer grip you, it cannot therefore command your allegiance. The morality at the aggregative level is matched by a frightening array of individual amoralities. Call it brain drain, call it the apotheosis of talent, the rush to forsake the native soil therefore continues, and you are admonished to withhold your moral judgment. The stringency in 'P' form regulations cannot stem the title. People, find devious ways to give the nation the slip. They manage to get away from it all.

 

On why the Indian states needed to be decentralised | 1975

The parts of India are not greater than the whole. But, unless the parts survive and prosper, there could be no whole either. No better means exist for sustaining our political structure than to release the impulses which generate fast and equitable growth. In our pursuit of the will-o'-the-wisp of rigid centralisation, we have however achieved, if  I may repeat, precisely the reverse of what we intended to achieve. Has not the season arrived to plead: let our states go? Could we not admit that the frame we have tried out for a quarter of a century deserves to be overhauled? Is the opportunity cost of turning our polity and our economy into a true mirror of federalism so severe that we have to continue to flinch from the task?

On how Indira Gandhi has no warts | 1982

With the bits and pieces falling to their places, the pattern is emerging. To be more precise, the pattern is reemerging. As some hack was heard to comment, most new poetry are rehashes of old, old poetry. For, whatever else you can do, you cannot take away a person's individual style: style is the man. Indira Gandhi has no warts. At least, the official records must say so. If Amol Palekar wants to export his film, Akriet, to the New York Film Festival, stop it, it deals with rural exploitation, It deals with the persecution of tribals, none of which exists in Indira Gandhi's India, Indira Gandhi does not have any warts. 

The bits and pieces are therefore falling to their - places. Questions are to be tolerated less and less from now on. Deviation will be increasingly frowned upon. Recalcitrant journalists will be taught the lesson of their lives. The so-called creative people must be as genteel as those who run the Tata Centre for the Performing Arts, otherwise they will be cut off from all sources of funds, Indira Gandhi has no warts: he or she who says or writes or expresses in any other form any dissonance on the point better watch out. 

On the biases inherent in the awarding of the nobel prize in economics |1983

 

A letter to the editor of this journal wails over the waywardness of the Nobel Prize awards in economics. The awards have shown an inordinate bias towards neo-classical economists. The mildest deviation from orthodoxy has not been tolerated. Even such otherwise impeccable Keynesians as Nicholas Kaldor and Joan Robinson have been ignored for the towards. This is most unfair, the letter comments unless the Awards committee begins to make amends, the faith of economists in general, and in the underdeveloped countries in particular, in the objectivity of the awards will decline precipitately, the letter concludes with the warning.

It is a most sincere letter, a well meaning letter. And yet its naivete is overwhelming, almost enchantingly so. How does one define objectivity? Is there any objectivity in economics, or is it that those signing the letter have suddenly turned into votaries of what goes by the name 'positivist economics?

A gentleman, who patented the manufacture of dynamite, and minted money by commercially exploiting the patent, had set up the awards, which were named after him, at the turn of the century. The economics prize was introduced fairly recently, and the money was put up by a consortium of the mightiest banks. Why should one assume that the awards would not reflect the biases of those who were responsible for establishing the endowment in the first place? 

On imagining a different government reaction to the destruction of the Babri Masjid | 1993

The nation waits for a catharsis. So many alternative conjectures are possible of the form it might take. The prime minister resigns in a great gesture of contrition, begging forgiveness of the nation for the immense harm he has done to it. The ruling party is rent by an upheaval; forces are unleashed who insist that it returns to its roots of uncompromising secularism. The parties in the opposition, united in their determination, come hell or high water, not to let the fundamentalists make a bonfire of the motherland, mobilise millions and millions of ordinary men and women, belonging to all denominations and no denominations, and guide these millions into active combat against the barbarians; there are pitched battles, gory beyond description, but, in the end, the point is clinched, dignity and civilisation are restored to India. Or the justices constituting the Supreme Court, with not one dissenter amongst them, resign en masse to express their scorn and anguish at what the established government had wrought to the Constitution of the land and its highest judiciary.

 It is indeed child's play to construct umpteen imaginary scripts culminating in the triumph of nobility and rectitude. 

[however] Total inactivity, the government has decided, is what nirvana is about. The government should not see any evil, hear any evil, give diplomatic recognition to any evil. If evil nonetheless chooses to stalk the country; the authorities could not be held responsible. Should the nation, as a direct consequence of this seance of make-believe, be reduced to nothingness, the prime minister could only be philosophical about the denouement.  

On what distinguishes the leaders of the BJP from the Congress | 1999

The non-sectarian regime of the Congress Party was a benign watcher when the Babri Masjid was brought down. This allegation, some will say, is by now a cliche. That does not however detract from its relevance. Between the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party there is really not much of a variation in the theme, at least going by the dramatis personae of the two parties. The leaders of both parties by and large come from the same social stratum and often even belong to the same household. Mahatma Gandhi’s own granddaughter chooses to opt for the BJP, the party symbiotically linked to the outfit that spawned the likes of Nathuram Godse. Madhav Rao Scindia was, once upon a time, in the BJP, he is currently a key functionary of the 10 Janpath Party. His ailing mother however continues to be the RSS-lining party’s Queen Bee; and, irrespective of the whereabouts of the son, her two daughters, one of whom is already a union minister, are aiming for the Lok Sabha on the party’s ticket. 

On the problems plaguing the Left Front | 2000

Bizarre is the only expression which fits recent developments in this neighbourhood. The facts involved can be easily summarised. The current political situation in West Bengal is such that no party, except the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and the Congress – or perhaps its Trinamul version – will be able to save the security deposit should it venture to fight on its own an election or a by-election in any of the 294 state assembly constituencies in the state. In other words, polarisation has reached its ultimate point. The so-called Left Front was put together in the early seventies by a dozen parties: the Communist Party of India was not a constituent of the Front in the beginning, but joined it in the early eighties. Apart from the CPI(M), there was conceivably some mass base enjoyed by this or that Left formation. The coming together of these formations had an important bearing on the struggles to counter the influence of the Indian National Congress. But facts shift over time. The contemporary reality is as stark as it can be: leave out the Communist Party of India (Marxist), the rest of the Front hardly matters any more. 

....

Several of the problems plaguing the Left Front in West Bengal are arising on account of the fade-out of ideology or philosophical belief. The Front is no longer the collage of passion and resistance to authoritarianism that it was a quarter of a century ago. Its fervour for reorienting centre-states relations, in case necessary even rewriting the Constitution, is also no longer a part of the Front’s hidden or open agenda. Iron has entered the soul. 

On BJP begining to show its fangs (by demanding compulsory attendance in the Shyamaprasad Mookerjee centenary celebration) | 2000

It is a national malady of the most sickening kind to convert into icons hoary old men after they kick the bucket. A large proportion of the nation's energy and resources are spent in observing birth and death anniversaries of such departed souls. The individual thus worshipped might have been a crook of the first water or he might have had the reputation of an unspeakable despot while alive, but the ritual of hypocrisy continues unendingly month after month and year after year.

 

 

You can find articles from the Calcutta Diary here, and other articles by Ashok Mitra here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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