West Bengal’s ruling party is a research subject for any serious student on origin of totalitarianism within a robust democratic system.
Since Kolkata, a city that was at the forefront of modern liberal thought in the early 19th century in this part of the world, today has little interest in introspecting, few care to analyse how in West Bengal totalitarianism has bred inside a democratic set up. For serious students of political societies, West Bengal is a curious case-study of a virus-infected democratic system. Here, the state, despite being a part of a larger democratic nation, is run along a party line which gets elected officially by people who are the primary victims of such atrocious governance and does so with the Union Government or the nation’s institutions like the courts remaining both helpless as well as manipulated spectators. West Bengal’s ruling party is indeed a research subject for any serious student on origin of totalitarianism within a robust democratic system.
Take the case of that central pillar of the state, the Judiciary, for instance. West Bengal is the only state in India that did not pay DA to its staff since 2009—for last the 13 years. The seed of this was sown during the Left Front government in 2009. Though the LF government accepted the recommendation of the 5th Pay Commission of the state and formulated the same under, The West Bengal Services (Revision of Pay and Allowance) Rules, 2009 (ROPA Rules 2009), it did not pay the employees their dues in the next two years of its rule. The Mamata Banerjee government went a step further, sat over the decision since 2011 and never paid any DA as recommended by the 5th Pay Commission. A totalitarian administration is under no obligation to follow rules.
Aggrieved government staff sought legal recourse. The Kolkata High Court, in a judgement on 20 May asked the state to clear the DA arrears within three months. The court felt that “…the State Government employees under the ROPA Rules, 2009 has acquired legally enforceable right to get Dearness Allowance at the rate to be calculated on the basis of All India Consumer Price Index as embedded in Rule 3 (c) of the ROPA Rules, 2009.” The judgement further contended that “apart from acquiring the enforceable legal right to get Dearness Allowance using the methodology of All India Consumer Price Index, such right of the employees to sustain their livelihood with human dignity has been fructified or elevated as fundamental right as enshrined in Article 21 of the Constitution. Such right available to Government Employees who are the main workforce behind the functioning of a Government in right direction cannot be denied by the State.”
No court could have passed such a judgement under a totally authoritarian state. But since West Bengal is part of the world’s largest democracy, the judgement could not be stopped. In order to delay (therefore seek to deny) justice, the state adopted chicanery and went for a review petition before the High Court just a few days before the date of implementation. That however falls within the state’s Constitutional rights. If dismissed the state reserves the right to approach the Supreme Court and thus delay justice further instead of denying it officially. But the more interesting aspect of chicanery is the state’s affidavit before the High Court on a different matter relating to payment of donation to West Bengal’s 43,000 community Durga Puja organisers. The expenditure of Rs 258 crore by a state that could not pay DA as adjudicated by the court was challenged before the High Court in a public interest litigation. When asked to file an affidavit the state government told the court that there was no unpaid DA to state government employees. That too before a court that had asked to state to clear DA arrears. In any case the court did not interfere in Mamata’s puja doles despite the financial crunch of the exchequer.
Totalitarianism is defined as the “form of government that theoretically permits no individual freedom and that seeks to subordinate all aspects of the individual’s life to the authority of the government.” A recent example in West Bengal was when the state police was seen stopping bona fide travellers from boarding trains to Kolkata so as to prevent them from joining the opposition rally in the state capital.
In a democracy there are three pillars of governance—the executive, legislature and judiciary. In a democratic system since the executive is managed by the party having legislative majority, the third pillar that is judiciary, works as a bulwark against the tendency of the ruler to turn totalitarian. But there are democratic ways of creating confusion by using the loopholes in the legal processes as could be seen in the affidavit of the West Bengal government on DA payment to teachers and staff. In a case the state simply denied that there was any arrear though the very same court had instructed the state to clear the same. Clearly, the third pillar of democracy is not always effective in reining in a truant administration.
Often enough media is cited as the fourth pillar, but the state of media in West Bengal is better left unsaid. Suffice it to accept that under persuasion (synonym is threat) of the administration there, media acts as an umbrella to the ruler than as a pillar to democracy.
The totalitarian attempt to conquest according to Hannah Arendt begins with destruction, “destruction of the essence of man”. Under a totalitarian regime absolute evil appears at final stages. It attacks human dignity. Hannah Ardent felt that to stop this one needs a new political principle. In a democracy it is expected that peoples’ power can act as a check but cannot work when the electoral process can be subverted through various means—by rigging the voter list, threatening the voters, ensuring that opposition concedes defeat even before polls—a common enough practice seen across the world, with West Bengal perfecting the scheme over the last 50 years or so.
The other means of checking the attack on human dignity could be through courts. There are many routes of ensuring the defeat of the judicial system. Filing concocted affidavits as mentioned earlier could be one, there are more. An easy one is to attack the judges, prevent a fair trial, delay the system, flout the judgements and even use of loud friendly legal fraternity in deriding the judges in open courts. Those who are looking for clues on how a judiciary can be manipulated may take lesson from the proceedings in the Kolkata High Court. In a latest move the chief of Kolkata’s Presidency Jail was called by the court to explain why his jail did not adhere to the court instruction on medical check-up of a prominent accused lodged in jail.
In West Bengal the Chief Minister even had gone on record claiming that the judges of Kolkata High Court “are aligned” to her opposition BJP and she would seek redressal in the court of people. This indeed calls for contempt of court but such impunity of public persons is generally ignored by the courts. This also helps the regime, which may demoralise the common men who go to courts in an effort to tame the autocrat.
A totalitarian government works to control the mind of the people. This can be illustrated by the Bangla Academy award to CM Mamata Banerjee for her “relentless literary pursuit”. Those who disagree are not only politically powerless but may be deprived of all intellectual and cultural resources if they make fun. Arresting bona fide travellers from trains just for going to Kolkata is yet another example.
As said earlier, for serious students of political theory, West Bengal is a unique case to be studied carefully. This may help in formulating safeguards in the democratic system. After all, history reveals that even an autocrat often enough first comes through popular support. But how in a so-called federal system like India a province can manage to follow unchecked a totalitarian streak ignoring the whole is a case to be studied. The federal government and the Apex Court need to seriously introspect to remedy the fault lines in the way Constitution is implemented in practice in some states.
Author Sugato Hazra’s latest book is “Losing the Plot: The Political Isolation of Bengal”.