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The Paradoxical Figure of Mamata: Monobina Gupta

April 21, 2011

Guest post by MONOBINA GUPTA

With the coming assembly elections, West Bengal seems to be poised on the edge of a historic upheaval that will, in all probability, enter the collective memory of its people, much like the momentous 1977 elections. The most palpable moment of this churning will manifest in what looks like an unbelievable denouement – that of the thirty-four year old monolithic rule of the Left Front. Equally stunning might be the image of Mamata Banerjee, bringing the red fortress down – a politician, almost bludgeoned to death by CPI-M cadres on 16th August 1990, now transformed into the emblematic face of this extraordinary hour. The 2011 polls may be billed as the great unraveling of West Bengal, its politics and culture – but also, I think, of gender relations. Banerjee is on the verge of acquiring a unique status, becoming the first woman head of a state well known for its misogynist culture, notwithstanding many claims to the contrary.

mamata banerjee

Mamata Banerjee. Courtesy The Hindu, Arunangsu Roy Chowdhury

An important aspect of Banerjee’s ascendancy may be lost if we fail to locate her persona within this grid of power and gender relations; if we do not contextualize her in Bengal’s thriving culture of male chauvinism. The association of West Bengal and its ruling Marxists with the autonomy and radicalization of women – who are supposedly respected in Bengal unlike in other parts of the country – is a well preserved myth. Bengal respects its women, but only if they belong to the hallowed league of ‘Mothers and Sisters’. Like elsewhere, ‘deviant’ women have little place in the land of the Renaissance.

Little wonder then that a senior CPI-M leader said recently that Mamata Banerjee can lay no legitimate claim to her slogan Maa, Mati, Manush, since she herself is not a mother: just one of the many sordid comments being flung at Banerjee with a disturbing regularity, by the respected bhadraloks running the CPI-M. But then should we blanch at these crude attempts to slight Banerjee? After all the CPI-M does have an infamous track record vis-à-vis women, a record that reveals its deeply conservative, patriarchal mindset.

Few would have forgotten the brutal lynching and killings at Bantala in May 1990 – which occurred in broad daylight in a public space – following which Jyoti Basu blithely transferred the culpability for the crime to unidentifiable anti-socials. Two months later that year, following the rapes of three Bangladeshi women in Birati, Shymali Gupta a senior woman leader of the Party and its women’s wing described Shanti Das, one of the victims, as the “mistress” of a notorious anti-social element. She accused the women of being involved in “foul professions”. Gupta’s statement, published in the People’s Democracy, was an attempt not only to whitewash the crime, but also to put the victims on the mat, as if they had ‘invited’ their attackers.

Mamata Banerjee does not fit the frame of the stereotypical respect-worthy ‘good, maternal, married’ Bengali woman which the CPI-M admires. If anything she is particularly vulnerable on this score. Her lower middle class origins, her abrasive, forthright style and jarring and unpolished language squarely place her outside the club of the genteel ‘bhadramahila. In addition, her status as a single woman makes her an object of salacious ridicule and gossip. Till the Singur and Nandigram movements exploded in the CPI-M’s face, Bengal’s middle and upper middle classes were distinctly uncomfortable with Banerjee’s lack of grace, her colorless dress code, and her subaltern style and syntax of communication.

Initially as an activist of the Youth Congress and later as Trinamool Congress president, Mamata faced countless physical attacks from CPI-M cadres, often abetted by passive spectators among the police. Far from protecting her, as may have been expected in a culture that prides itself on having humanized gender relations, Mamata found herself more and more prone to heightened attacks.

But what is Banerjee’s own perception of her identity as a woman?

Her scattered writings on gender in various books she has authored provide some answers. In general she tends to perceive most issues – including those of class, caste, religion – through the binary lens of good and evil. Her analysis is not mediated by any understanding of the complex considerations which constitute political and social processes. Within this framework, Banerjee’s negotiation of gender is conventional and clearly non-radical. In her book Manabik, the Trinamool Chief justifies the oft-repeated axiom that women themselves are their own enemies; she claims that many upper class women abuse their independence by living recklessly and destroying their families (Manabik, P 25, Deys Publishing, Kolkata, September 2010). The large-scale prevalence of domestic violence troubles Mamata deeply, and she expresses her anguish by narrating the experiences of three women she had worked with and known intimately, who lost their lives to violence at home. She pens a highly emotional narrative, but does not have a feminist vocabulary and its attendant analytical tools to decode the nature of the violence by placing it outside the domain of conventional emotions.

At the same time, it is virtually impossible not to perceive in Banerjee’s ascendancy a challenge to the existing status-quo: not just the political order, but gender relations too. Undoubtedly it would be naïve to imply that simply having a woman as the head of state would automatically radicalize social equations in the state.

A sense of affront is numbing the CPI-M, who seem to have realized that the hour they have long dreaded might finally have arrived. From a position of weakness,  with her back to the wall, Mamata has fought back not just surviving the physical assaults on her, but also creating a distinct – if confusing – cultural space, qualitatively different from the Marxists’.

To this extent while it is important to situate Banerjee in the context of gender, equally significant are the complex political and cultural processes of transformation currently underway in West Bengal. The language Banerjee deploys to communicate her politics is not just peppered with Left imagery, but also has a liberal dose of religious and spiritual content.
In 2006 the Trinamool Congress chief announced in Nandigram that her party was the new heir to the 1946 Tebhaga movement. Songs of the Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA) began to resonate at her rallies. On 8th January 2010 at a ceremony laying the foundation stone of a hospital Mamata Banerjee sang ‘We shall overcome’. At the public meeting on 21st July 2009 the mother of Nurul Islam, martyr of 1966 hunger march, was sitting on the podium. Her new form of politics blends religious and spiritual aphorisms with the rhetoric of land struggles, human rights, justice and development for the poor. Even as she whips up a passion over Tebhaga, she also invokes Ramakrishna and Sarada, Vivekananda, the Puranas and the Gita. This shifting of boundaries between the Right and the Left is leading to the crystallization of a new kind of political culture. Straddling the two opposite sides of a cultural and political spectrum – simplistically put as ‘Left and Right’ – the mix of idioms seem to catch the imagination of the people, at least for now when her popularity is at an all time high.
On the eve of these crucial elections Banerjee seems to represent the diverse aspirations of the varied sections flocking to her party – from the bhadralok, to the intellectual, the artist and the peasant. She is flanked on one side by Amit Mitra, (captain of industry) and Bratya Basu (an eminent theatre director); on her other side she has economist Abhirup Sarkar and human rights activist Sujato Bhadra.  A section of Marxist Leninists (not the Maoists)who had worked closely with the popular movements in Nandigram and Singur are now among Banerjee’s most trusted lieutenants. Some have even joined the Trinamool Congress.

This cultural-political dynamic exceeds an analysis based on gender alone and raises a larger question: How do we explain the ‘mystique’ of Mamata Banerjee? Author Mahasweta Devi offered me a succinct one-liner: “Mamata is Mamata.”
Having known Banerjee for years, she believes that the Trinamool Congress chief cannot be straitjacketed into any one single frame. She is many things rolled into one. If some believe that her surviving and surmounting the patriarchal political system shows her to be a feminist, her many associates perceive Banerjee more as a conformist than a radical – someone who would not challenge existing institutions that keep patriarchy in place.

Within her own party Banerjee functions like a dictator; she evokes awe and even terror among her colleagues. Her dictatorial impulses have come to the fore time and again in her repeated demands both to the NDA and the UPA dispensations, urging them to dismiss the Left Front government. At the same time Banerjee seems to have given many of the diverse groups and individuals who worked with her during the Singur-Nandigram agitations an autonomous space.

In order to unravel the personality of Mamata Banerjee it is perhaps therefore crucial to understand these seemingly irreconcilable contradictions and tensions.

The author is currently working on a book on Mamata Banerjee

22 Comments leave one →
  1. April 21, 2011 8:54 PM

    If didi’s rule is as bad as her poetry then we will have only ourselves to blame.

  2. April 22, 2011 11:56 AM

    Since she has been working on Mamata, I would suggest her – if she hasn’t as yet – to read a perceptive piece in Ananda Bazar Patrika by Prof Asru Kumar Sikdar, arguably one of the best literary and socio-literary analyst emerged in the mid-1950s. Asruda attempted a psycho-social assay on Mamata. My friend Tapan Bandyopadhyay translated this – okayed and a bit revised by Asruda – for Frontier which inadvertently forgot to name the translator.

    However, I feel inroads by men like Manish Gupta, ex chief secy, and FICCI CEO Amit Mitra may be destructive for Mamata. Pro-CPI(M) website pragoti.org collated Mitra’s fishy past. Interestingly, if one clicks the links, the Left Front government, Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee and CPI(M) will get exposed.

  3. April 22, 2011 4:44 PM

    A lot needs to be done if Women in West Bengal have to come ahead of men so that social balance can finally be achieved. Still one would have to say, that West Bengal is one of the safest states for women. The inherent patriarchy does remain. But is Mamata the solution. Maa Mati Manush! If she is such a feminist, why does she have people like the FICCI gen sec at her side, whose industrialist friends find no problem in treating women as a commodity and bring out racist adds like Fair and Lovely, or sexist ones like Fair and Handsome!!

    Mamata is no solution. If anything, she has taught one thing to Bengal- Anarchy and Opportunism!!

  4. NILANJAN MUKHOPADHYAY permalink
    April 23, 2011 12:13 AM

    First a concern: The little piece shows evidence of the emerging book becoming more a hagiography and less a critical biography. Behenji II, I fear!!

    Secondly a fear: Anyone who has scant respect for internal democracy; runs the party like an autocratic institution and is the ‘almost final’ choice of the majority, will begin with clear limitations because despite being a NR(Bengali), I think people still love their daily dose of adda with ‘friendly’ discord. And they will not like being told that there is only Mamata’s way to the truth!

    Thirdly, an observation: Having seen – (not interacted directly let me clarify) Mamata over the past 25 yrs, she appears to have scant respect for ‘systems’ – so absolutely essential for governance (which she will have to do now if elected). Her track record as minister over 10 years plus does not correct this impression. Running an agitation is one thing and running a government another matter. Mamata’s problem is that despite being in Congress (later TC) – very much part of Treasury benches at the Centre for greater part of her political career, she remains a quintessential Opposition leader from West Bengal. Will she be able to make a quickly learn the art of governance or will be she be overtaken by the establishment wallahs who are cordoning her now? For the moment, Mamata displays the symptoms of being the Uma Bharati of WB – very effective in agitations but restless in the Secretariat. Someone who would love to go on hunger strike against her own govt.

    Despite these observations, it will be a surprise if the Red Brigade returns to Writer’s Building. LF deserves it – and probably a defeat will also do them good. Whether it will be good for West Bengal or not, time will tell. For the moment, there however is no denying that Mamata has demonstrated that single minded ‘obsessions’ do make political success stories. She has toiled hard, been heaped enough ridicule & scorn and deserves to be studied as a serious political contemporary.

  5. monobina permalink
    April 23, 2011 8:14 PM

    Apparently Mamata doesn’t know polite politics. Perhaps Hooghly CPI-M MP Anil Basu can teach her. Here is the comment which according to Buddhadeb “doesn’t speak well of a Communist leader” (but is nonetheless, typical of CPI-M’s politically ‘learned’ language). Good to know these are the people who know ‘the art of governance':

    “America is giving Mamata the money. Why should she take money from Chennai and Bangalore? Rich clients have come, so there is no place for poor clients. I am asking Mamata, where did she get the 34 crore rupees?” (http://www.ndtv.com/article/assembly-polls/outrage-over-cpm-leaders-comments-on-mamata-100995)

    This cleansed version from NDTV doesn’t contain the explicit reference to Sonagachi. For the complete cultural performance of these politically educated classes, see: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fvyh1xp8zRs

    • kaustav permalink
      October 12, 2012 12:13 PM

      The comments made by Anil Basu are deplorable .Even the comments of Binoy Konar on Medha Patekar were in poor taste to say the least. But that does not and cannot justify Mamata’s arrogance and some of her comments made before the 2011 general elections.

  6. Jhuma permalink
    April 24, 2011 10:16 AM

    Prasanta Pradhan had earlier also called Mamata ‘Sonagachhi’r potita’. Anil Basu is however even a cut above the rest. The misogyny of bhadrolok becomes even more palpable with belittling of prostitution as a profession. It may also be fair to mention that Bratyo Basu was guilty of the same. Bratyo babu lamented the ills of equating ‘theatre workers’ with ‘sex workers’ by the communist party. Bengal’s ‘babu kalchaar’ is probably here to stay.

  7. Debraj Bhattacharya permalink
    April 24, 2011 6:01 PM

    Good article and waiting for the book. I have a few small observations. We cannot start discussing Mamata Bannerjee without remembering the episode of the fake PhD degree which came out in mid-eighties. She was caught red-handed claiming that she has a PhD degree from an American University. Secondly, the author would hopefully tell us in her book why Mamata decided to break away from the Congress and form another party in 1998. Thirdly, why did Mamata join hands with BJP? How would left radicals like Mahasweta Devi explain that? Is this also an example of “Mamata is Mamata”! She then dumped BJP when she realised that the Hindutva card was not selling in Bengal and took up a populist leftist posture and decided to take help of whoever was opposed to CPI-M – Maoists, Congress, intellectuals like Mahasweta Devi. These varies forces, all nurturing a long-standing hatred of CPI-M decided to join hands and project Mamata since she was the only opposition leader who could challenge CPI-M. This also explains why Mamata’s slogan “Maa Maati Manush” is a vague one; otherwise she would have to spell out her ideological choices and would not be able to have Maoists and neo-liberals like Amit Mitra backing her at the same time. There is not much evidence that TMC is a party that is keen on fighting for gender rights. Today she is riding the anti-CPIM wave rather than finding supporters for causes she genuinely believes in. One has to give her credit for the single minded determination with which she has fought against the CPI-M. No one else in Bengal was capable of this. Hence a diverse group with their own grudges against CPI-M is backing her and waiting for her to win the election. Whether they continue to support Mamata in the long run remains to be seen. There is perhaps a simple word that explains Mamata’s brand of politics – populism. She has a one-point agenda – to dislodge CPI-M from power and for that she is willing to do whatever is required, from joining hands with BJP to joining hands with the Maoists.

  8. Joyjeet permalink
    April 29, 2011 12:01 AM

    For now, only Mahasweta Debi seems right… “Mamata is Mamata.”
    All the best for your book. Waiting eagerly.

  9. Parichay Patra permalink
    April 30, 2011 11:49 PM

    I must say that the comment posted by Debraj Bhattacharya is highly objectionable, since the alleged link between Mamata and the so-called ‘comrades in arms’ is yet to be proved. They share some common grounds without doubt, which some of the human rights activists share too. Newly enforced laws like UAPA have become dangerous weapons in the hands of the lefts in Bengal and these bloodthirsty monsters have pounced upon the indigenous population in ‘Jangalmahal’ to ensure that the illegally occupied properties of their local bosses remain safe and untouched. In some places, extremist factionist groups are helping CPI(M) as well. Besides, the patriarchal, highly traditional Bengali ‘Bhadralok’ with their intense love and admiration for babudom has miles to go before recognizing her efforts.

  10. RaHy permalink
    May 1, 2011 1:35 AM

    Dichotomy, dichotomy, dichotomy all over.

    Your philosophies dream of heaven and earth, dear Parichay babu, but literary-minded folks like you are chained to the oldest of all thinking evils: dichotomy. Part of the problem is that bhadralok (note the absence of the quotes, please?) rationality is part of every edoocated Bengali’s troubled inheritance. Parthababu and Dipeshbabu and many other babus have written lots of nicey papers on that- so read them and pave your own way to akademic excellence. But pleez don’t simplify things in terms of textbook morals (me and you dear, we are speaking angrezi, aren’t we?) whose unkind traces remain in our heads… Come on, don’t deny it!

    Recognition of Mamata’s pro-people ‘actions’ presupposes some action on her part, in the same way a recognition of CPIM’s pro-people ‘actions’ (wow! I using quotes!) presupposes something in the same order. Well, what kinds of actions? None, to see… but a paradox of visibility.

    Visibility is important dear, for you don’t get to hear often of other people who’ve lived and died, say Shankar Guha Neogi for instance.

    So it’s damn important- remember visible dichotomies matter!

    TMC vs CPIM?
    Communists vs capitalists?
    Bullets vs ballots?
    Coke vs Pepsi?
    Fellini vs Godard?
    Phantom vs Mandrake?
    Stegosauruses vs dinosaurs?
    Paper planes vs paper clips?
    Public latrines vs public urinals?
    Do you really care?

    Choice between dried shit and fresh, smelly shit isn’t much of a choice.

    The sad reality is the majority of people in WB don’t take any shit from either of the two parties, and any political parties who claim representation on their behalf. Like the people in rest in the country they too want to left alone, and in peace.

    Peace vs Greenpeace, eh? Choose the right one and you get a brand new pack of Parle Poppins, I promise.

  11. Debraj Bhattacharya permalink
    May 1, 2011 9:02 AM

    I did not understand exactly Parichay Patra is objecting to! The early history of Mamata Banerjee has been well documented by Dwaipayan Bhattacharyya (Making and Unmaking of Trinamool Congress, EPW, April 3-10, 2004). That she broke away from Congress and joined hands with BJP is a fact that is beyond dispute. Similarly that she dumped BJP when the party was not able to make much of a headway in Bengal is also beyond doubt. Till 2006 she had performed poorly in Bengal politics. The question now is what explains her spectacular performance since 2006. We do need good empirical research on this. However that she was (and is being ) helped by certain intellectuals is beyond doubt. She has also acknowledged that by giving them posts in dubious railway committees.

  12. Parichay Patra permalink
    May 2, 2011 10:09 AM

    I am not unfamiliar with Parthada and Dipeshbabu’s writings. And thanks for suggesting me the piece by Dwaipayanbabu which I did not notice. What I am insinuating at is the simple fact that people of WB has no alternative other than electing the alliance leaders. Mamata has secured the support of the ‘political society’ by now, especially after the violent feuds between the CPI(M) feudal lords and the peasants. But I doubt whether she can manage to secure enough support from our ‘civil society’. Most of them, like you people, tend to remain ‘Sri Niropekkho’ since they are unwilling to keep faith in Mamata. My own explanation is that Mamata has brought the southern brand of politics over here. Her own larger-than-life image, her much-advertised exemplary virtue, her cut-outs, the nature of her electoral campaign, the organized fan-following which we can take as the counterpart for the activities of the fan associations of southern stars—–all these stand for the southern notion of ‘Cine-politics’, as Madhava Prasad explains it. It signifies a crisis of sovereignty undoubtedly, but should not be discarded as an affect of the political activities of the gullible and infantile mass. The leftist critics like Chidananda Dasgupta used to do this, and now we give him a deaf ear after going through the writings of Madhava Prasad, or, more importantly, S.V.Srinivas.

  13. Debraj Bhattacharya permalink
    May 2, 2011 12:32 PM

    Parichay Patra has raised an important issue – the coming of cine-politics in Bengal. Or may be we should call it “tele-politics” because of the support she is getting from television channels? However I am not sure whether TMC has completely taken over the political society that CPIM had created. I think the crucial test will be the next panchayat elections rather than this Vidhansabha election. If TMC manages to improve its performance in the next panchayat elections then we shall know that they are likely to rule Bengal for a long time and it would mean that they have taken over the rural power structures that CPIM had built over the years. On the other hand if CPIM manages to come back then TMC’s success could be temporary.

    I had made no reference to Partha Chatterjee and Dipesh Chakrabarti and hence could not understand why their names were brought in.

  14. RaHy permalink
    May 2, 2011 9:19 PM

    Parichaybabu, your erudition is really impressive. Now you’ve drawn in Dwaipayan and Madhava Prasad and Srinivas (er, should I use babu here? I guess I shouldn’t) to justify your championing of Mamata’s politics. Helps you understand better, but you weren’t born when similar circumstances (minus the TV and the net) rallied leftist intellectuals spewing names and concepts to the support of Mrs. Gandhi the elder. You haven’t seen and have no idea of the earlier hoardings, the filmi-style campiagn tours, the giant cutouts, the crowds, or ever listened to the AIR broadcasts that were listened to across the country… So these things appear to you as new. Mamata is blindly copying her earlier leader, and putting her one time Youth Congress training to good creative use.

    Come on, “there is no alternative” is a concept older than Samuel (what’s his name?) or the TV. Alternatives are invisible because people like you doggedly refuse to see beyond the obvious. ( Sree Niropekkho is a bad slang. The man still blindly blasts all he thinks is the left and sees Mrs. Gandhi’s perfect order destroyed by petty politics. Check his columns in the Bangla version of the Statesman if you can. If you think my words above resemble that of the old Sree Niropekkho Amitava Chaudhury, an errand boy of the Congress in the press of the yesteryears, I must say you don’t know what you’re saying. I can compare you to a confused chimpanzee in front of a keyboard and a monitor, but I won’t. Chimpanzees don’t resort to name-throwing to prove their erudition or ignorance of history. Certain humans do.)

    As I said earlier, choice between two kinds of shit isn’t much of a “civil” or “political” choice.

  15. Parichay Patra permalink
    May 2, 2011 9:55 PM

    Not you, but RaHy talked about Partha, Dipesh et al.

  16. Parichay Patra permalink
    May 7, 2011 11:26 AM

    @RaHy: What really surprises me is the kind of sheer arrogance manifest in your comments. I am gradually becoming the butt of personal attack. Let me answer the allegations you have raised against me :

    1. I did not compare you or any other with Amitava Chaudhury. I used the term ‘Sri Niropekkho’ for its denotative meaning, not for the connotations it provokes.

    2. I know very well that S.V. Srinivas would not like to have a ‘babu’ added to his name. And I should not be accused for namedropping, not only because of the fact that I know both Madhava and S.V. personally, shared seminar spaces with them in India and abroad, but also because I am working on South Indian cinema and politics in general for a considerable period of time. I can read and write Malayalam without much difficulty ,and can read Tamil too.

    3. This is right that I haven’t seen Mrs. Gandhi’s electoral campaign. I was born a year after she was killed. But I have used the term ‘cine-politics’ in a different sense. In all the southern states where the stars retire only to become politicians, where the industry generates politicians when those spent-up stars can’t generate profits any more, where the transformation of the spectator in a curious category called ‘fan’ is natural, the notion of ‘cine-politics’ seems to be looming large. In Kerala only this trend is not prevalent, because of the way the left has usurped the same space of popular politics there which has been occupied in the neighbouring states by popular cinema. Ratheesh Radhakrishnan has recently written an interesting account of that. In an interview with me, economist Kalyan Sanyal expressed the idea of reading the ‘Didi’ phenomenon situating it within the trajectory of popular cinema. And how can I forget Ashis Nandy’s observations on Indian populist politics and popular cinema, where he coind the term ‘slum’s eye-view’?

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