Manoranjan Byapari with one of his many fans, Pokhara Pratik (Express Photo: Pratik Kanjilal)
Since the time in which Gunpowder in the Air is set, the politics, literature and society of West Bengal have changed completely. What direction are they taking, as the state prepares for a sharply contested election in 2021?
We, who had walked a certain path to think and work for social change, did not have the skill to cope with the adversary. We wanted to make the youth rational, scientifically inclined, socially aware and prepared to protest. We wanted to tell them what we had understood, that this society is unfit for human habitation, and no place to bring up children. It is an inhuman society. We wanted to build a better society where all could live with dignity, and no one would want for food, clothing, health and education.
You are referring to the period when you harboured Naxalite sympathies?
The Naxalite movement was only one part of a struggle for social reform. Many people have fought, each in their own way, for the same goal. And irrespective of ideological or party affiliation, they all understood that in its present form, society is unviable and in need of change. No one deviated from that truth. But later, because of electoral exigencies, parties which contested elections became divided. That didn’t happen to the Naxalites, who differed only on questions of praxis, not that of the goal.
But all those who fought for social change, by whatever means, have been defeated by the capitalist dispensation. It has won, and it has poisoned the hearts and minds of the youth. It has made them self-centred. Students and youth have always led from the front in progressive struggles. It is they who make personal sacrifices. But the youth of today have been successfully turned away from protest, and part of the student community has been made self-centred.
And our culture... the strength of human society springs from culture. Literature and art show the way. The ways of thought that capitalism has successfully imposed on people have made them selfish hedonists. We have lost to their arts, but we have not fled the battlefield. We have dug in. Our light shines, though dimly. A spark can start a forest fire.
The question is, how long people will accept the present dispensation. At some point, there will be rupture. When it happens, questions about what we have done or failed to do will become irrelevant. If we were in error, the people of the future will set it right, we fully believe. Old people like me, we’re done. We’ll be in this world for maybe another two or three years, and then we’ll be gone. We found the present dispensation intolerable and fought against it. If succeeding generations find it intolerable, too, they’ll fight. And if you can accept it, you’ll live with it. We have done our duty. When we die, it will be with the satisfaction of knowing that our spine stayed erect.
But whether in the Northeast or in Delhi, the frontline is still the university campus.
Education creates awareness, and awareness ignites revolution. The seat of awareness is the university — JNU, Presidency, Jadavpur, the people there are the frontline soldiers, capable of analysing society. This is precisely what every ruler fears. They want people to remain unlettered, unaware. Why were fees hiked in JNU? To exclude students from lower-class homes. They want the children of the rich there, to carry forward the culture of the rich, which we call apasanskriti. The government does not fear that. In fact, it is what it wants.
Now, when these children emerge from universities, how many can the government promise employment? When people don’t get jobs commensurate with their education, they’ll be angry and rebel. That’s because education has given them the power to analyse what’s happening, and to explain it. But an illiterate labourer or rickshaw-puller (Byapari’s original profession) like me... I was frustrated, and how did I express it? I picked up a bhojali and struck someone. This sort of thing can’t start a social revolution. I find it much more useful to write, to be published (Byapari taught himself to write in jail) than to chase people about with a weapon. But the government would always want me to have a bhojali in my hand, not a pen. They’ll try to push me towards the weapon, and I’ll try to stay with the pen.
In the east, many feel that the target of the NRC and the Citizenship (Amendment) Act is not Assam but West Bengal.
The target is the Bengali, whether in Assam, Tripura, West Bengal or elsewhere. Because Bengalis think for themselves and have strong liberal sentiments. And because the left has been the enemy of fascism forever. As fascism grows, their targets are Bengalis, Muslims, Dalits, Adivasis — these societies must be destroyed. Bengalis in particular, because they protest. They get Nobels!
Over there, if they can start a fight between Hindus and Muslims, between people who trace their roots to India and to Bangladesh... Seventy per cent of the population of Greater Kolkata is not Bengali. Travel in every direction — south to Haldia, north to Asansol, west to Kharagpur — and you will find yourself amidst Hindi-speaking populations. Bengalis can be made to feel cornered in their own state. The Bengalis who originated on this side of the border are being told by Hindi-speaking immigrants, who are clearly Indians, that Bengalis from Bangladesh are interlopers. Hindus who moved here from Bangladesh are being told that Muslims are the problem. A rumour has been spread to the effect that two crore Muslims have come here from Bangladesh. Another rumour says that Hindus have fled Bangladesh to escape oppression. And they want us to believe that two crore of their oppressors also crossed the border and settled in our midst?
The project is to destroy Bengali society. Now, they are saying that under the CAA, immigrants will be given citizenship so long as they are Hindu, and on the side, they’re also saying — they must have suffered religious repression. Now, how is that to be proved? My father, who fled East Pakistan fearing riots in 1953 — did he make a complaint in the thana diary, and did he tell the police, “Write, brother, write that I am fleeing your torture?” The Bengalis from the other side don’t understand this trick. What document could you possibly have to prove that you fled religious repression?
See what is happening in West Bengal. Everyone is coming together against the NRC, irrespective of party banners. It may not remain peaceful, and that’s how they want it. If there’s conflict, they’ll impose President’s Rule. Meanwhile, the voter lists are being updated, and I’m sure certain kinds of people will be excluded.
So they’ll defeat us in the polls — not that we ever trusted elections very much — because Nirvachan Sadan and the Supreme Court pay heed to them. And they have the money to buy everything in the state. A bad time is coming, there will be dreadful repression, and I don’t know what will follow. I’m not concerned about my life, or my family... I saw images of a 65-year-old woman being dragged away to a detention camp in Assam. I remember her heart-rending cries. My blood boiled. Let anyone try to touch a single member of my household. Let me see who has the guts to drag anyone away. I shall not go as an innocent to a detention camp. If necessary, I would rather commit an offence, be charged and go to jail for it.
Is Bangla literature in good health?
Bangla literature, which was our pride, has lost its activistic spirit. Bangla literature has always had an erect spine, but litterateurs have bent in the hope of finding state patronage, whether from the CPI(M), the Trinamool Congress or the BJP. The numbers of those who still stand erect have dwindled. The poet Shankha Ghosh remains. Mahasweta Devi is gone, and no one has taken her place to ask the emperor: “So, where are your clothes?” What remains is ambition. The literature of the ambitious is discussed in ambitious magazines. The competition is about licking feet. If one is licking a small foot, another is licking a bigger foot. Commercial literature is being produced, and the most commercially successful is being honoured with awards.
Manoranjan Byapari is now a success, on shortlists everywhere. I have fought my battle in the pages of little magazines. To this day, not a single major Bangla publication has asked for my writing, because it would be contrary to their line and their philosophy. In fact, I have been helped in my struggle by publications outside West Bengal. If I had not looked beyond my state, I would still be an alley writer, still sleeping on the footpath.