Is Mamata India’s most anti-free speech neta?

Having ousted the Leftists, the Bengal CM has taken over the fabled Stalinist mantle, and the Rushdie episode proves that once more


Shantanu Datta | February 1, 2013

Mirror mirror on the wall, which neta is the most anti-free speech of ’em all?

In the open season on muffling free speech in India, that Mamata Banerjee’s is one of the bigger silhouettes seen on that mirror often goes unnoticed. Yes, she calls people “Maoist” at the drop of a hat; yes, she has people arrested for questioning her policies (the police chargesheet against farmer Shiladitya Chowdhury, arrested last year for questioning the chief minister over rising fertiliser price, was quietly submitted last month); yes, she also gets people arrested for circulating spoof images on email or facebook mocking her; yes, she bans newspapers critical of her government from being accessed in public libraries and offices; yes, she bans books and writers.

And yes, she has done them all in only a year and half since assuming office at Writers’ Building in Kolkata.

Strangely, though, the faces that come to mind while discussing issues like jackboot on a skeletal freedom of speech appear strikingly similar to the likes of Narendra Modi, Bal Thackeray, his nephew Raj, sundry faceless central ministers and, well, Jayalalithaa in her latest strong Amma avatar. Mamata Banerjee? She could well be everyone’s favourite whining didi — slightly ill-tempered, irritable, austere, unpretentious, honest and unfussy for a politician, though one with a sharp tongue. But owner of a good heart and soul nevertheless.

While the likes of Taniya Bhardwaj (the Presidency College student dubbed “Maoist” by Mamata), Shiladitya Chowdhury, IPS officer Nazrul Islam and retired IAS officer Dipak Kumar Ghosh (both their books ‘banned’ by the West Bengal government for daring to itch to bitch against Banerjee and her administration), among others, have been crying for attention for long, Salman Rushdie has given it some credence now.

"The simple fact is that chief minister Mamata Banerjee ordered the police to block my arrival," tweeted the novelist, according to PTI. "I did not get "friendly advice" to stay away from Kolkata. I was told the police would put me on next plane out... The police gave my full itinerary to the press and called Muslim leaders, clearly inciting protests," he claimed on the micro-blogging site.

Rushdie was forced to cancel his trip to Kolkata on Wednesday to promote Deepa Mehta's film 'Midnight's Children' based on his novel. Banerjee, who had hit the inside pages of newspapers outside Bengal for ‘warning’ pro-separatist Gorkhaland activists during her visit to Darjeeling earlier in the week, lay low. There was no confirmation or rejection from either her, or her usually vocal and voluble ministers and party leaders as the news spread all through Wednesday.

That’s precisely the signs probably misinterpreted by most — an unpretentious and unfussy, if slightly irascible, neta. But hardly. It could well be deemed an extremely cunning political mind at work — a game given away slightly by her party leader Sultan Ahmed, who subsequently called the British-Indian novelist “Shaitan Rushdie”.

As pointed out by Governance Now columnist Kajal Basu much better (please read Why Rushdie could not go to Kolkata), the bid to bar Rushdie was the “result of West Bengal electoral politics”, with the panchayat polls in May in mind.

What’s worse, the whole jingbang in the state has been cowered to pulp by Banerjee and her taste for freedom to speak (or speak out). While all officials of the Kolkata book fair fell over themselves to refute reports that Rushdie had been invited to speak at the ongoing fair, both the writer and Deepa Mehta stated in no unambiguous terms that the festival organisers had even sent him a flight ticket to make that dream appearance.

But then in Mamata’s Bengal, where industrialists are forced to sing Rabindra sangeet and police are asked to deny a rape is a rape, where every questioning arch of an eyebrow is seen as conspiracy and probing glare deemed sympathetic to Maoists or CPM, such is the tone, tune and tenor of the ballad of the road these days, with deep apologies to Satyajit Ray. Time, perhaps, India got over the fascination with the Bengal CM’s austere rubber slippers, cloth jhola and simple sarees and saw the politician behind all that.



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