Recent events seem to suggest that the patron saint of paranoia has passed on the baton to the West Bengal Chief Minister

My alma mater, Wisconsin, is much in the news, sadly for some unlovely reasons; and some equally unlovely events at home remind me of one Joseph McCarthy who used to be a Senator from Wisconsin during 1950-1954, a period which has gone down in American history as the “Second Red Scare”.

The first red scare is associated with the years just after the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 when the cry went up on the American mainland that “the Russians are coming”. Much of that has been captured memorably by Robert K. Murray in his book Red Scare: A Study in Hysteria, 1919-1920, published by the University of Minnesota Press in 1955.

But returning to the second scare: it seemed to some American right-wingers that there was a Communist in every closet on American soil, rather a tribute to the influence that Bolshevism had achieved on both the European and American continents during the period between the First and Second World Wars. A no-holds-barred campaign was unleashed to ferret out these commies from all sorts of nooks and crannies. And the method adopted was of making accusations of disloyalty or treason without proper regard for evidence, a procedure led vociferously by Joseph McCarthy, whence the term McCarthyism.

The witch-hunt led to thousands of individuals, among them Charlie Chaplin, Bertolt Brecht, W.E.B. Du Bois, Langston Hughes, Arthur Miller, Paul Robeson, Paul Sweezy and many other outstanding intellectuals and creative artists, being hauled up before governmental or private industry panels; the most infamous of these being “The House Un-American Activities Committee”. And most of those summoned found themselves answering accusation by insinuation, innuendo, third party rumour and so forth, with no evidence of actionable criminality. And never mind what Harry Truman had said on record: “In a free country, we punish men for the crimes they commit, but never for the opinions they have.”

Recent events in West Bengal seem to suggest that good old McCarthy may have passed on the baton to our own Mamata Di. In disregard of Harry Truman, not to speak of the Indian Constitution, there is evidence now to believe that the holding of an opinion unflattering to the power-that-be in West Bengal in and by itself constitutes criminality, deserving of an “off with his head” form of justice on the instant.

First there was Taniya Bharadwaj who was instantly branded a Maoist for asking a fairly innocuous question of the fairy queen on a TV channel, then the poor professor from Jadavpur University, Ambikesh Mahapatra, who was arrested for circulating a cartoon determined on the instant to be dangerously subversive of Mamata Di, and now a poor farmer, Shiladitya Choudhury, again, ah, a Maoist, or else why would he ask a question about the rising price of fertilizer, and his inability to obtain rice at Rs.2 a kg, as per policy. So off he goes too to the slammer, and no bail yet either.

How “liberators” turn “oppressors” I was told in confidence by an erstwhile staunch supporter of Mamata Banerjee, the giant killer who it seems is sadly unaccountable to any democratic or legal norm.

It will be remembered that before the last Assembly elections in West Bengal, when Mamata Banerjee was often accused of collusion with the Maoists, it was her riposte that there were no Maoists in Jangalmahal, and that the mischief was entirely owing to the cadres of the CPI(M). Now that the latter is out of power, it makes good political sense to reconstruct the enemy as the Maoist, since everybody knows how dangerous and outlawed they are.

Mamata’s McCarthyist paranoia now seems to extend its reach. She has charged that judgements from courts are “purchased”, that Commissions are useless and wasteful (just when the West Bengal Human Rights Commission has ordered her to compensate Professor Mahapatra and his neighbour, Subrata Sengupta, for the unlawful excesses vented on them, and asked for departmental action to be initiated against two police officers in the matter), and that civil society groups are a nuisance without accountability.

These accusations seem to take in institutions dear to the urban middle class’s heart, and it will be interesting to see whether those that sought “poribortan” for West Bengal had precisely this sort of package in mind. Indeed, there is speculation that where it took the Bengali electorate some three decades to be disillusioned with the Left Front, three years may bring them to reconsider the choices they must make.

Given the assertiveness of Indian democracy, it would seem that McCarthyism of any sort must have a small shelf life, regardless of who its patrons are — a lesson that the Left seems assiduously to want to learn during its exile from power.

(Prof. Badri Raina is a Delhi-based writer.)

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