Back with a Bang

KokataCalcutta has changed. And not just to Kolkata.

There’s a change in the spirit of the city, a change that has at once been gradual and sudden. A change which had been long anticipated, yet unexpected.

Calcutta during the British Raj had been the center of all ‘intellectual’ activities, as all Bengalis will emphatically tell you; those were the days of revolutionary meetings, of Tagore and Swami Vivekananda. Calcutta then was a brewing pot of all major political activities.

Since then, somewhere down the line, the situation changed. After Independence the economic sector was suffering. While other cities marched forward with business deals with international tycoons, Calcutta held on to a political ideology much worsened with constant wear over generations; and of course, it’s Intellectual Past.

For a long time, Mother Teresa was the only person everybody fell back on. Bandhs and strikes were accepted as routine, something completely alienated from the hard-working middle-class: an impromptu holiday to catch up on the week’s sleep, perhaps. As for concerning themselves with contemporary issues (active concern, that is, not just raising storms in teacups): that was something that the middle class intelligentsia didn’t hold with. Or perhaps never had time for.

Over the last few years, more specifically, the last two years or so, there’s been a definitive change in the attitude of the general public, the ‘aam junta’, so to speak. The sudden mushrooming of 24-hour regional news channel has much to do with this. Calcutta has now well over half a dozen news channels devoted exclusively for ‘bangla’ news. So ignoring or pretending not to hear about issues that concern us is definitely not an excuse now. The media in general has become much more interactive. To use a computer-oriented term, media is now more ‘user-friendly’, catering to the public at large and trying to involve their active participation instead of merely formally announcing the news to them.

Media today, especially the regional news channels, has woken up to the fact that they have in their hands the enormous responsibility of shaping public opinion. Whatever the media chooses to repeatedly flash becomes ‘breaking news’ overnight. Without going into the debate of how healthy it is to let the media decide what to think about rather than what to think, I think we can safely say that this responsibility has been more or less effectively discharged by the media, namely these all-day-long new channels exclusive to West Bengal.

Take for example the Rizwanur Rehman case. The incident of parental interference in a perfectly legal marriage, where there is disparity in social status, is not a new one. Yet, the attempted murder/suicide of Rizwanur Rehman got the full blast of media attention. And Calcutta, unexpectedly, rose up to the occasion. Thousands of people signed petitions in demand of justice for Rizwanur. The school and college going students who had previously dismissed political issues as messy nonsense now carried on candlelight vigils. Something, which Calcutta had not seen in many years. The whole middle-class, generally imbued with their typical Bengali cynicism, came together as a unit to protest. The method of protest was also different: candlelight vigils, silent strikes and black bands of mourning were certainly new to a city that had witnessed the ferocity of the Naxalite movement. And even more astonishing was the realization that they worked. The CBI probe which was demanded, was ultimately called for.

Even the recent crisis in Nandigram has aroused the public. They now have the benefit of absorbing different viewpoints of both the ruling and opposition parties through different news channels which favour particular ideologies. What’s more, they themselves can call in at any time and give an impassioned speech in favour or against the prevailing opinion. It makes them feel empowered. Many famous film-makers, writers and artists, hitherto unconnected with the political scenario, came forward in rallies and protest meetings. Students, professionals and workmen came together to voice their own opinions. Such freedom of expression was not provided before, on such a large scale.

Politics and media were inexorably linked together from time immemorial. But the face, shape and structure of media are also rapidly changing. These regional news channels, along with the traditional newspapers have returned to Calcutta some of their old fervour, their enthusiasm.

Calcutta has definitely changed. People are waking up. Something that was always wanted. But which took so long in coming…

Sohini Pal