Open Diary

Swapan Dasgupta is an MP and India’s foremost conservative columnist
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The Naxalbari anniversary and the role of non-citizens in UK elections

IT WAS THE greeting cards industry that first made occasions such as Mother’s Day and Father’s Day popular in the West. The process was then replicated in emerging consumer societies such as India. Likewise, the spate of historical anniversaries, while relevant in themselves, appears to have been the brainchild of the publishing industry. Again, after a slow start, India has started commemorating its own anniversaries.

Over the course of last month, and continuing into the silly season when the elite departs to the temperate zone, the media has woken up to the 50th anniversary of one of the more unhappy chapters in the history of post-Independence India—the Naxalbari uprising.

As a 12-year old schoolboy in Calcutta, I remember the occasion well and also recall the names of Kanu Sanyal, Jangal Santhal, and, subsequently, the notorious Charu Mazumdar. I remember Naxalbari not so much because of what happened in remote North Bengal, but because it symbolised the decline of the city I was born in and where I spent the first 16 years of my life.

Maybe Calcutta was a city waiting to explode and maybe the slow demise of West Bengal was something that was inevitable after the loss of the hinterland with Partition. However, that was not something we realised then. Calcutta of the 60s was a good city to live in. It had a life, it had character, it had cosmopolitan lifestyles and it even had a great deal of economic activity. Indeed, it was just a notch below Mumbai.

Naxalbari ruined it all. Within a year of the first government with Communist participation, the foreign airlines started leaving the city. Then the expatriates packed their bag, sold their household goods and departed. Finally, there was the gherao epidemic and one by one the factories closed and those who could began scouting for second homes in Delhi, Mumbai and Bengaluru. By the time I wrote my final school exams in 1971, I too decided it was time to move on.

Strictly speaking, the CPM was more to blame than the Maoists who painted Calcutta with their proclamation of loyalty to ‘China’s Chairman.’ Where Naxalbari scored was in motivating an entire generation of Bengal’s best and the brightest to sacrifice their futures for a grisly revolution. These educated youth wasted themselves debating the technology of murder—whether a knife was better than the gun in expressing class hatred. They hunted class enemies and ended up murdering traffic policemen and venerable vice chancellors. In the end, many of them ended up being psychologically scarred, killed, or, in the case of a well- connected few, being packed off to America. It was all a colossal waste of energy and ended up destroying both West Bengal and Calcutta. This is one anniversary I wish could be airbrushed from history.

THE RECENT BRITISH general election was very closely fought. Going by the calculations published by the Daily Telegraph, had the Conservative Party secured an extra 401 votes in eight constituencies, Theresa May would have had a majority in the House of Commons.

Of course, this figure is a bit contrived since this is not the way it works. However, it does indicate that every vote mattered, as it should. The question is: whose vote?

In most countries, only citizens have the right to vote. You may be a long-term resident in India but only Indian citizens have the right of political participation. Curiously, this is not the case in the United Kingdom. By some archaic law dating back to the high noon of Empire, all citizens of the Commonwealth (but, interestingly, not the European Union) are entitled to vote. This may include all those who have been living in the UK for long and who still haven’t taken British nationality. But it also includes students, short- term visitors and indeed anyone resourceful enough to ensure their inclusion in the election register.

The implications are quite serious. It means that individuals who do not have a stake in the future of the country are also deciding its political future. There are no reliable statistics on exactly how many non-citizens are registered as voters in the UK. However, considering that 40 per cent of the population of London was born outside the Kingdom, I think the figure is likely to be significant, at least in some key marginal constituencies.

The British have an unreal attachment to the relic called the Commonwealth. Once upon a time, it made it feel the Mother Country. Today, this pretence is distorting the Kingdom’s politics.