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City With A Conscious: Kolkata’s Heart of Empathy

Discover Kolkata's pulsating heart beneath the surface—where empathy resonates in the streets and social consciousness sparks change. A city with a soul, alive with compassion and purpose

Kolkata: Long ago, Dominique Lapierre in his novel, nicknamed Bengal’s capital as the City of Joy, a tag that since then got attached with Kolkata. The title that it got stemmed out from its history, food, culture and the laid-back life that people enjoy here.

But, the city has more than these attributes—it has consciousness, which sets it apart from almost all the other Indian cities.

‘City of Conscious’ concept, which is about having inclusivity for all kinds of people and caring for each one of its residents, using data analysis and Artificial Intelligence.

This is all about a city which thinks and is sensitive to all the causes, be it local, national or global. The city has an empathy, which we lack in our daily lives and desperately look for wherever we live.

Not just personal, social issues too matter for Kolkatans

Pratik Sinha, Co-Founder of Alt News, a resident of Ahmedabad, Gujarat now spends time in Kolkata for his work. “Since last year, it has become a ritual to sip tea with the local residents at the roadside tea kiosks. During these tea-time adda, what amazed me was the plethora of topics discussed. People do not just talk about what their sons-daughters are doing but also about socio-political issues over a cup of tea,” the fact-checker said, while participating in a protest-cum-solidarity rally for Palestine.

“They talk about socio-political and economic issues happening in the state, country and abroad. Whatever their opinion, they talk about issues, they do not ignore what is happening in the society unlike in many other parts of the country, after work, personal issues and parties remain their most important priorities in life,” he added.

He then paused and said, “As a result of that, we see people hitting the streets frequently for different issues.”

kolkata city with a conscious APDR protest silkyara tunnel
APDR protest on Silkyara tunnel incident

Kolkata has space for everyone

Mohammed Reyaz, a city-based assistant professor, said that it is because of the social and political values that Kolkata has stood for, adding that the respective governments too have largely allowed that space to common people here. According to him, this helps the common man hit the street or express their solidarity for any important or global cause.

“With all its faults, till date, whichever party has been in power in Bengal, Left or TMC, its governments have largely given space to people to protest or express themselves. We have witnessed this during the CAA-NRC protest time too. Unlike other places, there was no backlash against protesters nor were they forcibly stopped by the police in the state, except on few occasions when in some places it turned violent,” he said.

He reminded, how the Left Unions had protested against the Left government when the transport fare was hiked… Also, when the High Court had announced a ban on ‘protests on weekdays’ in 2003, Biman Basu, then chairman of the Left Front, had protested against the decision on the very first day, when the order was to be implemented.”

He recounted, “When I returned back to Kolkata in 2016, I was surprised to find out that even to date there are several theatre halls in the city, where people sit throughout the day, under the fans and often without cushions, on wooden chairs to protest meetings, discussions or watch resistance cinema.” In Delhi, I even protest meetings had first-class venues, with all kinds of comforts.

The Aliah University’s mass communication faculty also mentioned the city giving space to other cultures. “Even when there are talks of Bengali Nationalism, other cultures have their own niche spaces, including Marwari, Gujarati, Chinese, and Hindi-Urdu speaking people,” he said, adding, just in December, a grand event celebrating the centenary of Sahir Ludhianvi is being celebrated in the city by state Urdu Academy while earlier many programmes celebrating Nawab Wajid Ali Shah were organised by different groups.

He added that the hegemony of protests by certain classes has also been broken in the city, “The previous hegemony of political protests by certain classes have also gradually given way to more diverse articulations as demonstrations are now taking place in various locations across the city, and not just in certain pockets.”

anti-caa nrc rally kolkata city with a conscious protest
A Hindu-Muslim unity rally during CAA-NRC protest on August 20, 2020 | eNewsroom

But to get your voice heard, you need to position yourself better

However, Brijesh Baishakhiyar, Manager at Reserve Bank of India, a resident of Jharkhand, who had resided in Kolkata for almost a decade and is now posted in Mumbai believes that the city needs development and open more opportunities for its residents.

“I like everything about Kolkata – its food, culture and people raising their voice. But most of the time, it does not get heard. If you recall argumentative Indians, the same can be extended to the argumentative Kolkatans. There needs to be a change in narration from being argumentative to being action-oriented. Only talk will not help. There are not many new projects in the city. Earlier, any project used to be implemented in four Indian metros, but it is not so anymore. Commercial success leads to building a political clout. In Mumbai, because people have the power and connections, their issues get resolved without much fuss.”

A long history of resistance, but..

Sabir Ahamed, an educationist who works with Pratichi, an NGO founded by Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen, said, “Unlike other metro cities, outsiders always believe that Kolkata is a dying, laid back and slow city. But there is a sense of solidarity, it has a historical origin too, from the time of independence. How schooling came out, during the independence era – there were only 22 primary schools, appeals were made to the people to construct schools, and within six months, it had over 222 schools. Showing solidarity has historical roots in Bengal. During the Left regime, when we were growing up, we saw protests against America when they attacked Vietnam.”

He pointed out, “The culture of Bengal is to connect with international phenomena and the culture of resisting.”

“Students have the right to protest. Even in missionary schools and colleges, you can protest. They teach in schools that when injustice happens somewhere they have a moral responsibility to protest. So from a very early age students realize it. Office bosses with his or her employees go to protest in Kolkata, which you cannot imagine elsewhere in India,” he mentioned.

kolkata city with a conscious protest solidarity rally march
More than 2000 Indian students demonstrate in front of the American information services in Calcutta on July 13, 1966 to protest against the intensification of American air raids over North Vietnam | Courtesy: Photo by BASAK/AFP via Getty Images

But Sabir has other concerns too. “My only concern is, what I witnessed during the NRC movement, was a clear division during the protests. Most of the protests were spearheaded by Muslims. Sadly, those hailing  from the majority community, even in a city like Kolkata thought that it was the issue of the minorities.”

“In the Israel-Gaza war too, protest activities like rallies or boycott of Israeli products to show solidarity with the people of Palestine are limited to a certain community. I expect more participation from the majority community . Because India’s PM has taken sides with Israel, the atmosphere elsewhere is not favourable. And if one can protest here, everybody should participate,” Sabir added.

Selective conscious

However, even after all these, the city did not stand with Faizan Ahmed, who was killed in IIT Kharagpur.

However, when Swapnadip, a Jadavpur University student was killed, his friends, relatives and teachers from his native district, Nadia, reached Kolkata station and from where they marched to Jadavpur University. They submitted a memorandum at the VC office. Several protests took place across the city to protest against the murder and ragging. However, the same never happened when Faizan Ahmed was found dead inside his IIT Kharagpur hostel room, under mysterious circumstances. His parents rue about the fact – how Kolkatants did not stand with them.

Utsarjana Mutsuddi, a researcher has an answer to it. She mentions, “I do believe that Kolkata is probably a more politically conscious place than most of the Indian cities, but we only take care of our own. And that creates an insider-outsider dynamic that usually fractures most communities. The day we are more compassionate and inclusive of the communities like the Tamil community, Sikh community, Gujarati community, North Eastern Community, and the Kashmiri community in Kolkata we can think of Kolkata as a city which is aware of its surroundings. But most of us don’t know that these communities even exist let alone including them in the socio-cultural and political fabric.”

She then continued, “As Bangalis, we always create communities wherever we go and claim our place in other places, but we fail to extend that in our own homes. That is a city with a selective conscience.”

kolkata protest solidarity rally nandigram singur protest left
Indian people from the art and cultural front carry a poster written in Bengali and reading “Revolutionary congratulations to the people of Singur and Nandigram” as they take part in a silent protest march in Kolkata, 14 November 2007 | Courtesy: Deshakalyan Chowdhury/AFP via Getty Images

The majority too has to show consciousness

Pratik, a sports journalist, does feel the same and said, “There were regular marches during the Vietnam War. Till then the Left influence was here. This ‘influence’ does not mean being in power. It has always been there before their regime in Bengal. People doing white-collar jobs also participate in such protests here.”

He then added, “The problem now is that everything has gone to a personal level and political activities against people-related issues have gone down to zero. The consciousness now only remains at social and personal levels, and political parties are not participating or organizing such protests like they did earlier.”

He also mentioned that the anti-CAA movement was only reduced to a Muslim concern, political parties did not go to the common man and that is a major issue for everyone. When the movement was at its peak, even 35 kilometres away from Kolkata nobody spoke about NRC.” He then added, “Where I live, most of the population has migrated from East Bengal. They came to West Bengal and after clearing forest land, started to live here. If NRC is implemented, then they will face the same problems that were faced by the Hindus of Assam. Several Hindus also died in the detention centres in Assam, when they could not verify their citizenship.”

He pointed out the perception people have about the solidarity marches and protest rallies in Kolkata. But the ones who are participating often get termed as ‘useless’.”

“In Kolkata, things are changing fast. When the rally moved on roads, they were criticized for protesting on the roads and disturbing traffic. People could be heard saying – “Saley inhe koi kaam nahi hai (Bastards, they have no other work to do).”

“But in Mumbai, in 2018, when a farmer’s long march was crossing the Maximum City, they not only welcomed them but had people distributing food and water to the farmers,” he adds.

Serving the society—Through generations

There are families in Kolkata, who believe serving humanity is a way of life for them.

They may not get much attention but their silent works are impacting people’s lives directly. One such is Faiz Anwar, a Kolkata-based chartered accountant, who is involved in several charitable works and causes.

Anwar informs, “My father was also a CA, and used to do activism. He had co-founded a newspaper too. The activism passed on to me. And now I am trying to inculcate it into my son and daughter. So that they can also serve the society in future and make this world a better place to live.”

Shahnawaz Akhtar

is Founder of eNewsroom. He loves doing human interest, political and environment related stories.

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