Illustration: Sudeep Chaudhuri
Illustration: Sudeep Chaudhuri

WHEN A big tree falls, the ground beneath is bound to shake”: Rajiv Gandhi, 1984. “Action and reaction”: Narendra Modi, 2002. “Women raped, a woman with her womb cut open and foetus torn out — what is new about this, we have heard these stories for 50 years, it is what happened on the streets of Delhi in 1984”: George Fernandes in Parliament, 2002. “The opposition has been paid back in their own coin”: Buddhadeb Bhattacharya, 2007.

In the blizzard of ugly voices, a balm. “Let me assure you that my attention to the issue will remain continuous and intense. The attention of any Governor to such an issue would”: Gopalkrishna Gandhi, 2007.

There have been many casualties in Bengal in recent months. People. Homes. Decencies. Certitudes. Men and women one considered hardy warriors in universal battles for justice have suddenly passed through a Smirnoff lens and revealed the fang behind the sickle: Buddhadeb, Brinda Karat, Prabhat Patnaik, Utsa Patnaik, Sudhanva Deshpande, Soumitra Chatterjee… A long and saddening list of once-large people speaking in the tongue of George Bush: us and them. We no longer depend on our leaders to do the right things, but until recently, we did expect them to say them. In the maelstrom of corruptions that has come to mark Indian public life, verbal decencies kept us from the brink. Now even that has been cast aside: we have been tossed into the wilderness. And as different sides argue eloquently about who has been more violent and who was violent first, nothing has been a greater casualty than the very idea of peace.

After TEHELKA’s recent exposé on the Gujarat genocide of 2002, Outlook carried a report about how Muslims in the state were dismayed by the story. Having been burnt and brutalised first and then having had every door slammed on their face for five years, they were terrified that anyone should take up their cause afresh. Terrified to seek justice. Terrified of the shadow that might stalk them again. They had been pulped into acquiescence, they did not wish again to take human shape. Narendra Modi calls that animal kingdom peace. In Bengal, it is no different. Having “recaptured” its lost ground with an orgy of slash and burn, having mugged people of their fundamental right to dissent, having replanted its jackboots in every village and bayoneted the opposition into joining their exulting processions, the people’s party has declared a restored state of peace.

We are in the process of chastening the world’s most populous and noisy democracy into a petrified silence: that is our new model of peace. Through this dark, bewildering night, through this imploding house of public culture, one man has been walking in quiet grace. The balm in the ugly blizzard: Gopalkrishna Gandhi, Governor of West Bengal. Modern day heroes are no longer men who fight the impossible: it is heroic enough to be an ordinary man discharging one’s ordinary duty. Too often though, we don’t expect now to find these heroes among the ranks of official India. This is what makes Gopal Gandhi so precious. He is a reminder of things past. And a reminder of things possible. As political leaders and public custodians across the country smudge our memory of what honour and integrity and fairplay means, he stands tall, giving those ideas breath. AS EVENTS in Nandigram have unraveled, Gandhi has persisted in keeping the correct signboards going.

After March 14, he expressed “cold horror” at the excesses of the State. In April, when Trinamool loyalists attacked CPM MLA Illyas, he sent him a personal letter of commiseration. In turn, when CPM cadres rode in on armed motorcades to take back the rebelling countryside, he called the violent recapture “illegal and unconstitutional”. He has refused to buckle. Compare him with the governors of Delhi and Maharashtra and Gujarat in 1984, 1992 and 2002 respectively, and one can understand why anonymous citizens in Kolkata say, “When Gopal Gandhi walks into a room, he exudes a kind of extraordinary light.”

Gandhi is the Mahatma’s grandson, but it would be unfair to reduce him merely to lineage. History is littered with grandsons who betray their noble genes. A gifted, refined, witty man, Gandhi has held many important posts, among them ambassadorship to countries like South Africa and Sri Lanka. But what sets him apart is something more individual. In a stirring article on the legendary Kamladevi Chattopadhyay, Gandhi describes her as “naturally anti-pomp, anti-pelf, and shall I say, anti-chandeliers.” He could have been speaking of himself. Would it were that more leaders of our time were anti-chandelier, we all might be flooded with extraordinary new light.