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Mainstream, VOL LX No 16, New Delhi, April 9, 2022

Interrogating the Ghost of Party Politics | Arup Kumar Sen

Friday 8 April 2022, by Arup Kumar Sen

Politics has become a part of everyday life of the people in 21st century India. A person is often judged solely by his/her political identity, irrespective of the will of the person. The ghost of this narrow identity politics has a long history.

Phanishwar Nath Renu’s story, ‘Party Ka Bhoot’, published before India’s independence (1945), brilliantly portrayed the suffocating world of this identity politics. To put it in the words of the English translator of the story, Rakhshanda Jalil: ‘The Party’s Ghost’ is a tongue-in-cheek satire on the inevitable and unending politicisation of virtually every walk of life in the volatile society of the politically-charged state of Bihar. With everyone necessarily having to belong to one camp or the other, the Common Man, no matter how self-avowedly apolitical he might be, willy-nilly gets identified with a group or party (sometimes more than one party at the same time!)”. *

The narrator of Renu’s story was a victim of party-based identity politics right from his school days. The narrator’s father told Panditji (the village school teacher) while getting his son admitted in the school: “The school is run by their party. Forget about my son, there are other boys in the village...If I am not able to send the other boys to school, it will bring shame to my party...”.

The ghost of identity politics was carried in the life of the narrator when he pursued his studies in a city school: “I finished my studies in the village school and came to the city to enrol in a high school...not only did I make many good friends among Bengalis, I also began to take an active interest in Bengali literature and music...A short while later, the battle between Bengalis and non-Bengalis erupted. Both sides were generous with abuses”.

What happened when the narrator got admitted in a college? Let it be stated in his own words:

“The story of my college days is somewhat longer but certainly far more interesting...On the very day that my name was entered in the register of the Students Federation (Communist Group), I was informed that I had also been included in the Working Committee of the Students Federation (Socialist Group).

Had it been a matter of belonging to just two parties, it would not have been too worrying; but I soon got entangled with a third party”.

We find in the story that the narrator was criticized by his best friend, a socialist, for reading Munshi Premchand’s novel, Godan, as he considered it to be “a reactionary book”. This signifies the narrow vision of party politics.

The narrator was arrested as an activist of the Communist/Socialist (?) Party and was sent to a jail. He found that “...the party disease spread like an epidemic all through the jail”.

After being released from jail, the narrator found that his “studies had come to a standstill” and decided to take up a job for his livelihood. But, he could not free himself from the prison of party politics: “I took up a job in a small commercial district, thinking it would be far removed from party politics. But I have soon found out the reality — there are thousands of parties here. It is impossible to walk even a few steps by distancing oneself from one or the other party”.

There may be some literary exaggerations in the way Phanishwar Nath Renu portrayed party politics in India in the last decade of colonial rule. However, the ways in which the ordinary people are forced to take shelter under the banner of a political party in 21st century India for their survival in everyday life testify that ‘The Party’s Ghost’ still haunts the life of our nation and restricts our political imagination.

(* See Rakhshanda Jalil’s Introduction in his English translation of stories of Phanishwar Nath Renu, Panchlight and Other Stories, Orient Blackswan, 2010. All the citations from the story, ‘The Party’s Ghost’, in the present article are from Jalil’s translated text.)

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