A fortnightly column on contemporary society and politics.
The motorbike has, for a long time, been both a symbol of cinematic romance and political violence in Bengal. Besotted couples in love have often romanced while riding bikes and singing songs. In a scene from the famous 1963 Bengali film Saptapadi (Seven Circles), for instance, one of the state’s most adulated cinematic couples – Uttam Kumar and Suchitra Sen – are seen riding a bike and singing a song, the first line of which goes: Ei path jodi na shesh hoi tobe kaamon hoto, tumi boloto? (Tell me how would it be if this journey never ended?)
However, this image of bikes as vehicles for lovers’ cuddly journeys into respect and acceptability has, probably since its inception, been stalked by a sinister shadow: that of the bike as a vehicle for unrestrained masculinity – a sinister motif in Bengal’s political history. Innumerable Bengali films have shown sinister henchmen connected to powerful political parties tearing through villages and towns intimidating opponents and wreaking havoc. Sometimes, the romantic and violent narratives intersect, especially when goons on bikes interrupt lovers, targeting the woman for harassment. It goes without saying that for the past few decades, politically powerful biker gangs were – at least implicitly – understood to stand in for the Left Front government then in power.
In this context, the recent controversy over the bikers’ rally planned by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) assumes particular importance. That the ruling Trinamool Congress Party (TMC) was unwilling to allow the BJP permission to hold the rally is telling for it reveals how images of the bike and the biker continues to haunt Bengal’s politics and culture. The Kolkata high court did grant permission for the rally even as chief minister Mamata Banerjee warned that the event portended violence.
And almost prophetically, the rally in question – ostensibly held to mark the birth anniversary of Swami Vivekananda – did indeed spark serious clashes with the ruling TMC supporters. The tension escalated to such heights that the BJP was finally compelled to call off the rally.
On rewinding to the over three decades of uninterrupted rule of the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M) led Left Front (1977-2011,) we find the figure of the biker looming large. During these decades, the CPI-M institutionalised the culture of bikers’ gangs which came to be known as the harmad bahini. The harmad represented heavily-armed gangs that ‘recaptured’ villages which had switched allegiances to the opposition, including the TMC and Maoists. Harmad members set up camps in sensitive areas, protecting their own and striking terror into the hearts of political adversaries. In the months and years following the continuous struggles around land appropriation in Singur, Nandigram, and Lalgarh, the harmad became an omnipresent actor in Bengali politics.
In an article in the Business Line in 2011, Ranabir Ray Choudhury wrote about then Union home minister P. Chidambaram expressing his concerns to chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee about the armed harmad bahini. One of their primary areas of violent activity was Jangalmahal, where an autonomous tribal movement (later hijacked by Maoists) posed a serious threat to the CPI-M’s power.
“When it was in power, the Left Front in West Bengal faced myriad problems in trying to control the violence in the Jangalmahal area, in the process being even charged by the Centre that a Harmad Bahini was active in the region which was squarely responsible for the resultant violence and tension. On December 24 last year, the Union Home Minister wrote to the then Chief Minister, Mr Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, urging him ‘strongly to ensure that all armed cadres, either under the name of Harmad Bahini or any other name, are immediately disarmed and demobilised’,” Choudhury wrote.
It is significant to note that in the aftermath of the Left Front’s defeat, many of the legatees switched alliances, moving from the CPI-M to the BJP and the TMC. The bike, therefore, easily stands in for the logistical opportunism of a cynical, even mercenary cadre willing to serve any political master. And it goes without saying that the TMC, which once bore the brunt of the CPI-M-sponsored violence, is steeped in the same culture.
Pertinently, it’s not just Bengal (or India for that matter) where biker gang culture has been a social and political emblem. “Biker gangs have been a part of American culture almost as long as the motorcycle itself – sometimes demonized, sometimes glorified,” writes Ed Payne on CNN’s website. According to the US Department of Justice, which describes some of them as Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs, there are 500 such large gangs across America. Many with multiple chapters across US states.
Motorbike gangs first made their cinematic appearance in the early 1950s. “But it wasn’t until the release of US gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson’s 1966 book Hell’s Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs and then the 1969 Rolling Stones concert at Altamont Speedway concert, at which Hells Angels working as bouncers killed an audience member, that popular culture’s preoccupation with criminal motorcycle gangs reached fever pitch,” Andrew Nette wrote in 2016. Bikers in Hollywood carry the promise of the road – the highway around which so much of American culture is based.
In a very different vein, we can think of revolutionary icon Che Guavara’s Motorcycle Diaries – once a mythical book, then made into a film. The motorcycle is at the heart of Che’s political awakening. As a medical student, young Che and his friend Alberto Granado, a bio-chemist, journeyed across South America on a motorbike between 1951-52: a journey during which Che encountered stark poverty and social inequality in Latin America. Ironically, Che’s youngest son opened a travel agency in Cuba in 2014, offering motorbike tours that revived memories of Che’s passion for motorcycles. A report in The Independent says that “A six-day tour begins at $3,000 (£1,900) while a nine-day tour can cost as much as $5,800, depending on the choice of accommodation.
If the motorcycle has been a symbol of aggressive masculinity in popular cultures across the world, women at home, too, have claimed ownership of the vehicle – or are starting to do so. In an article published by The Guardian last March, Ariel Sophia Bardi wrote about how women in Delhi were zipping around on motorbikes, reclaiming the capital’s streets. Leena Biswas, a pioneer woman motorcyclist, described herself as a “rebel”. In 2016, she participated in a women’s motorbike ride across Delhi, organised by the human rights NGO Breakthrough India. The women motorcyclists told Bardi that their families allowed women to ride a variety of scooter popularly known as “scooties”. But men riding motorcycles, having speed at their command, would easily catch up with women scootie riders. “On a motorcycle, she could finally level the playing field,” Bardi wrote.
From Bengal and Delhi to North and South America, the history of bike-riding is woven into the politics of class, gender, violence and culture more generally. While in Kolkata and its outskirts today, bike rallies still summon images of past and ongoing practices of intimidation, efforts like Biswas’s show that other narratives are also possible. Maybe the time has passed when a man’s heroism rested on his ability to defeat marauding gangs of thugs on bikes intent on snatching “his woman’s” honour. Maybe.