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After the Nandigram Carnage


An ever-widening rift has opened up between the Left Parties and their adherents as a consequence of the West Bengal government’s controversial land acquisition policies. On March 14, 2007, the ongoing Singur-Nandigram imbroglio took a tragic turn when the government of West Bengal sent in a police force that opened fire on villagers who were incensed by the acquisition of agricultural land in nearby Singur for industrial use and apprehended that their turn had come. Fourteen people died in the police firing and scores of others were injured. This tragic turn of events has aggravated recently created fault lines within the Left. Medha Patkar, heroic leader of the anti-dam movement Narmada Bachao Andolan, was arrested in December by the West Bengal police when she made common cause with the Singur agitators and denounced the government’s land acquisition policies. A sense of betrayal has been expressed by eminent Marxist historians Sumit and Tanika Sarkar. After visiting the Singur area in person at the end of December 2006 and receiving the testimony of dispossessed villagers, Sumit Sarkar wrote as follows: This is a critique from the Left of the CPM’s industrialization policy in Bengal. Is the violence, cadre brutality and lack of consent that runs through this strategy the only way to develop? How do Singur and Nandigram serve the people? (1) In the wake of the Nandigram killings, Sumit and Tanika Sarkar returned their respective awards, the Rabindra Puraskar, the highest literary honor given by the West Bengal government. In the state legislature, the coalition partners of the ruling Left Bloc threatened to pull out of the alliance in reaction to the police brutality in Nandigram. When news of the Nandigram killings broke in Parliament, the uproar that ensued left the Communist Party of India (Marxist), the CPI(M), at least momentarily isolated. This has come about less than one year after the party returned to office with an overwhelming mandate in West Bengal and within three years of attaining power at the Center as a critical component of the ruling UPA (United Progressive Alliance). West Bengal has seen thirty years of uninterrupted Communist rule. In the Center however the Left’s elevation to power in 2004 came after decades in the political wilderness. In the immediate aftermath of the Assembly elections of 2006, the Left was said to have reached a historical high point in terms of its strength in the country’s
legislatures and Parliament both quantitatively and qualitatively.(2) Now it seems many aeons have passed since that hour of  triumph.

Needless to say political adversaries of the Left are taking full advantage of the tragic deaths in Nandigram. Already the right wing is gloating over what is fondly projected as the downfall and imminent demise of Indian Communism. The irresponsible and
tantrum prone Mamta Banerjee, Trinamool Congress supremo and chief opponent of the ruling party in West Bengal, has indulged in ongoing histrionics over the Singur issue and recharged her ammunition at the expense of the victims of Nandigram.  The Bharatiya Janata Dal (BJP), the party of Hindu chauvinism, has expressed outrage over the casualties in Nandigram and repeatedly brought parliamentary proceedings to a halt on the issue. A convenient and well-timed amnesia enables the BJP to shed crocodile tears over the Nandigram victims while consigning to oblivion its remorseless collusion with the state sponsored terrorism of 2002 that claimed the lives of over 2000 helpless Muslims in the BJP ruled state of Gujarat and rendered upwards of 150000 others into refugees in their own country. Media responses have ranged from the witty and derisive "they can’t curse Bush, they can’t find solace in Chavez" (3) to the platitudinous: "the knee-jerk reactions of police in firing on villagers, cannot win trust for any industrialization program."(4)

The Singur-Nandigram scenario conforms in some respects to the paradigm of the land wars described by renowned environmental activist Vandana Shiva: From Kalinganagar to Dadri, from Singur to Nandigram the force of arms and ammunition in the hands of the
police force is being used to assault and kill innocent farmers and tribals defending their land rights, guaranteed by the Constitution, through democratic means, also guaranteed by the Constitution.(5)  But every instance of the land wars cannot be tarred with the same brush.  It is crucial to recognize that the West Bengal situation differs in important respects from that prevailing in the rest of the country.  Previous Communist governments concentrated their energies on land reforms that were implemented with great success in the seventies and eighties.  The land reforms were effective as a poverty reduction strategy but did not bring prosperity to the state. The current Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharya has envisioned an industrial revival for West Bengal and has been courting both indigenous and foreign investment.  Under Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharya a determined push is being made to shift from an agricultural to an industrial mode of production.  The land that has been acquired in Singur for leasing to Tata Motors will become the site of an automobile factory. It is expected that the Singur project, once launched, will generate additional revenue of about Rs. 450 crores for the State Government and employment for over 7,500 people.(6)  Given the moribund state of West Bengal’s power distribution, health and education infrastructure, it is possible to question the means adopted to generate revenues on behalf of the state but not the crying need for such revenues.

There has been recognition in some quarters of the historical dilemmas and contradictions encountered by the Communist government of West Bengal.  Writing in the Economic and Political Weekly, Sumanta Bannerjee said the following:  The Singur dispute also needs to be located in the particular context of the history of land reforms under the Left regime in West Bengal, their limited and interim benefits, the growing erosion in their utilitarian worth, and the consequential desperate need of the Left Front government to seek alternative avenues of growth and employment through industries in the private sector.(7)  This tempering of criticism with sympathetic grasp of historical forces is not representative of the general response to the economic policies of the West Bengal government.  Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharya has been repeatedly charged with surrendering to neo-liberal economic ideologies and sacrificing the interests of West Bengal’s farmers and agricultural laborers on the altar of corporate capitalism.  It has become commonplace to accuse the Chief Minister and his comrades at the Center of hypocrisy and failure to adhere to their convictions.  These accusations have come from both the right and the left.

The most troubling aspect of this development is the erosion of support for the Left within its own base.  The Singur-Nandigram imbroglio and most recently, the Nandigram carnage has called into question the future of the Indian Left and its ability to rise to the challenges of the existing neo-liberal order without fading into irrelevance or compromising its principles.  At this juncture the section of Indian civil society that concerns itself with pressing issues of resistance to military and economic imperialism, worker’s rights, communalism and other causes with a bearing on social and economic justice should recall that it can ill afford the loss of the moral dimension that the Left’s ascent to power has brought into the domestic and foreign policy of the country.  On the national front, the Left has been in the forefront of struggle after struggle–opposing the sell-off of public sector undertakings, dilution of labor laws and entry of Wal-Mart into the retail sector and most recently rejecting big pharma’s self-serving interpretation of domestic patent laws.  In the foreign policy arena, the Left has been outspoken in speaking truth to power by taking issue with Washington’s arm-twisting of India into censoring Iran’s nuclear program, resisting American bullying over conditions attendant on the Indo-US nuclear agreement and condemning Israel’s brutal wars in Palestine and Lebanon.  It would be no overstatement to say that the Left with its sixty two seats in Parliament presents the sole obstacle in India’s seemingly inexorable gravitation toward the US orbit.  The Left Parties cannot expect to rest on the laurels won in earlier battles.  At the same time the ignominy that has descended on the police and CPI(M) cadres of West Bengal does not warrant forgetting the swift action on their part that has been effective time and time again over the decades in extinguishing the sparks that could lead to communal conflagration and drench the state in the bloodbaths which have been witnessed elsewhere.  It is relevant to remember that Communist ruled West Bengal has been free from the communal scourge that has been repeatedly visited on Congress and BJP ruled states.  Refusal to acknowledge the enabling role played by the state government in defusing communal violence will not alleviate any part of the desolation that has arrived in the homes of the victims of Nandigram.

A further point is worth making.  Exclusive focus by SEZ (Special Economic Zone) activists on the state’s role in facilitating corporate land grab is exculpatory of the role of the corporation in bringing its powers of coercion to bear on the state.  The example of Singur is instructive in this regard.  Proximity to Kolkata and access to pre-existing power and water infrastructure were considerations that determined Tata Motors’ choice of the Singur location.  The company’s rejection of barren parcels of land in less attractive parts of West Bengal necessitated the state’s acquisition of land in the fertile, multi-cropped Singur area.  The Tata Group of companies was founded in August 1907.  In the context of the upcoming centenary year which inevitably brings to mind Tata’s nation building role in independent India and long standing record of exemplary social responsibility, the group’s involvement in the Singur-Nandigram imbroglio appears truly ironic. The company went ahead as planned with construction activities on the walled-off Singur site on the Saturday following the Nandigram tragedy.  The work progressed as a large number of security personnel stood guard at the site.  However early on Sunday a bomb exploded damaging part of the boundary wall.  The social unrest that haunts the site suggests that Tata Motors would be well-served by some soul searching.  Perhaps the reduced likelihood of engendering dispossession and social discontent at a factory constructed on fallow land might compensate for disadvantages arising from infrastructure deficiencies.

To be held to higher standards than other political formations is the historical burden of the Left Parties.  Their image has been tarnished as a consequence of the carnage at Nandigram as well as continuing revelations of police and cadre brutality in the Singur villages prior to completion of land acquisition. In a social world characterized by increasingly obscene disparities between the well-heeled and the deprived, at a time when there is a more pressing need than ever to consolidate effective alliances for the purpose of mitigating the assault on the victims of globalization and defending the national sovereignty of India, the Left Parties’ erstwhile adherents will not advance their cause by breaking ranks with the Marxist and Communist politicians with whom they have in many respects a shared vision.  The space that the Left Parties have secured for their ideals in the corridors of power in Delhi is too valuable to be discarded.  In the immediate aftermath of the Nandigram killings, the government of West Bengal announced that all SEZ projects had been placed on hold.  However the suspension or renunciation of industrial resurgence will not revive the moribund economy of West Bengal.  It is necessary to seek for solutions that will neither leave West Bengal stranded with a predominantly agriculture-based, revenue poor economy nor create a displaced population which in turn could engender a new generation of Maoists. The relevant question of the hour has already been formulated by the eminent historian Sumit Sarkar:

Surely there must be a search, at least, for paths of development that could balance necessary industrial development with social concerns and transparency and democratic values. Is this SEZ model that implies massive displacement and distress really the only
way?

The answer or answers to this question may not be immediately forthcoming but they must be sought and implemented if West Bengal is to evolve beyond what has hitherto been its agrarian destiny without succumbing to the twin terrorisms of the state and the dispossessed. 

References:

(1) Sumit Sarkar, "A question marked in red", Indian Express (January 9, 2007),
http://www.indianexpress.com/story/20488.html
(2) Venkitesh Ramakrishnan, "Ascendant Left", Frontline (June 2, 2006)
http://www.hinduonnet.com/fline/fl2310/stories/20060602003700400.htm
(3) Shekhar Gupta, "Defining Buddha Moment", Indian Express (March 17, 2007)
(4) "Farms vs Factories", Times of India (March 16, 2007)
(5) Vandana Shiva, "From Corporate Land Grab to Land Sovereignty (Bhu Swaraj)" Znet Daily Commentaries (January 21, 2007),
http://www.zmag.org/sustainers/content/2007-01/31shiva.cfm
(6) Special Correspondent, "7,500 jobs assured in Singur", The Hindu (March 16, 2007)
(7) Sumanta Banerjee, "Peasant Hares and Capitalist Hounds of Singur", Economic and Political Weekly (December 30, 2006)

 

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