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Lalgarh: Poor Relations that the Left left out?


I

 

For some two decades now one fancy area of academic study in the Humanities has been that which is called “Postcolonial Studies.”

 

The initial assumption here with regard to the Indian subcontinent would be that colonialism ended here in 1947 with the formal transfer of power.

 

That over the last six decades colonial oppression has indeed come to an end with regard to some  20% or so Indians—or, indeed, has taken on more subtle and seductive incarnations, often leading to voluntary consent—is true enough.

 

Alas, however, barring the right to exercise franchise, some 70% or more Indians remain at the receiving end of a homegrown colonial instinct.

 

And in every sense of the term as well:  the “developers” say to the “hinterlanders”, give us your land, your forests, your waterways, and we shall give to you our culture and religion. As to your livelihood, there is wage labour if and when you are competitive enough to get it.

 

Thus it is that the oral histories and folklore of India’s “adivasis”, dalits and other relegated communities continue to be imbued with a longing for freedom, often conceived as the right to make life-choices for themselves without the imminent threat of ruling class violence.

 

A losing sort of yearning, as India’s own   railroaders, robber barons, and hindutva  peddlers  mean everyday to obliterate the native Indians—this time the real ones—in true imitation of the successful conclusions of old across the atlantic.

 

“Postcolonial” modernity thus seeks to take on totalitarian dimensions within the framework of franchise, recalling the caution that Adorno and Horkheimer had sounded about the brutally instrumentalist aspects of Enlightenment reason (see Dialectic of Reason.)

 

II

 

Instructively, however, the legacy of India’s freedom movement against British colonial rule, and the subsequent practice of democracy, however coercive and top-down during the first three decades after Independence  came to breach the quiescence of the “hinterland,” leading to the beginnings of armed revolt against the refusal of the  “postcolonial” governments to pass on  land-ownership  to the real cultivators—a covenant upon which the Indian hinterland had been mobilized by the Congress party.

 

Interestingly, in the context of the current imbroglio in Lalgarh (which falls within the state of West Bengal), that revolt was also to begin in another part of West Bengal, called Naxalbari.  Thus it is that the young idealists who joined that revolt came to be called Naxalites. Idealists who included students from some of India’s elite educational institutions.

 

During that initial decade of “naxalism” when the Congress ruled West Bengal, the region witnessed no-holds-barred official repression on the state side, and the killing of “class enemies” on the other. 

 

It was still largely conjectural where the agrarian masses would position themselves in the contention.

 

Then the Left came back to power in 1977.  And to its great credit, it understood that state repression could not be a “socialist” answer to naxal violence. 

 

Not until the allegiance of the agrarian hinterland was won could such violence be rendered infructuous.  And winning that allegiance had to mean addressing the material cause of the unrest, namely the question of the ownership of land.

 

Thus it is that operation “Barga” came to be the flagship agenda of the Left-front government.  For the next two decades or more, this government did not just pay lip-service to that agenda, but, despite brutal opposition from entrenched interests, steadfastly carried out the redistribution of agricultural land.

 

Another vital fact that gave to the new aspiring masses a sense of being true stake  holders was the devolution of   decision-making mechanisms to Panchayats—a democratic innovation and refinement of far-reaching consequence, and one that the future Congress prime minister of India, the late Rajiv Gandhi would pick up and install countrywide through what have proved to be monumental Constitutional amendments.

 

If all too often patedars (those who now had documentary proof of land-ownership in West Bengal) were hauled to the courts, they knew that this was something for which the Left-front government could not be held accountable. It was merely a reminder that what the Left-front government was seeking to do had after all to be done within the constitutional contours of a class state in India—something that the local government was powerless to amend. 

 

The moot point is that land transfers in the Bengal hinterland, hand in hand with the devolution of democratic processes through the Panchayati system precluded any lure that the armed naxalbari radicals might have held for the land-hungry marginalized.

 

Unprecedentedly in democratic history world-wide, the Left-front was to be re-elected to power in West Bengal from 1977 to date! 

 

Uncontestably, the Spartan and deeply caring and imaginative helmsmanship of the Left front by the legendary Jyoti Basu, and the general probity of ministers in government contributed uniquely to this achievement.

 

That oppositional party-political forces have so long remained out of favour in West Bengal has often been attributed by them to the “high-handed” electoral excesses of the Left front, especially of the cadres of the CPI(M).  Even “scientific rigging” of the vote has been claimed.

 

And yet, the elections to the Assembly in 2006 conducted by the Election Commission of India entirely under the aegis of forces, civil and police, drawn from outside West Bengal produced a still more unprecedented victory for the LF!  Revalidating, if you like, the stunning parliamentary victories of 2004.

 

As comment is made on the   failures of the LF, and of the recent depletion of its elected numbers to parliament, it is only just that those histories be kept in mind as well.

 

III

 

Having said that, it took one Nandigram episode to bring to a boil corrosions that had been accumulating over three decades of LF rule in West Bengal.

 

Broadly, the following distortions seemed to have progressively disfigured the idealist impulses of the LF:

 

–a steady but unremedied breakdown of direct communication with the people, wherein the Panchayats came to be fiefdoms of party sartraps;

 

–the consolidation of a cadre that now came to be distinct from the people, that instead of facilitating further extensions of the creative energies of the impoverished masses stood like an opaque wall between them and the government, no longer a receptive vanguard, but increasingly a red guard; no longer listening to the mass but telling them from time to time what was expected of them;

 

–a cadre that became instrumental in installing party over government, in distributing largesse and favour, in construing party hegemony as diktat, and being perceived with some justice as standing above the normal operations of law;

 

–a party and government that slowly but surely simply habituated itself to taking its mass base as a given, assuming that regressive turn-arounds in economic policy and new emphases in investment would be swallowed on trust;

askance at the fact that this base did not view the new LF love for the Tatas and other industrial tycoons with the same favour as the party and government;

 

–a shocking neglect of spheres of social concern such as services bearing directly on the daily lives of millions—health, power, education, employment;

 

–an attitude towards religious minorities that seemed to replicate the habits of mind of the Congress party—provide physical security and little else to boot, a fact that the Sachar Committee brought to light, and that became a major input into the disaffections among the Muslim farm community in Nandigram;

 

IV

 

Rapidly enough, yesterday’s Jacobins seemed to have transformed not just into Girondists but pleaders on behalf of class forces that wished to turn their balance now quite the other way.

 

Little wonder that a Left extremism that had defeated its own cause by refusing democracy and choosing to stay with armed struggle has been able to re-enter a West Bengal whose creative LF politics had usurped its legitimacy over the years, while in other parts of India all-too inimical and repressively anti-people regimes have continued to provide space for armed resistance to state policies.

 

In this renewed context, the West Bengal LF unsurprisingly finds itself in a piquant situation.

 

Much as it decries the politics of the gun, it now recognizes that the Maoists, all said and done, are taking up causes that are its own, and that somehow it allowed to fall by the wayside during its protracted rule.

 

It is therefore unable either to condone the violence or to lump the Maoists as just another “terrorist” organization that can be dealt with simply through a ban.

 

It is faced with the recognition that if in years gone by it had successfully taken the masses in the hinterland away from the extremists, the latter  may  now have returned the compliment.

 

As to coercion and violence, it must be a terrible thing for the perception to grow that between the gun-toting Maoists and the cadres of the LF, the distinction may not amount to a great deal, deeply erroneous as this surely is.

 

Caught between the state forces and the Maoists, the disenfranchised santhal adivasis that largely inhabit Lalgarh bordering with Jharkhand seem now to have only some sensitive urban voices to speak for their lives.  Here is what some well-known academics and public figures have to say in a letter to the media:

 

faulting the WB government for using force to bring Lalgarh back into state control, they hold  that negotiations should have been attempted, and that the state has failed to “differentiate between violent Maoists and unarmed civilians.”  Even as  they also say “we deplore the reckless violence of the Maoists, who have exploited West Bengal’s post election chaos by using deprived and angry tribal people as pawns and by brutally attacking CPI(M) cadres and offices.”  (see letter to Hindustan Times, june 22, by Sumit Sarkar and others.)

 

V

 

Here then is the conundrum: vast numbers of the Indian intelligentsia who reject both the oppressive, colonial policies of “postcolonial” governments in India and the politics of armed insurrection had come to invest oodles of hope in the LF experiment in West Bengal especially.

 

The problem with regard to the Indian hinterland has devolved around an increasingly rampant alliance between state power and marauding corporate interest.

 

Over the last two decades especially, the state has allowed indiscriminate mining activity in forest areas that have been the lifeblood of the adivasis. And all organized resistance, however democratic, to this pattern of “development” has been crushed with heavy hand.  Throughout the length and breadth of north and central India, oustees from forest and dam sites today have come to constitute refugees who have nowhere to turn.  Multinationals and their comprador companies have tended to acquire privileges and stakes that override the livelihood needs and prerogatives of millions upon millions of Indians.

 

And sadly, far from building concerted mass movements to thwart such depredations, the democratic Left has come to be seen as wanting to partake of the pie, however cautiously it frames its polemics in the matter.  Not to speak of its failure in addressing forms of social oppression that go hand in hand with such neo-colonial exploitation.

 

What wonder then that a fillip has been provided to armed Left extremists who argue that the mechanisms of Indian parliamentary democracy will never allow class interests to be dented by noises made from the standpoint of morality and fairplay.

 

Conversely, there remains the perception that sporadic armed resistance to the state promises no lasting debilitation to the state either.  Indeed, if anything, it provides a powerful state all the argument it needs to further hone its repressive machineries.  After all, even in a state like Nepal, this recognition led recently to the abandonement of armed struggle by the Maoists there in favour of peaceful mass politics within a constitutional democracy.  Just as large swathes of Latin America made the transition from insurrectionary resistance to democratic mass politics with sterling successes.  That the LTTE in Srilanka should have been so conclusively liquidated militarily must also tell its own story.

 

Within these macro-historical considerations, the failure of the West Bengal LF to practice and refine democracy is seen not just as an isolated occurrence within one Indian state, but a tragic collapse fraught with far-reaching consequence for the future of Indian democracy and of what may be possible for grass-roots politics within its stipulations.

 

All of which leads to the question:  how irretrievable is the damage done?  It is a question of the most relevance to those who seek not just to critique the LF but seemingly to discard it as well.

 

Contrarily, the West Bengal LF needs to recognize that not all those who critique its career wish it to disappear, but are rather daunted by the prospect of another sort of disappearance, namely, the dream of a vanguard that alone may turn around Indian democracy to the benefit of the last Indian standing.

 

VI

 

Does the official Left in India have the intellectual and political reserves then to recast its organizational and ideological energies, and to renew its covenant with the people who have stood by it for three long decades in West Bengal, and with Indians elsewhere who look to it not just for holding back the cultural fascists but to reformulate the Indian centre through the power of peaceful mass mobilization?

 

Particularly, those that feel a stake in the Indian democratic experiment and wish to protect it from armed insurrection must recognize that these goals cannot be trusted merely to the Indian state-apparatus.

 

Indeed, the armed insurrectionists would wish for nothing better to happen.

 

Nor can the  gung-ho neo-liberal policies of the corporate-led political formations be credited with the power to shame left extremism into compliance and disarray.  Quite the contrary.

 

Upon every conceivable objective analysis, the conundrums of Indian democracy require a democratic politics of the Left, meant not simply to cushion the fatcats from extremism, but to help transform and enrich the content and quality of democracy itself towards the greatest good of the greatest number.

 

Much is at stake in how West Bengal shapes in the months to come.  And those that need to realize that the most are the Bengali vanguard themselves.

 

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