Srinivasan Ramani


The recent events in Nandigram and it’s coverage by a section of media as well as the response by sections of civil society (wrongly mentioned as intellectuals) point out to a grotesque dysfunction of bourgeois democracy, but that is not the concern of this article. This piece will be concerned more about the whys and wherefores of the problem that erupted in West Bengal over the past year, a problem that has not been studied well enough and that has been deliberately misrepresented by voices that professedly speak for variegated ideologies.

West Bengal: It’s different!

The state of West Bengal remains apart from any other in India, as politically, this state remains the only one where there has been no anti-incumbency for the past 30 years, ruled as it is by a political entity, the Left Front, that remains the only effective one which has fulfilled a vital directive of state policy of the liberal Indian constitution, land reforms. This measure has ensured enduring political support from a section of society that pervades the demography in India, small and medium peasantry. Apart from this piece of economic reform, the Left Front ensured that political reform should also be carried out to benefit the same sections, hence, the adoption of the Panchayati Raj system. At the same time however, these pieces of bourgeois reform was not revolutionary or transformatory, and led by a Marxist party the government only willed to improve livelihoods further by undertaking what every civilized power unit was doing everywhere else in the world, industrialization.

As the Indian  state took a turn toward  neoliberalism after wide ranging economic reform, West Bengal, as one of the states embarked upon industrialization through private investment as a sine qua non for change: from a peasant dominated economy to a more modern industrial economy. It was only bound to happen that the excesses and problems of neoliberalism were going to affect West Bengal too. The focus of the regime was to portray West Bengal as investment friendly state owing to a populace that was seen to be largely progressive, and which had good social development indicators, as well as an ideal geographic location for setting up export oriented industries. In this process of competitive wooing of investment (against other potential destinations in other states), the state embarked upon a few measures that were, at least, controversial, coming as they were, from a leftist regime.

A controversial SEZ Act was passed in the WB Assembly in the earlier tenure and provisions of this act was used to determine the contours of land acquisition from villagers in Nandigram for a chemical hub project What happened in Nandigram?  Obviously learning that the WB government was determined to forge ahead with this model of industrialization through land acquisition (from the Singur experience), villagers in Nandigram took up a violent means of protest, spurred on in the meantime by elements who had spread doomsday rumors playing upon the fears of land loss for the peasants. The means of protest included throwing away CPI(M) supporters from the village and forcing them to stay as refugees in a nearby area (Khejuri). Most of the confusion was spawned after a notice of land acquisition was pasted by a Haldia Development Authority (HDA) official, himself a CPI(M) leader, who was not authorized to take this move. Clarifications followed from the chief minister that no land acquisition would take place without due consultation, but the fire was already lit No amount of political cajoling through meetings or talks could create an atmosphere of peace and what followed was state action to mitigate the violent takeover of the Nandigram village by partisan villagers, now assembled under a motley grouping titled, Bhumi Ucched Pratirodh committee (BUPC), led by Trinamool Congress (TMC) leaders. The state action, involving police personnel on March 14th resulted in a police firing that saw the deaths of 14 villagers. Widely berated for this move, the Chief Minister regretted the firing and held himself responsible for the deaths and resolved to find a solution to the impasse through further political meetings and talks with opposition members at the local level as well as the state level in Nandigram. At the same time, a CBI inquiry was ordered into the incident which is still pending, even as the government has at long last announced relief compensations to the casualties of the firing, recently.

Political meeting after political meeting was called to find a solution for this problem of lawlessness that had been instigated by the TMC and a section of Naxalite and Maoist sympathizers in the Nandigram area. None of these were attended by the very stakeholders in the opposition: the TMC-Maoists. One meeting was attended by Mamata Bannerjee; however, she left the meeting even before it started. Essentially CPI(M) supporters were made to stay as refugees for a full 11 months, before these villagers took it upon themselves to return back. Admittedly, at the same time, no action was taken against the officers involved in the firing, a concern raised by civil society groups who also question the fact that the turbulent area was not visited by the Chief Minister. The state government asked for CRPF personnel from the center, knowing very well that any state action would only be assessed as failure in this volatile area. CRPF personnel were late in coming, ostensibly because of the center’s apathy, even as the state government was coy at intervening between the villagers again caught up in conflict.

The opposition and civil society were now back to berating the state government for its inaction and for letting the circle of violence go on allegedly for retribution by the displaced CPI(M) supporting villagers. No longer is the SEZ tune played now, however, as everyone now realizes that it is a turf war. The incidents in Nandigram are a repeat of what happened in Panskura (Keshpur-Garbeta story) in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Knowing fully well that there is a large chunk of support base for the Left entrenched among rural segments, the opposition realized that the only way out for wresting control was physically removing these sections from their strongholds. Hence, in a bye-election held after Geeta Mukherjee (of the CPI)’s death, the Panskura Lok Sabha seat was lost by a huge margin, which surprised many. The TMC cadre and leadership had gone on marches hailing the Panskura line in 2001. It took a concerted effort by the CPI(M) cadre to drive back the occupiers in Keshpur (yet another bloody culmination) to wrest back control over Keshpur and other areas. No wonder, Gurudas Dasgupta (the present CPI Lok Sabha member) won by a good margin in the next conducted elections, in the area. A thorough understanding To observers who have a liberal bent, the situation would not be understood using the mechanisms of liberal democratic principles that cloud their opinions. What requires is a more correct understanding of the class and rural settings in West Bengal to get the picture as to what exactly entails these violent political conflicts that have erupted in an otherwise progressive state Land reform in West Bengal has not only created entrenched support bases for the Left but it has also created several entrenched antagonists. A cursory look at the percentages that have voted for both the Left and the TMC-Congress will provide a better understanding. The absentee-landlords and rent-seeking sections supporting the same as well as middle class absentee landowners are all antagonistic to the Left in mofussil towns, because of the alienation of their owned land which was registered to the tillers and share-croppers. In one swoop, these sections lost their statuses as owners of land which they never tilled and their ability to play poker with their holding i.e. for example, if someone has a large piece of land on which some sharecroppers work, the owner has the prerogative to sell the piece of land to some other sharecropper or small peasant as he might will. This ability was gone after land reforms were undertaken. No wonder, these segments of the population have gone on to become supporters of the Congress and its likes, who later on manifested as the regional Trinamool Congress. The problem is that, these sections do not have committed political workers, as a peasant or a worker supporting the left would be. Apart from electoral work and some other mobilizations, political work is not quite a vocation for these people, in comparison to trade unionists, peasant organizations, for whom political activity is 24/7. This explains the grooming of musclemen and henchmen from lumpen sections in the right bourgeois parties, for the purpose of doing the hatchet political jobs. Yet, even this will not explain how sections of the Trinamool could take up causes for sections of the poor peasantry alienated from the Left, either. One would have to bring in the role of the political outfits from the radical and ultra left in here. The ultra-left (Naxalites and parties such as SUCI fall into this category) are primarily sections which have protested that the land reform measures enacted by the Left Front government have not been taken to the next “logical” extent- further distribution of land to landless laborers. This opinion is drawn from their theoretical understanding that places the peasantry in the vanguard of an agrarian revolution, a model that is termed, “Maoist”. In essence, the ultra left have tried to play upon the concerns of the landless peasants and laborers and held the Left responsible for only part-bourgeois and moderate land reforms.

A greater Mahajot

Since the support base for the Left Front in rural areas is still intact, obviously due to the measures of land reform and popular mobilization as well as the institution of Panchayati Raj and local governance, the oppositional space has been considerably narrowed. This space therefore saw the formation of one opportunist alliance after another by the bourgeois parties, termed, a mahajot. In the case of Nandigram, this mahajot received a new entrant, sections of the Naxalites and the Maoists, as the issue of a SEZ was harped as a move inimical to the small peasantry. The leaders in this mahajot, the BUPC, however had no qualms in having disparate sections from the ultra-left to the petty bourgeoisie right (the Trinamool), including sections which were representative of partisan communal elements such as the Jamaat-e-Ulema Hind.

Apart from this motley political crowd in the opposition, Neo-Gandhian groups from civil society, including voices such as Medha Patkar of the Narmada Bachao Andolan (a non-governmental entity, which does not participate in elections) also ranged themselves against the government. For these sections, the problematic was not merely the allegation of excesses committed in the name of development, but the whole concept of development in itself. That industrialization is seen as a sine qua non by the state government and the CPI(M) for development, is not a vision that is shared by these neo-Gandhian sections, for whom no imperative to disturb “idyllic” peasant life can be justified. One could call these sections reminiscent of the Narodniks or even the anti-industry Luddites in the political spectrum. Thus even though ostensibly, the likes of Medha Patkar articulated their concerns about the non-democratic means of functioning of the state government, the fundamental problem for these sections as has been evinced from their “politics” across the country, is a serial opposition for the concept of industrial development inasmuch. A better term for such outfits led by Medha Patkar, could be “post-modern”.  

One could therefore say that, the turf war in Nandigram is very much a class-war, except that the State government and the Left have to be bound by the liberal instruments of the Constitutional processes, while the petty bourgeois right wing opposition willfully rejects these instruments and performs foul play, aided and abetted tactically by sections disillusioned with what they call “reformist” leftism. At best, such an alliance is incredibly opportunist, and even more critically, this alliance does not subject itself to the norms by which the state government is judged. One therefore cannot better explain the months of anarchy and egregious behavior of the BUPC, which was bent upon declaring Nandigram as a ³liberated zone² despite the shifting of the SEZ project. If the Trinamool Congress considered itself as a parliamentary party, subject to liberal norms, it should have declared victory at the precise time that the government backed off from the SEZ moves and should have used this as a platform to garner and win support in forthcoming elections. Instead, Trinamool thought it apt to emulate the Keshpur model, of using Nandigram as a platform for a “military victory” which could be used to enthuse sections opposed to the Left.

It was even more easier for the Naxalites and other ultra-left elements to acquiesce in this plan, partly because such “liberation” was part of their understood praxis and partly also because of the fact that there was no other means to dislodge the well entrenched CPI (M) and it’s partners from rural Bengal. Meanwhile, the government in the centre, favorable to the big bourgeoisie classes has been very silent about the problems that have developed in Nandigram. It is essential to understand that the big bourgeoisie sees land acquisition for mega-projects as favorable and insists upon incentive after incentive (social bribe in correct terms, as put by Prabhat Patnaik) to be provided by the state for involving this class in development. Therefore it is not surprising that the big bourgeoisie have continued to repose their faith in the “reforming ways” of “Brand Buddha”, and have been gung ho about the mode of industrialization that they have envisaged for West Bengal State Government’s role, the Left Front and its problems This is however not to absolve the role of the state government and the ruling party in the mess either. Yet, one needs a thorough understanding of the turn toward adopting the same policies, that are derided by the CPI (M) as neoliberalism, in the state (the SEZ is a culmination of which). The main problem that the Left Front government faces is how to industrialize, with limited power in a liberal bourgeois federal set-up. Land reform, the chief achievement was still a bourgeois measure helping in securing of property and land for small peasantry, giving them security and purchasing power. Yet the CPI (M), just as any avowed Marxist party wanted to continue the process of further release of productive forces, inevitably industrialization. Hampered by fiscal constraints, and other factors (labor militancy is incorrectly termed as the main problem) such as the national measure of freight equalization and antipathy of the big bourgeoisie to a leftist regime, the state perforce had to embark upon an industrial policy that had to be private-investment led, even as it took up measures to protect and revive sets of sick public sector industries.

Owing to the dominant economic ideology prevalent in the nation of which West Bengal was a part, and from whose problems of crisis the state could not escape and added to that the burden of increased pressure on agriculture due to diminishing holdings and consequently lower increases in productivity, the state government was squeezed into adopting the goal of private investment led growth. The origin of the saga at Nandigram is but a symptom of this goal. Added to this assessment, is the fact that 30 years of “parliamentarianism” and state rule has created a new dialectic that governs the class character of the largest left party, the CPI(M).

The party is seen to be mostly supported by sections of the small peasantry, the state government workers, teachers and that one could term that the support base was quite “petty bourgeois” and not quite “revolutionary working class”. The emphasis on the middle peasantry to play a transformatory role can rest on the theoretical understanding that since this class is exposed to capitalism in contrast to the rural proletariat, they can act as allies of the working class and tenurial reforms ensured this alliance. However, if whether this was truly the case in West Bengal is what is debatable? But primarily, the need of the hour is to pitchfork the debate on industrialization back on to the leftist mainstream. What exactly is the mode and tenor of release of productive forces in this new situation of a globalized world and a certain system of federalism, where federal state power seems drastically reduced? It is for the economists and Marxists to articulate necessarily and immediately a path of industrialization learning from the lessons in Nandigram. A viable alternative (to that practiced by other state governments in the country) than just being “a better state government” is what the CPI (M) must offer in West Bengal. The entire left constituency today is looking at this party to deliver and hopefully the incidents of Nandigram will act as a spur to rejuvenate the party to the level that it functioned when it first came to power.

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