Correspondence: Violence in Singur: Hardselling Capitalist Globalization in the name of Left Alternative
The following correspondence gives an account of a bloody local struggle in Bengal that carries a message of the need for hard reflection by socialists around the world. Many see the answer to the savage offensive by capital labeled as globalization as being the creation of a ‘broad left’ government. In West Bengal the Communist party government has been seen as such as broad left movement. What should our response be when it is such a government that leads the capitalist offensive? (SD web editor)
12 December 2006
Several thousand police and paramilitary forces are now roaming Singur and adjoining areas in Hooghly district, West Bengal. On 2nd December, they fired tear gas and rubber bullets at villagers and a few outside supporters who had gone to the area. Television channels, so far strongly supportive of the moves of the Buddhadev Bhattacharjee government, now found themselves projecting a story totally at variance with the words their newscasters were being made to utter. Even as the bourgeois media went on mouthing claims that locals (later changed to Outsiders) were attacking the police, what could be seen , for example on the Kolkata or the Tara News channels, or even in Star-Ananda, was the picture of half a dozen hulking cops converging on individual hapless villagers, and brutally beating them up with truncheons. One could also see the tear gas shells being lobbed and the rubber bullets being fired, and huge paddy dumps being set on fire. All the while, the Channels were seeking to divert attention by asking viewers to send sms on whether they condemned the behaviour of the (right-wing opposition) Trinamool Congress members’ action in smashing up property in the Vidhan Sabha (the State legislature, where TMC MLAs had gone berserk on 1st December).
Left wing Model of Development?
To understand what was happening we need to go back and look at the model of development being pushed by the Buddhadev Bhattacharjee government. When Bhattacharjee replaced Jyoti Basu as Chief Minister, it was a signal to the Indian capitalist class as well as capitalists from everywhere else, that a new attitude was being developed by the CPI(M). Singur is not an isolated case. All over India, the process of taking over peasants’ land is going on. The Special Economic Zone Bill says that the SEZs created by taking over land will be like a foreign country. Those who invest capital in those areas will function under laws different from the laws for the people throughout the country. In Kharagpur, West Bengal, the Tatas want another 1240 acre land. Total targeted land in West Bengal is nearly 1,00,000 acres. In Gujarat, it is the Reliance group that is staking major claims. Farmers in Gujarat are fighting the Reliance group just as farmers in West Bengal are fighting the Tatas. In addition there are transnational companies. The Salim group of Indonesia were feted a short while back by the Left Front ministers. The group had a strong role during the coup in Indonesia that led to the murder of some half a million communists. But that is all old hat, and seemingly the left ministers cannot be bothered by such sentimental issues when behaving like hardheaded businesspersons.
It is in this context that the government’s plan for Singur must be seen. The story of the “industrial turn-around” of West Bengal begins with the election results earlier in 2006. The CPI(M) led Front had won a thumping victory, thanks to the first past the post system. With just over 50% votes, it had obtained 235 seats, reducing all oppositions to such a minor proportion that as per legislative assembly rules there could not even be a formal leader of the opposition. As the CM was addressing a press conference at the CPI(M) office, an aide brought in a message, and the elated CM informed the press that the Tatas wanted to build a car factory in West Bengal. Within a few days, a hush hush deal was struck. The Tatas asked for close to 1000 acres of prime agricultural land – nothing else would do for them. The government complied with such alacrity that one might be pardoned for thinking that they were bound serfs of the Tatas. They did not consult the Gram Sabha or any other elected local bodies, though even their gurus at the World Bank go through the motions of suggesting the need to consult with local bodies. Tata Motors want to launch a new car model by 2008, the one-lakh-rupee car. According to the Left Front, this is development, and cannot be opposed. It will put West Bengal in the industrial map of India. According to CPI(M) Politbureau member and West Bengal State Party Secretary Biman Bose, those who are opposing the move are fronting for other big companies who sell overpriced cars!
We need to look a little more closely at the entire process. The land that Tata wants is prime agricultural land. There is plenty of poor quality land in West Bengal, for example in Purulia district, or elsewhere. Plenty of old industries are in crisis and their land could also have been converted. But this particular area has a good road connection, as it links up with the Delhi Road. That is the first real reason why Tata is pushing for this, and only this area. A second reason, likely to come up after a decade, will be argued below.
So how did the state government act? Did it, in its new found faith in market economics, tell Ratan Tata and his minions to go and negotiate land price with the peasants? Even that would have been detrimental to the sharecroppers and agricultural labourers, if direct sale of land had simply ousted them. But keeping to the spurious logic of the free market, at least this should have been done. Instead, the state government used an act, the Land Acquisitions Act, which was originally devised in the colonial period, to take over the peasants’ land. They were offered a price worked out as the average of the previous three years’ price, plus a 30% hike known as the solacium. The full details of the deal with Tata are not known, but from the little information that came out, it seems Tata will not even pay this much to the government. According to Debabrata Bandyopadhyay, former Commissioner, Land Reforms, West Bengal, (and who is, according to many people, the main burueacratic impulse behind Operation Barga, the registration of sharecroppers, the reform measure that a generation back had enabled the Left Front to gain solid and unwavering rural support), the government has in fact saddled the people of West Bengal with a huge burden in order to bring in Tata Motors.
The West Bengal government claims this investment will create many new jobs and be a major developmental project. What is the truth? Between 1980 and 1994, General Motors, Ford and Chrysler, the three top US car manufacturers, cut down the total number of their global employees from 7,50,000 to 3,75,000. Why should the Tatas behave any differently? If they are really going to sell cars at the rate of Rs. 1 lakh (US $ 2246), they will be cutting costs. They have no intention of running a loss making factory.
Another question is, why do they want nearly 1000 acres of land? Maruti-Suzuki, a major car manufacturer in India, need 296 acres of land on which they produce over 600,000 cars per year. Moreover, we should remember that while Maruti builds the entire car in its factory, Tata will only assemble the car there. So what is all this land needed for? It is likely, that after the hue and cry has died out, much of this land would be reconverted to agricultural land, but run by the Tatas as an agribusiness. Reliance in Gujarat is going in for marketing organic food. The Hindustan Motors of the Birla Group, which had been given about 750 acres of land in Konnagar half a century back, could use only 350 acres and has now sought permission to reconvert the rest of the land. Moreover, plenty of industrial land was left, for example in the Durgapur industrial area. So targeting high quality agricultural land and insisting that nothing else will do is bound to create this kind of doubt. Clearly, the tale of alternative, left wing model of development peddled by Battacharjee, his industries minister Nirupom Sen, and his finance minister Ashim Dasgupta, is a murky tale indeed.
Media reports indicate that the land is being taken over by the West Bengal Industrial Development Corporation at a cost of Rs. 140 crores. The Tatas have informed the West Bengal Government that they will compensate the government to the tune of 20 crore rupees after five years with a 0.01 per cent interest. The discounted value of the money in today’s terms will be about 12 crore rupees. So the West Bengal government is giving to the Tatas the sum of Rs. 128 crore rupees (28749185 US dollars). This money will come either from taxes, or from loans contracted by the WBIDC, which again must be repaid through taxes or through cutting costs in social sectors like health and education.
The most important issue of course is the story of sacrifices. Ever since independence, when foreign colonialism could no longer be blamed directly, people have been asked to make sacrifices for the nation. Not very surprising, though, that it is workers and poor peasants, tribals and low caste people, who end up making the sacrifices, while the wealthy, the bourgeoisie, the urban middle and upper middle class, the upper castes, all end up with profits. For whom is Bhattacharjee proposing this development? For Tata? For the shareholders of Tata’s companies? What about the ordinary people? The peasants are being given a paltry compensation. Even that is murky. In many cases, the land was sold to other people, by a small number of landed elements who knew about the deal in advance. But they still had the papers, so they were identified as owners deserving compensation. In many, even most cases, owners did not want to sell the land. They are aware that what skills they have are as peasants. Cash compensation is no good to them for they will not be able to use the cash in an effective way. Urbanisation of the area, inevitable if a factory comes up, will raise the cost of living. The landowners are not going to become traders all at once. As one of them quipped, if we all set up shops, in any case, who will buy?
Five villages of Singur, namely Gopalnagar, Beraberi, Bajemelia, Khaser Bheri and Singher Bheri, are affected. While peasants here are not rich farmers, nor are they absolutely poor. Net income of the owner of 1 acre of land is about Rs. 1,00,000. So for 1000 acres the net income is around Rs. 100 million (US $2246030). The gross income is even more, about Rs. 250 million (US$ 5615075). Apart from the peasants or landowners (in some cases the owners are absentee), there are the share-croppers and agricultural labourers. All told, some 7/8 thousand people are employed, and their total income, Rs 250 million, was being added to the GDP of West Bengal. This seven to eight thousand is based on economic calculations suggesting that for around 5000/6000 peasants there will be an added 1200 or so share-croppers and about 1000 agricultural labourers. And how many workers will the Tatas employ? Despite the Right to Information Act, in West Bengal all real information is firmly hidden. The West Bengal Government has refused to divulge these figures to organisations who have sought them. But one such organisation estimates it will be around 250 employees. If their average monthly income is pegged at Rs. 50,000 the total wage bill will be 150 million rupees (This average takes in the high salaries of the managerial cadre). Then there will be the profits of the shareholders and the concern, which after all is the main reason for this investment. Clearly, this is a model of development that will intensify disparities.
If Fraud does not Work, Use Force:
Initially, the government went into raptures about the benefits to the province. Somehow, though, the peasants did not respond. And so, pressure on them began to mount. Apprehensive of losing their sole safeguard to life, the farmers got together to launch a resistance movement under the banner of ‘Krishijami Raksha Samiti’ (Association for the Protection of Agricultural Land). From the very beginning, women have been in the forefront of the movement. In recollection of a famous song of the tebhaga movement, the greatest peasants’ movement in Bengal in the twentieth century, with ‘life and honour as stakes,’ they began to ‘hone the scythe.’(1) The state government, hardly bothered about the plight of the farmers, remained stubborn, repeatedly reiterating that the Tata factory would come up on that piece of land. If the slogan of the alleged Rambhaktas (the RSS and its allied outfits) was ‘Mandir wahin banayenge” (the temple will be built just at that spot), the slogan of West Bengal’s alleged bam (left) CM was “factory wahin banayenge”. On 25 September, there was a massive attack. In a pre-planned move, a reign of terror was unleashed on thousands of peaceful protesters at the Block Development Officer’s office in Singur. It was the first day cheques were being handed over to those who had agreed to hand over the land for compensation, and the demonstration was a form of pressure on them as well. By the afternoon, several cases were detected in which those who had already sold off their land to others, but the mutation process was not complete, were being given cheques, denying the present legal owner. Protesting such illegal deeds by government officials, the demonstrators sat on a dharna at the BDO office, even gheraoing the District Magistrate for a brief period. At this point, Mamata Banerjee, leader and Supremo of the Trinamool congress, arrived and joined the dharna. A little after midnight, a black-out was created, and under the cover of darkness, a huge police force, according to the victims well lubricated with alcohol, attacked and brutally beat up the protestors, men, women and children. Ms. Banerjee was also manhandled, and her sari torn. She was then bundled off to Calcutta by force, and had to be admitted to a hospital.
Hundreds were severely injured in the police assault and 72 put behind bars. Women with small children were arrested under the Arms Act and/or charged with attempt to murder. Payel Bag, a two-and-a-half-year-old, spent four days in prison, along with two pre-teen boys. 26-year-old Rajkumar Bhul became the first martyr of the Singur struggle after he collapsed with severe internal haemorrhage from police beating. Bhul’s mother, in an open letter to the Chief Minister, squarely blamed him for her son’s death. According to Sumit Chowdhury, one of the most commited “outsider” activists, who has been writing and organising solidarity, when he went to Singur two days later as part of a fact finding team, and also during subsequent trips, “the hapless and angry women in the villages – some with broken arms, bandaged eyes and scars here and there – said that the policemen were drunk, cursed in the filthiest language, kicked and molested them”.
The subsequent responses not only of the government, not only of one or two individuals, but of the entire CPI(M) was damning. Prakash Karat, the General Secretary of the CPI(M), who has never set foot in Singur, announced from the CPI(M) headquarters in Delhi that Singur has one-crop land, that the farmers are queuing up for cash, and that the demonstrators were anti-development hoodlums. Evidently, the protests against land takeover for SEZs and similar issues are reserved for provinces where the CPI(M) is not a major partner in the government. Equally evidently, when Prakash Karat wrote his introduction to a recent publication entitled The Left and Environmentalism, he should have entered a caveat that all his pious utterances do not apply to West Bengal and his comrade Buddhadev Bhattacharjee.
On the night of the violence, Buddhadev Bhattacharjee had his alibi. He and other party top brass were in Delhi. But the alibi is thin. The same day, he also met the Tata top management. The next day, there was a report about a community package promised by the Tatas for Singur. But examined carefully, it was mostly verbiage. One needs to remember that the massive investment of the in Orissa and Jharkhand, two of Eastern India’s poorest provinces (though very rich in minerals and forest resources), has not led to any positive development in the conditions of poor peasants, tribals, and others. On returning to Calcutta, the CM posed as injured Christ, stating, “forgive them for they know not what they do”. After a huge outcry, two days later he was forced to say that police action had been “unwarranted”. But no single policeman is known to have been punished.
At a meeting called by the Chief Minister, even a number of Left Front partners criticised the way the factory was coming up, but at the end of the meeting the government announced that the Tata Motors factory would come up on Singur at any cost. On 9th October, the opposition parties, both right and left, called a twelve hour bandh (general strike including total stoppage of public activities). The CPI(M) threatened to unleash its cadres.(2) But if anything, this threat made people fearful and stay indoors.
From this point, terror became the order of the day. Any ‘outsider’, unless a staunch supporter of the CPI (M) come to campaign for handing over the land to the government, was treated as a member of one of the Maoist groups.(3)
Terror was of different kinds. Nirupom Sen, the industries minister, warned the locals that all developmental work in Singur would be halted if land was not handed over. One minister even termed opposition to the project as ‘anti-national’. As a result of this unrelenting government pressure, some land transfer began. There was an added dimension to the handing over. As we noted earlier, some people had actually sold the land to others, but the mutation had not been done. So they took advantage of this to claim compensation.
The struggle continued nonetheless, and therefore terror took on more concrete shapes. Several of the deep tube-wells of the area, essential for regular irrigation of the fields, were vandalised at night. And this happened despite the massive (already, at that point, several hundred) policemen and women posted in the region. From early November, agitation and terror both stepped up, with the government threatening to take over the land and hand it over to the Tatas at any cost by December. Women played a militant role, resisting all threats and blandishments.
One of the regular refrains of the government and the CPI(M) was that the real owner have accepted compensation, it is outsiders who are causing trouble. We will discuss the issue of “outsiders” later. Here we should note that indeed, the lead in the struggle was taken, not by well to do peasants, but by share croppers, agricultural labourers, and the smaller owners. This is the rural mix which fought six decades back, in the tebhaga uprising.(4) This was the base which gave the left its decisive majority even in the occasional periods in the last three decades when in the cities the Left was on the defensive. So it was inevitable that the Left Front, notably the CPI(M), would not be willing to accept that this base will now speak in its own voice. Yet that was inevitable. The tebhaga movement had been so massively successful because the authentic voice of the rural poor had been well represented by the undivided CPI and the All India Kisan Sabha. By the present decade, the AIKS was a bureaucratised carcass living on the memory of past glories. Present day leaders of the AIKS have not even seen the tebhaga. The younger among them became leaders after the Left Front was already in power. So for them the role of the peasant organisation is to collect money, collect votes, and on occasion collect lots of people in trucks and take them to Calcutta for central rallies. The apparently impressive anti-imperialist demonstrations, and so on, organised by the CPI(M) conceal a reality where mass organisations act as transmission belts of a high command, herding people in different ways. And so resentment and opposition grows. In Singur, the direct attack on livelihood turned the sullen resentment into organised politics, as the Krishijami Raksha Samiti brought together most of this rural poor, albeit in a small area. This challenge could never be allowed to grow. The Left Front has always been sensitive to the emergence of left wing oppositions and alternatives from within the working class and poor peasantry. It is aware that it has little to fear if the right wing is even fully mobilised. As long as there is no serious left wing alternative, it can expect to get fairly close to half the votes every time, and therefore get a majority in the first-past-the post system. Mamata Banerjee was the only right-wing leader to recognise this, and therefore to develop a populist political style. But lacking a solid trade union and rural poor implantation, she has never, even at her most creditworthy performance proved to be a match for the CPI(M).
Every time a single trade union, or a single rural area, has shown autonomy, the CPI(M) has thrown more forces in the field to smash it, than it has for defeating its right wing opponents. Early in the Left Front period, electricity workers had a couple of left wing, but non-Left Front Unions – the Workers’ Union and the Technical Workers Union, in a number of plants. Repeated violence, repeated attacks on the workers, arrests, were used indiscriminately to smash the unions. In the 1990s, the struggle of the Kanoria Jute Mills took on epic proportions, as did the regime’s attempts to malign the struggle. So in retrospect, it was not, or should not have been surprising, that despite (or because of) its Left credential, this regime was more aggressive to the peasant struggle than almost any other regime in India.
Since this may sound a bit of a hyperbole, let us take a concrete, very right wing example, to make our point. Medha Patkar has already made the point. A lot of people thought Medha was indulging in shock tactics when she said the Left Front is worse than the Gujarat government.(5) But this is the picture if we restrict ourselves to the attitude to peasants and industrialisation, and the violence on them. Patkar argued that even in Gujarat, she had not been restricted in her movements as much as in West Bengal. We should add, that by now the virus is spreading. First, she was debarred from Singur as an “outsider” fomenting trouble. Now, when she went to Presidency College, Calcutta, to speak at the invitation of students there, SFI thugs beat up students of the Independent consolidation, and the college authorities shut the gates on her face. She then climbed on top of the gates and spoke. But we can also go beyond what she said to add another point. In Gujarat, the government made a commitment that it would provide land for land to all the people ousted due to the Sardar Sarovar Dam. The Narmada Bachao Andolan argued that it cannot be done. Indeed, proper land-for-land rehabilitation has not proved possible even for those who have been properly identified. As I saw in two trips earlier this year, village communities have been split up, with one village resettled in 8-10 new sites. People have been given plots for cultivation, but not enough grazing land and open fields necessary for their survival. Often there are conflicts with the original inhabitants. Sometimes, after people were settled, this new land was partially taken away in order to build the canal network that would carry the waters from the dam to the target areas. So rehabilitation has received much flak. But if we look at the entire process, we find two waves of campaigns. We find a fairly long period, so that people could get some information and try and seek redress. Pro-dam but pro-rehabilitation NGOs, such as Arch-Vahini and its activists like Anil Patel, waged one type of campaign. They sought a compromise, and the whole concept of land-for-land rehabilitation came because of such interventions. When the NBA, led by Patkar and others, criticises the rehabilitation and resettlement schemes, it is because they see the land-for-land proposal as inadequate in theory and fraudulent in practice. They see it breaking up the community, creating much social disorder, and all for the benefit of small elite groups. Whether they are right about the dam benefiting only small groups is of course much debated. But we have sought to show that the picture is much more open and shut in the case of West Bengal. The peasants, share-croppers and agricultural labourers are being pushed out of land. They are not getting any alternative land. Many are not getting any rehabilitation at all. It is our experience, from Madhya Pradesh, were the government has used cash compensation rather than land-for-land rehabilitation whenever possible, that peasants, unaccustomed to large sums of money, sent it on consumer goods, on building big houses, and so on. At the end of a relatively short period, many of them had neither land nor money. Of course, if we extrapolate from this and argue that in all respects the West Bengal government is worse, we would be in error. But Patkar has not made such a sweeping generalisation, nor are we.
Perhaps confirmation of a different kind came in the newspapers recently. On 5th December, Ananda Bazar Patrika reported that there were differences within the BJP. Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi had told his party that it is opportunistic of them to try to exploit Buddhadev Bhattacharjee’s recent difficulties, and they should support him over the issue of land acquisition.
November 30 – December 2 and the aftermath:
On 30th December, Mamata Banerjee and her supporters were prevented from going to Singur, because Section 144 of the Criminal Procedure Code, disallowing any congregation of five or more persons, had been clamped in that entire area. Angry, and losing her head as she is often accustomed to doing, Ms. Banerjee told her supporters to turn their motor cavalcade back and drive straight to the West Bengal Legislative Assembly. From late afternoon, TV channels had a field day. No sports, no cartoon channel could compete with the live show, and then the re-runs, of MLAs smashing furniture, and generally wrecking havoc. Then she called for a Bengal bandh on 1st December. In view of the massive publicity given to the antics of her party, the bandh was a partial failure, even in areas thought to be her stronghold. South Calcutta, her personal fief, alone saw a near complete shut down. An emboldened Bhattacharyya moved in for the kill. On 2nd December, several thousand police started storming Singur. According to Samir Saha, reporting in the Bengali Dainik Statesman, ordinary police, Rapid Action Force and State Armed Police all together numbered 20,000. Even the pro-CPI(M) Kolkata TV channel reported at least 6000 police. From the first, they seemed to have been instructed to go on the offensive. A wide area was surrounded, and then tear gas firing began at random. The next task was to find out the aggrieved peasants. For the police, it was of course difficult to know who was an aggrieved peasant and who a party loyalist. So this task had been given to party cadres. As Ganashakti, the CPI(M) daily, admitted on 4th December, in many cases locals themselves were identifying and fighting the opposition. Only, they were not fighting alone. They were moving as agents of the police, identifying specific houses.
There was of course some resistance. And the resistance acted as proof that the police attack was right and proper. But if paddy stacks are set on fire, if even tomorrow’s food, let alone next year’s, is snatched away thereby, who would not resist? So peasants, already pledged to resist till the end, did strike back. The fight was utterly uneven. Stones, knives, perhaps a few crude home-made bombs (if at all we are to give credence to this part of the police story) were hurled. According to the Chief Minister, the violence was entirely the work of outsiders, anti-socials, SUCI and Naxalites.(6) CPI(M) State Secretaiat member and long time trade union leader Shyamal Chakraborty asserted, “The police were attacked first. The police showed great restraint. If they had not tackled in this manner they themselves would have been beaten up.”(7)
From the paddy fields, reporter Ashish Ghosh could see the ‘anti-socials’ being dragged into police camps. They included lungi-clad aged peasants, as well as young rural women. Near the highway, Ghosh could see a different scene. The Superintendent of Police smilingly reporting to the Inspector General, “Sir, we have already arrested fifty. By tonight we will set up camp at Beraberi.”, and the IG responding, “in three more days we will complete the operation”. Sitting next to the police was the CPI(M) Panchayat Pradhan Dibakar Das. Food packets were being brought from a car for the high officers and their cadre friends. Meanwhile ripe paddy was being trampled underfoot or set on fire, one scene even the most pro-government channel could not avoid shoeing, since in one case that was also a major battle field which the channels were keen to sow, since it “proved’ their claim that it was all the work of outsiders.
For the last two months, the ‘outsider’ has been a major target of CPI(M) propaganda, especially outside Singur. On 4th December, Ganashakti wrote, only outsiders are resisting the government at Singur. Ephemera are always bolder. So a poster put up by the Students’ Federation of India, the student wing of the CPI(M), asserted that urban people dressed as peasants had done all the mischief. In other words, even if you see peasants being beaten up on TV, don’t worry, they were all urban Naxalites playing at revolution in Singur. Ganashakti of course charged Medha Patkar too, with being an outsider. A CPI(M) leader, evidently more illiterate than the average, asked why she did not agitate in Gujarat against land take over, and why she came to West Bengal. Medha, typical of her track record, managed to get to Singur despite the thousands of cops and plenty of party cadres keeping a watch on outsiders. This of course suggested she had a lot of local sympathisers and insider help. But of course, we rule out such a possibility a priori. And so, Ganashakti also had a big story about how many routes there are to Singur, and why the police failed to stop Naxalites and Medha Patkar from entering the village. Medha confronted the police, and for her pains she, Association for the Protection of Democratic Rights activist Amitadyuti Kumar, and Sumit Chowdhury were arrested, dragged to a car and thrown out. She was then taken to a State Government Guest House in Calcutta, seemingly because someone higher up had realised that a faux pas had been committed. But she refused to be a guest of the State Government. After spending the entire night in the police van, from which she refused to budge, she gave the police aslip and went off to Chandernagore, where the seventy arrested people had been kept.
If Medha Patkar was one outsider, the “Naxalites” were another category. As the CM told the media on the 3rd, there had been students of Jadavpur Univeristy. This was a coded signal. Jadavpur University, rated in recent times by the UGC as one of India’s top five, has an ill-reputation because all its teachers are not housebroken partisans of the CPI(M), and even more, because the Faculty of Engineering and Technology Students’ Union has been under the uninterrupted control, since 1977, of the Democratic Students Front, a non-party far left association which has allowed in every shade of radical left, Maoist, Trotskyist, and other. As late as 2005, JU engineering students had been beaten up by the police in order to break a peaceful hunger strike. So when Bhattacharjee said JU students, he implied radical left, militant, and “mal-adjusted”. Yet how many JU students did they find? Out of the around seventy arrested, there is one student of JU, currently in a hospital, with a broken hand.
Another arrested “outsider” is Swapna Banerjee. A fifty year old school teacher, Banerjee is a member of the Nari Nirjatan Pratirodh Mancha. Women’s involvement in the struggles led to her being closely involved in the area for several months. Immediately, The Telegraph, on 3rd December, invented a story that she was the main ultra-left figure in organising and fomenting trouble. (8) Between the police, the Chief Minister, and the inventive staff of The Telegraph, local resistance was wiped off the map. Becharam Manna became a non-person, as did 81 year old Saraswati, who gave an interview to Soma Marik a few days earlier and promised to continue fighting till the end. (9)
But there is another, even more crucial aspect of the invention of the outsider. On one hand, we are told that even the nation is too small a unit. We are asked to accept globalisation as the inevitable goal. On the other hand, in every battle where we try to organise resistance, we are told we are outsiders, or that we have outsiders amongst us. Medha Patkar is of course the great outsider in India. She has been branded an outsider in Gujarat, in Madhya Pradesh, and now in West Bengal. In Gujarat, the regional language papers are always attacking her, arguing that as an outsider she has no business talking about the Sardar Sarovar Dam on the Narmada, which is supposedly the sole hope for Saurashtra and Kutch. In Madhya Pradesh, I was asked why Medha Patkar is sniping at the MP government, and not at others. And for the last few days, the CPI(M) and the media that has, in the interests of big capital, placed itself entirely at the disposal of the CPI(M) for the moment, argued that as an outsider, Patkar has no business in West Bengal. In flagrant violation of law, she was stopped repeatedly from going to Singur, even when she was not violating Section 144 of the CrPC. She was kept locked up, along with Anuradha Talwar of the Sramajeebi Mahila Samity, at Dankuni on the night of 4th December, and told on the 5th that she could go anywhere else but Singur. Yet, she had not been formally arrested, so she could not be served an externment order. In other words, what was being done to her was sheer hooliganism, even if done by men in uniforms, backed by a Chief Minister.
What was unique was not the charge, “outsiders”. This is a necessary salami tactics applied by rulers. They would like each fight to be an isolated one. They can bring 20,000 police from all over West Bengal, but the peasants of Singur have to be alone. For they know, at the present level of class struggle probably better than the toiling people, that in solidarity and unity alone lie chances of victory.
What was unique was something else. This was the fact that a so-called Communist Party is doing the propaganda. After all, exactly who built this party? What was its founding ideology? Were Muzaffar Ahmed, S.A. Dange, themselves factory workers? How many acres of land did Muhammad Abdullah Rasul or Bankim Mukherjee cultivate? Did not Somnath Lahiri say, that they were often called the “strike-babus”, because they would rush to any mill where a strike had broken out, in the hope of making contact with militant workers. And even if we forget those heroic pioneers of the early twentieth century, and concentrate on the prosaic present day leaders, Shyamal Chakraborty is still hailed as a Centre of Indian Trades Union leader. When did he last, if ever, work in a factory? Is it not a fact that Brinda Karat and Sitaram Yechury represent West Bengal in the Upper House of Parliament? If the CPI(M) is going to turn regional chauvinist at this date, should it not start by inquiring about how that could happen? We for our part believe that the Leninist party building concept clearly rejects this particular notion of “insider” and “outsider”. We are even prepared to concede that within the parliamentary framework, even a CPI(M), which is certainly not a Leninist party, can send Karat to parliament from wherever they are sure of a safe seat. The question is, why then the chauvinistic witch-hunt unleashed on Medha Patkar? What this shows is, behind the mask of regionalism and localism is the class position. And it forces everyone to start rethinking the nature of the CPI(M). How many miles must a party walk right, till it ceases to be a part of the left?
After 2nd December:
The struggle is difficult after 2nd December. The organisation of resistance has been crushed for the moment by stationing 20,000 police. Arrests have meant that energies have gone into court cases; money has to go for putting up bail bonds. But the struggle is not over. On 5th December, a few small parties, the SUCI, and two of the CPI(ML) groups called a bandh. Despite all bluster, TV channels could only prove that roads were empty, buses plied empty, and the Chamber of Commerce expressed unhappiness at the losses incurred (surely the losses were due to the success, not the failure of the bandh). On 8th December, a march to Singur, called by two CPI(ML) groups, was brutally beaten up by the police. Hundreds were injured. True to form, Ananda Bazar Patrika reported only the violence unleashed also on a few journalists.
Some other developments are worth noting. For decades, the Left Front has had the pretence of being a “cultured” political force, as opposed to the “uncouth”, “uncivilised” politics of the Congress and the Trinamool Congress (these choice epithets are often used by CPI(M) leaders). Long years in power has enabled the CPI(M) to use a patronage network and get plenty of intellectuals, not the most straight-backed of all beings, to line up with it and paint it in glowing terms. But the violence resulted in condemnations pouring in from many intellectuals and artistes of Bengal. Mahasweta Devi, internationally reputed author, issued a short, blunt statement: “This is a war. Ask yourself, on which side are you? Let war meet war.” Well known leftist poet Sankho Ghosh, a Tagore scholar of great repute, condemned the attacks on the peasants and committed himself to organised protest movements. Artist Ramananda Bandyopadhyay condemned the arrest of Medha Patkar and questioned why, if India is a democracy, she did not have the right to go to Singur. Statements came from singers Pratul Mukhopadhyay and Srikanata Acharya, poets like Nirendranath Chakraborty and Mallika Sengupta, authors like Sanjib Chattopadhyay, film director Haranath Chakraborty, academics like Esha De of Calcutta University, Avee Dutta-Majumdar of Saha Institute of Nuclear Physics, around thirty teachers of Jadavpur university who took part in a silent demonstration in the University campus, and others. The students of Engineering Faculty in Jadavpur University boycotted the first day of their end-of-semester examination as a mark of protest. On 8th December, Medha Patkar spoke at both Presidency College, Calcutta, and Jadavpur University, at the invitation of students. A number of online petitions have also been launched, while two protest letters have been sent to the Governor of West Bengal, the Chairperson of the National Human Rights Commission and the National Commission for Women, signed by human rights and womens’ organisation, NGOs, and networks as well as by leftwing groups. Well known academics who are also activists, like Achin Vanaik and Professor Vibhuti Patel, also signed them. Arundhati Roy, Mainstream Editor Sumit Chakravarty, were among those who protested in Delhi, in front of the CPI(M) office.
Yet an organised force like the CPI(M), backed by the bulk of the media, which is not even reporting protests in any even handed manner, will certainly try to turn all these into a three-day wonder, urging people to move on to other things. The leading newspaper in West Bengal, Ananda Bazar Patrika, and its English counterpart, The Telegraph, have taken the lead in this. Reporting the massive violence, The Telegraph sought to play it down, to trivialize it, by using tennis match rhetoric about post-police action, it was “advantage Mamata”. It pontificated editorially that in a democracy, street demonstrations were pursued by parties that do not have faith in the democratic system. And then it went on to cite as example Lal Krishna Advani’s notorious “ratha yatra” of 1989, which had stirred up communal riots in 43 towns. As though that had been a street demonstration, and as though that could be used to justify the illegal externment of Medha Patkar.
The Singur land has been taken over, but
the story is just beginning. The West Bengal government proposes to give
vaster stretches of land, for example to the Salim Group of Indonesia,
again from peasants. It proposes to take over land to build a nuclear power
plant. And even for Singur, there is at the least the need to fight for
a proper rehabilitation for the great many who have got nothing or next
to nothing, for a land-for-land resettlement. International and national
solidarity is needed, particularly because Stalinists all over the world
today still point to the Left Front as a shining example. CPI(M) MP Nilotpal
Basu’s article on the Left Front was reprinted even in the US progressive
paper Guardian earlier this year. Even Noam Chomsky, the libertarian, found
reasons to praise the Left Front government when he came to Calcutta. The
myth of the Left Front as alternative has to be disposed of, before a struggle
for a real alternative can succeed. Let the tragedy of the peasants of
Singur create at least the possibility of that. They deserve such revenge.
(1) The first lines of the song went: Hei
Samaalo dhan ho kasteta dao shan ho
(2) Cadre has come to sound like an obscene and utterly alienating word in West Bengal. Cadre today evokes the image of stick or other more murderous weapons wielding thugs, tragically carrying the red flag. Yet, notwithstanding the Stalinist nature of the major left parties, and despite their clear reformist turn from 1942, and again after 1951 (there was a short in-between period in 1948-51 when they had become ultra-left) communist party cadre had meant the most sincere, dedicated social movement activist.
(3) Though on paper in West Bengal none of the Maoist groups are banned, in practice, people suspected of Maoist affiliation are routinely arrested and variously heckled and tortured by the police, especially outside Calcutta.
(4) See Kunal Chattopadhyay, Tebhaga Andolaner Itihas, Kolkata, 1987, reprint, 1997. In English the most detailed study is Adrienne Cooper’s Sharecropping and Sharecroppers' Struggle in Bengal 1930-1950, Calcutta, 1988.
(5) Medha Patkar made this point repeatedly, including in a speech in Jadavpur University Campus on 8th December.
(6) The Socialist Unity Centre of India is a smaller Stalinist formation, opposed to the Left Front. Naxalite is a way of referring to the Maoists of all trends, in view of the origin of Maoism in India from the peasant struggles in Naxalbari, in North Bengal. The CPI(ML) Liberation is active in Singur.
(7) Dainik Statesman, 3 December 2006, page 1, news box ‘Policer Kaaj Police Korechhe: Buddha’ (‘The Police have Done Their Duty: Buddha’)
(8) The Telegraph has been among the most consistent spokespersons of the ruling class. Whereas even The Statesman, despite its historic connections with the Tata family, has reported relatively objectively, The Telegraph and its Bengali sister publication, Ananda Bazar Patrika, have been running a sustained campaign vilifying protestors and arguing that there is no alternative to industrialization at any cost. The Telegraph has indeed gone further. On 5th December, it ran an editorial virtually calling for the suspension of what little democracy remains in West Bengal. Entitled ‘No Velvet Glove’, the Editorial thundered: “The menace of Maoist violence is not new to West Bengal. When it had first surfaced in the late Sixties and early Seventies, it was eradicated through counter-violence. Mr Bhattacharjee must learn from that experience and nip the present movement in the bud before Maoist weeds strangle the hundred flowers of West Bengal.” Even after the passage of decades, people still remember much of what had been done at that time. The “eradication of Maoism” meant the Cossipore-Baranagore massacre, when an entire area had been sealed off and every known youth connected the leasdt bit to the Naxalites murdered. It included the massive application of the Maintenance of Internal Security Act, from which Bush could learn something about fighting terrorism. It included the killings of prisoners. It included “encounters” where prisoners were shot in the back and proclaimed dead in encounters.
(9) Interview with Soma Marik, 19th November
2006. Courtesy Soma Marik.