[*This is a long post. So please be warned. May I also request people to read the whole post if they at all choose to start reading. Update on December 3, 2007: A minorly edited version of this post has appeared in the December edition of Pragati]
Amar naam, tomar naam—-Vietnam
“My name, your name, Vietnam”. Resonating across the streets of Calcutta and the villages of Bengal, this slogan of the late 60s and early 70s was as much a cry of solidarity for the Vietcong fighting the Americans as it was emblematic of the growing popularity of the philosophy of Communism among an entire generation, a political ideology that defined itself primarily by its support for the “little guy”, the downtrodden and the oppressed, as they fought the depredations of the West, evil corporations, landlords and the oppressive rule of the Congress. Tapping into this groundswell of Bengali idealistic passion, came to power a man who had positioned himself perfectly to ride the wave, branding himself as the “Sarboharar Neta” (the leader of those who have nothing).
A man by the name of Jyoti Basu, the leader of the CPIM.
Bengal was never the same again.
After nearly thirty years of Communist dominion in West Bengal, in what can only be called poetic irony, a word that rhymes with Vietnam has come to symbolize the political ideology of a new generation, that defines itself primarily by its support for the “little guy” as they fight the same set of enemies as before but with the oppressive rule of the Congress being now replaced by the oppressive rule of the CPIM.
That word is Nandigram —a human tragedy, an indictment of the extra-Constitutional authority of the democracy-crushing CPIM, and a political dagger in the hands of both the religious right and the “actual” Left to draw blood from their common enemy, Buddhadeb Bhattacharya
Will Bengal ever be the same again?
Nandigram—Nothing Neutral About It
Before we try to understand the significance of Nandigram, let us first try to get out of the way a common misconception. Nandigram is hardly about about resistance to the acquisition of land for SEZs—–the original notice by Haldia Development Authority was quickly withdrawn and as this video shows, (a person on being asked why they are continuing the struggle even after plans for the chemical hub have been officially abandoned says ” Why won’t they take the land. They still might. So we will continue with our agitation.”) it’s all about the struggle, the original cause be damned.
So then what is Nandigram?
A violent dog-fight for power being waged by the old guard (CPM’s Laxman Seth) on one side and the new Trinamool goombahs backed by the Maoists on the other, a conflict that had been simmering for quite a long time and only needed a spark to set alight.
For those of you who would like to believe that the Bhoomi Ucched Protirodh Committee is an organization of unarmed, peaceful Robin Hoodish peasants who have been resisting the “evil government” from encroaching on their land kindly see this multipart video[1, 2 and 3]. You will see people repeating rumors of hundreds of deaths (a number even the Bhoomi Ucched people cannot back up with names and addresses), telling fantastic stories of village ponds red with blood being emptied of all water and “purified” overnight. You will also see images of policemen with their heads bashed in being taken away, unarmed protestors hurling stones at the police from a neat pile of bricks that seem to have spontaneously materialized out of nowhere, Panchayat offices vandalized, a rotting body of a policeman Sadhucharan Chaterjee being recovered from the river and the most harrowing of them all—the wife of CPM leader Shankar Samanta detailing how her husband was dragged out of his house, hacked into pieces and set afire (which might remind some of Ehsaan Jafri).
But while many tears may be shed for Ehsaan Jafri (and rightfully too), there is little sympathy for Shankar Samanta. Why? As this report by a group of Left intellectuals (a few from JNU) say, Shankar Samanta had killed innocent villagers and hence “had it coming.”(or more precisely his supposed crimes put the murder in perspective) Of course, some questions may be raised as to why the word of the villagers (people who murdered Shankar Samanta) are considered to be fact while the CPM’s description of Shankar Samanta as “very harmless man” is put in inverted commas. I personally am not saying that Shankar Samanta was innocent or was harmless by any definition (not that it justifies his being brutalized by a mob) but this kind of rather uneven treatment of two versions of the story indicate that these self-professed Left winging intellectuals were pre-disposed to be critical of the CPM. [The Leftist fact-finders do not seem too interested in the fate of Sunita Mondol, a class ten girl, mutiliated and raped and hung on a tree at a time when Bhoomi Ucched people had barricaded the village and driven out all CPM men] While this bias against the Left by Leftist intellectuals may on the face of it seem paradoxical, I shall subsequently try to explain why the CPM under Buddha is the “true Left’s” biggest nightmare.
And while some of you may have stopped reading by this time and already gone to the comment section, for those who are still with me—-yes the video, originally telecast on a channel that is noted for its CPM sympathies, linked before also is not neutral, presenting just one side of the story with the narrator making no effort to hide which side her sympathies lie. This absence of reliable sources and numbers is indeed a problem for anyone trying to form an opinion on the actual events that happened in Nandigram. What then should people do?
Look at both sides of the story, use common sense and come to a conclusion.
Which for me is that while the CPIMs were no Cinderellas, the Bhoomi Ucched people are not exactly Snow Whites either—as a matter of fact they have quiet a bit of blood on their angelic halos. They had created unrest by spreading rumors of sinister plans to grab land, even after the government had publicly dropped all plans for land acquisition. They had driven out, through violence, villagers who held political beliefs different from theirs. They had looted, killed and raped. They had set up an alternate authority in the barricaded villages where people could not enter until vetted by the local Trinamool toughs.
Against this backdrop, it is incumbent upon any government to take action to restore the rule of law. There were however many options open to the West Bengal government to do that within the framework of legality—including calling in the Army. However the government took none of these options—–simply because they were not interested in merely affirming the rule of law.
Instead, they were more concerned about meting out raw retribution for the atrocities that had been perpetrated on the CPIM cadre and to re-assert the hold of the Marxists on rural Bengal. This is why, a crack army of the worst of CPIM goons from every corner of the state, using human shields drawn from the local population, marched upon Nandigram in a commando-style operation before going on a rampage of pillage, murder and rape while the police, also keen to seek revenge, backed them up.
The icing on the cake was provided by Chief Minister, Buddhadeb Bhattacharya who justified this dastardly extra-constitutional act of wanton violence as the “tit” for the “tat”, “our boys” paying “their boys” back in the same coin, completely forgetting his responsibilities as the CM to be protecting everyone in the state.
Shameful. Utterly shameful.
Vir Sanghvi explains this as the traditional Communist mindset that makes no distinction between state and party. I would put it slightly differently— it was more about asserting one of the most basic premises of Left rule in Bengal: what the Party giveth the Party taketh away (many of the Bhoomi Ucched people being ex-CPIM)
The CPIM Recipe for Power
To understand this a bit more, we need to look at why the CPIM has been politically impregnable in rural Bengal for more than thirty years.
CPIM’s stranglehold on rural power in Bengal stands upon several pillars. One of them is infiltration—-every government institution is staffed by Reds and anyone who is not Red is made irrelevant powerwise. The second is redistribution—-forcible acquisition of land/wealth from larger landlords and redistribution among cadres: a sure way of creating a large support base. The third is percolation—-letting the fruits of power percolate down the Red power structure (making a large number of people complicit in minor forms of corruption) whereas other parties tend to concentrate the benefits in the hands of the top brass, leaving the rank and file disgruntled. And the fourth is intimidation—in the cities it was through what Jatin Chakraborty, one-time best pal of Jyoti Basu and then sworn-enemy called “scientific rigging” and in the villages it was through acts of barbaric violence against anyone who tried to challenge the party; dead bodies turning up in ponds or in the paddy fields from time to time leaving villagers in no doubt as to who called the shots.
However as the years have gone by, a new generation of farmers have emerged, no longer having the same sense of obligation towards the CPIM that their fathers had. This has led to an erosion in the support base of the CPIM with many of the old strong hands graduating to the Trinamul Congress. With Buddha spelling out grand strategies of industrializing Bengal’s rural landscape, a palpable sense of fear of being displaced has taken root among the rural population, a fear that has been adroitly fanned by Trinamul and Naxalite elements to get farmers to take up arms.
A violent break out had become inevitable. And when mayhem, initially targeted at CPIM took place in Nandigram, it became imperative for the Party to assert its power over life and death if only to set an example, if only to show that their iron control over the red dominion is as unforgiving as it always has been, if only to prevent a domino effect all over the state.
What the CPIM did not bargain for was the massive public upheaval in Bengal and the tidal wave of opinion directed at Buddhadeb Bhattacharya, that found expression through SMS-s, online petitions, mass emailing-s, discussions on social networking sites and a silent walk through the heart of Calcutta attended by thousands of people. While the only silver lining from this whole episode may have been this show of conscience from the people of West Bengal, what has been amusing to observe is the outpouring of vitriol against Buddhadeb and the CPIM from the Left-leaning cultural leaders of the state—–one of the Left Front’s most trenchant support base.
This has wrongly been interpreted by many as an expression of disillusionment by the Bengali intelligentsia with Communists after the heinous events of Nandigram .
Nothing I feel could be further from the truth.
Buddhi-Jeevis vs Buddha-Jivis
The Bengali intellectuals are livid not at the CPIM party in particular (the CPIM of Jyoti Basu) or the philosophy of Communism in general, despite the fact that it is an idea that has been confined to the dustbins of history elsewhere in the world.
They are just hopping mad at Buddhadeb Bhattacharya and his politics.
Because he is *not* Left enough.
You see these same intellectuals, with a few exceptions like Suman Chatterjee (whose anti-Left stance has been as constant as his tendency to get married to multiple people), had been perfectly silent during the dark days of the 80s and the 90s when Ananda Margis were being shot down by CPIM goons while the law looked the other way, when a factory manager had a tire put on him by the workers and set on fire in broad daylight as the Left workers cheered, when three women were pulled out of a car to be raped and Jyoti Babu brushed it away with a ” such things keep happening”, when CPIM goondas rode on bikes brandishing pipe-guns preventing entire localities from voting.
As long as the city was brought to standstill by massive rallies against the imperial Americans and their instruments of evil like the General Agreement on Trades and Tariffs (GATT), as long as bandhs protesting the anti-people policies of the Center gave the babus a day off, as long the militant trade unions of CITU sent another multinational packing from the city, as long as the powers-that-be blew out hot red air from body orifices, as long as Jyoti Basu handed out plots in Salt Lake at throw-away prices from the Chief Minister’s quota to the city’s “cultural elite” (read Leftist intellectuals), everything was just ah-ok
[Jyoti babu once famously asked why people ever complain about CPIM rule after all the plots of land he has given to the press, the artists and even the opposition.]
Usha Uthup, who has of late discovered a hidden stream of anti-CPIM-ness, verbalized the mindset of the left-leaning Bengali intellegentsia once upon a time with her ” Jyoti Babu Jyoti Babu don’t worry Jyoti Babu” song set to “Mustafa Mustafa don’t worry Mustafa” .
Nothing that happened in those happy days of Jyotism was worth protesting about or writing citizen’s reports on— not the reign of terror of the CPIM, not the total subversion of contrarian opinion in all the institutions and not the marginalization of those intellectuals whose views did not tally with the Left.
Things however started changing once Jyoti Basu, the darling of the “humanist” intellectuals, stepped down and Buddha took over. Noone knew how different Buddha actually was from Jyoti Czar before he became the CM—–as a minister he was as dogmatic as the rest of the Alimuddin crowd preferring to spend his time translating revolutionary works into Bengali and analyzing obscure movies of peasant uprisings.
But then something changed.
He first put the cat among the pigeons by saying that unregulated madrasas were being used to spread messages of Jihad. Immediately there was an outcry from many Left intellectuals as even hinting that there exists a concerted movement of radical Islam is blasphemy for “radical humanists”. Then started Buddha’s active courting of foreign investment, even the notorious Selim Group of Indonesia, once the bete noire of the Bengal Communists for having buttressed Communist-hating Soharto. Buddha’s aggressive industrialization drive was in sharp contrast to Jyoti Babu’s summer-time sojourns in European capitals, the official reason for which was attracting “foreign investments”. Because these rather faint endeavors produced nothing but better physical and emotional health for the leader of the destitute, they were acceptable to the real Leftists, albeit after a smirk or two.
However unlike Jyoti-dadu, Buddha was actually getting evil capitalists into the state. He was undermining the authority of the mighty trade unions, trying to get rid of the prevalent bandh culture (or as the intellectuals would say putting curbs on democratic expression of dissent) and dreaming of rapidly industrializing Bengal’s countryside, an endeavor that would provide opportunities for so many Bengalis, who had to leave the state due to the closure of industries in the 70s and 80s because of militant trade unionism and lack of electric power, to come back again.
So what’s wrong in all this?
Bloody hell it’s not Leftist !
For a state whose intellectuals have a tendency to glorify poverty (” We are too cultured to be rich”) and consider screwing capitalists and “imperialists” preferable to the flight of capital and loss of jobs, Buddha represents all that is not Bangali Communism.
For the JNU crowd of “historians” it has become increasingly difficult to explain over sips of capitalist beverages at the India habitat center why the CPIM central leadership opposed the same policies at the center that Buddha followed in Bengal,why Karat foams and froths about not undermining China while Buddhadeb argues for greater US-India cooperation.
Surely such a person had to go !
In a video whose link I have lost, I saw a supposed Bangali comic taunting Buddhadeb by reading out passages from his uncle Sukanta, a noted revolutionist Bangla Communist poet, to point out how much he had deviated from the golden path of Communism. During the townhall discussion on NDTV, an audience member called for the need for an alternative “Leftist” movement without Buddha.
Why do I mention this? Simply to re-iterate that the present disturbance has not made a large section of Leftists disillusioned with the philosophy of Communism. On that contrary, it has merely provided them a rallying point to articulate their desire of bringing back the old Jyoti Basu days of “pure Marxism” and comfortable stasis.
Some of you might interpret this last few paragraphs as a defense of Buddhadeb. It is not. Buddha, for all his great administrative skills (and this reminds me of yet another Chief Minister) and his radical reforms,has failed , either willingly or because he is powerless in this respect, to change the fundamentally oppressive nature of Left rule that bases itself, among other things, on fear and subjugation of dissent. In failing, he has himself handed to his critics, on both sides of the political spectrum, a multi-pronged trident to draw blood. And they arent being shy in poking it everywhere.
For those of you who think I am shooting the messengers (the brave Left intellectuals), I say in my defense that I am not equating Buddha’s responsibility for atrocities with the political opportunism of the “Bam-ponthi” intellectuals—they of course do not balance each other out. However, it is not unfair to point out the not-so-hidden agenda of some of the prominent Left voices (often masquerading as “independent”) who have spearheaded the protest, especially when you consider how they have remained silent spectators when other atrocities perpetrated by the Jyoti Basu-led Left front have happened.
The divided loyalties of the Bengali intellectuals, torn between their Marxist ideals and loyalty to the hand that gives, has been perhaps best captured by Mrinal Sen (a mostly silent voice against Left Front barbarities in the past) walking in two marches on successive days, one taken out by “citizens against Buddhadeb” and one taken out by the CPIM in support of the Chief Minister. A sidelight: Prabhuji Mithun walked in support of Buddha which was slightly ironic considering that in movies like “Tulkalam” and “MLA Fatakeshto” he is shown as fighting for farmers against evil corporations out to acquire their land. Of course Mithunda has his reasons and I will not try to analyze them here as it is futile trying to peek into the mind of God.
Lastly, Nandigram has been a gift from above for an increasingly irrelevant Mamta Banerjee and for the religious right, who after years of being pilloried by the Left for atrocities on innocents in their states, are enjoying kicking the Reds in the nuts ( I have never seen terror like Nandigram says Mr. Advani [yeah right]) and even accusing the Left of communal violence against minorities, forgetting of course to mention that many of the victims and many of the accused are Muslims.
Once the smokescreen has cleared, political punches landed and the sense of outrage has dissipated, what’s left in Nandigram is a human tragedy of epic proportions whose the victims have cut across all political lines.
What’s even more horrifying however is what lies in the future.
With the continued perpetuation of the traditional Marxist power idiom of violent cadre-ism and the accompanying reactionary “itching-for-violence” Maoist-Trinamool presence in rural Bengal, incidents like Nandigram will remain just one rumor, just one notice, just one bullet away from happening.