By Praful Bidwai
West Bengal’s Left Front government has barely pulled back from a potentially self-destructive disaster following the Nandigram carnage by adopting an 8-point agreement between all its partners, led by the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPM). The agreement acknowledges that the Nandigram incident of Wednesday, March 14, in which 14 people were gunned down, “was tragic and the government will be careful to ensure that such an incident is not repeated.” It says the government won’t “acquire any land in Nandigram for any industry” and that the police “will be withdrawn from Nandigram in phases”.
The agreement commits the government to “act in accordance with the policies of the Left Front”, and says “the core committee of the Cabinet” will “meet more frequently” to take “all important political decisions… after discussion”. Although the Front fell short of condemning the Nandigram incident, it explicitly “regretted” it. Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee accepted “moral responsibility” for it.
The 8-point agreement became possible primarily because of the public outrage the incident caused and the tough stand taken by the CPM’s main partners—the Communist Party of India, the Forward Bloc, and the Revolutionary Socialist Party—who had been kept in the dark about the planned police action. They unequivocally condemned the police firing as profoundly undemocratic and "brutal and barbaric", and threatened to withdraw from the government.
Critical here too was the role played by the Grand Old Man of West Bengal politics, CPM politburo member and former Chief Minister Jyoti Basu. He told Front chairman Biman Bose that the CPM is running “one-party rule in this state. It doesn't look like a coalition government at all…” He publicly reprimanded Mr Bhattacharjee, and also told the Front’s non-CPM leaders to stick to their threat to quit the government if the CPM doesn’t change course.
The agreement represents a victory not just for the CPI, RSP and Forward Bloc, but for the people of West Bengal—and for the forces of sanity and a progressive consensus on economic policy. The victory was costly and bloody. And yet, it doesn’t settle all issues: Will the Left Front completely abandon its controversial Special Economic Zones (SEZs) policy? Will it refuse to have any truck with Indonesia’s Salim group—a front for the super-corrupt Suharto family—for whose SEZ 10,000 acres was to be acquired in Nandigram?
Will the Front revise Mr Bhattacharjee’s “industrialisation-at-any-cost” orientation, with total disregard for its social and environmental consequences, exemplified, among other things, by the plan to build a giant nuclear power station in a cyclone-prone area, at Haripur, in Nandigram’s neighbourhood? And not least, will the CPM conduct itself democratically within the Front, by consulting its allies on key policy issues and obtaining their advance consent, rather than throw the weight of its 176 seats in the 294-member Assembly, against the bigger partners’ 51 seats, not to speak of the smaller constituents like the Socialist Party (4 seats)?
Before dealing with these questions, it’s necessary to situate Nandigram in context. The immediate cause of the state violence there was not land acquisition, which had been put on hold after fierce popular protests in January. Rather, it was the CPM’s vengeful attempt to regain control of the area for its “cadres”—led by local MP and Haldia Development Authority chairman Laxman Seth, who has a stake in all major economic transactions. The “cadres” brook no challenge to their monopoly of power. But on January 7, they faced the people’s anger. Many were driven out. The were itching to re-establish their hold.
It’s wrong to present Nandigram mainly as an inter-party fight between the CPM and assorted Opposition groups, including the Right-wing and thuggish Trinamool Congress (TMC), backed by the Jamiat-Ulema-e-Hind and some Naxal factions, gathered under the umbrella of the Bhumi Ucchhed Pratirodh Committee, which had collected arms and blockaded entry into the area.
The TMC, deplorably, used violent tactics. But the CPM too resorted to strong-arm methods, revealed by the recent arrest of 10 of its “cadres”. The blockade started as a spontaneous people’s initiative. As CPM general secretary Prakash Karat admitted (March 19), the local “people turned against us” because of the land acquisition move.
It bears recalling that Nandigram isn’t an exclusive CPM stronghold; the CPI too has an MP (Prabodh Panda) from there. The Jamiat was long a staunch Left Front supporter—until a misconceived preliminary land acquisition notice was issued by HDA in early January, which was promptly disowned as “improper” by Mr Bhattacharjee.
The plain truth is, CPM apparatchiks instigated Black Wednesday’s police operation to settle scores in the “cadres’” favour by using the state’s armed might. They imposed collective punishment, an obnoxious method, on the area’s residents, assuming they were complicit with the Opposition. This was itself indefensible. Even worse, the 4,000-strong police force acted brutally. It didn’t use non-lethal anti-riot gear like water cannons, rubber bullets and smoke grenades until their utility was exhausted—as mandated by police manuals.
The police didn’t fire in self-defence. Instead, it shot to kill. Most of the bullet injuries were above the waist level. Many people were shot in the back as they were running away. At Bhangabera Bridge, the police pumped 500 bullets into an assembly of 2,000.
The Central Bureau of Investigation has gathered evidence that “outsiders” (CPM “cadres”) also fired into the crowd, many disguised in police uniform. The CBI recovered 500 bullets and 20 firearms from them. It also found a 657 metre-long “blood trail” at Adhikaripara leading to a brick kiln, whose shape suggests that “ a gunny-bag holding a body was being dragged”. This and other evidence should hopefully provide clues to the scores of allegedly missing persons.
It will take a long time to heal the deep wounds the Nandigram carnage has caused. Even Mr Karat concedes that the firing was “disapproved by the people of West Bengal… [who] have a high democratic consciousness.” The pivotal question is whether the CPM will learn the right lessons form the episode, which is the worst outrage to have occurred under Left Front rule in West Bengal. Unless it does so, it stands to forfeit some of its greatest gains, which have ensured its victory in election after election for three decades—a record unmatched in any democracy.
Sadly, there aren’t many signs that the West Bengal CPM leadership, in particular Mr Bhattacharjee, has lost any of its zeal for “industrialisation-at-any-cost
Neoliberal industrialisation involves capital accumulation through expropriation and destruction of livelihoods. A progressive state must not promote, even condone it; rather, it should discipline and regulate capitalism in the interests of society, especially its underprivileged layers.
However, for Mr Bhattacharjee, the Tata car plant at Singur is the model—although it is a stark case of “crony capitalism”, with unconscionable subsidies in soft loans and land grants equalling a fourth of its capital costs! It’s also an instance of socially inappropriate, elitist industrialisation, which will aggravate pollution nationwide.
Mr Bhattacharjee is also an unreconstructed believer in “stages” of historical development. For him, “semi-feudal” India must first achieve capitalism and only then attempt socialist reform. That’s why he keeps saying that he’s working strictly within “a capitalist policy framework”. His view severely underestimates the possibilities for social transformation available within India’s backward capitalism and for progress towards a more equitable, just society free of social bondage and economic serfdom.
For Mr Bhattacharjee, the ideal model to follow seems to be China, with its giant SEZs like Shenzen, unfettered freedom for multinational capital, and its latest legalisation of private property, now placed on a par with state and cooperative property. He should know better. Shenzen has turned out a workers’ nightmare, where no labour rights exist. The mere loss of an identity card can reduce workers to destitution and even prostitution. Chinese vice-minister for land and resources Chen Changzhi has just revealed that 80 percent of the 1.84 million hectares of farmland earmarked for industry was illegally acquired. Can this be a model for India?
The Left, especially the CPM, must decide whether it should fight for radical change and for socialism, or merely manage capitalism Chinese-style, however honestly. If it chooses the second option, it will get marginalised and go into historic decline. It must also make a decisive break with the undemocratic organisational culture it has inherited, which punishes dissidence and encourages a “my-party-right-or-wrong” attitude. Unless the Left undertakes ruthless self-criticism, it can’t effect overdue course correction.