Nandigram: Left is Right

For the last 11 months the Nandigram saga has been unfolding. It is a fascinating insight into the use and deployment of power by a party that has lost its ‘radical’ moorings and now is THE establishment; The insidious ways in which power is deployed to maintain monopoly and crush dissent and the justification offered for the naked use of aggression.

A quick recap: the Communist Party of India (Marxist) led West Bengal government decided to acquire 25,000 acres of land in the Nandigram block a year ago to set up a chemical hub for the Salim group of Indonesia. A notification was issued to this effect without any formal communication, the worst possible way to go about it. Nandigram is prime agricultural land and around 8,000 families stood to lose their only source of livelihood. Naturally there was resentment, especially since there was no clarification from the government about compensation for land, alternative livelihoods etc. This resentment broke out into a full fledged ‘civil war’ when the local residents organised themselves into an organisation called the Bhumi Uchched Pratirodh Samiti (BUPS) or Anti Land Acquisition Committee. The BUPS was a militant coalition of political and religious parties. Overnight, roads were dug up, blockades erected and CPI(M) supporters were driven out of their homes into refugee camps. Nandigram became a ‘no go’ area where the government’s writ ceased to function, a ‘liberated’ zone. This was an unprecedented challenge for the CPI(M). In the 30 years that it has ruled West Bengal, it has cultivated a strong network of cadres that have been deployed to ruthlessly crush all opposition within Bengal. The CPI(M) came to power riding on the back of classic Marxist rhetoric: power to the working classes and peasantry, treating the comprador industrial/capitalist class with suspicion and cultivated working class militancy. Never in its wildest dreams could it have imagined that the very political climate that it had cultivated could be used against it.

The matter got further politicised when the main opposition party, the Trinamul Congress, and a host of religious organisations led by the Jamiat-e-ulema hind sensed an opportunity to shore up their support base in what was considered a CPI(M) stronghold.

This volatile mix resulted in the inevitable political stalemate. Attempts to resolve the issue resulted in tragedy when police fired on a protesting crowd on March 14, 2007. Estimates of the number killed vary from 14 (official) to 19.

After March the WB government was wary of sending the police in lest it inflame the situation further. Meanwhile, there was a split in left-liberal/Marxist/communist circles in India. A lot of people were aghast that the CPI(M) had resorted to force against peasants in favour of industrialists. There was heated debate across various forums between independent left-liberals and party-affiliated leftists. A lot of people in the left movement felt betrayed by the CPI(M)’s actions. Even some card-carrying members (leftist historians Sumit and Tanika Sarkar) spoke out against the CPI(M)’s role in Nandigram and particularly against WB Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharya.

Things rested there till November. After Durga Puja, the CPI(M) mounted a concerted offensive to regain physical control of Nandigram. The offensive was led by a huge force of party cadre mobilised from all over the state, armed with firearms. They shot their way into Nandigram and wore down the armed resistance. Brutal atrocities were committed: there have been reports of women being raped, men and children being shot dead and burning of houses belonging to BUPS members. The party cadre unleashed a wave of red terror in village after village.

Sonachura, Garchakraberia, Tekhali, Egra, Khejuri…

Name after name, seared into the nation’s consciousness by the violence, just like Naroda Patiya, Gulberg Society and Godhra burned our conscience in 2002 during the Gujarat carnage.

The CPI(M) cadre used classic battle techniques including using human shields to storm their way into Sonachura, a BUPS stronghold. Now it was the turn of the BUPS members to be driven into refugee camps. There is no way of verifying casualties because the media and civil society activists were not allowed to enter the war zone.

What was most sickening was the way the party justified its cadre’s conduct. No less than the Chief Minister said (when asked if he regretted the red offensive) that, “they have been paid back in their own coin”. Prakash Karat and Sitaram Yechury justified what their cadre’s did. Brinda asked the cadre to administer the ‘dum dum dawai’ (dum dum medicine) in Nandigram, a reference to to 1970’s when the CPM fought Maoist’s in dum dum with firearms. A lot of intellectuals aligned with the CPM have issued justifications for the recapture of Nandigram. Read this statement put out by JNU intellectuals and the rejoinder here. Then, read this amazing statement calling for ‘left unity’ and the rejoinder by concerned citizens.

What are the lessons of Nandigram?

The most important is that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely: whether it is wielded by the left or the right. An organised political formation of any ideological bent has to sustain itself using certain power structures and will try any means possible to maintain its hold over those structures.

Secondly, only a truly democratic polity where dissent is respected and encouraged can allow for a peaceful resolution of conflict over social/economic (and I daresay religious) issues.

Thirdly, Nandigram has revealed the hypocrisy of the organised left which professes to speak for the ‘people’ but has no hesitation in physically crushing them.

Fourthly, the time is ripe for independent, non-party affiliated thinking about political, social and development issues.

What has got relegated to the background is the question of industrialisation in Bengal and India. Questions about what and for whom is development intended? What is the right way to go about it and a development approach that puts people first and is environmentally sound need to be asked NOW, before more Nandigram’s erupt in the country.

Postscript: In 1956 Soviet tanks brutally crushed a people’s uprising against communism in Hungary. This act alienated many European Marxists and paved the way for new streams of thought. I believe Nandigram is our ‘Hungarian uprising’.

2 responses to “Nandigram: Left is Right”

  1. Prabha Mohan says:

    Very well written. There is so much debate on the net about this issue, but you’ve condensed it in a very structured and well thought out way.

    Its appalling, and even disgraceful that we are still seeing state violence against people in this age of omnipresent media, with so much exposure. How do they pull it off?

  2. Tushar says:

    You have to go to Bengal to see how EVERYTHING is subordinate to the Party. It is like a scene out of 1984. When I went there I was impressed with the media because some managed to bring out dispatches from inside the war zone despite the best efforts of the party to stop them.

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