15 November 2007
As peace returns to Nandigram, the media – especially the electronic media – and the blogosphere is going crazy. One hears that Nandigram is a "concentration camp," and has been witness to "massacre" and "genocide." Nandigram 2007 is worse than – or at least as bad as – Gujarat 2002. And so on. For a long time, no one on the Left has responded to the comparison with Gujarat in 2002, which witnessed a barbaric anti-Muslim pogrom, simply because responding itself elevates the charge to an undeserved degree of seriousness. However, as the rubbish accumulates, let us remind ourselves of some simple facts. One, the so-called "land acquisition." What was purported to be the land acquisition notice was not that at all – it was a notice to clarify rumours about land acquisition. In any case, the notice was, rightly or wrongly, deliberately or otherwise, construed to be for land acquisition. Once this became apparent, the government, in February itself, clarified that there was no question of land acquisition in Nandigram. Period. Two, the so-called "massacre" or "genocide." Even after it became clear that the government would not acquire land in Nandigram, the "struggle" against it continued. This struggle was carried on under the banner of the Bhumi Uchhed Pratirodh Committee (BUPC, or Committee Against Land Eviction), an umbrella alliance that included the Hindu Right on the one hand, the ultra-Left on the other, with the lead and much of the muscle being provided by the Trinamul Congress (TMC), the main opposition to the Left Front in the state. It was an armed struggle even in January and February, before the police action on March 14. In the firing of March 14, it was alleged that "hundreds" were killed, women raped, children butchered. It turned out that the number of dead was 14. Of these, 8 were killed in police firing, 6 died for other reasons, including one person who died because a bomb he was holding went off. Since January, one has heard of "hundreds," even "thousands" dead and missing. This is simply not true. The one list that the Trinamul submitted to court turned out to be a fraud, with virtually everyone being traced alive. Television channels did interviews with them. The one person who was really dead was someone who had died more than a week before the March 14 firing, and his death in any case had nothing to do with the violence around land acquisition. Not a single child's body has been found. Not a single child is reported missing. For those who are comparing this with the Gujarat riots of 2002, it is worth recalling that over 2,000 Muslims were butchered by the Hindu Right in Gujarat within a span of 3-4 days, in a State-sponsored pogrom. In contrast, fifty-odd people have died in Nandigram in 11 months, half of them Left supporters. We have no concrete numbers, since the opposition has not put out its list of the dead. The list of Left supporters killed is available on www.pragoti.org, and the pattern is telling. 27 killed since January: 3 killed between January and March, 6 in April-May, 4 between June and August, and 14 in October and the first 10 days of November. Look at the spurts in killings: April-May, when Nandigram was being "liberated" and Left sympathizers driven out; and again in October-November, when people were being prevented from returning. And why were they forced to live in camps to begin with? Because the Left Front government decided to withdraw the police after the March 14 firing. This meant leaving Nandigram to the mercy of BUPC-TMC, who cleansed the area of Left supporters. To withdraw the police, in other words, was a decision that hurt the Left, and helped the opposition gain physical control of the area. However, to withdraw the police was a political decision, because a political problem demanded a political solution. Such a solution was attempted, time and again, by calling all-party meetings, both at the local as well as the State level. Repeated appeals for dialogue and a peaceful settlement of all issues were made to the opposition leader Mamata Banerjee. However, the impasse could not be broken because of the unjust position of the BUPC and Mamata Banerjee that no CPI (M)/Left supporter would be allowed to return to Nandigram. They would not allow road blocks to be lifted, would not allow people to come back, would not allow the administration to resume its normal functioning. Contrast this with Gujarat: who was forced to live in camps? Modi's supporters? VHP-Bajrang Dal hoodlums? The Left has responded by mobilizing the homeless people, who have returned to the villages in the face of bullets and land mines, and by refusing, even under severe provocation, to send in the state police. Instead, it asked for, and received after much delay, the assistance of Central paramilitary forces. Since the argument of the opposition was that the state police, along with the cadres of the ruling front, was responsible for the March 14 "massacre," to have sent in the police to oversee the return of refugees would have possibly led to more violence. However, had the Central paramilitary forces moved in when requested, in October, the latest round of violence in early November would almost certainly have been avoided, and several lives saved. To blame the Left for the latest violence is, therefore, to be callously blind to ground realities. Picture this now: Narendra Modi pleading for Central forces, refusing to send his state police into an area controlled by the opposition. Is this even imaginable? Three, the "armed gangs." There is no doubt that armed gangs moved around in Nandigram. But who were they? Who put in land mines, and who imported AK 47s? The CPI (M), of course. Except that the bracketed M stands for Maoist, not Marxist. For a politically illiterate press and deliberately blind army of bloggers, this is too fine a distinction. (See the report titled "Maoist network spreads to Nandigram," DNA, October 30, available at http://www.dnaindia.com/report.asp?newsid=1130702. See also the PTI report of November 14 about the arrest of three persons with suspected Maoist links, available at http://in.news.yahoo.com/071114/20/6n8i6.html). The Maoist hit squads have infiltrated Nandigram from Jharkhand, Midnapore West and Purulia. They have made common cause with the TMC. The Maoists have a history of using land mines and automatic weapons, not the Marxists. But does it even make common sense for the Marxist cadres to put in land mines that targeted its own people and the administration that its own party runs? To be sure, faced with the Maoists, the Marxists fought back. Why should they not? Who are the imported Maoists to prevent hundreds of villagers from returning to their homes? Four, sympathy for the rural poor. After the March 14 firing, the Chief Minister expressed his anguish, Jyoti Basu said the police should have just come back when faced with resistance, the CPI (M) state secretary said we do not want the poor to be divided against each other. Has Mamata Banerjee, even once, expressed even verbal sympathy for the CPI (M) supporters who have been killed or the few thousand rural poor who were forced to live in camps for months? Forget Mamata, she is crass. Have Medha Patkar or Mahashweta Devi said a word? Have they tried to visit those camps? Why not? The CPI (M) is vile and villainous, but do its supporters among the rural poor deserve to be abandoned for that reason? What kind of politics is this? Five, the alleged "murder of democracy" in West Bengal. Let us remind ourselves that the Left Front has won every election it has contested since 1977. Each one of these elections has been won by a two-thirds majority, and two of these elections – including the last assembly elections which ushered in the present government – by a three-fourths majority. In each of the assembly elections, the CPI (M) alone has got enough seats to command a simple majority in the house. Aside from the assembly elections, the Left has won handsomely in panchayat and Lok Sabha elections, again and again. Over the years, the percentage of people who have gone out and voted has increased, and now the average voter turnout is more than 70%. For a long time, one heard whines that all this was rigged. The last assembly elections were conducted under massive scrutiny by the Election Commission – even the impossible Mamata admitted the elections were fair – and the Left Front romped home. Most recently, in the June by-elections to local bodies, which saw 85% polling, the Left Front performed spectacularly at the village level – including increasing its tally in the district where Nandigram falls. (For more details, see my ZNet commentary of June 24.) To discount all this is to have a profound contempt for the democracy that one supposedly swears by. But my main point is something else. The BUPC-Maoist siege of Nandigram meant that the elected representatives of the local population are not allowed to even move freely in the area, forget about discharging their duties. Even if, theoretically speaking, these individuals have lost the confidence of a section of the people, are we going to argue that they have no right at all to function? What kind of democracy is this? The "murder of democracy" charge is of course reminiscent of the charge that, for instance, Chavez and the Bolivarian revolution routinely face from global corporate interests. But in West Bengal itself, this charge comes from the TMC, which alternates between fronting for the RSS and the Maoists. But then, one expects nothing more from Mamata Banerjee. But why is Medha Patkar parroting Mamata Banerjee? One would have thought that given the impending Gujarat elections, Patkar would want to expend her energies in that state. But she chooses not to go to Gujarat. Why? Because her brand of politics has never believed in elections, or because it doesn't matter who wins in Gujarat? At the time of writing, on November 14, the CRPF has been able to move to all the villages of Nandigram, and no fresh violence has been reported for the past three days. Local markets are coming back to life. Residents are welcoming their neighbours with modest feasts. The festive season is finally bringing back some hope, even though still fragile, to Nandigram. All those who have the interests of the poor at heart should welcome the peace. To be sure, political battles will continue to be fought. But let them be fought democratically, by mobilizing the people. Not through the barrel of the gun. Sudhanva Deshpande is editor with LeftWord Books, New Delhi, www.leftword.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Thursday, November 15, 2007