REFLECTIONS ON A RALLY- November 14 threw up important questions
Calcutta is a city famous, or notorious, for its rallies. People who live in the city have become tired and jaded by demonstrations that stop traffic and disrupt normal life. Yet there was something novel about the procession that wended its way down College Street via Wellington Square to Esplanade on November 14.
For one thing it was silent. For another it had no political banners. Most importantly, it had not been called or organized by any particular group or organization. Different people, drawn from different walks of life and belonging to varied groups, came together. Word-of-mouth and text messages had brought them to congregate near College Square and then to walk silently to Esplanade. They were united in their protest against the atrocities of the CPI(M) in Nandigram and the irresponsible statements made about them by no less a person than the chief minister, Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee.
In the rally walked people who would all broadly identify themselves as belonging to the Left. There were quite a few who had invested a lifetime in the communist movement as workers in the cultural front, as writers and intellectuals who, without actually being members of a communist party, had worked in various ways to help the CPI and the CPI(M). There were others who, as former members or supporters of the CPI(M-L), had once advocated the use of violence to attain political ends but now marched for peace. There was a huge and amorphous mass of people who, in elections, had voted for Left candidates. It will be no exaggeration to say that it was a Left rally against the Left.
The last statement may appear to be something of a contradiction. To explain the contradiction, one has to take the sting out of the statement: it was a Left rally against the established Left in West Bengal, that is, the CPI(M). People of the Left were expressing their utter disapproval of and disenchantment with the CPI(M), the way it functions, its arrogance, its authoritarianism and complete lack of any sense of responsibility. It will not be simplistic to describe those who walked (excluding perhaps the students) as being members of the intelligentsia.
Since the Thirties, across the world, the communist movement and the intelligentsia have had a very close relationship. The palpable reality of poverty and inequality in society, which capitalism seemed unable to solve but in fact aggravated, and the emergence of the Soviet Union as a viable alternative to capitalism and fascism, drew innumerable intellectuals, writers and artists to the communist movement. Some joined the communist parties and others remained at the fringes but were loyal to the cause. In India, especially under the leadership of P.C. Joshi, the best and the brightest came under the banner of the Communist Party of India. The intelligentsia has always had a Leftward, pro-communist tilt.
In Western Europe, the innocence did not last for too long. By the Fifties, as the true nature of the Soviet regime became apparent — especially with the Soviet invasion of Hungary — the intelligentsia began to move away from the communist parties. They did not abandon the vision of communism, but they declared their loss of faith in the established communist movements and communist regimes.
A further fall from innocence was to come with the complete collapse of communism across Europe. There was thus a sharp division in Europe between the intelligentsia and the communist movement, and there has been an ongoing process there to re-examine the entire tradition of Marx and what happened to the practice of Marxism under Lenin, Stalin and Mao. In India, this division, except through a few stray voices, has not occurred. And most emphatically, no reexamination of the Marxist intellectual apparatus has even begun. I would venture to suggest that such a re-examination is considered a sacrilegious act.
In West Bengal, thanks to 30 years of Left rule, the relationship between the intelligentsia and the CPI(M) and its government has been particularly cosy. This is why the rally of November 14 is significant. It marks a break, whether permanent or not only time will tell.
Since it was a rally of the intelligentsia, it can be assumed that the people who walked — or at least most of them — are still reflecting on why they walked, the implications of their actions, about what lies in the future and their roles in shaping that future. It is entirely possible that there will not be one answer to these questions. But the intellectual and political churning is important. I want to add to the churning by raising some uncomfortable issues that I think the Left intelligentsia needs to address.
Nandigram is by no means the only instance of the CPI(M)’s use of terror. Keshpur comes immediately to mind; there are many other instances, big and small, stretching over three decades. Violence has been a part of communist politics, and not just the CPI(M)’s. The Naxalites, much idolized and romanticized in West Bengal, openly advocated that political power flows from the barrel of a gun and made it their business to butcher whoever they thought was a “class enemy”. During all these events, the Left intelligentsia’s conscience was asleep. In election after election, they voted for the communists, justifying their actions with the plea that the alternative would be even worse. Are members of the intelligentsia willing to admit that they erred in not opposing earlier instances of terror, not only those perpetrated by the CPI(M) but also by others — say, the Trinamul Congress in Nandigram and in an earlier era by the Naxalites?
Is the present protest only about the CPI(M)’s terror, or is it also about the coming of capitalism to West Bengal and the social and economic changes that come in the train of such a process? If it is, then an alternative plan about the economic development of West Bengal needs to be presented and the idea that economic growth is possible via agriculture needs to be debated. It may also be the case that Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee was seen as the agent of change — not just of economic change but also change of political culture — and the protest is in part a response to what is perceived as a betrayal.
The point needs to be pushed further. There has to be a recognition on the part of the Left intelligentsia that their faith in the Leninist model was a delusion, that terror is inherent in the practice of communism. The CPI(M) is only another example that supports the generalization. Isn’t it time that there was a move away from the Cold War polarities of communism versus capitalism? In an era in which communism is dead, it might be realistic to look at means to humanize capitalism.
There are important questions that the Left intelligentsia have to face and answers to some of them might actually force them to abandon the epithet Left altogether. But it is important to face these questions since, without renegotiating the past, it is impossible to shape the present and to visualize the future. How open is the intelligentsia?
I want to end this with a disclaimer. It will be easy to dismiss this as a critique of the rally and all that it represented. It emphatically is not. I believe that West Bengal is poised to change. The rally to my mind was one very important face of that change. But this change will never be meaningful without reflection and dialogue. More importantly, there has to be a clear admission that nothing can ever be achieved through violence.