Monday, December 10, 2007

The Hindu

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The challenge of Nandigram

Three days after the Left Front in West Bengal appealed for peace and for the “safe and secure return” to villages in the Nandigram area of all people forced to live outside, and in the aftermath of the beginning of peace talks at the local level, violence has erupted again in this area of rural West Bengal. The Maoists have resumed their armed campaign of terror; working people have been injured and killed in political violence; and, ever-willing to give chaos a chance, Trinamool Congress leader Mamata Banerjee has been reported as saying that her party would “paralyse West Bengal” indefinitely. For 11 months, the campaign spearheaded by the Bhumi Ucched Pratirodh Committee (BUPC, or “Committee to Prevent Eviction from Land”) has brought administration and development work to a halt, and has sought to cut the area off from government and state power. According to one estimate, 15,000 children could not be given pulse polio doses; Rs.2 crore worth of expenditure on health infrastructure has had to be abandoned; health facilities have been unable to function; and Rs.2 crore worth of investment on electrification could not be made. People of the region, particularly peasant families owing allegiance to the Left Front, were systematically evicted from their homes and villages, with the number of refugees swelling to 3,500.

In February 2007, the government announced that the chemical hub would not be established in Nandigram. Even that announcement brought no respite. On the contrary, the forced withdrawal of the police from certain areas provided a new opportunity for the Maoists to set up an armed presence in the region, and for the opportunist alliance represented by the BUPC to regroup and continue their campaign of violence and externment, and of preventing the administration from functioning. No government worth the name can stand aside when people are indefinitely denied the right to occupy their homes and pursue their livelihoods in peace, and, when finally the internal refugees seek to return to their homes, their paths are blocked by arms and landmines. The Central government, which depends on the Left for survival, has eventually responded to the request by the Government of West Bengal by releasing a battalion of the Central Reserve Police Force for deployment in the Nandigram region. Intelligent and speedy deployment of these paramilitary forces can contribute to the resumption of peace directly by means of their armed presence and, more importantly, as a confidence-building measure among the people. This newspaper has editorialised on the part played by political slowness in responding to a tricky situation as well as administrative mishandling of a volatile situation in the tragedy of Nandigram in March 2007. But once the State government made it absolutely clear that the chemical hub would not be established in Nandigram, what raison d’etre could exist for the disruptive activities of the BUPC and the continuing violence of the opposition in West Bengal? What is now manifest is that the peace process in Nandigram has its determined enemies.

The role of Governor Gopalkrishna Gandhi has, for a second time, come under the spotlight. In March 2007, he clearly stepped out of line in publicly airing his philosophical and tactical differences with the State government over Nandigram. He does not seem to have learnt any lessons from that experience and, in fact, his latest speaking out of line has had the effect of adding fuel to the flames. Let us concede that Nandigram represented a situation where the moral urge not to remain silent came into conflict with the restraints imposed by the constitutional office. Yet, of the restraints imposed by the office, there would seem to be little doubt, and a public statement critical of the government’s handling of the issue could not have been made without transgressing them. The Hindu has consistently regarded this as a major question of principle in the constitutional realm. The classic 1867 exposition of the role of the British monarch by Walter Bagehot applies equally to the office of the President and the Governor: “To state the matter shortly, the Sovereign has, under a constitutional monarchy such as ours, three rights — the right to be consulted, the right to encourage, the right to warn. And a king of great sense and sagacity would want no others. He would find that his having no others would enable him to use these with singular effect.” The right to advise and the right to warn are to be exercised in private and in confidence, and not through public statements. This restraint required of the head of state is not a mere constitutional formality but is based on sound democratic principles. In the first place, the head of state must not, through statements critical of its functioning, place himself or herself in conflict with the representative government, which has a greater democratic legitimacy. Secondly, the head of state should appear non-partisan and remain above the fray when controversial and divisive questions are being debated in the political sphere, and avoid any public statements that could give comfort to one side or the other. The Governor’s public statements on Nandigram both challenged the wisdom of the government’s approach and came down on the side of the critics of its action. Further, Mr. Gandhi laid himself open to the charge of remaining silent when the supporters of the Left Front were at the receiving end. His conduct through this crisis has been constitutionally indefensible. Yet the Left Front government must not get distracted by this. Its top priorities must be to re-establish peace, ensure human security, and resume development work in Nandigram. The CPI(M) has a special responsibility in this regard — among other things, to be manifestly fair in its dealings on the ground, and to restrain its cadre from any campaign of reprisal.

Received through a forward by Prof. Om Damani

We are writing this open letter to the editorial board of "The Hindu" to express our dismay at your coverage of recent events at Nandigram.

Most of us are regular readers of your paper. We have appreciated your balanced coverage of topics such as the Narmada Dam, Gujarat or the Agrarian Crisis. At least in our eyes, your principled reportage of these issues (and numerous others) has lent your newspaper an unusual degree of credibility. We believe that your paper's articles carry enormous weight in moulding public opinion and policy.

It is therefore a cause of collective concern when this credibility gets damaged. We are particularly disturbed by the editorial titled "The Challenge of Nandigram" (12th Nov. 2007) which displayed a marked slant. Even granting merit to the editorial's contention that the state government had to take steps to restore governance in the area, it seems beyond dispute that the methods adopted to do so were inherently incompatible with the rule of law in a democracy. We cannot comprehend how a full length editorial could completely fail to take note of the unchecked violence by the CPM cadres, the curbs that were placed on independent reporting, the attacks on reputed activists like Medha Patkar, all of which seem to have been facilitated – or at least condoned - by the state. None of these well documented events have any place in a society governed by law, and should have occasioned strong comment. We failed to see any critical editorial acknowledgement of these events, even after the chief minister had practically admitted having operated outside the law through remarks such as being "paid back in their own coin". This stands in marked contrast to the way the governor has been singled out for supposedly impolitic remarks. This selective silence opens the Hindu to the charge of being partisan in its outlook.

We also notice that, unlike many other issues of similar gravity, there has been a marked absence of centrepage articles on this topic. One would have expected The Hindu to flesh out the differing points of view on this issue as well as the dimensions of the human tragedy. By choosing not to do so, The Hindu abdicates its responsibility to its readers for fair and balanced reporting.

We would hate to see The Hindu be identified as a newspaper purveying party propaganda. It is important that the integrity of the newspaper be above all question. An erosion of The Hindu's credibility would be an immeasurable loss for journalism and for society.

Your Sincerely,

Academics from Harish-Chandra Research Institute Allahabad, Indian Institute of Technology Bombay/Kanpur/Madras, Institute of Mathematical Sciences Chennai, Jawaharlal Nehru University Delhi, Tata Institute of Fundamental Research Mumbai. (A complete list of signatories is given below.)

1. N. Ram, Editor-in-chief
2. N. Ravi, Editor
3. K. Narayanan, Readers' Editor
4. N Murali, Managing Director
5. Board of Directors

List of Signatories:
1. Prof. M Suresh Babu, IITM
2. Prof. Rahul Basu, IMSc
3. Prof. Enakshi Bhattacharya, IITM
4. Prof. Milind Brahme, IITM
5. Prof. Dhiman Chatterjee, IITM
6. Prof. Supratik Chakraborty, IITB
7. Prof. Om Damani, IITB
8. Prof. Rukmini Dey, HRI
9. Prof. Avinash Dhar, TIFR
10. Prof. Raj Gandhi, HRI
11. Prof. Debashis Ghoshal, JNU
12. Prof. Rajesh Gopakumar, HRI
13. Prof. Purushottam Kulkarni, IITB
14. Prof. P B Sunil Kumar, IITM
15. Prof. Arul Lakshminarayan, IITM
16. Prof. Shiraz Minwalla, TIFR
17. Prof. Sunil Mukhi, TIFR
18. Prof. Ram Puniyani, retired, IITB
19. Prof. Sudhir Chella Rajan, IITM
20. Prof. Mahendra Verma, IITK
21. Prof. Spenta Wadia, TIFR

1. Prof. Om Damani,, 9323003401
2. Prof. Rajesh Gopakumar, , 532-2567732
3. Prof. Shiraz Minwalla,

A response from Meher Engineer (received through an email)

The fwded Open Letter is useful as a reminder of how pallid objections to atrocities committed elsewhere can be. It is much too late to express "dismay" at the Hindu's coverage of Nandigram. Surely the author's have read the series of articles on West Bengal, all of them uniformly laudatory towards the CPI (M)'s performance in the state and all of them written by Suhrid Sankar Chattopadhyay, who, if he gets a fact or two from people not high up in the Party hierarchy in Kolkata, seems determined to never reveal that he does, in the paper's sibling magazine, Frontline. Were they not more than ample proof that deep ties of sympathy bind whoever it is that calls the shots in The Hindu to the CPI (M) .
I turn to the Nov 12th Editorial, "The Challenge of Nandigram". It has "disturbed" the signatories to the Open Letter. I feel no such thing. Reading it, reminded me of an earlier Editorial, "An Area of Darkness", which appeared in The Telegraph - a Kolkata newspaper that few of the signatories to the Open Letter probably read - on June 18th. That editorial began by saying " There is something rotten in the area called Nandigram, and it has nothing to do with the West Bengal government's project to build a chemical hub there after acquiring agricultural land in the villages around Nandigram", and ended with "There has been enough soft-pedalling.There cannot be a little republic of Nandigram within the republic of India".
My response to The Telegraph editorial was, "Tough luck! There is a little republic in Nandigram. Check it out for yourself. " I see no reason to think differently about The Hindu editorial, references to Bagehot and pleas for an above the fray Governor who may consult, advise and warn but who is forbidden from doing so so that all can hear, notwithstanding. The reference to "determined enemies of the peace process in Nandigram" merits quoting Voltaire's reply to a particularly inane letter, "Your letter is before me. Soon it will be behind me."
The editorialist seems to have forgotten the lessons that The Hindu learned when its Chennai office was raided, in November 2003, by the Tamil Nadu Police: that sovereignity minus real freedoms and real rights, for real people and not for the abstraction called "the people" that must necessarily appear in any Constitution, however brilliant in conception, erudite in expression and firm in its grasp of history it may be, is useless, and that the right to rebel against acts of despotism is part of the most fundamental of all human Rights, the Right to a dignified life.
The first lesson is obvious - even The Telegraph's editorialist will probably agree that it is! The second can be found in many places, in the writings of Spinoza for example, or in the old 17th century English pamphlets that said, "We want to be governed by countrymen like ourselves, that know our wants, and not by knights and gentlemen, that make us laws that are chosen for fear and do but oppress us, and do not know the people's sores", which appears in Needham's "The Grand Titration" and, more recently, in Chomsky's "Rogue States: The Role of Force in World Affairs."
What held for English countrymen in their time, holds for the people of Nandigram today. It is true that they have little relish for turf wars between the Trinamool Congress and the CPI (M). But the wish that they be spared such wars vanishes in importance when compared to the need that they openly express, for Indian citizens, from outside Nandigram, unattached to any political party, to stand by them in their new distress, and to keep standing there for as long as it takes to eliminate the causes of that distress.
They have absolutely no time at all for editors in distant, city newspapers who think that they deserved to be thrashed, whether the thought comes from a contempt for "the rabble", which holds, I think, for The Telegraph editorial, or from someone who lavishes much careful attention on his reading of Bagehot but forgets to do so, equally, for the relations between the people of Nandigram and the Left Front Government.
The challenge - I use the word even though it is quite inappropriate - in Nandigram can only be met by punishing the Left Front Government, hard, for its harsh and unrelenting cruelty towards a largely disarmed and defenceless but still alert and observant section of the people who they were elected to govern, for "daring" to challenge the kind of "development" that their masters had in mind for them, and continue to have in mind for the rest of West Bengal's people.
Meher Engineer.