Sunday, December 2, 2007

Lifting the veil : Marichjhampi then, Nandigram now

By Jai Sen

I would like to put forward a few background thoughts on what is going on in Nandigram today, and also around it, in Kolkata and elsewhere.

What is happening also needs to be understood within a history of how the Left Front, and in particular the biggest party, the CPI(M), has handled such situations previously.

And secondly, I suggest that the widespread reaction to what has happened that is being expressed in civil and political society in India today can perhaps be understood in part as a function of the huge changes that have taken place over these past three decades, especially in that part of the country but also elsewhere.

I will try and sketch this out by comparing this to an ‘incident’ that took place back in West Bengal in 1978-79.

At that time, when the Left Front government that is still in power today in West Bengal was just a year or so old (it came into power in 1977 and has remained there, uninterrupted, since then), in order to ‘reclaim’ an island in the Sunderbans part of the state that had been occupied and domesticated by refugees from Bangladesh named Marichjhampi, it surrounded and laid siege to the area, starved the inhabitants of food supplies and fresh water, and finally gunned them down even as they tried to escape by swimming across the river. All this, for a Project Tiger reserve. Some reports even said that they used motorboats to mow down some of those who were swimming across the river.

(The full story – of the occupation of the area, and why the government reacted as it did – is not quite this simple, but I will leave it here like this, for the purposes of this note. But see the references given at the end of this note, for much of the full story.)

Just as in the present case of Nandigram, the media was at that time prevented by the government from entering the area, as far as possible. Just as now, they were allowed to go only till the nearest town, Canning. Local boat-owners were prohibited – by threat of force – from ferrying anyone across the riverine area that separated Marichjhampi from the town. Sadly, at that time most journalists - and even many who otherwise would like to be called progressive, and perhaps in the glow of the Left finally coming back to power just a year before – acquiesced; and they remained passive and silent. As a result, and unlike today’s situation, media coverage was extremely sparse. But some people did get in, and others interviewed the survivors, and some people did write that history. And what happened there came subsequently to be quite widely perceived and referred to as a “massacre”.

Reaction from other sections of civil society at that time was almost as muted. (The press, unfortunately, stood out.) Some individuals and organisations did get together however, to organise relief supplies; though some of them were then targeted and interrogated by the same state government, for ‘treasonous acts’.

This muted reaction at that time also needs, however, to be understood within the history of the previous decade, of a memory of terror as the consequence of the Congress-led government prior to the Left coming in conducting a pogrom of so-called ‘Naxalites’ following the Naxalbari revolt of the late 60s. And by the time the Left came in to power, there was a totally polarised civil and political society in West Bengal : Either you were with the Left or you were against it and with the Congress. So even people of some conscience ducked. Those of us who criticised the Left government even in other areas – such as the rampant and brutal evictions of the labouring poor that also started back then, and the banning of slow-moving vehicles that threatened to put tens of thousands of rickshaw pullers and others out of work, actions that we thought were indefensible on the part of any government, but especially of the Left - were told privately “You’re saying all the right things, but do you really have to do this publicly ?”.

Unlike today, when the smaller parties of the Left are openly protesting what is happening in Nandigram and holding the CPI(M) directly responsible, there was no public protest at all from other constituents of the Left Front.

Things are different today. Change, perhaps, is more possible. There are two big differences in the situation now. The first is the fact that today the CPI(M) is also fighting to defend and preserve what it regards as being its empire, whereas back then, in 1978-79, it was fighting to establish its territory. This is vital to grasp. The empire that is at stake today is not only just of some physical territory but that of political hegemony in what is, after all, the only part of the country where it has been able to maintain undisputed control over a period as long as three decades, and through this, the party’s influence much more widely. In Kerala and Tripura they have been, and will always be, in and out of power. In a sense therefore, there is far more at stake today. It is – and its cadres are – today desperate.

Second, there is a bitter legacy of the 70s that is showing through. The Left Front and particularly the CPI(M) co-opted into the party large numbers of goondas by promising them a slice of the cake; thereby nullifying, or at least reducing, the darker aspects of power that the Congress had quite freely used. But over the years, the party has had to pay the price of this, and there have been various times in the past three decades when these recruits – and their progeny, for it is a neo-feudal rule that has been established - have gone out of control.

What has happened at Nandigram is very likely a mix of both these factors, intertwining with the enormous greed for wealth that neoliberalism has brought in. On the one hand, the pride and ‘honour’ of the local party cadres has been deeply challenged by the ability of local people to stand up for themselves, let alone a sustained resistance. In any feudal set-up, this is intolerable; the consequence is that they must be crushed, and preferably brutally, so that they will never forget. And on the other, there is so much to be gained, and so much to be lost.

But what happened at Marichjhampi and has now happened at Nandigram however also show something else that is very special, and that seems to unite the two incidents. The particular viciousness of the two assaults - and also of the language that Ministers then used and that the party’s Politburo members are today using – is paralleled only in a few other recent occasions in the country’s history. There are parallels, but they are only dark parallels.

It is therefore so sad to see good people like Jayati Ghosh, Irfan Habib, and Prabhat Patnaik, and apparently also Malini Bhattacharya and Vivan Sundaram – some of them friends - defending what is so evidently, and ultimately, the indefensible; or, at the minimum, covering it up and veiling it from their and our eyes. Their loyalty to The Party and to what it once symbolised has become blind. The defence today is not only of Nandigram but also of what once happened at Marichjhampi. Today, we all need – and they too need – the courage to face realities, and to critically reflect on what needs to be done. Perhaps they are already doing this, deep within themselves….

That time has come. Things today are different. Change is not only possible; it is urgently necessary. In ourselves as well as in the institutions to which we belong. As those on the Left should know well, criticism and self-criticism is the life, and not the death, of movements.

Here, below, are some references to what those of us who were in West Bengal in those days referred to simply as “Marichjhampi”. It symbolised something, back then, just as today we are beginning to understand “Nandigram”. Let us remember; let us not forget.

Some material on Marichjhampi :

Annu Jalais, April 2005 – ‘Dwelling on Morichjhanpi’ , in _Economic &
Political Weekly_, vol 40 no 17, April 23 - April 29 2005

Annu Jalais, June 2005 - ‘Massacre’ in Morichjhanpi’ , in Letters to the
Editor in _EPW (Economic & Political Weekly)_, June 18 2005, @
http://www.epw. les.php?root= 2005&leaf=06&filename=8748&filetype=html

(accessed 27.06.05)

Ashok Mitra, May 2005 - Letter to the Editor (commenting on Annu Jalais’
April 2005 article) in _EPW (Economic & Political Weekly)_, May 14 2005

/References cited in Annu Jalais, June 2005 :/

Ross Mallick, February 1999 - ‘Refugee Resettlement in Forest Reserves:
West Bengal Policy Reversal and the Marichjhapi Massacre’, in /The
Journal of Asian Studies/ vol 58 no 1, pp 104-125

Jagadish Chandra Mondal, 2002 - ‘/Morichjhanpi: noishabder antorale/’
[’Morichjhanpi : Behind the Curtain of Silence’, in Bengali]. Kolkata:
People’s Book Society

Ranjit Kumar Sikar, 1982 - ‘Marichjhapi Massacre’, in /The Oppressed
Indian/, July 1982