Saturday, January 26, 2008

Kalboishekhi in Poush: The Aftermath of Nandigram

By Garga Chatterjee, Sanhati.

The events in Nandigram have possibly changed the trajectory of contemporary political discourse for good. West Bengal’s “leftist” government started a policy of forcibly acquiring land from peasants, dependents on soil and other communities that live off the soil. Incident after incident followed where discontented locals spontaneously organized, into Krishi Jami Raksha Committee, Bhumi Uchhed Protirodh Committee, Uchhed Birodhi Committee, and more.

They were posing a direct challenge to the logic of “development” that West Bengal’s CPI(M) [Communist Party of India (Marxist)] government was trying to push. And what a push it was — urban centers were soon filled up with huge banners trumpeting the governing party’s rhetoric — “Krishi amader bhitti, shilpo amader bhobishyot” (Agriculture is our foundation, industrialisation our future). It lined up sections of the media crying hoarse for development, with the upwardly mobile urban classes joining in. It’s not an accident that those who never bear the brunt of displacement and loss of livelihood due to “development” schemes are the shrillest supporters of it.

The first wave of mutiny

Just when all this was looking inevitable, mutinies started — in Mahishadal, in Singur, in Haripur, in… Nandigram. What we witnessed is something rare in South Asian politics: A decentralized and uncoordinated people’s movement, fighting for fundamental rights like life and livelihood, pushed the government’s offensive to the backfoot, made the opposition pick up its slogans, split the intelligentsia and in fact served as an example that other such movements sought to emulate. All this in a year: perhaps the strength of most political status-quos in the world is overrated.

Nandigram, an erstwhile center of Tebhaga and Quit-India movement, shot to the headlines. Threatened by the CPI(M) government’s initiative for acquiring lands for a chemical hub for the infamous Salim group (an ally of the brutal General Suharto of Indonesia), the largely left-wing area, mostly CPI(M) supporters rose up in open rebellion against the party’s Stalinist diktat, for their land and livelihood, and indeed for their identity as humans — not displaceable, expendable numbers in a macabre play called Development.

Government agents massacred at least 14 people in Nandigram on March 14th, 2007. There were rapes and house burnings. But the locals were resilient. After being hooted out and brutalized they marched back to their homes and dug in. A long war of attrition started with the government-backed party encircling Nandigram for more than six months, hurling bombs, killing activists. Though thoroughly outgunned, the locals continued to resist.

Threat of a rainbow

Opportunist fly-by-night parties like the Trinamool Congress by now had lent their support to the BUPC. Other left-wing outfits joined, as did Jamiat-e-Ullemah-e-Hind. It was a rainbow coalition of sorts, the bulk being formed by former CPI(M) supporters.

CPI(M), one of the most ruthless perpetrators of extra-state violence, was facing a huge challenge. If this rainbow coalition could successfully resist corporate and state-backed hoodlums of the CPI(M) at Nandigram, the party apparatchik feared a “domino effect” — many areas would want to get out of its stranglehold of fear, and its plans of evicting people and communities for “greater common good” by making private factories could be derailed.

What happened after that is party-sponsored violence of a type that only few armed groups can undertake. There had been talk of reconciliation started by veteran Forward Bloc leader Ashok Ghose only to be torpedoed by the CPI(M). And when the idea of putting central forces was floated (the state armed police being thoroughly discredited by the massacre it had committed and assisted in), the CPI(M) knew that it was time to finish off the resistance for time was running out. CPI(M) goons massacred common folk, raped, shot at peaceful gatherings, stopped the Central Paramilitary forces from entering, and closed off the whole area to the media and the outside world. Nandigram was converted to a ghost-area.

The bloodied hands of CPI(M)

Top CPI(M) leaders like Brinda Karat egged on cadres to give the opposition “Dumdum dawai.” After the killings ended, CPI(M) Chief Minister stated that the resistance in Nandigram “has been paid back in their own coin.” Incidentally, he is also the home minister which makes him responsible for police forces and law and order. On being asked pointed questions in Kolkata by the media, he commented that it is only because of his government that a certain media house can still exist - a veiled threat to it to behave itself. Throttling of the media was compounded by destroying cameras as well as attacks on activists, including Medha Patkar of Narmada Bachao Andolan fame, noted artist Shaoli Mitra, and singer Suman Chattopadhyay. The leader of the opposition in West Bengal, Mamata Banerjee tried to visit Nandigram - her car was shot at and she was physically prevented from entering.

In the immediate aftermath of this, the Kolkata High Court ruled that the earlier March 14th massacre by police and others was both avoidable and unwarranted. This destroyed all the stories the CPI(M) government had spun about Maoist extremists being behind the incitement of violence.The Maoists are a similarly violent group like the CPI(M) and hence are easily usable as a punching bag in the absence of proof - but the Kolkata high court ruling exposed the government lies.

Enough is enough

The intelligentsia of West Bengal and students, 100,000-strong, came together in a historic rally in Kolkata against the second Nandigram massacre. Somewhere , the pride of Bengalis who prized human rights in their state had been slighted. Somewhere, the citizenry had stopped believing government lies. Intellectuals, writers, painters, actors were on the street, including Mahashweta Debi, Nabarun Bhattacharyya, Aparna Sen, Suman Chattopadhyay, Kousik Sen, Suman Mukhopadhyay, Shubhaprashanna, Bibhash Chakrabarti, Joy Goswami and even Bengali rock bands like Fossils.

Buddhijibis (intellectuals) separated from Buddhojibis (intellectual sycophants of Budhhadeb Mukherjee, the Chief Minister). The citizenry boycotted the Kolkata International Film Festival; the festival had the deserted look of a mourning. But the state came down hard. Students and intellectuals in their peaceful processions were detained by the police. A dark cloud of fear and intimidation was produced all over the state.

The immediate fallout of this was seen in student union elections all over India. In the prestigious Jawaharlal Nehru University, the student group of the CPI(M) called the SFI, lost all top four positions. All over Bengal, the SFI was routed, at some places for the first time, like Jadavpur University. In Calcutta Medical College, Medical College Democratic Student Association (MCDSA) led the struggle for solidarity with Nandigram. But the stirrings were to be wider.

Even discredited opposition forces like Trinamool Congress regained credibility. Left parties like the Revolutionary Socialist Party and the Forward Bloc , which are part of the government, squarely put the blame on CPI(M)’s murderous politics. RSP had launched scathing attacks against the CPI(M) and the Forward Bloc has decided to fight the coming Panchayat elections against the CPI(M). This points to a possible future re-alignment between left democratic forces in West Bengal. Calls for an alternative left front has been made. In municipality election in Panskura, CPI(M) lost. In Haldia, its votes were slashed. In Balagarh, in the heart of Bengal, in Hooghly district, CPI(M) has started to bleed as by-election results showed.

Displacing development

Nandigram has opened up a whole debate on the premise, scope and cost of development. It has torn off the aura of inevitability of suffering and sacrifice of peasants and other displaced people in the name of development. Also, it has become an example where concerted people’s resistance succeeded in stopping a seemingly invincible bulldozer of the urban industrial vision. Anti-Special Economic Zone movements all over India have started drawing inspiration from Nandigram. Anti-Dow Chemical activists, fighting for the rights of people poisoned by Union Carbide (subsidiary of Dow Chemicals) in Bhopal have shown solidarity. Nandigram has grown beyond is geographical limit to become a symbol of resistance against unethical corporate practices supported by the government.

Right now, the strange peace of a cremation ground hangs over Nandigram. People whose houses have been burned down by CPI(M) are holding up CPI(M) flags in their broken homes and saying “I didn’t see anything.” The cost of inciting such fear in Bengal will be unsustainable, as the British had experienced. The alienation of the intelligentsia from the government is complete. But for the time being, West Bengal’s sad fate is that no opposition party exists that can harness this discontent into a constructive agenda. Still, Nandigram will go down as a watershed event in contemporary South Asia, a source of great inspiration to this part of the world, where civil liberties are under constant assault.

This article was also published in The Progressive Bangladesh