Sunday, February 24, 2008

Freeing Land from the Tiller: Communist Experiments in Neo-Liberalism in West Bengal

By Aditya Sarkar

Nandigram is a rural area in the East Midnapur district of West Bengal, a state governed for three decades by a Left Front dominated by the Communist Party of India (Marxist). Through the course of 2007, this agrarian belt has witnessed one of the most significant movements against global neo-liberalism and state power anywhere in the world. The issue was the acquisition of rural land for a Special Economic Zone, to be leased primarily to the Salim Group from Indonesia, close supporters of Suharto during his dictatorship. The MoU between the Indonesian corporate giant and the West Bengal government had been signed in July 2006. On 2 January 2007, an official notification informed the inhabitants that 25,000 acres of their land were to be acquired for the establishment of a chemical plant, as part of the proposed SEZ. None of the inhabitants had been consulted prior to this decision, and it had not gone through the authorized legal channels, the village and district representative bodies. A massive movement from below, seeking to defend rural land against corporate invasion, began at the beginning of 2007.
The countryside of southern West Bengal had already been convulsed for some months over a similar land takeover bid, backed by the Left Front government, by the Tatas, India’s biggest industrial house, for fertile agricultural land in Singur. By December, the resistance in Singur had largely been crushed. To prevent a similar loss of land in Nandigram, the villagers took to direct action. They responded to news of their dispossession by digging up roads and destroying bridges, making it impossible for the police or local CPI(M) cadres to enter. Violent clashes broke out between villagers and armed cadres at the beginning of January. The latter fired rounds of gunfire into the barricaded villages, hurled bombs and killed people, backed by muscle power from Lakshman Seth, the local M.P. The villagers retaliated in kind, killing a local party leader and burning down his house. The vast bulk of the villagers gathered under the stewardship of the Bhumi Ucched Pratirodh Committee or the B.U.P.C., the association set up to mobilize against the takeover of land, a loosely organized body of people from various political parties (including opposition Trinamul Congress members, far-left activists, Left Front supporters whose land was threatened, and ordinary villagers without political affiliations). There were expulsions of CPI(M) supporters who had participated in the attack on Nandigram.
Between January and March, there was something of a lull, as the movement in Nandigram consolidated its authority, the state remained blocked out of the villages, and Lakshman Seth and his allies made plans for a reprisal. Matters came to a head in March. On the 14th, a battalion of policemen and CPI(M) cadres disguised as policemen ripped through Nandigram, firing upon an unarmed crowd and hacking their way through the villages in an orgy of savagery that left at least 14 dead (according to official figures) and hundreds seriously injured, lying in hospitals that years of government neglect had left woefully unprepared for situations like this. Rape and sexual mutilation of the most horrific kinds were systematically used by party cadres as tools of retribution. The villagers managed to repulse the attack, in a heroic counter-mobilization, and drove out the ‘police-cadres’ (the term, used by the villagers, originated in the discovery that cadres of the ruling party had disguised themselves as policemen to participate in the blood-letting) on 16 and 17 March. The state and party had to withdraw, but carried on war by other means, including an attempted economic blockade of Nandigram, an attempt to starve out the resistance.
In the meantime, the West Bengal CPI(M), shamefully backed by the central party leadership, carried out a heavy but unconvincing propaganda campaign, pointing the finger at ‘the communal menace’, ‘the Maoist menace’, and any number of allegedly self-explanatory ‘menaces’ that would detract attention from what Nandigram’s peasants were actually, and obviously, engaged in: a grassroots popular movement to retain the land they lived and worked on. In a weak attempt to append the carrot to the stick, the chief minister made a couple of half-hearted pronouncements to the effect that land would not be acquired without consent. CPI(M) propaganda has consistently harped on this theme: why did the resistance continue despite the chief minister’s reassurances? The answer is quite simple. No party leaders had the gumption to visit Nandigram after the massacre. No serious relief measures were organized by the state, which instead sought to impose an economic embargo on the villagers. No compensation was offered to those who suffered from the violence in March. The enquiries of the judiciary and the Central Bureau of Investigation were consistently scuttled and delayed by the government, and none of the accused was brought to justice. There was little reason for Nandigram’s villagers to trust their chief minister, and every reason for them to consider him their enemy. Subsequent events were to bear this out tragically.
Between March and November, a low-level civil war raged in the villages of the area. CPI(M) workers encircled the resisting villages, and kept up a sustained barrage of gunfire, bombs, and threatening abuse across loudspeakers. There were further expulsions of party supporters from Nandigram; there was also, conversely, the flight of B.U.P.C activists and supporters terrorized by attacks by the ruling party’s cadres. There was armed violence on both sides, which was hardly a surprise, since the rural politics of West Bengal has for many years been characterized by the use of arms, which have been made plentifully available to villagers for use in inter-party conflicts, especially prior to local government elections. Reprisals and counter-reprisals ravaged Nandigram through the summer, though the forces and resources arrayed on the side of the state were infinitely greater, and the balance of violence was utterly lop-sided. Nevertheless, the government failed to secure re-entry into the villages of Nandigram. The barricades stayed up, the villagers on one side united in defence of their land, and party cadres on the other, wielding guns and waiting for their moment, to avenge the humiliation in March. So things stayed, for over seven months.
The latest instalment in this tragedy took place recently. On 30 October, the villages of Satengabadi and Ranichak were attacked by the police and by cadres in an attempt to regain the area. Between 5 and 10 November, cadres and local police stepped up efforts to ‘recapture’ Nandigram. A lightning raid on Satengabadi virtually destroyed the village, rendering over a thousand people homeless, their houses looted and burnt. On 10 November, the final capitulation occurred. Party cadres swooped down upon a demonstration by the BUPC, abducted 600 protestors, and used them as a human shield to secure re-entry into the villages. The state finally, after over eleven months of civil war, managed to re-enter the villages. Since then, there have been massive and spectacular acts of violent revenge, by party workers who’d been waiting for this moment for a long time. Rapes, killings, and torture characterized the re-establishment of ‘law and order’. At the present moment, there is a campaign of absolute terror and effective enslavement going on, as villagers are being forced to sign affidavits pledging complete obedience to the CPI(M)’s commands, and to join rallies organized by the party. Nandigram at present resembles nothing so much as a vast slave camp.
The spectacle of a professedly left-wing government first trying to secure land for a massive project of corporate expansion, then confronting a people’s movement with force and armed terror, has produced a politics of mass revulsion that all the attempts to stifle or deflect dissent have not subdued. This has been manifested in recent events in West Bengal that have rocked the stability of the ruling regime. Most dramatically, in September there were food riots against the hoarding and sale of food marked out for public rationing. These black-market practices are common in Bengal, and are usually organized through local party channels. A series of elections to students’ unions in colleges in West Bengal, in the wake of Nandigram, delivered decisive mandates against the Students’ Federation of India, the party’s student wing. An unexpected electoral reverse in elections to a local dock union supplemented this trend. A scandal over an inter-religious love affair in Calcutta, where the state government scotched an enquiry into the death of a Muslim boy allegedly brought about by the actions of the girl’s well-connected business family, affirmed suspicions that the Left Front was now consistently shielding vested propertied interests. The organized Left’s citadel is no longer secure, and social tensions that had simmered beneath the surface for many years are coming to the boil.
The epicentre of solidarity with Nandigram has been Kolkata, and here there has been a remarkable efflorescence of democratic disgust with the CPI(M): students, intellectuals, artists, lawyers, and doctors have, for the first time in decades, gathered together to protest, often in the face of brutal police attacks and arbitrary arrests. On 14 November, Kolkata saw a spontaneous demonstration of over 100,000 people, marching silently to protest the carnage in Nandigram. It was a red-letter day in a city where demonstrations for many years had meant nothing more than exercises in self-publicity conducted by political parties, usually the ruling Left Front combine, and where the memories of an earlier Kolkata, vibrant with political passion and engagement, had apparently long died. Poetry, discursive analysis, demonstrations, candlelit vigils, boycotts of government awards by intellectuals once close to the Party: every possible means is being used to shame the mighty. The enormous outpouring of solidarity in Kolkata has been immensely moving, especially since previous acts of state brutality and corporate invasion in the country had evoked nothing on this scale, and it had become passé among most educated middle-class Indians to turn a blind eye to the conditions of the country’s poor.
Things are changing, and it is a time of possibilities, openings, and dangers. Some of the noise around Nandigram has come from political rivals of the CPI(M), just as compromised or more, without any of the CPI(M)’s earlier history of agitation for the downtrodden, who have jumped on to a convenient bandwagon. Some of it comes from the Indian far left, in its many guises, which faces internal strife, inner authoritarianism and dogmatism, and, most of all, the constant threat of repression, in a country where attempts to resist the writ of the state, no matter what their provenance, are labeled either terrorist or ‘Maoist’ and rendered fit for arbitrary, Patriot Act-style counter-mobilizations of terror. Some of the initiative comes from mobilizations loosely described as ‘people’s movements’, some of which command much popularity but are without the organization or coordination needed to mount an immediate political challenge. However, the messiness and internal contradictions of the present moment should not blind us to a key fact. Neo-liberalism in India has hit a road block. Projects for corporate expansion, economic restructuring and land seizure, backed by armed state force, have been announced across the length and breadth of the country: Maharashtra, Orissa, Jharkhand, Chattisgarh, Uttar Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh, the North-east, to pick random examples. Each project has become a site of prolonged resistance and conflict: Nandigram may be the most dramatic, but it is by no means the only one. There may be no blueprints at hand that tell us what ‘alternatives’ may look like, but the resistance to global neo-liberal capitalism has been near-universal, it has been uncompromising, and it has come from the bottom up. A movement of resistance, in other words, that a real Left would be proud to be part of.
Where does India’s ‘real’, which is to say officially designated Left, actually stand? The jury is still out, though the evidence continues to mount. The shameful silence of the central leadership of the CPM has destroyed the party’s credibility as a force that can claim political principle and commitment. An outright condemnation of the Nandigram violence from the party leadership would have saved the face of the official Left, though there is precious little they could actually have done: the tail wags the dog, and the actions of the West Bengal party unit clearly determine Politbureau stands, rather than the reverse. The CPI(M) clearly sees its continued hegemony in West Bengal – where most of its seats in Parliament come from – as necessary to its continued relevance in Indian politics. The price being paid, however, is the increasing absurdity of the party’s claims upon ‘left-hood’. The central leadership has to, therefore, resort to more and more ridiculous justifications and lies covering up what really happened in West Bengal. The agitation against the takeover of land is consistently depicted by Party propaganda as a machination of either the Trinamul Congress and the right-wing BJP, or as a Maoist conspiracy. There have been, however, muted and not-so-muted voices of dissent from within circles once considered close to or part of the official Left project in India: prominent party members have resigned and condemned the Left Front’s handling of Nandigram, others have spoken out against their Party’s official stands and had their voices muffled, and there appears to be churning within the official Left at various levels.
Whether there will ever be a credible, reformed CPI(M) freed of corruption and compromise is an open question: it is clear, however, that this is ruled out as long as the Party does as it pleases in West Bengal. Buddhadeb Bhattacharya was recently praised by Henry Kissinger, who said the Communist chief minister reminded him of Deng Xiaoping. Not coincidentally, Bhattacharya has also been the darling of the corporate media in India, which was therefore faced with a crisis during Nandigram, not quite knowing which way to look while he executed the policies they wanted in a manner that didn’t quite smell of roses. Lakshman Seth and Benoy Konar, proven to be the chief masterminds and instigators of the attacks on Nandigram’s peasants, have neither been brought to justice, nor disciplined, nor even reprimanded by the Party leadership.
As a conclusion, let me present two contending claims about Nandigram and what it symbolizes for Indian politics. First, the view of the official Indian Left. Bengal, we hear, is a citadel of left-wing resistance to the politics of communalism that dominates Indian politics, the politics of imperialism that globally encircles it, and the economics of neo-liberalism that threatens its experiments in left-wing economic and social reform. The survival of the Left Front government in West Bengal is supposedly crucial to the continued relevance of the CPI(M) in national politics, and is thereby essential. The ‘law-and-order’ problem posed by the movement in Nandigram threatened the continued political and economic alternative held out by the Indian Left, and thus needed to be resolved by firm state action. It was necessary, therefore, to ‘recapture’ Nandigram.
Let me now put matters another way. There is, indeed, urgent need for global resistance to the politics of empire and neo-liberalism that seeks to swamp the world, and stamp out the possibility of any alternatives. But the Left Front Government in West Bengal – and by implication the official Indian Left – has long given up on that fight, beyond empty pieties that never actually threaten the hegemonic structures of the world. And now, with Buddhadeb Bhattacharya’s embrace of global capitalism, West Bengal under CPI(M) rule represents one of the prime entry points of global capital with its neo-liberal strategies into India. The politics of Stalinism and the economics of neo-liberalism have given birth to a monster.
The experiences of the twentieth century have taught us that ‘the Left’ is always a complex noun. It cannot, however, possibly be complex enough to include the Party in West Bengal. A party that pushes for the introduction of Special Economic Zones, bypasses popular consultations of any kind in making its decisions, makes deals with the corporate group that bankrolled Suharto’s massacre of Indonesian Communists, and nourishes and protects thugs who shoot peasants and protestors, may be called all sorts of things, but ‘left-wing’ is not among them.
Nandigram’s peasants were not fired by such geo-political calculations as I have just outlined: they simply wanted to hold on to their land, and they refused to buy into the myth that they were being offered a better deal. But the meaning of their resistance has experienced the political transvaluation that turns immediate battles for survival into epochal acts of resistance. It has become one of the central nodes in the chain of global movements that seek to resist a neo-liberal hegemonic project that rests upon the intensified exploitation of labour, the arbitrary acquisition of resources, and the stifling of internal political dissent. To achieve the success of this project, it was necessary to destroy the movement. The CPI(M) in West Bengal, having decided to do so, has demonstrated its inherent similarity with the other forces on the Indian political spectrum: its common function with them as neoliberal capitalism’s slave, victim, and agent.