Monday, June 9, 2008

Smash And Grab

What the CPM has unleashed is not a war for the control of Nandigram; it is waging a desperate and dirty battle for survival in its oldest fort. SHANTANU GUHA RAY reports

Sudeep Chaudhuri

IT’S A patch barely 250 square kilometres. It’s not big enough to contain a single Lok Sabha seat, it struggles to send six members to the 294-strong West Bengal Assembly. Not worth evoking desperate measures from a party that has been entrenched in power for more than three decades, you would think. Yet, over the last year, Nandigram has been a bloodied and mostly unsung battleground, locked in fullblown warfare launched by governmentbacked CPM apparatchik on the people. They went into it with an elaborate battle-plan, laying siege, scorching earth and taking pocket by pocket. They went into it with the most sophisticated weapons, AK-47s and landmines included. They were unafraid to kill and to destroy and to leave thousands destitute. They were adamant about keeping out the forces of State until the party had finished its work — until the CPM had made sure Nandigram had “fallen” the CRPF and local police remained in barracks.

The subservience of all things, including the State, to the will of the party is a classical Stalinist tenet; the CPM had just effected it in Nandigram, impervious to all protest, in violation of accepted principles of governance, in utter disregard of democracy. It is seldom that the Governor is outraged enough to speak out openly on public violations. Gopal Gandhi did, even pleading with grand old man Jyoti Basu against what the CPM was up to in Nandigram, but to little effect.

Finally, when Nandigram was “won” on November 12, the celebrations had a ring of military victory — columns of cadre in red bandannas drove in, the party flag was rampantly planted and local party offices jubilantly re-occupied.

This was a CPM stronghold that had all but fallen to the Bhumi Uchhed Pratirodh Committee (BUPC), an outfit that arose in opposition to Nandigram being declared an SEZ, but which slowly came to be backed by a cross-section of political and civil society groups. It had to be regained. The CPM did it ruthlessly. At Writer’s Building in Kolkata, the seat of government, Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharya himself announced the end of the campaign, General-like. Asked about the violent smash and grab by his party in Nandigram, he retorted: “Well, it was a violent takeover by dangerous forces, they have now been paid back in the same coin.” Blunt. nabashed. Unapologetic. “We did not trigger violence. We faced it, resisted it for months and then, eventually countered it. As I said before, the Opposition and the BUPC have got a taste of their own medicine. There was tension, total chaos and lack of peace in Nandigram. We had to do something. Our supporters risked their lives and returned home and retaliated only in desperation,” he told TEHELKA minutes after his triumphal announcement.

In the process, though, Bhattacharya and his party had raised fundamental and disturbing questions: Is the will of a political party above all other interests? Is armed assault on 24 NOVEMBER 2007 TEHELKA the adversary permissible tactic? Are we to accept might as right? Is there an agency to prevent such sanction-driven lapse into mayhem? The CPM, after all, had left no one in doubt about the tactics it was employing to reclaim Nandigram — “maaro” was the cry of Politburo member Brinda Karat and the party was resonating it, in New Delhi and in West Bengal. Party boss Prakash Karat and Sitaram Yechury were offering grand articulations of the eye-for-eye violence, glossing over the ground rules of multi-party democracy. Local CPM bosses Biman Bose, Benoy Konar and Lakshman Seth (MP from Tamluk, which overlaps Nandigram) were exhorting cadre to pull no punches. The chief minister, his image as a literary sophisticate notwithstanding, was willing to submit his government to the intents and purposes of his party.

REPORTS THAT Bhattacharya has been “hounded by pangs of conscience” over what’s happened in Nandigram might do his image more than deserved credit. The fact is, whatever his personal opinion, his public face has been that of a man who sanctioned the brutality, at least did nothing to stop a bloody campaign by his own party when as chief minister he should have.


On the contrary, he and his party swung swiftly backstage to buffer their transgressions in Nandigram politically. A timely softening on the nuclear deal was widely interpreted as a means to neutralise both the Congress’ local belligerence and any intervention that New Delhi might have contemplated. And within the Left Front, dissent was effectively armtwisted. Consider the changed tone of senior RSP leader and state PWD minister Khiti Goswami. Days after he told a crowded press conference that he and two of his colleagues would resign from the Left Front government, Goswami did quite a U-turn; nobody was quitting, nobody was saying anything anymore about Nandigram or the CPM, at least not on the record. It is well-known that all Front partners including the CPI are deeply distressed at the CPM’s handling of Nandigram but they play under the compulsions of being junior, spanked partners. They can’t risk breaking rank.

But why did the CPM go so far in Nandigram? Why did it resort to Red Army Stalinism?

The answers are slowly coming to the fore. It was not about Nandigram, really, not about one Lok Sabha seat or half a dozen in the Assembly. It was all about the realm. You lose a bastion like Nandigram and you could start a cascade of similar revolts, it could be the beginning of the end. At the party headquarters in Alimuddin Street in the heart of Kolkata, CPM leaders offer no end of explanations for Operation Nandigram, including that it was becoming a hub of Naxalites. But the real lie within the CPM itself — it fears that one loss could trigger a series, that once the myth of its invincibility is exploded, other areas would follow the Nandigram example. Nandagopal Bhattacharya, top CPI leader and West Bengal minister, agrees: “As a ruling party, it is important for the Left Front to look into the ground realities in Nandigram. We cannot let a stronghold slip away and let the Opposition rule. We currently hold all the four parliamentary seats in the (Midnapore) region and a significant number of Assembly seats. We need to improve, not lose out.”

In fact, his voice echoes with sentiments expressed by a staunch opponent. Basudev Bose, the state secretary of the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist), accused of fermenting trouble in Nandigram along with Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress, says the end of violence in Midnapore district now revealed the true reason of the Left Front’s panic. “Nandigram should have been silent ever since Bhattacharya announced that there will be no chemical hub there. In fact, not many know the previous efforts to industrialise also met with disaster in the region when the state government — way back in the 90s — pushed a jelling ham project over 250 acres of land. But that the region was not silent is evident from the fact that those fighting in the area are doing it for political control, for the May 2008 panchayat elections in West Bengal.”

Bose calls the Nandigram experience a desperate attempt by the Left Front to maintain its stronghold over the countryside. “But there were cracks in the Red Wall of Bengal that guarded the countryside and the CPM realised there’s trouble brewing in a number of areas.” There’s already been waves of anti-CPM ferment in the urban middle class following Rizwanur Rahman’s dubious murder; intimations of losing ground in the rural heartland must make party bosses nervous. Political analysts agree. Noted writer
Samaresh Mazumdar feels the kinds of discontent opposition parties are generating in rural Bengal are not simple pushovers. In many places, these forces have gained more than a toehold. “Frankly, Mamata Banerjee has got a new lease of life in her fledgling political career because of Nandigram, a region where TMC has never been a dominant factor except a few seats here and there. And that it was suddenly pushing an agenda was clear to the Left Front though those outside Bengal felt BUPC was fighting for its land from industrial sharks. In fact, there are no land sharks in that region.”

Nor is it such a Maoist stronghold as the CPM claims. Buddhadeb Bhattacharya claimed Nandigram acquired a volatile overtone after state intelligence confirmed the presence of a group of Maoists under the leadership of one Ranjit Pal from Jharkhand who had set up a training camp and was smuggling firearms. It was obvious that the chief minister was oblivious to comments made to the contrary by state Home Secretary Prasad Ranjan Roy; 24 hours before the chief minister spoke, Roy had told reporters that despite the Communists’ claims of Maoist presence in Nandigram, no rebel was found in the region. The CRPF did confirm the recovery of one landmine and a 3.3 rifle from BUPC stronghold Sonachura. But opinion about Nandigram becoming a Maoist stronghold was met with scepticism. Noted Bengali litterateur Suchitra Bhattacharya said: “Who knows who planted it to give the entire operation a different colour. It’s almost like George Bush’s excuse to attack Iraq despite not
finding any chemical weapons.”

The Opposition is beginning on the “desperate CPM” theme too. Hours after the siege was broken through gunfire, BJP leader LK Advani — on a visit to Nandigram — old villagers outside the Tamluk hospital that there was more at stake for the Left Front government in West Bengal than just settling scores with a gang of farmers backed by the Trinamool. “The way the party moved in total cohesion to take charge of Nandigram confirms my belief. So does my belief that the silence from the Congress is because it has the nuclear deal in mind and needs the Left’s support to seal it. Obviously, the party will not react on Nandigram.” Agrees Trinamool chief Mamata Banerjee, describing the Centre’s silence on Nandigram as its gift to the CPM for softening its stand on the nuclear deal. “I am aware of the Centre’s compulsions. Till 12 days ago, the Centre — despite repeated requests for CRPF and intervention — did not react and allowed the massacre to happen. But the good sign is that many Left intellectuals and members of the Bengali intelligentsia are waking up to the realities of CPM misrule,” she told her supporters in Tamluk, where she was camping on being denied entry to Nandigram.

BANERJEE SHOULD know. The city’s intelligentsia, despite a brutal cane charge by the police, assembled in the heart of Kolkata on November 14 and observed a silent protest. Veteran actor Soumitra Chatterjee, who sided with the Left Front and asked those protesting why they did not raise their voice when BUPC members attacked CPM cadre, found himself increasingly isolated. “Sorry Soumitra, do not make such stupid remarks. You must know what you are saying. No one visited your
film festival [Chatterjee is the chairperson of the film fest currently on in the city] and everyone is sad at your pro-Nandigram remarks. I do not know what you will do but I will side with those who lost their family members, those who lost their homes and those who lost their livelihood,” wrote veteran footballer Surajit Dasgupta in a
pro-Left vernacular daily.

But now that the guns have fallen silent will the Trinamool sing a different tune? Party functionaries reject any such idea, claiming the second phase of Nandigram will soon be announced and that there would be no let up. “Mamata doesn’t want to dilute her agitation on the Nandigram issue. We will continue to highlight an important issue like Nandigram,” Partha Chatterjee, leader of the Opposition in the Assembly, told TEHELKA.

What’s in store for the ruling party? If there is anything Bhattacharya needs to be worried about after the Nandigram pogrom, it is this increasing isolation, especially from those who — despite not being in the party — stood with him for the last four decades on almost all issues, barring Singur and, of course, Nandigram. And if this feeling spreads among he people, both inside and outside Kolkata, the man who was once considered a thinking chief minister, will have to do some serious introspection. Presently, he is busy collecting his armour. The next battle is due in the panchayat elections in May 2008. Bhattacharya needs to win it — to retain the grip on his seat, party and power.

From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 4, Issue 45, Dated Nov 24, 2007