India: West Bengal Left Front government sides with big capital, attacks peasants

By Satya Sivaraman

Nandigram and Beyond, edited by Gautam Ray,
Gangchil Publications, Kolkata, 2008, pp 224, Rs395.

In recent times there has been no greater rupture within the Indian left movement than that precipitated by peasant struggles in Singur and Nandigram against forced acquisition of land for industrial purposes. The spectacle of West Bengal’s Left Front regime, led by the Communist Party of India (Marxist) --(CPI (M) -- sending police and party cadre to gun down poor peasants fighting to protect their land not only earned it the wrath of ordinary Indian citizens everywhere but also left large sections among its own supporters deeply divided.

That all this was done on behalf of domestic and foreign capital, using colonial-era laws and the strong arm of police and party cadre only made matters worse and the damage done to the overall image of the left in the country will probably take decades to repair. Nandigram and Beyond, a new book edited by Gautam Ray, puts together a collection of essays that examine these two historic movements in Singur and Nandigram and critique the arguments used by the West Bengal government to justify its land acquisition and industrial policies.

`Luddites and Narodniks'

In Singur, Tata Motors proposes to produce the “Nano” -– India’s cheapest car -– while in Nandigram the original plan was to set up a massive chemical industrial hub, to be built by the Indonesian Salim group, in a special economic zone (SEZ). As defenders of the Left Front’s neoliberal economic policies make out, in West Bengal the potential of agriculture for raising the incomes of the population has been exhausted and industrialisation -– with the help of domestic and foreign capital –- is the only way forward to create new jobs. The battle has thus been conjured up as one between a brave and forward-looking regime, willing to shed its ideological prejudices and embrace foreign capital for the sake of development, and those who want to see the rural population in perpetual poverty. “Luddites and Narodniks” is what the official spokespeople of the Left Front, bent on using official Marxist jargon, have often called opponents of the Singur and Nandigram projects.

While there may have been a few deep ecologists actively involved in the opposition to these projects, by no means can it be said that its dominant sections were opposed to industrialisation per se. What they were asking were questions like who is this development going to benefit, who will pay the costs and why was a left government using colonial-era land acquisition laws to oust poor peasants from their land on behalf of private industry and claiming this was for “public purposes”?

As Arindam Sen, in a chapter of Nandigram and Beyond, points out, none other than Prabhat Patnaik, CPI (M) ideologue and a highly reputed economist, has challenged the claim that the SEZ route or giving private industry all the sops it asked for plus more was necessarily the best way of generating new employment. Writing in the Economic & Political Weekly in May 2007, Patnaik observed that “in India, between 1991 and now, the number of persons employed in organised manufacturing has remained constant in absolute terms, notwithstanding a nearly 8 per cent annual growth rate in manufacturing output”.

When the “industry versus agriculture” argument faltered, the West Bengal government alleged that the opponents of the Singur and Nandigram projects were crude, political opportunists who had no interest in the welfare or future of the people. There was probably some truth to this, as political parties like the Mamata Banerjee-led Trinamool Congress indeed have capitalised on the anger of farmers at the loss (or potential loss) of their land. But then Sourav Ganguly is not the only person in West Bengal capable of hitting sixes when thrown full tosses. And what the Left Front government lobbed to its weak and disorganised opposition was precisely that, by the manner in which it went about taking land in both Singur and Nandigram.

Lack of public debate

As Sumit and Tanika Sarkar, the well-known historians, point out in the opening essay of Nandigram and Beyond, the Left Front government, after its resounding victory in the May 2006 polls, chose not to initiate any public debate at all on the massive transfers of agricultural land to private industries envisaged under its new economic policy. That the Left Front, best known for redistribution of land to farmers in the early phase of its three-decade-old reign, was now going to take a significant portion back from them was, after all, a major change in policy.

The plan to acquire an estimated 130,000 acres of land all over the state for various projects was attempted to be pushed through without preparing any land-use maps or updates of land surveys from the 1970s, and without providing the media with proper briefings, or even an official body of professional economists to advise the government on how to implement this new policy. Most of the questions put to the government under the Right to Information Act remained unanswered and even the junior partners of the CPI (M) in the Left Front were kept in the dark.

The West Bengal government also did not choose to explain why, if it was so concerned about generating employment, it had not taken any steps to revive the hundreds of small- and medium-scale sick industries in the state. Or if that was not possible why the thousands of acres of land locked up in these industries was not being diverted to set up new projects instead of the productive agricultural land being sought for this purpose.

Complete lack of trust

Looking back at the way the concerns of the peasantry in both Singur and Nandigram were handled by the government it is clear there was not just lack of consultation and excessive secrecy but even an unwarranted sense of hubris from being in power continuously for too long. Instead of transparency there were attempts to provide half-truths and even incorrect information on the issues of quality of the land being targeted, how much of it was to be acquired, the compensation being offered, the number of farmers giving up their property voluntarily and the overall loss or gain of employment. The net result has been a complete breakdown of trust between the government and its opponents, making negotiation and compromise very difficult if not virtually impossible.

A second line of attack maintained by the CPI (M) leadership against opponents of the land acquisition in Singur and Nandigram was that they were essentially an unholy alliance ranging from extreme right to far left seeking nothing but the overthrow of a popular left government.

While in Singur the Trinamool Congress certainly had pockets of influence, Nandigram was a long-standing stronghold of the left, with a history of militant struggles dating back to the 1930s, the Quit India and Tebagha movements. For all the charges made by the government of Maoists “secretly arriving by sea” to lead the agitation, in Nandigram the fact was that a bulk of those opposed to the government’s plans were CPI (M) or Communist Party of India [the formerly pro-Moscow party] members, many of whom died fighting with party cards still in their pockets.

Indeed the most disturbing parts of Nandigram and Beyond for many readers will be the sections describing the horrific violence carried out by the ruling CPI (M) aided by the state police against their former peasant comrades in Nandigram for daring to “disobey” the official diktat. The CPI (M)’s attempts to “recapture” Nandigram from agitating villagers on March 14, 2007, in which 14 people died and scores were injured and the large-scale assault it organised during November 6-14, 2007, leaving an unknown number dead or missing will go down as some of the most shameful incidents in the history of the Indian left. While there was of course some counter-violence against CPI (M) supporters and office-bearers, the actions of a ragtag band of poorly armed peasants fighting against a well-oiled party machinery backed with state power does not bear comparison.

Particularly disturbing in all this has been the widespread reports of how sexual assaults on women were used by both police and CPI (M) party cadre to “punish” the agitating peasantry. While the people of Nandigram ultimately succeeded in getting the government to scrap the chemical hub project as well as plans to take over their land, the fact remains that the culprits behind these gross human rights violations still remain unpunished and at large -– an issue that continues to feed violence in the area.

Several chapters in Nandigram and Beyond look at other dimensions of the kind of projects being supported by the Left Front government in West Bengal. The chemical hub in Nandigram for example, argues an essay by Abhee Dutta-Majumdar, is part of a larger global trend of developed nations in the West moving their “dirty” industries to the developing world -– and should not be encouraged at all. Two other essays, by Praful Bidwai and Pradip Dutta, warn of the dangers of nuclear power in the light of a proposal to set up a massive nuclear power complex in the coastal village of Haripur, already being opposed vehemently by local fisherfolk living there.

Overall the book is a good read also for anyone trying to understand the far-reaching and very controversial changes in economic policy being implemented in West Bengal by its Marxist government.

[This article first appeared in the November 22, 2008, edition of the India-based Economic & Political Weekly. It has been posted at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal with the author’s permission.]

See also ``Tata Motors in Singur: Towards industrialisation or pauperisation'', by Nirmal Khumar Chadre.]