I recall a young member of the family who would snatch an Agatha Christie as someone was reading it, sift quickly to the last pages, find out who-done-it, hand the book back, and grin for days with the secret knowledge that the one reading the book did not yet have.
Such are the joys of reading books from the wrong end.
Thus, for many historians of modern Russian history, the only one thing to remember about the Bolshevik revolution is that it led to the Gulag, or that the chief feature of India’s Freedom Struggle was the Partition of India, or that it is the madness of 1989-90 that once and for all must define the character of Kashmiri Muslims, never mind that the very same saved both the valley and the Pandits against co-religionist invaders in 1947.
In the same vein, many hold that both Nazism and the Second World War happened simply because Hitler was an evil man, and the Gujarat massacres of 2002 had nothing to do with the history of Hindu-Fascist ideology over a century or so but with the fact that a train caught fire at Godhra.
Nor is there a dearth of readers who believe that the evil nature of science is conclusively established by the single fact of atomic fission; nothing else may be said for science. Period.
Regrettably, some outstanding scholars of history who would not dream of reading any of the above in the manner suggested, have nonetheless felt called upon to read Nandigram as that one day in November when an armed clash took place between two sets of citizens for a small strip of territory (in which four unfortunate people were killed and a score injured). The pages of the Nandigram book that span the previous eleven months or so simply form no part of their outrage. And to top it all, parallels have been drawn with what happened in Gujarat in 2002. Truly, one is tempted to think, when the elite heart bleeds, it tends to lose all sense of discrimination.
It is of course true that some events in history do stand by themselves in universal memory: for example, Hiroshima/Nagasaki, the Holocaust, Gujarat 2002, or indeed the Delhi killings of 1984, or the mass exodus of Kashmiri Pandits from the valley in 1990. Or indeed the partition of India.
The question to ask is whether the recent bilateral violence in Nandigram qualifies to that sort of semiotics. Does the admittedly violent return of those evicted for months on end to their home, hearth and land warrant the Gujarat analogy? Let it be said that since January,2006 upto now a total of some 50 lives have been lost in the Nandigram episode. And of these 27 were those who supported the CPI(M).
As a passing thought merely, one wonders how the public-spirited elite who have protested Nandigram might react were the ousted Muslims in Gujarat, or the Narmada oustees to attempt to return to the homes and environs that were once their’s, or were Kashmiri Pandits to attempt something similar—with the state standing aside in all cases.
In an arrogant disregard of farmer’s wishes on the ground, the Left Front announced a Chemical Hub Project to be located at Nandigram. Soon to find out that its monumental victory at the hustings may have rendered it insensitive to what the local farming community thought about this cavalier fiat to acquire their lands for the Hub.
After much huffing and hawing, the West Bengal government declared in February,‘07 that it was withdrawing the proposal and that no land at Nandigram would be acquired.
And yet, unaccountably as it were, a ‘struggle’ to ‘protect’ Nandigram from acquisition took shape under the aegis of the Bhumi Ucched Pratirodh Committee (BUPC) led by cadres of the Trinamool Congress (TMC). Joined in time by cadres of the Hindu-Right (Anand Marg) and, little by little, by sworn enemies of the Hindu-Right, the Maoists, the BUPC succeeded in evicting some three thousand inhabitants of Nandigram for no other reason than that they voted for the Left. A ‘liberated zone’ was soon to be announced—liberated, that is, from the elected government of the day, and all those duly elected to the Panchayat and other local government authorities in the area.
Those evicted found shelter in distant Khejuri where make-shift camps were set up. Attempts by the evicted to regain lost homes was met with killings and arson.
The government of the day stood paralysed, until propelled by an order of the Kolkata High Court to restore normalcy to the situation.
This the government sought to do by sending in a contingent of the police on March 14. Like the police everywhere in India, this contingent took recourse to firing, not below the abdomen, but recklessly above, killing eight inhabitants. Another six were killed by bullets other than those fired by the police.
Since that day in March, the state has been absent for all practical purposes from Nandigram.
A number of attempts were made to sort out the stand-off through negotiations. The veteran elder statesman, Jyoti Basu, met Mamta Bannerjee of the TMC more than once to plead for a peaceful resolution of the stalemate, but it is public knowledge that these attempts were spurned, despite repeated declarations by the West Bengal government that its plans for acquiring land in Nandigram had been shelved.
In the meanwhile, the forces in opposition ensured that access to the area was made intractable by roads that were dug up, blockades that were set up, and the trenches that were dug in strategic places. An influx of arms and ammunition was underway, and only the other day, the law-enforcing agencies have unearthed in Nandigram not only caches of ammunition and explosives but literature originating from the Maoists—people who have been designated by no less a man than the Prime Minister as the chief threat to national security. An opinion we do not share.
It has been in response to this sort of context that the CPI(M), regrettably we think, chose the option of encouraging its evicted supporters to regain what they had lost, forcibly.
In doing so, the government and the CPI(M) are complicit in encouraging violence among citizens, in abjuring the state’s role to prevent violence, and in yielding the constitutional obligation to maintain order among the polity to armed volunteers who have no right to bear arms. Regardless, we think, of the provocation to have done so. Within India’s democratic system, accountability here is called for.
We think that, however intractable the situation, the honourable course to follow would have been to organize peaceful dharnas or satyagrahas in full public transparency, and to have drafted the media and other democratic institutions to see for themselves. An information blitz could have been mounted to bring the composition and motives of those leading the opposition to public light. The country’s legal apparatuses could have been invoked to seek redress for the plight of those who had been violently and forcibly evicted.
By sidelining such avenues of redress and opting for the forcible course, the CPI(M), and the government by implication, may not only have transgressed democratic values and practices, but purchased disrepute of a kind that may not go away in a hurry. All that when the government’s declaration to withdraw all plans of land acquisition and its public apology for the March 14 police killings bespoke its willingness to defer to the will of the farming community in Nandigram and to civic outcry.
Much of the public reprobation of the CPI(M) and the government it leads in West Bengal by prominent citizens—many sympathetic to the Left—needs, however, to be understood as a phenomenon that goes beyond Nandigram.
Over time, a distinct skepticism with regard to the political/ideological orientation of the Left Front government has been gathering mass. It has seemed to many that in the name of seeking industrialization of the state, the Left Front has tended not only to sideline its people-friendly protestations, but on occasion gone whole hog to woo social forces that have little concern for a socialist programme/vision of any kind.
This seems particularly unacceptable, given that such sectors as education, public health and sanitation, public transportation, or labour-intensive employment seem in no way to have experienced a better fate in West Bengal than anywhere else. The gauche mishandling of the Nandigram episode seems thus to have brought to the fore a quality of distrust and dissatisfaction that has been simmering. Not to speak of the often-heard critique of the increasing bureaucratization of the organizational and leadership culture of the organized Left. Those that are familiar with the work-culture and public immersion of older Left leaderships that were products of the struggle for Independence find a vacuum and a hiatus that bespeak the assimilation of the Left into bourgeois forms of political practice. For such reasons it would seem many who know better have tended to be more forgiving of forms of politics that are otherwise patently outside the framework of constitutional democracy. It is another matter that critics of the CPI(M) are not always clear as to what tactical or strategic line the party must follow, or how best it should negotiate the present phase of globalised capitalism and, inevitably, conflicts that inform its equations with political forces at the centre that are determined to deepen class-rule as it seeks to ameliorate the lot of the disenfranchised.
Most of all, what most well-wishers of the Left find missing is a creative politics that brings parliamentary practice and concerted mass movement together into a radically effective conjuncture, however difficult the enterprise. It seems to many that the habitation of the Left within two or three bastions has rendered it effectively grounded merely to protect those bastions, inhibiting its ability to operate as a vanguard in the vast hinterlands of the gangetic and central Indian states where its need may be most acute, as also its opportunities to build a county-wide base among the myriad victims of globalization.
The fraught debate around Nandigram thus offers a wake-up opportunity that the Left, especially, the CPI(M), can profit by. The worst course would be merely to close ranks or insist on its own infallibility.
Equally, however, those that critique the politics of the Left Front need to place such critiques within the larger framework of the national milieu, and to weigh both the contributions and possibilities of the Left within explainable histories.
For example, would we advise the Left henceforth to abjure electoral participation and state power, so that it may free itself from the contradictions embedded therein, and engage wholly in mass propagation and mobilization? If not, what concrete counsel would we render in relation to the logic of occupying state power more than the Left is able at present to comprehend? How in our view may it the better manage a state and corporate media hostile to it in every fibre, or to relate to the plurality of socio-political formations that India has thrown up since the 1960s? And how may these new formations be brought into alignment with the realities of class rule and class resistance? What suggestions can we make in relation to departures in the organizational principles of Left parties? And so on.
The least we need to acknowledge is that these are questions that brook no easy answers. Except to those who persist in armed struggle against the state.