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Mainstream, Vol XLVII, No 49, November 21, 2009

New Social Movement in West Bengal

Tuesday 24 November 2009, by Arup Kumar Sen

We have witnessed a new kind of social movements in recent world history. People in civil society everywhere are moving to mobilise themselves through a myriad of social move-ments beyond or besides, and often instead of, political parties, the state, and revolution. The community-based social movements mobilise and organise their members in pursuit of material and non-material ends, which they often regard as unjustly denied to them by the state and its institutions, including political parties. The non-material ends and methods of many local community movements include more grassroots participatory democracy and bottom-up self-determination.1

Very recently, West Bengal has experienced many such social movements. The movements against land acquisition in Singur and Nandigram, and the tribal revolt in Lalgarh are the prominent examples. In the initial phase of these movements, people’s committees were formed by the local communities to spearhead mobilisation and protests. Whether such movements can maintain their autonomy in the long run in a world dominated by big political parties is an open question. But, there is no doubt that such movements have enormous possibilities.

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The recent public outrage against corrupt ration dealers in West Bengal had far-reaching consequences. It originated in Bankura sometime in 2007 and spread to other districts including the neighbouring districts of Birbhum and Bardhaman. During the ongoing agitation in the State over the Public Distribution System (PDS) irregularities, the Amarpur Gram Panchayat of Ausgram block of Bardhaman district, inhabited by a large number of Muslims and Scheduled Castes, witnessed a unique social movement. An on-the-spot organisation was built up that took the first move of making a deputation to the local BDO and Inspector, Food and Supply. The memorandum, written in the vernacular and signed by 500 villagers, reflects the grievances of the local people relating to gross irregularities in the PDS. The Gana Andolan Committee formed by the villagers to spearhead the movement decided to fight the Panchayat Elections of 2008. They floated three independent candidates, who fought the elections with the symbol of table fan and were elected as members of the Amarpur Gram Panchayat. Within eight months of their coming to power, the local organisation of the people and their representatives to the Panchayat revived a closed village haat, which was started 22 years ago and allegedly closed later by the CPI-M goons. This village market is essentially a market for food—fresh vegetables, fish and other items coming directly from the producers. What started as a movement against corruption in supply of essential foodstuff took a constructive step in the direction of procurement of food for the underprivileged villagers.2

Mainstream social scientists will say that the Amarpur experience is an isolated example of micro-politics and has nothing to do with our political imagination. In our self-defence, it may be mentioned in this connection that in a seminal article published in Subaltern Studies, Ranajit Guha emphasised the need for ‘a re-writing that heeds the small voice of history’.

Notes

1. Andre Gunder Frank and Marta Fuentes, ‘Civil Democracy: Social Movements in Recent World History’ in Samir Amin, Giovanni Arrighi, Andre Gunder Frank and Immanuel Wallerstein (ed.), Transforming the Revolution: Social Movements and the World-System, (1990), Indian edition, Aakar Books, Delhi, 2006, pp. 162-63.

2. Manisha Banerjee, ‘The PDS Agitation in West Bengal: Outrage against Hunger and Bureaucratic Feudalism’, CRG (Calcutta Research Group) Series on Policies and Practices, No. 25, August 2009.

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