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Mainstream, Vol XLV, No 50

Nandigram : CPM Exposed

State Apparatus’ Blatant Support For The Party’s ”Eye-For-An-Eye” Policy

Monday 3 December 2007, by Neerja Chowdhury


Nandigram is no longer just an area in East Midnapore district of West Bengal. Nor another name for a struggle against the acquisition of land to create an SEZ, which has the potential to trigger off similar protests around the country.

Like Bofors entered the Indian political lexicon as the equivalent of corruption and people would openly ask in 1987, ”Is maen kitna Bofors hai?”, so also Nandigram has become synonymous with the blatant support of the state apparatus for a policy of an “eye-for-an-eye”, so as to rule.

This is not the first time that this has happened. In 1984, for three days the state looked the other way as Hindu mobs, egged on by Congress leaders, led the attack against innocent Sikhs burning many alive, following the assassination of Indira Gandhi by her own Sikh security guards.

In 2002, again for three days, Hindu mobs—led by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and the Bajrang Dal and BJP—killed and raped in Gujarat to avenge the killings of kar sevaks in the Sabarmati Express at Godhra. And as the sting operation by Tehelka has recently captured on camera, it had the support and the encouragement of the Chief Minister and others in the BJP.

In Nandigram, the CPM cadres led armed goons to recapture villages, kill innocent people, burn their houses and gangrape women, as journalists are discovering after being allowed entry into the area and an opportunity to speak to the victims. The police was withdrawn from the area on October 27 and by the time the CRPF arrived, the clean-up operation was over.

In all the three above cases, the state colluded or passively facilitated to teach the “other side” a lesson. But in Nandigram, the government went a step further. It openly defended the violence as “morally legal and justified”. West Bengal Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee said that the CPM cadres had paid back the Opposition “in the same coin”. This despite the words of the Governor, who is a constitutional authority, and Gopal Krishna Gandhi does not belong to any party, was selected with the approval of the Left parties and would not say what he did—that Nandigram had become a “war zone”—for partisan reasons. The State’s Home Secretary had spoken in a similar vein.

The media was prevented from entering the area as Operation Nandigram got underway. This did not happen either in Delhi in 1984 or in Gujarat in 2002.

The CPM leaders justify what happened by saying that a state had been established within a state and Maoists had taken over the villages and CPM cadres evicted in March this year not allowed to return. From all accounts, in the initial stages it was the CPM versus CPM battle with the party supporters leading the struggle against the setting up of the chemical hub in Nandigram. Later Mamata’s Trinamul Congress and Jamat-e-Ulema Hind, SUCI and some Maoists joined in to form a platform to resist the acquisition of land.

THE point here is not a clash between two contending groups for control of the area. The point is the role played by the state which cannot be countenanced in a democracy.

The CPM, which had used the State Police in March this year to quell the opposition to the setting up of the SEZ (which killed 14 in a police firing, strongly censured by the High Court), may have decided that this time it would not deploy the police but the party cadre and anti-social elements for the cleanup job. While police connivance may not have been there, there was complete abdication by the law and order machinery to protect the lives of unarmed citizens, with the Chief Minister coming out openly on the side of the perpetrators of the violence.

Whether it was desperate to re-establish its control with panchayat elections due next year, which it considers even more important than the Lok Sabha polls, or it wanted to send a signal about the consequences of going against the party, the plan backfired. It may have calculated that there would be an outcry but ultimately everyone would have to lump the new reality—of recaptured villages and the CPM’s re-established control in Nandigram. The dust would settle down as soon as another crisis erupted claiming the attention of the media.

The Congress’ reaction to Nandigram has been muted. Though there was a reference to the violence in the AICC resolution-—inserted the day before under pressure from leaders like Priya Ranjan Dasmunshi—it does not name the CPM. Had the Left not been a supporter of the UPA, the Congress, which is in the Opposition in West Bengal (Sonia Gandhi spoke at Talkatora Garden about the need to build the party in the eastern State as one of the Congress’ major challenges), would not have let go of the opportunity to hammer the CPM.

The silent procession in Kolkata by one lakh people without the involvement of any party, bringing out writers, artists and film stars in protest, showed the extent of the public anguish.

The CPM’s own allies were not too happy with the party’s actions, whether or not they pull out of the Left Front. That also showed their response to what is obviously a shifting popular opinion. The RSP, which is threatening to pull out its Ministers, may be a small party but it had represented the interests of the oppressed, symbolising the mainstreaming of marginal groups.

It will take a long time for the CPM to live down Nandigram. Only time will tell what impact it will have on elections, whenever they take place. The party has been in power for 30 years but Nandigram has given a new focus to the disenchantment that has been growing against it. Though the CPM has been identified with the concerns of the poor and the deprived, the last two weeks have shown it up as a group which worked for its own narrow interest.

This comes at a time when, with its stand on the nuclear deal (seen by many as a fight to ensure India’s independent foreign policy and sovereign right of decision-making), had won it admiration amongst certain sections. The Left did not relent, no matter what the sop or the provocation, and the message had gone that its leaders were not purchasable. But now, with Operation Nandigram, the party has shown the levels to which it can stoop to have its writ run. More important, it has shown how committed it is to the rule of law and democratic norms!

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