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Mainstream, Vol XLVI No 38

Democracy At A Discount

Singur : The Resistance Continues

Wednesday 10 September 2008, by Sumit Chakravartty

It was January 10, 2007. Alongwith a band of activists and concerned citizens this writer travelled to Kamarkundu in West Bengal’s Hooghly district from the Howrah Station. The objective: to visit Singur and peacefully express solidarity with the people there engaged in a unique resistance to the State Government’s attempts to forcibly acquire their land and hand over to the Tatas for construction of a small car factory in order to produce automobiles worth Rs 1 lakh each.

One had been asked by Medha Patkar to participate in this solidarity rally. She too was to go there but could not: the State authorities, fearful of the “trouble” that her presence would cause in Singur, detained her in Kolkata itself—thereby preventing her from travelling to her destination (under which law she was denied permission to travel to Singur the government personnel themselves were not clear).

The police stopped the activists on Tarakeshwar Road and did not permit them to proceed to Singur. The activists squatted on the road shouting such slogans as “Police tumi hato dur—Dak diyechche Singur” (Go back, police—Singur has given the call), “Buddhababur buddhinasher biruddhe amader sangram cholchhe, cholbe” (Our struggle against Buddhababu’s loss of mind will continue). The police’s argument was simple: you have violated Section 144; so we cannot but arrest you. However, with ex-JNU student Saumitra Mohan present there as the Additional DM of the Hooghly district good sense prevailed and the demonstrators were allowed to conduct a meeting interspersed with slogans and skits lampooning the government’s land acquisition policy to placate Big Business. There was no untoward incident and following the meeting and demonstration all the arrested persons were unconditionally released.

But in the course of the meeting what came out in bold relief was the total lack of transparency in the land acquisition process and the absence of even lip-sympathy to the democratic norms while carrying out the operation. This has also been projected in sharp focus by Prof Sumit Sarkar who too visited Singur and subsequently wrote in The Indian Express:
What the villagers repeatedly alleged was that along with the police, and it seems more than the police, party activists, whom the villagers call ‘cadres’—which has sadly become a term of abuse—did the major part of the beating up. Clearly, the whole thing had been done without consultation, with very little transparency, and in a very undemocratic manner.

After the meeting one was able to smuggle oneself into Singur with a friend pillion-riding on the motor-bike of a local youth, son of a farmer himself affected by the land acquisition. On the way one saw posters put up by the SFI (not far from Bara Kamalapur, the scene of peasant uprising during the Tebhaga movement in the forties hallowed by the blood of martyrs) declaring their “warm greetings” to the Tata Motors. [Someone informed that elsewhere the CPM activists had gone to the extent of even conveying “Lal Salaam” to the Tatas; one was instantly reminded of the slogan chanted by the Congress-O members at a rally in Calcutta after the 1969 Congress split: “Tata-Birlar dui bhai—CPM, CPI” (Tata-Birlas have two brothers—CPM, CPI)!] What a far cry from the days when S.A. Dange had that memorable altercation with J.R.D. Tata at the Indian Labour Conference! Yes, the same Dange who was accused of being the arch revisionist by the CPM leaders; in reality, however, Dange’s so-called ‘revisionism’ pales before the ‘revolutionary’ tactics employed by Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee grovelling before the Tatas.

We visited the area where the car factory is to be set up. The whole place has been cordoned off—fencing has come up. The peasants, however, were at work in the field tending to the cash crops (winter vegetables): mustard, potatoes, cauliflower, bottle-goud. Some of them were allowed to work inside the enclosed area where the Tata plant is to be established (however, crops in the fields of several farmers were destroyed by the whims of the police and CPM ‘cadres’). It was clear that the central CPM leaders’ initial statement that the government had allowed only monocropped land to be used for ‘industrialisation’ was totally false and baseless—the area is most fertile, the land being multi-cropped. Even the land beyond the highway which was unarable in the past is now yielding more than one crop. One does not hesitate to compliment the Left Front for this development in the sphere of agrarian reforms. But then wouldn’t this achievement be brought to a nought by the State Government’s ill-conceived policy of ‘industrialisation’ that would cause havoc to the small peasant, bargadar (share-cropper) and landless agricultural worker (as has been lucidly explained by D. Bandyopadhyay, the highly respected and committed former Land Reforms Commissioner of West Bengal and architect of ‘Operation Barga’)?

THE peasants, who are distinct from the absentee land proprietors, spoke of their tale of woe: how the car factory would devour their livelihood. At a distance one saw the police guarding the fence and at another place not far from there the ‘cadres’ were huddling together. One asked the peasants about their resistance to parting with their land. They said they remained firm in their resolve not to give away their land. But the ‘cadres’ were threatening the fence-sitters and bombs had been thrown at the houses of some of them at night to terrorise and force them into submission; and a few had submitted to such pressure.

One went to Beraberi Purbapara and Khaser Beri where one was able to meet Bharati Das and her husband Nityanand Das. Bharati had demonstrated before the CPM office in New Delhi against the party’s land policy in Singur. She had been brutally beaten up by the police and ‘cadres’ in Singur on December 2—her hand was in bandage. And she was not alone. Others in her neighbourhood—men, women and children—met with the same fate. Their crime: their vocal pledge not to part with their land. (Bharati and Nityanand own one-and-a-half bigha of land within the enclosed area where the car factory is to come up and they are determined even now not to give away their land for the factory.) Bharati narrated to us how the goons had attacked them. Others instantly testified. Even children spoke of the brutality they had witnessed. One was at a loss what to say; one could only mumble incoherently: ‘we hope and pray that things would change for the better’—something that failed to convey one’s sense of surprise, shock and bewilderment.

What struck one most was the warmth of the peasants in the face of adversity. I frankly asked Bharati if she had been involved in party politics. She promptly replied in the negative. It was just a question of standing by her land and crop that had brought her into the vortex of struggle. And while sitting in Bharati’s cottage and sipping tea one was quite impressed by the words of a young man in the locality. He was asking probing questions as to why such a move had been taken by the government while observing quite candidly: “We didn’t expect this from a Left Front Government.’ I told him there should be absolute transparency in such matters like land acquisition. One must have threadbare discussion on the kind of industrialisation that should be carried out in this era of globalisation. The real problem was unemployment: to tackle that problem perhaps agro-based industries should be given prominence instead of a small car factory which in any case was not labour-intensive. The youth responded positively. Why can’t the CM have such a heart-to-heart conversation with these young people?—one wondered. But then one was reminded of Buddha’s reticence to do so even in our student days. Essentially he was a party functionary catapulted to the CM’s seat.

On my return to New Delhi I read his reply to Prof Sarkar in The Indian Express. He had not cared to answer Prof Sarkar pointwise. Instead he wrote:

In West Bengal, the contributions of agriculture, industry and service sectors are 26 per cent, 24 per cent, and 50 per cent respectively to SDP. We should create more favourable conditions for generating employment through industrialisation. It is incumbent on us to move ahead, otherwise there would be the end of history. The process of economic development evolves from agriculture to industry. The journey is from villages to cities. The process of change is true for the Marxists also.

This was fresh testimony to his muddled thinking.

But the question is: why should others in the party (CPM) accept such views uncritically? Or is there something that doesn’t meet the eye?

Whatever the reason, we have come to realise one thing quite clearly: under the party dispensation as is in vogue in West Bengal, democracy is at a discount.

Against this backdrop the Singur peasantry’s persisting resistance offers a ray of hope for democracy in the State in the days ahead.

On our way back the local friend driving the motor-bike showed us the spot where Tapasi Malik was raped and murdered before her body was burnt so as to ensure that she disappears completely from public view: this was the price she had to pay for refusing to give up her resistance to land acquisition and remaining part of the ‘jami bachao’ (save land) movement.

The fact that the inhabitants of Singur are continuing to carry on their struggle against all odds is the finest manifestation of this being a genuine people’s movement (and not one led by this or that political party or outfit as the CPM is falsely seeking to convey) in an area where the glorious Tebhaga had been fought in the forties under such legendary figures as Ajit Bose. Indeed the present fighters in Singur are carrying forward the Tebhaga legacy to the best of their ability.

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