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Mainstream, Vol XLV, No 51

Progressive Middle Class Deserts Bengal CPM

Tuesday 11 December 2007, by Sunandan Roy Chowdhury


Rarely does Kolkata or West Bengal make headlines in Delhi, Bombay or Bangalore. But 2007 has proved to be different. On March 14, the West Bengal Government’s police, under orders from the Chief Minister of the State, marched on to a cluster of villages in and around the area of Nandigram, about 200 km from Calcutta, and in a bid to break the morale of protesting villagers, opened fire on peaceful demonstrators killing no less than 14 people. That created headlines all over India and till date the tension is simmering. The villagers were angry over the attempted takeover of their lands by the State Government. The government, nominally called Left Front Government (because it has several constituent parties), is essentially run by the largest partner, the CPI-M, a party that has ruled Calcutta and West Bengal for 30 uninterrupted years since 1977. For a very long time the party and the government were avowedly anti-capitalist. However, with changes in the global order of things and with a change of guard within the party, it has become extremely pro-capital these days. As a mark of its pro-capitalist ways, it has declared intentions of creating Special Economic Zones (SEZ) in different parts of the State, pockets of industrial growth where there will be no taxation, no customs, no environmental laws, no labour laws—virtually foreign enclaves no Indian soil. The area around Nandigram was designated in late 2006 for the purpose of creation of a hub for chemical industries and the State Government had told that the Salem Group of Indonesia will build the SEZ.

The irony is that even though the CPI-M has become pro-capitalist, it has little respect for democratic norms or rule of law. So, even before the State Government machinery, centred in Kolkata, actually made any formal requests to peasants for taking over of their lands, a local party bigwig and a Member of Parliament from adjoining Haldia (it is a port town and is apparently booming) deemed fit to send out a circular stating that lands of villagers in quite a few villages will be taken over for the purpose of creating an SEZ. That created a furore among the villagers and a resistance started; they vowed that they will not part with their land which they have tilled for generations. The State Police tried to break the peaceful resistance of the villagers on March 14, and the deaths of innocent peasants led to a plethora of protests from the Opposition political parties and groups and also from independent intellectuals of Kolkata and beyond. Even Gopal Gandhi, Mahatma Gandhi’s grandson and the present Governor of West Bengal, found the killings to be a horrific incident and himself tried to visit the place where the deaths happened but was stopped mid-way by the CPI-M cadres.

For all through the 30 long years that the CPM (for most Bengalis resident in the State of West Bengal, that’s how the party is called) has been in power in the State the Bengali middle class has been the pillar of support for the party. People belonging to the Bengali middle class are usually known in India to be lovers of literature and culture and Bengal in general is known to be a bit Leftist. Many Bengali intellectuals, be they poets, writers, theatre workers, little magazine organisers, college lecturers, they kept on the right side of the CPM, the party of the Left. In the late eighties and early seventies it was the in-thing to be ’Left’. In the beginning of the new millennium that halo had almost gone but still the Bengali intelligentsia was broadly supportive of the Left. Many criticised the utter mediocrity that the CPM has unleashed everywhere in Bengal by keeping a stranglehold on jobs in bureaucracy and academia, thereby stunting excellence and growth. Yet large numbers of people in the intelligentsia were silent supporters of the party in power.

The police operation in Nandigram changed that status quo. Poets and singers and writers and filmmakers, who would never come out openly against the party in power or its savvy poetry-spouting Chief Minister, for the first time united in opposition to a brutality that was as savage as any that occurs regularly in many of the non-Left States of India. All the year Kolkata was full of one rally and mass protest after another. The CPM, which is usually dreaded by people, who often say to their near and dear ones, “Don’t do that, the party bosses may not like that”, for the first time in several years had to come to a discussion table with the Opposition parties about resolving the crisis in Nandigram. In many ways the Opposition parties—though they are a divided house—did play a leading role in forcing the State Government to retract from its earlier plans. After the agitations that have rocked the State since the police firing and killing of innocent peasants, the State Government has declared that there won’t be any SEZ in Nandigram. But even as Nandigram flared up and Opposition parties campaigned against the government policy and police brutality, what was unique for Kolkata was its intellectuals coming down to the streets. There was a time in the late 1960s in Kolkata when thousands of Bengalis marched for Vietnam and against US imperialism. That fervour is a thing of the past. After decades the Nandigram brought back memories of those times.

What were the intellectuals—from the 82-year-old writer, Mahasweta Devi, to renowned filmmaker Aparna Sen to painter Suvaprasanna to singer Kabir Suman—protesting about? On the face of it, the protests were against the government’s forcible takeover of agricultural land of poor peasants, without any concern for their alternate livelihood and, of course, against police brutality. But in my view, there was a more important message. The ruling party was anti-capitalist twenty years ago and had tried to stop the introduction of computers in West Bengal in the mid-1980s, and now they were pro-capitalist trying to bulldoze peasants and create new industries. The central point that has remained the same with the party is that it is out and out anti-democratic, somewhat Stalinist. For 30 long years Bengalis have lived under this nearly one-party rule. What Nandigram has succeeded in effecting is that it has opened up a pandora’s box of protests. Many small violations of civilised norms and civil society values that were happening and were not being reported, started to come out into the open. The protests against the party and government were limited to a handful of democratic rights activists and members of the Opposition parties. With Nandigram that changed, may be for good. Protest against the anti-democratic machina-tions of the CPM has become more and more vociferous in the last few months. As I write, there is news about further violence between the CPM party members and Opposition party activists in Nandigram. Now after nearly a year of disquiet in the villages around Nandigram the Chief Minister is ready to call Central Police forces from New Delhi. Such a thing has never happened in 30 years of ’right’ Left rule in West Bengal.

There is an irony in all of this. The CPM had come to power through a historic victory in the elections in 1977 when it had promised that land will be given to the tillers and it effectively did distribute land to the landless labourers and sharecroppers. That action had helped it to retain its hold over the Bengal countryside for decades. Now that the middle class party leaders have turned believers of neo-liberal capitalism and are ready to take away land from the tillers, it seems the impoverished Bengal peasants are getting ready for another historic change.

Sunandan Roy Chowdhury is editor-publisher of the Sampark Journal of Global Understanding. He can be reached at

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