Home > Archives (2006 on) > 2007 > December 22, 2007 - Annual Number 2007 > Nandigram : Another Symbol of Challenge to Democracy in India

Mainstream, Vol XLVI No 1

Nandigram : Another Symbol of Challenge to Democracy in India

Tuesday 25 December 2007, by Arun Kumar


The recent turn of events in Nandigram has shocked many and perhaps it heralds the deep changes taking place in our politics. It is another watershed, like the Emergency in 1975, the New Economic Policies launched in 1991 and the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992. Each of them were a reflection of the ongoing changes in Indian society and led to realignments and shifts in the politics of the land. Each of them forced society to rethink and reassess critical aspects of our democracy. Events in Nandigram have shocked a large section of the supporters of the Left in the country. What has transpired there was not expected in a Left-ruled State. Sensitivity to the people and their concerns was expected to be more than in non-Left-ruled States. Was there an error of judgment on the part of those who expected better?

Nandigram also represents an increasing frequency of constitutional breakdown in the country with a ruling party taking the law into its own hands and making the state machinery stand by as a mute witness to the excesses of the cadres of the ruling party. The 1984 Sikh riots, the Gujarat riots in 2002 and now Nandigram in 2007 twice over within a year point to this.

There is only a small gap between these events and those where the state apparatus itself commits excesses. For instance, in the case of the ongoing Salwa Judum, firing on protesting tribals in Kalinga Nagar in Orissa and the brutal assault by the police on workers of Hero Honda in Gurgaon and on teachers in Punjab, the state machinery is either acting in a repressive fashion to help the establishment (the corporate sector and/or the ruling party) or looking the other way to enable the ruling party cadres beat its opponents into submission.

Issues Thrown up for Consideration

THE CM, the CPI-M cadres and some defenders of the Party are arguing that what happened in Nandigram recently was ‘just’ since there is some kind of ‘fairness’ or even-handedness in what happened in Nandigram. They argue that earlier the anti-CPI-M people had chased away the CPI- M supporters from their homes and now it is the other way around. They complain that the civil society groups had not raised their voices when the CPI-M sympathisers were displaced in January 2007 and had to live as refugees for 10 months. And, that the displaced have the right to retaliate and recover their homes. In other words, the recent violence let loose by the CPI-M cadres is justified. Is this adequate justification for the acts of omission and commission in Nandigram by the state? Are the civil rights activists being one-sided in protesting the anti-CPI-M people being chased away?

The West Bengal Governor, who went public with his views about what was happening, was criticised not only by the Government of West Bengal but also some liberals for constitutional impropriety. One may ask whether this view is correct. The answer to this may crucially depend on the answer to the question regarding the role the government was expected to play in Nandigram since last year and not just in November 2007? This is also the key to understanding the criticism being levelled against the State Government and the CPI-M.

Can the state act like a person? Is that not the implication when a Chief Minister suggests an eye for an eye? Do the events in Nandigram and responses to them from the ruling establishment suggest that our democracy faces a basic challenge? One may ask: which are the parties that presently support democracy and people’s rights irrespective of their own immediate gains and losses? Should this not be the yardstick for measuring commitment to democracy and the strength of our democracy?

The CPI-M has argued that the SEZ issue was dead after the CM announced that it would not be set up in Nandigram. They ask: why were the people in Nandigram area being so militant as to not allow the CPI-M supporters and the State administration to enter the area till the recent episode of forcible entry? They suggest a political design of the Trinamul Congress and the Maoists, to keep the CPI-M out of the area. The issue is: whether Nandigram represents mere posturing by the Opposition or is there something more fundamental that is wrong?

Sequence of Events in Nandigram

TO answer some of these questions, it is necessary to keep the sequence of the events in mind. A key fact is that before Nandigram became a ‘war zone’ it was dominated by the CPI-M and the party cadres in large numbers turned against the party on the issue of creation of an SEZ in that area. People obviously did not want to lose their land, their principal source of livelihood.

Based on the Final Report of the Peoples’ Tribunal on Nandigram, dated August 8, 2007, the following sequence of events emerges:

The issuing of the notice on December 28, 2006 by the Haldia Development Authority identifying 25,000 acres of land for acquisition provoked a reaction. The violence started on January 3, 2007 with a clash between the police and the protestors. To prevent the police and the local administration from entering the area, the people set up blockades. Clashes with the pro-government groups started and some of them had to move to the nearby Khejuri town, a stronghold of the ruling party. On January 5, the various groups like the Congress, Trinamul Congress and SUCI formed the Bhumi Uchched Pratirodh Committee (BUPC). On January 7, the
CPI-M cadres tried to recapture lost ground and attacked the villagers. In turn, the villagers attacked the CPI-M cadres. The CM admitted that there was a mistake by the Haldia Development Authority in issuing a notice notifying the land. Yet, on February 12, 2007, the Chairperson of the Authority, a CPI-M MP, again stated that the land would be acquired.

The situation kept on deteriorating till the attack on the villagers by the police and the CPI-M cadres on March 14, 2007. Many died, still more went missing and a large number of people were injured. Women complained of rape and molestation. People complained of the partisan attitude of the administration and even of the hospitals and doctors not giving adequate care to the injured.

The Governor was constrained to issue a statement expressing concern at the brutality. The Calcutta High Court issued an order stating that the action of the police was unconstitutional and called for a special CBI inquiry. Seeing the people’s resistance, the CM announced that the SEZ would be shifted from Nandigram. Yet, the local people- fearing that this was only a stratagem to recapture the area so that the cadres in connivance with the authorities could again move against them did not relent. Clearly, the CPI-M had lost credibility with the citizens residing in Nandigram.

Few attempts were made to restore the lost confidence; instead, the CPI-M cadres using their base in Khejuri kept up armed attacks in the hope of cowing down the local population. Reports of clashes continued all through till the big push in early November which has been termed as ‘recapture’ and which made the State’s Home Secretary call the area a ‘war zone’. The CPI-M party machine moved through goons and its local cadres. The state apparatus connived by remaining passive to allow the cadres to regain control through violence.

When a citizen’s group, led by Medha Patkar, tried to reach the area at the height of the attack by the goons, they were roughed up and turned back while the police escort looked by passively. The media was kept away till the area was recaptured. The area was informally kept out of bounds so that no news could trickle out and embarrass the government.

A large number of former CPI-M supporters in Kolkata and elsewhere, shocked by these patently anti-people actions, spontaneously came out to oppose what was going on in Nandigram. The question is: why has the CPI-M not realised that had it not followed anti-people policies in Nandigram (and earlier in Singur) it would not have lost the confidence of large numbers of people (all over the country)?

The Issue of ‘Even-handedness’

AS the description of the unfolding events in Nandigram in the last year and more suggests, the issue is not only complex but cannot be understand in the abstract or in brief. It is not just an issue of some people simply regaining control over their home and hearth from which they had earlier been driven out by some anti-social elements. The issue is one of democratic functioning in the State and the revolt of the people of Nandigram against an insensitive party and an administration coerced by the dominant party in power to act in a partisan manner. Those who revolted against the CPI-M were its former members who know how the party functions and who did not trust it anymore. The issue is then not one of ‘even-handedness’ but of people losing faith in the leadership, a breakdown of democracy and a loss of credibility of the State administration. This required not a sledge hammer or a ‘tit-for-tat’ approach but the revival of the political process. The objection of the civil society groups has been to the nature of state intervention (or lack of it) which was anti-people and in favour of the CPI-M cadres. The objection was also to an informal curfew in the area so that the citizens’ groups and media were prevented from visiting the area.

The government asked for the CRPF deployment but that was curiously delayed till the ‘recapture’ had taken place, leading to the suspicion that it was deliberate. A Central Government, heavily dependent on the Left for its survival, was seen to be compliant. The negotiations on the nuclear deal stalled due to the objections of the Left parties was another reason why the Centre was suspected to have played ball. The CM’s justification for what happened on the grounds of a ‘tit for tat’ made matters worse. It established two things. One, that the CPI-M cadres had attacked the people of Nandigram; and secondly, that the State administration under a partisan CM played a role enabling the ‘recapture’ to take place.

Apologists of the CPI-M arguing that the citizen’s groups did not have a right to protest now since they were quiet when the CPI-M cadres were chased out of their homes in January miss the point of the protest. The protest is against the breakdown of the democratic process and misuse of the State administration by the ruling party. In a democracy, there can be no justification for the state not to act to protect its citizens. This is true when the CPI-M supporters were chased out of their homes and hearth earlier and also when now its opponents are thrown out of their homes. However, there is an asymmetry between what happened earlier when the CPI-M cadres were chased out and what has happened now. On both times the State Government acted in a partisan manner in favour of the cadres of the ruling party. Earlier it could not prevent the occurrence because the vast majority of the people had turned against the cadres and the State administration. The displacement then was in spite of the support of the State administration to those displaced and now it is because of the role played by the State administration. Earlier the State administration acted against the majority but could not help the minority and this time it helped the minority by enabling it to cow down the majority through a well-planned and brutal attack.

On both the times, the vast majority of the people suffered due to the partisanship of the State Government and no ‘even-handedness’ can be claimed. It is for this reason, an unprecedented one, that the Governor was constrained to speak out. The partisan role of the State administration and the CM meant that there was a constitutional breakdown. It is precisely under these conditions that the Governor must speak out and let the people know what is going on and publicly ask the administration to not act in a partisan way. It is clear that in his judgment, a private communication to the CM who by his own admission was acting in a partisan manner would have had little effect and the people would have continued to suffer. Many a hardened and cynical politicians and bureaucrats as Governors would have kept quiet but the present Governor of West Bengal has done a service to our democracy by creating a new precedent.

In brief, neither the State Government nor the CPI-M has acted ‘evenhandedly’. This was also irrelevant for the civil society groups protesting against the attack on the people of Nandigram. Further, since the time the CM announced that there would be no SEZ in Nandigram, the issue has not been SEZ even though people still do not trust the administration. Anyone raising this point is missing the issue of loss of faith in the party and the State administration and this is also reflected in the Governor’s apparently unconstitutional actions.

Erosion of Democracy

THE local people and those who know say that the CPI-M is raising the bogey of Maoists to give legitimacy to the actions of its cadres. In a democracy, the Opposition is expected to highlight the disaffection of the population against the ruling party. Is the CPI-M from now on not going to highlight the problems faced by the people due to the misrule of, say, the Congress-I? By raising the bogey of the Maoists, the CPI-M cannot absolve itself of its anti-people acts in Nandigram. The party needs to ask why its supporters became its opponents?

The accusation regarding lack of ‘even-handedness’ or fairness amongst the critics is akin to the argument against the civil society groups when they demand that in the case of any accused (be it a terrorist) civil rights must be respected by the state. The argument has been, as any democrat would argue, that while an individual or a group may take the law into their hand, the state cannot and should not do so since it is the custodian of the law. If it is seen to be acting in an arbitrary manner then it would only justify the illegal actions of those it seeks to act against and democracy would be eroded.

Ashok Aggrawal, the civil rights lawyer, in an e-mail dated November 26, 2007 to the e-group on Article 21, has argued that:

… we need to discuss the nature of the ‘rule of law’ that permits the State a monopoly over violence and declares all those who resist the violence (or come to the aid of the resisters) lawbreakers. If this is the meaning of ‘rule of law’ then I see no reason to prefer it to the ‘rule of men’ that it supplanted, in the name of liberty, equality and fraternity. At least feudal regimes did not pretend to be acting for the welfare of the citizens while devastating their lives.

The citizens groups and critics of CPI-M are perturbed by not only what the CPI-M cadres did but even more so with the acts of omission and commission of the State Government. The CPI-M, a progressive force in the country, that has participated in or has led many a democratic struggle of the people, was not expected to be anti-people even if its own cadres were at the receiving end. It was expected to deal with a political issue with sensitivity and not in a hamhanded manner. As the dominant party in the coalition ruling the State, it was expected to play a pro-people role and use the State administration to keep matters under control rather than use it in a partisan manner.

After the events in Singur and Nandigram, it maybe pertinent to ask: what is the nature of democracy in West Bengal? Do people still matter to the government and the ruling party? Cynically, one may say that they never did and the party only kept up a façade. However, there may be other possibilities, as discussed in the next section.

Today the people of Nandigram are terrorised and those who have visited the area say that there is a deathly silence. People are often afraid to talk since they fear reprisals. Nandigram is a symbol of growing criminalisation of our politics. The ruling party is using goons to settle scores rather than reviving the political process to win back the trust of the people. The people of Nandigram would not have turned against CPI-M in January 2007 if they were sure that the political process would be duly followed. The unfolding events have proved them to be correct in their assessment when they acted against the CPI-M cadres. The statements from the CPI-M leadership exposed their attitude. For instance, one leader suggested that the people opposing them were like ‘insects to be crushed’ (kire makore). Another national leader suggested just a few days before the push to ‘recapture’ the area in November that the opponents be administered ‘Dum Dum Dawai’. No wonder the isolation of the Left parties in the area is such that the local MLA did not visit the area.

The strong-arm tactics adopted by the CPI-M is not only to teach the people a lesson and send a message to others that if they oppose the party they would also meet the same fate but has a link with the coming Panchayat elections in May 2008. The party must be worried at the erosion of its base in the rural areas. A successful challenge in one area, through a domino effect, can lead to losses elsewhere, where coercion has been used to maintain the vote-banks.

Finally, reports suggest that the BUP Committee is not just Trinamul or Maoists but a people’s movement. It s another matter that in the national context they need support and that is why the Trinamul may have an influence on the movement or that for defending themselves there may be some arms provided by the Maoists. However, the evidence on the latter is thin and even the Home Secretary had initially said that there was no evidence of the presence of Maoists in the area. The key issue is: why did the situation move in the direction it did? Clearly, it was the failure of the CPI-M to act democratically and of the State administration to do its duty that led to the situation becoming so complex. The judiciary has also taken note of the partisan functioning of the State machinery.

The Ideological Confusion

A deeper underlying cause of what has transpired in Nandigram (and earlier in Singur) is that the
CPI-M is in a confused state with few principles left to guide its actions. Ideology is being given a go-bye for expediency so that narrow considerations dominate. On the one hand, there is the anti-secular grouping which needs to be kept at bay and, on the other hand, there is the Congress-I-led alliance which is following a Right-wing agenda and making India into an ally of the USA and thereby undermining the base of the Left parties.

On the economic front, it does not have a development path of its own which it could follow. Hence mistakes are repeatedly being made. For instance, faced with difficulty in West Bengal, it is willing to dilute its stated understanding on the nuclear issue and on which it was even willing to let the UPA Government fall. Is it that for the sake of holding on to power it is willing to sacrifice the interest of the Indian people?

The government’s choice of the Salim group as the company to invest in the chemical hub at Nandigram also reflects this confusion. The group is owned by people who have the reputation of using sharp practices and whose civil rights record is abysmal. They are reported to be involved in the investment of illegal funds of the rulers. Is it not likely that similar practices would be used in India also and more specifically in West Bengal? What does this imply for the CPI-M’s ideological commitment?

The West Bengal Government’s push for SEZs is a reflection of its confusion about the development path that would be consistent with its ideology. In the name of development, it has become anti-people in West Bengal. It is equating industrialisation with big business and large scale industry. Anyone suggesting an alternative is dubbed as anti-industry. Many have shown this path to lead to large scale displacement and loss of jobs but the party insists that this is the route to jobs. The trajectory being followed is similar to that being pursued by the non-Left parties in other States (and what the World Bank has been propagating). None of them is consulting the people and nor is the CPI-M. It is increasingly behaving like an establishment party—hobnobbing with capitalists and unconcerned with the interests of the people.

The party has compromised on the issue of the path of economic development. The CM is the darling of the corporate media and the PM seems to approach him when he wishes to soften the supposedly tough line of the party General Secretary. Rather than posing alternatives to the anti- people policies being followed in the country, it is now following them. The party’s confusion can be traced to the collapse of the Soviet Union and the success of a capitalist China—so much for independent thinking.

In brief, it is in the situation itself that a ruling Left party that implements the path of capitalist neo-liberal agenda of development will sooner or later turn anti-people. It will have to discipline the people’s opposition to the exploitation by big capital, like Haryana acted against the workers of Hero Honda. It will have to keep trade unions under a tight leash, like preventing the formation of unions in the IT sector. However, where it is not ruling, it can afford to adopt a more democratic posture (like, currently at the Centre). This dual role leads some to argue that the CPI-M’s democratic credentials should not be questioned since its support is required for the fight for democracy and against globalisation. In the present context such possibilities are getting circumscribed by the pressures on the party to be a ruling party (as is clear from the issue of SEZs).


NANDIGRAM has become a new symbol of partisanship of a State Government and of the extent to which a Left party can act against the people struggling for their rights. There are small and big Nandigrams taking place all over the country whether regarding the SEZs or the people’s resistance to displacement due to the corporate-led development that the elite are vigorously pursuing.

The CPI-M in its confusion has chosen a model of development that is forcing it to join hands with big business and against its own constituency, the people. Nandigram shows that when a Communist Party pursues state capitalism, it can do so with vengeance. It can turn into an instrument to maintain itself in power. It may be asked whether there should be some limits to law enforcement against the people struggling to protect their democratic rights.

A Left party in a bourgeoisie democracy has, by definition, to be pro-poor. Not only do the poor need it but the party needs them to protect the democratic space it needs for its survival and growth. When such a party turns undemocratic under the pressures of its new-found allies, no one is left to defend the democratic space and the party cannot survive as a pro-poor party.

Nandigram represents the culmination of the process of weakening of the Left forces in the country, a process witnessed earlier in Europe and the rest of the world. The most visible example of this is the Labour Party in England and the Socialists in France. Even our own Socialists in India can combine with either the BJP or the Congress-I, the dominant parties representing the interest of big business, to form governments at the Centre or in States like UP and Bihar. As people’s resistance builds up, democracy in India will be further eroded by the ruling establishments as happened in Nandigram. That is why it is a watershed.

Today, the tragedy is that in spite of the struggles the people are involved in, when the elections come, who do the people vote for? For the same set of political parties and leaders who repress them—not voting would still get these people into power. The oppressors then claim legitimacy for their anti-people actions. The need of the hour is the creation of political alternatives to stop the erosion of democratic spaces by the existing political parties.

Dr Arun Kumar is a Professor, Centre for Economic Studies and Planning, School of Social Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. He can be contacted at

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