Sunday, July 13, 2008

People’s war

Last week Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee told the state assembly that his government had no plans to ban the CPI-Maoist and that his party would fight them politically. Let’s begin at this point. First, a bit of potted history, just for the record. The Left Front’s land and more broadly agrarian reform initiatives along with the early panchayat experiment in roughly the first decade it was in power was spectacularly successful in marginalising the Naxals, precisely because it addressed the needs of a large number of small and marginal farmers, sharecroppers and landless labourers. Through the 1980s and 1990s, ultra-Left militancy remained peripheral in Bengal politics and the struggles of the dispossessed, even though after the first flush of Left Front rule, say till the middle to late 1980s, the agrarian reform programme had started running out of steam and the first signs of ossification were beginning to make themselves evident.
This, let us remember, was also the time when ultra-Left agrarian radicalism began to seriously spread to other parts of the country. Certainly by the early 1990s large pockets of (undivided) Bihar, (undivided) Madhya Pradesh and Andhra Pradesh had been taken over by parallel governments run by Naxals. In a few years, their sphere of influence had spread to Orissa and Maharashtra in a big way. The first reports, or let’s just say claims, that Naxals were staging a comeback, if one can put it quite that way, in Bengal came at the end of the millennium, especially during the run-up to the Panskura by-elections occasioned by the death of CPI MP Geeta Mukherjee, when there was a rash of violent clashes between the Trinamul Congress and the Left Front. Chhoto Anguria and Kespur were the locales for particularly horrific violence ~ in the context of the latter, the government and the CPI-M claimed that Maoists had been stockpiling weapons and attacking party activists.
But the really clear signs that the ultra-Left had significantly infiltrated Bengal ~ mainly Purulia, Bankura and West Midnapore, all districts with pockets of tribal people ~ began to come in when the CPI-Maoist was formed in 2004 after the merger of two groups: the Peoples War and the Maoist Communist Centre. As it happens, this was roughly the time when the big push in Mr Bhattacharjee’s industrialisation drive ~ should we say the great leap forward ~ started rolling in, accompanied by a wave of land acquisition. It is true that the first organised resistance to land acquisition began only with Singur and Nandigram and that previous to that there had been projects that had proceeded relatively smoothly, for instance, the Jindal steel unit at Salboni in West Midnapore.
But a casual flip through newspaper reports will show that in 2005 and 2006, the contest between the Maoists and the CPI-M was hotting up in the pockets that the former had been able to build bases in. There had been violence from both sides: clearly the Maoists were targeting CPI-M workers and many of them lost their lives. And they could do so because there was a groundswell of discontent both because of the lack of development and the land acquisition drive.
In a nationwide context marked by hysteria about Naxal violence, which occludes the reasons for their spread, the chief minister must be congratulated for not taking the proscription route over a political campaign. The Naxals are banned in all the states where they have bases and the political establishment throughout the country, including most egregiously the Prime Minister, sees the phenomenon through the prism of law and order rather than a problem of lack of development, concerted and, in a curiously contradictory way, random state repression, and a consistent sellout to rogue capital that robs people of their already skinny livelihoods.
But with the hosannas, Mr Bhattacharjee must accept the accusation of prevarication. It is all very well to talk about a political struggle against the Maoists, but the reality is that the CPI-M as of now has opened up no serious ideological front because it lacks the wherewithal to do so ~ largely because it is ideologically bankrupt. We shall return to this point. As of now, the CPI-M is by and large incapable of taking on the Maoists where they are entrenched by way of a political campaign. That is precisely why it uses the power of a completely suborned state apparatus ~ the bureaucracy and the police ~ to harass and stigmatise soft targets: Maoists sympathisers mostly in urban and semi-urban areas. That’s happened in Baghajatin, Jadavpur, Baguiati, Kakdwip, Dum Dum and other places. In many instances, people who have been harassed haven’t been Maoists at all. Mithu Ghosh of Jhargram is a case in point. He was picked up by the police and spent months in jail before being released on bail, without an iota of evidence turning up. A similar fate befell two trainee journalists who had accompanied Medha Patkar on her foray into Nandigram.
What is noteworthy is that the CPI-M’s rhetorical postures have not been radically different from that of “bourgeois” parties, with the admitted difference that there has been no recourse to proscription. The strategy is the same: to wield the word Maoist/ Naxal as a term of abuse. Mr Bhattacharjee and his colleagues seem to think that to brand someone in those terms makes a straightforward case for persecution.
The CPI-M has no options here, we must note, to return to the point about ideological bankruptcy. There is a reason why the CPI-M resorts to the tactics it, in fact, uses. And Mr Bhattacharjee signposted that in his statement. He said that a crucial element in the political campaign to marginalise the Maoists is to initiate development in the areas where they had built bases. But is the CPI-M capable of doing that? It’s not as if the Left Front government has not had the opportunity ~ three decades is a long time. Given the state of the party apparatus and government agencies, the capability to embark upon a meaningful development programme is limited if not non-existent.
Look at it this way. The problem in Singur arose because the government was giving fertile agricultural land away. Clearly, it would not have been a problem if Mr Bhattacharjee had given the Tatas barren land, available aplenty in precisely those areas inhabited by the Maoists ~ Purulia, Bankura and parts of West Midnapore. But, as the chief minister himself had indicated, there would have been no point in offering land in those places because they lacked infrastructure and connectivity ~ the Tatas wouldn’t have taken it. So both the Tatas, known far and wide for their sense of corporate social responsibility, and the state government, opted for Singur instead of thinking it fit to factor in some extra cost and perhaps share it to develop infrastructure alongside setting up the small car factory in a relatively remote area.
You can’t blame the Tatas. Obviously they’re not into the game of charity and the whole idea of corporate social responsibility is pretty bogus anyway. But several years into his industrialisation drive, Mr Bhattacharjee has failed to balance out the infrastructure and development map. Perhaps he means well, but that clearly isn’t enough. We want to believe that in the next three years the ruling party and the government will put their shoulder to the wheel of development to set in train the second political campaign that will cut the ground from under ultra-Left feet. But rest assured, we won’t hold our breath.

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