On December 1 and 2, the people of Singur heroically resisted the fencing-off of their land, and faced brutal repression. Students, activists of social movements - no one was spared. All were branded as 'outsiders' and beaten up. It seemed like virtual emergency was imposed in Bengal. In Delhi, noted social activist, writers and prominent citizens, shocked at the repression, protested at the CPI(M) Office. But the repression not only continued but was brazenly justified. On December 10, folowing widespread condemnation of the lathicharge and targeted brutalisation of mediapersons covering a CPI(ML) protest on December 8,CM Buddhadeb addressed a gathering on World HumanRights Day (December 10). He declared that the human rights was only for citizens, and the police must be "merciless when dealing with ultras". Having branded all opponents as 'ultras', what has followed is the rape and murder of a young protestor in Singur. Following that, AIPWA held a demonstration at Bengal Bhavan in Delhi, and a 72-hour sit-in is just ending at the district HQ of Chinsurah as we go to press. We take a look at the questions thrown up by Singur. -- Ed.
All Roads Lead to Singur in Buddha’s Bengal
-- Dipankar BhattacharyaI
s there at all any case for a debate and agitation over Singur? The CPI(M) leadership would like us to believe there is absolutely none and that the people questioning the great Singur model of industrialisation and rehabilitation are either stupid or mad or driven by ulterior motives. Some members of the CPI(M) Polit Bureau and Central Committee have even attributed the parentage of the whole campaign to defend the people’s right to their land and livelihood to corporate rivals of the Tata group. For the Left Front government of West Bengal, the campaign is of course just another law and order problem that the state must crush by all means. The Chief Minister has proudly declared that nobody would be allowed to touch the tip of a single hair on Tata’s head. Singur has been sealed off from the rest of West Bengal by an unprecedented extension of Section 144 to cover every road that could remotely be suspected of ‘approaching’ Singur and stop all persons who seemingly have ‘malicious intent’ writ large on their faces!
Beyond West Bengal, Kerala and Tripura, wherever the CPI(M) is not in power, it asserts its right to question and oppose attempts by various state governments to forcibly acquire agricultural land in the name of setting up industries or SEZs. No problems with that, but should not the CPI(M) then tell us how it is following a different course in states where it is in power? Before Singur, the CPI(M) said it would indeed follow a different course.It would not acquire fertile agricultural land. And before acquiring any land, it would take not only the landowning peasants but also other landless toilers whose livelihood depended on the concerned plot of land into confidence. Singur has proved each of these assurances absolutely hollow.
'Repression is Democracy’ in CPI(M)’s Orwellian Newspeak
Some forces are trying to indulge in violence and create disorder for lowly and narrow political interest and bring ruination to West Bengal. It is democracy to repress these forces in the interests and security of the people of the state. – Benoy Konar, CPI(M) Kisan Sabha leader, PD, December 10
Singur in Hooghly district lies at the heart of the green revolution belt of West Bengal; it is precisely the kind of area that the Left Front government showcased till the other day as the biggest success story of agriculture under Left Front rule in West Bengal, in fact industrialisation was supposed to proceed by consolidating the gains achieved on the agricultural front. But now the CPI(M) tells us that it is imperative to sacrifice the fertile farm land of Singur at the altar of industrialisation simply because the Tatas have chosen this area. To downplay the extent of loss to agriculture, the state government is claiming that more than 90 per cent of the land acquired is monocrop. That is of course some concession to the truth, for the powers that be could just as well declare the whole land barren and fallow! But what do the sharecroppers and agricultural labourers of Singur have to say about this? They will tell you that it is mischievous to talk about such generously endowed land producing just one crop a year. The truth is that the area has excellent irrigation facilities and produces four or even five crops a year, has as many as four cold-storage centres and attracts agricultural labour even from neighbouring Bardhaman district during days of busy agricultural operations.
As for taking the concerned local people into confidence, we know it from none other than Jyoti Basu that the local peasant association secretary of the CPI(M) was literally caught napping at home when the local women chased away the combined team of government officials and Tata Motors representatives. The mammoth CPI(M)-led peasant organisation with a claimed membership of 1.5 crore in West Bengal alone and the celebrated panchayati raj machinery of West Bengal were nowhere to be seen on the ground ‘convincing’ the agricultural population of Singur that the time had come for them to move on from the drudgery and misery of agriculture to the comfort and security of living off interest income by depositing the jackpot of ‘compensation’ in a bank! Even according to the status report released by the West Bengal government it is clear that out of 997.11 acres of land acquired by the government, ‘prior consent’ for 586 acres was obtained only on the day the land was fenced off while for another 411.11 acres no consent had been obtained till the publication of the report (TOI, 16 December, 2006).
And how was this partial ‘consent’ manufactured? Meetings with landowners started only on 27 May 2006, after the whole world had known and even seen how the peasant women of Singur – ‘armed with brooms’ – had sent out ‘the wrong signal’ by chasing away the Tata team. The meetings happened first at the DM’s bungalow and the venue was later shifted to Kolkata, but nothing concrete emerged from these meetings and the ‘consent’ could only be obtained in the ‘benign and gracious’ presence of the police, who were incidentally raining lathis and firing tear gas shells and rubber bullets. A two-year-old girl detained in police custody and implicated in criminal cases, women harassed and tortured, sixty-year-old peasants beaten up and humiliated, not to mention the injuries suffered by student and peasant activists, and now this ghastly rape and murder of a young woman that even the state government has been forced to refer for a CBI probe – is this the CPI(M)’s model of participatory democracy at work at the grassroots?
The Land Acquisition Act of 1894 which the West Bengal government has invoked to acquire the Singur land authorises the state to acquire land in public interest and in national emergencies (the colonial rulers needed to set up military cantonments, among other things, following the shock of 1857). It is nothing short of a legal fraud to invoke this Act to acquire land for the purpose of setting up private industries. To camouflage such fraud all state governments use State Industrial Development Corporations as a middleman and the West Bengal government too has done the same thing. But Buddhadev Bhattacharya has surely gone one step ahead by describing the proposed Tata plant as an epitome of public interest. The CPI(M) in power seems to have become oblivious of any demarcation between private interest and public utility!
Reports have it that the CPI(M) now contemplates marketing Singur as a great model in terms of rehabilitation of the displaced and even empowerment of women. Ganashakti, the Bengali daily of the CPI(M) is full of stories telling us how the rural women of Singur are being trained on a war footing to enable them to stitch uniforms for workers of the proposed Tata Motors plant and prepare snacks and fast food to be served at the factory canteen! The CPI(M) ideologues do not however bother to tell us how many land-losers of Singur, if at all, will be absorbed directly as workers in the Tata plant! If we insist on an answer, they might well give us a few lessons in economics and remind us that the job of an industrialist is to maximise his profit and not to create jobs for every Tom, Dick and Harry. Bored with complaints regarding the role of the police, the CPI(M)’s peasant leader and Central Committee member Benoy Konar does something similar. He gives us lessons in statecraft and tells us about the job of the police: “The work of the police is not to make drawings or teach in schools and colleges. The police are the instrument of repression.” (People’s Democracy, December 10, 2006). Well, could Benoybabu tell us what the job of a peasant leader is? Is it just to lure peasants away from their land and agriculture by telling them that the sale value of their land if deposited in bank would yield them an interest income “10-15 times more than that from land.” (Konar in PD, 10.12.06)?
Indeed, the biggest claim of the CPI(M) regarding Singur revolves around the compensation package which we are told is the best on offer to people facing eviction and takes care of all those who are dependent on the land for their livelihood. In her article Singur: just the facts, please published in The Hindu (December 13, 2006), Brinda Karat tells us that the compensation package covers not only the landowners and registered sharecroppers, but even the case of unregistered sharecroppers “is under consideration”. As advised by Brinda, let us look at the facts as furnished by the December 4-10, 2006 issue of People’s Democracy in its editorial Singur: Myth and Reality (Facts submitted before the people’s tribunal held at Singur and collected by non-CPI(M) investigators through extensive interaction with the local people are often at variance with the CPI(M) version of the story, but one guesses that in Bengal in 2006 the CPI(M) alone has the ‘moral’ and political monopoly over the real facts – facts backed by state power and endorsed by major sections of the corporate media – just as perhaps the Congress can be credited to have had its historical monopoly ovr facts in the state in the fifties and sixties when every election used to return it to power!).
The PD editorial tells us that 12,000 landowners and sharecroppers are entitled to receive compensation the total quantum of which has been declared at Rs. 130 crore. The average amount works out to a little over Rs. 1,08,300 – hardly the kind of money that if put away in fixed deposits can yield an interest income “10-15 times more than that from land”! The claim made by Benoy Konar could of course be somewhat realistic for the big absentee landowners (Konar tells us that there are actually two families living abroad), whose current income from land is confined to the 25 per cent share he gets from the sharecropper. But what about the small and marginal farmers and sharecroppers? A sharecropper who is much more attached to and dependent on the land than the absentee landowner will be entitled to only 25 per cent of the compensation received by the latter. If ‘Operation Barga’ saved the sharecropper from being evicted by the landowner and limited the landowner’s share of income to 25% of the produce, the compensation package has now completely reversed the terms. The state evicts the sharecropper and gives him only 25% of what it gives to the landowner! And as for the toiler, the agricultural labourer who puts in the greatest efforts to produce the crop, he becomes even more ‘free’ than before – he is freed from all his erstwhile occupational ties with the land, and in place of the agricultural wages he now gets the consolation of a promise of an alternative avenue of future employment! So the old slogan of ‘land to the tiller’ has now boiled down to land to the buyer, hefty compensation to the absentee owner, token ‘severance’ money for the actual tiller and empty promise for the toiler.
Indeed, there are facts and facts, but there is also something called the truth which has to be sought out on the basis of the facts. And worse still, in a class-divided society, the truth is also divided – the ruler’s truth is often at loggerheads with the truth experienced by the ruled, the gainer’s truth ‘triumphs’ at the expense of the losses suffered by the loser. The truth of the tillers and toilers of Singur cannot be the same as the truth of the Tata Motors and of Buddhadev Bhattacharya who is behaving more like a CEO of the Tatas than an elected Chief Minister of West Bengal. It may be easy to equate the interest of the Tatas (the fact that they want 1,000 acres of fertile farm land at Singur to set up their plant) with the interest of industrial development of West Bengal (industry calls for more and more of private investment and if a big name like the Tatas can be shown to have been ‘attracted’ by West Bengal, it will have a demonstration effect on other potential investors), pit the combined weight of the brand power of the Tatas and the state power wielded by the CPI(M)-led government and paint the opposition put up by the affected people of Singur as an anti-Bengal attempt to halt the progress of the state, but this is a dangerous logic that may boomerang on the very forces of reason and progress.
The CPI(M) has tried its level best to discredit the entire movement over Singur as the handiwork of the Trinamool Congress, as a desperate and disruptive move by a politically frustrated and defeated opposition to foment trouble. By ransacking the Assembly, the TMC MLAs have also provided the CPI(M) with considerable opportunities to try and divert public attention away from Singur. Indeed, the state government made a veritable spectacle of the TMC vandalism in the Assembly encouraging the people to come and see the broken chairs on display even as it sealed off Singur and all the signs of police brutality and the people’s lived experiences behind the protective wall of Section 144! But the courage and determination displayed by the people of Singur in the course of their sustained struggle has been far too powerful to be brushed aside as TMC tantrums against the Tatas or the CPI(M). It is this strength of the popular resistance in Singur which has evoked such widespread public response in West Bengal and beyond.
The CPI(M) is extremely peeved by the solidarity evoked by the Singur struggle. From Medha Patkar to Mahashweta Devi, anybody and everybody questioning the government’s move on Singur – the systematic violation of democracy coupled with complete lack of transparency regarding the terms of the state government’s deal with the Tatas and implications for the local people – has been dubbed an ‘outsider’ and his or her credentials have been subjected to vulgar and vitriolic comments. The nomenclature is indeed quite interesting – for the Left Front government Ratan Tata is an insider while Medha Patkar is an outsider! Sitaram Yechury and Brinda Karat have all the credentials to represent West Bengal in the Rajya Sabha, but Mahasweta Devi who has spent her whole life defending democracy and the struggles and rights of the oppressed and the marginalised becomes an ‘outsider’ to be greeted with a disdainful ‘who-is-Mahasweta’ by the CPI(M) top brass in West Bengal!
The CPI(M)’s constant propaganda regarding ‘outsiders’ raking up trouble in Singur is best rebuffed by field reports from the site of struggle. Of the 54 people arrested in early December on charges of ‘attempted murder’ for their attempt to resist the police and stop the forcible fencing off of the land, as many as 47 are local peasants. There are also reports of murder and rape of local people – Rajkumar Bhul succumbed to injuries sustained during the police attack in late September and the charred body of young Tapasi Malik, brutally raped and killed by the CPI(M) ‘night guards’ in league with the police was discovered in the early hours of December 18. The CPI(M) and the State government of course describe the first incident as a case of natural death and the latter as a suicide! And who are the ‘outsiders’ beaten up and arrested by the police at Singur? They are all known political activists, including Comrades Tapan Batabyal, a state committee member of the CPI(ML)(Liberation) and Bilas Sarkar, an activist of the All India Students’ Association (AISA) from Jadavpur University. What business can Jadavpur University students have in Singur, ask the CPI(M) leaders. The CPI(M)’s paradigm of politics now revolves only around state power and its twin pillars – capital and coercion – and its leaders will surely find it hard to understand why student activists should stand by the people of Singur. We are however proud of our comrades who have held high the revolutionary tradition of Indian communists and braved police repression to forge strong ties of fighting solidarity with the people of Singur.
The CPI(M) should remember that beyond the borders of West Bengal, the ‘outsider’ argument could well boomerang against it every time it might try and raise its voice against another Gurgaon-type assault on workers or Gujarat-type genocide of Muslims. And should power change hands in Bengal, the same might well happen right in West Bengal. History is replete with examples of how opportunist sins of the Left end up paving the way for the revival of right reaction. To understand the implications we need not go any further than West Bengal itself. Some forty years ago peasants in many parts of West Bengal had embarked on a militant struggle to establish their rights over their land. Revolutionary sections within the CPI(M) had sought to raise this struggle to the level of a protracted war for bringing about a revolutionary change in agrarian relations and to usher in, on this basis, a new kind of people’s democracy in India. Naxalbari emerged as the storm centre of this brewing agrarian revolutionary campaign. The CPI(M) as the leading partner of the United Front government then in power in Kolkata played the leading role in unleashing severe state repression on that movement. And soon the reins of repression had passed on to the hands of the Congress and the repression, initially directed against revolutionary communists, generalised to let loose a veritable reign of terror against all Left, progressive and democratic forces. Subsequently, this policy of state terror and repression developed and perfected by the Congress in the laboratory of West Bengal was extended to the whole of the country and democracy was pushed into a state of coma as India experienced her first encounter with Internal Emergency for as many as nineteen months from June 1975 to January 1977.
Singur 2006 is of course vastly different from Naxalbari of 1967. During the Naxalbari days, the whole of West Bengal was passing through a period of upswing in the Left movement. The CPI(M) crushed Naxalbari by saying that peasants had no business linking the question of land to revolution and their demand for land could very well be fulfilled by a Left government in West Bengal. Back in power in 1977 after the semi-fascist interlude of the Emergency, the CPI(M) de-revolutionised the agenda of agrarian reforms and consolidated its grip over governance by implementing a three-point package of reforms and democracy for rural Bengal (redistribution of ceiling-surplus land, Operation Barga and Panchayati Raj).
Things have now come a full circle in West Bengal. The small peasants and sharecroppers of Singur are not demanding a revolution. All that they want is to retain their land and their right to earn their livelihood and live their lives with dignity. But like Naxalbari, Singur too is being crushed by the CPI(M) led state government. During the Naxalbari days, the CPI(M) wanted peasants to stay as peasants and not dare to dream and fight for a revolution. In Singur, the CPI(M) wants to depeasantise the peasantry by making them passive and dispossessed participants in a process of industrialisation that has little connection with the vast untapped and underdeveloped home market lying beyond the islands of urban affluence.
CPI(M)’s land reform and Operation Barga campaigns have long run out of steam in West Bengal. The new agenda is reversal of land reform, depeasantisation, corporate farming, SEZs ... Over the last two decades as the Left Front government of West Bengal has steadily moved towards the neo-liberal agenda, and we have seen signs of unrest among the rural poor, agricultural labourers, and the urban working class engaged in the unorganised and organised sectors of Bengal. We have also seen this disillusionment turn into electoral resentment and this has contributed considerably to the rise of the TMC as a political force and trend in West Bengal. The CPI(M) may have managed to stem the tide by weaning away a section of the Congress base and the upwardly mobile middle class, but the Left Front has clearly lost much of its ‘left’ appeal among large sections of its old support base. Now Singur signals the beginning of the alienation of sharecroppers and small and middle peasantry from the CPI(M), an alienation that clearly has the potential of upsetting the CPI(M)’s three-decade-old applecart in West Bengal. In the West Bengal Assembly, Singur is represented by a TMC MLA, and the TMC being the main opposition party in West Bengal – the fact cannot be wished away even if Buddhadev ridicules it for its small size with a patronising small-is-beautiful certificate – lost no opportunity to cash in on the Singur issue.
Like a power-obsessed ruling party, the CPI(M) may only choose to see Singur as a TMC-inspired conspiracy to destabilise its government, but revolutionary communists cannot but see the simmering and potentially quite explosive peasant discontent that lies underneath. When Ratan Tata becomes an insider for the CPI(M)’s house of power and the dissenting people of Singur are dubbed outsiders, peasants in West Bengal cannot miss the irony of the whole situation. How long will the Bengal peasantry agree to play the role of political extras in a script that revolves around the ‘Buddha-Tata bhai-bhai’ equation? The revival of the land question, albeit in a changed context and on quite different terms, has its obvious implication for the political landscape of Bengal. In Rabindranath’s immortal poem Dui bigha jomi (two bighas of land, written in June 1894, the year the colonial land acquisition act was passed) the ‘Babu’ landlord buys off indebted and impoverished Upen’s last two bighas by exercising his feudal power and reduces him to a pauper. Today the Singur peasants are fighting to save their ‘Do Bigha Zameen’ from the ‘babudom’ driven by the growing Buddha-Tata bonhomie. But if Singur fails, how long will the CPI(M) be able to hold on to its political ‘landholding’ among the Bengal peasantry? For revolutionary communists, the question is not whatever might or would happen to the CPI(M) and its political fiefdom in West Bengal. The point is to radicalise the anger of the peasantry and shape a communist resurgence in West Bengal. Far from making common cause with the TMC, revolutionary communists must step up their independent initiative and efforts and lead a radical realignment of forces within the broad Left and democratic camp to prevent a possible right resurgence in the state. Too much is at stake in Singur, and revolutionary communists cannot be stopped by either repression or malicious disinformation from discharging their political responsibility.