“Bodies were scattered all over the paddy fields, smeared with blood. The injured were screaming for help – and police kept kicking them.”
That was the testimony of a villager from Nandigram in the Indian state of West Bengal after thousands of armed police attacked a protest by peasants against plans to impose a neoliberal “special economic zone” (SEZ) on the area.
Shockingly, the massacre was presided over by West Bengal’s left wing state government.
The ruling CPI(M) – the Communist Party of India (Marxist) – opposes neoliberalism on a national level, but ruthlessly backs it at the state level.
According to state officials, at least 14 people were killed and 75 injured in the massacre on Wednesday and Thursday of last week. But local activists say the true figures are likely to be several times higher.
They report fleeing villagers shot in the back by police, truckloads of dead bodies being dumped in rivers, entire villages razed to the ground and systematic mass rape of women.
Armed gangs loyal to the CPI(M) blocked reporters from entering the area.
“If you value your life, turn back immediately,” journalists from the Times of India were told.
The carnage in Nandigram has sent West Bengal into crisis – and triggered a deep split on the left.
Strikes, rallies and rioting over the weekend forced the state’s chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee to suspend the SEZ plans in Nandigram and elsewhere.
West Bengal has been run for many years by a left wing coalition dominated by the CPI(M).
In recent years, Bhattacharjee – who ordered the police into Nandigram – has taken the party on an increasingly neoliberal course.
The SEZ allows foreign firms to operate in designated areas free of normal taxes and duties.
Bhattacharjee’s state government announced an SEZ in Nandigram at the end of last year. This was earmarked for a chemical plant to be run by Indonesia’s Salim Group.
But plans to forcibly acquire some 14,000 acres of land were fiercely resisted by Nandigram’s villagers, whose livelihoods depend on the land.
They blocked access to the area and battled against CPI(M) gangs, leading to a stand-off that culminated in last week’s massacre.
The CPI(M) initially reacted to criticism of the police action by denouncing the protesters.
The party smeared its critics as “anti-Communist” – despite the fact that the voices of condemnation included Sumit Sarkar, one of West Bengal’s most respected Marxist historians.
Echoing the rhetoric of the “war on terror” – some 60 percent of Nandigram’s peasant farmers are Muslim – Bhattacharjee proclaimed that the police action was necessary to “restore peace”.
The neoliberal wing of the CPI(M) suffered a blow last weekend when the former chief minister and party heavyweight Jyoti Basu endorsed criticisms of Bhattacharjee made by other left parties.
While the state government has backed away from its SEZ plans and agreed to an inquiry into the massacre, it is resisting calls for Bhattacharjee’s resignation.
It remains committed to attracting “foreign investment” to West Bengal.
The Nandigram incident shows the contradictions between the CPI(M)’s leftist rhetoric and its concessions to capitalism.
It has also underlined the need for a radical political alternative in India that brings together all those forces that support popular struggles against neoliberalism.