Through 2007 Nandigram has witnessed one of the most significant movements against global neoliberalism and state power anywhere in the world.
Nandigram is a rural area in the East Midnapur district of West Bengal, a state governed for three decades by a Left Front dominated by India's main left party, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) – the CPI(M).
The issue that triggered it was an attempt to acquire land for a Special Economic Zone (SEZ), to be leased primarily to the Salim Group from Indonesia.
The deal between the Indonesian corporate giant and the West Bengal government was signed in July 2006.
An official announcement on 2 January 2007 informed the inhabitants that 25,000 acres of their land were to be acquired for the establishment of a chemical plant, as part of the SEZ.
No one had been consulted prior to this decision, and it had not gone through the authorised legal channels – the village and district representative bodies. A massive movement from below grew, seeking to defend rural land against corporate invasion.
Just before this rural West Bengal had spent months convulsed by a similar land takeover bid. With the backing of the Left Front government, Tatas, India’s biggest industrial firm, had moved to take over fertile agricultural land in Singur in the south of the state against resistance from local farmers. By December 2006, this had largely been crushed.
To prevent a similar defeat in Nandigram, villagers took to direct action. They dug up roads and destroyed bridges to make it impossible for the police or local CPI(M) cadres to enter their area.
Violent clashes broke out between villagers and armed party cadres at the beginning of January. The latter fired rounds of gunfire into the barricaded villages, hurled bombs and killed people, backed by muscle power from Lakshman Seth, the local CPI(M) MP. The villagers retaliated in kind, killing a local party leader and burning down his house.
The vast bulk of the villagers organised through the Bhumi Ucched Pratirodh Committee (BUPC) – an association set up to mobilise against the takeover of land.
It was a loosely organised body of people from various political parties – including opposition Trinamul Congress members, far-left activists, Left Front supporters whose land was threatened and villagers with no political affiliations.
Between January and March, there was something of a lull, as the movement in Nandigram consolidated its authority, the state remained blocked out of the villages, and Lakshman Seth and his allies made plans for a reprisal.
On 14 March a battalion of police and CPI(M) cadres disguised as policemen ripped through Nandigram, firing upon an unarmed crowd and hacking their way through the villages in an orgy of savagery that even official figures admit left at least 14 dead and hundreds seriously injured.
The wounded were cared for in hospitals that years of government neglect had left woefully unprepared for situations like this. Rape and sexual mutilation of the most horrific kinds were systematically used by party cadres as tools of retribution.
Through 16 and 17 March the villagers managed to repulse the attack, in a heroic counter-mobilisation, and drove out the ‘police-cadres’. The term ‘police-cadres’ was coined by the villagers once they discovered that cadres of the ruling party had disguised themselves as police to participate in the blood-letting.
The state and party had to withdraw, but they carried on the war by other means, including an attempted economic blockade of Nandigram to starve out the resistance.
At the same time the West Bengal CPI(M) carried out a heavy but unconvincing propaganda campaign, blaming ‘the communal menace’, ‘the Maoist menace’, and any number of allegedly self-explanatory ‘menaces’.
They would say anything to divert attention from what Nandigram’s peasants were actually, and obviously, engaged in – a grassroots popular movement to retain the land they lived and worked on.
In a weak attempt to attach a carrot to the stick, Buddhadeb Bhattacharya, the CPI(M) chief minister for West Bengal, made a couple of half-hearted pronouncements to the effect that land would not be acquired without consent.
Ever since this CPI(M) propaganda has consistently harped on this theme – why did the resistance continue despite the chief minister’s reassurances?
The answer is quite simple. No party leaders had the gumption to visit Nandigram after the massacre. No serious relief measures were organised by the state, which instead sought to impose an economic embargo on the villagers. No compensation was offered to those who suffered from the violence in March.
The government constantly scuttled or delayed enquiries by the judiciary and the Central Bureau of Investigation, and none of the accused was brought to justice.
Nandigram’s villagers had little reason to trust their chief minister, and every reason for them to consider him their enemy. Subsequent events were to tragically confirm this belief.
Between March and November, a low-level civil war raged in the villages of the area. CPI(M) workers encircled the defiant villages, and kept up a sustained barrage threatening abuse through loudspeakers, gunfire and bombs. There were further expulsions of party supporters from Nandigram.
There was also, conversely, the flight of BUPC activists and supporters terrorised by attacks by the ruling party’s cadres. There was armed violence on both sides, which was hardly a surprise, since the rural politics of West Bengal has for many years been characterised by the use of arms, which have been made plentifully available to villagers for use in inter-party conflicts, especially prior to local government elections.
Reprisals and counter-reprisals ravaged Nandigram through the summer, though the balance of violence was utterly lop-sided as the resources on the state's side were infinitely greater.
Nevertheless, the government could not gain entry into the villages. The barricades stayed up with the villagers on one side united in defence of their land, and party cadres on the other waiting for their moment to avenge the humiliation in March.
The latest instalment in this tragedy took place recently. On 30 October, the villages of Satengabadi and Ranichak were attacked by police and party cadres in an attempt to regain control of the area. Between 5 and 10 November, they stepped up efforts to ‘recapture’ Nandigram. A lightning raid on Satengabadi virtually destroyed the village, rendering over 1,000 people homeless, with their houses looted and burnt.
On 10 November, the final capitulation occurred. Party cadres swooped down upon a demonstration by the BUPC, abducted 600 protestors, and used them as a human shield to secure re-entry into the villages.
After more than 11 months of civil war, the state finally managed to re-enter the villages.
Since then, there have been massive and spectacular acts of violent revenge by party workers. The re-establishment of 'law and order' has been characterised by rape, killing and torture.
Now a campaign of absolute terror and effective enslavement is going on. Villagers are being forced to sign affidavits pledging complete obedience to the CPI(M)’s commands, and to join rallies organised by the party. Nandigram is coming to resemble nothing so much as a vast prison camp.
The spectacle of a professedly left wing government first trying to secure land for a massive project of corporate expansion, then confronting a people’s movement with force and armed terror, has produced a politics of mass revulsion that all the attempts to stifle or deflect dissent have not subdued.
These events that have rocked the stability of the regime in West Bengal. Most dramatically in September there were food riots against the hoarding and sale of food marked out for public rationing.
These black-market practices are common in Bengal, and are usually organised through local party channels.
A series of elections to students’ unions in colleges in West Bengal, in the wake of Nandigram, delivered decisive defeats for the Students’ Federation of India, the CPI(M)'s student wing.
This was followed by an unexpected electoral reverse in elections to a local dockers' union.
A scandal over an inter-religious love affair in Kolkata (formerly known as Calcutta), where the state government scotched an enquiry into the death of a Muslim boy allegedly brought about by the actions of the girl’s well-connected business family, affirmed suspicions that the Left Front was now consistently shielding vested propertied interests.
The organised left’s citadel is no longer secure, and social tensions that had simmered beneath the surface for many years are coming to the boil.
The epicentre of solidarity with Nandigram has been the city of Kolkata, and here there has been a remarkable outflowing of democratic disgust with the CPI(M) – students, intellectuals, artists, lawyers, and doctors have, for the first time in decades, gathered together to protest, often in the face of brutal police attacks and arbitrary arrests.
On 14 November, Kolkata saw a near spontaneous demonstration of over 100,000 people, marching silently to protest the carnage in Nandigram. It was a red-letter day in a city where demonstrations for many years had been nothing more than exercises in self-publicity conducted by political parties, usually in combination with the ruling Left Front.
The memories of an earlier Kolkata, vibrant with political passion and engagement, had apparently long died. Poetry, discursive analysis, demonstrations, candlelit vigils, boycotts of government awards by intellectuals once close to the Party – every possible means is being used to shame the mighty.
The enormous outpouring of solidarity in Kolkata has been immensely moving, especially since previous acts of state brutality and corporate invasion in the country had evoked nothing on this scale. Most educated middle-class Indians had recently turned a blind eye to the conditions of the country’s poor.
Things are changing, and it is a time of possibilities, openings, and dangers. Some of the noise around Nandigram has come from political rivals of the CPI(M), just as compromised or more, without any of the CPI(M)’s earlier history of agitation for the downtrodden, who have jumped on to a convenient bandwagon.
Some of it comes from the Indian far left, in its many guises, which faces internal strife, inner authoritarianism and dogmatism, and, most of all, the constant threat of repression, in a country where attempts to resist the writ of the state, no matter what their provenance, are labelled either terrorist or 'Maoist' and rendered fit for arbitrary, Patriot Act-style counter-mobilisations of terror.
Some of the initiative comes from mobilisations loosely described as 'people’s movements', some of which command much popularity but are without the organisation or coordination needed to mount an immediate political challenge. However, the messiness and internal contradictions of the present moment should not blind us to a key fact.
Neoliberalism in India has hit a road block. Projects for corporate expansion, economic restructuring and land seizure, backed by armed state force, have been announced across the length and breadth of the country – Maharashtra, Orissa, Jharkhand, Chattisgarh, Uttar Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh, the North-east, to pick random examples.
Each project has become a site of prolonged resistance and conflict. Nandigram may be the most dramatic, but it is by no means the only one. There may be no blueprints at hand that tell us what 'alternatives' may look like, but the resistance to global neoliberal capitalism has been near-universal, it has been uncompromising, and it has come from the bottom up. A movement of resistance, in other words, that a real Left would be proud to be part of.
Where does India’s 'real' – which is to say officially designated left – actually stand? The jury is still out, though the evidence continues to mount. The shameful silence of the central leadership of the CPI(M) has destroyed the party’s credibility as a force that can claim political principle and commitment.
An outright condemnation of the Nandigram violence from the party leadership would have saved the face of the official left, though there is precious little they could actually have done. The tail wags the dog, and the actions of the West Bengal party unit clearly determine Politburo stands, rather than the reverse.
The CPI(M) clearly sees its continued hegemony in West Bengal – where most of its seats in Parliament come from – as necessary to its continued relevance in Indian politics. The price being paid, however, is the increasing absurdity of the party’s claims upon 'left-hood'. The central leadership has to, therefore, resort to more and more ridiculous justifications and lies covering up what really happened in West Bengal.
The agitation against the takeover of land is consistently depicted by Party propaganda as a machination of either the Trinamul Congress and the right-wing BJP, or as a Maoist conspiracy.
There have been, however, muted and not-so-muted voices of dissent from within circles once considered close to or part of the official Left project in India – prominent party members have spoken out and condemned the Left Front’s handling of Nandigram, others have spoken out against their party’s official stands and had their voices muffled, and there appears to be churning within the official Left at various levels.
Whether there will ever be a credible, reformed CPI(M) freed of corruption and compromise is an open question: it is clear, however, that this is ruled out as long as the Party does as it pleases in West Bengal.
CPI(M) chief minister for Bengal Buddhadeb Bhattacharya was recently praised by Henry Kissinger, who said the Communist chief minister reminded him of former Chinese Communist Party leader Deng Xiaoping. Not coincidentally, Bhattacharya has also been the darling of the corporate media in India, which was therefore faced with a crisis during Nandigram, not quite knowing which way to look while he executed the policies they wanted in a manner that didn’t quite smell of roses.
Leading CPI(M) members Lakshman Seth and Benoy Konar, proven to be the chief masterminds and instigators of the attacks on Nandigram’s peasants, have neither been brought to justice, nor disciplined, nor even reprimanded by the Party leadership.
As a conclusion, let me present two contending claims about Nandigram and what it symbolises for Indian politics.
First, the view of the official Indian Left. Bengal, we hear, is a citadel of left-wing resistance to the politics of communalism that dominates Indian politics, the politics of imperialism that globally encircles it, and the economics of neoliberalism that threatens its experiments in left-wing economic and social reform.
Law and order
The survival of the Left Front government in West Bengal is supposedly crucial to the continued relevance of the CPI(M) in national politics, and is thereby essential. The ‘law-and-order’ problem posed by the movement in Nandigram threatened the continued political and economic alternative held out by the Indian Left, and thus needed to be resolved by firm state action. It was necessary, therefore, to ‘recapture’ Nandigram.
Let me now put matters another way. There is, indeed, urgent need for global resistance to the politics of empire and neoliberalism that seeks to swamp the world, and stamp out the possibility of any alternatives. But the Left Front Government in West Bengal – and by implication the official Indian Left – has long given up on that fight, beyond empty pieties that never actually threaten the hegemonic structures of the world.
And now, with Buddhadeb Bhattacharya’s embrace of global capitalism, West Bengal under CPI(M) rule represents one of the prime entry points of global capital with its neoliberal strategies into India. The politics of Stalinism and the economics of neoliberalism have given birth to a monster.
The experiences of the twentieth century have taught us that ‘the Left’ is always a complex noun. It cannot, however, possibly be complex enough to include the Party in West Bengal.
A party that pushes for the introduction of Special Economic Zones, bypasses popular consultations of any kind in making its decisions, makes deals with the Salim Group, a corporation that bankrolled General Suharto’s massacre of Indonesian Communists, and nourishes and protects thugs who shoot peasants and protestors, may be called all sorts of things, but 'left-wing' is not among them.
Nandigram’s peasants were not fired by such geo-political calculations as I have just outlined – they simply wanted to hold on to their land, and they refused to buy into the myth that they were being offered a better deal.
But the meaning of their resistance has experienced the political shift that turns immediate battles for survival into epochal acts of resistance. It has become one of the central nodes in the chain of global movements that seek to resist a neoliberal hegemonic project that rests upon the intensified exploitation of labour, the arbitrary acquisition of resources, and the stifling of internal political dissent.
To achieve the success of this project, it was necessary to destroy the movement. The CPI(M) in West Bengal, having decided to do so, has demonstrated its inherent similarity with the other forces on the Indian political spectrum – its common function with them as neoliberal capitalism’s slave, victim, and agent.
Aditya Sarkar is a research student from Delhi currently studying in London.