| Singur, December, 2006
“Brand Buddha” used to be fashionable last year. A burgeoning middle-class market for nourishing a baby Asian tiger was being promised by one-time hard-line communists, latecomers to social democracy. All had to be fine in the state of West Bengal, since it was guaranteeing hassle-free land acquisition and fast-track facilitation for initial location policy.
The most contemporary mood, however, is one of doubt. The challenge to the handing over of land in Singur, northwest of Howrah, resulted in protests by the ever-oppositional Trinamool Congress. This was backed by such august social dissenters as Medha Patkar. It propelled the Bhumi Ucched Pratirodh Committee into media limelight. A primitive armed centre was meanwhile growing in the Nandigram blocks, southeast of Haldia port and industrial complex. Violent demonstrations accelerated into suppression of local support for the West Bengal policy of fast-track sanctions for industrial projects, in an arc from north of Howrah to west and south of Haldia.
The purpose of this arc of industrial location is to create a new region to balance sick industries of the Hooghly riverside. The media coverage — notably in multiple television channels, with their different biases — either in favour of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), or of those who seek gain from its political instability, has definitely inflated a politicized brouhaha into a crisis of uncertainty about maintaining industrial investment and its spin-off into expected employment and the resulting democratic affluence. There is now talk of a new flight of capital if peace is not restored, if not by police lathis, then by army guns. Economics and the pace of democratization once again appear to be at variance with each other.
There are two ways of looking at this mood-swing. One way, of course, would be to attribute everything to the vagaries of an obsolete political process. Long bottled-up by an oligarchy created by the ‘permit-licence-quota raj’, it is now open to the winds of social choice and protest. This leads to a calculation of whether people will support the CPI(M)’s call for ‘full steam ahead’ in an industrialization of the Chinese variety; or whether the ‘Tina’ factor will lead to a majority vote for political and social stability, since the alternative will be for local, petty satraps and goons to run a state that only last year appeared to be on the verge of an upswing of openness and affluence. Stories are now being heard about how people were forced to leave their homes by elements that had built up primitive weaponry against state acquisition of land in the villages, how the investment of their meagre savings for a year’s haul of fish in their ponds or their search for enhancement of daily wages from field labour had all been destroyed by being driven out of their homes by protesters against the state. The fact is that in Nandigram there must be forces which used the relative publicity of the Singur protest to build up a machinery, and which, in the name of protecting others from eviction from their lands, mobilized people against their own rivals or against the weaker section of the peasantry.
Another way of interpretation would be to consider the historical depth of the protest. The two districts into which Medinipur is now divided have been centres of rebellion against the penetration of state power beyond the bare minimum of what once used to be zamindari authority. Indeed, this borderland between the Bengali and the Oriya languages, between plains cultivators and hill tribal people with shifting cultivation practices, between rice cultivation and mineral extraction, has, since early medieval times, been a region of tension and rebellion. There was western migration from state violence (witness the plaint of Kavikankan Mukunda Ram at the outset of his Chandimangal), there were incursions from the west (Pathan, Mughal and Bargi Maratha), then anti-colonial revolts from the 1760s to the 1940s by the Chuars of the Jungle Mahals, by the Paiks of Karnagarh near Medinipur, and by the salt-makers of Kanthi in the 1930 satyagraha. Above all, in the autumn and winter of 1942, there were revolts by the valiant peasantry of central and coastal Medinipur in the present East Medinipur district (for instance, in the villages of Patashpur, Bhagabanpur, Reyerpara and Khodambari — the last two in what is today being called the Nandigram area).
Travelling into these villages a quarter of a century ago, I heard stories of how the leaders of Nandigram, motivated by a Congress Socialist, who did not fully share Gandhian principles, cut ditches in the roads round their villages to stop the British Indian police and troops, and, as a protective measure, put their women and children in front of their packed circles of men, armed with hammers, sickles, ploughshares and whatever they could find to defend themselves. The brutal suppression of that rebellion by Australian armymen was followed by the armed flare-up of the Tamralipta Jatiya Sarkar of Sushil Dhara, and its even more brutal suppression in 1943-44. Agrarian dissent in Medinipur has always had an obdurate edge. It has always sought to maintain local, rural autonomy. It has always turned to primitive rebellious fury if threatened by counter-violence. It has never succeeded in the long run. Forced repression has never been accompanied by easy submission: it has even led to temporary civil war.
It does not make sense for Mamata Banerjee’s followers to look for political capital by forcing the government to precipitate civil war. One hears of villages where arms have been stockpiled, where Tablighi preaching has been used to whip up local Islamic sentiments, where outsiders to the villages have fanned local discontent. Law and order is best ensured by a climate of transparency and by the correction of past mistakes, if there have been any. Merely raising the level of force against dissent cannot ensure it. This is what gives sense to the chief minister’s appeals for public debate.
The agenda should not, of course, be bogged down by the mere demand to bring CPI (M) sympathizers back to their homes. Positive measures have also to be spelled out about what plans exist for the chemical hub spreading out from Haldia. What are the details of the project' Will acquisition now be on competitive market terms' What will be its ecological impact on the countryside in which it is located' Will the investors be national or multi-national organizations' Only when the government is forthcoming with answers to such questions of location policy can we expect a purposive agenda for resolving problems that still create conditions for rebellion among some segments of the people.
It is incumbent on any government to publicly assuage these fears, on a unilateral basis if necessary. The responsibility devolves on the government to persuade not only others, but also its own sympathizers, that the questions are valid and that its measures for resolving them are reasonable. Only such a pro-active, and not just defensive, tactic in facing issues raised by Singur and Nandigram can take the Left Front government from the present status quo to a more authentic political discourse about common social welfare.