I was a young student in Calcutta at the height of the Naxalite movement. When I became a reporter, Indira Gandhi had already declared her Emergency. Fortunately, those were the final months of a national misfortune. For me, there were two telling images from the intellectuals’ mahamichhil last week, which dramatically captured the contrasts between then and now. One was the poster that had Narendra Modi’s face super-imposed on that of Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee. The other was the banner that said, “Tomar naam amar naam Nandigram Nandigram”, with its echoes of the leftist slogan on Vietnam in the Seventies. If the first showed the anger against the chief minister of the Left Front government, the other reflected a dilemma, especially for the Naxalites of those years.
The once-radical Left felt betrayed by the fact that a “leftist” party and its government had perpetrated the violence at Nandigram. Many of them had been victims of the terror let loose on campuses, in neighbourhoods and elsewhere in Bengal, by the stormtroopers of the Chhatra Parishad, the Youth Congress and of course, the police in the Seventies. And, they knew that many who had masterminded and even taken part in those atrocities are leaders of the Congress and the Trinamul Congress today.
For the former Naxalites who joined the rally, Bhattacharjee has killed the idea of the Left by running after big money and emphasizing production and not distribution. Nandigram was the last straw for those who had been appalled that the police under a leftist government shot farmers in order to pave the way for a Tata factory.
But Bengal’s memory of Naxalite violence and the consequent economic collapse in the Seventies is still fresh. Almost all Naxalite groups that had taken part in the violence in those days have subsequently realized that their adventurism did not serve the cause of any revolution, leftist or otherwise, but made Bengal a byword for violence and despair.
The interesting thing about these ex-Naxalites joining the rally in such large numbers is that it was they who now joined Aparna Sen and Sankha Ghosh and not vice versa. The College Square, where the intellectuals’ rally began, was once the showpiece of their liberation movement. It was the battleground where the walls of the buildings around would proclaim “China’s chairman [to be] Our chairman” and where a great revolutionary offensive would be launched in order to “behead” the bust of Vidyasagar.
Their successors are still out there, killing policemen and innocent people in Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh and in their very own Andhra Pradesh. If the presence of the former Naxalites at the rally was a fact, its real import was that they now walked Calcutta’s streets, silently, against the politics of violence. A long walk indeed away from the elimination of the class enemy.
Bengalis, not a martial race by any standard, have always had a romantic view of violence. The Naxalism of the Seventies continued, in a sense, the tradition that produced terrorist violence against the British and the romantic call for “blood” by Subhas Chandra Bose. This preference for violence is one of the reasons why Mahatma Gandhi has not been idolized by Bengalis the way he has been hailed in many other states in India. Even poets, musicians and writers who endorsed political violence in their work found a ready response in Bengal. In Ghare Baire, Rabindranath Tagore asked Bengalis to give up violence, but the idea was not popular.
The rally would suggest that the relevance of Tagore’s message is becoming clear only now. In the Seventies, the alternative to the Left was ultra-Left. We all know what the consequence was. Even the former Naxalites would have to be extraordinarily gullible to nurture any such illusion. Today, the alternative seems to be a greater consolidation of the apolitical protests. The rally and the public campaign in the Rizawnur Rahman case bear this out. But, if politics has failed us, there is no solution in sight, except a vague idea of returning power to the people. But the realization that the politics of the status quo is not acceptable any more seems to be striking root in a state that has been used to giving politics and politicians a dangerously exaggerated importance.
This disenchantment with the status quo underscores the rejection of the politics of violence, be it by the CPI(M), the Congress types, including Mamata Banerjee, or by the Naxalites of yesteryear or the Maoists of today. What the Marxists did at Nandigram is now seen to be the ultimate in violence because the ruling party and the government were partners in the crime. When Sankha Ghosh and Aparna Sen refused to join the rally if Mamata Banerjee planned to take part in it, they sent out this very message in no uncertain terms. Violence, they meant, was as unacceptable from the CPI(M) as from the Trinamul or any other political group.
It would be absurd to suggest that the rally marked the beginning of the end of politics as we know it in Bengal now or that an alternative was at hand. It would be naïve to expect the CPI(M) or its opponents to change their methods dramatically overnight. But they cannot afford to ignore the writing on the wall. For Bhattacharjee, the ultimate irony is that he won the partisan battle at Nandigram with force, but had his victory rejected by not only the villagers of Nandigram but also the people of Bengal. Even the supporters of his party would privately admit that the dubious success would cost them much more politically than the failures of the past eleven months.
But then, anger at the CPI(M) and its betrayal is one thing. Building up a credible alternative that will have answers to the problems of governance and of Bengal’s economic revival, is a very different matter. The Naxalites or their many avatars in the radical Left have been Bengal’s worst problems and cannot therefore offer any solutions. The attempt to form the alternative to the CPI(M) can best be sought along apolitical lines. The political parties would be there, of course, but the agenda for them needs to be increasingly set by the apolitical conscience and action of the people. It looks like a tall order in a state — and a country — where politics has long become the last resort for people who are far worse than scoundrels.
That, at least, was the new will of the people of Bengal that the rally — and the candlelight campaigns for Rizwanur Rahman before it — expressed and celebrated.
I had confirmation of this mood and the message as I was walking back to work from the rally. Returning from it, a former Naxalite activist, who retired from his college lecturer’s job last year, struck up a conversation. He was hopeful that the rally had inspired a different kind of fight against the CPI(M). “But the only way for the fight is through the ballot, not with bullets,” he said, almost to himself.
I returned home that evening with two simple messages from the rally. One, Bengal at last perhaps wants an alternative to the CPI(M). Two, the search for it cannot end in a return to the Seventies.