Reflections in the Aftermath of Nandigram

28 01 2009

This article was published in the 5 May, 2007 edition of the Economic and Political Weekly. This was a few weeks after the killing of 14 peasants by the West Bengal Police in Nandigram. At that time I had, for various reasons – didactic, political, tactical – decided not to publish it in my name. Today, the reasons for keeping this article anonymous are not as pressing and therefore I am “soft launching” it here. The EPW original is here.

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The events in, around and related to Nandigram, which came to a head on March 14 when 14 people lost their lives, mostly in police firing, are a watershed in the history of the Left in India. Not only has it put in sharp focus the inability of the Left so far to work out a coherent political strategy to run state governments against the backdrop of neoliberal reforms being pursued in India by successive governments at the centre; it has also opened up deep fault-lines within the Left which is surely not in the interest of a strong and united Left Front (LF) in West Bengal. The CPI(M) has, understandably, come under intense criticism over this matter as it heads the LF government in West Bengal and is also the most significant left wing force in national politics. Sympathisers and friends have been confounded since it is the CPI(M) which has led the charge against prime minister Manmohan Singh and his neoliberal cabal ever since the formation of the UPA government. For political opponents of the CPI(M) and anti-communists generally, Nandigram has provided useful ammunition.

Not surprisingly, even most of the avowedly “left wing” reactions to Nandigram have also contributed to furthering the disarray within the Left and strengthening of the right wing forces. These purportedly “left wing” critics of the CPI(M) have used the violence and anarchy in Nandigram to argue that the CPI(M) is “social fascist”, criminal, right reactionary and even akin to the Narendra Modi-led Gujarat government. By levelling such outrageous and incredible accusations, these critics have only exposed their political agenda of weakening the pillar of Left politics in India.

Unfortunately, the CPI(M), while making some gestures reflecting remorse at the loss of lives at Nandigram, has not yet been able to convey any serious rethink on its part about what has obviously gone terribly wrong. Those of us
who identify with the CPI(M) – its programme, politics and revolutionary legacy – want to enter into the debate both as a self-critical exercise keeping in mind Karl Marx’s exhortation of “ruthless criticism” as well as the need to defend the communist party from liquidationist forces who, for all their Left phraseology, will finally strengthen right reaction. But before we begin this exercise in selfcriticism, it is necessary to first set the record straight with regard to the history and record of the CPI(M) and the LF government in West Bengal.

Record of Left Front Government

The CPI(M)-led LF government in West Bengal has implemented the most wideranging land reforms in all of south Asia. This land reform was carried out in the face of a hostile Indian state which used almost all the available weapons in its armoury to stall and push back the initiatives of the LF government. It was the correct understanding of Indian reality and an ability to work the fractures within the political establishment in Delhi that enabled the LF to not only carry on with its land reform agenda but also protect itself from dismissal. It had learnt the lessons of 1957 Kerala LDF experiment and the 1960s Bengal UF initiatives well.

The CPI(M) understood well that land distribution to small/middle peasants and securing tenure of the landless agricultural labourers was not possible unless these victories were protected in the long run. It realised that a countrywide revolution was not imminent, but there were real possibilities for bettering the livelihood of millions of small and middle peasants, agricultural labourers and the rural poor even if bourgeois land reforms are thoroughly implemented. But the Indian state, based as it was on a class alliance between the monopoly bourgeoisie and landed interests, was not only incapable of implementing such land reforms but would necessarily work to reverse them in order to keep its class alliance intact. Therefore, the primary justification for the need to retain control over the state  government and its police was to protect the land reforms of the UF  governments of the 1960s and pre-empt the semi-fascist terror of the Siddhartha Shankar Ray government of the early 1970s which used state power to hit hard at the communist party and its agrarian programme.

It may also be appropriate to provide some facts about land reforms in West Bengal, especially after 1977. The land reforms act was amended to provide registration to sharecroppers, made their rights inheritable and reduced the hold of the absentee landlords. The main beneficiaries of Operation Barga were marginal and small peasants and agricultural labourers, who not only received land but also saw their political position strengthened by the devolution of power to panchayats. Today, almost half the total number of beneficiaries of land reforms in the entire country belong to West Bengal. With 3.5 per cent of the country’s arable land, West Bengal accounts for over 20 per cent of the land redistributed in India as a whole. More than 2.75 million peasants and agricultural labourers have benefited from the land redistribution. While much of this was possible through the use of state power, it was crucially dependent on the political mobilisation of the rural masses and the deployment of party cadre to organise and defend the rural poor.

One other canard which has been spread about the CPI(M)-led Left Front government is that its electoral victories are derived from rigging (“scientific” or not). The last assembly elections, held exactly a year ago under the most draconian security measures, returned the Left Front with an increased majority and thus exposed this lie for what it is – a baseless accusation made by those who have failed miserably to win the people’s confidence.

At the national level, the CPI(M) has emerged as the largest Left force in India around which Left and progressive forces have increasingly coalesced. From building the political momentum which deposed the NDA government, compelling the UPA government to come out with the Common Minimum Programme (CMP) and keeping up the political pressure for implementation of this CMP and stalling anti-people, neoliberal measures, the CPI(M) has led from the front. Not only this, it has also mobilised large numbers of people all over the country on various issues of livelihood and dignity. Whether it is the UPA government, or the corporate sector or the NGOs and other left wing activists, for all of them the CPI(M) has come to represent the core of Left politics in India.

Having said this, it is also important for the CPI(M) as well as its supporters and sympathisers to introspect about the recent policies of the LF government in West Bengal. While the violence by the anti-Left opposition in West Bengal cannot and should not be condoned, the responsibility of the tragic death of poor villagers in police firing on March 14 or the murder and eviction of CPI(M) sympathisers from Nandigram in early January cannot be entirely laid upon the shoulders of the opposition. The mistakes committed in Nandigram are not restricted to the irresponsible notification issued by the Haldia Development Authority or the highhandedness displayed by the local party unit in dealing with the agitating villagers. At the root of the problem lies the my-way-or-the-highway attitude of the party leadership, both at the government as well as the state level.

Temptations of State Power

From the first time that the communist party contested elections in India, it was aware that entering the parliamentary arena would expose the cadre to the temptations of state power and provide space for emergence of bourgeois ideologies and right deviations. This was painfully evident in the manner in which class collaborationist ideas and right deviations gripped a large section of the leadership in the late 1950s and early 1960s leading to the first split in the Communist Party of India in 1964. The CPI(M) has always held that such right wing deviations, which use the necessity of pursuing social-democratic policies to posit social democratic principles, are a constant threat and will continuously, have to be checked by a combination of organisational discipline and ideological-political struggle. It is a testament to the success of this strategy that the CPI(M) was among the handful of communist parties which not only survived the global setback to socialist forces in the early 1990s but emerged stronger through it. But this right deviationist tendency, fuelled by parliamentary deviation, seems to have become stronger in the recent past. This trend has become particularly acute in West Bengal, coinciding with the attempts to break out of the industrial recession within the context of neoliberal economic policies pursued by the central governments since the early 1990s.

With the success and stabilisation of land reforms it became increasingly necessary to move towards industrialisation. Despite the highest land productivity in the country, it is not possible to absorb the entire working population in primary sector activities. Further, there is now an increasing pressure from the very classes who have benefited the most from the land reforms, to move ahead and beyond their land. In this context, there is no alternative to industrialisation. It is significant that the LF manifesto for last years elections in West Bengal stressed industrialisation and received  massive popular support. Therefore, it should be apparent that the decision to try and shift the state’s economy towards industrial sectors is not without public support. And it is also important to remember that this effort is being made in a context of the country’s economy placed firmly within the orbit of neoliberal policies. These impose significant limitations on the freedom to pursue independent pro-people economic policies and require the state government to keep within the broad limits of policies set by the central government.

The most significant aspect of this is the reduction in the ability to draw on public investments and the need to rely increasingly on the private sector to invest. Despite these limitations, it is equally important to remember that  the success of the CPI(M)-led LF government in West Bengal has precisely been based on a creative use of the opportunities present within the system to push back the given limitations and to implement policies which provide relief to the people. Operation Barga was just such a creative use of the opportunities present within the system. If there is no possibility of an alternative to the letter and spirit of the policies of the central government and the Indian state, then the purpose of the LF being in power is lost. Such an argument would also fly against the actual history of the past three decades when the LF government has been able to work out alternatives within the larger structure of the Indian state.

The present government in West Bengal, led by Buddhadeb Bhattacharya, has embarked on an industrial policy which lays stress on the private sector for building the industrialisation of the state. The CPI(M) has always been clear that it is not building socialism in West Bengal but rather using the limited powers of the state government to implement alternative policies which are possible within the present system in order to provide relief to the working people and protect them from the rapaciousness of the ruling classes.

Therefore, the CPI(M)-led LF government has to work within the capitalist framework and when it attempts industrialisation, it will necessarily be capitalist industrialisation. While there can be no serious objection to this strategy, it should also be clear that “capitalist industrialisation” is not some monolith and there are various policies and trends within it too. Neoliberalism is merely one such method of capitalist industrialisation which has become ideologically dominant in the past two decades. It is eminently possible, even under the present circumstances, to steer clear of neoliberal economic policies for industrialisation. If that were not possible then the entire politics of the Left in India, not just the CPI(M), would be put to question and one would willy nilly end up supporting the contention that “There is no alternative”.

Embracing Neoliberalism?

Nandigram is a culmination of the West Bengal CPI(M) leadership’s buying the logic of neoliberal economic policies. The symptoms have been visible for some years now. Rather than fighting against the neoliberal paradigm of attracting private investment by offering sops and reigning in the trade unions, the pronouncements made by the leaders of the LF government seems to suggest that they agree with it. The pursuit of a loosely defined goal of “development” has acquired primacy at the cost of class struggle and raising the consciousness of the people against neo-liberal policies. It has been immensely demoralising for CPI(M) members and sympathisers all over the country to see their politburo member and chief minister of West Bengal repeatedly state in newspaper and television interviews that communists have to get rid of their “dogmas” or that strikes and demonstrations by workers are disruptive.

Against the backdrop of such an ideological climate, is it surprising that the acquisition of agricultural land from peasants and handing it over to the Tatas for a motor car plant at concessional rates has met with opposition? The only solution to the problems faced by the peasantry in West Bengal cannot lie in handing over their land for private industries, especially when their employment is not guaranteed in those industries. There has to be a coherent agrarian strategy to consolidate the successes in agriculture and move ahead. So far the LF government has failed to come up with one. While the LF government aspires to transform West Bengal into a leading industrial state, it is not clear why similar aspirations are not articulated in terms of having the best primary education or basic healthcare system in the country. Nor has there been any significant effort so far for the uplift of socio-economically backward communities like the Muslims. Rather than applying its mind creatively in order to devise a plausible alternative trajectory of development in West Bengal, which can inspire the Left movement elsewhere in the country, the CPI(M) leadership seems to have gone into a defeatist mode by giving up its attempts to build up any alternative whatsoever.

The worst example of this is the decision of the LF government to join the special economic zone (SEZ) bandwagon. SEZs have come to symbolise the most obnoxious face of neoliberal economic development in India. Through its liberal tax holidays and restriction of democratic rights, the SEZs are meant to be enclaves for the corporates where the writ of Indian laws won’t run. Given the generous concessions that SEZs have to offer, domestic and foreign corporates have been gripped by an SEZ fever with hundreds of such zones coming up in different parts of the country leading to acquisition of fertile agricultural land causing displacement of the peasantry. While it would be factually incorrect to suggest that the government of West Bengal has been the most aggresive in terms of pursuing the SEZ policy compared to Maharashtra, Haryana or Gujarat, the fact is that the LF has been hopelessly wrongfooted on the SEZ issue, due to Nandigram. This has undermined the credibility of the Left’s critique of SEZs across the country. The point is not whether the Haldia Development Authority had the right to issue the notification for the proposed Chemical SEZ at Nandigram. The real question is why the LF government failed to see the real problems with SEZs and why the Left did not oppose the SEZ Act when it was passed in Parliament, rather than go ahead with the implementation of the same?

Quest for Alternative

Why cannot the CPI(M) leadership in West Bengal government show an alternative path towards industrialisation for the rest of the country different from the neoliberal model, even within the capitalist framework? Why cannot the LF government come out with an agrarian strategy to ensure all-round development of the peasantry along with its efforts towards industrialisation? In the present context, such an alternative policy direction by the LF government would provide tremendous scope for the people’s movements to advance. In that sense the aftermath of Nandigram also provides an opportunity for course correction. Rather than being overwhelmed by the accolades of the big business lobbies, the LF government and the CPI(M) should concentrate on the welfare of the basic classes. Failure to devise an alternative would cause erosion in the mass base as well as the credibility of the CPI(M) and the Left Front government in West Bengal.

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5 responses

28 01 2009
Prashanth Perumal

Aniket, violation of farmers’ property rights is against the basic principles of neo-liberalism. The property rights of ANYONE should be respected, whether he is a poor peasant or a ultra-rich corporate doesn’t matter even a bit.

8 02 2009

What about a follow-up on the light of the incidents which followed? And can you suggest any concrete alternate economic policies which will work out in the real world?
I always wondered why West Bengal performs so badly when it comes to human development indicators, despite a Leftist government in place for thirty years. Has the Left in Bengal totally forgotten the importance of educating the people?

Wondering if it was a firm belief in neo-liberalism which forced the Communist rulers in West Bengal to give property rights to millions of poor farmers and share-croppers. What would you say about the feudal property rights which existed in pre 1947 India? Should they also have been considered inviolable?

9 02 2009
Prashanth Perumal


that’s a good question. First of all what the West Bengal govt. did in Nandigram was a gross violation of property rights which has no warrant from the neo-liberal perspective. Second, any property right in a free market society would be decided based on the homestead principle:

With respect to property rights and British colonialism, those feudal rights should be revoked! The land reforms was a milestone achievement which neo-liberals support.

10 02 2009

Thanks for the link. I’ll read up more on neo-liberalism.
BTW, I’d like to see your take on what’s happening in Bolivia now, which is a situation similar to post-colonial India. Will neo-liberals support and most importantly fight for land reforms there?

13 02 2009
Prashanth Perumal

vkn, yes privatization of resources always has the support of neo-liberals. But we only hope the same government doesn’t, in the future, breach those same property rights.

If you are interested in learning about the free-market (today’s US is not a free market–the present crisis isn’t a result of free market as the media portrays it) don’t miss reading “Capitalism” by George Reisman:

Let me warn you, it’s simply a VERY HUGE book. But it’s definitely worth it, because I’m sure it would help you bust all mainstream nonsense. The book covers almost everything right from economics to philosophy of the free market, so you don’t have to read any other book after you finish this one (that is incase you want a one-stop knowledge center).

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