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ISR Issue 57, January–February 2008


Repression in West Bengal

The Left-led government tries to expel peasants


SPEAKING ON the occasion of the fifteenth anniversary of the demolition of the Babri Masjid mosque by far-right Hindu gangs, Prakash Karat, general secretary of the Communist Party of India [Marxist, CPI(M)], reminded his listeners that only the official Left has consistently opposed communalism in India. It is that legacy of opposition to attacks on India’s Muslim minorities by far-right outfits that have earned the CPI(M) its reputation among the Indian and international Left as a force for progressive change.

But Karat’s sense of the unsullied reputation of the CPI(M) stands in direct contrast to recent events that have taken place in Bengal. Just a few days before he spoke, the Left Front government in West Bengal [led by the CPI(M)] exiled Taslima Nasreen, a controversial Bengali Muslim woman whose novels and their frank discussions of sexuality and corruption in Bangladesh have embarrassed the Muslim elite of that country. Rather than stand up for artistic freedom and defend Nasreen’s right to remain in the state, the CPI(M) caved into pressure from conservative Muslim organizations in West Bengal.

Late last year, the Left Front government manhandled the peasants of Singur, a fertile agricultural village in Hooghly District in West Bengal, in pursuit of its industrialization policy. Land was forcibly taken from the peasant population in order to set up a 1,000-acre campus for Tata Motors, India’s largest auto manufacturer. When peasants resisted the enclosures on their land, CPI(M) cadres and police attacked the village ruthlessly.

Even more damning has been the CPI(M)’s handling of the events in Nandigram, a village in East Midnapur District in West Bengal, where peasants and civil society organizations fought off the state’s attempts to take their land for more than eleven months. In 2005, India passed a law legalizing the formation of Special Economic Zones (SEZs), which allow foreign industries access to land cheaply and allow them to produce free of taxes and duties that would otherwise apply. Several states in India have pursued multinational corporations, making land available for such companies as Nokia, Motorola, and Dell. 

The CPI(M) had decided to turn over 25,000 acres to Indonesian Salem Group, a front for the family of General Suharto, who came to power by massacring Indonesian communists. When the local party failed to give any concrete information about how peasants would be affected by the deal, villagers—all of them CPI(M) supporters—fortified Block 1 of Nandigram by building barricades, destroying bridges, and digging up roads to keep the police and the CPI(M)’s local party members out, to preserve their land and their lives. After villagers resisted the forcible seizure of their land under a nineteenth century law enacted under British colonial rule, the CPI(M) sent in its cadres, the state police, and other thugs to regain control over the land. The opposition was led by villagers and the Committee Opposed to Land Seizures (the Bhumi Uchhed Pratirodh Committee), the Socialist Unity Center of India, and members of the Trinamool Congress.

This attempt to seize control of the land failed in March 2007, despite the use of force, arson, looting, and rape by the CPI(M)’s thugs and police, though fourteen were killed and hundreds wounded. In its aftermath, local pressure grew to call in the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) and perform a serious inquiry into the events of Nandigram. However, no CPI(M) officials visited Nandigram or organized relief for the victims of state-led violence, and no judicial inquiry, was in the end, conducted. As a result, villagers and local activists who had been allied with or members of the CPI(M) turned against the party.

In advance of the CRPF, the CPI(M) decided to wage a campaign to forcefully retake the village in early November. The party had already waged a low-scale civil war against the villagers between March and November, in which they surrounded the village, set up loudspeakers to threaten residents, and lobbed bombs into the village. They set up a base of operations in a nearby village, and then armed gangs led by the CPI(M) attacked and captured 600 villagers by November 8, and used them as human shields to “liberate” the village by November 10. 

Since the “recapture” of the village, local CPI(M) party workers have conducted a vicious campaign of vengeance on the villagers. The re-establishment of order has been characterized by torture, killing, and rape by the party and the local police. Villagers have been forced to sign affidavits pledging allegiance to the CPI(M)’s orders and to march in CPI(M) rallies.

As a consequence of its actions in the last year, the reputation of the CPI(M) among intellectuals, activists, and students has declined enormously. On November 14, 100,000 people marched in Kolkata in a silent protest to condemn the massacre in Nandigram, perhaps the first non-staged, non-party-led protest in years in West Bengal.

The events at Nandigram have also given lie to the Left Front’s claim that it is the last bastion of defense against far-right Hindutva politics and Indian imperialism, claims it repeats ad nauseam to discipline its left critics. These claims were repeated (and then later recanted) by several American and international leftists, including Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn, and Tariq Ali in a letter that they circulated urging people not to criticize the CPI(M): “The balance of forces in the world is such that it would be impetuous to split the Left. We are faced with a world power that has demolished one state (Iraq) and is now threatening another (Iran). This is not the time for division when the basis of division no longer appears to exist.” Professor Vijay Prashad, the letter’s likely initiator and a long-time apologist for the official Left in India, continues to defend the policies and practices of the CPI(M) in Nandigram.

A number of Indian leftists, including Sumit Sarkar and Arundhati Roy, responded to Chomsky, et al, by reminding them of the only workable strategy for anti-imperialist politics in India and beyond: “History has shown us that internal dissent is invariably silenced by dominant forces claiming that a bigger enemy is at the gate. Iraq and Iran are not the only targets of that bigger enemy. The struggle against SEZ’s and corporate globalization is an intrinsic part of the struggle against U.S. imperialism.”

The fact is that the official Communist Parties in India have long since abandoned the fight for radical social change and an opposition to imperialism (save rhetorical posturing). The real basis for anti-imperialist politics in South Asia will come from the collective struggles of peasants, workers, and students, like the ones defending Nandigram from the policies of neoliberalism as they are now being pursued with communist cover.

Snehal Shingavi is a graduate student instructor at the University of California, Berkeley and is active in the International Socialist Organization. He can be reached at [email protected]
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