Wednesday, May 9


A friend sent in comments by Vir Sanghvi (first appeared in The Hindustan Times) on Nandigram. Excerpts:

It is now over a decade since I moved out of Calcutta. But watching the news last week, I felt I was back. As I saw those terrible shots of policemen beating up women in Nandigram, as I read about the massacre of innocent villagers, and as I noted the cold, commissar-like response of Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee to the killings, I remembered what it was like to live in West Bengal.


Like the rest of us, the people of West Bengal get the politicians they deserve. They get the thugs and murderers of the CPM and they get the hysterical, self-destructive opposition of Mamata Banerjee. Small wonder then that while Bengalis prosper all over the world (and in the rest of India), Bengal remains a backwater, always at least a decade behind the rest of the country.

When I first moved to Calcutta in 1986, Jyoti Basu was already India’s longest-serving chief minister and the subject of universal admiration among the middle class — outside of Calcutta. Within the state capital itself, many educated people took an entirely different view.

It wasn’t that they did not admire Basu’s stature — it was the rest of him that they disapproved of. The general view then was that while he was a well-educated bhadralok (unlike the north Indian politicians whom Bengalis love to despise), his reputation outside the state was based on hot air. His credentials as a man of the people were dented by his love of the good life, by the annual trip to London in the summer (always on some pretext; it was never described as a holiday), by his son’s dodgy reputation and by his complete intolerance of dissent.

A couple of years before I moved to Calcutta, Ananda Bazar Patrika, where I worked, had suffered a violent and disastrous strike. The violence had emanated not so much from disgruntled employees as from professional activists affiliated to the CPM. In those days, the group’s Bengali daily was anti-communist and the party had decided that ABP had to be punished. ABP employees were beaten up outside the office and the police determinedly looked the other way — they had orders from the government not to intervene.

But even Jyoti Basu was considered a pro-free speech liberal compared to Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, the classic humour-less, dour communist. When City of Joy was shot in Calcutta during my time there, Jyoti Basu was broadly supportive of the filming. It was Buddhadeb who opposed the decision. His view was not motivated by any sense of literary high-mindedness (I thought, at first, that he might have disapproved of the idiotically sentimental Dominique Lapierre book on which the film was based) but out of a conviction that evil Westerners had arrived to denigrate his city.

It is traditional now to regard the CPM as being the most honest party in India and, given the financial integrity of the current leadership, this is probably accurate. But when I lived in Calcutta, we joked that the M in CPI(M) stood for ‘Marwari’ because so many of the party’s leading lights were clearly in the pay of the city’s dominant business community.

But the corruption worried us less than the violent streak at the centre of the CPM. Like most successful communist parties, the CPM is cadre-based. And like communists everywhere, its cadres cling to the totalitarian view that individuals are less important than The Cause.

Anybody with some experience of rural West Bengal will tell you that the CPM has done an outstanding job in land reform since it came to power in 1977. But they will also admit that the price Bengal has paid for this is to allow the cadres to take over the villages.

In many rural areas, communist cadres dominate everyday life with the same ruthless efficiency demonstrated by the LTTE in northern Sri Lanka. More than the police or the local administration, it is the cadres who wield the real power. They routinely rig elections (though I reckon the CPM would win anyway though perhaps with smaller margins) and impose a reign of terror on the villagers, murdering anyone who dares defy their authority.

In Calcutta we saw the cadres in action when the party required a show of strength. On election day, they would prevent people who were likely to vote for the Opposition from reaching the polling booths. When bandhs were declared, they would ensure that Calcutta shut down.

It was generally accepted that the police would never intervene if CPM cadres were involved. And sometimes the cops would actually lend a hand. It was in the early 1990s (I think) that Mamata Banerjee learnt this the hard way. During a Calcutta bandh, she was publicly assaulted and so comprehensively thrashed by a police party that she had to spend months in hospital recovering. As journalists and editorialists, we were outraged. But the CPM didn’t give a damn to what the papers said.

Oddly enough, the rest of India — or, at least, educated urban India — never saw the CPM as a party based on violent, totalitarian cadres with a Stalinist intolerance of dissent and opposition. Nobody commented on the corruption. Or on the intrigues that ensured that control of the party remained in the hands of a small band of apparatchiks.

When these commissars — most of whom rarely stood for election — held forth on democracy and the will of the people, they were listened to with a baffling respect. When they complained about the fascist core at the heart of the Sangh Parivar, nobody pointed out that all totalitarian parties — including their own — had such a core. When they spoke about free speech, few people pointed to the CPM’s own mixed record in this regard.

When they treated the machinations and intrigues of Indian politics with lofty disdain, most of us failed to point out that their own party was as full of manipulation and petty feuds. And when they lectured us about the evils of capitalism, we rarely reminded them that Jyoti Basu had repackaged himself as the businessman’s best pal while sipping Scotch with the city’s richer Marwaris.

I thought back to my years in Calcutta when I saw the TV footage of the Nandigram massacre. Anybody who has lived in Calcutta will understand at once what happened. The CPM had tolerated the defiance of the villagers for long enough. If they were unwilling to give up their land for the greater good then they had to be punished. And so, in the finest traditions of global communism, the cadres were despatched on a mission that would have done Joseph Stalin or Mao Tse-Tung proud. They beat up the villagers, murdered a few people and terrorised the area. The tame police force followed and shot the few innocents who continued to protest.

Was Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee responsible? I doubt it. My guess is that the cadres listen to the apparatchiks and not to the chief minister. It is no secret that large chunks of the Politburo would like to see Bhattacharjee go. And so, they don’t really care how much the massacre embarrasses him or whether his position has now become untenable. Elected politicians will come and go. But the grim-faced men who run the cadres will go on forever.


What is it about Bengal, I wonder, that ensures that not only does the CPM get away with murder but that all of the Opposition, from Mamata Banerjee to the pathetically inept Congress, always destroys itself?

Nobody I spoke to in all my years in Calcutta had an answer. Or was able to explain why the state voluntarily opted for a one-party system run by a totalitarian cadre.

I call it the Bengal paradox. And until we learn why Bengalis, who shine wherever they go, are so different when they are at home, we will never understand the hold an obsolete 19th-century totalitarian ideology has on a state full of some of India’s most talented and intelligent people.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I would like to draw your attention to the perils of the hapless villagers who go to sleep with the sound of bombs and firing of bullets and wake up-i.e. if they are able to sleep at all-with the smell of gun powder,the flowing of blood, procession of dead bodies and the spine-chilling wails of unfortunate people. I am a Calcuttan who is living in Haldia in East Midnapore-the district in which the by-now infamous Nandigram is in-for quite sometime now due to my profession. Thus due to geographical proximity to the troubled spot I get the opportunity to meet a lot of people who hail from that cursed land called Nandigram.
Seeing various reports on the television,newspapers and most importantly getting to hear from the horse’s mouth I believe I’ve become quite abreast of the situation and have been able to decipher where the root of the trouble lies.
Nandigram, as we all know has a long history of protesting against injustice and not giving in to coercion. It may be recalled that the place wher Nandigram is today had resisted the British empire and had set up their own free state-Tamralipta with its own national flag-even when the whole of India was chained by the British rule. One of India’s biggest women freedom fighters, Matangini Hazra-whose large statue can be found in the heart of Calcutta, hails from this place. So, it was nothing new when Haldia CPM MP Lakshman Seth issued a notice under the instructions of Mr.Buddhadeb Bhattacharya, that land in Nandigram will be acquired for setting up a comprehensive ‘Chemical Hub’ over 25,000 acres of land. The villagers were quite naturally perplexed, because most of the people living here were half or uneducated paesants who had no other means of livelihood except for tilling of land which they have been doing for generations….They started protesting the takeover of their farmland and houses(how can houses be left out as they come in the same area) by bringing out processions and guarding their lands in shifts saying they will protect their land till the last drop of blood. On the 6th of January, Benoy Konar, who ironically is the CPM’s farmer wing’s leader roared:” If they(Nandigram people) don’t allow us to make industry there, we’ll make their life HELL”. That he did when on the very next day, firings started from the other side of Tekhali bridge which left 7 people dead, a majority of whom were minority Muslims.A lot of water flowed down the Haldi river,which flows by Nandigram and the farmers became more firm in their resolve not to give away their livelihood and then, came the red letter day March 14, which has become the most infamous day after April 19(the day in which General Dyre opened fire on innocent protesters in Jallianwala Bagh).
On March 14, the police marched in with CPM armed men in tow and opened fire on innocent villagers killing atleast 30 innocent villagers(although the official figure shows a mere 14). Let me tell you even small children were torn apart by policemen and thrown into the tretches dug up by farmland acquisition protesters and after putting sand sacks on them, police drove their Mahindra jeeps over them.
And from then on Buddha has been forced to withdraw his plan of a ‘Chemical hub’(whose name we had never heard till last year) from Nandigram due to national and international pressure.But knowing the egoist he is, he did not take it down well having to eat crow. He thereafter turned a blind eye and withdrew all his police force from that area,when his party men started to take revenge of their CM’s humiliation. A few months went peacefully and people felt everything was gradually coming to normal. But only a few sinister men at Alimuddin street and some of their comrades in Khejuri knew that it was just the lull before the “HELL”storm. It was the time taken by the CPM to accumulate in Khejuri(opposite Nandigram) armed criminals from all across the state and also from neighbouring Bihar and Jharkhand to teach these unarmed, helpless, poor villagers the lesson of their lives. This has started for the 4-5 months and they would be killing 2-3 sometimes 4-5 villagers everyday by firing from long range rifles and even machine guns and burning their homes in the middle of the night, not to mention the not so ocassional pelting of bombs.This has been continuing and has increased rather then decreased. Public speeches by leaders like Brinda Karat asking to give the villagers Dumdum Dawai(the thrashing of their lives) have not helped the cause.
Whatever I have written is just the tip of the iceberg. You should come to Nandigram and see to believe the plight and misery they are in, how thousands of villagers have been rendered homeless and how thousands of women and children heve been rendered shelterless and are living without food. Just spare a moment for them.
Before ending, I would urge the central or state govt. just for humanity’s sake please do something for these people urgently. I know if the state govt would have honestly wanted this violence to have stopped, they could have done it in a day, but I still believe better sense would prevail on those that matter.
O yes, and before ending I must also add that I am no Trinamul or Congress worker or supporter- as anybody raising a voice against the govt is deemed here by the CPM-but an engineer working in a reputed organization.

11:47 AM  

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