New coat: Replacing old communist slogans with Trinamool graffiti
Photos: Abhay Mohan Jha
It is early June, and I find Kolkata awash with the joyous green of Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress. On the way from the railway station, the red graffiti and flags, a feature of decades, have vanished. The last time that West Bengal’s hue changed was in 1977, when the communist crimson replaced the Congress tricolour. But on Friday, 13 May, when Bengal showed the door to the reds, the sari Mamata donned had an emerald border in triumph, and the abeer (coloured powder) that hung in the air was victoriously green. Jubilant supporters released white pigeons powdered with party colours into the sky, the fluttering wings presenting a tricoloured rainbow above, invoking the Trinamool flag. Underneath victory cries resounded: Herey chhe, herey chhe! The Left Front has lost!
In the small town of Shantiniketan, a little over 200 kilometres north of the hubbub in Kolkata, scholar Paul Mukerji, the son of an expat Kolkata doctor and a British nurse, wore a green kurta on Mamata’s V-Day. ‘Students smeared my face with green powder,’ he tells me later. Across the swathe of the state, the scene is a vivid cinema-scope panorama: romantic and poignant, filled with memories of past violence but now hung on hope – a multi-layered saga of the divided colours of West Bengal.
Bengal’s story is not a sharp black and white like the jerseys of Mohammadan Sporting Club, one of Kolkata’s top three football clubs. Amidst the tale’s many hues are closed or ailing jute mills in the capital’s suburbs, the angst that is still found around Tata’s Nano factory site in Singur, the Special Economic Zone (SEZ)-fuelled fury in Nandigram. The situation is rather more similar to the jerseys of the East Bengal Club, red and gold: the former being the state’s omnipresent political hue for 34 long years, the latter reflecting agrarian wealth.
Even as I soak in the many colours of a Bengal with Mamata Banerjee at the helm, the fresh coat of deep red that Writers’ Building, the state secretariat, has received tells the underlying tale of this state: a narrative of violence that has defined West Bengal’s politics. Blood-red has indeed been the signature shade of Bengal, whose political cupboard contains many skeletons. The story of the removal of the long-ruling Left Front – the umbrella grouping spearheaded by the Communist Party of India (Marxist) – from the corridors of power is a moving tale of a state’s small fires coalescing into a conflagration that engulfed the world’s longest-ruling democratically elected communist government.
This is the stirring story of revolutionary land reforms and the romance of revolution turning into a soap opera of betrayal, of the erection of an extra-constitutional empire laced with corruption and brute force that ultimately consumed the ‘people’s government’ of Comrade Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee. Kolkata has grown beyond being the city of joy – like the rest of West Bengal, it is now as much a city of aspirations. The boy from Behala, the prince of Kolkata, today a television quizmaster, Sourav Ganguly sells dreams from street hoardings, looking passersby in the eye and asking, Ke haubey kotipati? Who will become a millionaire? This sums up Young Bengal’s aspirations: The dream to do well, to be rich and to live in peace. This is clearly also the story of a state itching under what was perceived as the yoke of Left Front rule, as the people increasingly dreamt of upward mobility. Bengal’s political journey has had a lot to do with playing and winning, with the proletariat no longer prepared to be the loser.
From the mills
Driving along the Hooghly River in Howrah, I come across a string of closed jute mills and crumbling warehouses. Apartment complexes have come up on several former factory sites; speculators have made a killing in real estate. But where are the displaced workers? I hear later that many became collection agents of the CPI (M), while the majority entered the informal economy as hawkers, often still forced to survive by paying extortion money to these goons. Crossing the Hooghly, I head towards Baranagar, looking for the jute mill where Jyoti Basu cut his teeth in trade unionism during the 1950s, his place later taken by former MP Mohammad Amin, a migrant from Bihar who began as a loom worker in the same mill. Basu too was an immigrant, from East Bengal. The demography explains the leadership roots of both Basu and Amin – workers from East Bengal found it easier to identify with Basu, while Amin gained the trust of the Bihari migrants.
The Baranagar jute mill still chugs to life intermittently, with Trinamool flags fluttering across labour ghettos in the area. Amin’s name evokes anger. ‘He started as one of us, but once he became minister he sold out to the mill owners,’ seethes Madan Paswan, a migrant worker from rural Patna. ‘Earnings fell with the introduction of differential wages. The new system brought in a class of contractors and sub-contractors – mostly CPI (M) strongmen, all stooges of the management.’ Adds another migrant labourer, Kaushal Lal, ‘We get paid less than what they show in the books.’
Anwar Ali, whose father came here as a loom worker from Benares, has grown up to become a contractor himself. ‘I get jute bags stitched,’ he says. But he laments that workers are no longer attracted to the jute mills. ‘The first-generation workers migrated for seasonal employment, stayed in rooms – several crammed into each one – saved and went home, and came back again,’ Ali says. ‘Then, some began to settle here, and workers’ settlements grew.’ Ali makes an expansive gesture towards the working-class lodges dotting the area.
What about voting? ‘We had no choice in the matter,’ Ramesh Das, another worker, says ruefully. ‘They would shoo us away from the voting booths, saying, “Go, relax, your vote has been taken care of.”’ During the recent elections, Das says the Election Commission introduced a radical departure by driving away the ‘muscle’ that used to guard the voting booths. Before the conversation can become too negative about the communists, though, Ali chips in with a quick nod to the Left Front leadership, ‘They introduced eight-hour work shifts,’ he says. ‘Factories in Mumbai and Delhi still work 12-hour shifts.’
It was in factory encampments like Baranagar that the seeds of violence were sown and then nurtured. Soon after the formation of the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist), the so-called Naxalites, on May Day 1969, they began to unleash a reign of terror that came to permanently alter Bengali life. The Congress government took to counter-insurgency measures under which, in places such as Baranagar, the ruling-party cadres carried out mass killings. Brutality begot brutality.
However the fight was not only between the Congress and the Naxalites; once the Naxalites were weakened, the longer-running battle was between the Congress and the CPI (M). Trying to comprehend this war, I am drawn to a newspaper headline that states that the new Mamata government is going to re-open the 41-year-old Sainbari massacre case in Burdwan, the district capital 100 km northwest of Kolkata. The case involved the 1970 murder of three people – two brothers and a private tutor, the brothers being Congress activists – allegedly masterminded by CPI (M) leaders Nirupam Sen and Benoy Konar. The case was withdrawn when the Left Front assumed power in 1977. ‘A killing like this should never have happened in India – the victims deserve justice,’ the state’s new law minister, Malay Ghatak, tells me, adding that a case had already been registered against 67 individuals, including Sen and Konar.
Intruding on the re-opened wound of the family in Burdwan, I find Swarnlata Josh, her husband Amal Kanta and son Amrit seated by a row of photographs of her three slain brothers, as well as one of Swarnlata’s mother, Mrignayana (see pic). She tells of the horror of having her house being suddenly attacked by several men, on the day of infant Amrit’s naming ceremony. The baby, thrown into the sacred fire, was saved only because he was still wet from a recent bath and because a pitcher of gangajal fell on him. After killing two of her brothers, Malay and Pranab, Swarnlata says the killers laced the rice that Mrignayana had cooked for the family with the blood of her slain sons, and forced it down her throat. ‘Two years later, they also killed Naba Kumar, the eldest of my brothers,’ she continues. Swarnlata says she hopes that Mamata will now be able to deliver the justice that prime ministers Indira Gandhi and Manmohan Singh have previously promised.
The episode underscores the politics of violence that had already taken hold of West Bengal by the early 1970s. A buried inquiry report by former Calcutta High Court Judge Tarapada Mukherjee reiterates this point: ‘Malay and Pranab appear to have played an important part in the game of power politics, in the battle of ascendancy between the two parties and the CPI-M naturally bore a grudge against them.’
The violent three-way war of attrition between the CPI (M), Congress and Naxalites drew youths to each of these three sides. It was into this milieu that a young undergraduate studying history in Calcutta’s Jogamaya Devi College, born in an ordinary family in Birbhum, was drawn to the Congress student wing, the Chhatra Parishad. Sucked into politics by the idealism of youth, the young lady has now succeeded in cocking a snook at both the upper-class bhadralok snobbery and the violence that she endured during her formative years – to become the Left Front’s primary nemesis. That student, of course, is Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee.
The post-Emergency elections toppled the Congress both in New Delhi and West Bengal in 1977. In West Bengal, it was the CPI (M) that came to power, with the Congress government having done the job of destroying the Naxalites in Kolkata and the countryside. But thereafter the left’s script took the perverted twist of a systematic subversion of institutions. The mandate gave them power, but the communists now sought to gain absolute power. ‘The lal salaam became the password for employment in government,’ recalls economist Anup K Sinha, who teaches at the Indian Institute of Management in Calcutta. ‘Education took the worst hit: from Presidency College to the primary schools in the hinterland, merit was sacrificed at the altar of party loyalty. The best and brightest students fled the state in despair.’
The story of an all-pervasive Red Raj unfolded in multiple forms, and this was evident even now everywhere I travelled in West Bengal. The state’s citizenry, especially those on the periphery, in the villages and urban slums, became a puppet for the Left Front: from marital or inheritance disputes to conflicts over land, the citizenry lived as per the government’s diktat. From the guest list to an anna-prasan (feeding ceremony) to the funereal feast for a family elder, the local CPI (M) leadership decided it all, from who would cook to the menu and the provision suppliers. For anyone who dared to resist, the communists had their own militia, the Harmads, armed squads who took their name from the Spanish Armada. The Harmads were unemployed young mercenaries recruited for as low as INR 100 a day, along with food and arms. Thus, power gained by the ballot was made absolute by the gun. The Naxalites, meanwhile, were little different, also relying on violence.
Society as a whole suffered, but perhaps nowhere more than in the state’s educational institutes. Even as academics and civil-society members lament the destruction of Presidency College, I am drawn to a small news story stating that a score of Chinese students are enrolled to learn English at St Xavier’s College, which is holding tests in mainland China for more admissions this summer. The irony is striking: in a state that had a clear head-start in the making of modern India through its mastery of the English language, the abolition of English-language teaching by a government led by Jyoti Basu, himself a British-educated barrister, has left Bengal’s intelligentsia and civil society neglected in their armchairs.
I once again seek perspective from Anup K Sinha at the IIM. ‘By the end of the 1980s, the left had a strong potential to carry Bengal to the next level of transformation, but they did not know what had to be done,’ he says. ‘They had become very myopic with their absolute control of the land and its citizenry. Meanwhile history was taking a different turn around the world – the Soviet Union broke up, China took to reforms following Mao’s death and even allowed investment of American capital. But the CPM was caught in a bind by the shackles of its own ideology: they thought they could not retreat from their anti-Tata-Birla-capital stand.’
The events in Ayodhya in December 1992 gave the Left Front a political programme – secularism. The state government’s secular stance helped the CPI (M) to maintain the status-quo, as it won the loyalty of the state’s huge Muslim population (accounting for 27 percent of the population). In so doing, however, it ignored West Bengal’s primary issues of health, education and infrastructure. ‘Caught in a Catch-22 situation regarding whether to align with the Congress or the BJP, the left committed a historical blunder in 1996, when Jyoti Basu declined the prime minister’s chair,’ Sinha continues. ‘They could still, without bothering about the breakdown of global communism, have focused on health and education. Instead, [during the early 1980s] they took the retrograde step of abolishing English from the primary-school curriculum.’ With sentiments like these, it is perhaps unsurprising that nearly everyone I come across seems relieved at the fall of the Left Front. ‘They meddled a lot,’ says Sam Maiti, a plant-seller in Sealdah. ‘We were at their mercy.’
I suddenly find myself at the mercy of Kolkata’s social graces and snobbery, two things that coexisted during the three decades of communist rule. Invited by S N M Abdi, a senior journalist, to the famed Calcutta Club one afternoon, I realise that my Adidas sneakers will not allow me into the hallowed precincts of the ‘brown sahib’ preserve. An hour later, sipping Darjeeling tea in the colonial shades of the Club’s veranda, overlooking lawns with a first bloom of zinnias, my thoughts wander from my hurried purchase of a pair of black leather shoes to my visit, just a day earlier, to another club where I had been forced to take my footwear off altogether.
The New Ujjwal Sangha, in Singur’s Gopalnagar hamlet, is a single room with a small verandah. The locals tell me this is where, in May 2006, the agitation began against the forcible acquisition of land by the government for the Tata’s factory for the Nano midget car. In West Bengal, almost every village has a one-room hall like this one, where residents can gather to play a game of carom or watch football on community television sets. ‘The communists never missed an opportunity to strengthen their grip over society,’ a newspaper editor tells me, preferring not to be named. ‘Clubs such as these make for easy entry into citizens’ private lives, and left leaders were quick to gain control of these clubs through patronage.’
‘In their criminal pursuit to control all levers of society, the CPI (M) degenerated into a party of control-freaks,’ says Abdi, back at the Calcutta Club. ‘If two men wooed the same woman, the local party office decided who would be the lucky suitor.’ The effects were devastating for the institutions of state. ‘They failed to reform the police; instead they introduced unionism in the police force and a culture of loyalty – “babudom”,’ Abdi continues. ‘Officers from the provincial police and bureaucracy owing allegiance to the left became even more important than members of the IAS or IPS hierarchy. Many bright civil servants took to the safety of central postings.’
Such strong words match the rising heat of the afternoon sun on the verandah. I take Abdi’s leave and walk to the car in the humid sun, taking my shoes off back in the hotel room. My feet finally airing themselves in the comfort of my chappals, I realise that it is these ‘bathroom slippers’, as the Calcutta Club hoi polloi would derisively call them, that now stomp the corridors of Writers’ Building. One Kolkata newspaper has already published a front-page photo of the new chief minister’s feet and chappals. These slippers are now politically chic, but it is unlikely she can make them socially fashionable as well.
The drive to Singur is breathtaking. I roll down the car windows as we hit the Kona expressway, National Highway 6, and take in the cool morning breeze as coconut palms, bamboo groves and banana plantations whiz past. Punctuating the green landscape at increasing intervals are new factories and warehouses from Santragachi to Dankuni – Coke, SAIL and IFB-Volga just a few of the names that fly by. It is hard not to feel that this highway is on an irreversible course, on its way to becoming an industrial corridor outside Kolkata, with or without the Tatas in Singur.
I am suddenly stopped short by what seems almost a replica of Germany’s Brandenburg Gate. Past this entrance, vast acres are lying fallow, part of which are filled with rows of newly built apartment blocks. I get out to snoop around the settlements, which are unoccupied. The gateway presents a boldly etched name: Kolkata West International City. I look harder. It seems less of a township, more of a cemetery. I turn and get close to the gate, trying to take some photographs, when suddenly guards move towards me menacingly.
‘Do people live here?’ I ask.
‘Yes’, one guard mumbles and shoots back, ‘why are you taking snapshots?’
‘Can I take a look inside? I am looking for an apartment to buy,’ I try to win him over.
‘Go to Kolkata, the office is there,’ he dismisses me.
I carry on to Singur, but learn later that Kolkata West International City was the first foreign direct investment (FDI) in West Bengal’s real-estate market. It is a joint venture between industrialist Prasoon Mukherjee’s Universal Success Enterprises, and Unitech and two Indonesian firms, the Salim and Ciputra Groups. I also learn that duped investors in the Kolkata West project are on dharna outside Mukherjee’s Chowringhee office. Abhay Upadhaya, leading the dharna of 200 people, is unsurprised by my experience. ‘You are lucky to have escaped without assault!’ he says. ‘How could you show your camera? Forget the media – even we as investors and supposed residents cannot take pictures of our dream homes. The whole thing has turned into a nightmare.’ I learn that most investors, even after paying in full, remain unable to move in due to lack of infrastructure – unfinished roads, no shops. ‘We are paying a maintenance fee of 1.76 rupees per square foot!’ Upadhaya fumes. Clearly both those who lost their land and those who invested in these housing projects are aggrieved at this instance of left misrule.
If nearly 400 acres of farmland was acquired for the Kolkata West International City, Buddhadeb’s most ambitious project – the Rajarhat New Town, billed to be home to 1.5 million people – consumed nearly 4000 hectares. The acquisitions here were forcible, and the compensation issue still burns in the minds of locals. For the more than 1000 residents who moved into their new homes – built by the West Bengal Housing Infrastructure Development Corporation Ltd (HIDCO), a profit-making arm of the state government – many have already fled, due to lack of facilities and shoddy workmanship. Rajarhat New Town was once touted as the best residential address in India.
The Buddhadeb government was able to steamroll such large-scale land acquisitions because there was no effective opposition. Mamata, for instance, was yet to acquire the political maturity to take up the issue of land acquisitions for real-estate speculation, while the affected communities were mostly resigned to their fate. In retrospect, the Left Front government’s actions appear to have had similar ramifications for two very different groups of people: those who could not resist eviction from their farms and those who paid through their nose for a home have both been alienated by the communists’ botched real-estate forays.
On the road to Singur, I pass explosions of bright bougainvilleas. Spotting the walled expanse of the Tata’s aborted Nano factory site on the left, I pull up near the gate and take out my camera. Guards peer out, but this time say nothing. Ratan Tata has already done the talking: taking out a public advertisement supporting the Left Front, and portraying Mamata as the villain of Singur. Here, however, I find the exact opposite sentiment: Didi, as Bengal refers to Mamata, is seen as the heroine of Singur. The fragmented, suppressed public voice, which had allowed the communists to bulldoze public opinion and seize land, turned into a symphony of anger that found a leader in Mamata. As Himal goes to press, Mamata’s government is taking back the Tata land, although the company is fighting a court case to halt this process.
In 2006, 18-year-old Tapasi Mullick – daughter of a bargadar (share-cropper) named Manoranjan Mullick, who was part of the anti-land acquisition agitation – was found dead on her father’s land, which had been enclosed within the Tata project site. Tapasi’s body was charred, and it appeared that the killers had raped her before torching her. The accused were two local CPI (M) leaders, Suhrid Dutt and Debu Mullick. For many observers, the young girl’s killing brought to the fore Buddhadeb’s desperate battle to force industrialisation by hook or by crook. Where the government failed to educate, cajole and give value for money – and guarantees of security and prosperity to farmers losing prime agrarian land – party cadres metamorphosed into a militia to force the government’s will upon the people.
And then, there was Mamata. ‘Mamata didi led our agitation. She sat on a 25-day hunger strike with us to save our land,’ says Mahadeb Das, who lost his family farm to Left Front land acquisition. Mahadeb’s younger brother has migrated out to Kolkata to work as a daily-wage carpenter; his elder brother, a job-card holder under the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme, still awaits work under the scheme. From being farmers with the ability to save upwards of INR 100,000 each year from paddy and potato crops, the Das family is now in debt, waiting for the return of their land. ‘Mamata will keep her promise,’ Mahadeb is confident.
I walk through village alleys, sidestep ducks and goats and negotiate the narrow embankment of a pond to reach the house where Tapasi Mullick used to live. It is just behind a wall surrounding the Tata project site. Her parents are out; there is only a parrot in a cage, which is also silent. Giving up, I move on to see more of Singur, spot neat houses, a computer centre being run by the Tatas. ‘Some willing farmers were sent to Jamshedpur and Pune for training, but this centre charges money for computer classes,’ Pradip Das, a local journalist, tells me.
I reach the railway tracks and see Mamata’s balm for the Singur farmers during her stint as railway minister in the Union cabinet. Beside the railway station in the town, the Container Corporation of India (CONCOR, a public-sector enterprise under the Railways Ministry) has built a cold-storage warehouse with 16 shops, which Mamata allotted to the dispossessed farmers. One of these shops also went to Tapasi’s parents, while one of her brothers got a job with Metro Rail in Kolkata. While a heroic move for such individuals, however, many observers have noted these types of actions on Mamata’s part constitute the canny beginnings of a strong network of patronage. For the Mullicks, however, the issue is clear: although the brothers lost one sister, they seem to have found another in Mamata didi.
The story is similar in Nandigram. As I enter the area, I see men and machines at work. ‘Didi is bringing the railways to us – the station is coming up!’ says Debjyoti, a young man astride a bicycle. I soon learn that Mamata’s connection with Nandigram, and her promise of development, includes rail connectivity with Howrah and the seaside resort of Digha. The Left Front government, on the other hand, wanted to build a chemical hub in a Special Economic Zone here.
I move on to Gokulnagar, a village in the area. In March 2007, Harmads dressed in police uniforms wrought havoc in this place, going on a spree of rapes and killings. Until then, Nandigram had been a serene farmscape on the road to Digha. I find Gokulnagar in siesta, walk down the main lane and find a few goats on the loose, a lone carpenter sweating at his work. Eventually, I find Swadesh Das Adhikari, a member of the local Panchayat. We climb a flight of stairs and enter a club-like room carpeted with plastic sheeting. Here, I am shown bullet marks – in the walls, on the wooden window frame. Swadesh opens the window and I peer out to see a canal flowing by. This separates Gokulnagar from Khejuri, the two hamlets historically joined at the hip by the Tekhali bridge. ‘The Harmads fired from Khejuri,’ Swadesh says. I spot the brick kiln, barely fifty feet away, that the communist militia used to launch their attacks on villagers. According to reports, seven were raped and 14 died.
Salil Adhikari’s house is beside a field that bears a memorial tablet for Singur’s slain. Salil is lucky to be alive, as attested to by the gunshot scar on the bridge of his nose. ‘How much land is needed for industry? Not this much, definitely,’ Salil’s sweeping hand encompasses an arc to the estuaries downstream, where the Haldi, Hooghly and Roop-Narayan rivers meet the Bay of Bengal. ‘Ok, factory’, he continues. ‘But how could we surrender our homesteads or all of our holdings, ponds, fields, mosques and temples, that too for a chemical hub that would emit poison, cripple and kill maanush [people]? Why not build some other factory that could be more friendly to humans and the environment?’
I find another tale in the land acquisition, in its opposition and the violence. The Nandigram area had a CPI (M) satrap named Lakshman Seth controlling it. When the chemical-hub acquisitions ran into popular protests, Seth’s Harmads unleashed waves of violence. At that time, Mamata was still a distant Kolkata leader, but Seth nonetheless met his match in Subhendu Adhikari, the new Tamluk MP, son of Mamata’s Minister Shishir Adhikari and the face of the Adhikari dynasty that now reigns in the area. ‘Subhendu became the popular face of resistance until Mamata moved in for the kill to end the Red Raj here,’ Suman Mandal, a local journalist, explains.
Gokulnagar residents speak of more rapes having taken place in Muslim villages during 2007. I head for a few of the afflicted hamlets and am quickly told how the relationship with the communists soured. Sheikh Noor Hasan, Kendamari’s village elder, is a sharecropper by purchase. ‘I bought one bigha of land from a childless sharecropper for 40,000 rupees 25 years ago, and then paid 18,000 rupees to validate the papers,’ he recalls. ‘Ghoos diye chhilam’ (I paid a bribe). The land is insufficient to sustain his family of 17. ‘Three of my sons are labourers in the scrap-yards of Delhi, two are embroiders and one is a seafaring fisherman.’
Hasan’s is a fairly typical story of the limited shelf life of the Left Front’s land reforms. Countless other families are dependent on the remittance economy, with young men heading to Kolkata, Delhi, Mumbai and to the Gulf. ‘The government has done nothing for us Muslims. The bargadars, at the CPM’s mercy, didn’t get any documents,’ says Muzaffar Ali, 65. The now-retired owner of a single acre of land, he has managed to provide education for his three sons by working at the Kidderpore docks. Although one is an electrician, his other two sons are unemployed, one a computer-literate science graduate and the other a high-school dropout.
Aspirations are dying young in rural Bengal, despite the much-touted land reforms of the communist government. The Muslim community, despite the Left Front’s secular credentials, has been particularly hard hit. Alamgir Hussain, a 39-year-old arts graduate from Vidyasagar University with a degree in physical education from Utkal University, says that his life simply ‘went by and I didn’t get a job.’ He also talks about the Sachar Committee report of 2006, which detailed the poor position of Muslims throughout India. ‘The Muslim employment percentage in the West Bengal government has fallen from 15 percent under the Congress to two percent under the left,’ Alamgir says. Recalls a local journalist (on condition of anonymity), ‘After its publication, translated copies of the Sachar report were distributed and they quickly became the topic of discussions after Friday prayers.’
Anti-left sentiments continued to spread across rural and urban Bengal. The CPI (M)’s attempts to woo back disenchanted Muslims with announcements of job reservations and socio-economic were too late to have the hoped-for effect. And so, the party’s carefully nurtured Muslim vote-bank withered away. In the recent elections, Nandigram, like Singur, voted with a vengeance, with turnout topping 93 percent, nearly all of whom voted for the Trinamool.
Remember the Harmads
As my tour across the state nears an end I am heading to Lalgarh where, in 2008, pitched battles between Adivasis and Harmads saw the Maoists also spring into action. Although the Maoists had earlier been seen as having sided with the CPI (M), now they were thought to have started training their weapons on the party itself. Some say that the Maoists even came out in tacit support of the Trinamool, although they subsequently called for a boycott of the elections. But everywhere I go, people are quiet on the role of the Maoists. I am perplexed, so I call a friend. ‘The Maoists are also a party, though banned and underground,’ says Sudeep Chakravarti, author of Red Sun, a book on the Maoists in India. ‘They would step into any situation to expand and consolidate their base.’
In recent days, I have been noticing an increasing number of media reports on the recovery of arms and ammunition from different parts of West Bengal. A few even mention that some of the newly found firearms were wrapped in CPI (M) flags! The Reds couldn’t be so naive – obviously CPI (M) cadres are switching sides, is a common refrain. Then, villagers are reported to have dug out seven skeletons from a field near former CPI (M) minister Sushanta Ghosh’s village home at Benechapra, near Garbeta in West Midnapore. The remains are said to belong to Trinamool activists killed by the Harmads.
Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee had a plan for this area too. In 2008 he had the government acquire 4500 acres, reportedly including forest stretches as well as land vested in the government for distribution among landless Adivasis, to set up another SEZ. The beneficiaries, Jindal Steel Works (JSW), purchased another 500 acres directly from local farmers. The local Adivasi communities were increasingly alarmed.
In November 2008, the chief minister escaped a landmine explosion while returning from Salboni after inaugurating the JSW SEZ, along with the then-Mines Minister Ram Vilas Paswan. A brutal spate of state repression followed, as the police went on a rampage in Adivasi villages around Lalgarh. Yet assaults against women and the arrest of three students during the course of the crackdown appear to have lit a fuse among the people, perhaps setting off an explosion of long-simmering anger. As darkness descended on 6 November, on the eve of the anniversary of the Bolshevik revolution, thousands of Adivasis, armed with traditional weapons, surrounded the Lalgarh police station, disconnected the power supply and laid siege. Their primary demand was the release of those falsely arrested under suspicion of being aligned with the Maoists.
Nandigram became an immediate inspiration. The indigenous uprising in Lalgarh was too tempting for either the Maoists or the Trinamool to ignore, though at the time Mamata was unable to go beyond Midnapore, where her workers sat on dharna. The Adivasis demanded a stop to dispossession of their land, forests and waterways in the name of industry. The movement spread to Jhargram, whose road links the protestors severed from all sides and beyond, to Bankura, Purulia and Birbhum. In a show of force aimed at the CPI (M), the mainly Adivasi youth took out motorcycle rallies. In the past, the motorbike had come to symbolise communist terror, and the impact of the reversal was electric, as CPI (M) leaders took to safehouses at police stations. Thereafter, an umbrella organisation evolved to organise the movement, the People’s Committee against Police Action (PCPA). Among its leaders was Chhatradhar Mahato, who went to jail in 2009 and unsuccessfully contested the recent state polls; Mahato is also the brother of a Maoist commander, Sasadhar.
The siege of Lalgarh ended up lasting eight months, with Adivasi men and women surrounding the police station from November 2008 until August 2009. As the popular uprising turned the area into a ‘free zone’, the Maoists took the opportunity to move in, particularly bringing in new recruits from Jharkhand. It is said that more than 200 people were eventually killed by them, particularly targeting the state and those seen as aligned with the state, including fifty policemen. The union government soon rushed in the Central Reserve Police Force (CPRF). When the withdrawn police forces returned, they were welcomed with sweets – surely the villagers could gauge there was little to choose between the Harmads and Maoists.
I take the earthy red track to neighbouring Netaigram, to see the traces of some of the most recent – and, hopefully, some of the last – violence perpetrated by the Harmads. Here, I find a pictorial story of the Harmad mayhem of 7 January 2011, painted on the wall of a home just across from the rooftop from where the Harmads fired, killing seven people and injuring many more. It is very clear that the purpose behind the illustrations is to keep the memory of that time vivid and alive.
I find Ranjit, a sharecropper. He was married to Phool Kumari, one of the women killed in January. ‘The Harmads issued a diktat asking us to send our children for firearm training,’ he recalls. ‘The villagers gathered to protest, and my wife rushed to get our son Krishna back. She ran into their bullets.’ I walk ahead for a few minutes and, on the edge of the village beside the Khansai rivulet, find a tablet erected to remember Netaigram’s victims.
Walking along one of the forest paths in the area, I find some Adivasi women gathered around a lady named Lusky Murmu, who is selling haria, an intoxicating brew made of fermented rice. After hanging out with them for a while, I turn to a village elder and ask, ‘Where’s the party?’
‘What party?’ he shoots back.
‘Maobaadi,’ I probe.
He answers boisterously, laced with drunken laughter: ‘Here there’s only Mamata!’
On the road again, my thoughts turn to West Bengal’s civil society. After decades of shutting its collective eyes to the plight of rural Bengal, the story of the fall of the communists is as much a story of the awakening of Bengal’s civil society. ‘Seeing is believing,’ says theatre director Arpita Ghosh. ‘TV clips of firing, violence – all this shook people. The people in the cities supported Singur villagers, not the Tatas.’ In turn, Mamata has appointed many public intellectuals and artists to high-level positions (see accompanying article, ‘Among the bidwadjan’).
Where Mamata has handpicked her MLAs, ministers and cultural personalities, there appears to be a popular deluge in the towns and villages to don Trinamool colours. Everywhere I go, I am unable to find a single CPI (M) office bearer. They have all disappeared, I am told. Although I spot several CPI (M) offices, each one is locked. Trinamool flags flutter from municipal offices and colleges; CPI (M) wall paintings have been whitewashed and replaced by pro-Trinamool graffiti.
At Law Minister Malay Ghatak’s residence, I quietly watch the stream of visitors, some coming with mangoes, others with sweets. All seek government patronage. A lady from Bankura arrives with the chairperson of the Bankura civic body, touches the minister’s feet and takes her leave. ‘Dada, I’m going back assured,’ she says. A lawyer, she wants the minister to make her the public prosecutor. ‘I’m getting a list prepared – there’s going to be an overhaul of government prosecutors and counsels,’ Ghatak announces.
I leave after a quick word. ‘The minister is working very hard, meeting so many people,’ I say to a local guide. ‘Sir, he lost his mother a week ago,’ he responds. ‘He is attending office at Writers’ and has just come for the weekend.’ I am even more shocked the following day when I hear reports of Mamata’s surprise when Ghatak requests leave for his mother’s Shradh, her last rites. In this, I get a peek into Mamata the person, the chief minister who has come to office in the name of ma, maati, maanush (mother, soil and people).
Brand Trinamool evolved around one person, as Brand Mamata, and she has made always made it clear that she is the boss. Observers liken her to Indira Gandhi, who would also not allow anyone else to assume a larger-than-life image. Political economist Abhirook Sarkar suggests that the fact that this is a one-woman show has both advantages and disadvantages, ‘The advantage side is heavier,’ he says, drawing a parallel with Nitish Kumar in Bihar, Jayalalitha in Tamil Nadu, Mayawati in Uttar Pradesh and Narendra Modi in Gujarat. ‘Even in West Bengal, B C Roy was a one-man show.’ Sarkar says he hopes that Mamata will get the same backing from Sonia Gandhi that Roy received from Jawaharlal Nehru. Yet one wonders whether Ashok Mitra, the contemporary and comrade of Jyoti Basu, who had been consistently warning the CPI (M) about its mistakes and predicting a debacle, was prescient about Mamata as well when he wrote: ‘Notice the behaviour, patronage, programme, mode of action, speech of Mamata Banerjee – she personifies fascism.’
I think back on my discussions over the past few days, trying to find some insight into Mamata the phenomenon. I remember academic Anup K Sinha’s recollection, echoed by several journalists, that she was first noticed as a young political activist who danced on the bonnet of Jayaprakash Narayan’s vehicle during the 1970s. Since then, Mamata, of the crumbled cotton sari and chappals, has matured to woo Bengal’s next generation. At a rally in Jadavpur, she said: ‘I’m on Facebook, I know Orkut and will soon tweet.’ She wants to make Kolkata a world-class city, she says, and suggests plans to make the Howrah riverfront a beauteous rival to the Thames in London.
Of course, even setting aside turning the Howrah into the Thames, the tasks cut out for the new chief minister are not only impossibly large but also dizzyingly diverse. She has to turn around Bengal’s deficit economy, bring in investment and industry. Just how much flexibility will Mamata have in breaking from the ways of the CPI (M)? How will she try to balance industrialisation with agriculture? ‘The chief minister has realised Bengal cannot develop without industries,’ economist Abhirook Sarkar says. ‘By inducting former FICCI Secretary-General Amit Mitra as her finance minister, she has given a signal that she is serious about industrialisation.’ At the same time, throughout my travels I found a clear common thread in the hope for peace. ‘Tagore’s model can be adopted in any time or age,’ Nilonjan Bannerjee, editor of Vishwa Bharati News, tells me. ‘Amartya Sen is saying the same things when he talks of literacy, education and food security.’ Where the communists made hartals into a religion, Tagore did not even support Gandhi’s non-cooperation, I am reminded. Tagore’s firm belief was that agriculture and industry have a mutually inclusive role in development.
There is trepidation as to whether a leader who fought the left street-fight by street-fight, hartal for hartal, has the acumen to mature into a stateswoman. In Nandigram, I heard that Subhendu Adhikari is frustrated at being kept out of Mamata’s core team in Kolkata, a situation that offers a glimpse of an authoritarian leader who is distinguishing between her role as an army general and an administrator. After all, Subhendu had been an effective marshal against the Harmads, but clearly Mamata now does not want him to grow into a satrap, a power centre in and of himself. Journalists tell me that while handpicking candidates for the polls, Mamata rejected several of Subhendu’s recommendations. The blatant way in which Mamata leveraged the Railways Ministry to gain support will continue, say many observers, pointing out that she continues to head the railways through a trusted aide, Mukul Roy.
Meanwhile, the defeated communists are pondering over their defeat, just as Mamata is seized with the onerous task of rebuilding Bengal. Having had no luck in finding Buddhadeb’s comrades at the grassroots, I find myself in the end fortunate to attend the left’s first rally after the electoral rout. A thundershower lashes Chowringee, but the crowd only strengthens in size. Red umbrellas and tarpaulin sheets are held by a sea of hands, but the rains fail to chase them away. And when Buddhadeb finally takes to the stage, cries of Lal salaam! boom louder than the thunder above.
A group of young college students (apparently convent-educated, given by their insistence on shouting ‘Red salute!’ in English) hangs on each word of Comrade Buddha. As Biman Bose gets tea for the toppled chief minister in an earthen cup, the latter surveys the strength of the crowd. The attacks on his party offices and cadres are an immediate worry; it is a worry for Mamata, too. ‘The results are a jaagran [awakening] of the mind,’ Arpita Ghosh’s words echo in my mind. Yes, both the victor and the vanquished are awake: the former to build on people’s trust, the latter to regain it.
I take a walk through Free School Street, looking for a Bengali eatery famous for its hilsa fish curry. I cover my nose. There is a foul stench on this stretch, a little behind the Hogg market. I see shadow lines of wings in flight, and I look up. Vultures, endangered by men and medicines, are hovering, waiting to swoop down for a meal. It is a lesson that Mamata and those who have voted for Trinamool-style change would do well to remember: endangered, the CPI (M) is waiting to swoop down and scoop the fresh meat out of Writers’ Building.
~ Abhay Mohan Jha is a Champaran-based freelance journalist. He is also a farmer and lawyer.
Romila Thapar addresses invitees at the
Southasian relaunch of Himal Southasian,
IIC, New Delhi, January 2013.
China, Southasia and India
On May 19 2013, newly appointed Chinese Premier Li Keqiang arrived in New Delhi for a series of meetings with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. The visit is Keqiang's first outside of China since assuming power in March.
From our archive:
Purna Basnet discusses Chinese engagement in Nepal vis-a-vis security issues in Tibet and broader geo-strategic plans in Southasia (April 2011).
Fatima Chowdury relates the story of Calcutta's Indian Chinese community through the lens of political and economic upheavals in Southasia and China (May 2009).
Simon Long notes the importance of the Sino-Indian relationship for the rest of Southasia (September 2006).
J.N Dixit ruminates on the strategic concerns of the 'Middle Kingdom' in the wake of India's 1998 nuclear tests (June 1998).