Red and Black

May 2008
Black Flags, Osman Chowk, Nandigram: May 2008


Red Flags of ‘Consent’/ Black Flags of Freedom and We, the Civil Society

(Written in Feb 2008)

The way towards Nandigram in November 2007 was fraught with a spectacle of flags.

I use the word ‘fraught’ deliberately – because as the journey progressed that autumn morning1, this proliferation of flags left me with a sense of mounting fear and apprehension.

This was only ten days or so after the ‘recapture’ of Nandigram.

But the fear, if you will believe me, was not because I expected to encounter violence directed towards myself on that day. 

It was because – how to put this – I sensed all around me an unraveling map of warnings (large warnings, big, powerful warnings, for the time to come – planted there deliberately, so that I, and others like me, could watch and learn) – check points that told us at every half-mile ‘whose’ territory it was we were passing through.

An hour from Nandigram, the flags turned red and yellow tigers appeared on them: Forward Bloc, I told myself. These were followed by some villages with bunches of the slightly more docile-looking green, white and orange flowers of the Trinamul Congress flag.

In some of the villages we passed, houses and shops next to each other displayed different flags: signs of a flourishing democratic plurality of parties, I wondered? Or markers of which house must be burnt by whom in the next clash?

After a while, when the habitation began to grow thinner, trees – thin trees, fat trees, little trees – began to be marked with flags (mostly red, some with smatterings of green and white).

It seemed as if the flags multiplied every few minutes, by themselves, while I was looking the other way; they would not leave the landscape alone.

There was no green anywhere without some red on it. Nothing was innocent of territoriality. All the trees were taken. There was no inch of space left for any other colour. The party colours (two primarily) had marked everything.

Tekhali Bridge, Nandigram, May 2008
Tekhali Bridge, Nandigram, May 2008

The further we moved towards Nandigram bajaar, the more my world grew red. Red, more red; proliferations, multiplications of red; multitudinous simulacra of the same sickle and hammer and still more red; metonymies of a power that was deliberately and sweepingly creating a visual landscape which I could not possibly escape.

There was no way I could enter Nandigram (a town, just a few villages, two blocks – 1 & 2, two blocks in West Bengal, three and a half hours from my city Kolkata, in West Bengal my state, in India my country) without passing through and into this canopy, this assault of flags that would mark every second, every step of my journey.

My entry was no entry. Because.

This was foreign territory, and the flags were telling me: “You are an outsider, only and always a visitor, no matter how many times you come, where you stay, what homes you make, what friends. This is only your first time. No matter how many times you manage to make it here, you do not and will not ever belong, dear, let this be clear. Because you have no party, hence you are not political; you have never fought at elections, you have and are no cadre; you are that elite and safe-gaming ‘anti-political’ ‘high-moral’ ‘civil’ society that knows nothing of how dirty we have had to get our hands to get here. You don’t belong here. Don’t come here.”

This was red territory. There is no other way to Nandigram: cluster of villages in my state, my state in my country, my country that they say is India.

In Nandigram bajaar, where the relief camp had been set up at the Brij Mohan Tiwari Shiksha Niketan and where the police station was just around the corner, the shops had begun to open after many days.

It was crowded, but awfully, there was no sound. The people did not speak as much as they watched. Watched one another, us, the guns.

Only the ubiquitous flags were not watched. They were watching.

Faces began to peer into the car – expectant, hushed, suspicious –while the army fatigues remained swimming in the background and the CRPF guns patrolled the market.

Near the relief camp, a middle-aged drunk man looked at us from the crowd of faces on the street. He looked into the car and realized we were girls from the city.

Then, he pointed two fingers at the car, cocked his head, closed one eye and shot at us with his bare hands. Shot us dead, in his head, there and then.

This was the welcome we got. I daresay it was well-deserved. We were very late. Very late indeed. It had been eleven months.

Towards the afternoon, in a village in Sonachura, we sat in the dalaan of a large hut. There was a common courtyard and this was surrounded by five or six other huts. They were all around us, people from this huts – fifteen, twenty of them. I could not tell who was from which house, which girl belonged to which family or where the children came from.

They had gathered around from all the houses to talk to us, but their bodies were aligned to each other’s like they belonged to one household. They all spoke together, but they seemed to hear each other. Unlike us, they blended well into each other. Too well.

I could not reconcile this with the flag-marks and the hushed silence of the marketplace.

Did the territoriality begin outside this house, outside this village, each village, when you got to the main road, in the bajaar? I could not tell.

The man of the house sat on a khatiya and smiled at us with his red- stained teeth. The women surrounded me, some holding on to the bamboo poles that supported the wide thatched roof, some squatting next to me on the floor.

Them and us, we were finally face to face.

He was laughing at us. Intelligently, gently, but laughing at us, nonetheless:

“What are you saying didi? What will we do if the government asks for the land, again? Give it up, of course. What else is there for us to do? Now? It’s been eleven months. We wont, we can’t ask any more questions. It’s all over, don’t you know? Can’t you see?”

She stood right next to me with her big bright eyes and dark skin. She was 23. Her husband had left her last year, so she had come back home. (‘What an oaf!” I thought to myself.) When she smiled she lit up all the space around her.

But now her eyes were scared; she whispered in my ear: “Didi, at the school they kept us for three days. They took us from the BUPC2 michhil on the 13th, many people were taken. There were some big netas. They gave us food and everything. But they would not let us come home. And their cadres, there were the Harmads3 too didi, they searched us. What to say didi, they were men but they touched us, all over. They were abusing and shouting at us all the time. They said we were Maobadis, we women. But I only came home last year.”

The man was saying: “They said they would give us eight lakh rupees and a house in the colony. But I have ten members in my family. How will all of them fit into two rooms in a colony? How long will that money last me?

And what about this courtyard, these trees, that pond? What about all this? This is the little space we have (“etotuku gharbari”), this is our homestead (“bastu-bhite”4). Should we leave all this and go, just like that?

Alright, they could have asked us, we could have talked to them. But they just told us we had to go, no questions asked. No one asked our permission. We were given no time for dialogue.

You tell me didi, will my children get jobs at the factories? None of us has passed our matriculation. We only know agriculture. It’s our way of life. Is it that easy to give all this up?”

He continues: “My family has been with the CPM for two generations. I have been a supporter and worker for the Party all my life. But in January, we felt what the Party was doing was wrong. We felt betrayed.

When we joined the BUPC, it was our struggle against our party. We started with black flags to say that we are no party. Anybody who felt this injustice could join us.

But as the months went on, the black flags began to be replaced by TMC flags. Till in the end, there were no black flags left at all. We realized they were using us. So we left. Now we belong nowhere, and we won’t fight anymore. We don’t trust anyone.”

What he said is true. When we travelled around Nandigram in November, walked through the villages and streets and market places, we sensed continually the absence of something big that had been deliberately and systematically erased.

In the twelve hours that we spent in Nandigram, we didn’t see a single black flag.

What was the nature, the import of this colour that was so conspicuous by its absence? What was it that this proliferation of red flags was trying so desperately to cover up? What was it that the orange and green flowers sought to replace?

Why were the colours so afraid of the absence of colour? Of the one colour that had sought to absorb all other colours? Why this mad, massive attempt at erasure?

It was as if the landscape in Nandigram had been scoured, re-written, re-marked into a visual directory that could fit legitimately into a narrative of partisan struggle, a fight for supremacy between forces which seek only to play the electoral game well.

This is a familiar story; one which everyone who read the newspapers and watched the news would immediately recognize.

The story of a power struggle between two warring political parties on territory that had to be won over for the next elections; a deeply feudal war that is always, inevitably waged in the name of democracy; a narrative of strategies and maneuvers that could be easily explained away as conspiracies to sway the vote bank.

This is the only language that the Party understands. And it is the only political language it wishes the people of this state to understand.

And in this manoeuvre, I would like to urgently claim, the Party’s real enemy is not the TMC. Nor is it the Jamaat or the bogie of Maoism or the distantly tolling bell of right-wing Hindutva.

Here, the CPIM’s real enemy, that of which it is so dreadfully afraid and which it seeks so desperately to erase, is the people whose existence must be recognized outside the electoral contingencies of the Party.

This is why TMC flags are still allowed to fly atop the shops in Nandigram bajaar, even ten days after its recapture. This is why only the black flags go missing, disappear without a trace, long before the Party enters the premises.

In this deeper, infinitely more complex and insidious erasure, the TMC and the CPIM are allies. Their enemy is the people, their enemy is spontaneous organization; their enemy is people’s genuine solidarity for justice.

Their enemy is any real challenge to political hierarchy; it is non-hierarchical non-partisan organization that they are against.

Because if the people became leaders and thinkers, each one in their own right, what would become of them? They survive on the fiction that the people cannot think, that they must be led, which is precisely why they are so easily misled by the opposition, whoever it happens to be.

The question is one of being led rightly (for the Party), or led wrongly (against the Party, by the Opposition). The Maoists, too, seek to lay complete claim, unjustly, on people’s consciousness and their independent moves towards justice. The people of Nandigram are not a violent people; they say, again and again, “We only wish to live in peace. We were happy, Nandigram was not a violent place; it was a place of education and goodwill.  This is the first time in our lives we are witnessing such violent chaos. Just leave us alone.”

In each term of the partisan formation, the people are passive. It is their activity which is deemed dangerous. It is when they begin to lead themselves that the deep structures of power are truly threatened.

It is threatened in the villages and on the city-streets, when thousands march peacefully on the roads in a show of spontaneous solidarity for people they have never met and are never likely to meet in their lives.

This is conglomeration of a kind the Party cannot understand; and in their bewilderment, they seek to see it as momentary and irrelevant.

You can see what they are thinking: “This cannot be political. In which book of lists have these people signed their names? Who do they vote for? Which meetings do they go to? Do they know each other? Who organized them? This cannot go on. This is not political. Besides, they have nothing to gain from it but trouble. We don’t understand.”

So taken are they by structures, so proud of their three decades of brutal organization, that they understand nothing outside it. And when they see something they do not understand rearing its head, they do everything they can to make it invisible. They wish it to go away with the sheer brute force of their organization, and it does.

But does it really?

The colour that was gone on the streets of Nandigram was written on the people’s faces. I saw it.

It was there when I talked to them. It was in their words. It was in their voices when they said, again and again: “We are no party. They all use us. We trust no one. We fought for ourselves, we fought against injustice. But we have had enough. They will not let us survive.”

An other narrative is being written over even as we speak; they are erasing the story of an other struggle for another sort of a victory. A victory without electoral gain. A struggle for justice, for basic human dignity, and not in the abstract either. A fight where justice is not just a token word, not just a means to an end.

But how to calculate the incalculable? How to record that which cannot be counted in the vote bank?

In which legal court, and with what legislation as my weapon, could I prove this: the woman who had been beaten black and blue by Harmads till she could hardly walk, on the simple charge that she was a Maoist, could not even pronounce the word ‘Maobadi’?

It took five repetitions for me to understand what she was saying, because she kept mouthing the word ‘Muhammadi’. She was repeating the accusation she thought she had heard while she was being beaten. She said: “Ke Muhammadi? Ami take chinina. Ami amar parar meyeder shathe michhile giyechilam.” (“I don’t know who this Muhammadi person is. I had gone to the procession with the girls in my neighbourhood.”)

So yes, sure the Maoists had taken Nandigram insidiously over. Sure this woman was a Maoist without her own knowledge. She was a Maoist from the moment she walked in the people’s procession, alongside those other girls she had grown up learning Maoism with.

It was an array aural approximations that I heard in this woman’s speech that gave everything away. It gave away the loathsome and desperate scapegoating that the rewriting of history by power has always involved.

She did not wish photographs to be taken or her name to be recorded.

How am I to show you her face or the marks on her body? How could I tell you convincingly that there was no fear or guilt on her face when she spoke of these accusations of Maoism?

But if you will believe me, I can tell you this: on her face, there was only bewilderment.

She did not know why she had been beaten like that – sexually assaulted, verbally abused – for simply having walked in a procession through the streets of her own village. A village where she had been born, where she was raised.

The question is not whether some Maoist leader had formed an unholy alliance with some top-gun of the BUPC. The point is that these aspersions of ‘Maoism’ were used indiscriminately and unjustly by the machinery of the ruling party to harass, harm and severely terrorize way too many innocent people, who had little or no idea what they were being accused of. Who had done little more than take part in peaceful processions, protests and demonstrations: all well within their rights as democratic citizens of the country.

It seemed to me as I listened to her that – homes, places, belongings did not matter anymore in themselves. Perhaps they never had in the face of the ‘political’ structures of our democracy.

Only the flags that layered the outer texture of the landscape in Nandigram mattered. Elections mattered. People came alive every five years. The rest of the time they were effectively invisible.

It is when the people who vote attempt to become visible in interim years that the problems arise for the Party. In the city they become ‘anti-political’, shamefully ‘civil’, ‘high-moral’ and speaking of that strange thing called ‘ethics’, Stalin (or secretly god) help us!

In the villages, it is easy. The people are simply misled.

It is only the visual markers and signs of the Party’s sovereignty over the people that seem to matter. These signs and flags can be read easily by the urban media, that wondrously fickle entity which can take the village story back to the city, to the centre, to the city-centre.

Where, with these markers of power (which can be photographed, unlike a frightened woman’s wounds), the Party’s warnings to the urban civil society would be sounded, made sound. That was where the TMC’s conspiracy would be laid bare, where the Maoists could be clearly and loudly implicated.

Clearly, what matters is that which can be visually read, counted, calculated, recorded.

The woman who cannot and will not be photographed because she is afraid of being raped or to die, and the expression of bewilderment that will be etched forever in my memory, do not matter. Expressions such as these have no place in the rightfully political history of the State.

This is a partisan game; this is the kind of freedom that the next election will ensure. It is the freedom of the calculable. It is the only freedom that is assigned to the people in political politics – beyond ethics, beyond civility and empathy, higher than justice.

Because the only freedom where the people really count is where they can be counted.

This is why the CPIM seems to believe that handing each one of the captured (and I use this word, once again, deliberately, in the context of what I see as the narrative of a purely feudal and primitive territorial game) BUPC members a ‘lal jhanda’ is enough.

Forcing them to carry the red flags through the streets of Nandigram is enough.

As long as the procession looks red, it’s fine. As long as the media sees no black anywhere, it’s all fine.

We are living in a beautiful world of consent. And consent is that which can be clearly read.

Here in Nandigram, now, there is only consent and no coercion. Or to make matters simple, coercion till consent. Like torture till death and burial.

As long as the people’s bodies carry the Party’s marks, the Party is a ‘people’s party’.

Their hearts and minds, affects and sensibilities, of course, are another matter. So is a man’s attachment to the tree in his courtyard, his relationship to the pond of water that he grew up next to.

Those are matters of little real effect, matters of affect, of ‘high-emotion’- that are not the stuff real politics is made of. Real politics is a hard matter. It is a matter of hard hearts and dirty hands.

My accusation against the State, the government of West Bengal, the ‘political’ parties and their ‘political’ processes is clear:  each of these ‘political’ forces (TMC, CPIM, Maoists) uses as its token of legitimacy the very population whose needs and aspirations it chooses to ignore. And none more so than our ruling party.

Because to them, the population is just that – numbers in an electoral game where only winning matters. At all costs. 5

The population is only important in so far as it makes up the numbers in the ballot box or at the mass meetings (by whatever tactics of consent or coercion or bribery or lies).  As long as it says ‘yes’.

The rules are fairly simple: the people who say ‘yes’ are the Party’s people. Their very own. The rest are outsiders or irrelevant.

The Party never says ‘yes’ to the people who say ‘no’. They are only to be ‘paid back in their own coin’. Except, the Party’s coin is much heavier. It has thirty years of continuous sovereignty written on it.

People are necessary in so far as they are like flags planted on ‘political’ ground to mark territory; they are possible as long as they remain invisible, faceless.

And the rest: their real bodies, their wounds and homes, the daily details of their lives, their cows and courtyards and trees and smiles can be disposed of. Easily dispensed with, all in the name of development.

As far as the Party is concerned, the people are there to be used as instruments and then made irrelevant. This is the game of real ‘politics’, of real, hard power that must and can only be fought with a call for real, hard justice.

But what we also must remember is that our fight is multilayered. It is, in fact, several fights interconnected and imbricated in each other. The Party, the State, the Centre are only pawns in a larger global game that is being played above their heads. That is, in fact, quite beyond their clout – mighty as that clout sometimes seems to be.

Settling satisfactorily the electoral question in West Bengal (if that is ever even a possibility), replacing this Tweedledum with that Tweedledee, will not open the way for any real change.

The fight perhaps is harder and longer. There are difficult questions that we must ask of ourselves now.

What price must they in the villages pay for us in the cities? What price are we, who are writing and reading this, willing to pay for them? How far are we ready to go with or against this thing called development? Of the 400 SEZs that are being planned towards in this country, how many are we willing to fight against? Which ones will we allow in for our cheap computers and cars? Which will we disallow? Is there another road that we cannot yet see?

But as we ask these questions, it is also important to remember, that the decision ultimately is and must be ours. With them, alongside them, together with them – those who are in the villages. And perhaps standing up, for once, clearly against what is today the shape of organised ‘politics’.

The ‘politicals’ cannot do this without asking us or them. Laws cannot and may not be passed while we are looking the other way. Why were we looking the other way in the first place?

Our schisms, our breaches, our differences, our unwillingness to fight and our fear of the organised hierarchies must not be made into political capital by those who can only see the world till the next elections.

If the three hours between the city centre and the village is marked by violent flags that alienate us from them, it is our unethical absence as an urban population in their fight with that feudal game for power, which has made it so. We have kept our hands clean for too long and at great cost.

It is our not walking for years on that road to Nandigram (a symbol of something bigger today, and rightly so) that has made the distance seem so long now.

It is our writing and speaking for ourselves, only to ourselves, that has made it so difficult for us to speak at all today.

We have, for too long, imagined them (who have not) as we have wished to, as was convenient for us to do. And that has allowed the flags to move in to the space between us with such arrogance and with such utter disdain for the ‘anti-politicals’. It is our inertia that makes the arrogance of twenty, thirty, fifty, five or ten years possible.

It is our inability to make a politics of the everyday that has made this daily injustice work so well, to the extent that we, along with them, are now all but invisible in our own democracy, once so dearly dreamt and won.

(Trina is a Doctoral Fellow at the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta. trina dot banerjee at gmail dot com. Copyright for both photos: Insiya Poonawala for The Citizens’ Initiative, Kolkata.)

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