For the last few days, a few lines from Sahir Ludhianivi’s long poem Parchhaiyan, have been repeatedly coming back to me. A poem that I had read ever so often in my early youth and thought I had long forgotten, suddenly reappeared in a flash. Here go some of the lines (not really in the order in which they appear in the poem, but in the order in which they came to me):
चलो कि चल के सियासी मुक़ामिरों से कहें/ कि हमको जंगो-जदल के चलन से नफ़रत है
कहो कि अब कोई क़ातिल इधर अगर इधर आया/ तो हर क़दम पर ज़मीन तंग होती जाएगी
हर एक मौजे-हवा रुख़ बदल के झपटेगी…
ये खेत जाग पड़े, उठ खड़ी हुईं फ़सलें/ अब इस जगह कोई क्यारी न बेची जाएगी
[Roughly translated: Come let us tell the political gamblers/ that we hate the business of war and strife
Let us tell them that if a murderer dares to come hither/ The land will shrink with each step
Every wave of the air will turn turn against you
These fields have come alive, with the crops swaying on them
No more shall even a bed (of the field) be sold]
Though Sahir’s poem was written as a protest against war, some of these lines resonate with other, more immediately relevant matters. Ironically, Sahir was protesting against the war mongers pillaging civilain populations but here we are, with the new war mongers of our times: what else is the neo-liberal dream but that of pillage and loot of civilian populations by armed forces of civilian governments. And as they, ‘is hammam mein sab nange hain‘! [All are naked in this in this bathhouse]: From Buddhadev Bhattacharya of West Bengal to Mayawati of Uttar Pradesh – spokespersons all of the oppressed! And it makes little difference whether it is a BJP-led NDA government in power at the Centre or a Congress-led UPA.
The business of governments ‘acquiring’ land from farmers at a pittance and selling it to private, corporate players at very high prices is really what lies at the root of the new struggles that have now spread across the length and breadth of the country. After all, if there is money to be made from this land, why should it not go to the real owners? Reports say the rates of ‘compensation’ paid, range from a ridiculous Rs 6.8 per square metre in Congress ruled Rajasthan and Rs 10. 4 per square metre in BJP ruled Madhya Pradesh to what is only marginally better considering that it is prime land in Greater NOIDA at Rs 900 per sq m. A Times of India report, in fact, cites Col Devinder Sehrawat, secretary of the Delhi Gramin Samaj saying:
“The government notified land in 124 villages in Greater Noida nine years ago to connect Noida and Greater Noida with an expressway. It paid farmers Rs 50-300 per sq m. Today, in the same location, a private developer building Yamuna expressway and a 2,500-acre Sports City is selling plots at Rs 15,000 per sq m,”
The story of the burgeoning protest of the farmers of Noida is now all over the media. And why not? After all, it has now spread all the way from Noida towards Aligarh, Mathura and Agra. The Maywati government and the Noida police have labelled the protests, in the true self-deluding style of politicians (remember Buddhadeb and Biman Bose?), a disturbance instigated by criminals! If that really be the case, one must marvel at the political capacity of these ‘criminals’ – for they have mobilized land-losing farmers in numbers few politicians can claim to match. So much so that all the politicians from Ajit Singh of RLD and Shivpal Yadav of the Samajwadi Party to Rajnath Singh of BJP have made a beeline to the embattled zones, especially the village of Bhatta Parsaul where four people inclduing two PAC constables were killed in clashes on 7 May. The Rapid Action Force and the notorious PAC (provincial armed constabulary) had been let loose on the villagers, who had their first taste of the PAC whose distinction had hitherto rested on its anti-Muslim reputation.
The interesting thing is that when the land was first acquired, the farmers had no option but to surrender their land. That had been the story of Delhi’s urban expansion. That had gone on for decades in what is Delhi today and then in its periphery. Even in the early 2000s, when the land for the Yamuna expressway was acquired, it had seemed like a fait accompli to the farmers. If there were other stories, they were those of the heroic failures of the Narmada tribals. A doomed scenario. And then the chain broke, as Lenin would have said, at its weakest link: Nandigram, Singur – followed by a whole range of struggles. That was 2006-2007. Governments were, for the first time, on the backfoot. A debate began that had never been allowed to take place. Not when Narmada happened, certainly. And other successful local struggles like the Koel Karo struggle hardly ever found a resonance in the media or policy circles.
Nandigram had pushed the limits of the possible, expanded the horizons of the thinkable. And that is what politics is all about. And when that happens, old questions, often thought to have been closed, consigned to the past, become open questions once again. The rise of Maoism, in its own way, also helped push the limits further.
Politics has already set the agenda but political theory still remains fixated on its 17th to 19th century inheritances: the ideas of sovereignty and eminent domain where the state is the owner of all that exists in its realm. Can we really continue to see the state in these terms any more? The question of sovereignty was already problematized with the rise of something called democracy, which introduced a deep fissure on the body of the sovereign. This pre-democratic idea (i.e. sovereignty), nonetheless continued to have a long life, serving as it did, the interests of states and political and economic elites. All polities, according to one important tradition stretching from Hannah Arendt to Jacques Ranciere, are oligarchies; democracy is but the name of the permanent insurrection that besieges these oligarchies. Their is no more a will of the sovereign that can claim the right of eminent domain – for politics after democracy is a domain of fractured and contending sovereignties. In a recent observation the Supreme Court of India noted, in the context of common property among tribal communities, that the state is only the trustee of people’s property. Not its owner. That is an important starting point, it seems, to begin thinking of the ways in which eminent domain can be challenged.