The Singur Act and the Deontological Reaction: Prasanta Chakravarty


The remarkable Singur Land Development and Rehabilitation Bill, passed in the West Bengal Assembly on June 14 became an Act on June 20. The Act scrapped the previous Left Front government’s deal with Tata Motors and has provisions to return land to unwilling farmers. Consequently, Singur land was taken over by the State government prompting Tata Motors to legally challenge the whole Act and a judicial battle has ensued between them and the newly elected State government. The State government may continue to return land in right earnest since there is no legal bar to that as of now. One would think that by many standards, this is a landmark bill that challenges and confronts policy consensus in issues of land transfer, models of enclosing and a concomitant notion of development that marks our nation at this point of time.

Reactions to this enactment have been thick and fast—alarmist and cautious to generous and triumphant. One rejoinder is important to mark though. Partha Chatterjee, not as one of our foremost political scientists, but as a ‘historian of Bengal’s land system’—an early specialization on his part, has written a pithy and sharp newspaper article on this development. The piece is worth pondering for two reasons: One, to mark how a historian of land makes several political points in contributing his bit in the nation building process, which has been Chatterjee’s mainstay in scholarship. But more importantly, the piece brings into sharp focus a certain kind of deontological left-liberal thinking which has been the bane for analysing the political drift in Bengal at least since 2006.

Chatterjee immediately distances himself from any partisan political position and yet defines an adversary towards the end of the piece: radicals who are applauding the Singur Bill as historic justice. This congratulatory mood is premature and arbitrary, Chatterjee feels. Especially since the new government seems to be arbitrary, led by a charismatic and irrational leader. The charge that Mamata Banerjee is erratic and hence cannot be trusted is perhaps the oldest trope in liberal bhadralok armoury for a few decades now. But the way Chatterjee fans that emotion post the recently concluded election is astute—to the extent that he finishes off his essay with a prophetic prognostication (a rare non-rational move in the piece) that the present government may regret its ‘arbitrary’ moves in future—suggesting a future backlash at the hustings.

But to get into the logic of Chatterjee’s arguments and his reservations about the Act. The first point, as the title would testify, is about the exceptional nature of the legislation. He admits that the previous government resorted to intimidation, physical assault and even the killing of those opposed to the acquisition. But the new Act does not redress that injustice since it returns land to unwilling farmers and not to a specific class of people. In other words, Chatterjee feels that it is a partisan move, a gimmick bereft of any lasting structural change that the new government in Bengal wants to usher at this stage. Chatterjee’s second and related point is that the Singur Act discriminates between two classes of victims since it does not take into account those who were ‘coerced’ to take compensation cheques at that point and only now enables the government to return an equivalent amount of land only to those who did not pick up their compensation cheques. A third point is about the sharecroppers and labourers who are without any title to land and such Acts will not protect their case through land laws.

One does not need to be a radical in order to notice immediately that Chatterjee’s foundational principle is liberal deontological: that the means to an action is of capital importance rather than the end it might effect. Every human goal worthy of pursuing should be according to law—and in spite of a legislative action being enacted, he feels that this is finally partisan. It is worth noting that such an idea of legal and land rights are guided through a completely detached understanding of the legal and penal system of our polity. This constitutional detachment is symptomatic of a certain left liberal approach which refuses to see the consequentionalist side of the issue: that there are certain intrinsic goods for the society, ends which are embedded in maintaining societal balance and happiness. Those ends need to be maximised, no matter what means are adopted. Ethical action can often be outside of normative legality since one might not merely pursue the processual aspects of a case. The substantive point in this and many such cases in India right now is the point of forcible land acquisition—a serious breach of intrinsic social balance and understanding.

In the great battle of Kurukshetra, if I am allowed a digression, there are three clear instances of adharmic action—all taken on Krishna’s behest: Slaying of Bhishma via Shikhandi, Karna’s execution by Arjuna when the former’s chariot wheels get stuck and Bhima’s mortal assault of Duryodhana below the belt. In all these instances, dharmic behaviour of killing outweighs the law and Krishna’s approach to law—since only such exceptions which might lead to a more intrinsic good. The cosmic balance or Rta can be only restored by creating exceptions to the norma earlier set by the two warring parties under Krishna himself. This is not to exonerate adharmiks and cast any aspersion to the idea of adhering to rules, but to point out the scope of a more global rule of political and social equilibrium, something that will always elude the legal deontologist.

It is not that Chatterjee is unaware of the ‘right kind of exceptions’ that can be made within the purview the modern constitutionalist framework. He gives two examples: the special provision of exception to the employment and educational opportunities to the Scheduled castes and Tribes and that of the squatters to remain in their illegal settlements on public and private lands or vendors to set up stalls on city pavements (which dovetails well with his ideas of the ‘political society’). He is quick to qualify that these exceptions must still be negotiated via the constitution and that their validity be renewed from time to time. This, without enacting a new law that would affect the rights of legal owners and licensed shops and establishments. In other words, the social underdogs can maximise as much by bargaining and manoeuvring, but never by fundamentally altering the nation’s normative rules of the game. No structural redress, no innovation in the legal framework.

About his point of differentiating among those who have gotten cheques and those who resisted: certainly, all victims of coercion and forcible eviction need to be righted. But by Chatterjee’s own formulations, some showed more fortitude and uprightness and their cases are more legally straightforward and needs to be ethically foregrounded. There needs to other ways of identifying and judging all kinds of victims. And that may not necessarily be judicial. The individual cases of the sharecroppers and labourers victimised definitely needs to be redressed but that is beyond the scope of the particular act. In fact, all forward looking governance models must work towards the wholesale eradication of all kinds of unfree tenures and exploitative contractual hiring—a resolve that requires revising our relationship to land much more fundamentally than what Chatterjee’s method here would allow.

Towards the end of the piece Chatterjee actually comes out much more openly about his real apprehensions: that this Act might set a precedent and hasten litigation seeking exemptions from or redress for the application of the Land Acquisition Act, whether in past or in future. That this might no more be in exception then, and that this is precisely the way innovation in legislative and judicial procedures function, escapes the liberal deontologist. His fear may not be at the exceptional nature of the Act but rather an unease and apprehension at the rupture and the consequent direction vis a vis land regulation and transfer towards which Bengal and the nation might proceed.

Chatterjee may well be correct that this enactment could be a devious act on the part of Mamata Banerjee and her lieutenants. But the rules of the game needs to be changed perhaps—not necessarily by fomenting incendiary initiatives but through perfectly legal and substantive means, in order to restore poise and equity in human and social relationships that the nation’s political keepers seems to be ignoring at this point of time. And an exercise in deontological quibbling might be the last thing in that direction.

Partha Chatterjee has given us some of the best analyses of the highways of Rajaneeti in colonial and postcolonial Bengal, if not of the nation—even if we disagree with his viewpoints sometimes. Can he ever rise above himself and think in terms of Rajadharma?

Prasanta Chakravarty is Associate Professor, Department of English, University of Delhi.

One thought on “The Singur Act and the Deontological Reaction: Prasanta Chakravarty”

  1. Intrinsically the motive behind the bill iitself is “deontological” and is praiseworthy- first, the election promise has to be kept and second, the unused land should be returned to the owners of the land.

    Let’s try to look at this bill from a “consequentialist” view. Broadly there’re two sets of farmers- one who accepted the cheques and others who didn’t. “Willing” and “unwilling” is not a mutually exclusive categorisation because there have been “unwilling” farmers who accepted cheques and there are “unwilling” farmers who couldn’t accept cheques because of title disputes etc. This bill returns x acres of land to the farmers who didn’t accept cheques and sets aside (1-x) acres for setting up industries. Let’s do a rough calculation of the costs and benefits- the people who accepted cheques have the compensation amount plus the interest on the compensation (if invested). On the other side, the opportunity cost has been the potential earnings due to the factory (if not for everyone, but for some) plus the foregone earning due to appeciation of the land rate. For the unwilling farmers the calculation will crucially depend on the nature of land rights they receive. If the land right is not absolute, then it’s difficult to see how they benefit financially. But if they possess the selling rights, then they can gain from the appreciation of the land price, which may be substantial if the industry is actually set up on those (1-x) acres. Assuming that the selling rights are given and the average interest rate is much less then the appreciation rate of the land price, it’s probably the farmers who didn’t accept the cheques gain substantially. That’s where the principle of equity may be violated. There’s no overarching moral or legal principle to differentiate between these two sets of farmers. So it’s not clear if the government is able to reacquire the land, why shouldn’t they listen to all the afftected farmers and compensate them accordingly? If some farmers want to return the cheque to get back the land, it’s not clear why they shouldn’t be allowed to do so. If the land acquisition by the state for private industry is a flawed paradigm ( which is stated clearly in the draft land policy of the new government), then all the land should be returned. It’s not clear how those (1-x) acres of land still remain a legitimate candidate for industrial set-up.

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