Nandigram – An Introduction to Political Analysis

Nandigram 2007, Image courtesy Kolkata24x7

Mamata Banerjee recently stirred up a fresh new controversy by accusing her former party colleague Suvendu Adhikari, now adversary in the Nandigram Assembly seat as BJP candidate, of being complicit in the 14 March 2007 violence. Had it not been for the complicity of the ‘father-son duo’ (Suvendu and his father Sisir Adhikari, both in the BJP now), she claimed in the heat of the electoral campaign, the police could not have entered Nandigram. She also asked rhetorically how it came to be that these two were spared by the police? To my mind, the claims seem difficult to sustain, if only because, the CPI(M) was at the height of its power and would have had little to do with these Trinamool Congress leaders. Listening to her speak, it did seem that she was quite rattled. Who would not be – with Amit Shah and central government on one side, the aggressive BJP goons in the state, her erstwhile collaborators now on the BJP side and, to cap it all, the aggressive, misogynist, patriarchal campaign against her from the CPI(M)? One meme by people obviously linked to the CPM, for instance, portrayed her witch-like, with a haggard and wicked expression, which was counter-posed to the young beauteous CPI(M) candidate Meenakshi Mukherjee. The meme describes Meenakshi as the ‘beloved daughter of Bengal’, while Mamata is described as the ‘old hag spinster sister-in-law’. (After a lot of hue and cry, this meme was taken off though the page continues to be on Facebook).

This meme was put up on a fictitious Facebook page by the name All India Bijemool Party, which is the CPI(M)’s way of describing what is sees as covert alliance between the BJP and TMC

The interesting thing was that no sooner had Mamata’s words against the Adhikaris been uttered, than the CPI(M) machinery went into an overdrive, claiming it was a ‘confession’ and ‘revelation’! Mamata, they said, had now herself accepted her party was involved in the conspiracy that led to the violence, leading to the killing of 14 people on 14 March 2007. Suddenly, everywhere the CPI(M) was washing its hands off the violent incidents and posing as the victim of a ‘conspiracy’. ‘Conspiracy’ is what it had all along ferreted out as it stock ‘explanation’ for what had happened.

True, Mamata did mention that influx of people in police uniforms, wearing slippers but there was nowhere any implication that they were TMC people. There was absolutely nothing for the CPI(M) to start jumping up and down in joy – for all she was suggesting (wrongly maybe) was that the Adhikaris had been in cahoots with the administration and the police. The reference to men in police uniform, wearing slippers, was however nothing new. This had been mentioned repeatedly by the local population to the various fact-finding committees that had visited Nandigram, even as people battled for their lives in hospitals. Here is an extract from one such report that was produced by a team comprising Medha Patkar (NBA and NAPM), D. Thankappan (NewTrade Union Initiative), B.D. Sharma (Bharat Jan Andolan), Tridib Ghosh (People’s Democratic Front of India), G.N. Saibaba (Prep Committee for the Formation of Anti-Displacement Front), Arun Khote (National Campaign for Dalit Human Rights), Rakesh Rafique (Yuva Bharat), Ram Dhiraj (Azadi Bachao Andolan), Srimant (Kalinganagar Movement) and Meher Engineer (Scientist and Academician):

‘According to the oral narrations of the villagers, the police resorted to firing while the CPI (M) cadres were directing them closely. The CPI (M) cadres, mostly mobilized from outside these villages were in khaki uniform but wearing chappals. The women in Adhikaripara in Gokulnagar clearly told us that the uniforms didn’t fit most of them and they wore Red tags on their wrists. The villagers referred to these khaki clad non-police personnel as cadre Vahini or Harmad Vahini. The people in the villages namely Sonachura, Tekhali Bazaar, Gokul nagar Panchayat reported us that this ‘Harmad Vahini’ entered their villages in hundreds from the Khejuri side. These cadres fired indiscriminately from local made and imported weapons and the hospital authorities confirmed that injury marks of bullets other than those used by the police have been found on the victims.’

No less important, is the following, from the same report that I have cited above:

‘The local press reports make it very clear that the state Government and Midnapore police administration were well prepared for the attack on the villagers which is corroborated by the people’s narration. For example the Midnapore police administration requested for 40,000 rounds of ammunition and 40 ambulances from the state administration a few days before the incident. This clearly shows that the whole attack on the villagers was well planned one whereas the people were totally unprepared for this brutality.’

A Digression on Method

In this brief post I really do not wish to discuss the facts of the case as there are any number of independent, non-partisan reports that are freely available. What I am interested in here is something that we were taught as young M.A. students in political science, namely how does one analyze political processes or events? In fact, we had a course entitled ‘Introduction to Political Analysis’, which dealt with various approaches that were in vogue in those days – from structural-functionalism and functionalism to structuralism on the one hand and statistical methods on the other.  Even in our school days, where things were often dealt with at extremely simplistic levels, we would be asked to enumerate for example, the ’causes for the fall of the Mughal Empire’. There would never be a single ’cause’ and you most certainly could not answer that it fell because of an imperialist conspiracy by the East India Company!

Our understanding of  ‘causality’ has come a long way since and few today will make arguments in terms of a single linear cause-effect relationship, I suspect even at school level.

Indeed, debates acquired great sophistication and depth, especially within the Marxist tradition with our understanding of politics complicated further by the idea that it could no longer be understood as something that happens in the political domain alone. The idea was that structures of class, class interests and matters of political economy – all had a lot to do with how politics was played out. In its crasser and vulgar versions, this simply led to a reduction of politics to a play of class interests or the dialectic of productive forces and production relations but that is the least interesting part.

The really interesting debates occurred around ‘structure’ and ‘agency’; around questions of ‘ideology’ and the ways in which political subjectivities are constituted; the idea of ‘contradictions’ and their different aspects, and how they move, or relate to, each other at any given point of time – all these opened up fascinating and little explored dimensions of ‘causality’. Indeed, such theorizations open new ways of understanding complex life situations in terms of the accumulation of effects and circumstances: the move from a simple contradiction (say capital versus labour) to the idea of a complex overdetermined contradiction (e.g. peasant versus capital, fusing with a ruling Left’s crisis of hegemony, its insertion within a neoliberal configuration) – none of which translate directly into the simple logic of the ‘self-movement’ of the totality. Breaks and ruptures, often entirely unexpected, take place as a result.

One can actually go on and on but let me stop here and say that even our ordinary school text books at least enumerated a large number of factors that perhaps combined to lead to the fall of the Mughal Empire. These ’causes’ were never only ‘political’ (e.g. Aurangzeb’s policies) but also brought in references to the economy (taxes, economic bankruptcy etc), religion and such other aspects. It is true that we did not have an account of the relation in which these different factors stood with respect to each other, nor did we have a more complex idea of the ‘structure’ and the contradictory elements that comprise it but any child who had been through those classes would find it laughable that the mighty Left Front government that had remained invincible for 34 years, fell simply because of ‘a conspiracy’. 

The manner in which so many of the CPI(M) linked intellectuals and activists saw Mamata’s statement as a ‘revelation’ that ‘proved’ their well-rehearsed conspiracy theory actually makes me think the malaise runs really deep. Now what exactly is this conspiracy theory? In a series of articles written by Brinda Karat in late 2006 and early 2007, the idea of a conspiracy had been repeatedly pushed. The CPI(ML) Liberation had responded in detail to the key issues raised in these articles and since it summed up the CPI(M) position quite well, I quote from their response:

‘Behind the events at Nandigram, says Brinda Karat, is no peasant resistance against corporate land grab. It’s not ‘bhumi ucched’ (eviction from land) but ‘CPI(M) ucched’ (evict CPI(M)) that’s up, she says.’

‘The firing it is said is regrettable, but it’s the gang-up of Trinamool-Naxalites-Jamaat that really has to take the blame for the killings, because they attacked the police who were forced to fire to disperse the crowd. As a result, “in the crossfire that ensued, as always, innocent people became victims”. It’s the CPI(M) supporters who’re the victims of a cleansing operation – contrary to the reports of all independent fact-finding teams. And ‘foreign-funded’, US-backed enemies of communists are spreading canards about large-scale participation of CPI(M) cadre in the March 14 operation, and about sexual assaults on women….’

‘Brinda Karat also allege(d) a US conspiracy angle, saying a US official met with “a leader of the minority community”.’

This is the position that the CPI(M) had started pushing very aggressively again in the last few days. If these were the statements made in 2007 and this was the line being peddled at that time, did the humiliating electoral defeats, first in the panchayat elections, then in the 2009 Lok Sabha elections and finally in 2011 State Assembly elections make any difference to their understanding? Did they at least try introspecting in retrospect? Let us assume for the moment that the situation was not quite clear in 2007, did the CPI(M) leadership think that the later rapid turning away of the people from it and the Left Front was also a ‘conspiracy’ hatched by the TMC-Naxal-Jamaat-US combine?  And how do they explain the fact they have since lost more and more voters and votes in each successive election? Can all that be explained too with reference to a conspiracy theory?

Actually, the CPI(M) stance begs the question in the first place, with respect to the very idea of a ‘CPI(M) uchchhed’ conspiracy. The leaders were so convinced then (and seem to be even now), that they were in the right, that any opposition to any of their acts could only have looked like a conspiracy to them.

Understanding Nandigram 2007

The fact of the matter is that in May 2006 the CPI(M) and the Left Front had won an unprecedented victory in the state elections, cornering 235 seats and with a little over 50 percent of the votes polled. This was as good as it ever got, especially because, in comparison to the 2001 elections, the LF more or less retained its votes share and the TMC had lost about 4 percent votes. Of course, the huge increase in the number of seats gave the impression to everyone, including the CPI(M) itself that it was really invincible and that Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee was really being seen as the poster boy of Bengal’s New (Industrial) Renaissance. He had made bold statements that the previous decades had been lost decades and that Bengal now urgently needed industrial growth. With a largely secure peasant/ rural base intact, and this slogan raising hopes among the upwardly mobile consuming middle classes, the CPI(M) under Buddhadeb’s leadership was set to be a sure winner. The figure of Buddhadeb Bhattarjee, combined with the Left’s image of a party of the peasants and rural poor produced a powerful, if inherently unstable, combination. The aspirations of the  peasantry as well as the well-to-do consuming middle class cold for some time be expressed through this figure. After all, till May 2006, the meaning of ‘industrialization’ had not become clear to the long-standing rural peasant base of the party.

However, already by June 2006, rumours were circulating that there would be massive land acquisition in Nandigram for the setting up of a chemical industrial hub in the area. But before the Nandigram peasants, it was the peasants of Singur who came in for a shock. Land was acquired without any consent under the colonial 1894 Land Acquisition Act and one fine day, the administration and police forces simply landed up to fence off the land earmarked for the Tatas’ Nano factory. Massive resistance ensued, followed by violence, which even many middle class people watched on television in utter disbelief and horror. The fenced off area was guarded by the police and the CPI(M) cadre as well, leaving no one in any doubt that this was the party’s project, not some administrative lapse. That was when Nandigram peasants realized that like the Singur peasants had been dispossessed of their land, soon it was going to be their turn. Like the Krishijami Bachao Committee (Save Farmland Committee) in Singur, a Bhumi Uchchhed Pratirodh Committee too came up in Nandigram to conduct the struggle. The CPI(M), which is no stranger to mass movements knows full well that such a committee would necessarily be a broad platform that would include all forces active in the area.

But the fact of the matter is that Mamata Banerjee and the TMC were not the leaders of either Singur or Nandigram movements. In fact, it was as much of a peasant movement as are the ongoing farmers’ struggle is, where the Narendra Modi government uses exactly the same language to discredit it as the CPI(M) had used in the case of Nandigram.  Both Modi and Shah now and the CPI(M) then see/saw the movements as instigated by the Opposition, by anti-national forces (Brinda Karat’s US-minority community linkage). The difference is that by now, the ongoing farmers’ struggle has realized that it is necessary to keep all political parties at an arms length but in Bengal, at a later stage, the TMC managed to step in to support and mobilize support for the movement.

What is critical to understand here is that this was an almost overnight change of scenario for a government that had come to power with such a massive electoral backing. This could not have happened without the Singur-Nandigram episode that turned the party into an enemy, leading to a sudden ‘crisis of hegemony’ and the rapid movement of masses of people from one camp to another. The CPI(M) narrative – then and now – pretends as if all this simply did not happen and some devilish conspiracy just materialized out of nowhere, which brought the TMC, Naxals and Jamaat all together on a single platform.

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