This time the violence has unfolded behind a veil of intrigue and secrecy. Unlike in March, when an entire country watched horrified as police guns pummelled unarmed villagers with bullets and bulldozed their way through Nandigram, this week Marxist foot soldiers made sure that blockades and threats and the stealth of the night would keep them protected from public gaze.
But, as horror stories managed to break through the shroud of silence — bone chilling stories of rape, plunder and murder — the West Bengal Chief Minister gave away the game himself. With the transparent aggression that marks a man with a guilty conscience, he flared up in rare anger and told journalists that the protestors in Nandigram been “paid back in their own coin.”
And so, just like that, the mask was off.
There wasn’t even a feeble attempt to deny that CPM cadres had been permitted by the party to storm their way back into Nandigram. If they had to shoot, kill and rape to make their way back in, so be it. No explanations were provided for why central paramilitary forces were sent in only after the Left’s militia was firmly back at home base. No apologies were offered for why a state government in democratic India should need to wage an extra-constitutional war. Other than contempt and criticism, there was no response at all to the high-minded public lament by Governor Gopalkrishna Gandhi. As far as the Chief Minister was concerned his party’s private army had “retaliated in desperation”.
Twenty fours later, after a storm of protests over his remarks, Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee had another opportunity to take back his words, or make a retraction that is standard for politicians. He didn’t bother. Instead, he took it all one step further by declaring that he stood by his comments because he could not forget his “political identity” and he was “not above the party”.
But what happened to not being above the law? <b1>
Nandigram may well be a complex cocktail of contradictory ingredients distilled into oversimplification by a liberal media. Its faultlines run through several layers of debate. Economics marked out the original battle-lines between different models of development. Politics catapulted the always-dramatic Mamata Bannerjee into the role of a lifetime. Religious politics and a sizeable Muslim population created an opportunity for the reactionary Jamiat-Ulema-e-Hind to play to stereotype and oppose “imperialism”. And a contentious land acquisition policy (made worse by a blundering administration) set the stage for a violent face-off between the Marxists and the Maoists.
So, the Left may even have a point when it argues that it’s not just hapless farmers lining the trenches in the Nandigram war.
But, no matter how many varied (and vested) interests make up the opposition in Nandigram, how can any government possibly justify this kind of illegal storm-trooping? How can a state’s police force and an entire administration look the other way while vigilante armies set foot on the path of ‘justice’?
It wasn’t the BJP, but Left-leaning historian Sumit Sarkar who first compared the anarchy in Nandigram to the riots in Gujarat. The rest of us may baulk at the analogy and argue passionately against such dangerous generalisations.
But, if you stop and think more about it for a moment, here’s what you may come up against. The anti-Muslim violence in Gujarat in 2002 was made possible by a state government that refused to intervene and stop it. The motivation of the principal players in Bengal may be entirely different from the communal poison that fuelled the riots. But once democratic governments start arguing that in certain circumstances it is permissible for the administration to lapse into deliberate paralysis, you are entering terribly dangerous territory. Who gets to determine when it’s justified for law-makers to temporarily terminate the rules of governance?
The Marxists don’t do themselves justice either by arguing against a debate on Nandigram in Parliament because it is a “state subject”. Its comments may be driven by political opportunity, but the BJP is perfectly placed to ask why it was valid to treat the violence in Gujarat as a matter of national concern, but not the contentious state action and inaction in Bengal. Nandigram is already under national scrutiny — not least because of the UPA’s own indefensible hands-off attitude to the violence (conspiracy theorists shouldn’t be blamed for seeing a quid pro quo take shape on the nuclear deal). The desire to keep it out of Parliament smacks of dogma and defensiveness.
And finally, there’s an interesting leitmotif running through Corporate India’s response to eruptions of such social turbulence. No less a man than Ratan Tata was willing to stand shoulder to shoulder with Narendra Modi and laud the investment-friendly environment of a “vibrant Gujarat”. The other social indices seem irrelevant to India’s billionaires.
Big Business has had a similar response to Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee — projecting him as the brave, reformist Chief Minister fighting a lonely but modern battle to shift the paradigm of an archaic ideology. Admittedly, after two long conversations with him a few months back, I too, came away with the same impression. His voice dropped to a trembling whisper at times as he described the lonely determination of pushing ahead with industrialisation. And one couldn’t help commiserate with him on the pulls and pressures within his own party.
Most of us are impatient with the activism of professional do-gooders who reflexively oppose every act of liberalisation. We recognise the shallowness of their rhetoric and are impatient with the staleness of their rehearsed opposition. But how does one explain or justify the repeated and brazen blunders of the state government? How does one defend a state that allows no autonomy of thought or action to its police force? If the violence was fomented by Maoists, why did a party that wears its social liberalism as a badge of honour stop the media from entering Nandigram? What about the people’s right to know?
After two eruptions of political violence in Nandigram, the dispute has gone much beyond a debate over economic reform. The controversy is no longer confined to whether an Indonesian chemical plant should have been allowed to come up in villages that don’t want it.
It’s now only about one thing — the abject failure of governance. And to borrow a phrase from the Left, the state government will eventually be paid back in its own coin.
Barkha Dutt is Managing Editor, NDTV 24x7