A new Nandigram is brewing in Hijolna. The people of this fertile hamlet on the banks of river Damodar live their days in mortal fear. The roads they have dug up haven’t been able to keep out the daily police raids. Many are regularly rounded up on “false charges” and roughed up. Pushed to desperation, many live their nights out in the fields. When we reach the hamlet at the end of a bumpy ride in the dead of the night, some villagers proudly proclaim, “The day belongs to the police, but the night belongs to us.” It wasn’t always so in this village in West Bengal’s Bardhaman district; but things turned for the macabre right after the panchayat elections in mid-2008.
The problem was that the Communist Party of India (Marxist), whose local cadres often referred to this area as “a red fort within the red fort of Bardhaman, within the red fort of Bengal”, lost 14 of the 20 seats in the area. This loss-of-face had been foretold. In 2003, Bamdeb Mondal, a prominent member of the CPI(M) local committee for two decades, had resigned, as had many other party members protesting rampant corruption. “I had to go underground immediately,” says the 43-year-old, who emerges from the dark of the night only after about a dozen people have “checked us out”. “You must understand that the CPI(M) itself operates as a mafia organisation — you cannot resign from it.” Between August 2008 and now, 23 police cases have been slapped on Mondal, some of them alleging murder.
It’s indeed difficult to ‘resign’ from this party — the only one in our parliamentary democracy that maintains such a large, orderly legion of cadres (the RSS, of course, is not in the fray). General-secretary Prakash Karat claims that his party, that currently has a million-strong cadre base across the country, drops one it every ten of them every year “for failing to do their duties”. According to the party constitution, there are 11 duties including paying a portion of their earnings to the party as “levy” and even “reading and popularising party journals”. Without a hint of irony, the same 1968 constitution also allows the party to expel any member who has resigned and has been found to have been standing out of line.
The ‘rectification campaign’, as party documents call it, reminds one of purges from a bygone era. On a pasteboard in the party’s headquarters at A.K. Gopalan Bhavan in New Delhi is the British translation of the Left’s well-known leitmotif, ‘The Internationale’. One chilling para reads: “And if those cannibals keep trying/To sacrifice us to their pride/They soon shall hear the bullets flying/We’ll shoot the generals on our own side.”
Now that this unique cadre-based party has taken the historic decision to join the Central government “in alliance with secular, progressive parties” for the first time, surely it merits a closer look. After all, it has come 58 long years after the party’s all-powerful Central committee (of the then united CPI) took the much-debated decision of joining parliamentary democracy, 41 years after it first considered joining the Central government (when it decided not to join a formation where it couldn’t decide policies), and 12 years after patriarch Jyoti Basu commented that not joining the
Central government was a “historic blunder”.
And in slicing the political petri dish, surely no situation would be better than West Bengal, the state where the party
has created a record by being in power for 32 uninterrupted years (it currently holds 26 of the state’s 42 Lok Sabha seats). The state’s also a prime pick for looking at this unique cadre base — those who have to stay close to the electorate all the time, not just around elections — because it accounts for almost a third of the national membership (Kerala accounts for another third).
It’s not easy to get into the ranks of this order. One is first logged as an auxiliary member (called upon to do some duties) and then a candidate member (can sit in at meetings, but cannot vote), before being inducted as a permanent or party member. The politburo and Central committee is picked in a chain of elections up the party structure through the local, zonal, district and state levels. Once elected, the party’s ‘democratic centralism’ commands that all policy matters be decided centrally.
Amal Haldar, chief of the Bardhaman district committee, adds that he has introduced another layer of workers — the ‘party team’, comprising ones that may one day graduate to auxiliary membership. But before he explains his new organisational plan, we hear Haldar speaking to the local police as we wait outside in his new 3,600-square-foot glass-chrome-and-granite office. “Just hand over to us the guys who beat up our man... No, we do not want to disturb the villagers... We’ll take care of the guys only.”
Beaten by one’s own
If the CPI(M) cadre has been accused of inflicting violence, he is also at the receiving end of unprecedented violence in recent times. Forget the three-decade-old gory trail left in Kannur in Kerala; there have been 43 ‘martyrs’ in West Bengal over the last seven months, five of them on March 19. Apart from the Maoists, Karat sees this as a “concerted effort” of the forces arraigned on the other side.
Partha Chatterjee, leader of the Opposition in West Bengal Assembly and general-secretary of Trinamool Congress, takes a call in the middle of a conversation. “Why should we lay back and face this violence every other day?” he says angrily. “Why don’t you get some people from outside and beat up the CPI(M) goondas? Should I come over and get it done?” He turns to me and says in an explaining tone, “Hitting out has become a culture. The days of ideology are gone.” In the last two years, more than 3,000 former CPI(M) party members are estimated to have joined Chatterjee’s outfit. (Some such recent converts were spotted by this writer not long ago in Singur, drinking liquor in the afternoon sitting not far from where Trinamool leader Mamata Banerjee was hollering on the mike.)
Though Karat in Delhi waves away this shift in the popular image of the Bengal cadre as “lies spread by the bourgeois press”, Biman Bose, state secretary and one who celebrated 50 years as a party member last year, agrees there has been a rot. “For the last few years, we haven’t been able to properly carry out educational programmes within the party because of far too many elections… That has hampered our quality improvement.”
Some old-timers are much more disgruntled. “All talks of Communist ideology is rhetoric now,” says one of the senior-most former CPI(M) parliamentarians on the condition of anonymity. “The party is now talking about prime-ministership too, but it’s at its weakest... The cadre is very diffident, very uncertain about the future. CITU is today the weakest among the central trade unions.”
When asked what the battered cadre would do to retaliate, in Delhi, Central secretariat member Nilotpal Basu says, “Can you understand what would happen if we became violent?” It’s a thinly veiled threat held out by almost all levels of functionaries in the party. While reminding one of the “killings and false cases” inflicted upon the CPI(M) in the early 1970s, in Kolkata, Bose says, “We have never struck first.”
Whatever be the rationalisation, there is a popular expression in West Bengal today that stands for CPI(M) goons: “Harmad vahini”. It’s named after pillaging pirates who used to wash up on Bengal’s coasts centuries ago. The phrase gained coinage at a village situated 6 km from the coast: Nandigram.
Will the paranoid survive?
So how does the party, one that invented ‘remote control politics’ much before it was ascribed to Shiv Sena chief Bal Thackeray, explain to the masses the indifferent performance of its own state government on so many sectors including education, employment and infrastructure? As an aberration to parliamentary democracy, the party leader is often as powerful — if not more — than the state chief minister.
On this, too, there’s unity down the ranks. Karat says, “We educate them to tell the people that not everything can be provided by the state government; the Centre is responsible for much.” Partha Mukherjee, head of the party’s zonal unit in the coal-belt town of Asansol, explains, “For example, when implementing the Nehru Urban Renewal Mission in a couple of wards of the town, we tell the others, ‘See, the Centre will never have a policy that can cover everyone simultaneously. So that reluctantly we have to choose’.”
This externalisation of blame is extended to another extreme. Biman Bose claims that the CIA is still trying to destabilise the Communist governments of the country. When asked how they are doing so in West Bengal at the moment, he replies, “Through the NGOs, of course.”
Bose’s eyes were probably on Nandigram, that attracted such outfits in droves not long back. But Abu Sufian, who shifted to Trinamool in 2003 after being the Nandigram panchayat pradhan from the CPI(M) camp, throws up his hands as he says, “Where are those NGOs now?” And, for good measure, adds: “Where are the Maoists who are said to have incited violence here?” (Sufian, too, has 35 police cases on his head, all lodged in the last two years.)
Though that’s not a fact verifiable over an afternoon, it’s abundantly clear that Nandigram is far from being quiet — even long after the NGOs have come and gone. We meet Shaikh Kaji, 42, the head of the local farmers’ cooperative and a Trinamool leader, with a swollen, bruised cheek. He had been beaten a couple of days back. But while walking with us in Nandigram, he points towards Nandigram’s border. “There,” he says, “that’s where my brother was killed last year.”
(With inputs from Mohammad Asif)