The CPI(M) leadership in West Bengal is publicly repentant, but its rank and file is not.
Chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee routinely apologises for his party’s interference in the private lives of citizens, but his exhortations to his party cadres fall on deaf ears.
Local party units in rural Bengal often functioned as the de facto judiciary, much like the khap panchayats in some northern states. These kangaroo courts, presided over by local party functionaries, decided on disputes over marriages, divorces, properties, inheritance, school admissions, jobs and even criminal cases.
No appeals were allowed and no one dared disobey the party’s diktat or approach a regular court. Party leaders ordered social boycotts of families — often leading to their complete destitution — to ensure obedience. Fear and the almost complete absence of a credible opposition party whom people could turn to ensured total compliance with its decrees.
But now, with the CPI(M)’s fortunes perceived to be on the wane, that fear is receding and people are coming out openly against this takeover of their lives.
The senior CPI(M) leadership has taken note. “We have told our party leaders and workers to stop lording over the lives of common people. Civil society has its normal flow of life and unnecessary interference is wrong… We have told our workers: Stop this interference,” Bhattacharjee told a press conference on March 23. Days later, at his first poll rally in Jadavpur, his constituency, he apologised for “the interference by our cadre in the personal lives of people”.
Purnima Biswas, 28, was gangraped in May 2005. The daughter of a farmer in Jagannathpur village, 50 km west of Kolkata, she belonged to a family that benefited from Operation Barga — the Left Front’s programme to give landless farmers ownership of the land they tilled.
But the rapists were locally influential. The police shooed away her family when it went to lodge a complaint and the local CPI(M) unit refused to help. A local party leader alleged that she had a “bad character” and claimed to have seen her in an “obscene situation” with a local youth, whom, Biswas said, she didn’t even know then. She would, he decreed, have to marry that man.
Her protests fell on deaf ears. Such was the clout wielded by the party back in 2005 that she had to give in to its wishes. The party got its way, but the Trinamool Congress, which had only a marginal presence in the area, gained another supporter.
Malati Topdar (37), a housewife in Nadia, 100 km north of Kolkata, who had an affair with a neighbour, was called to local the party office by Sujoy Biswas, member of the CPI (M)-run gram panchayat and told that she would have to divorce Sutanu Topdar, her husband, leave her six-year-old daughter at her in-law’s house and return to her parents. “I was given just 72 hours to pack my stuff and return,” she told HT.
An agreement was drawn up between Sutanu and Malati, which Biswas signed as a witness. Biswas remains unrepentant. “I did it to maintain peace in the locality,” he said.
HT came across at least seven such cases.
Said Partha Chatterjee, Trinamool Congress leader and leader of the opposition in the West Bengal assembly, “This is nothing new in West Bengal. CPI (M) leaders have routinely ordered social boycotts of people who disobey them.”
Senior CPI (M) leader and MP Mohammad Salim evaded a direct question on the issue. “You’d better ask the local leadership (of the party in the areas mentioned above),” he said.
But leaders lower down still refuse to read the writing on the wall. “The allegations are all baseless. The Trinamool is now concocting stories to malign us,” said Arup Basu Mallik, CPI(M) zonal committee secretary in Hoogly district’s Jangipara.