Counterpoint: Lesson from Nandigram
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Counterpoint: Lesson from Nandigram

The lesson of Nandigram is about the true nature of the CPM, writes Vir Sanghvi.

india Updated: Nov 18, 2007 19:22 IST

Judging by the things I have seen and read over the last week, there are two broad responses to the events that occurred at Nandigram. Both responses are reasonable and fair — even if they contradict each other — but they seem to me to miss the point, nevertheless.

The first response is the one that emanates from those who may be described as Left-leaning intellectuals and fellow travellers. A variation of this argument is also advanced by the CPM’s political enemies.

According to this position, the poor people who were attacked in Nandigram were asserting their fundamental rights to hang on to their property and to prevent their farms from being seized. It is shocking that the CPM — long regarded as a friend of the poor — should have been so unsympathetic to their cause. And it is appalling that brute force was used to make some of India’s poorest people give up the little pieces of land that they could call their own.

An extension of this response relates to the methods that were used to recapture Nandigram: the allegations of rape, the violence against journalists, the charges of murder etc. These have been widely condemned and the condemnation is understandable.

The second response is unusual in that it unites two completely different ideological groupings: the CII and the CPM. Many industrialists and hardcore party members believe that there was no alternative to the events of last week, no matter how shocking they seem to liberals.

If the CPM had not acted in Nandigram then the entire process of industrialisation would have been halted. It would have become impossible for any state government anywhere to have acquired any land for industrial purposes. The SEZ proposals are already on hold.

But now, no new factory could have come up because farmers and activists would have prevented the acquisition of the land it needed.

Moreover, you have to look at the forces that were active in Nandigram. It is always tempting to attack the CPM given its self-righteous air and the spoilt-brat behaviour it has exhibited as part of the UPA coalition. But Nandigram was controlled by extremist outfits that were so far beyond the pale that they posed a threat to India’s democratic system. Islamist elements were present in large numbers as were Maoists who are committed to overthrowing the Indian state.

There was no alternative to the operation that allowed the CPM to regain control of Nandigram. To have allowed the extremists to flourish would have been to threaten the very foundations of the Indian state.

As I said, both positions have their strengths. On balance, however, the second position has much more merit. None of us is ever happy about the forcible acquisition of land. Equally, we have to accept that it is exactly through such methods that industrialisation and development have taken place all over the world. The best we can hope for is that anybody who is made to give up his or her land — for a factory, for a road, for a railway line etc — is adequately compensated and offered alternative land somewhere else.

The argument about extremists is also well taken. Whatever our views on the CPM, it can never be right for a district to declare itself autonomous of the Indian state and under the control of revolutionary elements. At some stage, the rule of law has to be reimposed and the extremists have to be thrown out.

So why do I think that both responses miss the point?

Well, because they are based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the true nature of the CPM. I wrote, some months ago, about the gulf between the way in which anybody who has ever lived in CPM-controlled Calcutta views the party and the glamourised notion that liberals with no real experience of CPM rule have of the hard Left.

Sitting in Delhi or Bombay, we see the CPM as a bunch of democratic communists, of overgrown student leaders who may be committed to an outdated and obsolete ideology but whose hearts are in the right place and who are deeply committed to the plight of the less fortunate.

If you live in the CPM’s Bengal, however, you recognise the party for what it truly is: a rigidly disciplined totalitarian outfit which depends on murderous cadres and which has no real patience with democracy or dissent. When we treat the CPM as just another political party, we make a serious mistake. The Congress may have been inspired by the Fabians and the British Labour Party. The BJP may seek inspiration from Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative Party.

But the CPM’s models all come from deeply undemocratic regimes. The CPM began as part of the CPI, a communist party which first venerated the murderous Josef Stalin who killed 20 million people and then went on to support succeeding Soviet regimes that sent dissidents to Gulags. When the CPM broke away from the CPI, it was largely because it supported China rather than Russia (even when China was fighting India). And Chinese communism was as undemocratic as the Russian version. I am not sure if Mao Tse Tung killed as many people as Josef Stalin did but my guess is he came close. Chinese communism led to massacres, tyranny, the complete suppression of human rights and to totalitarianism on a level that was previously unimaginable.

These are the CPM’s models. These are the murderous dictators that its leaders worshipped when they were growing up. And it is this legacy that the CPM epitomises.

Integral to the communist notion of governance is that there is no difference between the party and the state. In Russia and in China, party designations counted for much more than government posts. Even here, the CPM Politburo has more clout than elected chief ministers. When Jyoti Basu wanted to accept the prime ministership, it was the Politburo that had the power to stop him. And two months ago, Prakash Karat, a man who has never won any democratic election outside of his own party organisation, nearly forced India into a general election that two of his party chief ministers wanted desperately to avoid.

You need to understand this background to recognise what really happened in Nandigram. Yes, it is true that land acquisition is a fact of life. And it is as true that the state had to reassert control over the troubled district.

But that doesn’t explain the events of last week. If it was the state that had to impose the rule of law, then why didn’t the West Bengal government send in the police? Instead, it was armed CPM cadres who went into Nandigram and fought pitched battles with the extremists, killing and raping villagers in the process while simultaneously assaulting the media to prevent their violent acts from being recorded.

All this was because the CPM, in the manner of all communist parties, sees no distinction between the party and the state, between the cadres and the police and between the enemies of the party and the enemies of the nation.

Even if Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee had been unable to regain control of Nandigram, he could have done what any other chief minister would have and asked Delhi for central forces or, even, the army. But that is not the CPM’s way. It treats any threat to the order in West Bengal as a threat to the party. And like all totalitarian parties, it uses its cadres to re-impose its dominance on wayward elements.

Anybody who thinks that the true lesson of Nandigram is about the poor man’s right to hold on to his land or to the imposition of the rule of law on extremists misses the point. The debate about acquisition is an old one and there can be no dispute over the need to fight extremism.

The lesson of Nandigram is not about any of those things. It is about the true nature of the CPM, a totalitarian party that does not recognise the difference between the rule of law and the rule of the Politburo. If Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee had used the instruments of the state to regain control of Nandigram, many of us would have supported him.

But at the end of the day, he is a communist by instinct and training. So, he fell back on his cadres. And now, he has only himself to blame as he is forced to defend their murders and rapes. In the process, he has transformed what should have been an operation by the Indian state against extremist elements into a fight between two communist outfits: the powerful CPM and the less powerful Maoists.

First Published: Nov 17, 2007 20:51 IST