Subscribe to South Asia Citizens Wire | feeds from | @sacw

India: Violence on the Left

Nandigram and the Communists of West Bengal

by Martha C. Nussbaum, 21 September 2008

print version of this article print version

Dissent, Spring 2008

AFTER A PERIOD of relative impotence, the Hindu-supremacist right in India has rebounded, with the December reelection of Bharatiya Janata Party candidate Narendra Modi as chief minister in Gujarat. Modi’s role in the mass murders of Muslims in that state in February 2002 has long been so well documented that he has been denied a visa to enter the United States. Recently, moreover, extensive corroboration of his role was elicited by a hidden-camera inquiry conducted by the news-magazine Tehelka. Despite overwhelming evidence that he is a mass murderer extraordinaire—or perhaps, because of it—Modi defied media predictions, and even exit polls, to win by a landslide, a victory in which fund-raising and politicking by Indians residing in the United States (40 percent of Indian Americans are Gujarati) played a large role. Because the rival Congress Party, which controls the central government in a coalition, understands well the intense hatred of Muslims that animates many Gujarati Hindus, leading politicians tiptoed around the issue of sectarian violence, hoping to defeat the BJP in Gujarat on its weak economic record. Only Sonia Gandhi, courageously and repeatedly, denounced Modi’s reign of blood. (American Gujaratis responded with an e-mail campaign denouncing Gandhi in abusive language.) Hitler is revered as a hero in school textbooks in Gujarat. In Modi, those who worship at that shrine seem to have found the type of leader they seek. Let’s hope that the nation as a whole does not embrace his charismatic call to hate.

Meanwhile, however, violence has been in the news from a very different part of the Indian political spectrum. People connected to the Communist government of West Bengal have been guilty of some extremely vile actions, including rape and murder, toward dissident peasants, in a struggle over land acquisition, and the government has done nothing to prevent these terrible things. This struggle has split the Indian left, between those who think that people on the left must maintain solidarity in the face of right-wing threats and those who insist on calling murder murder no matter who does it. It’s a conflict from which we can learn a lot, not only about Indian politics but also about what stance a contemporary left movement can reasonably and morally take on rural development issues.

West Bengal’s Communist Regime
Communist parties played a significant role after independence in two Indian states, West Bengal and Kerala, but they rose to power only in the late 1960s. The Communist Party of India split in 1964 over the Sino-Indian War. The party currently dominant in West Bengal, known as the CPI(M) (Communist Party of India, Marxist) backed China and initially opposed democratic nationalism. Nonetheless, despite grumbling about “bourgeois democracy,” the party gradually came to accept a nation-friendly parliamentary role, espousing democracy, if with less than wholehearted enthusiasm. Significantly, Stalinism was never formally repudiated. Economist Amartya Sen tells of explaining to his daughter, around 1975, who that mustached man was on the huge posters in Howrah station, Kolkata: “Look at him carefully, Indrani, since you will not see his picture anywhere else in the world any more.” In 1977 the CPI(M) gained a majority in West Bengal, and it has ruled ever since. Jyoti Basu served as chief minister from 1977 until his retirement in 2000, when he was succeeded by the current chief minister, Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee.

Although land reform was approved by West Bengal’s precommunist government, it was implemented under the communists, and West Bengal and Kerala remain the only two Indian states that have had successful land reform. There is wide agreement on both left and right that reform of these states’ quasi-feudal system of land tenure was essential not only to social equity but also to economic development. In other respects, however, the situation of the rural poor has not prospered under communist leadership. The great power of labor unions has caused a loss of employment in both West Bengal and Kerala, as industry seeks more friendly climates in neighboring states.

ON THE CRUCIAL issues of health and education, Kerala’s Communists have performed far better than those in West Bengal, making the state, in some respects, a model of successful state-led development. Kerala provides universal health care and has achieved universal literacy among adolescents, through an aggressive and well-managed program of public education that includes the clever idea (pioneered in neighboring Tamil Nadu) of a nutritious midday meal, as a carrot to lead parents of working children to allow them to go to school. The Supreme Court of India has now said that all states must offer this meal, even specifying the number of calories it must contain (at least three hundred) and the number of grams of protein (eight to twelve). West Bengal, by contrast, has shown little creativity in either health or education. Infant mortality, it is true, is lower than in most Indian states, but distinctly higher than in Kerala. Maternal mortality figures are distressingly high, and a major cause is lack of access to decent health care in the rural areas. (A recent UNICEF report documents the alarming frequency with which women giving birth die because they simply cannot reach a hospital in time.)

In education, the Pratichi Trust (established by Sen with his Nobel Prize money) has found that the education of the rural poor is in a very bad way, owing to lack of facilities, teacher absenteeism (around 20 percent), and the disgraceful practice of “private tuition” (teaching for money in rich pupils’ homes after school, which gives incentives to teachers not to teach in school, a practice protected by the corrupt teachers’ union). So, the record of the CPI(M) is mixed at best. One might also mention the CPI(M)’s neglect of the once-superb university system: Kolkata was the intellectual capital of the nation, and is no longer.

Rural self-government through the panchayat system exists in West Bengal, and, indeed, the state took a leading role in pioneering that system. It would be wrong to think that the Communists are distinctive in their support for this system, which now exists throughout the nation, has enjoyed constitutional protection since 1992, and has different, Gandhian roots. Although some panchayats operate well, what too often characterizes the panchayat system in West Bengal is the dictatorial way it operates: one hears of CPI(M) officials marching illiterate voters to the polls en masse: “turning out the vote” has an all too literal meaning. Nor could one reasonably say that communism has made much progress in eradicating class and caste in government. Indeed, as those familiar with Bengali nomenclature can recognize from names alone, the ruling elites are all firmly upper-caste Hindu, from elite backgrounds. This is true in all the major political parties, but one might have hoped it would have been less true in the CPI(M). (Muslims in West Bengal, as in most other Indian states, are disproportionately poor and ill-educated.)

In Jyoti Basu, the CPI(M) had one of India’s most savvy politicians. Whatever his failures on health and education, Basu combined a deep commitment to social equality with a canny awareness of the ways in which communism, to work for people, must be tempered by economic realism. He argued that communism’s fundamental commitment was to human welfare, and that in the present-day world, Bengal could achieve this only by allying itself, for certain purposes, with capitalist investment. For some time, the state has sought to attract both domestic and foreign capital, trying to convince industrialists that doing business in the state needn’t make them hostage to endless labor difficulties. Basu was (and still is, at the age of ninety-three) a consummate persuader and a pragmatist, and he had, and has, a superb ability to convince people to depart from ideology for the sake of a perceived common good. One of the state’s current problems is that Bhattacharjee is a much less able man, a dogmatic, unmoving hedgehog to Basu’s wily fox.

The heart of the state’s current problems is the condition of rural agriculture. Although the state has done much to enhance the quality of rural agriculture, it cannot remain as heavily dependent upon agriculture as it has been, although there are those on the left who romanticize agriculture and resist industrialization as an evil. (This, too, was a Gandhian tradition.) If jobs are to be generated and incomes raised, industrial development is necessary. Effecting this shift will mean devoting less land to agriculture. The rural poor, however, are not eager to give up their land and their way of life. Why should they? The government that wants to effect such a transition peacefully will need to do more than offer fair value for land: it will need a long-term, well-established program of educational development and skills training, so that the people who are thrown off the land have employment opportunities in the firms that will open on that land. It does no good to tell people that industrialization creates jobs, if these are jobs that they themselves can’t possibly fill. The Bhattacharjee government appears not to understand any of this; it seems to think that when it decides on an industrial strategy, everyone should simply go along.

UNFORTUNATELY for public debate, the CPI(M) has no credible opposition. The primary opposition party, the so-called “Trinamool Congress” headed by the theatrical self-promoter Mamata Banerjee (a Brahmin from a poor urban family, who poses one minute as the ally of the downtrodden and, the next, as the best friend of upper-caste large landowners) has no coherent development policy and has also allied itself opportunistically with the Hindu right, forming part of the coalition government that held power nationally before 2004. People committed to social equity stay with the CPI(M) because they have no alternative, and the government knows that. The CPI(M)’s key role in sustaining the Congress Party at the national level in the current coalition government adds to its arrogance.

Singur and Nandigram
The first sign of trouble for the CPI(M)’s industrialization strategy came last year, when the government announced a deal to set up a Tata Group car plant in an agricultural area near Kolkata. Although the government claims (controversially) that it offered fair market value for the necessary land, the local inhabitants protested vigorously. The government’s basic idea, though contested by those who unduly romanticize agriculture, has won wide support from development thinkers (including Sen, for example), particularly in light of the fact that the Tata Group, an India-based corporation, has a record of sensitivity and decency on employment issues. The protests, moreover, were clearly staged by Mamata Banerjee to at least some extent, in a grab for personal power after a bad electoral defeat. Singur’s population is not overwhelmingly dependent on agriculture. Still, there were ominous signs for the future, such as the government’s lack of attention to transitional skills training and to public debate. Many people wondered why the government had selected this fertile tract of land for industrial development, rather than nonarable land closer to the city; the government refused to answer such questions.

In addition, last year, a strange example of the government’s arrogance came to light in its handling of a tragic case of either murder or suicide. A young Muslim computer scientist, Rizwanur Rehman, married the daughter of a wealthy Hindu industrialist, Ashok Todi. Her family tried everything to break them up. The couple several times asked for police protection, in vain. Finally, the husband was found dead on a railroad track. The same (government-controlled) police, evidently eager to cozy up to capital by preventing any serious inquiry into the behavior of the Todis, quickly ruled the case a suicide without even a cursory investigation, although there was a good deal of evidence against such a conclusion. The government then defended the bad behavior of the police. Finally, after a public outcry, the CBI (India’s FBI) came in to do a real investigation, which continues.

Now to Nandigram. In 2006, the government announced plans to build a chemical plant in that district, west of Kolkata. The firm operating it was to be an Indonesia-based firm that lacked the good labor record of the Tatas. As in the case of Singur, there was little consultation and no program of skills training and employment transition. The resistance of local people (considerably poorer and more dependent on agriculture than the people of Singur) was both genuine and fierce, although no doubt Mamata Banerjee encouraged it. In February 2007, the government announced that it had abandoned the plan, but people didn’t believe it. Fears of dislocation and dispossession led peasants to form a group (very likely aided by Mamata) that seized control of several villages in the area, driving out by force the CPI(M) supporters who lived there.

On March 14, 2007, the government went in to seize control of these villages. Its pretext was that Maoist rebels belonging to a Naxalite terrorist group were training there and had smuggled in firearms. No credible evidence supported this assertion, as even government home secretary Prasad Ranjan Roy said, departing from the orthodox Party line. Police went in to take control, but it is also clear that many of the armed men were from CPI(M) Party cadres, a kind of private Party-led army and not the official forces of law and order. Shots were fired, mostly (it appears) by these cadres. Around fourteen civilians, including women and children, were killed and seventy wounded. The government’s official story is that armed Maoist terrorists were organizing the villagers and had put women and children up front, while firing on the government’s men from behind them. This story is not credible, in light of the fact that many people were shot in the back. No less a figure than Jyoti Basu himself reproved the government for its authoritarian strategy, saying, “Is this the way the Left Front government should function? I have been told that the mob went violent but on the contrary I saw men with bullets in their back on TV. Why is it so?”

Although the government tried to prevent journalists and other observers from entering the area and questioning victims, some were able to get in. Historian Tanika Sarkar tells me that she personally saw marks of sexual assault on the bodies of young women and girls, and, at the local government-run hospital, saw scores of desperately injured people whom officials had ordered discharged, although they could not stand or walk. A doctor who refused to sign discharge papers had been transferred.

As the months went on, things got worse. Although the CPI(M) tried to keep journalists out of the area, there is much evidence by now that armed Party cadres patrolled the villages, engaging in rape, assault, and murder. Opposition villagers were forcibly evicted from their homes, and many remain in temporary camps today, still vulnerable to violence. (Much of this is extensively documented in the report of an investigative People’s Commission published last summer.) In the late fall, things heated up, and numerous clashes were reported, again with Party cadres, not the official police, playing the aggressive role. The state’s high court ordered normalcy restored and refused to hear the government’s objections to the involvement of national forces (both police and investigators) in restoring law and order. Left Front chair Biman Bose scoffed at the court, calling its judgment “unconstitutional”—and was cited for criminal contempt. By now, the nation’s Supreme Court has agreed to review the matter on both sides, at the same time chiding the CPI(M) for wasting people’s time with litigation rather than doing something constructive for the people of Nandigram. By November, violence escalated, again with Party cadres, not officers of the law, taking the aggressive role. Indeed, the police were withdrawn, and the chief minister openly handed the area over to the cadres, stating that he was not just a chief minister, but also a Party person. Graves from these assaults are still being discovered by the central police force. It is alleged that government-controlled hospitals were reluctant to help the victims. Chief Minister Bhattacharjee defended the use of force, saying that the villagers had been “paid back in their own coin.”

Critics and the Left Split
Enter the governor. A governor, in an Indian state, is a basically ceremonial officer, usually nonpartisan. West Bengal’s current governor is Gopal Krishna Gandhi, the youngest grandson of the Mahatma, a man of delicacy, grace, and sympathy. A strict vegetarian and supporter of animal rights, he has a passionate interest in bird-watching. One might have thought this peaceful, cultivated man hardly a match for the thuggish party leaders of the CPI(M). One would have been wrong. Taking a degree of initiative unusual for a governor, he issued a lengthy public statement. Nandigram, he said, had become “a war zone,” and “No government or society can allow a war zone to exist without immediate and effective action.” The treatment of villagers “was against all norms of civilized political behavior.” He urged peace talks, a call in which he was joined by Jyoti Basu. He ended by saying, “Enough is enough. Peace and security should be restored, without any delay, from where they have been evicted from Nandigram.”

CPI(M) officials don’t like to be criticized, and they truculently denounced Gandhi’s speech. The state secretary, Biman Bose, said that Gandhi was “overstepping the constitutional limits of his office. . . .[S]ome of his predecessors had to depart without completing their tenure.” India’s prime minister, Manmohan Singh, however, backed up Gandhi on November 20, asking the state government to restore law and order. “It is the duty of the State Government that all sections regardless of their political affiliations get protection of the law enforcement agencies. I understand the spontaneous outpouring of grief and anguish over the issue as expressed by the artists and intellectuals in Kolkata.”

Singh was alluding to the public protest against the government’s violence in Nandigram led by leading Bengali artists and writers. West Bengal has always cared about intellectuals. It has the largest book fair in the world and a proud tradition of achievement in arts and letters, in religious, philosophical, and economic thought. (Sen’s Nobel Prize was occasion for a parade of approximately a million people in Kolkata in 1998, something difficult to imagine in New York or Chicago.) So it was no mere gesture when, shortly after the March 14 incident, leading historians Tanika Sarkar and Sumit Sarkar (joining other artists and activists who had begun protesting earlier) returned major literary awards that they had won from the government, saying that what had happened in Nandigram was even more shocking than the infamous British massacre of innocent civilians at Jallianwala Bagh in 1919, more shocking because one would not expect better behavior from the British, but one would from this left-wing government. “We are shattered,” said Tanika Sarkar. “All this has happened and there is not a word of shame or apology from the CPI(M) central committee or state committee.” By November, many more had joined the Sarkars. Leading members of the film industry boycotted the state’s film festival, and on November 14—the occasion to which Singh was alluding directly, a group of artists and writers, including filmmaker Aparna Sen and writer Mahasweta Devi, held a protest against the government in downtown Kolkata. Some claimed that the violence in Nandigram was comparable to the use of violence against Muslims by social groups allied with the BJP in Gujarat in 2002.

THE CPI(M) government contains many decent people, dedicated to social welfare and equality. Among these, I am convinced, is Jasodhara Bagchi, chair of the West Bengal Women’s Commission, who has done a good deal to bring relief to women injured or raped in the violence. (Although she is accused of inaction in the People’s Commission report, and has been much criticized by protesting artists and writers for alleged inaction, the statements don’t seem to me correct: on March 28, she issued a very strong statement of protest against the March 14 violence, calling it a “shameful event,” and demanding both a thorough inquiry and compensation for the victims.) Similarly, the Institute of Development Studies Kolkata (IDSK), a government-funded think tank chaired by Bagchi’s husband, Amiya, a noted economist, has done a good deal of valuable intellectual work pertinent to the state’s economic crisis, including work on industrialization and agriculture. (I must divulge that these two people are personal friends—as are the Sarkars on the other side—and that I am an honorary professor at IDSK, though with no remuneration.) It is perhaps not surprising that people who can do good work within the government, despite its flaws, would be reluctant to denounce it publicly, and I do not condemn their failure to do so, particularly in light of the extremely low quality and the fascist ties of the opposition. Nonetheless, one who stands on and looks at these events as an outsider must conclude that the government’s actions are vile and utterly unacceptable.

It is this issue that has split India’s left. The artists and intellectuals I’ve named are in a few cases motivated by a woolly romanticism about agriculture and an ideological opposition to all industrial development. For this they should be criticized. Some of them may also have had unrealistic expectations for this government, whose Stalinists roots they have perhaps insufficiently appreciated. For this lack of caution they should also be criticized. They also, however, have had the courage of consistent moral principle, standing up against brutality even when the perpetrators are friends. For this they are to be greatly admired. Not so admirable, by contrast, have been the statements of some leftists to the effect that one should not criticize one’s friends, that solidarity is more important than ethical correctness. One may or may not trace this line to an old Marxist contempt for bourgeois ethics, but it is loathsome whatever its provenance.

A particularly fatuous document of this kind was a letter authored by Noam Chomsky, signed by a number of Indian American intellectuals who should know better, and published in the Hindu, a leading national India newspaper, on November 22, 2007. Besides lauding the CPI(M) for “important experiments” for which it deserves no particular credit (such as “local self-government”), the letter reasons that people on the left ought to focus on opposition to the actions of the United States in Iraq, rather than fighting with one another. “This is not the time for division when the basis of division no longer appears to exist,” concludes Chomsky, having asserted, entirely without cause on that date, that things are basically back to normal and that the two sides have reconciled. This is the type of left politics that holds that the enemy of my enemy is my friend, no matter how many rapes and murders that friend has actually perpetrated.

HERE WE ARRIVE at an issue that lies at the heart of all the leftist political movements of the twentieth century: is solidarity itself a major political value or is the basic value that of justice to each and every person, treating each and every one as an end? The latter vision is that of left-liberalism, which has always held that the purpose of a politics of human welfare is to improve the lives of individual human beings, and that each human being counts as equally worthy of respect. By contrast, “solidarity,” both on the communitarian right and on the antiliberal left, has suggested to many that the lives of individuals may and often must be sacrificed in the pursuit of class or group goals, and that worries about the justice of such sacrifices are irritatingly bourgeois. That’s really what the split in India is about, and it corresponds to a split between the Nehruvian/Gandhian founding of the nation and its long-standing communist tradition. Nehru and Gandhi knew that people come first and that each and every person is precious. Gandhi had an extremely rare ability to feel and express compassion not for “the masses” or “the proletariat,” but for each person who suffered. (He said that his goal was to “wipe every tear from every eye,” thus reminding his audience that suffering and death are uncompromisingly personal. Classes may be useful analytical categories, but it is individual people who weep.) In consequence, Gandhi eschewed violence against persons as a political tool, and he showed vividly what it was to treat the human body as a mere means, and what it was to treat it as an end. This politics of personhood survives in West Bengal, in the stance of Gopal Gandhi; in the protests of many artists and writers; and, also, in the courageous work of many individual members of the CPI(M). It appears to have been forgotten (if it was ever accepted) by the government’s central leadership.

In assessing the specific situation of West Bengal, we must distinguish between the government’s industrial strategy, which I, like Amartya Sen, believe to be generally correct and the means the government chose to implement it, which are appalling. First, one should condemn the utter lack of provision for job transitions, made worse by more general failures in educational development. Second (the focus of Sen’s recent critique) one should condemn the government’s lack of interest in public debate and public discussion, to which one can now add condemnation of the rude and truculent treatment of reasonable opposition, such as that of the governor. Third, one must strongly condemn the government’s reliance on unofficial “private army” cadres. The rule of law requires that enforcement be carried out by the agents of the law. The private armies of Nandigram are in that sense no better than the private armies of the Hindu right. Fourth, one must condemn the government’s cavalier way with truth and evidence, as in the unsubstantiated allegations about Maoist activity in the area. Finally, and most strongly, one must utterly condemn the (apparently continuing, at least until very recently) acts of rape, murder, and assault against villagers, mostly by these “private armies.”

What led to this breakdown in governance? The seeds of catastrophe lie, no doubt, in the never-sufficiently-de-Stalinized background of this Party, always suspicious of democracy, always used to treating people as agents of class struggle rather than as individual human beings who need specific life prospects if they are to give up their land. This general orientation toward human beings led to a lack of appreciation that an industrial strategy, even if basically correct, needs to focus on what real people are able to do and to be, rather than thinking only in statistical terms. Under Jyoti Basu the party would never have erred in this way, so one must also impute the disaster to inferior, insecure leadership, fearful of genuine debate and transparency. The arrogance of long electoral success contributed further to turn this insecurity into an aggressive strategy for total control of the rural areas.

Is the comparison to the events of Gujarat, frequently heard on the right, but sometimes also on the left, illuminating? Not very, I believe. The murders of Muslims in Gujarat were part of a concerted antiminority strategy fueled by ethnic hatred. I have argued in these pages and elsewhere that the pogrom deserved to be called a genocide (“Genocide in Gujarat: The International Community Looks Away,” Summer 2003). People were killed simply because they were Muslims. The killings in Nandigram are examples of hideous lawlessness, and a determination to wipe out opposition, but there seems to be no ethnic or genocidal component to them. Sarkar’s comparison to Jallianwala Bagh (where the British, bent on total control, opened fire on peaceful demonstrators) is far more apt, and we might indeed see Bhattacharjee as a first cousin of General Reginald Dyer, unable to accept the reality of a human being who disagrees with him.

On December 26, 2007, Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee went out to Nandigram and issued a public apology. He spoke with regret of the need to win people’s hearts, and he again assured the local residents that the plan for the chemical plant had been scrapped. Has this group learned its lesson? One would hope that the wise public counsel of the governor—and, one imagines, the behind-the-scenes counsel of many others—have convinced the CPI(M) that “bourgeois democracy” requires listening, together with a focus on educational development. If that turns out to be the case, well and good. If the government returns to its arrogant ways, however, it will continue to need and deserve the criticism of fellow egalitarians, who must not allow solidarity to trump justice.

Martha C. Nussbaum is Ernst Freund Distinguished Service Professor of Law and Ethics at the University of Chicago, appointed in the Philosophy Department, Law School, and Divinity School. She is an Affiliate of the Committee on Southern Asian Studies and a board member of the Human Rights Program. Among the pieces consulted for this article are an issue of Tehelka called “Why Nandigram?” November 24, 2007; Nandigram: What Really Happened?, the report of the People’s Tribunal, published in Delhi by Daanish Books in December 2007; an excellent two-part article by Amartya Sen, “The Industrial Strategy: Developments in West Bengal,” the Telegraph (Kolkata), December 29 and 30, 2007; and Malini Bhattacharya, “Nandigram and the Question of Development,” Economic and Political Weekly, May 26, 2007.