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The Left needs rethinking, not abject apologia

by Praful Bidwai, 29 September 2008

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December 21, 2007

Prabhat Patnaik has done what no other intellectual allied to West Bengal’s Left Front has even attempted after Nandigram: namely, try to turn the tables on Left-leaning critics of the CPM by gratuitously attacking them for their “messianic moralism” and their presumed “disdain” for “the messy world of politics”.

His agenda goes well beyond defending the CPM or apologising for one of the most shameful episodes in the Indian Left’s history, involving the killing of peasants, devastation of thousands of livelihoods, sexual violence, and gross abuse of state power. It is to declare all criticism of the CPM’s policies and actions illegitimate and misconceived, however sympathetic or inspired by radical ideas it might be.

The impact of Patnaik’s article will be to prevent rethinking within the CPM, which could produce course correction. Ironically for Patnaik, it will only strengthen the party’s neoliberal orientation and the "cult of development" that neoliberalism spawns, which he rails against.

Worse, it will harden the West Bengal CPM’s readiness to brutalise peasants and workers (in whose name it speaks) in the interests of the rich and powerful, like the Tatas, Jindals, and the Salim group which is a front for Indonesia’s super-corrupt Suharto family.

Patnaik is wrong on both facts and logic. His claim that “thousands” of CPM supporters in Nandigram were forced to become refugees for months is backed by no credible or independent source. Citizens’ inquiries, including by a People’s Tribunal consisting of a retired High Court Chief Justice, say that refugees from CPM-inspired violence outnumbered “dislodged” CPM cadres by a factor of 10, if not 20.

BUPC-Trinamool thugs too practised violence, but they couldn’t have matched the state-assisted clout or scale of the militant operations of the well-oiled party apparatus. Leaks from the CBI report on the March violence, just submitted to the Calcutta High Court, speak of extensive collusion between CPM cadres and the police, which still continues.

As numerous reports in Tehelka, Hard News and Outlook have established, “recapturing” Nandigram wasn’t an act of “desperation”, which followed “the failure of every other effort at restoring normalcy”. It was a planned punitive operation, premised on the abdication by the state of its fundamental responsibility to protect the life and limb of all citizens. The government allowed party thugs to wreak havoc through hostage-taking, arson, illegal confinement, rape, and of course, outright killing.

Equally important was Nandigram’s policy context: an indefensible neoliberal plan to impose an SEZ on the people. Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee indeed apologised for his “mistakes” in Nandigram. But he hasn’t even remotely changed his neoliberal orientation, nor dropped the SEZ plan. He has merely relocated the chemical hub to Nayachar, a geologically unstable island, where no industrial activity, least of all hazardous chemicals production, is permissible under the Coastal Zone Regulations.

For all the apologies and confessions, Bhattacharjee’s government appealed in the Supreme Court even against the High Court order for the payment of compensation to Nandigram’s victims—a disgraceful thing for a Left-led regime to do. For eight long months, the victims were offered, and got, nothing from the government or the CPM.

At any rate, Nandigram’s people don’t feel assured that the chemical hub story is over. PWD Minister Kshiti Goswami, no less, has publicly said that the CPM’s real plan is to build the hub at Nandigram, and use sparsely populated Nayachar to rehabilitate the displaced.

Patnaik doesn’t even pause to reflect on why the bulk of the progressive intelligentsia in West Bengal, and perhaps much of it in the rest of India, has been so critical of the CPMon Nandigram. He wishes away the enormity of what happened on the blind presumption that “the Party” must be right—as always, because by definition, it is with “the people”.

It’s not “intellectuals” alone who have turned critical of the CPM. Its own Front allies, including the CPI, Forward Bloc and RSP, have publicly accused it of acting unilaterally and dissociated themselves from its Nandigram actions. The Bloc has decided to contest next May’s panchayat elections independently. The RSP too will probably do that. The CPI has publicly criticised the CPM’s high-handed conduct and some of its economic policies.

These cracks in left unity have appeared for the first time in 30 years. If the Front splits, the CPM will have to carry the blame.

If Patnaik is seriously concerned with political praxis—as he says he is in his attack on “moral messiahs”—, these cracks should worry him far more than a few individuals’ comments comparing (although not equating) certain similarities in the violence in Bengal with patterns in the pogrom of Muslims in Gujarat.

This writer has always maintained that the two are not comparable in quality, scale, intention or effect. Referring to Gujarat’s communal carnage doesn’t help understand what happened in Singur and Nandigram under a secular government blinded by its zeal for industrialisation-at-any-cost, and led by a party whose 30 years in power have turned it conservative, and encouraged it to develop arrogant intolerance towards people within its own plebeian base.

Despite all these qualifications and distinctions, it’s impossible for Marxists, socialists or progressives to condone either the overt violence of Nandigram, or the covert violence inherent in the elitist, neoliberal developmentalism pursued by the Left Front. Patnaik simply fails to make, indeed even attempt, this discriminating judgment.

Patnaik’s principal explanation for a large number of Left-leaning intellectuals turning critical of the CPM is twofold: “most” of them “are in any case strongly anti-organised Left, especially anti-Communist”; and second, many who “till yesterday were with the Left in fighting communal fascism” have changed their stance. “With the … perceived weakening of the BJP … and …. the communal fascist forces, a certain fracturing of the anti-communal coalition was inevitable …”

The first proposition begs the question: “in any case” says it all. Worse, it conflates disparate categories such as “erstwhile ‘socialist’ groups”, NGOs, Naxalite sympathiers, and "Free Thinkers" (a small, long-extinct student group in JNU). It fails to ask why many intellectuals who have had a lifelong commitment to the Left, and in particular the Communist Parties, feel disillusioned after Nandigram.

The second proposition assumes that the Left led the anti-communal struggle, which became critically important with the BJP’s ascendancy in the mid-1980s. This is open to question—despite the contributions of groups like Sahmat and Sanskriti.

Frankly, the anti-communal fight was led by civil society organisations, public intellectuals, and combative activists who dissected BJP-directed textbooks, questioned Hindutva’s claims, and valiantly took on Parivar goons. Even journalists played a role, as did feminists. The Left, in particular the CPM, certainly participated in the struggle. But leadership is another matter.

The West Bengal Left Front didn’t stop LK Advani’s rath yatra in 1990. Bihar’s Laloo Prasad Yadav did. After the 1984 anti-Sikh pogrom, the CPM and its front organisations were marginal in exposing the culprits or providing relief to the victims.

Immediately after the 2002 Gujarat carnage, the Left Front allowed Praveen Togadia to hold provocative meetings in Bengal, in which he justified the butchery of Muslims.

Similarly, the alliance between the organised Left and civil society groups and the progressive intelligentsia is not coming apart mainly under the impact of the BJP’s decline. This perception of decline is neither widely shared nor a driving force of the change in question.

That change is primarily attributable to the CPM’s increasing tilt towards neoliberalism, especially in the states where it rules, its growing sectarianism towards other Left currents, and its resort to strong-arm tactics against its own former constituency. Patnaik is no stranger to these traits in Kerala, where his attempt to combat pro-rich policies has met with stiff resistance from the CPM’s dominant pro-neoliberal faction.

If Patnaik’s basic premises are flawed, his charge that the Left’s intellectual critics wish to further the destruction of politics and withdrawal from political praxis is patently tendentious. He doesn’t cite a single instance to show that these detractors want to establish their “intellectual hegemony”. Indeed, the second half of the article is a series of peevish assertions without rationality or roots in reality.

Patnaik makes a false dichotomy by counterposing politics to morality. He altogether misses the point that Leftists are not amoral, but have different, indeed superior and more refined, moral standards than Rightists. They should be scrupulous in adhering to an ethics that makes fine distinctions between constitutional and unconstitutional means, is strong on justice, equity and gender equality, is genuinely inclusive, non-divisive and anti-sectarian, and espouses peace and negotiated conflict resolution.

Particularly objectionable is the charge that the “detractors” distrust politics in the same way as does the “development cult” propagated by Manmohan Singh, which segregates it from politics, considered dirty by the middle class.

From here on, Patnaik indulges in pure fantasising: “The revolt against the CPI(M) is simultaneously a revolt against politics. The combination of anti-communism with a rejection of politics in general gives this revolt that added edge …”

Most of those whom he targets are in fact intensely political and have dedicated great energies to building a politics based on an abiding commitment to the poor, to principle, and to collective dialogue and action within the broad Left.

Perhaps the most deplorable part of Patnaik’s argument is the “two-camps” theory—a formulation reminiscent of Stalin’s crude dialectical materialism. This can be used, and was used, to justify suppression of freedoms and rights, fake trials, Gulags, invasions, brutalisation of exploited people, indeed, mass murder.

You can’t define the “people’s camp” by including certain parties regardless of their ideologies, policies or practices, and condemn others as “the enemy of the people” (a quaint-sounding phrase in the 21st century!)

Worthy partisanship does not lie in mindlessly supporting “my party, wrong or right”, but in advancing a politics that places the poor, exploited and oppressed at its core.

A final point. One of the most encouraging and healthy developments of the past decade has been the mutually empathetic dialogue and collaboration between the organised Left, on the one hand, and people’s movements, civil society organisations and committed Left-leaning intellectuals. This spans a range of issues, including neoliberal globalisation, the people’s right to food and employment, human rights, peace and nuclear disarmament, opposition to Empire and hegemonism, and of course, secularism.

Patnaik’s article is written not in the spirit of promoting such a dialogue or alliance. It will discourage, censor and delegitimise it—to the detriment of all concerned. Nothing can be more unfortunate.—end—