The campaign of violence unleashed last fortnight by Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPM) cadres in Nandigram in West Bengal marks one of the darkest chapters in the Indian Left's history. This happened barely eight months after a March 14 firing, which killed 14 people.
The recent campaign was marked by meticulous planning, state complicity, generalised brutality and sexual violence. It has tarnished the Left's image as the most principled component of India's political spectrum, which represents the poor, and upholds constitutionalism, public decency, and peaceful conflict resolution.
It showed that the CPM can unleash, for entirely sectarian reasons, armed violence against working people-from whom it derives its very rationale.
The violence was rooted in the CPM's decision to "capture" two of Nandigram's three blocks, over which it lost control. Their people had got disenchanted with it because it tried to impose a Special Economic Zone on them. The 25,000-acre SEZ was to be created by forcibly acquiring land for Indonesia's Salim group-a front for the super-corrupt dictator Gen Suharto.
The SEZ was abandoned because of grassroots resistance, led by the Bhumi Ucched Pratirodh Committee (BUPC), formed among others by CPM-rival Trianmool Congress. Nandigram's public defied land acquisition. But the CPM threatened to "make life hell" for them. It just wouldn't countenance not being Nandigram's sole representative. It started a campaign of intimidation and harassment of ordinary people, turning thousands into refugees.
On March 14, CPM cadres attacked several villages, and indulged in arson, looting and rape. Independent inquiries by citizens' groups and scholars with Left-wing credentials established that pro-CPM thugs led the planned, punitive attacks. Some donned fake police uniforms, but wore slippers. The cover-up too was planned, including doctoring of medical records.
A People's Tribunal on Nandigram, consisting of a retired high court chief justice, a reputed columnist, and social activists, recorded 39 oral and 135 written depositions. Its chilling conclusions show tight police-CPM collusion in intimidating, beating and killing SEZ opponents. The motive was to "teach them a lesson" and re-establish the party's supremacy.
The March attempt failed. But Nandigram's people were collectively punished through a state-imposed economic blockade. No CPM leader visited them to offer relief or compensation. A multi-pronged offensive was launched on November 5-8 after ensuring the police were withdrawn. On November 10, attackers pushed BUPC supporters into a CPM stronghold, taking 600 "prisoner". The final assault the next day used the prisoners as a "human shield" to "liberate" the entire area.
A particularly disgraceful part of the operation was sexual violence. Another was the treatment of political adversaries as an alien enemy population. Most egregious was the state machinery's complete subordination to party interests.
The CPM politburo has rationalised this as retaliation against those trying to "dislodge us forcefully", and claimed that Maoists had penetrated the area. That's neither convincing, nor remotely democratic. Even if opponents had "dislodged" the party's cadres, it's for the state, not the party, to remedy the situation.
It's odd that the CPM, which acknowledges that the Maoists represent popular grievances (but use unacceptable methods), uncritically quotes Prime Minister Singh to say they're India's "greatest internal security threat". Nandigram exposes the West Bengal CPM's criminalisation, corruption, pro-rich policies, reliance on muscle power, and contempt towards allies-the Communist Party of India, Forward Bloc and Revolutionary Socialist Party. The three now say the CPM alone bears "responsibility" for the violence and for ignoring their reconciliation pleas.
This is a dire warning. The warning will become truly effective if these parties withdraw from the Council of Ministers. Such drastic steps alone can trigger rethinking within the CPM on policies, organisational methods, and relations with fraternal parties.
Without such rethinking, the CPM won't reform itself. Nor will the Left Front retain its popular base. Opinion polls suggest that the Front's electoral support is shifting away from the poor. Its rule isn't marked by good social indices.
West Bengal's official Human Development Report makes dismal reading. The state has more school dropouts than Bihar. It has registered the worst work performance under the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act-a mere 14 person-days per family, vis-à-vis the national average of 43, (against the promised 100 days a year).
According to the National Sample Survey, "the percentage of rural households not getting enough food every day in some months of the year" is even higher in West Bengal (10.6 percent) than Orissa (4.8).
No wonder India's worst recent food riots have occurred in West Bengal — when starving people raided the godowns of dishonest ration-shop owners, who are CPM members. This is a huge change from the 1960s' grassroots food movement, which built up the Left.
Sleaze in West Bengal's public life was also highlighted by the mysterious death of Rizwanur Rehman, married to the daughter of a Hindu businessman close to the CPM, and the harassment of intellectuals and artistes protesting the Nandigram carnage.
Course correction has become imperative for the West Bengal Left. Without this, it will lose its moral capital, political stature and bargaining power-as is happening on the nuclear deal. Worse, it could go into a historic decline.