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Table of contents :
Cover
Contents
Acknowledgements
Introduction: Writing the History of Contemporary Bengal
Section One: Capital, Labour and Politics
1 - A Decade of Strike by Capital
2 - A Dying Metropolis
3 - Does the Left Front Favour the Urban Elite
4 - Environment and Employment: Will the Trade Unions and Greens Join Hands
5 - The Tannery Workers of Tangra
6 - Lessons of Ayodhya: Has the Left Lost Its Vision?
7 - The New Right and the New Left
8 - Party, Mass Organizations, and Mass Movements
9 - More on Party and Mass Organization
10 - Votes and Populism
Section Two: New Issues, New Perspectives
11 - Who Is Afraid of the Migrants in Bengal?
12 - A Library and an Institution
13 - Hunger and the Politics of Life
14 - Rajarhat—An Urban Dystopia
15 - Dialogue and Growth
16 - All Die, but All Do Not Die Equally
17 - Chronicles of the Ranks
18 - The Fast Emerging Power Vacuum
19 - Civil Society and the Politics of a Society
20 - Is Bengal’s Restless Spirit in Decline?
Section Three: Contentious Politics
21 - Claim Making in the Age of Bio-politics
22 - That Was Revolt, This Is Civil War
23 - Elections in the Time of a Civil War
24 - Populism and Peace
25 - Different Ways of Truth Telling
26 - The Idea of a Front
27 - Elections and Expanding Our Representative System
28 - Spring Time in Bengal
29 - Their Civil Society, Our Civil Society
30 - Stocktaking Midway through the War
Section Four: Messy Change
31 - Transitional Challenges
32 - Governing the Multitude—I
33 - Governing the Multitude—II
34 - How to Prevent a Telengana Type Situation in West Bengal
35 - The Challenge of Building a Non-corporate Path of Development
36 - A Suggestion on Bengal’s Economic Woes
37 - A Square Leading to Many Unknown Destinations
38 - Early but Inevitable Errors in Judgement
39 - A Violent History of Peace
40 - Political Change Is Never for Utopia
41 - Knight Riders in Kolkata
Section Five: Perennial Themes
42 - Eternal Bengal
43 - “It Does Not Die”—Urban Protest in Calcutta, 1987–2007
Section Six: Postscript
The Epoch of Passive Revolution
Index
About the Author
Recommend Papers

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Passive Revolution in West Bengal

Passive Revolution in West Bengal 1977–2011

RanaBiR SamaddaR

Copyright © Ranabir Samaddar, 2013 All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or utilised in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording or by any information storage or retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher. First published in 2013 by SAGE Publications India Pvt Ltd B1/I-1 Mohan Cooperative Industrial Area Mathura Road, New Delhi 110 044, India www.sagepub.in SAGE Publications Inc 2455 Teller Road Thousand Oaks, California 91320, USA SAGE Publications Ltd 1 Oliver’s Yard, 55 City Road London EC1Y 1SP, United Kingdom SAGE Publications Asia-Pacific Pte Ltd 33 Pekin Street #02-01 Far East Square Singapore 048763 Published by Vivek Mehra for SAGE Publications India Pvt Ltd, typeset in 10/13 Berkeley by Diligent Typesetter, Delhi and printed at G.H. Prints, New Delhi. Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data Samaddara, Ranabira. Passive revolution in West Bengal: 1977/2011/Ranabir Samaddar. pages cm Includes index. 1. West Bengal (India)—Social conditions—20th century. 2. West Bengal (India)—Social conditions—21st century. 3. Labour policy—India—West Bangal—History. 4. Labour unions— India—West Bengal—History. 5. West Bengal (India) —Politics and government—20th century. 6. West Bengal (India)—Politics and government—21st century. I. Tital. HN690.W48S256 306.0954'14035—dc23 2013 2012047865 ISBN: 978-81-321-1094-1 (HB) The SAGE Team: Rudra Narayan, Shreya Chakraborti and Rajib Chatterjee

To V. Ramaswamy

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Contents xi

Acknowledgements Introduction: Writing the History of Contemporary Bengal

xiii

SECTIoN oNE: CAPITAL, LABour AND PoLITICS 1. A Decade of Strike by Capital

3

2. A Dying Metropolis

8

3. Does the Left Front Favour the Urban Elite?

17

4. Environment and Employment: Will the Trade Unions and Greens Join Hands?

20

5. The Tannery Workers of Tangra

24

6. Lessons of Ayodhya: Has the Left Lost Its Vision?

37

7. The New Right and the New Left

41

8. Party, Mass Organizations, and Mass Movements

45

9. More on Party and Mass Organization

49

10. Votes and Populism

53

SECTIoN Two: NEw ISSuES, NEw PErSPECTIvES 11. Who Is Afraid of the Migrants in Bengal?

63

12. A Library and an Institution

73

13. Hunger and the Politics of Life

76

14. Rajarhat—An Urban Dystopia

80 vii

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15. Dialogue and Growth

88

16. All Die, but All Do Not Die Equally

91

17. Chronicles of the Ranks

95

18. The Fast Emerging Power Vacuum

99

19. Civil Society and the Politics of a Society

102

20. Is Bengal’s Restless Spirit in Decline?

112

SECTIoN ThrEE: CoNTENTIouS PoLITICS 21. Claim Making in the Age of Bio-politics

117

22. That Was Revolt, This Is Civil War

139

23. Elections in the Time of a Civil War

142

24. Populism and Peace

145

25. Different Ways of Truth Telling

148

26. The Idea of a Front

152

27. Elections and Expanding Our Representative System

155

28. Spring Time in Bengal

158

29. Their Civil Society, Our Civil Society

161

30. Stocktaking Midway through the War

164

SECTIoN Four: MESSy ChANGE 31. Transitional Challenges

169

32. Governing the Multitude—I

172

33. Governing the Multitude—II

175

34. How to Prevent a Telengana Type Situation in West Bengal

178

35. The Challenge of Building a Non-corporate Path of Development

182

36. A Suggestion on Bengal’s Economic Woes

186

37. A Square Leading to Many Unknown Destinations

190

38. Early but Inevitable Errors in Judgement

194

viii

Contents 39. A Violent History of Peace

198

40. Political Change Is Never for Utopia

201

41. Knight Riders in Kolkata

204

SECTIoN FIvE: PErENNIAL ThEMES 42. Eternal Bengal

209

43. “It Does Not Die”—Urban Protest in Calcutta, 1987–2007

221

SECTIoN SIx: PoSTSCrIPT The Epoch of Passive Revolution

233

Index

235

About the Author

240

ix

aCknoWledgements T

wo things led to this book. One had to do with my dissatisfaction with the way contemporary history of West Bengal was being written. This dissatisfaction had something to do with the method, on which readers will find my views in the Introduction. Writing present history is a delicate art. And it cannot be just a political commentary. It requires combining several contradictory things. One can learn the art from the great exponents of writing present history. This book is an attempt to learn from them. The crucial thing here, as far as I have realised, is, namely how to chronicle the contemporary, the daily and, yet, point out what is interesting in this daily event that may be of value, surpasses the daily and prove to be of historical interest. Obviously, critically important here will be to have a sense of heterogeneous time in order to capture the daily and beyond. The second point had to be the framework, the frame in which events appear as passing shots. At one level, this seems to be an aesthetic question, but at another level it a question with great political stakes. Marx sharpened his frame of class struggles in history through his writing of the contemporary history of France. Foucault put forth the idea of political spirituality through his reports on the revolutionary events in Iran. We can only learn from these ways of setting the frame in which events present themselves to us. My own framework has been that of passive revolution. But this is a story in which events appear as contentious as they would appear in an active scenario. The revolutionary possibility always haunts the passive present and torments it. I have tried to find out ways in which popular politics plays and popular democracy evolves within this overall scenario of passive revolution. Obviously this is not exactly a book, but a diary or a journal, written amidst many other activities and treated as less important than those activities. This is as if a reflection of those other activities. For this reason, readers will not find here a comprehensive history. Many events have been left out; they were equally or more xi

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important as the ones recorded here. The only reason why those events are absent here is that I did not have the time or occasion to write on them. These were all written as comments on events or summaries of writings. Hence is the heterogeneous nature of this collection, also its incomplete nature. The sources of all the chapters have been acknowledged in the book. I shall particularly like to recall with gratitude the requests of previous and present editors of Mail Today, Bharat Bhusan and Manoj Joshi, respectively, and of Anirban Chattopadhyay of the Anandabazar Patrika, that resulted in some of the entries in this collection. My thanks are due to Rudra Narayan and Shreya Chakraborti of SAGE Publications for seeing this work through. Above all, I would like to thank Sugata Ghosh of SAGE for persisting with me with the suggestion to write something on West Bengal. His perseverance won at the end. I am happy that he agreed to this format. He was the one who pointed out the enormous interest in the entire country about the unfolding events in West Bengal. Perhaps someday we shall recognise the exceptional nature and significance of the Bengal experience recorded here. I am also indebted to V. Ramaswamy, my long-time friend, for sharpening my sense of the contemporary with his unique position of being both an insider and outsider. I am happy to present him this book as a token of recognition of my debt and friendship.

xii

intRoduCtion: WRiting the histoRy of ContemPoRaRy Bengal Mute Game With my teeth I have seized life upon the knife of my youth. With my lips today, With my lips alone…. Briefly come, Bloom of the slopes, Orion’s spear Has reappeared. —Rene Char, French Resistance Poet

Why does History always Seem to End at the Contemporary? Strangely, many intellectuals in West Bengal think that history stopped in West Bengal in 1977 with the Left Front’s coming to power. Thereafter, the story was taken to be one of continuous progress of the Left and its programme of development. To these intellectuals history reappears only in 2006, but history in the sense of contention of forces for power through the intervening 29 years (1977–2006) xiii

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was considered to be over. Victory in one round of elections followed by another victory in the next round, according to these intellectuals, showed that the earlier history of contention over the nature of rule had ended with a lifelong promise of Left rule. So when from 2006 urban protests or protests in far off places caught massive public attention, the news being carried far and wide by new Bengali television channels and new Bengali newspapers (a situation absent in the first decade of Left Front rule), the intellectuals were surprised. Even the so-called parallel journals which had till that time dabbled in avant-garde cultural explorations but had avoided avant-garde political thinking had nothing to say. The reappearance of history—caused by unfamiliar electoral results, sudden collective actions, surge in new thinking, protest against land acquisitions, loud resentment of minority population groups and a spurt in students and youth activism—put the passive and conservative Bengali intellectual class in discomfort. However, all these have produced also a demand, which I think will soon snowball into a massive desire, to know: How did this change come about? How did it culminate in the defeat of the Left in 2011? Why does it appear sudden? What are the roots? Was there dissent all along, in the belly of the beast, but that it was only the establishment intellectual class that had deliberately ignored signs of dissent in society? In short, how does one write the history of the contemporary? How does one compose the present history of West Bengal? Is the present, if we may say, defined by the ‘new beginning’ in 1977? Since we are writing a history of the present, we cannot afford to take shelter behind a long duration point of view—as if an evolutionary account beginning with the past can tell us what has made this present. Even though it will be important to see how some of the ways in which power was exercised in these 33 years had their roots in pre-1977 times. As a subject of writing, present history is a paradoxical field where both history (of the past) and chronicle (of the present) meet. It is thus at once a history and a diary, book and a journal—a kind of political journalism, engaged with questioning the truths of the day. It is important to recall in this respect how the ‘new beginning’ inaugurated. It is at once a familiar story, but so familiar as to make us forget some of its characteristics. To its pleasant surprise, the Left Front got assembly majority in the elections of 1977 when the electoral negotiations with Janata Party broke down, thus severing the last connections of the Left movement with pre-Emergency India and pre-Emergency time. With a broad range of, though limited in depth, economic and political reforms—such as some amount of land reforms, unemployment compensation scheme, stabilisation of urban poor with reforms

xiv

intRoduCtion in urban renewal system, implementation of measures relating to payment of bonus, dearness and other allowances to the salaried class, implementation of the panchayati raj system, expansion of primary education, security of job for school and college teachers and so on—Left rule surged ahead. Party organisation spread in the wake of spread of government in towns and villages. The party built the mass organisations. While commentators and eulogists of that period—I am speaking here of the first 10 years of Left Front rule—watched these with admiration and subsequently money started flowing in for increased government expenditure on anti-poverty programmes, more fundamental changes in the governing style were ignored by them. Some of these were specific to West Bengal. Some were general in nature. In combination, they made 1977 a watershed in post-colonial India’s political history in the mirror of which political rule in India in 1947–77 appears as an ancien régime. What were these changes? There was an enormous expansion of government activities, ironically, in the wake of Mrs Indira Gandhi’s 20-point programme of reconstruction. Developmental bureaucracy grew as a consequence. At the same time, political party as an institution of governance became stronger. Regional parties grew. As a result, the federal idea in governance was revived following the Anandpur Sahib Resolution (1973), Shah Commission inquiries (1977–79), and the Sarkaria Commission (1983–88) report. Developmental bureaucracy was complemented by the political parties in the states which as a partner in the new governmental era now supplied mobilisational bureaucracy. Turbulent West Bengal marked by student, peasant and worker unrest was pacified in this way. With continuous party cadre mobilisation towards implementation of the reform measures earlier mentioned, West Bengal stabilised under a new regime of governmentality. At one level, with massive expansion of the political sphere, we can say democracy expanded in West Bengal. But precisely it was this form of democracy, which now depended for its life on party mobilisation, increased funds for antipoverty programmes, regular elections with periodic renewal of legitimacy and a developmental bureaucracy proving its indispensability at the ground level, that the entire political, economic and social life of the state became governmentalised with the party now forming the leading core of the ruling class. We have to add to that the technique of forming coalitions to rule, which the CPI(M) mastered in this period more than any other party in India. Techniques developed to divide and share posts, responsibilities, benefits, other loaves and fishes of office and myriad of governmental resources according to the respective strength of the coalition partners. The principal opposition party was also included in this culture

xv

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of sharing among the members of the new elite the resources of politics and if possible economics. A new inclusive society was sought to be built by including the corrupt and murderous officials of the old regime. The rich were assiduously cultivated even though this would not help in increased investments in the state. In this ‘new democracy’—a far cry from Chairman Mao’s theory of new democracy—party substituted for society, local bosses working as local barons substituted for the party, party committees substituted for government’s intelligence wing, inviting speculative and comprador capital appeared as steps towards organic industrialisation of the state and protests began to be considered as conspiracies against Left rule. One of the critical ways to write the history of West Bengal in the last 33 years is to investigate the particular way governmentality has operated in the state. What has been the impact of this new regime of governmentality on democracy? Democracy came to signify stability in contrast with anarchy under Congress misrule. Old injustices were left unaddressed, again on the plea that a new age was coming and, hence, the state needed stability. The excluded must not protest too much, they must keep hope on stability, because if stability could be ensured, inclusion would be possible. Steady progress could be achieved. And stability meant stability of the party, of the party-led government and of the party-led society. In this mire of stability vitality was soon lost, because stability was not attained through hard policy choices, but by negotiations at all levels—between parties, levels, units, individuals, groups, classes and governments. In this way democratic stability confronted democratic vitality. The contest that reappeared was around the question now: Can democratic life be allowed to signify increased popular participation in public affairs? The consensus was: If it resulted in anarchy, this could not be allowed. The result was the emergence of a social life that geared towards individual satisfaction and consequently individual withdrawal from political life, which was not a bad thing for the governmental regime the Left Front had ushered in. Yet in this version of democracy party life had to be sustained. Hence in this version of democracy, the form of government had to be such as to prove capable of controlling the excess of collective activity born of vitality, at the same time restrict the trend of individual withdrawal from the collective life. At least the individual would have to subscribe to the party (meaning its bosses, local barons, its coffers, newspapers and so on) nominally. To attain this paradoxical goal Left Front rule wooed the rich and the poor, the educated and the ignorant. The strategy worked for nearly 20 years, but soon all kinds of artificial methods to achieve both ends, such as allowing corruption, use of strong arm tactics and transformation of the party into a syndicate, emerged as part of this situation, making Left Front a victim of its success. xvi

intRoduCtion

The Theme of Stability We must return to the theme of stability. In its 33 years of rule, in the name of stability there was no service that the Left Front refused to give to the rich. There was no authority it declined to impose as a master on the people. There was no principle or knowledge of representative rule that it declined to accept at the cost of direct participation of people in public affairs. Vitality as I said was to give way to stability. The Left Front was the last to admit its innocent birth, because it wanted to be in the ranks of the rulers. This created new inequalities—between those who were representatives and those who were not; those who were party followers and those who were not; those who nominally belonged to 51 per cent or those not; and those who were docile and those who were suspect, unruly and uncertain. This was the great democratic scandal in West Bengal, whose sole aim was to push back all urges towards immediate democracy, direct participation, equality and plebeian authority. How does politics exists under such regime, where the constituent power has succumbed to the constituted power? Under such condition, politics requires something of an exception as a title to its existence, which democracy strives hard to normalise if it cannot nullify. Intellectuals have forgotten that after all the Left Front rule began in 1977 with the task of normalising a society reeling under attempts at revolution and ruthless counter revolution marked by the deaths of hundreds of revolutionists in the 10 years (1967–77) preceding the Front’s access to power. Therefore, only those who constituted an exception to the regime of stability could become practitioners of politics. In short, the Left Front renounced politics of transformation and opted for a stable society. But stability we should remember has only two sources—wealth and birth. Wealth produces lust for limitless growth. But it cannot transform itself into another social resource, like knowledge or wisdom. Likewise, birth wants to transcend itself, but it will be at the cost of all affinitive ties. Otherwise birth must reconcile to the order of stability. Thus Mamata Bandopadhyay, the unsettling politician of West Bengal, had to face sneer from the political class all through the last two decades because she was not ‘respectable’, she was a commoner and had no trait that showed marks of wealth or birth. What remains outside wealth and birth then in political democracy? We can answer: the exceptional power of the crowd, which has no foundation in a political democracy, and thus constitutes an exception. This is the reason behind the customary complaints about democracy’s ungovernability. The exceptional events of protests in West Bengal in the eighties and the nineties, particularly in the nineties, can now be seen as precursors to the swelling protests that brought down xvii

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the Left Front government. Democracy is not only a society to be governed in a particular way, or a specific government of society, but a reminder of the ungovernable which every democratic government must ultimately silence. What is this ‘ungovernable’? Is it what Antonio Negri terms as the ‘multitude’? The multitude is beyond the state of law. Its passions, therefore, must be redirected by the democratic government towards private pleasure of the individual, so that it does not harm stability. This is how private pleasures in the form of group corruption spread in West Bengal in the last two decades, on which law had and still has very little control. We should, therefore, study closely the process by which conflicts were contained in all these years, passions were redirected to pleasures, and multitude was sought to be turned into quarrelling groups, gangs, factions and syndicates. In this emerging scenario of an oligarchy deploying electoral democracy as its tool, there was a weakening of social struggles and emancipation movements. The time of the first two decades after Independence (1947–67) was a modest time—enough for the normal and the exceptional to maintain coexistence. But today’s oligarchic principle of combining wealth, birth, technology and power has produced a system under which elections can only reinforce consensus and not divisions. This was the secret of Left Front’s success, also at the roots of its discomfiture. We need to understand from the contemporary experience of West Bengal the tendency of democracy to turn into an oligarchy. Again we have to recall that the Left Front began with a promise and the late Chief Minister Jyoti Basu was not tired of repeating that the Left Front had come to power not to carry revolution forward but give a clean and good government to the people of the state. It would be a pro-people government; at the same time, it would also offer clean conditions of investment to the industrialists; it would clean up the working conditions for investors; and finally the workers would be able to protest because their full trade union rights would be restored, but they would not be allowed to cross the line of permitted dissent. So, this good, clean, pro-people government would not tolerate attempts to carry revolution forward. If this project enshrined in the transition in 1977 has not lasted forever, the Left Front cannot blame the revolutionists or the extremists and the erstwhile party of opposition, the Trinamool. Industry died in large measure in the eighties and the first decade of the nineties, when West Bengal went through a massive phase of de-industrialisation, with jute, textiles and engineering units being declared as sunset industries. Endless attacks on jobs and complete surrender by the organised trade union movement to retrenchments, lay-offs, lock-outs and closures resulted in massive setback to workers’ movements with the Left Front government remaining a passive witness or a facilitator. Likewise, the panchayat big bosses at the district and subdivision xviii

intRoduCtion level became corrupt wheeler-dealers. Prosperous farmers, men of substance and the rural gentry became the political class in the villages of Bengal. Student union bosses became parallel power centres extracting fees and other contributions, while teachers association bosses controlled recruitment of teachers at every level. Deals were negotiated through party functionaries. And when capping all these, land grab began, food production reached stagnation, destitute villagers started committing suicide, Left Front had no one to blame for the idea of good and clean government crashing down. It had only to blame itself. Populism had reached its limits. This is an intriguing experience of how democracy can transform into an oligarchy. Passion can give way to cynical handling of public affairs, whereby uninterested people in public affairs become crucial people in running the society. Vitality can give way to stability. Thus, pleasure-seeking builders, contractors, buccaneers of all kinds became fellow travellers of party and front leaders at every level, influencing public decisions in an unforeseen way. The result was not ‘democratic excess’ but conservatism in the society. The interesting query in this context will be: Did all these happen without violence? Was ‘democratic excess’ curbed without any resort to coercion? My point is that in order to arrive at stability, not only unsavoury compromises were made, deals were struck, dissent was gagged, offices and locations of profit were shared, and when the land loot began, the disciplinary process was accompanied by considerable violence. Initially, only grass-roots members of the opposition party were beaten up, murdered or driven out. Incidents of hands being chopped off, ransack and burning down of houses and huts were the initial symptoms. The firing on Marichjhapi refugees was another such early signal. Then gradually from mid-eighties the rut spread, and nineties confirmed the dark side of a regime of stability. Incidents of police suppression of workers’ strikes, public agitations, opposition voices, critics and activists belonging to radical Left, peasant agitators or activists belonging to Gorkhaland or Jharkhand movement, became quite common. In the name of intra-party clashes, party activists belonging to opposition parties even other Left Front parties took place on a regular basis. Even agitating people demanding food were fired upon and killed. Party leaders shamelessly started saying, the police were doing what they were supposed to do. As CPI(M) leaders repeatedly said, ‘One should expect bullets and not honey from police guns.’ Several extrajudicial killings took place. Protesting workers mysteriously disappeared (recall the disappearance of Bhikhari Paswan, a jute mill worker, in 1993, last seen being brutally beaten by the police and taken away. For details see http://www.article2.org/mainfile.php/0304/162/, last accessed on 7 February 2012). Singur, Nandigram, Lalgarh—these are now the consequences of the dark practices of the last 20 years; some say more, and go back to the late sixties and xix

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early seventies when first the United Front government and then the Congress government had killed, jailed and maimed the radical Left with collusion or direct support from the premier Left party. Likewise, several of the practices of coercion and manufacturing consent were not new. As I have mentioned, some of these had been introduced in the colonial and the post colonial time of Congress rule. The other interesting question will be: given the massive way the voters gave their verdict against the Left Front rule in 2011, what are we to learn from the dynamics of popular politics that threw the Left Front out? Little shall we gain from comparing the Left rule with the Trinamool rule; the more significant questions will be: How is the autonomy of popular politics going to sustain itself? How much of the gains of this popular politics can be institutionalised? And to the extent this is so, what are the new features of the emerging phase of politics in West Bengal? I have tried to engage with some of these questions in the later chapters of this book.

The method of Writing Contemporary History In any case, as a matter of method in writing contemporary history, I am urging here a return to the micro-histories of events of the last 30 years in districts and towns of Bengal to understand the trajectory of violence and today’s conundrum. Too many articles have been written on Left culture, too many dissertations on panchayats and agricultural productivity, too many reports of prosperous villages of Bengal, too many debates on Bengal renaissance, too many eulogies of democracy, and too many dissections on what constitutes the babu tradition in Bengal. What we need as I said in the beginning is a kind of militant journalism, a journal of events, an unravelling of history around events (so histories of events)—a critique that tells us the limits of the governmental form ushered in post 1977. To do this is not to become a reactionary or a utopian or an anarchist, but to dig deeply into our present. The future historian of Bengal will only benefit from the contemporary chronicles around events. To write event-centric history we shall have to interrogate the ‘common notions’ (one such notion was the Left Front’s notion of clean government) that have the same speculative content. They involve a certain generality without any concretisation. If we see the common notions that sprouted wildly in the last 30 years we shall see that they all served the same practical function, namely mythologisation, a certain kind of adhocism, a day-to-day negotiation with compulsions and events, a rejection of hard policy choices and, therefore, a learning only through a common kind of abstraction. Such knowledge does not produce critique. xx

intRoduCtion It does not become a model also for political action. Gilles Deleuze had once said, ‘Different kinds of knowledge are different ways of living, different modes of existing’ (Expressionism in Philosophy: Spinoza, Zone Books, 1990, p. 289). Different kinds of knowledge tell us also of different class positions. Who gained, who lost out? Who gained initially, then lost out? Who died? Who had kept the police and clerks in good humour? Why was this shameless submission to money power, a submission that no organic feeling could resist—neither a sense of the class, nor a sense of the people, nor even a sense of Bengal? Why was pride lost? All these are stuff of serious social history which will tell us about class realities in Bengal in the last 33 years. These will also tell us the meanings of transition. What was the change in the form of power? What were the new political techniques introduced? We can get an understanding of these questions if we study events carefully. We shall also understand what continues and what has discontinued under Left Front rule. While we have talked of changes, we can also see the continuity. For instance, the idea of a political front has developed today into a massive instrument of rule from the old practice of the krishak–praja front in pre-Independence time. In the fifties the communists revived the idea of a front, carried it through the sixties to get today the shape of a ruling organ. Is there any alternative idea of front that has materialised? Can the oppositional movement and the ‘civil society’ activism of the last five years produce another sustainable front of popular politics? This is again one more instance which requires study of a political technique. The events of Assembly elections beginning with the 1977 elections collectively form a case requiring such study. This brings us to another possible way to study the contemporary political history of West Bengal, which is to study associations besides studying events. Events are at times linked to associations. Even though associations may be centrally directed or organised, yet, they are mostly local, context-specific, popular and around a set of events or issues. Associations bring out features of life that escape attention of a regime-centric history. There were several associations—some dead, some still continuing—in these 33 years. One can begin with the Legal Aid Committee, then chronicle the histories of the Association for the Protection of Democratic Rights (APDR), the Indian People’s Front (IPF), No More Bhopal Committee, Chinnamul Sramajibi Samiti, Forum for Occupational Health and Safety, National Relief Committee, Forum to Defend Tea Gardens around the movement of Sonali Cha Bagan, Nagarik Mancha, Sramajibi Sanhati Samiti, Movement to Defend the Workers of Kanoria Jute Mill, Drug Action Forum, to the more contemporary Sanhati Mancha, various anti-land grab forums in Rajarhat, Singur, Nandigram and elsewhere, Lalgarh Mancha and so on. There were many xxi

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more associations in rural and mufossil Bengal in these years trying to defend or mobilise people around issues and events. They show how collective actions took shape, how the basis of contentious politics built up, how trust networks developed and how the ground was laid for militant mobilisations in 2006–10. Studying associations is a non-hegemonic way of studying contemporary history. This is how some historians have studied nineteenth century Bengal; this is how Pierre Rosanvallon studied France in the nineteenth century—a France still under the shadow of the Revolution (The Demands of Liberty—Civil Society in France since the Revolution, Harvard, Massachusetts, 2007). Associations make and represent popular politics in particular way. They pose challenge to the legitimacy of state power. We have to recall in this context how as a consequence to the transition in 1977, the immense legitimacy of Left Front rule allowed it to shake off old shackles of popular politics. It also allowed the Left Front to submit to market transactions and business undertakings of families as ‘non-political’ ventures, severely restricting thereby even its own forms of politics. These were considered as ‘private’ realms of power—that is, to be privately decided by ministers and leaders. Yet, as we know, government in this fashion is a continuously failing operation. The government wants to regulate its public image and keep money matters as private, but the world of regulation is heterogeneous. Unexpected problems emerge as they emerged in Singur and Nandigram, which money-based techniques could not solve. Strong methods also failed. People say, the will to govern vanished, fuelled by the constant registration of failure. Whatever be its rhetoric, treating money matters as private is a recurrent question within the problematic of government. The more populist the government is, the severe is the problem. We have to note the continuities and discontinuities in modes of power after the transition of 1977. Before 1977, the government was undeveloped. Social welfare measures were scanty. Electoral democracy was not as free of ‘impurities’ as it became progressively from eighties onwards. Grass-roots power was social, and formal power was institutional. Rule relied less on rational methods, more on police methods. Many of the old ways were inherited by the Left Front government. Yet in all these cases Left Front rule developed new trajectories—the only thing being that while old methods remained, such as the police bandobust, the limits of the new modes became evident from late nineties. Left Front regime’s own developmental policies produced new clients, new prosperous sections, new lumpen elements, new hierarchies and new spaces of hunger, deprivation and underdevelopment. Those who want to retain critical independence in studying politics must study present politics in West Bengal seriously, and not dismiss the experiences of the xxii

intRoduCtion last 33 years. This way or that, on this side or that, conformists or rebels, party of order or opposition—whichever way politics goes, the experiences of popular politics and governance in West Bengal are enormously significant. They are significant as lessons in governmentality, lessons in the politics of the people and popular fronts, politics of party building, politics of local power building, politics of construction and certainly politics of resistance and alternatives. Prejudice can only do harm in political understanding. The questions thrown up by the experience of these years are too important to be ignored: What kind of relations we want between those who govern and those who are governed? What will be the specific nature of rule that claims to be a path to socialism and of a democracy that can be renewed? What kind of party do the people need? Can it be a party that will be capable of restraining itself, able to efface itself when occasions arise and make associations the backbone of popular life—in other words a ruling party but a half-party, or to quote a phrase of Louis Althusser, a party that remains yet appears like the ‘vanishing mediator’? What will be the economy of such transformation? And last but not least, how will such a rule negotiate the storms of globalisation? But if these questions are significant from the point of governing, from the point of legitimacy equally significant a question will be: How to produce a generality that can institute dialogic relations among the constituents of society? Left movement produced a generality through long politics of united front, coordinating sectional movements, striving for geographical spread of movements and so on. Its own governmental style destroyed the hegemony it had built up through assiduous work of decades. As I have indicated, society under its rule got fragmented. The radical Left also in the sixties of the last century had been able to produce a generality, which still remains to be recovered by it after it lost it through suppression by the ruling class and its own mistakes. How a radical generality can be produced and how to maintain it are the great questions West Bengal faces today. In other words how can a rule retain and reproduce the sources of legitimacy?

Prophesy the Present! These questions point to the paradoxical task of politics, as of history in general, namely to prophesy the present. To attempt to do so requires making note of multiple senses of events. We can refer to at least two moments as told to us by Walter Benjamin, the moment of the happening, the event and the historical moment, that is to say, the moment of constellation of different forces that finds the form of the event. To prophesy the present is thus not to cite the past merely, but xxiii

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to turn back one’s own time to the past in that double sense of time. The rhetoric of romantic prophecy builds on this bind of the present. It is in this way we shall be able to understand better, for instance, the reemergence of the Maoist movement in West Bengal, the long history of the indigenous people’s movement in south-western Bengal as its basis and why this movement notwithstanding its many problems and defects symbolised rebellious features of Bengal’s history. In the same way we shall be able to understand better, for instance, the effects of petty production and the vast presence of the informal sector on Bengal’s economy and the nature of productive forces here. The subject has here always eluded the best of the plans of administrators and planners, who have repeatedly thrown up their hands in exasperation and said that the Bengalis are anarchic. I am sure contemporary history of political practices has in its archives the clues to the possible answers to the questions raised in the previous paragraphs. Bengal has been for nearly the last two hundred years a massive laboratory of front line ideas and experiments, avant-garde thinking and impossible dreams and hopes. It will remain so as long as it keeps on searching for answers to the issues posed by a problematised present. The essays, reports, short comments and chronicles assembled in this book had been written in a state of animation that marks any writing of contemporary history, which in some sense is always a history of transition. Some of these were written as parts of polemical tracts that characterise any activism. Some were written as newspaper chronicles. Some were reports for various mass organisations— trade unions and peasant organisations. Some of course are analytical as well as contemplative. I have not changed the texts beyond the very minimal, such as correcting inadvertent mistakes. They appear here as they had first appeared in print. These entries are not placed here in order of their time of publication. I have tried to put them in some understandable order—understandable in terms of the developing problems of the regime of that time, which culminated in 2011, also in terms of the politics of passive revolution that characterised that epoch. Therefore, I have eschewed here any entry I had authored in the early years of the Left Front rule. There are some reasons. Whatever I wrote between 1977 and 1983–84 were too polemical, whose terms of reference lay in the preceding era of unrest and revolt and, therefore, possibly were excessively partisan writings. Also I wrote little in this period taking my time to understand the regime change. However, I do not think that the collection as a result suffers, because by avoiding any ‘origin’ account we may be able to understand the nature of the phenomenon better. Otherwise we shall all indulge in that petty bourgeois refrain and despair, namely things were good in the beginning, the government was doing well, and xxiv

intRoduCtion then the decline started with ageing, corruption, fatigue and so on. I did not want to engage in such kind of rise and fall account. Serious social scientists may rest back and ignore this collection, because there is no attempt to do social science here. These are records of a journal on a time that can best be described as an era of passive revolution. I have already indicated some of its features in preceding pages. It is a theme to which I shall come back while closing this journal.

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Section One Capital, Labour and Politics

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he 10 chapters in this section relate primarily to the issue of capital, labour and politics. These were written in the eighties or early nineties, reflecting on the some of the crucial issues of the time. There are additional notes in the beginning of some of the chapters. They introduce the theme in question or the occasion. These chapters also suggest that the origin of the decline of the Left rule in West Bengal can be traced to the issues arising in that decade that demanded a new mode of governance, and a new mode of politics. Conventional wisdom of the Leftist intellectuals in West Bengal considers the eighties to be the golden age of Left rule.

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1 A Decade of Strike by Capital The Statesman 16 February 1991, Kolkata and New Delhi

This note was written as a trade union solidarity activist as the decade of eighties of the last century ended in West Bengal. Those who lived in West Bengal at that time know that this was the decade when factories closed down one after another. The government and the Left trade unions remained passive. Workers perished. The political class also did not bother as its march in the countryside went unhindered. There was silence all around over the unprecedented attack by capital on labour.

E

ngrossed with and attuned merely to wage bargaining, trade unions were baffled by the new managerial assault on workers in the decade of eighties, and impotently watched the spate of lock-outs in West Bengal. The ’80s showed that old-style trade unionism was fast getting obsolete and would soon become an anachronism on the industrial scene. The chronicler reviewing the West Bengal labour scene will surely label the decade as one relentless assault on labour. It was the decade of industrial sickness and the shifting of the burden of such malady upon workers; of unilateral modernization, and rationalization and the collapse of the traditional trade union structure. The decade also exposed the reluctance and the irrelevance of both the Union and State governments in either reopening closed units, or stopping lock-outs, or changing the course of unilateral modernization. Instead of workers submitting charters of demands to the management, the decade saw the management serving them. The proposed Industrial Relations Bill fell through not so much because trade unions or Opposition parties resisted it, but because the State had not yet made 3

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up its mind on intervening in the worsening industrial relations. If the State was to be the key factor in the tripartite industrial relations structure, it had to reshape its role. But as the crisis in the industrial relations in Bengal showed, the State had failed miserably—it was a bipartite tussle between capital and labour, and the tussle was marked by the terms and imperatives of a backward capitalist economy, an agenda of capitalist modernization, and an antiquated form of labour resistance. The scenario dictated that labour would be increasingly marginalized in the power struggle between capital and labour. The National Front Government came up with its proposal of participative management. But participative management has had few takers in Bengal. Workers are worried about life, job and security; unions are worried about their diminishing relevance; and management certainly not enthusiastic over any proposal that may tie its hands in controlling labour. The offensive upon labour in Bengal proved that conventional trade unionism had incapacitated labour in meeting the challenge and the Government’s proposal on workers’ participation in management sought to give a decent burial to such trade unionism. The State was perhaps aware of the meaninglessness of the participative management proposal and only exposed its ineffectuality as it readily responded to calls from mill owners feeling disturbed or threatened by workers. It never declared illegal any lock-out or closure or other management-induced work stoppage; neither did it arrest managements for defalcation of crores of rupees on account of PF and ESI dues; nor did it enforce the Factory Act or the Boiler Act seriously. On the other hand, it killed workers like Rajeswar Rai of Shree Gouri Shankar Jute Mill of Shyamnagar; drove to starvation workers like Nitya Gopal Saha of National Tannery and caused untold agony and silent deaths among others. The total abdication of its role by a supposedly pro-labour government in West Bengal further worsened the situation. In 1988, for example, of the total 228 work stoppages, lock-outs accounted for 85 per cent and strikes 15 per cent; 88 per cent of man days were lost because of lock-outs and 12 per cent because of strikes. Of the 246,053 workers affected, a majority (60 per cent) suffered owing to lock-outs. The average duration of a strike was 33.4 days and a lock-out 169 days. Lay-offs increased from 510 in 1985 to 1,572 in 1988. The unions and the State both remained mute witness to the onslaught on workers during the decade. In fact, the unions often became part of a structure that resulted in managerial hegemony—just as the policies of the so-called prolabour State government did. Consider: In Usha, the closure order in 1990 was patently illegal, yet the Government did nothing. Kolay Biscuit has been closed for 10 years; the Government does not know what initiative to take to reopen it. The Government 4

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pursued a long-term strategy to close the tramways altogether. It never came up with any plan for the revival of the jute industry by encouraging workers’ initiatives, punishing recalcitrant mill owners, supervising the raw jute market, and expanding the internal market of jute. The pattern reaction was to talk of nationalization and do nothing. The trade unions were equally passive; too long attuned only to striking for pay increase, bonus and other wage-related demands, they were at a loss (some in profound confusion) how to fight a recession; how to conceptualize issues relating to work conditions; how to turn industrial sickness from a sectoral to a social issue. Lenin had argued long ago that the trade union tactics of a boom situation cannot be followed in recessionary time marked with conditions of underdevelopment, restricted home market, stagflation, a large unorganized sector and technological restructuring of industry, which renders some obsolete (of the sunset type) and elevates others to the sunrise category. The ESI conditions now prevailing in West Bengal show that besides stopping employers from defaulting payment of ESI dues and punishing the defaulters, the Government could do much more. It could give the lead for a radical restructuring of the ESI scheme, reorienting it to needs of occupational health and safety. The State went on paying lip-service to the principle of recognition of the bargaining union by secret ballot. But as in Hindustan Lever and many other instances, arm-twisting by the management and CITU followed and the Government hardly took any initiative to uphold the demands of workers. The basic approach was one of coaxing and cajoling employers to keep their units open at any cost, so that employment did not dwindle further. The spate of lock-outs during the decade showed that it succeeded neither at persuading employers, not in satisfying labour. The Government remained trapped in the “politics of production” of the bosses; trapped by their threat to “strike” and whisk capital elsewhere. One had always heard of strike by labour. Bengal in the ’80s saw strike by capital. To counter the “politics of production,” a different type of politics of workers— at least some sort of “politics of social security” was needed. Unfortunately, socialist tactics of trade unionism have long neglected this fundamental theoretical point and have thus become antiquated very fast. The course of the cooperative movement might serve as an example of the fate of such countermeasure. A survey conducted by the Bhupendra Nath Datta Institute established that cooperatives died out at the hands of market laws, after they were started against inconceivable odds by workers (Bengal Belting in Serampore). Technical help, financial help, consultancy, managerial expertise—all these essential inputs were in very few cases mobilized simultaneously. Workers had started thinking of organizing cooperatives for taking over and running sick 5

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units. But to tackle the consequences of stripping of assets, lack of diversification, corruption, lack of power supply, and finally, lack of capital, the cooperative movement was required to discard its inherent reformist orientation and increasingly assume a political one, so that it could become a mass movement against an apathetic government and banking system, as well as the gang of speculators hovering over the Bengal industrial scene. As a survey by Nagarik Mancha of 10 attempts to build workers’ cooperative and run sick units showed platitudes and populism were not enough. Lacking political dimension the cooperative movement went the way of cooperatives of the Swadeshi days—towards doom. If the politics of cooperativization had to be spearheaded against the State, no less had it to target the existing trade union structure. In unit after unit like National Tannery, the entrenched union structure opposed the new movement. For unions are basically defensive exercises. Engrossed with and attuned merely to defensive responses like wage bargaining, established unionism could not welcome the new workers’ movement. Unions have neglected what Michael Burawoy called the “politics of production”, and have lost dynamism in the quagmire of power, arrogance and corruption. The offensive against workers received real encouragement during the early part of the decade, particularly when Rajiv Gandhi declared his “new economic policy”. A spate of new policies followed—in education, taxation, housing, health, textile, trade, and industrial relations. All these policies signified that the Indian State felt that the strategy it had pursued for capitalist development for 40 years had become somewhat stale and counter-productive. The new clarion call was liberalization, modernization and a stricter work-regime. The offensive against labour was a necessary condition for the success of the new strategy. The response of labour had necessarily to be new. But in this, the working class movement failed disastrously. The reverberations of that failure are still being felt Bengal. Consider some milestones of the decade: The National Campaign Committee failed to function effectively as the united platform of trade unions for such resistance. The Bombay textile strike was defeated owing to lack of solidarity. Huddled in its defensive posture, the committee could do nothing meaningful in response to the Bhopal disaster. Nor could it frame substantive policies on issues facing workers like modernization, social security, occupational accidents and diseases, housing etc. Internal democracy in the unions, financial integrity, workers’ unity cutting across union affiliations, suffered. In big industries, periodic wage agreements became the norm—in tea, jute, engineering, etc. While such agreements only legitimized the managerial curbs already imposed, the unions vaunted them smugly as their achievements. 6

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The final point in a review of the decade, then, must be an examination of the new requirements suggested by the experience of the past 10 years. The essential features of the old type of unionism were blue collar strength, wage bargaining, militancy, a stress on collective bargaining, proliferation of unions, party-led divisions within the trade union movement, and the positive correlation between wage boom and unionism. But the ’80s clearly brought into focus the essentials of the new situation: deunionization ensued; collective bargaining became increasingly irrelevant as management sought to unilaterally impose new work regimes in factories, plants and units; entry of white collar on a massive scale in the union movement; the shift in focus of workers’ movement from wages to social security issues, and finally, the emergence of the great question of the unorganized sector as well as unorganized workers. The ’80s showed that trade unions must reorient themselves to new ways of tackling new issues, or that new organizations must replace them. The social security issues, the paramount question of employment, occupational health and safety agenda, workers’ cooperativization, etc. can be taken up vigorously by workers only when the unions start concentrating on non-wage issues of life, forge unity that cuts across party affiliations, and resort to direct methods of struggle. The crucial question as the ’80s showed, is not wage but frontier of control. Who will control the work process? It is essentially a question of power. And if this is not addressed socialist unionism will become an anachronism on the industrial scene of the final decade of the century.

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2 A Dying Metropolis The Socialist Perspective Volume 13, Number 4 March 1986

In the decade of the eighties in the last century, the Left Front woke up to the governmental responsibility in all its complexities, including the issue of urban renewal. It was also the time when World Bank and other international aid started coming in earnest for salvaging Kolkata. CMDA expanded. Kolkata’s destiny passed on to the hands of development bureaucrats around this time. This and the succeeding chapters were written in that background.

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s there anything called an Urban Question, more so, in a Third World perspective? If we want to not merely see it, but also to experience it, we have to be in Calcutta. And not in that peculiar snob way which, Geoffrey Moorehouse does it, not even in the way of our celebrated dream-walkers of the past glory of the Raj, but more in the way of empathy—in the way of trying to understand the phenomenon of third world urbanization, and unmasking the structure of dominance of a colonial society as internalized in a city. The purpose here is not so much to portray the factual details of the “urban ulcer” that Calcutta is today, but to grasp the theoretical essence of the process of decay. Fanon in his inimitable style wrote of a colonial city in Wretched of the Earth: The settlers’ town is a strongly built town, all made of stone and steel. It is a brightly lit town; the streets are covered with asphalt, and the garbage cans swallow all the leavings, unseen, unknown and hardly thought about.… The settlers’ town is a well-fed town, an easy going town; its belly is always full of good things. The settlers’ town is a town of white people, of foreigners.… The town belonging to the coloured people, or a least the native town, the negro

8

A DYING METROPOLIS village, the medina, the reservation, is a place of ill fame peopled by men of evil repute. They are born there, it matters little where or how; they die, there, it matters not where, nor how. It is a world without spaciousness; men live there on top of each other, and their huts are built up one on top of the other. The native town is a hungry town, starved of bread, of meat, of shoes of coal, of light. The native town is crouching village, a town on its knees, a town wallowing in the mire.

The great divide in a Third World city thus exists from the colonial time. The European Quarter is protected by a cordon sanitaire, by the baboo paras of North and South; then start the fringes, domiciled by labouring people of all sorts— immigrants from neighbouring villages and states close and far, even from the world of beyond—speculators and rural moneybags out to make a quick money in the urban mint of Calcutta. The divide is not merely vertical but horizontal too—thus a divide not merely in social space and time, but even in the geographical location of the city. This, then, is the colonial pattern of a city, which remains even after the days of good Ole John Company—a pattern of Calcutta predetermined, a structural imbalance, continuous migration, a thoroughly outdated industrial base callous to the environment, finally lumpenisation of the city resulting from mass destitution, marginalization, and pauperization. Calcutta exemplifies all these fundamental traits of Third World urbanization. Third World urbanization is, of course, massive in growth—in direct contrast to a languishing countryside, the city grows phenomenally. Drakakis-Smith tells us in Urbanisation, Housing, and Development Process (1981) that between 1800 AD and 1900 AD the total city population of Europe increased by some 4.3 million, whereas in the last 25 years the urban population of less developed countries of Asia has risen by 160 million. The structural imbalance caused by semi-feudal land relations, a developed mercantile sector, the delayed growth of services, and a proliferating urban middle class is the legacy of colonial days. It causes this astonishing speed of urbanization, yet hampers the proper nursing of a city. We have already referred to the phenomenon of migration, springing out of rural immiserisation coupled with urban growth—an unequal relationship that produces specific, historically determined patterns of migration. Colonial days produced an inflow of labour, the famine pulverized the complacent social fabric of the city, the partition was an unmitigated disaster. Add to these the present push and pull factors, where greater access to livelihood and facilities in a city acts as “pull” in a complementary way to the “push” factors of the countryside of Bengal, Bihar and Orissa. This is a typical Third World phenomenon: the urban society cannot absorb them, the immigrants retain their old communal ties for a long time, and the urban scenario becomes a cauldron of contending forces out to grab the few existent avenues of food, health, education, housing and livelihood. 9

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This is, thus, a competitive society, ready to spark off conflagration at the slightest pretext in any number of pre-capitalist forms. Remember the riots of the city? Dacoities, murders, intrigues and inhuman cynicism? The continuing fragmentation of the urban whole? In a sense, the entire dilemma of a colonial metropolis like Calcutta can be succinctly understood through the prism of “housing question”. Calcutta grew up from a Presidency Town. Thus it had to have a centre and a wide arc of periphery; the wide avenues, tanks and boulevards leading up to and ending in narrow alleys and lanes, the dark suburbs and marshy land on the east. This is certainly not a chance development, even if there is a seeming madness in the development of the city, there is a method in it. Consequently, for the post-colonial phase, the city finds itself unprepared for a modern housing plan. The real estate in the heartland is a boom for speculators, and the elites are used to high income employment associated with high quality subsidized housing. But this also means suburbs growing unplanned, invading high quality agricultural land, skyscrapers coexisting with ghettos; slums and uncontrolled settlements. These settlements become the target of the fury of administration, which forgets that the fundamental negation of the human horizon of the city is not done by the subhuman existence produced by the slums, but the criminal apathy of the city centre towards the rest, the huge wastage of space, the crowding of the skyline and the choking of all arteries because of a mono directional traffic. Added to this, are the architectural caricatures of Frank Lloyds Wright or Corbusier by imitating indigenous city planners and architects. The result is, as one observer G. Payne puts it in Urban Housing in the Third World (1977), “In Calcutta occupancy rates for housing indicate that more than two thirds of the families live in one room or less… approximately 2,00,000 people live part, if not all, of their lives on public pavements without any shelter or public services such as water or sewerage, and an estimated 2 million people (equivalent to 25% of population) live in one stone hutments called bustees.” The World Bank reported in 1975, that the poorest five Asian countries have big cities and extreme housing problems: Calcutta 1,720,000 squatters and slum dwellers; Jakarta 1,125,000; Karachi 811,500. These figures outnumber the total population of some countries. But we must not think these settlements and shanty towns which fall outside the bourgeois mode of existence in a city is simply an outgrowth—a cancerous aberration. Least of all, the international bourgeoisie has the moral right to think in such term, for its major multilateral lending agencies give little, if any, support to housing and transport. Taking the Third World as a whole, up to 1978 only 1.8% of their loans and grants went to housing, site and services, slum upgrading, urban development and urban transport. More fundamentally, these shanty 10

A DYING METROPOLIS towns and settlements have an organized economic existence—an integrative mechanism which may be termed as lower circuit, in direct contrast but interlocked relation with the upper circuit of the urban economy, commanded by the big barons of services, industry and administration. There is one thing to note here: first of all, the lower circuit is itself a full circuit thus serving hundreds of thousands of labouring people in a city as well the neighbouring suburbs and villages. Second, this circuit is needed by the upper circuit too—a thousand and one odd jobs ranging from house-maid work to unorganized labour in construction projects. It is a necessary evil to the captains of the metropolis. They detest these urban settlements, momentarily evict them, yet cannot carry on without them. Thus, while metropolises all over the affluent world are shedding their weight, the Third World cities go on acquiring more and more: Bangalore has doubled in population within a decade, New Delhi a little less. The social consequences of this split existence of a city will be discussed later on. Suffice it to say now: the urban masters will be legalizing these bustees continuously, not merely in terms of accepting their existence, but giving them also a sense of finality and legality. They are to stay where they are: they can exist, but must not grow bold to overthrow the delicate social structure of a city, must not demand in equal measure in Cossipore, Tangra or Ultadanga the facilities of let us say, New Alipur, Jodhpur Park or Salt Lake. In short, they must not kick the applecart. This contrasts sharply with the massive bias of state controlled finance in favour of high quality housing for a privileged minority—a common trait in the Third World, as exemplified in the so-called MIG flats in Salt Lake, Dankuni, Ultadanga, Belgachia, etc., in Calcutta. But it must be remembered, this is not merely true of Calcutta, this is true for example of Zambia, of Brazil, of every big city of the Third World, where urban elites swallow up the bulk of investments for urban development in form of housing or roads. If housing exemplifies the structural imbalance of Third World urbanization, there is further the question of a relatively shrinking industrial base of a city, a base which is thoroughly outdated and callous to the ecology of a city. This is obvious, for even during the pre-independence, Calcutta’s growth was phenomenal: According to Murari Ghosh who has worked on economics of growth of metropolitan Kolkata (1983), between 1891 to 1901 there was an increase of city population from 682 thousand to 848 thousand (24% growth) and in suburbs 88 thousand to 101 thousand (19% growth). There has been a massive influx since then on. Kidderpore, Manicktala, Beliaghata, Cossipore—all experienced a spatial and numerical expansion. The 1901 Census showed as much as 65.7% of its population as immigrant, in suburbs 88%. The core city as well as the periphery have been the el dorado still today, while the gold has vanished with the 11

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numbering of the days of traditional agro-based industries of Bengal like jute. The new ones do not come up, even if rarely they do, they have few employment potential. What remains is only the construction boom, the only major source of livelihood today for immigrant labour. Let us look at this imbalance from another angle. Calcutta is not living in a void, there are other cities/towns in Bengal whose fate influences Calcutta directly and indirectly and vice versa. Almost no new city or township came up after independence except some sparse cases like Haldia, Kalyani etc. Towns like Siliguri or Maldah grew heavily in population, but that was more a growth in services and trade. With basic industries or even consumer goods production remaining constricted to a few places, these cities or towns are today a Calcutta miniature. Civic amenities are today in fact in these towns worse than Calcutta. Whatever growth there has been, these have been in North Bengal, thus the towns there could absorb a little from rural gentry as well as the poor of that region. Jalpaiguri, Darjeeling, West Dinajpur, Maldah all had an urban growth rate over 40% from 1971 to 1981. But Howrah, Hooghly, Midnapore, Bankura, Purulia and Birbhum all had the said growth rate below 40%. These, being contiguous to Calcutta, had an adverse effect upon the health of the metropolis, in the form of sending a continuous stream of fortune seekers from these districts to the city, as they had little growth in urbanization themselves. Some cities like New York depend economically on a worldwide hinterland; some are pure administrative-tourism-conference centres like Geneva; some are purely regional like Madras. But the economic hinterland of Calcutta is also a problematic. It is regional, no doubt; with the region itself in economic morass the supply of wage goods or the reduction in influx of people from the regional hinterland—both present a dismal prospect. The national hinterland presents also a pessimist picture, for the hitherto uninterrupted order for engineering and industrial products has now screeched to a halt. The newer horizons of chemicals, electronics etc. are destined for elsewhere. Paul Harrison in his masterly report on the criminalization of the urban poor caused by poverty and conflict generated by recession in London (Inside the Inner City) quoted Mencious, the Chinese sage, who had said a few thousand years ago: “The people will not have constant hearts if they do not have constant means.” Calcutta like any Third World big city is a haven for criminals who like their victims are the offshoots of pauperation and mass immiserisation. Each a result of dehumanization of the people, a dehumanization that the very structure of a metropolis constantly engenders. If we consult any gazette, any newspaper, any government briefing, we shall find, there is a pattern in this criminal orgy and violence. It does not happen in, let us say, Salt Lake or Jodhpur Park, 12

A DYING METROPOLIS but in Ultadanga, Cossipore, Kidderpore, etc.—areas which we call fringes, the outskirts. But, I would say, this is the “inner city”—an organic expression, no doubt turned upside down, of the civilized urbanity itself. If we consider any pattern of recent riots, for example of Moradabad, Bombay, Baroda, Aligarh or Jamshedpur or Malegoan, we shall find as the Bombay human rights Factsheet 2 (Comminalism—The Razor’s Edge) issued in 1983 tells us, a definite inter-causal relation between poverty, change in class relationship, breakdown of traditional occupations, the growth of a new elite, the machinations of the ruling forces and the increasing marginalization of people. Life breeds crime. Nowhere should we find a greater assertion of this truth than in the policy of urban planners who deliberately keep bustees at the level of bustees, legalize their existence, and keep even a greater number of them on the verge of legalization, but never quite legalizing them, always on the tenterhooks— thus deliberately creating a sense of uncertainty in the newly sprouting hutments, where only the political and not-so-political dadas appear as the saviour, where bootleggers act as the “front paw” of the mobilizers of the political forces of various hues. There is an abundance of crime, and a paucity of everything else: lanes, pucca houses, playgrounds, schools, local clinics, recreational facilities, local employment—in short, everything that could arrest juvenile delinquency. Crime in Kolkata is like inevitable consumer good out of a “purpose-built production line”. The police, court, lawyers, doctors, moneylenders, bosses of all colours—they are meant to produce crime and then live out of that crime. The press rarely focuses on the abysmal poverty in these areas, the accent is on crime. When it tells that housemaid job, rag pickers, masons and their work hands, assembly jobs in little workshops, rickshaw pullers are also essential to a city, the emphasis is again on the illegality of their existence. It is all a move to crush the disadvantaged without an outcry, which is always easier than to reduce the privilege of the privileged. These areas are then the “inner city”; not spatially, but really, essentially. The heart of the urban psyche, the soul of the myths waiting to be busted, the end of the world of illusions and fantasies, the rigorous projections of the realities, the caricature of the possibilities aired so profoundly by the town planners—a profanity to their profundity. We must not of course think that the powers that be are unaware of the structural imbalances we have spoken of or they are ignorant of the magicians conjuring up tricks from their sleeves, there have been solutions and remedies one after another. Let us then turn our attention to this now. The first policy of the ruling class is to pacify the urban struggles and movements. If the Chicago Riots and the ghetto uprisings of mid-sixties in the U.S.A. made the U.S. ruling class wiser and impelled them to reorient their thought on 13

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urban planning and development, the city movements of fifties and sixties in Calcutta too have been a serious matter of thought for rulers here. One favourite question historian Eric Hobswam addressed to himself was: “Is city insurrection still possible today?” It is a question the bourgeoisie too addresses to itself every day, everywhere. Here we find the noticeable changes, also the methods to effect those changes. For example, the university has been decentralized spatially to blunt the mutiny on the College Street; students have changed in class composition too in some areas, where the rich peasantry as the result of new agricultural strategy is sending out boys to whom not Red Book, but pillion riding-wrist watch-transistor-TV and marijuana is the cult in vogue. Consumerism as a result of electronic revolution and ad blitz has engulfed the petty bourgeoisie, with the decline of old paras and coming up of housing estates, local political solidarity is rare. A spark in campus today cannot spread so easily; thus, in a sense, the bourgeoisie is successful. The curve of urban movements is declining. The petty bourgeoisie is transforming from an “angry” class to a “docile” class. A section of populace has been lumpenised. The Left has become the guardian of status quo, thus squarely affecting the dynamism of the middle class. The new issues of movement like ecology, health, social security, etc, are still unclear today. The human horizon of which Mumford spoke with respect to the city in The Urban Prospect (1968) is here too vanishing. The metropolis has won. Struggle, empathy, compassion, human interactions, solidarity, etc. have given way to cynicism, pettiness, corruption and apathy amongst every layer of urban life. The city bosses can now go to sleep in peace. But, fundamentally, newer structural imbalances are appearing in the development of Calcutta, where a momentary lull in protests may not all that be a panacea to the rulers. Again, let us take up some random examples. As we know, since the beginning of the attention of imperialist lending agencies on the catastrophic situation of the metropolis ready to burst out in any revolutionary outbreak, the suggestions of the mandarins of World Bank have been many. You construct flyovers and thereby only shift the point of traffic jam a little. You develop Salt Lake Township and thereby destroy the rich marshy land of East—the supply of fish and vegetables to Calcutta, the scope of dumping the garbage, the natural sewerage of the city, of hundreds and thousands of small, traditional occupations. You construct bypasses, and allow the land price to skyrocket and lure more traffic into the city. The aim is clear: arresting the cancerous growth of a city, stopping insurrections, stabilizing the marginalized and muting the Left. But how far King Canute can stop the dying of a city? The moot question remains. Or, for example, the policy of building satellite towns? I have already remarked of the sad state of the municipal towns of Bengal. Equally sad has been the tale of satellite towns like 14

A DYING METROPOLIS Kalyani. It had to be so, for when townships are mere satellite to a big metropolis, they cannot grow their own identity. When industry, commerce, education, social amenities and administration are all merged in one centre, you invariably create a magnet, to which hordes of populace will be attracted and satellites can then merely be night halts or transit camps. Satellite chains necessitate a rapid transit corridor, a completely different order of transport—too much of a demand on a Third World economy. Transport communications, house to work motion, social mobility—all would stick out their necks for a complete restructuring, perhaps based upon electronic technology—which again a colonial edifice can hardly lead to. Actually the satellite concept implies a “centre,” already suffering from apoplexy. What we need is a reverse and different concept of urbanization—a balanced system of big, secondary and small cities—with the secondary ones clearly deserving a key role. Thus secondary in place of satellite concept means a different demographic policy, a different outlook towards urban economy as the front end of a regional rural economy, a different outlook towards spatial growth, etc. Clearly we have to dispense with the ambiguities that mark the switch on and switch off pen pusher’s narrative of the decline of a city, like what journalists do on Bombay or Calcutta. It is not that the ruling class opinion is unaware of the need of balanced urbanization to save the big cities from total collapse. But to them the notion of balance is also ephemeral, wishy-washy. It does not go deep into the political economy of urban growth. For example, one commentator writing on “Why the Rush Towards the Cities” in the organ of the Planning Commission (Yojana, 29 [13], 1989) on the migration from villages to cities as a consequence of Green Revolution states, “Historically, urbanization has been associated with the process of economic development.” Far from it: historically urbanization in underdeveloped countries has been associated with retarded development. Cities were there before the advent of colonial powers. But modern urbanization is the distinct gift of colonial underdevelopment. To counter it, you have to have an integrated national approach, which by synchronizing and balancing industry and agriculture, small, medium and big industries, by establishing ecological balance, can make balanced urbanization possible. Some town planners have suggested, Calcutta should turn from a metropolis to megalopolis to save itself. Indeed, Calcutta is fast transforming into so. If metropolis is bad, megalopolis is even worse. For, a megalopolis is nothing but a vast city disappearing slowly into a frontier of self-centred clusters of artificial villages, like the little hamlets of Salt Lake, where the upper middle class sets up its own cloistered world of fancy villages with green surroundings, tired and frightened as they have become of the concrete jungle of the city. There you find open space, greenery, a tiny farm, small 15

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roads with trees lined up on either side; what you miss is social intercourse and communion, traditional cultural centres, the mingling of boys in the playground, the traditional club where adults mix with those of younger generation, the tea shop or kiosk gossips, the morning rendezvous. It is a tinsel village, a trick of land speculators. In fact, the city is expanding, while they think they have arrested its growth. The show cases in the form of these tinsel villages take little time to be invaded by newer entrants. The law of relentless urban growth in a capitalist set up is a bull that will destroy every China shop of rest, solitude, calmness and nicety. The megalopolis is, then, the final Spenglerian stage of cultural disintegration of the towns folk, the burgher, the bourgeoisie. It started with the city of parasitic Caesarism—which Calcutta was also so till early 19th century. It ends with modern dry megalopolis. So, then, where do we stand now? There are contradictions then that plague cities like Calcutta today. City-village contradiction, development-ecology contradiction, etc., are there. Calcutta can hardly escape from these. Without a total change and an outlook for such a total change, we do not have any prospect for Calcutta. I believe, political economy, history, sociology, ecological awareness, psychology, architecture—all will go into the making of what I would term as the new city. The laments are already there, only they need a conscious motor to be merged into a new science and art of urbanity. After all, a city is not an evil genius, it is one of that supreme gifts of a collective reproduction of labour power. It is that collectivity that is at peril today in the hands of all profiteering forces. Therein lies the gigantic battle ahead. A city, no doubt, creates and results from an unprecedented increase in the mass of surplus value. The point is, how such a mass of wealth, stripped of the form of value, can be best utilized in the interest of human collectivity. The city is a gigantic social organization. The point is: how can that social organization be resisted from alienating itself from the human: how can bureaucratism, power, centralization, speed, a dehumanizing architecture, etc., be cleared, so that people do not any more associate these as the sine qua non of a city, a metropolis.

16

3 Does the Left Front Favour the Urban Elite? The Statesman 8 September 1987, Kolkata and New Delhi

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he dream of publishing Calcutta into the 21st century with subways, flyover, underground markets, wide boulevards and islands of picture-postcard suburban villages vanishing into the distant green, which Louis Mumford characterized as the metropolis continues. The city’s Mayor, Mr Kamal Basu, only symbolizes that dream, though we are not sure whether in that process he will preside over the irreversible destiny of such lopsided urbanization, again described by Mumford as necropolis. However, despite the Mayor’s indiscretions or because of them, the ruling Left Front’s urban policy in general, and for Calcutta in particular, must be held responsible for such a fate. But does the Front have an urban policy? Perhaps not a declared one but its practices provide some indications. The improvement of certain public utilities in order to secure World Bank aid, road repairs, construction of bypass, and stabilization of conditions in bustees are acts that do not demarcate a Left Front urban policy as politically different from a Congress one. In fact all the major development agencies and projects of today were conceived in the time of Dr B. C. Roy or Mr Siddhartha Shankar Ray. But the present practices of the Left Front show, how far Mr Rajiv Gandhi’s vision of a modern city has been accepted, perhaps unconsciously, by Calcutta’s town planners and city fathers. The Mayor complains of course of lack of funds. Like all other major urban development agencies like the DDA, the CMDA, though flush with funds has not been democratized. It is a nominated body which boasts of certain projects, but its high image of construction and speed suitably clothed in ad-language is the butt of public jokes. Calcutta Municipal Corporation is supposed to offer civic services to a run-down city, but its development planning lies in the hands of 17

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bureaucrats and planners—a motley assemblage almost invisible in the crowd of land speculators and money sharks. Lest one think that the indictment is too strong, let us its recent pattern of development. The well known demographer, Mr Asok Mitra, repeatedly cautioned the Left Front Government against disturbing the traditional work patterns of east Calcutta and the neighbouring countryside whose supply of vegetables, fish, leather, and other articles of daily necessity made Calcutta a still livable city for the urban poor and the middle class. But we find a bypass first disturbing the topographical slope of the city, virtually destroying the drainage system and causing water logging and then pushing up land prices from Ultadanga to Kasba. The artificial water bodies for fishing called bheris are drying up, damaging the city and playing havoc with the work pattern of millions of poor people. What the Left Front should have done was to extend and guarantee the minimum civic services to these areas like drinking water, primary education, primary health care, library services and build small parks. Above all, it should have taken steps to improve the residential conditions of the poor. Instead we have been offered new townships catering to the new middle class. This will even defeat the purpose of a fast corridor, for which the by-pass was built. And this attitude explains the ill-advised Rawdon Square and Satyananda Park projects which reflect more a state of mind than architectural decisions. Besides, consider the Left Front’s attitude towards Calcutta vis-à-vis other West Bengal towns. The phenomenon of ruralization of towns has already been noted in the case of many Third World cities, and West Bengal is no exception. The decrepit condition of Jalpaiguri, Baharampore, Krishnanagar, Burdwan, Howrah, Contai, Midnapore and Suri needs no special mention. The reports about the over-burdening of towns are a myth. On the contrary, the urban population of West Bengal is declining though, in absolute terms, the population has increased. The 1986 Urban Data Sheet published by the National Institute of Urban Affairs says that while 10.83 per cent of the Indian urban population belonged to West Bengal in 1961, it became 10.25 in 1971 and 9.04 in 1981. The absolute increase in these 20 years is from 8,541,000 to 14,447,000. But even more revealing are some other figures cited by the same source. Only 0.16 per cent of West Bengal’s urban population lives in class VI towns, 1.04 per cent in class V, 3.57 per cent in class IV, 7.45 per cent in class III, 10.74 per cent in class II and 77.04 per cent in class I. The enormously top-heavy structure of urbanization is thus clearly evident. It conforms to the all-India pattern which correspondingly is 0.54, 3.64, 9.52, 14.32 and 60.46 per cent. It is doubtful if the Left Front’s urban policy-makers are aware of this, for they have faithfully followed the 18

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elitist policy of catering to Calcutta while neglecting small and medium towns. The urban annual growth rate is also almost stagnant. Could satellite townships be the answer? But the fiasco of Kalyani is a deterrent. A satellite can be only a satellite, the night rest for weary commuters. Apoplexy at the centre leads to anemia at the periphery. Besides, in the absence of fast transport corridors vastly improved telecommunications, satellites are not going to work. Apart from striking a correct balance between small, medium and major cities, there is also the question of a correct relation between the centre and the hinterland. So let us also look at this hinterland factor as well. Jalpaiguri, Darjeeling, West Dinajpur and Malda had an urban growth rate over the 40 mark from 1971 to 1981. But Howrah, Hooghly, Midnapore, Bankura, Purulia and Birbhum had the same growth rate below the mark. Being somewhat nearer to Calcutta, these send the largest number of migrants to the city. The lack of urbanization leads to super-urbanization. A hinterland which has very little urbanization in itself will send its flocks to the megalopolis and promote an unbalanced urbanization process. All this may not be unrelated to the Calcutta Municipal Corporation’s eviction programme on the ground that canal-side dwellings hamper drainage. Apart from being untrue, the programme denotes a misplaced sense of priority. The Left Front’s earlier policy announcement of no eviction without resettlement had justifiably earned the praise of progressive people. As part of its tussle with the Centre, it has firmly stuck to that position, as in the case of Circular Railway. But now in an effort to please the World Bank and to march ahead into the 21st century, evictions have started with no promise or programme of resettlement. The recent merciless evictions at Tangra with lathis and bulldozers underline its new sense of priority. But the urban poor do not need displacement, provisions of proper living conditions, which the Corporation has failed to provide. West Bengal’s urban growth rate was 2.53 in 1961–71 and 2.79 in 1971–81. Does the Urban Affairs Department have any plan of expanding municipal services to cope with even this small growth rate? Almost 40 per cent of the urban population is illiterate. The infant mortality rate is 86 per 1,000, the annual death rate 10 per 1,000 and the annual birth rate 31.8. As much as 26.5 per cent of the urban population lives below the poverty line. About 37 per cent do not have access to safe water supply. Eight per cent do not have access to sanitation. There are only two hospitals and 253 beds for every 100,000 people in urban areas. When one peruses these figures closely, the misplaced sense of priority of our city fathers becomes self-evident. 19

4 Environment and Employment: Will the Trade Unions and Greens Join Hands? Business Standard 6 October 1989

Labour conditions around questions of occupational health and safety became important issues in the decade of the eighties, particularly after the Bhopal Gas Disaster. The Left trade unions were not prepared for the issues arising in this context. Though some of their leaders were aware of the issues and wanted help of the experts, the bureaucratic nature of their leadership prevented the Left unions from taking any proactive role. In the eyes of these labour leaders those who spoke of these issues were not labour activists but ‘Greens’. This and the following chapter record the importance of the issue.

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he emergence of the Green movement in various countries both developed and underdeveloped, in the last decade has raised several important questions. Some have found in it the signs of a post industrial ethos, while some again have found a new morality in it. Various observers have interpreted environmental mobilization as an alternative to political mobilization by the Communists and the traditional Left. In fact, the Greens have emerged from the shadows of the workers’ movement and it is this aspect which this brief note aims to discuss. Traditional political opinion mostly on the Right, but some among the Left too, looks at the Green perspective as an obstructionist attitude vis-à-vis development. Bosses view it as something neo-romantic and unrealistic keen to pamper the strange demands of labour for a clean work environment, job safety, ergonomic deployment of machines and regular replenishment of human physical and metal capacity that is expended through the labour process. The traditional trade union bosses also regard these as unnecessary for the TU agenda, and as a diversionary 20

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tactic to move the attention of labour away from bread and butter issues. In many cases, both here and abroad, green activists and their demands on work environment have been opposed by both the employers and employees. Thus the question is: Is it a false choice—a choice between job guarantee and continued production on one side, and safe work environment on the other? Is it a false option? In Calcutta this correspondent knows of a chemical factory where a pollution study by a people’s science group was opposed not merely by the employers, but ridiculed by the union too. Will the ‘young’, ‘romantic’ and ‘irresponsible’ activists provide jobs for the workers if rendered unemployed because of the closure of the plant responsible for pollution? If expenses mount because of additional steps taken for environmental and ergonomic protection, would that not reflect on the profit margin and consequent wage and bonus level of the staff? Lately an environmental group was campaigning for the boycott of certain pharmaceutical companies producing government banned drugs. The sales employees were verbally supporting this campaign. But soon pressures from the bosses told upon them. And now a section among them concedes that the moral campaign might be harmful to their economic interests. In West Germany green activists campaigning against a chemical plant faced a similar dilemma. Thus, the question Is it a false choice, a closed option? Fear At Work is the name of a book grown out of the labour of “Environmentalists for Full Employment” founded in 1975 in the United States. In it Richard Kazis and Richard Grossman have reported many an identical case where workers have snapped at environmentalists are angrily, “What are you trying to do, shut down plant?” A testifying surgeon, an occupational health physician, a company doctor, a lawyer, an officer of OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) under the Federal Government, have said that environmental quality is too much of a luxury in the hard world of bread and butter. However, with the encouragement of WHO, ILO and various OSHA measures like Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, Toxic Substance Control Act, Environmental Protection Agency etc, both the traditional American unions under AFL-CIO and environmentalists are today more and more vocal on the point that the “jobs versus environment” slogan amounts to “job blackmail”. They are also fighting attempts made during the Regan Administration to gradually restrict the scope and power of OSHA. This “job blackmail” persists because of the concentration of economic power, control of information and a unilateral setting of the terms of debate. The Green activists have to realize that the struggle for better life has to be both from without and within. Otherwise fear of work loss will lead to the collapse of the Green 21

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campaign too. Again question is raised: Do environmental regulations save or add up to public expenditure? This is a point, on which the question “jobs versus environment” depends. Neither in India, nor in the developed countries, has some sort of green accounting of development expenditure been done. In the United States a decade back there was a study as to how much the federal regulations would cost. The figure of a little over $ 100 billion strangely included the federal administrative budget for regulatory agencies like Coast Guard, Customer Service, and the Library of Congress Copyright Office. Stranger was its policy of estimating the compliance cost to industry needed to meet federal guidelines. Now this cost benefit research suited the business community so much that it became their Bible in their crusade against environmental regulations during the entire Regan era. But this cost benefit approach is mere “ideological arithmetic”, for it does not work out as to how much the nation and the industry in particular loses under the jungle law of environmental destruction (loss of limbs, working capacity, life, nature etc.). It does not work out how much less the loss would have been under possible alternative technologies. Finally, it does not calculate how much could have been saved at the outset had environmental dimensions been kept in reckoning. Moreover, it implicitly rejects the concept of deterrence behind stiff environmental protection costs and isolation penalties. In India, we are yet to come across a green accounting of the present industrial set up. While the productivity councils lay stress on growth, the labour bureaus feebly ask for the inclusion of environmental aspects when stressing productivity. But these two remain unconnected, and with the nature of things as they are, the second inevitably suffers. As we have no green perspective, so we do not have any green orientation also. In such a situation cooperation between labour and environmental activists assumes great importance. For when both management and the government are yet to wake up to the green perspective, and in fact the former is explicitly hostile, labour has to prove that “jobs versus environment” is a false choice. How many unions up till now have requested various public health services to study their work process and machine deployment pattern? How many have cared to study the poisonous effects of deadly chemicals, radioactive materials they come into contract in the labour process? This correspondent knows of many public health activists willing to help unions in knowing and fighting the killing process. But expertise waits in vain to be utilized. Only last year the World Federation of Trade Unions decided to train union leaders in various countries in fighting environmental damages by imparting technical knowledge and knowhow regarding pollution and measures thereof. It will give legal assistance also to help fight for environmental legislation and help 22

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unions who have refused to handle deadly materials—particularly chemicals. This is a good start, but in view of global needs only a drop in a desert. The unions as yet have not effectively resisted job blackmail expressed in the form of alarm cries over mounting expenditure for environmental protection in and around a plant and consequent depressing effect on wage and manpower level. The power of job blackmail produces fear at work. Plants close down when the environmental cries become acute without giving a dime to workers. This is what happened to be UCIL plant at Bhopal. This has happened more in developed countries where environmental awareness is greater. ARCO, an Energy multinational, simply shut down its Montana plant in the United States, when it argued that it cannot satisfy environmental standards demanded by the government, local citizens and the workers. This happened in 1977 and since then many such cases have followed suit. When California citizens recently campaigned for the Nuclear Safeguards Initiative, the proposal met with stiff opposition from utilities, banks, and practically every other industry. Their standard argument was—jobs were at stake and nuclear power plants were to minimize unemployment in California. The former California Governor Pat Brown gave a classic warning: over 1000 workers employed by the atomic plants would face lay off and there would be loss of thousands of other jobs in nuclear facilities planned for future. Brown continued, “Without nuclear power, economy would crumble”. A similar situation prevails in the coalfields of West Bengal—the killing fields, where the standard argument of mounting expenditure is repeated. This is not merely in Jharia, but elsewhere too. But we still do not have any survey of pollution control expenditure and this seems deliberate. For, otherwise how can one use the argument, namely, “environmental protection costs result in job and income restriction”? Workers are retired if they talk of environmental damages too much. Bad management, obsolete technology, restricted market, stiff competition, lack of diversification etc. are the real cause of industrial sickness, yet environmental issues often come as an alibi as in the case of a big textile company in Delhi. But the environmentalists must remember that unless they work in cooperation with unions, they are soon going to be trapped by the anti environmental lobby. In case of the Narmada project, the opponents were confronted by villagers of Gujarat who argued, how are you otherwise solving the problem of drought and scarcity? This job blackmail persists because of the concentration of economic power, control of information and a unilateral setting of the terms of the debate. The Green activists have to realize that the corporate campaign is a twin campaign against labour and environment, and that the struggle for better life has to be both from without and within. Otherwise “fear at work” is going to cause the collapse of the Green campaign too. 23

5 The Tannery Workers of Tangra

Tangra is less known for tanneries today. It is known now for eating houses catering ‘Chinese’ food. Cars drive in numbers carrying tourists and city people in search for the exotic. The tanneries have been banished to Bantala. With that an older part of the city has changed forever. Till the eighties there were water bodies in the area, mostly now gone, and now this part of the city has, courtesy the developers, exhibition grounds, buildings and housing apartments. This chapter continues with the theme of labour conditions. It is a summary of a study written in 1992 as a note for the Union; readers interested in details of the study can read ‘Knowing the Worker—The Tannery Majdur of Tangra’ (with Debjani Datta) in Parthasarathi Banerjee and Yoshihiro Sato (eds) Skill and Technological Change—Society and International Perspective, New Delhi: Har Anand, 1997.

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he tanneries of Calcutta are situated in three areas—Tangra, Tiljala and Tapsia; all three are on the eastern fringe of the city. In Tangra the tanneries are mostly mechanised and semi-mechanised, more modern work condition prevails there, the union office is situated there and work goes on in Tangra in comparatively articulate or clarified factory line. In Tiljala and Tapsia the work process is still very primitive, hand fleshing is still existent and chemicals still little in use. It is more a shed there than factory. The tannery worker comes from Bihar, leaves his family in the village, draws on an average monthly income of Rs 800, works for 10–12 hours a day with intervals after an intense period of four hours’ work, and works often on piece rate. He works with chemicals, runs his machine in a room auctioned with leather dust, amidst extreme heat, noise and often inadequate light and ventilation. He faces accident not infrequently. He gets into the union, fights hard for improvement of his work conditions and knows success will not come easy. To him, unionisation and the existence as a member of occupational community are enmeshed. We on behalf of the No More Bhopal Committee take upon ourselves the task of knowing this Tangra 24

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mazdur, as worker, as the collective worker, as a member of an occupational community, as an union militant, as a migrant labourer making the metropolis his own city, as a resident of Tangra. Collecting life stories and making that narrative the principal mode of knowing is hazardous as there too we need some a priori assumptions. There too we have to arrive at some specificities regarding labour process, work environment, process of unionisation and, finally, regarding a worker’s life, wage and struggles. On the other hand, as we shall show later, the problem of class imagery surfaces while framing a questionnaire or handling a standard survey schedule prepared by some standard agency. For example, we come to know, much to our astonishment, that there is no wage discrimination between sexes in unloading the raw hide from the trucks to the factory inside. Our astonishment is equaled by the astonishment of the women unloaders at our question. They further volunteer the information also that though piece rate prevails in unloading work; again there is no wage difference between the unloaders. The unit of unloaders gets the money which is then divided equally amongst the members of the loading unit. This and various other pieces of unaccustomed information are gained with the help of the union. Rather, the workmen’s acknowledgement of us as part of unionisation process and—a step further—our own readiness to view our act of knowing as a constituent part of the unionisation process help our work. Modern concept of tanning industry in India derives its origin only in the nineteenth century. The First World War occasioned a boom period for the industry. Several joint stock companies were formed. This was repeated during the Second World War too. The Chinese tanneries in Calcutta increased from 20 in 1933 to about 70 during 1940–45. The Bata Shoe Co. Ltd. which had started shoe making in 1931–32 started its own tannery in 1940. As the products of the big tanneries were totally utilised for defence production, there was shortage of leaders in the market. This allowed the small-scale industries and the cottage sector to flourish. Gradually wet blue chrome skins started to be exported. With the advent of wet blue chrome tanning, export of Eastern India (EI) tanned leather was affected. EI leather manufacture involves more number of operations and has a higher labour employing potential than wet blue chrome production. Moreover, whereas almost 90 per cent of the raw material stocked can be processed as EI leather and exported, the export percentage of wet blue chrome can be only about 50–60 per cent. Moreover wet blue tanning puts an additional strain on the raw hides and skin available to the tanners geared for producing leader for home consumption. Prices soared and many small tanneries in Calcutta and Kanpur had to close down their factories. As the export of semi-finished leathers became highly profitable, all the big tanneries were fully engaged in the export trade. Even the better-off 25

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of the small units hitherto supplying shoe upper leather to the home market also switched over their entire capacity for the manufacture of wet blue chrome hides and skins for export. Only the weaker of the small-scale units continued to produce upper leather for the home market. But their resources, installed machinery and technical knowhow were poor; they had to utilise only those hides and skins which had been rejected for export for being unsuitable for producing good quality upper leathers. The established exporters of semi-finished leathers have been very slow in investing on capital goods for making finished leather. They are not being persuaded also as long as they can continue with their traditional export. Meanwhile from 1976 to 1977, big capital from outside the traditional domain has become interested in the leather industry. The Tatas, Brooke Bond and others have opened factories for converting semi-processed hides and skins into finished leader. The Government of India set up Bharat Leather Corporation as the apex body and the State Leather Development Corporations to coordinate the different activities in leather industry. District industrial centres were set up to help at the micro level. The intention of the government was that all available hides and skins should be converted to finished leather. It was estimated that by 1982–83, 33.20 million hides and 69.90 million skins would be available. The finishing capacity available was 26.12 million hides and 36.81 million skins. To achieve the target fresh licenses were issued, common facility centres were opened to enable the small scale and cottage units upgrade their products. In West Bengal in 1978 one such centre was opened at Pagladanga near Dhapa, Tangra, with a capacity for 600 cow hides and 300 skins per shift to enable the small tanners to finish their leathers from wet blue chrome hides and skins. However with the decline of Soviet orders, the centre has run into trouble. Meanwhile, majority of the small-scale tanning units have old and obsolete machinery. There has been no modernisation of machinery and equipment and no fresh investments made for expansion and development of tanneries in West Bengal. The tanning capacity in the country has increased. In 1985 there were 65 large and medium tanneries and finishing units in the country with processing capacity of 8 million hides and 56 million skins per year. At the time of writing this note (1991), 77 small-scale units can process over 6 million hides and 11 million skins per year. Eight hundred small tanning units can process 8 million hides and 4 million skins. Besides these, there are cottage units also which process 12 million hides. Tanneries under Khadi and Village Industries Commission handle 118 lakh pieces of hides and 4 lakh pieces of skin per annum. The small and medium units perform a given function, almost a determined role, in the structure of leather industry, as briefly narrated above. 26

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The tannery worker is a producer situated in such a structure of industry, marked by numerous small and medium units. Tangra is such an area where the units are destined to remain small and medium, with semi-mechanised work process, one or two with developed mechanisation and even automated spraying, only a lesser number of units going beyond the tanning stage and hoping for producing value added product. Leather industry has been crucial in export earnings. Against a total export of Rs 86.41 crores in 1972–73, the export grew to an impressive figure of Rs 931.00 crores in 1986–87. We have showed further that while tanning process remains antiquated, large industrial house like Larsen & Toubro, Tata Exports, Hindustan Lever, TVS in collaboration with Puma, Adidas etc. have entered the leather goods market. The government is also happy, so that this pushes up India’s present share of 1.25 per cent in the international market for leather products. The tannery mazdur nowhere figures in this order of things. What is most notable is that suggestions for the leather industry do not include suggestions; in fact, include nothing about the improvement of the work condition or the status of the tannery mazdur. This is, however, not to suggest that the low status of the tannery worker has no relation with the low status of leather industry. We have already spoken of the critical areas like modernisation of tanneries, upgrading of small and medium units, import of raw material, growth of ancillaries, design development, strengthening and growth of leather chemicals, leather and leather product machinery manufacturing sectors in the country and finally skilled manpower. However, one has to note that the issue of improvement of the worker is not even mentioned in the suggestions for improvement of leather industry. This being the situation, not surprisingly, the tanneries, particularly medium and small tanneries like those at Tangra, remain at the bottom of the structure. The tannery worker of Tangra will never enjoy the same wage level as that enjoyed by a Bata worker. The wage differential within the leather industry will continue. Along with that will continue difference in work conditions, though both belong to leather industry. The reification around the two terms formal and informal must be broken through in order to understand how and why the Tangra mazdur lives in that way. Dividing industries into formal and informal categories to explain differences in conditions of work and wage conditions is to enter, therefore, into a process of mystification in order to explain mystification. As has been shown, there are very formal laws behind the informal, which keep the conditions of tannery—the lowest rung in the leather industry—as such. The informal is not just a deviation from the formal works. We have further indicated that the suggestions for a macro policy for leather sector almost deliberately preclude the ‘mazdur question’ as that would disturb the reification around the division and 27

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bring into open the question as to why work conditions in tanneries remain so abominable or whether it would have been at all possible to create the top layer of value-added leather product manufacturers and exporters without such an informal stratum of tanneries below. To bypass the problem of ‘informal’ nature of tannery production, the low level of skill, the poor quality of hides and skins and of tanning, there have been suggestions for microprocessor control system for tannery wet operations for better control, operation flexibility and energy/chemical savings. Such a microprocessor-based control system would no doubt visibly improve the product by controlling water addition system, controlling the online water heating, controlling chemical additions system through monitored feeding of chemicals, automatic dosing of chemical volumes, transfer of mixed chemicals to the prescribed duration, memory storage of chemical quantities according to batch weight etc. through integrated water and chemical additions systems and process control in drum operation. An automised tanning process becomes as imperative as robot systems are more and more introduced in modern shoe production which requires strictly specified tanned leather. But such a scenario is going to make the prospect for the tannery mazdur even bleaker. Firstly, all this wet operation skill is going to be taken over by the microprocessor-based control system with a consequent deskilling of work. Secondly, the reduction in work force level is going to be substantial. Though no conclusive estimate has been done, a third of work force in an average tanning unit engaged in monitoring the wet operations will be redundant, though due to no fault of the workers. An automatic control system will mean further modernisation at every level, though this remains doubtful considering how far the tannery owners will be enthused to adopt such systems given the low level of wages, abundant supply of labour and assured market for semi-processed leather. It can be noted, in passing, that vegetable tanning could have substantially reduced pollution hazards faced by the workers and people of the locality and this would have reduced cost too. But there has not been any significant research for producing vegetable tanning extract, imports of wattle bark and wattle extract. Ironically while imports of wattle bark and wattle extract are increasing, vegetable tanning as a whole has not increased significantly. During 1975–86, the quantity in tons of wattle extract imported was 10,989 and the value was Rs 40.017 million. In 1981–82, this became 13,139 tons and the cost just the double, Rs 82.44 million. One can say so much on attempts towards reducing the chemical hazards in tanneries and tanning cost. The plight of the tanner is even more evident when judged against the background of footwear industry. As in the rest of the country, in the eastern region too, 28

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the footwear industry is mostly in small scale and household sectors. Throughout the country, there are 150,000 cottage units with annual output of 160 million pairs and 12,000 small-scale units with an annual output of 50 million pairs. The largest footwear production concern in the country, Bata India Ltd, is in the eastern region with its footwear factories and tanneries in West Bengal and Bihar. According to official estimate, 400,000 people are engaged in the production of footwear in the country. Yet either due to increase in other types of raw material for the footwear rubber, textiles, wood, polyvinyl chloride (PVC), etc. and entry of such giants like ICI, Bata, Dunlop, Bengal Waterproof or due to the absence of any institutional framework for exchanges between the small tanneries and the cottage footwear industry, the strength in the footwear market is never reflected in the wage conditions of the tannery mazdur. This has been indirectly admitted by Sanjay Sen, president of Indian Leather and Tannery Association (ILTA), who has said: The footwear and leather goods industry around Calcutta is characterised by the dominance of middlemen who recruit skilled contract labour and apportion the work amongst them. There is no long term strategy for the establishment of permanent production centres. This dependence on temporary migrant labour force results in total absence of development of any work-culture, skill and training … and a professional attitude for betterment of the quality of work and thus living standard.

It is surprising that Mr Sen has limited his observations regarding the role of middlemen to only this and has not seen the obvious fact that middlemen dominate both the ends of the footwear industry—from making tanned leather available, through recruiting labour, to the sale of footwear. Thus, tannery industry remains impoverished, particularly the small units, as remains impoverished the small sector of footwear production. The striking feature of these small tanneries is the active involvement of the household members of the owners in management which results in low cost of production. The necessary working capital is normally received through the loans obtained from commission agents to whom the finished leathers are sold. Servicing facilities are very inadequate for these units. The Indian tanneries too produce chrome leather, glove leather, lining leather etc. They too face problems like scarcity and high prices of raw material and chemicals, inadequate institutional finance etc. Calcutta has abundant supply of tannery labour. Due to increasing mechanisation, the number of unskilled workers appointed in tanneries in recent times is getting smaller and the demand for leather machine operators and leather finishers is growing. The ratio between the technicians and skilled and semi-skilled workers is at present 1:3. These tanneries are well equipped with machines like paddles, drums, shaving machines, fleshing machines, 29

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buffing machines etc. More than 25 tanneries export about 90 per cent of their total production. In the official accounts of tanning industry, the tannery mazdur is always absent, except on some marginal occasions when the writer has something to say condescendingly on labour conditions. That too, invariably, would be limited to comments on the unhygienic and filthy conditions there. We can take up a typical example. The training needs and the need for modernisation have been spelt out as follows by the technologists’ association: raw materials, upgradation of quality and finished leather, finished leather exports, modernisation in the leather product sector, mechanisation, designing, chemicals, components and ancillaries, research and development and quality control, development of the footwear industry, leather complexes, in-plant training joint ventures, development of management skills, marketing, finances for industrial development, export–import policy and procedures, and industrial licensing policy and allied matters. This long list of contents of course included another topic training and human resources development. But by human resources, seldom the association implied the tanning worker; rather it was the technician who was implied. Thus, the association talked of training and upgradation in the skill of flaying, design, maintenance, sales and marketing technicians and other types of technical personnel. The tanning worker is simply absent. Apart from disparity in employment structure, there is a remarkable uncertainty in labour conditions as well. Piece work system is also prevalent in Tangra and elsewhere. Minimum wages structure fixed by the Central Wages Board for leather and footwear industry remains often unimplemented. Workers are paid only on ‘no work no pay’ basis. Gratuity, medical benefit, ESI facilities are not provided. Apart from paucity of information and low wage rate, the major problem faced by tannery workers is the non-implementation of any important legislative measure by the tannery owners in West Bengal. Often the Factories Act (1948) does not apply and, hence, legislations like Provident Fund Act (1952), Maternity Benefit Act, Workmen’s Compensation Act (1923), Industrial Disputes Act (1947) etc. also become inapplicable. Even if they are applicable in cases of the units covered by the Factories Act, governmental machinery and willingness to enforce them are simply absent. The Bonus Act (1965) entails payment of bonus to workers in establishments employing 20 and more workmen. Yet even in an establishment of 50, hardly 10 would be permanent. Similarly holidays, leave rules also do not apply. The Trade Unions Act (1962) establishes trade union rights to the workers. Yet, the non-statutory status of the worker renders the right often useless. The Contract Labour Act (1970) provides certain safeguards to workers employed by workers by imposing certain statutory obligations on the principal employers. 30

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Yet, in loading and unloading, this Act has been rarely enforced. Gratuity, a social security measure, is unthinkable to the workers mostly remaining non permanent throughout their work life. The principal factors that contribute to occupational illness and accidents in a tannery may be summarised as follows: 1. 2. 3. 4. 5.

machinery accidents toxic and carcinogenic chemicals microbial and other diseases noise working conditions in a tannery

Needless to say, all these factors are critically present in Tangra. As we shall show soon, our survey brings this out very much. The tanning processes we have shown involve various machine operations. Shaving, staking, buffing, slitting, rolling, setting, fleshing as well as drums and presses cause machine accidents. Similarly chemicals cause often carcinogenic diseases. Unless different technical measures reduce discharges of chrome, pollution reduction will not be significant. Then, the tannery mazdur gets infected with ‘bacillus anthrasis’ while handling raw hides. Similarly, leather dust causes respiratory tract infections and tuberculosis. Though precise information is not available, some studies in Tamil Nadu have shown high incidence of these. Noise has been another destructive factor within the plant, particularly at staking machines and at drying and extraction plants. Finally, the working condition itself is destructive. Inadequate ventilation and sanitation, dust inhalation, offensive odour substances often make workers sick. However, one should not be led to presume that abominable work conditions, the hazards, the low level of wages, the uncertainty about the units and workforce thereof are due to some sicknesses of the leather industry. Leather and tanning— they are not a sick industry in the eastern region and remain a hard currency earner. An estimate of the revenue earning position of the industry on the export front can be had from the fact that in 1977–78, the annual export of leather and leather products through the Calcutta port was of the order of over Rs 54 crores, which was 20.6 per cent of total such exports from the country. Though some of this amount might have come from leather produced elsewhere, the bulk certainly originated from here. Possibly then, low wages and low-level occupational conditions contribute to the strength of leather industry on the export front. Our findings are very much standardised. There is little variation. The uniformity in our findings makes it remarkable that with such an obvious situation 31

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existing, the public agencies have yet not acted. Even more astonishing is the large ignorance among relevant officials about work conditions prevalent in the tanneries. The uniform pattern of responses, of which we shall present our findings in a moment, can be briefly presented. Most of the workers are male. Female labour is employed only in unloading the raw hide and in the leather goods manufacturing units producing bags, gloves etc. These units are situated in Tangra and are often linked to some tanning units. Rarely workers remain in Tangra after crossing 50 years in age, so demanding is the work. Again, the aged workers are illiterate. Some among the workers, who are yet to cross be 25, are educated up to primary level. There are then the drop outs. Almost all belong to joint family system with wife and children staying back in the Bihar villages of Muzaffarpur, Bhojpur, Arah and other areas of central Bihar. Some have a son here with them either for school education or training in tanning work. Cases of still births and congenital deformity among children have also been found. Almost all have been born in villages, have subsequently come to the tanneries where friends, elders and relatives are already employed; they have been subsequently engaged in tanneries. The skilling process is, thus, informal and nowhere the employer has provided any pre-placement training. Parents are illiterate. The workers we surveyed covered almost all the departments—loading, soaking, drying, cutting, polishing, spraying, glazing etc. The minimum basic wage still remains as of 1969—Rs 223/–33/–60/. Dearness allowance, however, has increased. The rate is sometimes piece rate in many departments. Thus, income from primary occupation is about Rs 400–450 per month. Additional income comes to about Rs 300–350 per month from overtime. The total monthly income is roughly Rs 800. This is below both poverty line and line of minimum wages, and the amount of bonus they receive is about Rs 1,000 per year. On food and fuel, they spend Rs 500 per month, on conveyance nothing, on train for the annual journey to village a substantial amount, Rs 50 on average on rent and roughly Rs 150 as the amount sent to native village. There is no system of promotion. But there is an increment of Rs 2 per day per year. As very few are permanent, workers do not enjoy any medical benefit like one under the Employees’ State Insurance (ESI) scheme; they enjoy no leave travel concession (LTCO, no provident fund, no pension. But the gratuity they receive is not a determined amount by some fixed rule, but an amount arbitrarily settled through negotiations between the bosses and the union. There is again no formal rule for job scope for dependents, but informally that works sometimes. Usually, again, it is no work, no pay; thus leave facilities are very uncommon. The work space is often crowded, the air is stuffy. Light is considered sufficient, but noise disturbing to many, the heat and humidity exhausting. The smell 32

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is hellish. The workers sum up all these details of work environment as thus: ‘Gas is the most troublesome feature in our work.’ They know there are toxic agents present in work like sodium sulphide, sulphuric acid, chrome, lime etc. in soaking–spraying and as a whole. They further know through various ways that these chemicals affect their bodies—in the mouth, on the skin and in other ways. But they say that the authorities have never informed them of the presence any toxic agent. They do not know any cure. So these were the workers whom we talked with, instead of formally interviewing. They belonged to several sections—from loading, soaking to polishing and dispatch. They are mostly mistris, a few are senior workmen. There is indeed no detailed hierarchy of designations usually present in big factories, neither the elaborate method of superintendence over labour. Here, supervision is crude, short, direct and effective. Abuse, sometimes physical punishment (which the union has been able to curtail substantially), intimidation, low pay, random pay cut and the informal but regular arrangement to let the worker visit his village for more than a month a year—all these keep the lid on his grievances. The visit to the village is very important in a Tangra mazdur’s life. He maintains his social life there; thus, he can lead the spartan life here. His other soul, we can say, resides there. If his identity is one as a member of an occupational community, as important is his sense of belonging to the village—the gaon, desh’, the districts of central Bihar. His tension is released if he can go; his strength and stamina is replenished, and he seriously believes that his body aches, runs down and gets ravaged by fatigue until he gets back to the village for replenishing the stock. The whole informal but very strong and almost formalised mechanism of labour market thus continues and the relations are reproduced. The workers are aware of the ambivalence of the situation, which often works to their disadvantage. They are unsure of the reply as to how they feel about the job. Few say unsatisfactory, generally it is moderate, to some, not strangely, it is satisfactory. One has to work, one can’t complain. Isn’t that so? But they need pay increase and permanent status for their job satisfaction. But would they stop going to the villages for one or two months so that they can remain permanent? They are not sure. Within the tanneries, there is hardly any protective device used during work. Mask, cap, gloves—there is almost nothing. In soaking pit—rather the drum— gloves are used, but sparingly. In the shaving room, where leather dust fills the air, it is a gamcha (cotton towel) that is wrapped around nose. There is no exhaust system, no inbuilt safety system in the cutting, buffing, shaving, and such other machine. There is no bathing, scrubbing, washing facilities present in the factory premises. But there are taps. Water is sufficient. So, that suffices. For sanitation effluent treatment there is absolutely no arrangement. There is no safety management. 33

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The workers feel such necessity. But considering what obtains at Tangra, they feel, talk of safety management is a far cry. Of the workers we interviewed, 44 out of 72 handle toxic agents, but only 18 have information about toxic agents, though 53 think it is essential to know. Surprisingly only 8 replied that they do not know anything about their effect on body. Few (5) cited oral effect, 12 cited skin effect, 4 cited pain in the bodies, 28 cited inhalation and 15 reported combined effect. About accident risk, 55 (76.4 per cent) cited limb injury as nature of accident risk and about the entire nature of physical ailment due to work, 35 (48.6 per cent) replied as mixed, 9 cited headache, 6 told of bronchial cough. About knowledge of the work conditions, 28 out of 72 have suffered directly, 26 have witnessed and 18 have heard. In monthly income, skill has some reflection, though not much with piece rate prevailing in many departments; a semi-skilled worker’s earning may often be near the earning of a skilled permanent worker. Among the 36 skilled workers, as many as 9 get a monthly income between skill and the response to various opinions on work conditions is also revealing. We find that of 36 skilled workers (among 72 interviewed), as many as 18 have identified ‘hellish smell’ as the most troublesome factor, and 9 have identified ‘combined effect’ as so. This is surprising as the skilled workers are mostly machine operators working on trimming, buffing, glazing machines etc. or spray polishing and to them dust should have been the most troublesome factor. But as we find, in fact only 4 out of 72 have identified stuffy air as the most troublesome factor. It is the ubiquitous gas, as they call it, the hellish smell, stultifying the atmosphere or the combined effect of all this—noise, smell, heat etc.—that is often identified as the most troublesome factor. Surprisingly again, none indeed, thinks lack of light is a great problem. All these bring us to the structure of the questionnaire. We have said that this structure presumes the respondent to be a permanent worker in an organised sector and thus fails to appreciate the ambiguity in the work situation in the tanneries. It gives less stress on caste and on the entire phenomenon of solidarity of an occupational community. The section on details of occupation often misses the centrality of labour process in the study—thus issues of modes of control, superintendence, supervision, floor-shop cohesiveness, unionisation, moments of insubordination etc. are left out. The silences in our study remain as important as the vocal points. The second aspect about the structure relates to our assumption regarding the individuality of our respondent. Did we want to encounter him as an individual worker, as an individual respondent or as the representative of the collective worker and wanted our interlocutors collectively? In groups they responded better, views were checked and cross-checked by them, often a dry observation 34

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of one would spark off an animated discussion from which we learnt more. But we had never planned our sessions in groups. Sometimes, some in waiting would look forward to listen to one table where two would be seated opposite. But sometimes, we noted the difference in intensity of response. Our questionnaire had been planned with the individual worker in mind and not the collective worker. The problem, in all earnestness, lay there. But, then, who is the collective worker? The collective worker is of course of worker engaged in labour process not as an individual labourer, as a person, but as labour, as labour collectively engaged in production process. Moreover, collective worker is both workers as collective, as well as an individual worker as member of that collectivity. It may be clear by now that the unionisation of tannery workers has developed along three types of solidarity: solidarity among the tannery workers, caste solidarity as well as a solidarity emanating from the commonness of the place of origin, the state of Bihar. Thus, occupational solidarity and community solidarity have contributed to the identity of the collective worker at Tangra. The tannery mazdur has pride in work. He knows, upper-caste Hindus will not enter into this profession, and he is thus indispensable. Though caste Bengalis have taken up jobs in the tanneries in recent years, particularly where new machines have been introduced, the number is still small in relation to total number of workers of whom 80 per cent are Dalits and the rest are Muslims. The ‘West Bengals Tannery Mazdur Union’ is, thus, at once the union of the workers as well as the centre of their social solidarity. To the union the two fundamental questions on the agenda are: issues of permanence and increase of minimum wage in the industry. We have already narrated how the yearly journey to the village marks the life of the Tangra workers. This weakens the demand for making the worker permanent—a status on which depends social security provisions like provident fund, ESI, leave facilities, gratuity, workmen’s compensation etc. The union leadership, of whom a few are outsiders, but a majority still are workers or ex-workers, views the phenomenon of annual exodus and return as weakening union discipline too. This progress in unionisation of the workers is contingent upon the episodic nature of workers’ response to work conditions prevalent in the tannery belt and the episodic nature of union’s struggles also. In the union work in a big organised plant one can notice a day in and day out office activity, rush to labour courts and tribunals, daily meeting with management, negotiations, ‘pursuing cases’ and attending union meet of federations. In vain one would try to look for such evidences of union work. Of course, members are enrolled, they do give subscriptions, they hold conferences, they mobilise, the leadership pursues ‘cases’ with 35

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owners of various tanneries and on occasions they correspond with the labour directorate. As we found in worker’s responses to our question on job satisfaction, we realise, with visible improvement, conditions are still within threshold of tolerance. Introduction of more machines, increased production and assured job/work are today generating skill. And workers today demand the status of skilled labour in determination of wages and placement. This is evident from the union’s opinion about fixation of wages. Today, most operating units in Tangra are small and medium. Therefore, workers have to raise their demands for social security provisions—such as permanent status of employees, revision of minimum wages, compensation etc.—not only with the owners of these units, but also with the government. The union admits this need in informal discussion, but in the wake of a strike or some other unrest, there is little evidence that the union is readying itself for raising such demand for intervention by the state. Struggles based on local conflicts and protests against primitive forms of superintendence over labour are today becoming less in acuteness and number. Tanneries are like prison houses or guarded enclosures. The desire to go out of enclosure is increasing. But with no provision of imparting technical education to them, while number of machines in tanneries increase, labour conditions for these workers and their sons are bound to remain depressing. Possibly, mobilisation against the government on social security demands may open up the next round of activism among tannery mazdurs. Inevitably, the watchword of such activism will be dignity of labour, dignity of working life and dignity of daily existence. Work, home, community and politics—these will continue to remain the pillars of the next round to Tangra mazdurs’ activism. The workers and their work I have described in the above pages are characteristic of what is at times called the unorganised sector. I have tried to show how this particular sector is organised, the clarified and non-clarified lines, the connection at both ends, their work conditions, their unionisation, their agenda of struggle and the complete absence of government in ensuring social security of the workers.

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6 Lessons of Ayodhya: Has the Left Lost Its Vision? The Statesman 8 December 1989, Kolkata and New Delhi

Chapters 6–10 reflect the time when the decade of the eighties ended and the nineties began. Though these entries do not discuss directly the fall of the Berlin Wall or the collapse of the Soviet Union, they reflect on some of the fundamental politicalideological questions arising at that time, and we may say, partly responsible also for the fall or the collapse. These entries reflect some of the debates raging at that time among colleagues and activists of the radical left. Perhaps some of these questions still retain their relevance.

A

ll ages demand in Ezra Pound’s words a symbol and none more acutely than the times we speak of here. The nation began with one symbol: the construction of Rajghat as a barrier against divisiveness. It was the symbol of society’s liberal unity. We end with another—Ayodhya, now a terse reminder that this liberalism is no longer effective, and that secularism has to be defined anew. The earlier symbol was built upon a freedom struggle that glossed over many internal hierarchies and divisions. It was built upon a vision of industrialism that said that “industries are temples of modern India.” It encouraged faith in a brand of secularism that placed itself at the opposite pole of religiosity. This symbol was also founded on the hope that universal franchise on the one-man-one-vote principle would democratize society. Education, science, and technology would spread enlightenment, tolerance, and a scientific spirit. There was also a hope that the secular principles enshrined in the Constitution would lift the nation out of the communal trauma. Nehru personified this hope. The Left too fell in that trap of illusion fostered by the dream of a “rationalist” India. 37

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The secularism championed by the Left rose above sectional consideration. Secularism democracy and socialism became the integral view of the kind of Indian society the Left was fighting for. By itself this was not the vision that would have landed the Left into the trap of “false rationalism” in which if finds itself today—totally marginalized in the happenings at Ayodhya as well as in the skirmishes between communalism and secularism. The crisis was the result of a much more serious political error. The Left’s implicit and explicit politics was that capitalism was standardizing Indian society, that proletarianization would reduce rural “idiocy,” that, like the freedom struggle, class struggles would reduce obscurantism, communalism and casteism, and, finally, the community fabric of society would be more and more transformed into a class fabric. However, the development of capitalism in India has not resulted in submerging the communities in a great socio-political development. Rather, dormant communities have now woken up, awakened communities have become restive, and a competitive polity based on a regime of subsidies and patronage has created communities out of sub-communities, “great” traditions out of “little” traditions and finally real communities out of “imagined” communities. The Left’s concept of secularism had no answer to this development. Its total reliance on Nehruite liberalism was of no use against a resurgent communalism, more fundamentally a renascent communitarianism. A huge population repeatedly struck down by hunger, disease, corruption, official apathy, lawlessness, and oppression clung to the community mode of consciousness more and more stubbornly. The debate between secularism and communalism was alien and irrelevant to that world of popular consciousness. And let us not forget that mental world was also a material reality. Those who wish to see a socialist India might well learn from the history of those who strove to create a Hindu India as an outcome of the freedom struggle. The marriage of Hinduism and Indianness could have and did serve as a compelling counter-culture providing an often devastating judgment against the patterns of colonial-liberal culture. But we know that conversion to Hinduism and Indianism served a far different function—that of mitigating the feelings of oppression and marginalization and thus becoming an ideology sustaining the very rule to which it originally had offered opposition. The Left’s vision of a socialist India may suffer a similar fate. Beginning with a critique of “retarded capitalism”, it has a chance of being imprisoned by it by allowing itself to be bound by liberal categories. In a sense, the Left has all along suffered from a solid middle-class puritan ethic, a Hindu ethnic. This puritan ethnic dictated that the Left must remain 38

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“in the world, but they must never become” of the world. It is the same challenge that any revolutionary faces when he is determined to alter radically the world in which he finds itself. He must continue to live while labouring to transform it. But, as in all cases of the puritan ethic, there has been the persistent and very special question, emphasized in the wake of Ayodhya: how can socialism relate to the Indian experience? The idea of secularism has been the specific product of bourgeois development in the West, where society was standardized in the course of capitalist development; national development and homogeneity submerged all sub-national features; a one-man-one-vote regime made liberal constitutionalism permanent; where classes, estates, interest groups, and lobbies formed the mosaic of bourgeois politics, and, finally, where all barriers between the state and the citizen were sought to be removed by eliminating the structured access via other men, communities, hierarchies, and institutions. Secularism based itself on all these developments, and by embracing that concept the Left’s political ideology in India achieved a complete break between classic political theory and sociology by denying in its world view the durability of the community mode of social organization and community mode of popular thinking. In the process, while refusing to be “of” the world it has become marginalized “in” the world. A reorganization of Indian political life discounting the existence of communities has been proved to be impossible today. The Left’s political vision stops short at the constitutional devolution of power to the state, in some cases to the panchayat level. A radical reorganization that accepts the existence of communities, sub-nationalities, etc., and builds popular power on a new basis is thus not included in the Left’s agenda. Its secularism, therefore, rises above religious communities and religiosity, while being unable to cope with religion in politics. But such a situation does not help because a society steeped in religiosity will invariably breed politics infected by the psychosis of a religious community. At a more fundamental level, since such secularism does not place the task of managing inter-community relations high on the agenda, it becomes futile—an endless banging on an unresponsive door. This also explains why the Left was so marginalized during the entire Ayodhya tragedy. Left intellectuals were busy for two years in proving that Rama was not born there or that the authenticity of a temple was unproved. They remained content with backing Mr Mulayam Singh Yadav’s administrative measures of tackling the dispute. The political rallies remained useless in preventing the tragedy at Ayodhya. The Left offered neither non-violent resistance at Ayodhya, nor did it order a halt to Mr Advani’s march at Purulia. More importantly, the slogans and methods to preach “secularism” were timeworn and antiquated, imprisoned by the rhetoric of the Nehruite liberal age. 39

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While the emphasis was to have been on community harmony, the main message kept harping on “secularism”. While an effort should have been made to help negotiate a consensus and settlement between the two communities, there was mounting pressure for a “national” settlement by mobilizing tolerant Hindu religious leaders, old freedom fighters, former Presidents, and prominent personalities. The Left sat through the entire seven month respite given to Mr V. P. Singh and through the first part of Mr Advani’s rathayatra, showing no initiative, and acted only when Mr V. P. Singh wanted it to do so. The lack of initiative that stemmed from the fundamental political error of substituting “community harmony” with “secularism” was even more astounding. The human chain and local marches became side shows to the gruesome tragedy being enacted at Ayodhya and elsewhere. Of all the political streams taken together, the Left had the capacity to organize a peaceful amity march to Ayodhya, mobilize the moderate religious leaders of various Hindu cults and other eminent personalities to offer a peaceful moral barricade to Mr Advani’s march, not with the slogan of secularism but urging and demanding a dialogue, consensus and friendliness. The very painful and unpleasant historical truth that fascism was ultimately defeated by armed force and that the mass psychology of fascism remains unvanquished must not be forgotten. The popular elements in such an ideology are turned into populist elements and are thereby incorporated in a potential fascist ideology. The paramount task remains one of identifying such popular elements and creating a rupture in the process through which such metamorphosis and incorporation take place. Such a line of inquiry will show where the slogan of secularism has to be redefined, a different perspective that has to be conceived, and the tactics that have to be followed. It will further show why Ayodhya cannot be regarded only as heroic resistance against communalism, but a tragedy also. The loss of human lives has to be mourned and an example has to be created so as to convince the Indian masses that the Left does not remain engrossed in parliamentary roulette while the nation burns. Its battlefield is any spot where riot occurs, egged on by the fascist forces. Basically this means that beyond the politics of secularism there we require a policy of creating social consensus on the basis of a politics of social management of community relations. But this cannot be achieved on the basis of statist politics or statolatry. Without a parallel moral authority, the task of political management of social relations is rendered difficult. After all, Gramsci’s concept of hegemony implied a moral dimension beyond domination. And it is this moral dimension that the Left has to strive for in its quest for social leadership. 40

7 The New Right and the New Left The Statesman 29 January 1993, Kolkata and New Delhi

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he New Right, with its “monolithic perception of Hindu power”, is a response to the crisis of liberalism in a post-colonial society. Only a New Left can be the answer to the New Right. The official Left and the secularist stopped the clock on December 6, 1992. The year was no doubt a pretty good year for the New Right in India. With all the evangelical training of doomsday and the apocalypse now, beyond December 6 there was only abyss in the eye of the Left. Common sense and political sagacity deserted them. Now, when even the official Left is realizing that after all the clock had not stopped after that Sunday, their rash, ad hoc and panic-stricken decisions and utterances have made the assault of the New Right even more successful. The inadequacy of the official Left movement in India under the new circumstances has never been so glaring. Even a Left radical group expressed its bewilderment while discussing its nonaction on a directly political plane in Bihar against the New Right by arguing that such a confrontationist step against Mr Advani’s Rathyatra would have been adventurist. Thus we have today the bizarre spectacle of evasive and token actions, the side attempts to skirt the crucial ideological-political problem, the succession of confusing, ad tempore declarations of intent and steps. Meanwhile, the New Right grows. Its debacle at Ayodhya has turned into a swift victory. Cutting across party and class boundaries, a quasi-fascist wind is blowing. The caste Hindu middle-class has started viewing the politics of the nation in terms of 80:20. All the parties of order and constitutional politics have been deliberately or unwittingly aiding and abetting such a view. Finally, combating the IMF regime has somehow vanished from the agenda. Briefly, the New Right remains incomprehensible and unexposed. 41

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What is so specific about this New Right in Indian politics? In the first place, the New Right talks of liberalization. It argues for a massive reduction in the emphasis on social welfare. It calls for a further centralization of the polity. It demands the applications of ruthless force to stamp out insurgent movements on the borders. It incorporates a little of economic swadeshi also. In the name of curbing inflation it is prepared to hold down the wage-level and restrict job opportunities. This New Right incorporates the crucial factor of bureaucracy in its politics. Bureaucracy is encouraged to play the role of a broker between the IMF, transnationals and NRIs on the one hand, and the desi industrialist on the other. The more specific aspect of the New Right is however its ideology and politics. Precariously perched on the tree of economic reforms, it knows that without concomitant political change its strategy cannot succeed. Not without reason, then, has the New Right included the question of nation-building in the political agenda of the country. This nation-building effort rests on the 80:20 formula: the mainland counterpoised to the frontier, the Hindu opposed to the Communists, the caste gentry ranged against the “casteist” OBCs and dalits, the traditional politicians opposed to the “modernist”, the desi opposed to the angrezi, and, finally, a morally confident, dynamic swadeshi leadership ready to face and collaborate with the worldwide Washington-consensus regime, a leadership characterized by people like Mr Advani, Mr Arun Jaitley, Mr Govindacharya, as opposed to the social-welfarist, State-sector-wallas, corrupt bureaucrats, amoral politicians, and compromising and vacillating leaders. There is no doubt that the 100-million-stong caste Hindu middle-class and the better-off among farmers and the technocracy today form the social base of this resurgent New Right. They personify and echo this redefined nationhood. The middle-class is literate, economically confident, conceptualizes the entire country as one nation, and is half-educated enough to call into question the distortions of past history to buttress its claims to a resurgent nationhood. But the rhetoric of Ram Janambhoomi would not have been so powerful as to destroy the mosque without a strong ideological component that spread its influence beyond the class boundaries of the traders, the middle-classes, the upper castes and the prosperous farmers. Surprisingly, the Left has forgotten that this bifurcated country was a product of the post-War times when the Cold War was just beginning. This fact left its stamp on the “solutions” imposed on many problems of the day. With the Cold War era now receding into history, the old arrangements are being dismantled everywhere and the associated infrastructure being brought down. If the Left has not taken the initiative to undo the abortive solutions of the problems emanating 42

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from the imposition of liberal democracy on the multi-community polity that is India, it is only natural that a populist party would rake up the issue and seize the initiative before long. The Cold War international compulsions are no more. Partition will soon be challenged. The imperatives of liberal democracy are less today. In a neo-fordist, neo-liberal world of IMF-Washington-led consensus, the order in South Asia is for a different kind of politics. It is another matter that the makers of public opinion in India still think that the political ideology of a resurgent Hindu nation is not the appropriate answer to the demand for political reforms apropos the new economic policy. But the problem of discovering one’s nationhood is not simply this. Modern Hindus from Bankim onwards have tried to evolve an appropriate power perception and have repeatedly emphasized the need for qualities like hard work, valour, scientific training, material strength, courage, and modern knowledge for standing India on her feet. It is not surprising that, to a large number of people, a quasi-fascist party in India represents these qualities. These people are today exercised by a problem which the Hindu nationalists grappled with decades ago. That problem simply is this: how should the Hindu re-establish a centralized hold over the country “interrupted for almost 800 years by Pathan, Mughal and the English rulers”? How can India be merged with “Bharat” and “Bharat” with the Hindu? In this situation, the emphasis on secularism, however much couched in Left phraseology, is not going to stand up to the populist and fascist agenda of nationhood. The Left has now decided to appeal to Bankim, Vivekananda, and others without considering the possibility that these may be a greater weapon in the hands of the New Right. Why has the Left not searched for alternative democratic traditions within the Hindu religion—for the Bhakti and Saiva cults which have argued for a total decentralization of the polity by granting autonomy to the freedom-seeking segments, or for the emergence of the dalits, backwards and the other marginalized groups—to counter this monolithic perception of Hindu power? Or, however much the Left may try to counter this demon with administrative measures, and with a policy of coaxing and cajoling the State and the party of order and governance into adopting firm measures against the BJP, it will fail. Secularism has never been an answer to the fascist version of communalism—an ideology that assures the “nation” of doing away with what Myron Weiner had called long ago the politics of “India’s emerging majorities and minorities”. The New Right has won this round. The minorities have been silenced. The middle classes have been largely won over to its economics and politics. The Right gained from the Cold War. The New Right is gaining from the end of the Cold War today. Sadly, the Left still thinks that without fighting the new economics, it 43

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can fight the national agenda of the New Right. It is still dismissive of any alternative vision of nationhood. The call for a new nation with a new Constitution will involve such far-reaching changes in the distribution of power in the State and status in society that it will become the first round of a direct assault on the entire structure of privilege and political accommodation first put in place during the colonial period. Such a call has to be the Left’s agenda today. The New Right is a response to the crisis of liberalism in a post-colonial society. Only a New Left can be the answer to the New Right in India.

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8 Party, Mass Organizations, and Mass Movements Economic and Political Weekly 18 June 1988

This and the following chapters were written as part of the political debates raging in West Bengal and Bihar in the decade of eighties of the last century on what should be the organisational tactics of the New Left in the still evolving post-1977 situation. These two chapters were based on the unfolding experiences of Left activism in West Bengal where the two parliamentary communist parties and the Left Front government had succeeded in destroying the autonomy of the mass organisations, turning the latter into their own signboards.

A

run Sinha (‘Lessons from a Mass Movement in Bihar’, EPW, April 23, 1988) raises several fundamental questions regarding party, mass organizations and mass movement. When Charu Mazumder argued that mass organizations bred revisionism, subverted the primacy of party, and hence had to be discarded, no doubt he was extreme in his formulation. But he had instinctively touched the problem at its core. As the experience of the communist movement in India in the fifties and sixties showed, communist work in mass organizations slowly got bogged down in day-to-day work in that particular sphere and neglected the strategic revolutionary interests of the party, encouraged a non-revolutionary style of work and, as Charu Mazumder said, became the breeding ground of revisionism. However, the remedy that he suggested was suicidal. The boycott of existing mass organizations was not the answer. Yet the pertinent issue remained before revolutionaries: Are the existing mass organizations sufficient for the present day needs of the 45

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situation? Can the imperatives of a communist party for radicalizing the people through multiple forms of daily activity be carried out through the existing, traditional mass organizations? The answer is clear, particularly from the experience of the last two decades. The traditional mass organizations no doubt have their own utility, but they are insufficient in a new situation, to satisfy the imperatives of a new reality. In that sense, can we call it a new reality? The capitalist path of development pursued by the ruling class on an underdeveloped basis is creating today a host of contradictions and complications. Issues of social security produced by capitalist modernization like automation, the issue of organizing women for social and political dignity, mobilizing unorganized labour, particularly rural labour, protest against environmental degradations, fight for occupational health and safety, a general struggle for health, housing and education, etc. are issues new in struggle today. The existing traditional mass organizations are not attuned to these new demands in the agenda of struggle, caused by an exacerbation of maladies grown out of the present path of development. Though the old mass organizations will function as the basic mobilizing units for these issues as well, clearly for mobilizing the people on these issues, for giving a radical orientation, for providing a clear thrust these organizations are inadequate. This has given rise to the demand for a new type of mass organizations to cope with the imperatives of a new situation. MKSS is a mass organization of a new type and the Party Unity group has confused this distinction. It has erred in judging the new with old outlook, old standards. The old mass organizations were created and treated as arms of the party. Either the party created the fronts, or captured the leadership of mass organizations, subsequently treating them as fronts. Thus, the distinction between a mass organization and the party was virtually obliterated whether in trade union sphere or peasant, students, youth wings, etc. Leadership in these mass organizations boiled down to the Communist Party taking charge of the organization and control, and ignoring the vital task of political leadership. Behind this wrong tactic lay the inability to recognize that a mass organization in the last analysis is a united front and is crucial to the party not as some petty bourgeois property of the party, but as a united front. However, there was one positive factor in the old practice that has to be acknowledged. Even the traditional communist leaders in our country recognized that mass organizations by themselves, through their own daily form of work, were not going to serve the party’s political purpose. Hence there was a tendency to “over-politicize” the mass organizations, substitute the role of the mass organization with that of the party, and thereby take a short-cut route. Thus, the practice 46

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of mass organizations and mass movements presented a dilemma: mass organizations were needed. But they were not serving the political purpose. In this situation, some organizational innovation is needed. What can be that innovation? The Party Unity Group as well as other revolutionary groups floundered on this question. The way Party Unity created MKSS or the Vinod Misra group of the CPI (ML) started IPF has some lessons to offer. These were not traditional mass organizations and the founders of these organization recognized, that party identity of their own political organizations was not enough to mobilize people in the concrete conditions of India. Hence, a certain degree of autonomy was also accorded by the political leadership to these organizations. Both MKSS and IPF became mass organizations of a new type combining the old role of traditional mass fronts in organizing the masses on sectional issues, as well as responding to the new demand of directly mobilizing them on a political basis. Thus, both these organizations became centres of public attraction and gained political prestige quite disproportionate to their actual strength. They combined the role of both a mass front and a party to some extent. However, since both the Party Unity Group and the CPI (ML) of Vinod Misra Group engaged in this practice pragmatically, on an ad hoc basis, without a theoretical- political clarity on the entire issue, they soon reverted to the old attitude. No wonder the autonomy of MKSS was subverted or controlled by Party Unity within a brief span of few years. Leaving aside, however, the questions of Party Unity or CPI (ML), we should go deeper into the political issue itself. What, in fact, is this new type of mass organization? How do we envisage its evolving new role? For want of a better nomenclature, we can call it a mass political organization. It combines, as we have said already, the functions of a mass organization in organizing the people on particular issues as well as the function of mobilizing them directly on a political plane. In fact, the sterility of old mass organizations, disunity among them due to party-political difference, their excessive legalism, particularly in trade union sphere, their nature of being appendages to particular political parties, above all their immobility are factors, which have impelled the growth of mass political organizations. The process started with the growth of NCCRS as the leading organ of railway men’s struggle in 1974. It will be wrong to look at NCCRS as a mere coordination of unions during a strike, as the official communists have viewed it. Indeed, NCCRS gained prominence over and above the unions and established a mass political identity of its own. Now this process has flourished in different and diverse fields of struggle. In fighting automation in some industry, resisting eviction due to different projects as in Baliapal, establishing a united worker-peasant 47

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organization, campaigning for food, drinking water, health, etc., or establishing a nationality identity as in Darjeeling, new forms of organizations are coming up. The communists have to recognize this emergent form. The communist parties and groups cannot afford to think that these organizations will reduce party’s power and influence, as has been thought in the case of Bihar. They must encourage this process, as it will help the party’s task of mobilizing the people for political struggles. These organizations effectively challenge the hegemony of rulers in different social spheres. Their role has become a must today in building up the counter hegemony of the revolutionary masses in our country in political, ideological, cultural spheres. Today, one has to realize that the party’s identity is insufficient for the task of popular mobilization. People are organized as classes, but they are also organized as communities, strata, regional conglomerates, etc. They are exercised over certain topical issues. They are growingly disenchanted with the formal political process. They frequently become “dropouts”. They feel themselves marginalized in that process, which is why they return with a vengeance during election time. Thus, besides a political identity, the requisite is also a popular identity. In India, the experiment of a peasants’ and workers’ party was never allowed a long life by the communists. Today a section of the CPI (ML) is thinking of setting up a people’s party. But who knows with what theoretical political preparation? Probably pragmatism here too holds sway. All in all, the question remains as preponderant as ever: what exactly are the relations between party, mass organization, and mass movement in the emerging situation in our country?

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9 More on Party and Mass Organization Economic and Political Weekly 3 December 1988

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maresh Misra’s note on ‘Party and Mass Organisations’ (EPW, August 6, 1988) occasions our return to the question of the relationship between party, mass organization and movement, the theme of my original note (June 18, 1988) prepared as response to Arun Sinha’s “Lessons from a Mass Movement in Bihar” (April 23, 1988). It will be seen at once that while my concern was to treat the relationship between party and mass organizations against the background of mass movements, in particular the changing form and content of these movements, Amaresh Misra has left the paramount factor of mass movement out of his rejoinder. Thus, even the titles differ; so also differ our approaches in spite of many similarities. In short, he deals with it in a static manner, trying to establish a oncefor-all set standard to the relationship between party and mass organizations. To me, it is dynamic, historically as well as structurally determined on and around the matrix of mass movement, mass consciousness. Much of my earlier note was guided by such an understanding. Since it was only a brief note, I did not theoretically elaborate the issue. Here I shall be concerned only with this point in showing where I differ with Misra’s rejoinder, leaving out other things mentioned by Misra. To Misra, I have “restricted myself to outlining manifestations only, barely touching the core of the problem”. To me “the core of the problem” lies in historically and politically determining the relationship between party—the vanguard political leader—and the mass organizations in the context of rising mass movements, emergence of new issues, the authenticity of the democratic content in these organizations, and, finally, the need for a popular identity over and above a mere party-political identity. This is certainly not merely giving “ad hoc concessions”, but arguing for looking at the whole issue from a political angle. 49

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Party and mass organizations, old or new, are social groups and they have their particular structure and dynamics. It is sad that very few penetrating analyses so far have been done on the structure and dynamics of these groups and organizations—for instance, why an organization becomes a group, what makes them tick, what determines their raison d’être, their style of work, even their form, and finally, why they get outdated in the face of new situations and imperatives of new reality. Particularly intriguing in the Indian context is the proclivity of a political organization, even of such type that claims or aspires to be a party with a holistic sociopolitical outlook, to turn into an endogamous organization. Has it been so because the process of canonization is the essence of authority–formation here and so the organization turns into a group very soon? Or could it be that the major internal group process also rested on a solution of the contradiction between individual proclivity and group cohesion in favour of the latter? In other words, such a solution marked the major boundary of internal group process? Related with this, could it be that the external group process solved the contradiction between group cohesion and external “disruptive” forces (i.e., disruptive of cohesion) always in favour of the former? In any case, it seems that the group process of the party remained strong over the counter-tendencies, i.e., individual proclivity and external “disruptive” forces. Thus the internal and external processes were determined. The paramount cause was the environment in which the group originated, prospered and thrived. Is it accidental that wherever the party was been able to lead the revolution, it has in effect been a mass organization? It has become the centre of public attraction, enthusiasm and involvement. It has ridden on the crest of a popular upsurge. Wherever it was the case, the party could always link its destiny to the rising fortune of a hegemonic mass organization, such as the Soviets, to reap the positive results of a revolutionary upheaval. We even have the extreme case of Cuba, where the revolutionary mass movement absorbed the party, not vice versa. The mythification of the Soviet Revolution tells us that the Bolshevik Party led the revolution, where in actuality the Petrograd Soviet led it. Even the Military Revolutionary Committee was set up not by the Bolshevik Central Committee, but by the Soviet. The current perestroika movement in the Soviet Union, we have been told, aims, among many goals, at restoring to the Soviet its due place in society. We do not as yet know how and when that will be achieved. But, the truth remains, the Soviet was at once a revolutionary political mobilizing agency as well the supreme mass organization—the platform of several mass organizations, revolutionary and in the process of being revolutionized by the rising tide of mass movement. It was the classical mass political organization, which could challenge the hegemony of the ruling class over the people by itself aspiring to be hegemonic, by absorbing the various rising popular currents. 50

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I agree with Misra when he states that “the ongoing path of development has resulted in the changing composition of classes with new trends emerging demanding more political assertion and having a more expanded aspiration for democratization”. But this all the more calls for the strategic concept of mass political organization in the context of new social issues, newer forms of articulation of old issues, a rising assertion of popular identity, and certainly the imperatives of mass democratic culture. While Marxist intellectuals have spoken a lot on the concept of hegemony, few have concretely analyzed the process in which hegemony is established or more particularly the counter-hegemony of the revolutionary democratic masses established over the society. A study of the mass political organization, its structure and dynamics, can be a clue to an understanding of the process. The politics of council communism spontaneously touches the problem of proper relationship between party and mass organization, but it solves it eclectically, spontaneously and not dialectically. Gramsci too erred in shifting his leanings from ‘council leadership’ to ‘party vanguardism’, not in a dialectical way but in an eclectic way. The whole concept of a party drawing its fundamental sustenance from “its” mass fronts has gone to such absurd length that other mass organizations which are not its ‘arms’ are willy-nilly sought to be sidetracked, ignored or if possible subverted by the party. In the process, it is the party which suffers the most. The Salkia Plenum resolution of the CPI (M) in trying to pinpoint the reasons for the lack of growth of the communist movement in the Hindi heartland ignored the vital question as to whether the model of communist organization-building stereotyped by the Bengal experience would at all apply to that zone. It has then an existential provision that gives it a name, rights, privileges and routine responsibilities, a teleology bound provision that stereotypes its purpose of activity, a structural provision that sets forth requirements for membership and leadership and finally a regulatory provision that provides means for enforcing and order. Though every organization does have these dimensions, the process of group formation is marked by an ascetic strictness regarding these provisions. There the internal group culture dominates its social life. This will happen to even a communist party that underestimates the relative autonomy of mass movements. I am not sure if IPF will avoid these pitfalls and become an authentic mass political organization. Until now it seems to be “based on the realization of new reality with a persistence of old outlook”. This is all the more so as it displays every tendency to fly into the full panoply of a political party with its “arms” and frontal organizations. Misra finds hope in the declaration of the IPF to be a people’s party. But here too one must think politically. Will the declaration of formation of a 51

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people’s party solve the major problem under discussion? Will IPF, for example, or the stated people’s party, allow organizational affiliation of mass organizations? Or, will not the stated party, trapped in parliamentarianism, gradually evolve into another run-of-the-mill oppositionist party? There are further more dangers that a people’s party in search of populism may try to become or appear everything to everybody and in the process lose its revolutionary character. These are questions that must be thoroughly judged and weighed before taking major organizational steps which is why I had expressed my doubt at the end of my earlier note as to whether adequate political preparations have been made. Nonetheless, as Misra’s rejoinder shows, we are more and more critically examining a once-forbidden area—the so-called “given” leadership of party over mass organizations. Let this received wisdom be subjected to close and historical scrutiny. The caution is we must not do it a historically, apolitically—in an absolute way. The fulcrum has to be mass movement and the state of mass consciousness.

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10 Votes and Populism Based on my Bengali article, ‘Votebabuder Pechone Pechone’, Baromas, Autumn, 1992

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he relative autonomy of the discourse of Left politics, particularly the CPI (M), had been an obstacle to the evolution of event-centric discourse. It was not unreasonable for one to put faith on the organisational culture of the Left politics in Bengal in view of certain facts—that the Left Front had been in power in the state for 15 years; that the CPI(M) was above all a party of organization; that this party knew how to keep its cadres under leash; that this party welcomed new ideas only after testing them in the fire of organizational discipline; it knew how to use administration and bureaucracy methodically; and that therefore this party involved itself in the practice of electioneering with precision—in short, the fact that the time-tested policy of the CPI(M) with regard to votes was a scientific one, an efficacious technique of incrementalism. Therefore, the supposition, namely, that the winds of event-centric discourse of votes would damage the fortress of organisationalism was alien to the political culture of West Bengal. Yet the year 1990–91 was to suggest the possibility of the opposite. In 1990, the 13-party combination of small radical parties had begun agitating over the rise in tram and bus fares. For about a month the agitation had continued on a noneventful, slow pace. Minor agitation squads were out on the streets. The Congress (I) was trying to hasten the pace. In the Taratola area of the city of Calcutta the police had opened fire resulting in the death of one person. On the Howrah Bridge, women agitators belonging to the Congress (I) had been manhandled by the police. There had been some sporadic attempts to put buses on fire. Then suddenly the Congress (I) declared a general strike in Calcutta. The Congress leader Mamata Banerjee was beaten up severely on the day of the strike. The incident drew severe condemnation from all quarters of the population. The 13-party combination of the small Left and Naxalite parties also declared a general strike throughout the 53

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state. Without any organisation worth mentioning, but with a fund of some legacy of radicalism, the strike proved a success. The year had also seen the notorious incidents of rape and murder of women in Bantala and Birati—two areas near the metropolis. Gun running in the city corporation elections in the previous year had terrorised the people. The stage was set for the plebian protest politics of Mamata Banerjee—the ‘Mamata phenomenon’ in votes. In this milieu appeared also the ramshilayatra and the ramjotiyatra connected with the ramjanmabhoomi campaign, ushering in the communal campaign of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in West Bengal. These two phenomena were to throw light on the power of the language of the votes which was almost capable of overwhelming the power of organisation. That summer in West Bengal, BJP’s campaign built itself up on the basis of small gatherings around video shows in the family rooms of houses carrying the recordings of suicides and suicide attempts in Delhi on the Mandal issue. The party gave stress on small gatherings, intense squad campaigns, small-duration video shows and propaganda by microphones tied to three-wheelers (popularly called auto campaigns) going up and down small towns, settlements and hamlets on the highways. Possibly, the tactics was due to the awareness in the party that it was still incapable of organising huge lakh-strong election meetings in West Bengal. Was there anything left out of those campaign talks and speeches? Almost nothing that could be related to the years of 1990 and 1991. Thus, for example, any election speech of Mr Tapan Sikdar, the BJP leader, or any recorded statement or manifesto of the party would refer to the alleged corrupt practices of the West Bengal chief minister’s son, to the alleged domination of the backward communities in the job market, to the need for disciplining the nation, ruthless abolition of corrupt practices, patriotism, the need for a return to religiosity and the imperative of re-moralising the nation. With that, responding to the imperative of creolisation of the discourse of the vote came themes such as the need for saving Bengali traditions like the Hindu woman’s daily offerings to the tulsitala at the family courtyard, saving Bengali culture from an alien ideology which communism was and from the influx of illegal migrants from across the borders, addressing the needs of the Hindu refugees fleeing across the border from the theocratic rule and, of course, projecting the good record of the BJP administration in Madhya Pradesh. But the wonder of creolisation did not stop there. The smiling image of Shyamaprasad Mukherjee was brought out from the dusty cupboard; people had by then almost forgotten him, so that to them it now represented the ever smiling face of Advaniji. The memory of Partition was vividly linked to the influx of aliens. The appeal to the Dalits was that they would gain nothing from the politics of the backward classes. To the workers of an industrially sick area of 54

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the Calcutta metropolis like Cossipore the appeal was that the workers would have to avoid communist-style unionism to tackle the industrial offensive of the owners and management. The party which had criticised the Congress (I) for setting up the celluloid hero Rajesh Khanna as a candidate against its leader Mr L. K. Advani in a Lok Sabha election in Delhi now set up Victor Banerjee for the Cossipore Assembly set in Calcutta. The candidate was clearly unsuitable. But the purpose was clear. Elsewhere BJP candidates were part of the Bengali folk characters of current history such as the retired bodybuilder Monohan Aich or the ebullient soccer coach Amal Dutta. The party was to free itself from the tag of being a ‘Marwari party’. In short, it was a campaign for the provincialisation of politics, set amidst the sprawling green countryside of Bengal. We have to take note of the fact that this countryside was characterised by a middle peasant economy which implied that the peasant demands were to be henceforth directed against the state on issues such as water, seeds, credit, remunerative prices of crops like jute, potato, wheat or paddy, and not against any particular section of the village population. The BJP, however, was not interested in these demands. Aiming at the chunk of prosperous middle classes in towns and villages, its call to voters was almost in the style of Netaji: You have given others a chance, now give us one; we shall offer you discipline, in return we shall all ensure the dignity of the country. If the campaign of the BJP was extremely nationalist, intense and at the same time aiming to be appropriate to the particular electoral discourse in the state at that time, the other campaigns in that election were equally indicative of the near autonomous status of the language of the vote. The 13-party combination of the radicals, after having enjoyed public attention and the sudden glory of leading a successful general strike, went back to their outmoded language. Radical songs and folk songs blared uninterrupted through the microphones of their shanty party offices. The speeches were on all kinds of exploitation, the failures of the Left Front administration, authoritarianism of the Congress (I), communalism of the BJP, the inevitable class character of a centrist party like the Janata Dal, the correctness of the demands for Jharkhand and social justice for the Dalits and other backward class. These songs and speeches carried strong strains of a history that had been left behind 50 years ago. In spite of the contemporary nature of certain topics, their electoral language was trapped in the discourse of the 1940s and the 1950s and never indicated an awareness of living in current time. It seemed oblivious of the fact that among the indigenous communities Sanskritisation had advanced considerably; that the links between the them and the Bengalis had also similarly increased; that the mandalisation of politics was being accompanied by the parallel evolution of middle peasant economy, 55

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that communalism was now drawing strength from trans-border migration from Bangladesh and that the number of rural labour was growing. Also the institutions like panchayati raj in the villages, the hold of the developmental agencies like the banks, the Block Development Officers (BDOs), credit organizations, etc., meant that the Bengal countryside had changed much in these 50 years. But the more interesting point was: Why did the radicals refuse to acknowledge the changing scenario? The answer lay in their belief in organisationalism—the belief that votes were meant to increase the organization and carry it further for the final assault. It was the refusal to grant the specificity and the relative autonomy of the language of the politics of the votes, a refusal to bow to what can be called the ‘contemporary nature of the time’, a belief that elections were the occasion for preaching fundamental politics, and the fundamentals of politics. Of course the Left Front, having won votes in the state for 15 years was aware of the tension between the self-driving nature of elections and the need for fundamental politics, between the need for giving the politics of the nation a plebiscitary form and the importance of keeping the fort intact. Its solution was innovative. It combined organisationalism with the plebiscitary form, ‘low politics’ with ‘high politics’. In the villages the CPI(M) was even more intensive in style. It included small village gatherings, strong booth committees, electoral roll checkups, mobilising even the 90-year old woman of the village for voting on the day of the polls—acts that make vote the supreme democratic rite. Politics of these mobilisations was also intense and related to the concerns of the grassroots. Development was the theme and the ‘low politics’ was a politics of unabashed developmentalism. Thus any common election worker of the CPI(M) reeled off figures like the number of tube wells sunk in the area, how many villages were electrified, houses getting anti-poverty programme loans, widows receiving pensions, landless labour getting patta for land, and how many kilometers of village kuttcha roads had been constructed, beds in rural hospitals, number of primary health centres, and rural schools or girl students in those schools. If there was another picture, that of a marginalised Bengal with shut-down factories, silent chimneys, growing number of destitute labour in villages, power crisis, bad roads, considerable illiteracy, girl child mortality and the like, the cadres seemed unaware of it. In English Bazar, Cossipore, Siliguri, Gaighata, Jhargram, everywhere, Left election cadres could reel of these figures in local gatherings. Political arithmetic became developmental arithmetic in those election days. At that level, national politics was not to be the likely crux of the election campaign. If it was in any way relevant, it was in terms of its political goal to provide legitimacy to the developmental politics of vote at the grassroots. 56

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But ‘low politics’ indicative of organisationalism was not the only characteristic of these elections. It combined with ‘high politics’. Alongside small meetings there were also large meetings, central election rallies, each one of them intended to cover a bunch of adjoining constituencies, attended by several thousand or even two–three lakh people, meetings to be addressed by Chief Minister Mr Jyoti Basu, other big leaders of the party and the who is who of the metropolis. Local cadres worked hard to mobilise the audience for these meetings; the leaders there would speak of the politics of the nation and the need for redefining its destiny. The local dialogue of developmentalism would be legitimised through its demonstrated association with high politics—the dialogue on large matters concerning the destiny of the country. The style of electioneering developed by the Left in West Bengal today is a combination of two styles, two discourses and two messages. Behavioural political theory speaking of modernity in the third world speaks of rising hopes and rising aspirations provoked by development only to be belied by a soft state, corrupt society and a fundamental inability to meet those aspirations, thus giving rise to elite politics in a plural society. But the two-legged style of politics I have described above, has given short shrift to the behavioural doctrine. There are certainly cleavages in the rural society of Bengal. But it is ‘development for the entire village’, for the middle farmer, the landless, the sharecropper, the rich peasant and also the rural trader. No one is to be left out. The panchayats are for all, they represent all. In this middle peasant scenario the strategies of functional mobilization and political mobilization have combined well. The party represents entire Bengal. Its message in the election is towards the entire marginalised state of Bengal which has received a bad deal from the nation, its high and mighty. The centre has mistreated the state, which is why development here has suffered. The low and the high thus combine like twins. This language of combination is still to suffer a bad defeat. Yet the Achilles’ heel in this combination is the notorious persistence of the local, the low. It may refuse to happily submerge in the high. It may remain the evidence of the fundamental problem or the tension in the agenda of the legitimation of the nation. This is what the Mamata Banerjee phenomenon was to bring out that summer in Bengal—the capacity to beat high politics with the low, a ‘low’ that had no pretension at all to be associated with the high. Mamata Banerjee did not speak of any national issue in the Lok Sabha elections of 1991 which she was contesting as the Congress (I) candidate for the South Calcutta parliamentary seat and subsequently won. Not that there was no reference to high politics. ‘Democracy’, ‘stability’, ‘secularism’, ‘end to the complexity of coalitional politics’—these issues would be there, but only as openers to her discourse, often as a condescending 57

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allowance to the party bosses vexed with issues of the destiny of the nation. It was a one-woman campaign immersed in issues of everyday life. Power crisis, bus/tram fare rise, industrial sickness, unemployment, abolition of English as a subject in primary schools—issues like these would feature significantly in her speeches. The high politics of the Left was not countered with a parallel exposition of high politics. For her there was to be no indirect route. Developmental politics was to be combated with complaints of non-development: why the supply of drinking water in the bustees (slums) was so inadequate, who enabled the bustee people to obtain the patta and the lease right, why the rape and murder of a woman occurred in Bantala, why there was a murderous attack on her (Mamata), why there was party control over administration, why so much corruption under a communist government that claimed to be honest unlike other governments, why political interference in every aspect of social life, and above all why the phenomenon called the ‘party’ omnipresent in every sphere of social life—these were to be the regular themes. Her manifesto read not like that of a national political party fighting a national election, but a candidate in a municipal election. Her style and substance became almost one. But this was not surprising. In plebiscitary politics, politics is reduced to sentiment, emotion and appeals. In this case, a woman was appropriately the purveyor. Women would come out in large numbers to hear her wherever she went. But did they not know that Mamata was a Congress (I) candidate, that her arguments essentially were her party’s arguments? To hear was in this case to see, not to listen to messages of high politics, but to see her directly, to see her speaking—in short, hearing and seeing, visualising the girl of the locality, the low domain of life. To some Mamata became the rebel queen of Jhansi, to others Rajani of the Doordarshan serial who fought alone against all social abuses. Here was a woman who could enter a police station alone, who could sit in dharna (strike) in front of her own party ministers’ chambers, demanding the reopening of a closed factory, a woman who spoke of the issues that perplexed the common housewife like the high price of edible oil, the loss of a woman’s dignity in a public conveyance, scarce kerosene or severe power shortage in the city. In short, Mamata manifested the role that every woman wants to assume but cannot, the role that each woman identifies herself with. Visualising thus became the discourse of the vote, a combination of hearing and seeing, but primarily seeing. A low politics that eschewed the high messages of men, a politics that remained concerned with ‘women’s issues’, not with the themes of bigger world, but of ‘home’, ‘family’, the ‘kitchen’. Low politics was enunciating the women’s agenda in a strange way. Womanhood, connection of nation with the home, public finance with the kitchen, the life of the woman, the identity of a woman with the virility of a man—these were the themes that were 58

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heard and seen. Electioneering was a ‘physical act’. The women in her constituency identified with her; wherever she went rose petals were showered on the jeep she was standing on, conch-shells were blown to welcome her arrival in a locality; here, she was assuring a party worker of her presence in case of ‘attacks by the CPI(M) cadres’; there she was descending from the jeep to embrace a young girl exhorting her to continue her studies or to touch the feet of an old man to pay respect and wish him long life. In this campaign there was no central election office for her constituency, no scheduled programme for the next 10 days. The office moved with her person, the next day’s schedule would be altered often at a moment’s behest. The campaign submerged with her person; style and substance were hard to differentiate. Organisational method and theme, audience and the speaker, voter and the candidate, follower and the leader, family and the woman, and home and the nation—all lost their distinction. Marshal McLuhan, the philosopher of the media, had once said that the medium was the message. Mamata Banerjee’s campaign projected her not as a party candidate, but a candidate of the people. This is the message that the nation in its ideal would like its every citizen to assume. Ironically, thus, with the sacrifice of the issues concerning the destiny of the nation, the nation was best legitimised. That was the high purpose of low politics. That is how elections worked in the politics of the nation. Populism remains the route in this reworking. Votes come and go, but in the politics of postcoloniality, populism remains.

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Section Two New Issues, New Perspectives

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he 10 chapters in the second section give an idea of the new issues arising from the beginning of the first decade of this century, particularly as the Left Front entered the third decade of its rule. Hunger, peasant dispossession, changes in the social composition of rule and several other associated things became apparent. Politics was bound now to take different modes. These entries in one way or another reflect on that time. The different modes of politics took acutely contentious form as the Left Front rule approached its closing years. The next section speaks of the phenomenon of contentious politics.

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11 Who Is Afraid of the Migrants in Bengal?

By the mid-nineties around the time when Indians started thinking about 50 years’ of Independence, reflections on the Partition also began, though there had been earlier writings on the theme. These reflections led to discussions on the still continuing migration between India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, particularly from Bangladesh to India. The question of borders and boundaries emerged as an issue of public interest. One question that came up was while security concerns may have occupied the minds at the high levels of politics and administration, how did people at the ground level think? What was the reality of the borderlands? Was there any alternative idea of friendship and enmity below? This note was written in 1997; for a larger exposition of the theme, interested readers may read Ranabir Samaddar, The Marginal Nation, New Delhi: SAGE Publications, 1999.

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he world of the migrants seems to be really same everywhere in this age of footloose capital and mobile or displaced labour. Migrants and refugees remaining on the margins of the post-Partition states system in South Asia, to be ignored and to be eternally peripheralised are also required to define the system, to define the core and the periphery of the nations of the region. The ‘illegal’ migration system makes possible a mode of political and economic management which exploits the difference between legality and illegalities—the migrant labour, therefore, becomes one of the principal forms of the investment of national boundaries with power. Population movement has been obvious in South Asian history so much so that many historians paid little attention to it until recently. And ironically the received history of the past 200 years and particularly of the preceding 60 years of this region have managed to appear so absolute that transborder and transnational migration is now causing enormous political controversies and passions. For, possibly, at no time in the history of our region at least, migration has been so linked to the issue of power, security and the destiny of a state. Herein 63

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lies the characteristic of the present post-Partition situation of the subcontinent. Migration is not simply an issue of demography or labour economics, it is now perceived as an issue concerning or threatening a nation’s survival/consolidation. To the migrant also, moving to another place is not just an economic choice, but a political decision too. Both for Bangladesh and West Bengal the nation cannot be imposed on the villages on the border. Either the glorious nation in these areas is today a past, or this is a border village, thana (police station), a subdivision, district and a province which does not respect the nation. In the eyes of state, the border thus threateningly expands/shrinks inward and nation becomes an object of elegy or itself the subject that laments unto itself. This is what I call the nationalist lament pervading the reasons of state. I remember meeting during the course of travels a commandant of a crucial section in West Bengal who was complaining about the lack of cooperation from the local people in detecting the illegal immigrants. He was lamenting, ‘Here people do not have that sense of nation that they would point or tell us who are the outsiders’. Having said that, he immediately felt the need to explain himself, ‘We have left them (the people on the border) to fend for themselves and now they are doing exactly so’. The commandant was not only justifying himself and the state, but also the people of the border region who suffer from lack of roads, schools and other means of decent livelihood and hence look to transborder communication as means of support. The government does not exist for them so much as the reality of border. Hence, ‘only when they feel threatened (by people on the other side), they speak out’. Such lamentation is more explicit in areas like Hili, the town on the zero line in South Dinajpur district, where the security forces have to be keep ‘our’ people under guard rather than guard Hili from infiltration from that side. The security personnel guard the market area, crisscrossed with lanes and by lanes; on almost every lane there is a guard with an impassive face, for he expects only animosity, reluctance or at best indifference from the local inhabitants. Near the railway line that passes through Hili from Rangpur to Khulna via Kusthia, we could see the markers along which the border is to be fenced. The local townsmen sitting under a tree grumbled to us loudly—we shall not allow the fence to be constructed; we shall cut it if necessary, even if beaten or shot to death. The security officer accompanying us was visibly embarrassed. Initially he tried to reason with them. The interlocutor shot out, ‘During 1971 we had been evacuated to Balurhat (the district town). Why did the government bring us back here? Throughout these long years we have traded; in Balurhat we could have perhaps learnt something. Now back in Hili, suddenly the government says, the border will be fenced. What shall we do now?’ 64

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The officer present there could not find a suitable reply. Only his lament could be heard as he led us to the car to go out in a huff: ‘The Government has decided on fencing for your good. You do not understand. None of the two—the government and people seems to understand each other. It is a strange situation in Bengal. Considerations of patriotism seem so absent here.’ I was to hear such lament more. People do not respect security officers, they do not salute the flag flying near the security camps in border villages. Out of this lament has come a reluctant acknowledgement that people on the border cannot be prevented from interacting with each other, trade will continue and brutal methods on the migrants will incur severe displeasure on this side. Hence some other method than mere policing the border has to be found out. The state has indeed decided on such a policy. Not one policy, but three policies combined: total demarcation of border, issue of photo-identity cards to villagers near the border and border fencing. And hopefully for the state, it should prove to be an effective combination. Through these 40–50 years, Partition has produced a grotesque reality on the border zone. Villages after villages on the border on both sides have transformed from being mixed villages into exclusive Hindu/Muslim solidarities. Those are now what Mcalpin would have called ‘broken villages’. Caste solidarities have formed anew, like Namasudra villages and settlements coming up in 24 Parganas (N) and Nadia, Chai-Mandal solidarities on the Malda border. Many Muslims who had gone over to ‘that side’ after 1947 have come back, or their next generations have returned. Around holy places and shrines in places like Basirhat, Ghutiari Sharif, Purnea – Islampur, Murshidabad, roadside village side and rail track side new settlements have come up. Old bustling market towns like Hingalganj in Basirhat subdivision of 24 Parganas (N) have become ghost places after being delinked from Satkhira (in erstwhile Khulna district, now a separate district) or new boom centres like Chotomollakhali in Canning circle (Gosaba P.S.) in 24 Parganas (S) or Hili in Dakshin Dinajpur have appeared. People on the border insist on informal border trade, while the security forces are equally insistent on stopping it, resulting often in unfortunate death of villagers and sometimes of security personnel too. Partition has thus produced around the border what Jean Francois Bayart has called ‘the politics of the belly’. And finally, administrators, even district police chiefs like the superintendent of police (SP) of the border district we met in North Bengal, talk of the unequal levels of social security system like public distribution system (PDS) in border districts of the two sides (like Satkhira/24 Parganas (N&S), Rajsahi/Malda, Jhinaidaha/Nadia, Thakurgaon/Uttar Dinajpur) and thus admit that water must flow to this side. But if economic compulsions are considered as primary, what remains of the legitimacy of Partition? Partition must perform the legitimating 65

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function in the state system in South Asia. But the relatively non-religious nature of migration undermines that. Thus, the state must know, how many Muslims are coming over and how many Hindus. The census does not allow that, so the state has to enquire through other means (like school records, Border Security Force (BSF) records, immigration records). Even ‘radical’ researchers fall into the trap by enquiring this. The state finds a battle of odds against powerful popular perceptions. The State must, thus, remain knowledgeable on quality and quantities of various dimensions. Partition is, thus, recreated and state has to live with it. Therefore going back to the traditional theories of migration to understand the dynamics of the population flow in post-Partition South Asia, particularly from Bangladesh to West Bengal, can often be a frustrating exercise. The frustration is more acute in the context of the persistence of the differential notions of refugees, migrants and internally displaced persons, particularly refugees and migrants. Unlike the population exchanges between Greece and Turkey which accompanied by massacres of both Greeks and Turks could produce a solid national state in Turkey, here population movements have continued to defy national states. Population exchanges in the aftermath of Partition have not solved the problem of ‘misfit minorities’, for in this part of the subcontinent, both ‘majorities’ and ‘minorities’ have refused to be terrified by the border. Migrations have not thus put to rest ‘misfit groups’; the waves of migration result only in subverting the national state and end up in producing more waves at a later phase. In Bangladesh, the state decision to allow large-scale acquaculture and particularly shrimp cultivation in places like Satkhira have resulted in peasant exodus to North 24 Parganas, South 24 Parganas and Calcutta metropolitan area. In fact, Zolberg and his coresearches show how the great waves of Irish migration from 1840 to 1854 were a mix of both political and economic causes. The Hunger of 1840s was only the worst of the numerous famines. But in contrast with England and Scotland, Ireland had no system of public relief. In bad times the only alternative to starvation is emigration. This is what has happened to border districts of Bangladesh like Rajshahi, Khulna and Satkhira. The factor of violence also cannot effectively distinguish a refugee from a migrant. For if refugees are escapees from violence, what of migrants like the women sex workers from Bangladesh or the women workers engaged in various forms of sweat labour who have to leave Bangladesh for fear of ‘endemic violence’ by husbands, other males, from the unorganised garment industry, the village and the society as a whole? Violence has blurred in this way the distinction between phases of migration— its memory particularly has continued to overwhelm the reality. Though the two short, conventional wars between India and Pakistan (1948 and 1965) did not produce a refugee flow, before the outbreak of the third war (1971), the refugee 66

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flow acquired enormous dimensions. Once again violence was the chief feature of the event. Though the legitimising framework of some liberal democratic institutions may have acted as attraction for incoming people across the border, violence has continued to be associated with population movements both at the point of origin and resettlement. In 1983, violence in Assam compelled thousands of immigrants settled there to flee for safety to the neighbouring state of West Bengal. About 5,000 people were killed. In 1985, the Government of India announced a stricter policy towards migrants including commitment to expel the estimated 200,000 to 300,000 illegal migrants who had entered Assam from Bangladesh after 1977. Bangladesh would not accept them, claiming that the returnees in fact belonged to earlier migration waves that qualified for Indian citizenship. Thus, the discourse on post-1980 transborder migration in form of official, semi-official, and non-official documents, speeches, declarations and various writings is perpetually pushed back in terms of time and text. As the shadow of violence and the cataclysmic events loom large over the migrants of eighties and nineties, the context often becomes the text. The migrants of eighties and nineties have faced violence, hunger, oppression ‘there’ on the other side of the border where they had lived; now they wait for violence as they find their way into great metropolises like Bombay, Delhi or the shanty settlements in Calcutta for their final destination. They are the ever escapees of violence; violence continues to haunt them. They always remind themselves and remind the nation also that the context has not died, and many things still occur in South Asia as the remainder of Partition. Thus it is worthwhile to see today’s migration in terms of the other histories of migration, even if for a while. Surprisingly, the grim text of the exodus and of the process of the resettlement of the migrants in West Bengal in the late forties and fifties in Prafulla Chakrabarti’s Marginal Men appears without the context of earlier population movements. Thus, it becomes difficult to understand how Partition and the consequent population movements were ‘nationalised’; how in spite of the trauma, so vividly portrayed by Chakrabarti, the immigrants were nationalised in various districts of West Bengal. One reason may be the dominantly urban milieu of his account. In this milieu, the exodus and resettlement both are cataclysmic events, the naturalisation in a bigger context escapes the eyes. Peasant migration from and to Jalpaiguri, Siliguri, Dinajpur, 24 Parganas, Nadia in the forties and fifties retained the earlier peasant nature of population movement. It is this continuing peasant nature of the migration, even in the eighties, which is the key to understanding how the current phase of migration that bases itself on earlier histories of population movements in Bengal. 67

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Bengal, indeed, has a long history of internal migration, for example from west to east, from south-west to north and north-east, from south-west and west to the central genetic part, from south-west to south-east, from north-west and north to north-east, from south-east to outside and from east to north-east. Peasants have moved into semi-peasantised tribal areas, seasonal labourers from dry to wet villages, pauperised peasants to plantations, ‘frontier farmers’ have appeared in Bengal’s agrarian history from time to time in Junglemahals, Jalpaiguri, Coochbehar, Barisal, Faridpur, Noakhali, Mymensing and large tracts of the Assam Valley. Thus, we can gain little from the rational calculation theory of expected income differential as the basis for people to move from rural to urban areas. Age, sex, a sense of calamity and breakdown, pioneering mentality, availability of land to be resumed and colonized, a sense of security attached to the area where peasants are migrating—all these play a part in determining a community’s response to migrate. Linkages tell of feedback effects. They also tell us how a community responds to an insecure environment. Thomas Metcalf has shown in his essay on indentured Indian labour to South Africa, how with the same set of circumstances like extent of poverty, population pressure, continuing draught etc., in one area the rural people had ‘agreed’ to become indentured, in another they did not agree, at least to that extent. Certainly, therefore, the functionalist perspective fails after a point, and in case of Bangladesh, we shall have to go a long way to understand why people leave in large number and accept often degradable conditions here. I remember the vacant look of the women construction labourers in Metiabruz–Budge Budge area who to such questions invariably reply ‘What remains “there” to go back? Things are same “there” and “here”’, they have left. Does anyone back in their village even remember that the girl of 14 years had left the village one day for good half score years ago? At this point any study on migration reaches the crucial phase: how to understand migrant’s subjectivity? The books fail here, and we are at a loss to understand more. Beyond narrating what we see, what we talk; in other words beyond the world of empathy, often things look meaningless like the numerical exercise of how many have come and all that. In short, the perspectives of pure ‘economic rationality’ fail, the migrants do not appear as ‘homo economicus’. Land availability, agricultural seasonality, occupational structure, village location, information and communications and the overall mentality of living—these certainly determine migration rate. But how these are linked to each other cannot be fully known apart from restoring to the migrant the centrality in a study on migration. The social correlates like demography, family, community and insecure atmosphere will look similarly meaningless without the active agent—the migrant. Ravenstein’s law tells us that distance deters migration; cost especially deters 68

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distant migration from poor households, from areas where transport is poor, between areas where the cultural gap impedes the migrant from reducing his costs by settling in swiftly at his/her destination, in other words where intervening obstacles loom large. Though we are told that this law has stood the test of time, in our own study this was again and again contradicted. An intercepted truck in Basirhat carrying migrants from Barisal and Faridpur heading for Delhi, persons arrested in North Dinajpur district carrying remittances back from Delhi for their families in Thakurgaon—we had so many instances, where migrants were never deterred by distance. In fact, ‘Katihar is there’, ‘Kishanganj is there’, ‘Sealdah is there’, ‘Hasnabad is there and if we reach Hasnabad we can proceed’—these are the markers of how information spreads and they remind us of the indentured coolies hundred years ago. Had those coolies ever thought of distance, did they have any luxury of choosing destination? If Richard Eaton is to be believed, Hossains were frontiers men in all three senses—economically, politically and culturally. Deltaic Bengal has seen the agrarian frontier being continuously pushed eastward—the advance of agrarian civilisation over forest. Eaton has traced the simultaneous existence of an agrarian growth and Islamisation and has shown with illustrative histories of Sylhet and Chittagong, how the agrarian and political frontiers collapsed into one. The political goal of deepening authority among dependent clients rooted in the land was fused with the economic goal of expanding the arable land area. Islam effected this fusion and thus became a religion of the plough—a civilisation building ideology. The outcome was a shift of the epicentre in the context of agrarian civilisation from western delta to the eastern hinterland—a region where culminated the long-term eastward movement of the great river systems that bore the silt and the fresh water necessary for wet rice agriculture. In this historical context, described by Eaton, migration becomes a chronologically deep ecological process. Some more noticeable factors: First, the Namasudra migration that constitutes the bulk of the Hindu migration today continues the well-established pattern of thirties and forties. When the caste movement among Namasudra peasants would be strong, there would be a front with the Muslim peasantry; if it was weak, the Namasudras would turn anti Muslim. Tebhaga, of course, drew the low-caste peasantry to another direction. But as land politics could not sustain itself in that direction, we have now a return to Namasudra caste movement, peasant mobility and peasant migration. Second, we still witness today the migration of Muslim peasantry and their resettlement around a mosque or a dargah which often acts as a network of linkages offering social and temporary economic protection. Eaton’s history is being reenacted now though in a slightly different context. Madrasas, mosques, dargahs form almost a dotted line along the border—many of these 69

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new, some brought back to life and I cannot name them here, offering protection and religious and community solidarity (though less in terms of financial support) to the migrant Muslim peasants and rural labour. Three, today no new deltaic area remains to be reclaimed, no new Assam awaits the deltaic peasantry of Bangladesh. Either they have the money, they can then force open the gates to the Asia-Pacific region through immigration or they move westward—India, Pakistan, the Middle-East accepting anything that comes in the way: sweat labour in brick fields, in triple-cropped fields, valley projects, orchards, prostitution, earth cutting, vending, rickshaw-pulling, scavenging, semi-serf work in farmhouses and farmlands, driving, restaurant jobs, head loading—anything, everything. In this situation, maps acquire enormous significance. They represent anxiety. In the course of my own study I was to realise it soon. In a headquarter of the security forces in North Bengal, I was being shown maps in succession which underscored the point being made by the officers that this border is no border at all given the terrain, ponds, rivers, small canals, rice fields—all being interlocked. But as soon as I asked in all innocence, why then these maps are not published and distributed so that people could see how difficult the job of border policing was, they recoiled. In fact, raising the question of maps or asking a copy of a map raises suspicion. Why do I need it? Oh, you can get that from Calcutta, X office or Y bureau. In another consultative session, as I again raised the question of maps to show how cartography and social realities violate each other, I was advised to leave maps out. Maps are a barred subject. They invite suspicion. They essentialise differences, but precisely because they essentialise, they remain sacrosanct, inviolable. They cannot be discussed. Because they represent anxiety, the less laboured they are the better. As a result, maps and the ‘anxiety’ in form of maps coexist with the ‘unconcerned everyday life on the border’. It was easy to feel how the ‘unconcerned every day life on the border’ deepened the cartographic anxiety. People in, say, villages of Coochbehar or Nadia, or say in that village in Aiho in Malda district were talking across the border, keeping each other informed of local politics, complaining of exorbitant that duty (‘toll’ tax for illegal entry), taking marriage parties across the border, bartering goods and offering information on employment opportunities—and the more they did it, the deeper was the anxiety. In such a situation the government becomes evidently eager for devising some more effective border management scheme which will integrate the border areas with the mainland more and integrate the border population with the task of the security forces by assigning them monitoring function! If you observe the details of the border, the preciseness of these, you will feel, has made the epistemic function of its unreal. The more we study the interconnections 70

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between the ‘border question’ and the ‘communal question’, the more we see this function, so detailed, becoming unreal but at the same time natural. The contingency creates the paradox. On one hand, border is the mark of the territorial integrity of a nation state, its activity is therefore ‘theological.’ On the other, each participating in the border in each one’s own way, the border ceases to be theological. In other words, with the ‘communal question’ predicating and violating the ‘national question’, the border pursues an ‘anti-theological activity’ and refuses the modern God, that is the postcolonial nation state in South Asia and His hypostases—international law, territorial integrity, secularism and an ever organised polity. The connections between communal politics and national politics are obvious. But do we suspect that this linkage may open a Pandora’s box? For not only the discourse of communal politics challenges the monolithic nationalism, it drags into question the ‘stable’ principles on which postcolonial states stand in South Asia—the principles of liberalism upholding ‘better values’ of parliamentary politics, secularism, national planning, mutual non-interference and respect for territorial integrity. Hindu migrants, for instance, keep on telling that their position was better in the Pakistan era than in independent Bangladesh; that even in independent Bangladesh, the Hindu felt more secure under Army rule than under a democratically elected government, for ‘attitude towards the Hindus and (therefore) India determine the fate of a political party during election’. On the other hand, Muslim migrants say, ‘Give us a chance to earn our food and allow us to stay and we do not care where our nation is’, though mosques and sharifs continue to provide the linkage between celestial beliefs and the translation of the power of the Almighty into wordly care, and economic security in an alien land, that is, this side of the border. Thus, Abul Halim Salafi, may God grant him a long life, continues to exercise influence over the believers from his mosque at Kishanganj—an influence extending hundreds of miles beyond to a mosque like Ahle Hadith Mosque in 24 Parganas (N). Partition thus persists. It does not end with the ‘second partition of Bengal, 1945–47.’ Refusing the inviolability of the Radcliff Line, exodus partitions the land in new ways and new shapes; by subverting the partitioning line of 1947, it sanctifies new partition. Like the ‘holocaust’ in the Jewish history, the partition of 1947 functions as a signifying episode in the new communalism of Bengal whose most marked manifestation is the exodus from the east to the west (in one case, exodus is triggered by communalism, in the other exodus triggers off communal politics). Myths work in the build up of communalism. Here two myths were working: a myth of death, of surrender of victimisation of the Hindu at the hands of Muslims 71

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(a sort of one sided defeat)—this myth thus turns Partition into surrender and death; second, another myth—that of a Hindu India, that is, a myth of renewal, which impels the Hindu migrants to ignore conditions here, accept worse living and occupational arrangements, for it is, at the end of the day, their land, and thus, which makes them accept BJP politics. These are thus counter metaphors— one signifying surrender, another renewal. The political agenda of communalism in West Bengal today depends in this way on selective emphasis of history, collective memory shifts in interpretation and the interdependence of history of the forties besieges memory, memory has also besieged history these days. Marginalising the nation, therefore, is not purely a globalising imagination, it may often be a local and peasant imagination. The peasants of Bengal, who so readily created a nation 60 years ago, now discover and readily agree to the limits to it and no nationalising discourse can change this situation extant in many part of South Asia. Of course, the administrative gaze is there, debates are raging between patriots of India and Bangladesh as to the number and quality of the flow. But peasant mobility in South Asia shows whenever the nation rode on the back of a community feeling and created an even stronger ethos of community, the peasant welcomed it. But whenever it has tried to subvert and undermine the community feeling, the peasant has deserted it. Therefore, migration as an issue emerges as a parallel politics in these areas. Elections, distribution of resources, constitutionalism, politics of kinship, subalternity—nothing can escape the issue here. In South Dinajpur, the pervasiveness of the issue is even more striking—many across the range of politicians, administrators, grass-roots leaders, traders, peasants and even some security officials will tell you, ‘South Dinajpur as a district is finished; only way Balugrghat can survive is if the border is opened’. Productivity is low in South Dinajpur, land remains still relatively low priced. Migrants prefer North Dinajpur and up north more, for a national highway, contiguity with Bihar, orchards, irrigation projects, tea gardens—everything is there, everything that is required for attracting migrants to the west of South Dinajpur. Who is afraid of this parallel politics? Interestingly, apart from understandably reluctant government officials no one is afraid. Popular politics has accepted this parallel world of migrants’ concerns in its wake. Do you think West Bengal has become weaker and more divisive because of this? My answer would be no.

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12 A Library and an Institution Note for a talk in a meeting with education planners on 23 March 2011

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oochbehar is a town located at the north-eastern tip of West Bengal. It is a small and sleepy town with no industry to speak of and mostly spending time in cherishing the memory of the glorious days of the Coochbehar Raj, their magnificent palace, white temples, the beautifully cut out parallel roads, big tanks, and streets with trees almost dropping their branches on the passing vehicles below. And it boasts of a college more than a hundred years old—ABN Seal College, named after the famed Bengali philosopher, Acharya Brajendra Nath Seal. The College was founded in 1888, then named as the Victoria College, by the Coochbehar Raj, the then Naharaja Nripendra Narayan. The famous Brahmo leader Keshab Chandra Sen had married her child daughter off to the Raj family of Coochbehar a decade back, in 1878, and the ruling princely family later turned to Brahmo religion and started sponsoring educational institutions as one of the ways to reinforce legitimacy and ensure well-being of the subjects. Keshab’s daughter, Suniti Devi, grew up and became an educationist and encouraged the Coochbehar Raj to open schools—particularly for girls. The girl school is thus also a heritage institution, bearing the name of Suniti Devi. The College’s red brick building with its beautiful dome still stands; the seat of Acharya Seal, who served the College as its principal from 1893 to 1913, is now occupied by lesser mortals. The College, now a government college, functions as an institution of excellence drawing admiration and enrolment of students from all parts of North Bengal. The library of the College, a rich collection of around 55,000 books, is a delight for those who want to study early twentieth century society of Bengal. Old law journals, directories, gazetteers, books, magazines, reports—all can be found. They are neatly kept, and if you do not find something there which you had expected, just come out of the College, walk less than a mile and an equally rich state district library waits for you. The College library has two separate reading 73

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rooms—one for, another for the reference section. The archival collection of journals includes Journal of Science (1919), Indian Law Reports (1905), Mind (1919), The Hubbert Journal (1912–1936), The Calcutta Review (1951), The American Review (1959–1964) and Bengal Past and Present (1969). The rare book collection includes History of Hindu Mathematics (1935), The Scared Books of East (1897) etc. The College has both science and arts departments; it has an equally old system for residential accommodation of students and teachers. It has a centre for study of local culture. The students’ hostel will remind you with its old red brick elegant structure the famed Eden Hindu Hostel in Kolkata, but less majestic and in dire need of renovation. The College has two big grounds and, as the centre of pride for the townspeople, is visited by educationists from all over North Bengal. Students come from various towns of the northern part of the state. Computers are there in sufficient numbers, the staff room is vibrant, there are two seminar rooms—one old and the other built as part of the centenary celebration about two decades back. Book sellers regularly come from Kolkata with their latest offer. The College had provisions for postgraduate teaching and courses in law from the beginning. In 1888, the College began with 16 students, in 1988 the number stood at 1,500. Local dramatists, littérateura, lawyers, all got their training here. Four of the subjects today have postgraduate courses. The only thing now lost is the air connection with Kolkata. The air strip still remains, but market has elbowed out Coochbehar from the air map of the state and the country. The College like other colleges gradually became mature in handling and passing the test of student energy. Political activism was forbidden under the princely rule, activists were expelled from the princely state of Coochbehar, but with the regular flow of ideas and people from politically active districts of erstwhile united Bengal, like Rangpur and Dinajpur, the town and the College learnt to stand on its own. In fact, through the years of ethnic tension between the indigenous Koch and the migrant Bengali (called the ‘Bhatia’, because they came from areas of downstream river lands) the College has stood as the symbol of the united pride of the state. Education in North Bengal, simply put, is unimaginable without this college of pride and its storehouse of wealth—the library. Bengal has at least some other colleges like the ABN Seal College reminding us of the historic base of general education here, extending far beyond the metropolis of Kolkata, and still defying market logic. These colleges also show what state support to education can do—after all the ABN Seal College is a government college. These colleges remind us of the past glory of the enterprising educationists of the state, notwithstanding the serious fault lines of caste and gender. This is what made Bengal unique in some sense. But it is also true that most good 74

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district colleges and old collegiate schools are dying out. They need infusion of resources and, above all, vision to turn them into centres of renascent learning, diffusing its knowledge to rest of the district, treated contemptuously by uppercaste Calcuttans as the backwater of a stagnant society. It is true that these colleges produced babus, but many of the babus later went on to become commissars of the people. The more important questions however are: Does that strange body in India called the Knowledge Commission have any idea of the way knowledge has been produced historically in this country? Does it know where our strength lies if one were to draw a map of the way knowledge is produced at the ground level? How much time or space do the media spend on these basic and historically grown institutions, which are the pride of local populations as compared to that devoted to the IITs and IIMs? How many TV or radio discussions we have on these institutions of pride located not in the metropolises of the country but in far-flung areas, in the deeper recesses of the land? Is there any plan to reinforce these institutional structures? Before I finish, let me just cite one more unusual treasure house of knowledge in the country. Have you ever visited a jail and a jail library? Have you seen the unusual collections of books and journals kept there at the instance of nationalist prisoners like Nehru to local-level activists and, later, various political prisoners; collections donated and left behind by countless jail inmates who passed their graduation from jails? In other words, do we ever imagine the existence of knowledge centres away from the metropolitan gaze of knowledge? Do we ever think that only a jail could produce Antonio Gramsci?

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13 Hunger and the Politics of Life

Zones of poverty and hunger started re-appearing in West Bengal from 2000–01 onwards. Against that background activists undertook new researches on the food rights of the people, a right supposedly safe under Left Front rule. This note was prepared as the material for the Foreword to the book, Politics in Hunger Regime—Right to Food in West Bengal, Kolkata, Frontpage Publications, 2010.

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here is an underlying consensus among the Bengali educated middle class that by and large, hunger in West Bengal vanished under the Left Front rule and if anywhere traces of hunger remained it, was due to the existence of isolated pockets of underdevelopment. Otherwise, the panchayat system with rural elected bodies, howsoever limited land reforms, developmental bureaucracy, public distribution system and a food production regime based on small peasant farming but controlled by middlemen—all were functioning fine. While, this may have been true for some number of individuals and groups and for a limited period of time, namely that hunger is over, life is assured and now Bengal must get on with big themes of life and big issues of development, recent events and researches give evidence to the contrary and take us back to the basic question of life and asks what hunger is, how large parts of West Bengal remain hungry year after year and what it means for politics when it has to concern with the basic issue of living, that is food. Is the elementary condition of biological existence met satisfactorily in Bengal today, so that political life can now engage with higher requirements of civic life and participation? At least one answer is getting clearer. It is this: in a democracy under conditions of political equality there can be durable inequality with differential access of groups to food and food market. Of course this should not cause surprise, for it was in the nineteenth century when the idea of democracy was overwhelming the European continent that 76

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reports of famines started rocking the political establishments across the continent—famines in the colonies and reports of hunger in the metropolitan countries themselves. Reports on Irish Famine (1845–52) tell us of deaths of approximately one million people and emigration of another million. Ireland’s population in that time fell between 20 and 25 per cent. Reports of food riots and near famine conditions in colonies and several European countries filled in the newspapers. Soon breadlines appeared in the United States—the new el dorado of prosperity. Those breadlines continue still today. They are as one journalist Sasha Abramsky puts it, the ‘hidden scandal of American hunger’.1 In short, democracy never did away with differential access to resources. Inequality proved durable. Hunger accompanied the onward march of democracy. Hunger provoked collective protests and violence. Interesting to note in this context is the role of public media in West Bengal today. On one hand, it applauds the new food consuming culture flourishing in malls and new retail chains trading in consumables. On the other hand, it notes at the same time double digit rise in food prices and reports hunger deaths in tea gardens in North Bengal and in the dry areas in South Bengal. In fact, reports of hunger deaths, farmers’ suicides and conditions of chronic hunger are emerging from semi-rural areas also in the deltaic part. Exactly as in Great Britain in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, we find now different categories of hungry people in Bengal—categories created by government policies, such as Below Poverty Line (BPL) and APL. Thus, with the governing principle of creating a hierarchy of eligibility for food provision and assistance, the situation is like what it was after the New Poor Law of 1834, enacted in Great Britain. Like then, journalists now have brought to attention here news of hunger and hunger deaths. The discovery of hunger has led to a discovery of the ‘social’, on the basis of which new social legislations such as the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) have been founded. The government can now address the social only by addressing hunger. This has required expertise in the form of science and calculation of hunger so that the government can devise policies and measures to assuage hunger. In India in the eighties and nineties of the last century, nutritionists debated the quantum of calories required to assuage hunger, and specialists argued as to who could be called full hungry and who partially. On this depended quantum of assistance, kind and form of assistance, mode of supply, budgetary requirements and identification of most needy areas and along with all these have emerged entire panoply 1

Sasha Abramsky. Breadline USA, 2009.

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of graded vulnerabilities. Also, the discovery of vitamins and biochemical explanations of nutrition means that social governance of hunger has become a reality. At the same time because of this social governance, hunger has become politically relevant, forcing all sections of the political class in the country to join the ‘hungry India’ debate. Exactly the same thing has happened in West Bengal. The public interest litigation on universal access to food, the debate on the role of panchayats in mitigating hunger, legislation of MGNREGA and its efficacy, administrative inefficiency in the state, judicial activism on this, quarrel over the exact cause of a hunger–death– starvation or illness or suicide—all these are dimensions of this social governance. Perhaps some will remember, soon after Patu Mura, an old hungry woman, died in Purulia in West Bengal in September 2005, debate arose: did she die of hunger or of physical weakness or of unavailability of food or availability of food but absence of access to food or of disease? If some said that her death signified lack of development in the district, the state secretary of the ruling party, CPI (M), infamously said that this death was not an indication of lack of development. Patu Mura had died, but Purulia was developing. When farmers or tea-garden workers or members of urban poor have died, the government has to decide the exact cause of death, because policies have been prepared to quell hunger. Science must tell us precisely: what is hunger and what is hungry death? Studies of famines are like nutrition studies. They form the scientific background in which we can locate the government of hunger in West Bengal today. The Bengal situation tells us few other lessons as well. Even though we speak at will of the right to food, social governance of food access is disciplinarian and at best welfarist. Thus it can never accept food access as right; it will treat the matter of access a governmental measure, that is to say, to be given by the government on its terms and conditions. Moreover, market mechanisms dictate the nature of institutional efficacy in this matter, and welfare will be dictated by market considerations. The rights-bearing institutions, such as judiciary, trade unions, farmers’ organisations, civil rights groups, state bodies such as the National Human Rights Commission or the State Commissions, meant to guarantee the right to food, become adjuncts to this disciplinarian welfare regime, which cannot allow any claim-making process. A well-known social activist in West Bengal, Kumar Rana, has shown through his writings how all through the Left Front rule, while hunger disappeared as a public theme of politics after the declared success of land reforms, rural employment generation schemes, rural decentralisation and growth of public distribution system, differential access to food remained. The middle classes gained food security, while Dalits and indigenous population groups had less access to the 78

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so-called food security West Bengal had supposedly achieved. The early signs in stagnation in agricultural productivity in the late nineties of the last century were ignored. Droughts were thought of as no importance. Stagnation in acreage under small irrigation was again ignored. Middlemen prospered. Industrial closures resulting in thousands of workers retrenched with nowhere to go were again put under the carpet. The bureaucracy as a whole became complicit in the elite propaganda game of ‘prosperous West Bengal’, so much so that common sense deserted, and governmental attempts to take away agricultural land for dubious programmes of industrialisation began. We have scores of eulogising articles and scientific essays on success of rural Bengal (these writings were led by non-resident Indian [NRI] Bengali economists teaching in the US universities), but very few on the impending disaster. Hence, when food crisis started soon to be followed by deaths of workers in tea gardens, ration revolt in the countryside in 2007, violent protests in the dry areas of South West Bengal in 2008–09, the political class was taken aback. Continuing price rise, shrinking plate, endemic poverty, chronic hunger, successive disasters like long spells of dry weather, droughts, suicides in the countryside and in urban slums, drop out of several segments of population from the food market in large swathes of West Bengal and the mutiny in the countryside—all of these should remind us of what had happened in our land in the colonial era in 1860–85. It may, of course, be argued that after all this is not late nineteenth century, that there is an awareness of rights, and that there is awareness of something called food security. Hence many do not die; otherwise they would have died. But this is small mercy. In fact the lessons of the situation tell us that unless there is collective action, direct distribution of food grains, involvement of peasants and the landless in accessing food, we do not have escape from the ill consequences of the governmentalisation of the right to food. Politics in such time becomes irrevocably biological—exactly the opposite of civil politics. How to survive, how to get food, how to distribute food, how to demand food, how to tackle hunger protests, how to die and how to explain away deaths—all these suddenly take the centre stage of politics. This is what I term as hunger and the politics of life’.

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14 Rajarhat—An Urban Dystopia

Rajarhat along with Singur and Nandigram became the well-known symbols of the Left Front government’s skewed development policy and land grab measures. For this chapter, I am indebted to Nilotpal Datta for allowing me access to relevant documents and explaining their contexts. It is part of a special lecture delivered in March 2011 at the Centre for Regional Planning, School of Social Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. Details of the study will be found in the forthcoming work by Ishita Dey, Ranabir Samaddar and Suhit Sen.

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olkata has changed quite a lot in the last few decades. It wants to become Delhi. It must catch up with the flash and glitz found elsewhere. It too must have its high-tech township and must embody a new mode of circulation of money, information, human resources and power. It does not think that its old organic character is worth retaining. If discarding the old organic character is the necessary sacrifice to make in order to develop, let that be. If road space increases while the space for human interaction decreases, that price Kolkata must pay. Likewise parallel journals have lost their edge, parallel theatre has lost audience, the river line earlier dotted with old storehouses has changed and tram cars carry only the distant memories of a city criss-crossed with tramlines and streetcars. Old urban resources have wasted in a state of neglect. In this change of guards, something new is happening. As a product of this developmental imagination Rajarhat is coming up beyond Kolkata. Where is Rajarhat? If you enter the city from the airport side, after a few kilometres, near Koikhali, you take the left turn, and then you will traverse the newly laid road that cuts through miles and miles of waste land, here and there marked with a shiny mall or few glass buildings, high rises built by new developers and sign boards announcing the coming up of an office or an e-firm or a conference centre—all that Kolkata apparently did not have. This is a notified 80

R A J A R H AT — A N U R B A N D Y S T O P I A area, named after the deceased venerable leader of Bengal—the Jyoti Basu Nagar. After you have covered about 15 miles in this way, you will bypass Salt Lake and reach the artery that will re-connect you with Kolkata. Possibly you will be relieved for you have not seen in the 30 minutes or so you were going in a car or the speeding bus ferrying you from the airport to the city any pond, any water body, any village, any school, any farmer, any farming land, any herd of cattle. All these are gone. Land has been taken over to meet the deficit of Kolkata. But from the city side, that is from the west, Rajarhat is beyond Kolkata, with few buses to connect, only one road to lead to, and as a person of Kolkata you have no reason to go beyond unless you are a BPO employee or an employee in a mall or a construction worker (in that case you of course stay there) or have relatives who have bought houses there. When the night falls, then of course there is nothing for you. Only syndicates dealing with money, land, building material, waste disposal business and firearms are the denizens of the new city at night, the city beyond Kolkata. Rajarhat, described by L. S. S. O’Malley in the District Gazetteer of 24 Parganas, is a land with vast water bodies and marked by salty marshes and the river Bidyadhari straddling between the sea and the city had 55 mauzas under it; 25 of them were notified for acquisition by the HIDCO in 1998 under the Land Acquisition Act of 1894 (Article 1, Clause 4) and West Bengal Land (Requisition and Acquisition Act, 1948) amounting to 3,075 hectares of arable land. In the process, HIDCO destroyed 15 lakh trees and plants and dispossessed 131,000 people of their livelihoods. Some of the important and prosperous centres of cultivation, grain trade and settlements acquired are: Tarulia, Salua, Hatiara, Atghara, Koikhali, Tegharia, Mahishgate, Mahisbathan, Ghuni, Baligari, Jatragachi, Patharghata, Muhammadpur and Jagadishpur. Of the total 55 mauzas, 15 mauzas constituted a municipality, and the rest 40 mauzas were governed by 6 panchayats. According to district census reports, by the 2001 census Rajarhat panchayat area had a population of 145,381; the Rajarhat–Gopalpur municipality had a population of 271,811. With the total population of Rajarhat being 417,192, the density of population in the village and municipal area per square kilometre has been respectively 1,994 and 7,773. The voter strength is 235,000. Rajarhat panchayat area has 1 panchayat samiti, 6 gram sabhas and 99 gram sansads. The total number of mauzas is 39, ‘inhabited’ villages 38 and number of households 61,893. The total number of households in the Rajarhat–Gopalpur municipality is 59,225. The total population had shown massive increase in the area; in 1991 it was 286,056, in 2001 it became 417,192. And, one more significant set of demographics: Muslims and Dalits constitute two substantial groups within this population combining into a huge majority. In the panchayat area out of a total 81

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population of 145,381, Muslims are 60,108 in number and Dalits are 52,233. In the municipal area out of a total population of 271,811, Muslims are 39,916 in number and Dalits are 50,634. According to one report of the Fisheries Department, about 17,000 people depended for their employment on recycling of waste and recovery system (through fish cultivation and vegetable growing in the wetlands). The same report notes the continuous conversion of agricultural land to non-agricultural use in the preceding two decades; therefore, decline in the average size of marginal land holdings, middle-scale fisheries becoming unprofitable due to soaring prices of land, declining flow of sewage-laden water to the fisheries, poor storage facilities for fishermen and agriculturalists and near absence of institutional credit to the farmers and fishermen. The report also thought that constructing a new town was not an answer to the problems of the area. What were needed were steps such as clearing of existing canals through dredging, sewerage treatment tax system, keeping canal sides free of settlements and declaring the wetlands a no development zone. The report found the poverty situation in the wetlands below the national average and thus consumption pattern in Rajarhat highly skewed in favour of food consumption (as much as 70 per cent of the total consumption expenditure on food, while healthcare expenditure 0.9 per cent). On the basis of samples (two mouzas, Ghuni and Jatragachi, and 68 households surveyed) it found, as already mentioned, that due to continuous conversion for the last two decades of agricultural land to non-agricultural use, the figure of consequent occupation shift was 47 per cent. In comparison to other wetland areas, in Rajarhat it found a larger share of population depending on non-agricultural activities. Its table 5.5 showed the following: of the 68 households sampled and surveyed, 20 were owner–cultivator households, 2 were sharecropper households, 11 agricultural labours, owner fishermen none, share fishermen none, bhery labourers were 2, trade-related to picsiculture 1, trade-related to agriculture none and others 32. The report does not elaborate, who are these others, the largest chunk in the occupational profile? Rickshaw pullers, cart drivers, loaders, bus conductors, helpers, people thriving on the commons, who else? In what way are they related to local economy? In short the report describes an area with fragile environment and extremely low-cost subsistence economy, by logic providing highly subsidised inputs to the metropolis of Kolkata, like fresh air, low-cost fish and vegetables. Therefore, the report tells us of sizeable number of people holding the opinion that with the new town coming up waste recycling system would break down, water logging in suburbs would increase, economic rehabilitation of the dispossessed and 82

R A J A R H AT — A N U R B A N D Y S T O P I A deprived of livelihood would be difficult, social unrest would grow, biodiversity would be lost and the city would be deprived of fish, vegetables and other agricultural products. The challenge was as the report puts it: The New Town agenda was in line with what had been going on the past two decades all along the east of the city (both north and south), vast amount of wetland had been captured, filled in and handed over to land dealers and promoters. New Town would aggravate the situation massively. Will the compensatory measures be able to compensate for the loss? Was this the way to break the poverty cycle? Would this not ruin the situation further? Who would gain and who would lose? The project of the New Town is thus also a commentary on postcolonial capitalism, the return of primitive accumulation, in the way space plays a critical role in transformation and the receding of the colonial city in the history of accumulation with the accompanying emergence of the ‘new town’. In short, Rajarhat is a saga of space, capital and people in the vortex of globalised time. Equally significant in this context is another set of figures that should remind us what was described in the previous paragraphs. In Rajarhat–Gopalpur municipality, according to a census report, the total number of workers in 2001 was 94,001; of them, the number of main workers was 88,458, the number of marginal workers 5,542. Cultivators were 580 in number and agricultural wage labour 326 and household industry workers 1,583 (rest are thus other workers—main and marginal both). In Rajarhat panchayat area, the corresponding figures were: main workers 38,362, marginal workers 5,556, cultivators 4,261, agricultural labour 7,217 and household industry workers 2,519. Yet typically with all these, Rajarhat is like other parts of the district of North 24 Parganas, which has 68.46 per cent of its total land as cultivable area. But these are God’s numbers now caught at the centre of controversy over land acquisition in Rajarhat. Rajarhat is not connected with Kolkata in any sense; it is connected with Sector 5 of the Salt Lake area, while being connected on another side with another notified area, the empire of Bhangar Rajarhat Area Development Authority (BRADA). Flanked by North 24 Parganas, the estuary region of Bhangar and Haroa in the South 24 Parganas and Basanti, its real trade (daily, petty, and small) connection in terms of men, cash, vegetable market etc. is with Baguihati, an unkempt dirty bazaar, bus stop and terminus, banking centre, eating place, cycle rickshaws, narrow lanes, hordes of day labourers waiting to be hired and various kinds of sundry stalls—all rolled into one. The farmers, fishermen, vegetable growers and sellers, boatmen and agricultural labour—now robbed of livelihood—all roam around these marginal places, if they are not already serving the newcomers of Rajarhat 83

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with domestic labour, transportation, vegetable supply or serving tea and sundry tiffin food. But those who work in the New Town (as the Jyoti Basu Nagar is called), in those malls, e-firms, hotels, other companies or live in those high rises, have few reasons to visit Kolkata or these dirty marginal places. This new inner city supposed to produce urban wealth today is at once exterior to the city proper. It looks like a wasteland, combining virtual production with new type of consumption, symbolised by the mall, the City Centre of the North or the giant building material depot. We shall speak in details of these places later. Presently we have to note this much, namely, that interior to late twentieth century and early twenty-first century mode of wealth production and, therefore, exterior to traditional wealth pattern of a city, Rajarhat represents simultaneously the virtuality of capital and reality of the primitive mode of accumulation—a utopia to financiers and speculators and a dystopia for urban imagination. Architects are excited over Rajarhat New Town, like long idle military commanders getting excited over the prospect of waging a war or an idle doctor finding a patient finally or a manufacturer of weapons finally getting chance to display his/her weaponry. So the plan began with designing sectors and action areas. They were then busy in designing placements of traffic intersections, bus stands, new transport system, new markets, new malls and remember all in their greenest form. Remember also in this context that Rajarhat, as the planners say, will soon become with the help of US technology the first zero-energy town in the country. Realtors follow architects’ dreams, at times the other way round. Therefore, even though there are very few essential infrastructural facilities in the area (and we cannot expect architects becoming excited over the presence or absence of those facilities, which they will leave happily to town planners and municipal engineers), schools in New Town and BRADA areas must have more space, more designed buildings and more amenities. Since the cost of developing land is relatively high in a new town, schools become business. These schools (for instance the Delhi Public School) must be ‘ideal’ schools with huge open spaces, different playgrounds and halls, community grounds with of course different priorities for different types of schools—nursery, primary and higher secondary. There will be ‘educational zones’ with additional space for peak office hours and parking facility. There will be designated places for vocational and training institutions. There will be ‘hardly any scope of a university’ there, and as the architect declares, the ‘traditional concept of university/college in a bigger land is hardly viable without government subsidy.’ But with other kinds of ‘skill-oriented units’, urban areas will become ‘engines of the development of rural hinterlands’. Effective planning on a regional scale will provide ‘appropriate preference and promotion of industries and commercial activities’. 84

R A J A R H AT — A N U R B A N D Y S T O P I A Generation of jobs will attract people from the rural surroundings for livelihood. In Kolkata, an architect declared, Several New Townships are being developed. This is creating a major development impetus in the region. Namely New Town, Rajarhat has already been started its development. This will create enormous employment opportunities, which obviously would be a benefit for the rural surroundings and villages. The change of the livelihood from the primary sector to the secondary and tertiary sectors is getting very fast. In the near future the profile of the Kolkata Metropolitan Area obviously will change due to the development of those New Towns. The economic activities will be well decentralized if the development goes as per intention.

The urban architect has to think also of the faster circulation of men, money, services, and commodities. So, HIDCO is now acquiring ‘smart buses’. The point is: Is Rajarhat then the private game of capital, its own business to shape the world in its contemporary image, while the public character of the city becomes irrelevant in the history of urban imagination today? We may ask, is this difference between Kolkata and Rajarhat, their opposition, a structural one? Rajarhat will be what Kolkata is not? Or is it a matter of urban style only? May be, we can still consider Rajarhat as part of Kolkata and not beyond Kolkata. But in that case we must be ready to integrate the structural opposition between the utopia of a city and the dystopia of a wasteland within a narrative and explanatory framework that must go beyond a binary opposition. I have already said that Rajarhat suggests the unity of the most virtual form of capital accumulation and the primitive form. Eviction, threat, coercion, murder, gun running and presence of bands of coolies from Murshidabad and Malda—these combine with shiny glass buildings, e-firms in the special economic zone, new health care facility built by the Tatas, new banks, gradual spread of ATM centres. This combination suggests the already happening breakdown of an integrated circuit of money, power and capital into various segmented circuits; it will be worth looking into the ways in which these local circuits of power feed into a bigger grid of capital. But merely stating this is not enough, the statement represents a problem or some problems. Let me mention here three problems. Problem one: If by the wild play of the architects, planners and moneybags a space is destroyed and a new space comes up, how to apprehend that change and its long-term consequences? How shall we study not simply the ‘product’ (the new city), but the ‘production’, ‘the process, the practice’ of producing a city, with all the hazards of contemporariness? Problem two: If the opposition between public and private, primitive and virtual, representation and void, city and periphery breaks down, what will be the new forms of collective action? After all, these binary oppositions had genuine 85

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social and historical context. Will they die down? Or will the contexts survive? In any case what will be the new public space, which was till now essential for public mobilisations and public actions? Problem three: What will be the authentic nature of the private in this new public society?Will that be the private pleasures that shape our consumption patterns, encourage new commodification and new ways of arranging the space? If they cannot be separated out as independent elements in the designed place called Rajarhat, and the model it develops, where consumption will take place side by side of production, will there any authentic private, except the new centres of public assemblage for ‘private’ consumption and pleasure? In short Rajarhat beyond Kolkata disrupts the earlier pattern of the mutually constitutive relationship between space of accumulation of capital and the urbanity of democratic citizenship. In the immediate exclusion of one from the other, we may witness a new kind of realism in politics, possibly not desirable to our urban tastes. The spatial programme of the new town and by implication of the evolving new entity called Kolkata New Town will demand new specifications about public action marking the new relation between capital and citizenship. It will take time to fill the empty fields of Rajarhat (a huge area of about 3,100 hectares of land) in a planned way with houses, roads, streets, schools, people, office units, ‘green’ industries, shops and malls, water pipes, lanes, power and cable lines etc. for much will depend on developers, land shirks, estate owners, software giants like WIPRO, INFOSYS, TATA Consultancy and the general state of the economy. The government stands penniless. The HIDCO has hardly any capital. All it has is the land looted from the local villagers, and now it has to sell them to private players to make the dream of public—private partnership successful. With no integral infrastructure of urban services in Rajarhat, the empty fields there (since 1998) represent in this scenario the death of agriculture with its subsidiary activities as a substantive occupation in Bengal, its murder by capital, savage commodification of land and the resurgence of private property in city—private roads, private power generation equipment, private pleasure houses, private sources of drinking water, private schools, private villas, private housing estates with private guards and, the most private of all, private production units in the special economic zones (SEZs) in Rajarhat–Sector V of Salt Lake. What will be the politics of anticapital in this new spatial system of capital? Where is then Rajarhat? The Rajarhat I am speaking of here is at once a real place—a block of a territory, a municipality, a new town in the process of emergence, a scenario of destroyed farmlands. Rajarhat is also a trapped land, a ghost for urban planners, dream for many more such planners and a collective name of an ensemble of places. Rajarhat is a surface, which is made of miles of wasteland, 86

R A J A R H AT — A N U R B A N D Y S T O P I A with a destroyed top level of earth. This surface is made of filled-in ponds, other water bodies, pilfered and acquired what was previously tilled land, vegetable gardens and farms, wetlands, small villages and hamlets. But Rajarhat is also the depth of several relations figured in space.

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15 Dialogue and Growth Mail Today 29 June 2008, New Delhi

This chapter continues with the theme of Left Front’s development strategy. For a longer exposition readers can move to Chapter 21.

I

n the 19th century, industrialisation and economic development came at human costs and amidst century long violent conflicts. Popular democracy had not yet been established; large numbers of people had to flee, perish, in the metropolitan countries and the colonies for some countries to develop. Today the question is: How can we ensure development, particularly in the coercive milieu of globalisation in a dialogic way that addresses claims and counter-claims in society, and the need to develop addresses at the same time our other needs, namely political, civil, social, economic, and generational rights? In other words, how do we reconcile development and democracy? The series of events that happened in West Bengal last year throw light on this great question of our time. In the preceding two years, the West Bengal Chief Minister, Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, had used every opportunity to air his views that West Bengal required a quick march to industrialisation, and that this policy was a compulsory step. Therefore he, his party and his government seized every opportunity to woo and welcome with promises and concessions investment proposals from savoury and unsavoury sources. Then the redoubtable Tatas came forward to set up a car manufacturing plant at Singur, some 45 km from Kolkata. For this plant land was required, and the state government acquired land there by invoking an old colonial Act. Pursuing this policy of quick march—from acquiring and cordoning off land to everything it did later—the government ignored the increasing opposition from 88

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villagers. The ruling party held meetings and posted police forces there. But the protesting peasants remained unconvinced of the merit of handing over land or of the quality of the rehabilitation package. As a consequence of the intransigence of the government, trouble erupted with high visibility little more than a year ago. Processions in the villages of Singur became angrier. Police bandobust became massive. Activists and members of the opposition were prevented repeatedly from going there, and villagers made several efforts to break the cordon guarding the acquired area. Throughout the year there were police actions including firing on peasants, which injured some critically, and arresting many including children, the elderly, and the women. If this was not enough, a few dispossessed of land committed suicide. The demand of the opposition for the government to reconsider its decision fell on deaf ears. On the contrary, the government threatened the opposition with dire consequences if they persisted in “obstructing” the industrialisation of Bengal. In protest, opposition members broke tables and chairs of the Assembly, the main opposition leader conducted a 25-day hunger strike; led several general strikes, and offered talks. But the situation was one of contention and deadlock. The government claims that the opposition was irresponsible by demanding that the Tatas should move out, and the opposition demand to reconsider the forcible acquisition of land had unnerved potential investors, thereby harming the interests of the state. It said further that the villagers were not with the opposition; a frustrated opposition had fomented unrest in villages with the help of Naxalites and Maoists. The opposition (not a monolithic group, not even a coalition, but a rainbow of voices and organisations in protest) argues that they are not opposed to industrialisation per se, but want discussion over methods, issues, including that of SEZs, which are a part of the governments agenda. They want careful planning, the need to secure consent of the peasantry, and hence a wider dialogue on the roadmap for industrialisation and modernisation, and finally the requirement to balance the industrial drive with agricultural stability and growth. The last argument is crucial because this hints at the unfavourable trends in agriculture in many parts of the country—farmers suicides in some states including West Bengal where deaths have been occurring due to starvation, widening disparity between agricultural and non-agricultural sectors, marked slowing down of the rate of agricultural growth, and the ever deepening debt trap for poor peasants, rural labour, and at times farmers. There is investment failure in agriculture, accompanied by disparities in public services such as education, healthcare, water supply, and connectivity—the general condition in which turning multi- cropped land over to industrialists has created concern, anxieties, scare, and panic. 89

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In West Bengal, a traditionally intensively cultivated state, this has meant even more gloom and despair. According to one estimate, if for any reason (in this case by acquisition of land on a massive scale) the annual rice yield fell by about 2 lakh tonnes, there was bound to be food shortage even in a normal year. The state now overwhelmingly depends on agriculture, to the extent that only about 8 lakh acres of land out of 219 lakh acres remain fallow for a greater part of the year, while the rest comes under seasonal cultivation. On top of that, not all parts of the state have alluvial soil. Some have laterite, some acid, and some saline, while the industrialists mostly want land in and around Kolkata, that is the alluvial soil of the districts in and around Kolkata. Nandigram Companies now want about 125,000 acres of land, and the government has already issued notices for acquiring about 44,000 acres, mostly in the area mentioned. What will be the resultant displacement of life, habitation, resources, and the impact on land utilisation pattern, food production, states selfsufficiency in rice—particularly when we consider that in 1977 (the year of the Left Fronts rise to power) the per capita availability of rice was 419 grams and in 2006 it rose to just 454 grams? The debate did not remain academic. We all know by now how the fire of protest reached Nandigram. Peasants began opposing the proposal for setting up an SEZ there. When the government again wanted to go ahead, thousands of peasants came out and drove away the police, administrators, and the party bosses of the area, cutting down culverts, roads, trees, etc. to prevent the police from entering the villages, in the process losing several lives (by informal count in hundreds). The government repeated in an arrogant strain that this resistance was the handiwork of extremists. It thereafter sent massive police and para-military forces and storm troopers of the party to bring the insubordinate villagers of Nandigram into submission. The area remained cordoned off for several days, out of the reach of reporters or civil rights activists. People still do not know how many were killed in that process of recapture to “restore” democracy, how many raped, and how many driven out. Possibly, in the eyes of the regime, all these are necessary costs of industrialisation. What shall we choose to call this: a political problem, a law and order problem, a developmental problem, an administrative bungling, a problem of democracy, peasant stubbornness, compulsion of coercive globalisation, or all these combined? Whatever may be the answer, the experiences make it imperative for formal democratic politics to take a dialogic turn, if it wants to respond to calls for justice, and remain relevant for those whose claims are ignored in the name of development.

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16 All Die, but All Do Not Die Equally Mail Today 27 January 2010, New Delhi

Jyoti Basu, a veteran communist leader dies and is given full state honour. His death was followed soon by another death—this time of another communist, a labour activist grown among the ranks and died as a soldier in the ranks. Readers are requested to read this chapter along with Chapter 17.

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amata Bandopadhyay, the present Railways minister, also the person leading the opposition in West Bengal, was for once tactful and precise while she said that with Jyoti Basu Left politics had begun and with his death it has come to an end. She said this when paying respect to the dying old leader of West Bengal. Mamata did not say communist politics, she was careful, and who does not know that communist politics like other rebellious traditions does not begin or end with a person? As with some other communists of his time, the thirties and forties of the last century, Jyoti Basu came from a well-to-do background, got himself educated in England, and then leaving everything aside joined the communist movement. But this cannot be generalized. For, there were communists and communist leaders in greater number who came from toiling class background, had deep political experience through participation in nationalist movement and movements of workers and peasants, and had an equal if not more contribution to the growth of the communist movement in this country. Yet today, in the aftermath of the huge myth that Jyoti Basu’s death has turned him into, we shall not hear the names of A. K. Gopalan, or P. S. Sundarayya, or Nripen Chakrabarty, or Binoy Chaudhury, who did not get the comfort of retirement, and died either in neglect or abuse. 91

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The reason? None of them could governmentalise the party in the way Jyoti Basu did, none of them could make the party more administration-centric than he did, none of them could dilute communist principles in the name of Left unity in the way he did. None of them could embrace populism as ideology as he did. West Bengal party cadres who form a society among themselves have forgotten that besides him there were several other leaders in his time setting exemplary instances for others to follow. Land reforms were initiated by leaders like Hare Krishna Konar and Benoy Chaudhury, who also set up the panchayat system. Similarly reform measures instituted by the Left Front government in West Bengal were not unique. The communist government in Kerala led by E. M. S. Namboodiripad also had initiated reforms. All die, all of these leaders are dead, but all do not die equally. Those who do not have the fortune of dying gloriously die without leaving any personality cult behind. Myths were not built around them, because most of them were too earthy to be material for myth making exercises. In his time Jyoti Basu did what common sense dictated. He got involved in union activities, was subsequently elected to the legislative assembly, took its work seriously, turned communist politics into popular-parliamentary politics, which he epitomized in fifties, sixties, and which from then on carried him far. This is now considered as the glorious period of the communist movement, also for a person and a party for whom and which legislative activities, electioneering, deputation submission, and other forms of mass protests leading to more assembly and parliamentary seats formed the core of communist politics. Not that Basu or his party were determined to carry agrarian reforms further, fight caste inequalities, or for justice for the adivasis and dalits. All through the life of the Left Front politics they made all sorts of compromises, reducing popular demands in the name of national unity. Likewise they had no idea how to devise new methods in trade union movements. In weak industrial units the party led unions flexed muscles, in big units they remained silent content with getting some power and privilege from the owners. Similarly, after the period of limited land reforms (1977–90) they stagnated, and eventually sided with the rich and prosperous middle farmers, and were extremely cautious in hurting property interests in the countryside. Anyone who showed them the limits of their populism were ruthlessly silenced. Slowly, as they stayed in power, they got governmentalised. Weekly flights of ministers to Delhi, gradual adoption of the big state culture in administration and politics, rubbing shoulders with central ministers, holidaying in bungalows surrounded by guards and served by the government machinery, riding cars with hooters and surrounded by blaring motorcycles became the way of living. They were like the 92

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modern prince; they surveyed the countryside and the peasant’s condition from the horse top. All took heart from Basu’s example, namely that if all of these were essential to government running, then why could not others do? This is what resulted from the governmentalisation of the party and the movement. It began with giving primacy to electoral considerations. Then as if almost unknowingly history took its revenge. If the party had conquered the government, it was now the turn of the government to vanquish the party. Thus police and administration machinery became the biggest instruments of rule. These were deployed indiscriminately against those (not the Congress of course) who would not obey the rules of the game. Many oppositionists were murdered, thrown out of jobs, boycotted socially, and ridiculed in public life, though these efforts did not always succeed. Likewise panchayats became yet one more tier symbolising local state, local government, local power, and local wealth and riches. On the whole the system became a machine adept at using power in favour of the propertied against those who would oppose the hoarders, corrupt ration dealers, traders, and bad gentry. The entire party was now deployed to run the administration with governmental attitude—a classic union of governmental bureaucracy and party bureaucracy. Jyoti Basu’s legacy in form of uninterrupted thirty three years of Left Front rule in West Bengal therefore forms a period of deep conflicts of which we still do not have a proper history. This is partly because of the myths I have referred to, but partly also because historians write only of things which become matters of past. But we need proper accounts of whatever happened in West Bengal’s nearly thirty five years (1977–2010), when rights expanded along with new kinds of insecurities and emergence of new kinds of power. In this period, which began with the bloodbath at Marichjhanpi where the refugees from Dandakaranya wanted to settle on return to West Bengal now that “their” government had come to power, several events happened, like limited land reforms, establishment of panchayats, expansion of democracy, persistence of hunger, emergence of a new kulak class in the countryside, industrial recession, decimation of the industrial working class, expansion and then stagnation of educational opportunities, corruption, a servile attitude towards industrial and financial magnates, continuing plight of the dalits and the indigenous population, and above all merciless demonstration of party power over left wing dissenters and protesters. Sub-regional imbalance also accentuated in this period. Jyoti Basu was fortunate that he left governmental responsibility before the decline of Left politics became stark. The myth thus remained—all that was good in Left politics began with Basu, or at least he was the figure of all that was good, and the bad started after his departure. Yet as we know deep within, the decline 93

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had started much earlier, it was there within the way and form in which Left politics functioned, and masqueraded as communist politics. It was to Jyoti Basu’s credit that he at least firmly believed that only in popular politics communists will survive. That is the lesson he drew from the disasters in socialist politics and economics all around. It did not matter to him if in the process the cupboard was getting full with compromises, nepotism, corruption, inefficiency, governmentalism, making peace with the new rich of Bengal—skeletons of all kinds. Bengal has massively grieved at his death, for the utopia is lost forever. Even though we can be sure that reality of the contradictions of his political legacy will mercilessly again dawn on all of us. In such situation, the myth will be the only solace of a mourning Bengal. Jyoti Basu was possibly the last of the liberals who believed that rights of the poor and security of the rich went together, and both could expand simultaneously. We should not be surprised if this common sense which he epitomized becomes the life motto of current governing reason in the country, and thus he is anointed as a father figure of modern India.

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17 Chronicles of the Ranks Economic and Political Weekly Volume 45, Number 14 3 April 2010 (Originally titled as ‘Another Death’)

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ayanta Dasgupta died on 15 February 2010 at the age of 72. He was suffering from cancer for the last few years, and then the end had come suddenly after days of excruciating pain. I had spoken to him last on the phone about a month before he died. He seemed resigned to the pain, the loss of appetite, we joked about good kebabs that he still liked to eat; he asked how my wife was—another victim of another incurable disease. He promised that he would visit the hospital where my wife was convalescing as soon he would be little better. I too promised to visit him as soon the hospital news on my side would be little assuring. And then in the very early morning of Monday the 15th, I got the call. It was all over. I had known him for 43 years: first as a young undergraduate student and a member of a students’ rally that had gone to the Statesman House in what was then Calcutta to declare solidarity with the workers’ strike going on in the newspaper establishment. A slim man of average height, leading the strike, he struck me immediately as one from the dense ranks of workers, yet open to outsiders, whose philosophy of life was probably one of friendship and the passion for intimacy in any common endeavour. We became friends, he was considerably elder to me, but friendship struck there, on the street literally, remained if only to deepen. Our vocational paths were different. I desperately tried to be a social scientist in spite of the infamy that accompanied my name and therefore the efforts of the established world of academia to shut me out, he a labour activist, who desperately tried to convince his trade union leadership that Marx meant more than wage negotiations, and much needed to be learnt by the party in order to lead the workers. Though we both failed in our respective efforts, we had common grounds 95

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to cover and discover. In course of decades, we travelled to many parts of the country together, in crowded trains, buses, in truck drivers’ cabins, and walked long miles—he a trade union activist, I an academic. Meanwhile we had passed our compulsory stints in state guest houses—his was for a short period, mine longer. But we had re-connected. The French philosopher Deleuze somewhere speaks of the human capacity to connect across different circles breaking the set rules of connectivity. If anyone needs an instance of that, here was one. After his death, the federation of unions of newspaper employees held a memorial meeting in Calcutta, usual words were spoken by the leaders about his capacity to think deep, and of course they did not mention that that it was precisely this capacity that the party appointed trade union leadership disliked most and therefore they had never followed his counsel. About fifty people were there in that memorial meeting. In another age this would have been different, at least a thousand would have attended a meeting being held in honour of someone who had spent life in the ranks, among the ranks, and had held dreams in control on the ground that in the interest of the unity of the ranks he should not protest much against the subservience of leadership to bosses and the state. Or, possibly because of his dream he thought secretly within himself that conservatism of federation leadership and its pettiness counted little in the long run in face of workers’ unity. If I quizzed him on the inevitable ambiguity of his stance, after some minutes of discussion he would relapse into silence, but only after that smile first seen and experienced forty three years ago. As if, comrade, this is a long journey, why get exasperated? This is not an obituary. Nor is it a piece in his memory, but a note of love towards those minor figures of that age of non-conformism, insurgency, and rebellion that subsequently bypassed Bengal and moved elsewhere. But more significantly one could say, this was an exceptional age—the age of the minor figures in the incessant battles for a dream. Who writes of them? Who commemorates them? Who remembers? Who will mourn those who would not get gun salutes, guards of honour, official tributes, press communiqué, costly garlands, and visits by official high dignitaries? Who will understand this materiality of death, a materiality that can only loudly shout to our ears that death does not make us equal, but only re-confirms the inequality in life? Jayanta Dasgupta was one such minor figure, rising from the ranks of labour in West Bengal in the sixties of the last century. Once again true to Bengal pattern, he was from an affluent family with roots and some property in the eastern part of Bengal, and a good income from the court. By the time I came to know him, the huge house with endless number of stakeholders and claimants to the property, standing on the corner of the Sealdah railway station, was in a dilapidated state. The income had stopped. Partition had ended the income from the east. And, the 96

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sons of the well-to-do pleader were not good at all for the salaried life. Jayanta went to Surendranath College in late fifties of the last century, the college was the recruiting ground for left activism, and then he joined The Statesman. Neither did he veer to journalism, nor towards improving his career as an administrative officer; and denied of promotion in office for union activism, he was soon acknowledged by the workers as the natural leader in the ranks. At home he would be busy with the sitar and classics of literature, Tagore and Marx being both readings of love. It was not surprising therefore when in the early eighties he started questioning the stand of the union bosses towards technological change, and their sense of apathy in negotiating the turn. New technology the world over had put the workers on back foot when introduced in tandem with the power of the bosses to control the workers and reduce the number. In West Bengal new technology arrived in the graphics industry in the early and mid-eighties. This was also the period of Palekar award for wage restructuring in the industry. The bosses had combined the two events—the award and the advent of new technology. They would implement the award of wage increase provided the workers accepted new technology which would do away with several stages of work and along with that the workers. Jayanta was probably the only union leader who understood its implications. He knew that the traditional method of strike would not be fruitful; likewise acceptance of increased wage with strings was a death sentence. He studied the emerging situation with relentless enthusiasm, designed new workflow charts that would harmonise at least to certain extent the introduction of new technology and workers’ interests. Both the union and company bosses rejected his insights. He read all the chronicles involving technology, unions, and the bosses, available in those days in Kolkata, listened to pundits in search for ways, wrote new pamphlets, memos, and I am sure somehow somewhere in the deeper recesses in the ranks they had effect. Common sense, class sense, and economic sense combine often without public notice. But the union bosses took no initiative in thinking of new forms of labour movement and new forms of negotiations. As a result one major newspaper in Kolkata closed down, scores committed suicide, or perished less noticeably. On a broader scale, we still do not know what happened in West Bengal in those years in the eighties and early nineties, when the Left Front Government and union bosses stood silent, one after another “sunset” unit closed down, and how many thousands perished in the factories in those dark days of labour. Jayanta was disheartened, but not much. While he remained loyal to union activity, he started taking new initiatives. He joined study circles, made several trips as part of activists’ teams to Bhopal, Bhuvaneswar, Siliguri, Naxalbari, Mumbai, Delhi, Nagpur, Kharagpur, on a wide range of issues including those of 97

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environment, modernisation in railways, women labour in agriculture, displacement of people, and Pakistan–India people’s unity. Meanwhile union power in his own unit as elsewhere declined, he remained as usual calm, without much increase in the slender pay packet to be exhausted in a week because of the help that he would give out constantly to needy workers. When he retired in midnineties he was almost a lonely man in his ranks, with one of his close comrades thrown out of job and another dying prematurely, suddenly. Then as the disease ineradicably progressed, he withdrew himself from public life, to be visited by a handful of fanatically dedicated followers, most of whom had learnt their ABC of literacy and then union literacy from him. The smile of course remained, but the physical strength to engage in discussions was going down fast and visibly. Who will find out the leaflets that he composed, the letters on technology he drafted, the notes and memos he submitted to his union bosses, and the articles he helped write on labour, union culture, the dilemma of technology, and issues of occupational health and safety? Combining as he did union militancy with thinking, was he exceptional in all these? Possibly not, possibly in all dense solidarities built on collective actions on the streets we have such figures. Minor figures in the official history of the Left in Bengal—almost left out of history except being anonymous heads in an officially celebrated history of the masses, who will rescue them from anonymity? Give them individuality, recognition, recognisable life, and recognisable death? How shall we love and write the chronicles of the ranks?

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18 The Fast Emerging Power Vacuum Mail Today 14 August 2009, New Delhi

The model of a parallel politics emerges attracting popular attention and causing decline of the legitimacy of the Left Front style of politics.

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y all tokens we are now witnessing the penultimate scene of a decisive change in politics in West Bengal. By penultimate I do not mean that with the Assembly elections in 2011 the curtains will necessarily come down over what is traditionally called the official Left politics in West Bengal. The Left Front may or what seems likely may not come to power. But even if it returns, its speciality will be gone for ever. From now on, it—and along with it the parties forming the government, particularly the CPI (M)—will be judged by the same ruthless standards and conspiracies of developmental politics as are deployed elsewhere in the country. Meanwhile the ruling Left Front Government’s legitimacy erodes daily, sometimes slowly sometimes by huge chunks, and the average snooty petty middle class Left intelligentsia of Bengal will no longer be able to say that West Bengal is better than Bihar. We must understand that hunger deaths, crisis in the public distribution system, abysmal state of implementation of the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, and the sorry state of public health and other public services could not have caused this serious erosion of legitimacy. The state of these is mostly as good or as bad in several other states. But it has destroyed the claim of the regime that it is one with a difference, that it cares for the social majority, and that its administration is conscious of the silent majority, who cannot reach the corridors of the Writers Buildings in Kolkata. The story from now on will be the same everywhere. More 99

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importantly the Left Front Government’s Kolkata centric attitude has restricted its negotiating space when it comes to the issue of tackling mass agitations, with the consequence that no one takes the government seriously. The enthusiasm is over; the time of cynicism has come. Police officials, big bureaucrats, party bosses, at times even the ministers think that by playing the tune of insecurity and anarchy they will be able to ride over the crisis. They are ignoring at least four things here: The first reality is that the legitimacy crisis has overwhelmed the entire state and is not confined to the political class only in and around Kolkata. The second reality is that the opposition is building itself up not on a rightist platform, but a populist platform, that has usurped all leftist slogans of yesteryears. Third, its dialogic capacity has drastically waned; therefore it cannot converse with the society. And, finally, it is clueless as to how to cope with what is known as globalisation. Therefore it has gone on a suicidal path. It has self-destroyed its fund of goodwill among various sections of population with an amazing lack of sensitivity. We may ask the result? As I said, we are witnessing the last but one round in the chronicle of its erasure as a special political force. It may and perhaps will survive, for nothing dies in India. But that survival will be like that of any other parliamentary and governmental party—rising and falling with the oscillations in the prevailing culture of governmentalism in the country. But to appreciate the vacuum this decline has created in the state, we must even if briefly see what these four marks of the present situation are. First, in the post-partition Bengal that is West Bengal, Left politics had been able to establish a political umbrella over all the three parts of the state—hills and the rest of North Bengal, the deltaic part of the state, and the dry forest-covered south western part. The Left Front’s own politics of petty trade, production, and middle-class oriented development has created cracks in the arch of hegemony. We have now protest movements in all three sub-regions—from Darjeeling Hills to Lalgarh. The control instruments of the government are now spread thin. Second, the politics of Trinamool combine is not right-wing politics, but populist politics, which does not endorse globalisation in a blanket manner, which has learnt from the old itinerant and praja politics in the state, symbolised by giant figures such Fazlul Huq to Jyoti Basu. The velvet revolution that is underway in the state does not look like the one in East Europe, where pro-globalisation and pro-West slogans symbolised the attack. Here the attack comes from populist and democratic-left positions, with which the population has sympathy. Third, the long years of Left rule have been the source of its decline, because after depending for so long on the party and a self-serving officialdom, the official 100

THE FAST EMERGING POWER VACUUM Left has forgotten as to how to converse with society. It dialogic capacity is at its minimum, while society’s claim making capacity has increased. The result is that the regime can tolerate only certain forms of claim makings, which would follow prescribed rules, but is unfamiliar with the non-party mass claims of other types. Finally, it is a victim to winds of globalisation. Spurred by dreams of turning Kolkata into Delhi or Bangkok, or at least Bangalore, it forgot its inherent strengths and weaknesses on which it was to build its own distinct vision of growth. Again the reason is its petty character. Whoever had money duped it—big Indian business names to unsavoury and shadowy Southeast Asian names. Its ignorance has been the root of its undoing. The resultant vacuum is full with possibilities. Maoists may become stronger; but since they have no idea about how the political society in India functions, with reckless killings and with no bridge to attract sections of this political society, they will have to retreat sooner or later. They cannot attain the commanding heights of politics. Self seeking high officials and police officers used to serving the ruling party will either try to leave the state or change colours. The Left Front as front will remain but increasingly emptying itself. Congress is and will be neither here nor there. That leaves us with the Trinamool, which will be the political party to watch—the only force to accomplish a rainbow coalition that can fill in the void. Sections of erstwhile Naxalites have been giving her the counsel and the wisdom to maintain organisational determination, and practise the means to attain popular character. Will she be able to retain those links? Given the historical record of the instability of her politics, Mamata Banerjee may throw away the gains. But precisely because she is a travelling movement, she has created throughout the state an alternative, which is difficult to pin down, and hence corner. The city of Kolkata much as in the past is again taking the lead in determining the contours of this future build up, and it is here that new imaginations are being built up by a non-conformist politics around Singur, Nandigram, Lalgarh—events that have become today household names in a restless India. Do not be surprised if you find some other parts of this country showing similar signs of restlessness in face of growing hunger, landlessness, and futile talks and promises of a government buoyant with electoral victory. Clearly Left Front’s decline has a broader significance, which revolves around the issue, namely, how do you govern a democracy?

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19 Civil Society and the Politics of a Society

As protests grew in West Bengal, the phase ‘civil society’ and its Bengali equivalent nagarik samaj were used increasingly in popular literature and the newspapers. Some political critics had earlier pointed out that this phrase did not connote dissent from the propertied society, but that the phenomenon was its part. Also the Left Front intellectuals derisively mentioned ‘civil society’ to mock at the protests against the Left Front rule. The following chapter is an abstract of a commentary written in 2007 on the theory of political society and a reflection on the discussions on civil society emerging in the public media in 2007– 08; readers interested in full details of the argument can read The Materiality of Politics (Ranabir Samaddar, Volume 2, Anthem, 2008). Interested readers may read along with this Chapter 29, which reverts to the theme of civil society and pleads for a differentiated and contextual understanding of the phenomenon.

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alter Benjamin wrote of history, whose face is turned towards the past and the storm from the heaven propels him forward. Politics also carries much of the same imagery. By politics I, of course, mean politics of a whole society, and not just machinations of a group or groups. While politics indicates daily transactions of power and actions on the past, it also carries a sense of ‘making’, that is to say making future, new society, new politics. It is immaterial in this context whether we agree to the ways in which this making goes on; what is significant here is the double nature of politics—the pile of debris of the present and the storm irresistibly propelling politics into the future to which its back is turned. How is such double nature possible? Does politics generate a power that goes beyond its routine constitution and gives it the momentum to proceed to the future? The past five years in West Bengal give rise to such thought. We must, therefore, focus on an analysis of the context in order for us to grasp the double nature of politics. As we begin such an analysis, we shall note that in the recent transition in West Bengal, howsoever limited may have been its nature, ‘civil society’ was the most 102

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recurrent phrase. This civil society, beyond anybody’s analysis, and treated with contempt by the so-called political class and looked down upon by established political leaders, kept on upsetting various kinds of calculations to maintain the status quo. Today in the wake of the changes and the experience of the demands for justice that have echoed in West Bengal, for the last decade in particular, we must ask, is it at all possible to a political society without its supplement, whose banal name is ‘civil’? We have to further ask: without this supplement what worth politics is? In other words, by banishing the civil, and the collective actions that enter politics by donning the civil attire, does political society remain political enough? Some issues require to be raised in this context are: 1. What distinguishes the political from the civil? 2. Yet, why in actual politics, is this distinction not much respected and the civil used almost everywhere in a political sense? 3. The more pressing question: how does contentious politics shape the emergence of the political society? 4. Finally, what drives the politics of this political society? And in that context rises the issue: how and where do we situate the issue of justice (as distinct from rights) that marks politics, makes it contentious, thereby federalises politics, and makes the political eternally unstable, yet a compelling option for those engaged in building a political society? These issues are inter-related and overlapping in their scope. Their examination is to my mind is at the heart of the four inter-related questions mentioned above. Now let us begin straightaway with the question: what briefly are the salient characteristics of these two entities—civil society and the political society? Traditional sense tells us that the term ‘civil society’ is useful to indicate institutions characteristic of modern associational life such as are based on equality, autonomy, freedom of entry and exit, contract, deliberative procedures of decision-making, recognised rights and duties of members etc. By ‘political society’ we indicate a domain of institutions and activities where several mediations are carried out between population and the state, the population groups taking their shape from modern governmental technologies, and the state here meaning actually the government engaged in administering the population through the deployment of new techniques of governing. Political society, we may say with some simplification, means the arrangement and the combined form of political institutions that population groups negotiate for more rights and democracy. A twofold problem faces us if we want to pursue this line of understanding the politics of the 103

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political society by way of distinguishing the civil and the political. It is this: First, even though it acknowledges that the political domain admits far greater mediations and actors than what is admitted by the civil domain, which is restricted to a fairly small section of citizens, this way of making sense of the political is incapable of understanding the true extent of the mediations, conflicts, the actors and their actions that occur in the political field. Second, and this explains the first in part, this way of making sense of the political is incapable of appreciating the enormous conflicts raging in the society giving rise to an almost unlimited series of actions, negotiations, attritions, battles and collective actors. The important point, and this what the last decade teaches us, is to take the political not as a field of mediation, but actions; not a matter of representation, but acute conflicts, contentions and an ensemble of practical moves to defeat and destroy the enemy and win the day. The various moves that go with this kind of warfare constitute what is known as politics; it is indeed as critical theory has pointed out, war without guns. Once we recognise this essential feature of the political, we can immediately see that why the notion of the political in the traditional concept of ‘political society’ is narrow as it puts an unduly great stake on a distinction between the civil and the political. Of course there is no one single way in which the political society is evolving in India. Political actions and political relations produced out of this dynamics make political society, and these actions are of various nature. And herein lies the question, namely, what are we to make of the situation as in the last five years in West Bengal when to be civil became one way of becoming ‘political’ as against the uncivil ways of organised power, or other ways and versions of politics, when the first and the incipient form of the politics of justice often makes appearance in form of civil because it commences its political journey by addressing something considered as civil, ‘not political enough’, such as education, health or mothers’ activities or something not permitted by official politics? Therefore, we have to make a brief revisit to the history not so much of the political but the civil and make it in the way in which for instance Foucault did, that is treating the civil (public health for instance) politically. This is what Marx did much earlier when he discussed the phenomenon of private property or the Jewish question and all those things of what he called the superstructure. In India as we know, the civil society was the bedrock of nationalism. From language to cultural practices, associations to universities, religious reforms to educational mores—civil societies grew up in every sphere and became the standard forms of the articulation of nationalist practices, which in turn led to debates, conflicts, demands, and politics. More than the social scientists the colonial intelligence officials were, and I suspect still are, cannier. They kept watch 104

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over institutions, such as the Ramakrishna Mission, mosques and the seminaries, schools and clubs, which they suspected to be hotbeds of militant nationalism. The reports of the intelligence authorities such as the Denham Report on nationalist activities in the town of Benaras indicate the sway of the gaze of the administration over the society. This has not been unique to India. In almost all postcolonial countries this is the experience. In the struggle for freedom and democracy the lines between the civil and the political would often get blurred. Today also, in the struggle between popular interventions and governmental authority the lines between the civil and the political get blurred. Demands of justice do not allow such fine distinctions. Few things from the Bengal experience can be noted in this respect. While arguably the solidarity encountered in traditional societies has disappeared in contemporary societies founded on the individual and individual freedom, the individual in turn has discovered a loss and have formed groups in various spheres to compensate and move in the social and political sphere. Also, as representative politics becomes less and less the appropriate form of democracy in today’s social conditions, with political parties at times ceasing to be representative strictly of certain classes, newer forms of associations emerge as political actors. Then again, with the development of media and communication methods, casting vote is not the only time for doing politics; participatory demands make themselves heard in the ruling system now all the time. And finally, in the wake of the demise of liberal welfarism throughout the world, politics is again acquiring intensely physical character—thus physical needs of safe water, housing or safety of the body are now intense and these demands of the body are nothing short of being political. Political clashes are also getting equally physical and bloody. Collective actions have, therefore, once again begun to rule politics. It is this physical cast of politics in which the civil and the political are being remoulded. The overwhelming question is: What is the political in this political society marked by physicality, collective actions, demands for autonomy, and the incipient forms of justice—political that engulfs the civil, precisely because this political is new and challenges the older forms of politics? To continue: A theory of quotidian politics must engage with the possibility that resistance to domination occurs within the power dynamics between contending political groups, assemblages, organisations and visions. Also if we accept the classic definition of power as relational and not an absolute phenomenon, then we must further accept the fact that the dominated population groups may not always rest with merely having a role in the dynamics of dominance and subordination, but may also try to go beyond the structure of rule to overturn the relation (‘The expropriators are expropriated’). Relational dynamics can thus cause 105

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destruction of a structure. A theory of quotidian politics must, therefore, consider the spatial, temporal and conceptual links between micro- and macro-politics, the different scales of resistance and between the practices of subversion and those of rebellion and revolution. If we fail to appreciate these links, we shall fail as a result to build a satisfying account of subordinate and quotidian politics, an account of how the weak uses its weapons, and how all these coalesce and merge in broad patterns and streams of contentious politics. This leads us (once again) to consider the great question in politics, namely, what constitutes collective action? Is collective action the pre-mediated coalescence and formation of formerly discrete individual agents? Or, is it the spontaneous response of disparate individuals to circumstances of inequality? Or, is it built on the dynamics of the formation of a collective (thus shared values, trust networks, common mode of resistance and choice of methods that collectives can employ and can relate to, and most important, the articulation of collective claims) as part of the dynamics of domination and resistance? This is not the occasion to discuss the issue in details. However, we can note at least this, namely, that any conception of political society must be based on a relevant notion of power and resistance and the possibility that due to continuous acts of hidden and public resistance there is a ceaseless erosion of conditions of domination, therefore increased repression by the state and agencies in positions of power and dominance, leading to further accentuation of conflict. In this appreciation, both concepts—civil society and political society—figure as inadequate, both exhibit possibilities of new connections and formation and, therefore, both realities need to be seen in their interconnections. Indeed, one points to the other, takes on its value in its relation to the other. Not only we must see how the civil enters politics always as the ‘new element’ (religious seminaries for instance), our self consciousness about belonging to a society called the ‘political society’ is critical, precisely because of these two words—‘political’ and ‘societ’y—that make something new beyond the banal reality of every day. As political subjects we know that we are parts of a still-not-realised political soul, embodying the impossible connection, that is, the supplement. On this point, the analytic problem is straightaway located in our own notion and practice of politics. In this reformulated view of politics, there will be ground to re-read the three dichotomies in the recall of the idea of civil society. In the first case, we can see how the idea of a civil society has been naturalised to the extent that the rights language now appears more as a natural language than a legal language, which explains why claims of the governed are mixed with observance of law and semilegality or illegality. Thus, unrealisable rights of society today are tomorrow’s legally realisable rights, such as right to health, education, safe environment or 106

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rights of the future generation. Rights are for society and they are natural, exactly as in those days when rights for the individual were natural. The state of civic order carries the daily naturalness of association in a particular form, and the state itself appears as a massive civic achievement which has to be now improved by civic efforts. In the second case, the political virtue associated with the state comes to be associated with the civil society; it is like the following, namely, that to obstruct the bad politics of the ruler, you need the good politics of the society, which is the civil society, or, to oppose and halt the unlimited power of the state you need the political strength of the society, because society is the people who have a common will against the state, and who express it through various associations. In the third case, civil society starts meddling in the economy because it cannot accept the unbridled rule of property as it has grown up amidst the ancient values of society, namely, the virtues of sanity, sympathy, solidarity, humanitarianism and defence of several freedoms as against the freedom only of property. In this hallucination and the displacement of roles, it is politics which gains. Perhaps it is the sole gainer. Its site is wider, its resources now incomparably richer, its language now more effective, its capacity to work as counterpoint to the dominant mode of power now more telling. In short, my argument is not that for an understanding of politics, neither the construction of a complete polarity between political and the civil, nor a strategy of merging the two would be a wise way of understanding the contentious history of the past decade. In short, any idea of politics today is inseparable from these social movements. The answers are many. To cite some of the important ones—social movements have demonstrated new techniques of mobilisation—petition, peaceful assemblies, signature collection, small informal meetings, shaming, public hearings, engaging the target of attack in conversation with the movement, humiliation, mass boycott of votes, night vigil etc. They have broadened the area of contentious politics by bringing in many issues in the realm of mass politics today. Further, they have given birth to new groups of political entrepreneurs from classes and strata hitherto un-reached by politics, namely, mothers, teachers, good samaritans, backward urban and rural poor, scientists etc. This is particularly true of the last few years in West Bengal. The social movements have shown the value of flexible networks and rapidly shifting targets of attack. They have advanced mass coalitions. They have facilitated democratic spirit by reinforcing trust in select relations that constitute the core of any democratic assembly. They also enhance the dialogic capacity of popular politics, because it is coalitional, conversational and flexible. Migrants and women have challenged most the political identity of citizenship in India because this identity has been acutely dependent on the construction of a nation as a political community of equal citizens (as distinct from existing 107

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hierarchical inequalities) with distinct collective cultural identity of a nation. The Constitution projects this national political community through its fundamental enunciations. Part II of the Constitution (Articles 5–11) deals with citizenship and lays down the categories. The Citizenship Act of 1955 makes elaborate provisions regarding modes of acquiring citizenship (by birth, descent, registration, naturalisation and incorporation of territory). Part III defines the substance of citizenship by enunciating the fundamental civil, political and social rights of a citizen. Yet, equality and freedom—the two broad axes along which the notion of citizenship as membership of a political community, whose profile is described by the constitution—remain dream principles in the light of autonomies of society, hierarchies, inequalities, presence of a vast mass of non-nationals, similar presence of a vast mass of non-citizen Indians all around, discriminatory rules that differentiate a citizen from a non-citizen and, finally, the subjection of women whose inequality in relation to men and a patriarchal structure remains the biggest question mark for citizenship. It is this fundamental inequality and un-freedom that is un-addressed by the Constitution, but addressed in various ways by the social movements. Citizenship evolving in this contentious milieu marks the unsettled nature of the political society. Even though some amount of contentions happens in tolerated zones of governance, contentious claim makings characterise largely forbidden territories. Thus the Narmada Bachao Movement advanced to an extremely intolerable zone by practising mass satyagraha, prolonged massive sit-in demonstrations, court disobedience and, finally, threatening to collectively selfdrown in the river. The Singur movement in West Bengal took the lesson from Narmada in the art of contentious mobilisation. New leaders appear as spokespersons of such contentious political actions that are now barely tolerated by the government, and if the government wants to settle such contentious situations, it has to now talk with these new leaders who become new agents of power. The government cannot in such situation confine itself with simply talking with legally chosen representatives of the people. The Great Railway Strike of 1974 threw up such leadership, the core of new political entrepreneurs and brokers; before that the Food Movement in West Bengal had thrown up similar core of new leadership; similar was the outcome of the Narmada Bachao Movement or the Jharkhand movement that took place in the decade of the eighties in the last century. In all these cases, the consensus acting as the foundation of the political community broke down; all these contentious political actions widened the range of the emerging political society and planted the seeds of new values that would act as the vision towards a new society. All these histories tell us the core relevance of social mobilisation to politics. Civil society is often the terrain where such mobilisations begin. 108

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Let me put in this context a concrete instance, but very briefly: the history of a collective political actor called the ‘indigenous people’. Indigenous people in India may have existed in pre-colonial India as an identity, but as a modern political actor we find the indigenous people appearing on the political scene by the early part of the nineteenth century. Permanent Settlement had not only created a large number of landlords and intermediaries, it unleashed a process of large-scale peasant migration from one part of the Bengal Presidency to another. Migration, de-peasantisation, impoverishment, indebtedness, loss of local political power (in cases where the indigenous populations had local semi-independent chieftainships) and famine conditions created restlessness among a large number of segmented societies throughout the first few decades of the nineteenth century, eventually to burst out in the famous Santhal Hul of 1855, the most well-known rebellion among many of that time. This was also a time when the colonial government had hardly evolved the mechanisms of rule, a legal system of redress of grievances was yet to be put in place, the contours of magistracy had still to be defined, the Rent Act was still to be enacted and in that time of the ‘dark hole of nineteenth century’, rebellion as an act of social and political criticism gave birth to a political subject. The rights language was yet to emerge, yet the clamour for justice was to last. Successive rent acts came, special tenancy acts were passed, lines of exclusion were drawn in various forms—both on the east and the west of the heart of the Bengal Presidency—for about 70 years, from Alexander Grant through Dalton to Risley. The administration wrestled with the category of the indigenous population groups to settle the matter finally in the early part of the twentieth century, when excluded and partially excluded areas emerged in a long chain of successive administrative reforms, to appear finally in the form of several provisions in the Indian Constitution, most notably the Sixth Schedule, but also in several provisions such as Article 371, provisions of Part XVI, reservation of seats and jobs and the formation of new states in the Northeast, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh and Uttarakhand. When democracy finally arrived, the indigenous people were made to disappear in the category invented by the government called the ‘scheduled tribes’. Thus at one stroke the identity of indigenousness was left to the government who would now decide as which community was what. What is also important to keep in mind is that administrative and legal reform on each of the occasion was preceded by the most ruthless suppression of any insubordination and mutiny. Yet, has the political subject called the ‘indigenous people’ really disappeared from the scene? The answer is obviously no. The call for justice through the making of a new dialogic order remains. The struggle for a pro-people policy of ownership and use of resources such as the forest, water and the issue of land reforms 109

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continues even after the formation of the Jharkhand state. In fact in the neighbouring state of Chhattisgarh, where the indigenous people are large in number and has a large percentage of local population, the struggle for reorganising the political society has assumed more direct forms. If one takes the report by the colonial administrator McAlpin on the condition of Santhals (1909), which stands exactly at half way in the two-century long history of governmental strategy on the indigenous people, one can notice the following factors: acute land crisis, breakdown of political, social and other forms of collective power of an indigenous society (McAlpin referred to the broken villages in details in this context), the need for special protection of a group now disarmed, defeated and vanquished, and the transformation of a rebellious, extra-colonial political subject into one more group of law-abiding citizenry whose plights would be henceforth addressed by the due process of law and who would from now on learn how to petition (Simon Commission) and become a proper constitutional subject. In this long history from Sidhu Soren to Shibu Soren via Jaipal Singh, the elements mentioned just above have determined how the political subject had to define and refine itself periodically at each critical juncture (such as revolt, missionary education, the first act of writing by a Santhal author on the collective history of the Santhals, outmigration, census of 1901, deputation and petition, constituent assembly deliberations, the birth of a modern political party of the indigenous people to the grant of autonomy and statehood) in face of governmental techniques. And in each act of re-definition, the political subject in order to reclaim agency had to draw on both civil and political resources. Yet this history goes further. Indigenous population groups in Odisha, West Bengal, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh have now started resisting attack on their resources, defending their common property, and have in many places accepted strong rebellious political leadership of the Maoists. Once again, the civil and the political have gone together. The early phase of the revolt in the Junglemahals in West Bengal (2008–09) is instructive in this respect. Even when put in this briefest form, this history brings to us several interesting facts. The protest of the Santhal community begins against the backdrop of the loss of independent existence and suppression of other indigenous communities in course of implementing the new land order (the Permanent Settlement Act); then rises the classic question of all revolt politics, namely ‘who is our friend and who is our enemy’, which becomes the coalition politics of the time and then rapidly grows into rebellion. A collective political subject is born. In this process, which includes factors, such as the act of writing the indigenous community’s own history, identity, education, categorisation under a new census regime (thus for instance Santhals are categorised as Scheduled Tribe in Jharkhand, but not in Assam) and different land laws, surely governmentality is a factor propelling the 110

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birth of the political subject; but governmentality is not all. More important are two things—the proto-existence of a political subject beyond the colonial society and politics and second, the ways in which the colonial reality now affected the existences outside the colonial order. These two factors were critical for the birth of a political subject and the way in which power would be brought to bear heavily upon this emerging political subject. Governmental regulations and categories figured significantly in the composition of the political power and the contentious field wherein it operated, but they were only one factor. The political subject marked by permanent opposition was born. These discourses show as to how the indigenous communities have reflected on their resistances, and in this they have again and again drawn on their civil–social roots in manifold way. This was true in as much when the first Santhal took the enormously important political step or act of writing (encouraged by the missionaries), the early writings recalling in the process some of their egalitarian traditions to strengthen class and collective consciousness, as when many decades later Dhirendra nath Baskey wrote the history of Santhal struggle. If the existing political society is perched on the language of rights, it is equally true that politics is seeking an exit out of the closure, brought about by the operation of governmental reason. The politics of the ruled can go ahead at this juncture only by a dialogic politics of justice, which must now transform in the process the agenda of rights to that of justice. That is the route liberationist politics has taken everywhere to defeat governmental controls on politics. Such a dialogic politics, already evident in the conversation between the state and the rebels, between the rebels and the human rights and peace groups, between trade unions and the environmentalists, between women’s movements and class-based movements, and a host of other ongoing conversations, implies a shift parallel to the ones indicated above. That shift is taking place at three main levels—(a) from a rights-based language to a justice-based language, which implies revision of rules of justice along dialogic lines and a weakening of governmental rules, plus the establishment of certain minimal norms such as reconciling of claims, compensation, guarantee of restorative justice, joint custodianship etc. and (b) from constitutionally guided regime to a daily dialogic regime in which dialogues on the street also find a place and (c) finally, from sovereignty to shared power, which implies existence of several autonomies in society existing in their interrelations on the basis of the earlier two principles, namely justice and daily dialogue. The West Bengal situation bears testimony to all these changes. Keeping pace with the romance of an uncertain presence and a fast changing world, we must also change ourselves and do away with the comfort of old certainties and binaries.

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20 Is Bengal’s Restless Spirit in Decline? Mail Today 11 November 2010, New Delhi

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his column is about an alternative story of globalization. But I entreat the readers to wait till the last few lines of this piece to get a sense of this alternative story. It begins not with Kolkata, but Paris. This summer in France was one of discontent. It started with riots in Athens following the monetary collapse in Greece in the wake of the currency crisis there. Germany bailed Greece out with a massive loan with which Greece had to buy German goods. But this signaled the beginning of the long awaited monetary crisis in Europe. Conservative governments in France, Italy, Germany, United Kingdom, Netherlands, and Denmark began tightening the monetary belt by reducing or planning to reduce expenditure on social security measures in their respective countries. As a result, flags were out on the streets. Old fossil-like communist parties were dead, but the unions were alive. New popular coalitions emerged. But labor discontent is not new in capitalist west. Governments know how to tackle labor discontent. But this summer the problem was not only labor, the problem was with France. In France, politics is carried to extreme. Other societies take the pragmatic turn after some time; France goes to the last of the political logic. She must see the end. So in this summer of discontent France woke up one morning to see her great cities like Paris, Marseilles, Lyons, Strasbourg, and Bordeaux still with no transport, shut down schools, colleges, and universities, airports with little activity, and everywhere thousands of marchers on the streets. Pickets and barricades again went up. Oil depots were shut down. France was nearing a perilous continuous general strike. Once more lines had been drawn. Government, aristocrats, and conservative politicians on one side, rest on the other. 112

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What was the demand? The French government wanted the legal age of retirement to be raised from 60 to 62. This was the centerpiece of a string of proposed reforms of the pension system. Public response has been to the effect that this cannot be allowed. The government must withdraw the proposal, which however soon became an Act. The main public contention against the Sarkozy government has been: We do not want to work for two more years. There must not be any cut in the social security system. We do not want to pay the heavy taxes for additional two years. The youth cannot be asked to wait for two more years to join jobs. We worked as much as we were to. We paid taxes as much as we were to. We obeyed all compulsions of governmental rule as we were to. Now the state has to keep its part of contract—its commitment to the people. It must continue the social security system of the citizens. A poll showed, 72 per cent of the respondents supported the strike, though 56 per cent thought that after the legislation had been passed, the strike was futile. About 59 per cent of the respondents did not like picket at the fuel depots across France. The conservatives have reacted furiously. They have asked, what is this fuss over working for just two more years? The Wall Street Journal threw invective at the French on 30 October, and said that this public protest was typical of French schizophrenia. The French unduly suffer from anxiety, a mental disease. What is this land that prides itself of its social security system and comes down on road to defend this heritage which they think they brought on earth through a century long battle on the street? What is this land that prides not only of its paintings, murals, cafes, gardens, and ballet troupes, but also of its leisure and social security system for its citizens? Remember that France is second only to Sweden among the OECD countries in spending on social security and welfare. She spends 29.2 per cent of her GDP on social welfare, pension benefits, health, water, public education, and the like. If France will not be restive, what other country will be? United States, where people never got the opportunity to know what is welfare, social security, and state responsibility to its citizens? Which is the image that attracts others—not the gloss of the celluloid, but the mental attraction, the image that shapes one’s world view? What is the image that the winds of globalization are carrying to distant corners? Meanwhile in France conservatives, right wing politicians, and aristocrats have teamed up, they have drawn the scared middle roaders to them. The call is out: There is anarchy on the streets. It has to be resisted. Outsiders are provoking the restless population. The sans-papiers are throwing stones at the police. They are mixing with the strikers. They are not patriots. They have no love for the country. The sans-papiers, that is the immigrants, who have been pushed to the invisible zone of the French society, and demand identity and dignity, were already out 113

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in numbers once in 2006, when Paris went up in flames. The aristocrats still lose their night’s sleep over that memory. Immigration is a problem for democracy that no one wants to talk in Paris. People only ask, can one be Muslim in France? Exactly thirty eight years ago, students of Kolkata had come out on the streets of the city in support of May 1968 in France. A young man named Serge had come all the way from Sorbonne to tell the students in Bengal that they must come out in defense of the striking workers and students of May 1968. In the whirlpool of time he has vanished from Kolkata memory. He was to go further east. Probably he found his way to Vietnam, perhaps he returned to Paris; perhaps he left this world without trace like so many others of the flower generation. Was not that also an age of globalization? How did the spirit of restlessness reach Kolkata from distant shores and find soul mates here? What happened to that age of global restlessness? Economists will tell you many things. Do not trust them. They are the present day guardians of received wisdom. But what has happened to Kolkata? Why does not the restless spirit of Paris reach Kolkata anymore, motivate her? What have we become in the last twenty-five thirty years? Why was Kolkata silent this time? What has this reign of passivity, and a narrow thinking, unimaginative party bureaucracy belonging to what is called the official Left done to us? Will Bengal recall the French poet of restlessness Paul Eluard (At the Window) who had once been widely translated and read in Bengal, All my desires are born in dreams… To what fantastic creatures have I entrusted myself… My amorous imagination has always been constant and high enough. Nothing will convince me that I was wrong.

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Section Three Contentious Politics

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rom 2008 onwards politics in West Bengal took on a contentious character. Massive movements against land grab and peasant dispossession shook the state. However, besides these anti-land grab movements, the Lalgarh upsurge began in 2008 and turned out to be the initial phase of a civil war in West Bengal. Politics no longer could be carried as usual. Apart from the fact that politics took an almost war form, new issues came up: What was the significance of peace in such situation? How could the demand for peace be integrated in popular politics? What was the nature of the main opposition party, the Trinamool Congress? And finally, why was the Left Front not able to think of new tactics to meet the challenges? Was it then going to be another velvet revolution but of a new type? Yet at the same time, as readers can see, everything was unfolding as if as a pre-scripted drama where the main target of the protagonists was the capture of governmental power through three elections held between 2008 and 2011—the panchayat, Lok Sabha and the Bidhan Sabha elections. Section Three deals with this dense time. Chapter 21 lays down the frame in which succeeding events appear.

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21 Claim Making in the Age of Bio-politics

This sets the framework for this section. The chapter was originally composed as a draft of the Distinguished Lecture delivered at the Asian Studies Conference held by the Australian Association for Asian Studies at Melbourne, 2008; for details, interested readers may consult the longer piece appearing under the same title in Samir K. Das and Pradip K. Bose (eds), Enlightenment and Social Justice in West Bengal, New Delhi: SAGE Publications, 2009.

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evelopment, as we all know, is not a conflict-free process, nor has its history been free of claims and counter claims. Before popular democracy arrived, development was not a virtue or mark of a nation and, therefore, though the ancient texts counselled the kings and princes to look after their subjects and prevent their ruin and death due to famines, tax burdens and plunder of their means of subsistence by the royal officials, ‘development’ as a path of a nation and as a mark of ‘economy’ of the nation is a typical product of our time. With democracy has come our right to develop. In this sense, democracy and development are born at the same time. We should not be surprised that Smith, Ricardo and Mill were all born in the time of the nations. Yet, the idea of development as a distinct character of a collective economy took time to strike roots. In the nineteenth century, industrialisation and economic development came at human costs and amidst century long violent conflicts. Popular democracy had not yet been established; large numbers of people had to flee, perish and die in the metropolitan countries and the colonies for the countries to develop. Today the question is twofold: How can we ensure development particularly in the coercive milieu of globalisation in a dialogic way that addresses the claims and counter-claims in a society? Second, how do we ensure that our right to develop addresses at the same time our other rights, namely political, civil, social, economic rights? In other words, how do we reconcile development and democracy? I shall narrate on this issue the events of

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the last three months in West Bengal to reflect on these two great questions of our time. For the entire year of 2006 the West Bengal Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharya had used every opportunity to air his views that West Bengal required a quick march to industrialisation, that factors such as West Bengal’s past industrial decay, globalisation, current investment friendly atmosphere in the state, stable government, disciplined and skilled labour force and improvement in the agricultural sector in the last 20 years had made this policy of quick march not an option but a compulsory step. Therefore he, his party (CPI[M]) and his government (the Left Front government) seized every opportunity to woo and welcome with promises and concessions each and every investment proposal from savoury and unsavoury sources, and then the redoubtable industrial group, the Tatas came forward to set up a car manufacturing plant in Singur, some 45 kilometres outside Kolkata, to the west of the metropolis. For this plant land was required, and the state government acquired 997 acres of land there by invoking a colonial act, the Land Acquisition Act, passed more than a century before in 1894. Though this was not required under the Act, the government wanted to demonstrate that the entire land had been willingly given over by the peasants to the government. Therefore, it started securing consent letters, and on this, along with the issue of compensation it held eight local meetings with village leaders, particularly with the leader of the section of villagers unwilling to hand over land. These meetings did not produce any effective result. The government determined to complete the acquisition process within November so that the West Bengal Industrial Development Corporation could hand over the land to the Tatas, started to cordon off the acquired land in face of the continuing dispute and the increasing opposition of the villagers. The ruling Left Front held a meeting near Singur on the Durgapur Expressway on 29 November and protesters of the villages where land had been acquired were beaten up and lathi-charged by the police stationed there to prevent trouble; on 30 November Section 144 was clamped down in Singur along with the announcement that land acquisition process was on the whole over. The ruling party, the CPI(M), the main force behind the Left Front meeting in Singur, threatened the Opposition with dire consequences if they persisted in ‘obstructing’ the industrialisation of Bengal. In return, Opposition members of the legislative assembly (MLAs) broke tables and chairs of the Assembly, earning opprobrium from leaders, members and followers of the ruling party. Thus, from 30 November–1 December trouble erupted with high visibility. The government claimed that the acquisition process had been completed on 118

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28 November. In the next two days, processions in the villages of Singur became angrier. Police bandobust became massive. The leader of the Opposition Mamata Banerjee, along with several others, was prevented repeatedly from going to Singur. They were picked up mid-way by the police, and in protest the Opposition called a general strike in West Bengal for 12 hours on 1 December. Following this, the next day, on 2 December, the villagers of Singur made efforts from the morning to break the cordon and breach the line guarding the acquired area constructed and protected by the government with the help of armed police. Police lathi-charged, tear-gassed, opened fire, injured several, some critically, and arrested many including children, old, women and the infirm. Meanwhile, one had earlier died due to the earlier police action, and now a teenage girl active in the resistance movement in the villages was raped in the early hours of 19 December, then killed and then burnt on the field, presumably by the security forces there. Section 144, which had been clamped there under orders from the government continued for the entire month. The government completely banned the entry of the visitors there, including students and youth supporting the cause, other political activists, environmentalists, women’s rights campaigners and leaders, and said that it would not budge from police measures and strong arm tactics, because this was only a work of few mischief-makers and that the overwhelming majority of villagers were behind the government because they knew that by giving their land away the villagers would only stand to gain, they would get training and eventually jobs. Thus police measures continued; there was also a coordinated media campaign in which oppositional stories were systematically ignored by the big media and declared as spurious by the government. Section 144 remained in place. Meanwhile Mamata Banerjee on 5 December, the day when the Opposition had again declared a general strike, started an indefinite fast on the issue of return of land to peasants who had been unwilling to give away or had not given their consent at all. She also demanded the immediate withdrawal of police measures. And of course her main demand was that the car manufacturing plant site of the Tatas must be shifted somewhere else—and not in another high-cropped fertile area. Initially, the ruling party, front and the government dismissed the fast as a gimmick and not worthy to be treated as a serious political or agitating step. Apart from taunts, banters, ridicules and dismissive comments, police bandobust was strengthened. The vast government cum party cum media propaganda machinery started rolling in full earnest. It was argued: 1. first, the Opposition was irresponsible by demanding that the Tatas should move out; 119

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2. second, their action was unnerving the industrialists and potential investors, thereby harming the interests of the state; 3. third, the villagers were not with the Opposition, and the Opposition was fomenting unrest in the villages with the help of outsiders, because the Opposition was frustrated; 4. fourth, other industrial lobbies were helping the Opposition; 5. fifth, the police was not harsh with the agitators; in fact, the agitators were assaulting the police and hence the police was doing whatever it was in ‘self-defence’, and that this was ‘their duty’; 6. sixth, the government was transparent with all the data about acquisition of land; 7. seventh, the government wanted to dialogue with the Opposition on all issues, barring of course the issue of the plant site, though on other occasions it said that it was ready to dialogue on the issue of compensation and on nothing else, and that the fast was a blackmail and at the same time an incitement to the followers to become unruly; 8. and finally, the government was concerned with the health of the fasting leader Mamata Banerjee, which had started to deteriorate quickly after the twentieth day and, therefore, the government was issuing public appeals and several letters to her to withdraw the fast, and come to discussion with the government, while the government would concede as of now nothing save promising that it would discuss with the Opposition. In this hardening of battle lines as the fast entered the twenty-first day, by which time the fasting leader had rejected several public and government appeals, including one from the union government, to end the fast while the fast had become an unprecedented public event, and the Maoist guerrillas had raided a running train within 200 kilometres of the city to snatch away the firearms of the armed police declaring that this ‘action’ was being ‘dedicated to the struggling peasants of Singur’ and threatening more reprisals in case the government continued with repressive policies in Singur, the life and death of one person lay in balance; similarly the fortune of the Opposition movement in the state hang in balance; likewise the fortune of the defiant villagers lay in similar suspended animation; and above all depended the matter, namely, if the fundamental question of the legitimacy of the drive for industrialisation in this particular manner would remain relevant. These in turn reflected on some other issues of importance surfacing in the turbulence of December, such as: Was this the precursor of a new type of popular politics? Did the movement signify the return of the land question to the centre stage of politics? And, finally, did the movement signify the 120

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overriding significance of the issue of ‘justice’ in popular politics—the ubiquitous term signifying the ‘excess’ which remained after formal political formulations, declarations and policies had exhausted themselves, the ethics remaining beyond law, or in this particular case signifying the contentious politics of land? Claims about the details of the land relating to land acquisition became shrill and extremely conflicting and confusing. While the government did not bring out any detailed report on the purpose, mechanism, state of acquisition and the terms and amount of compensation, it went on making several claims. Thus it claimed that the plots claimed by the Opposition to have been forcibly acquired had not been acquired at all; that it could at most verify if the compensation money offered by the government had been willingly accepted by the peasants and not verify if the land had been willingly given over by the latter; that the acquisition had ended on 25 September, land was vested with the government on 4 October and mutated in the name of the West Bengal Industrial Development Corporation on 17 November and that the land would be handed over to Tatas’ possession by January 2007. The Opposition, including a sizeable section of peasants, claimed that 462 acres of land had been forcibly taken in Singur, while the government claimed that 958 acres out of 997 acres had already been acquired on voluntary basis. Yet, the government claimed that under the Act, under which land had been acquired, actually securing consent had no place. About receiving compensation, again conflicting claims were made. The government claimed that till 31 December compensation cheques were given out for 658 acres, while according to the Opposition, owners of only 23 acres of land had accepted compensation in December. In another claim, the government stated that till date little above 10 per cent of the people who had earlier consented to accepting compensation had received money. If all these claims were not enough, the further question was: who was receiving compensation—the actual tillers of land, that is the sharecroppers, or farm labourers or the poor peasants or the owners or all, and if all in what proportions? Again, if compensation covered the range of this agrarian reality, did it take into account the cases where the farmers of substance had leased land from the poor owner-peasants? And who would get job and pre-job training as part of compensation, how many? And finally on this displacement—massive if the area is considered—did law, protection delivery system and the system of justice have anything to say? Clearly on the issue of law and legality, the Opposition was on a losing ground, for these claims were political, by which I mean extremely physical, and law had washed its hands off such intricate questions of physical possession of land, life, and livelihood. So when the month of December of 2006 ended, there was no legal resolution in sight. Political claims continued from all sides. The Opposition leader had 121

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broken fast on the midnight of 28–29 December, but punitive measures remained in place. There was no discussion. There was no political resolution either. No one knew if the affair of Singur was closed or would be soon resolved; or irrespective of the way it ended if this would prove to be just the beginning of large scale agrarian disorder in the wake state-wide land acquisition on a massive scale by force, that is invoking the Act. If we have just foreseen the significance of the issues involved, at this juncture I want to confess that an examination of these questions is not the aim of this article. My writing here aims to see amidst all the evidences and the vast repertoires of politics, popular movements, and state management of these issues around Singur, how claims are made, how regimes react, how repertoires build up and how the ruling politics makes its preferences known—for the prescribed, if not then the tolerated forms as the second best, but certainly for not the forbidden forms of claim making. This is of course not to say that these issues had no impact on claim making; indeed, government claims were conceptualised and articulated in an overwhelming atmosphere of consensus on globalisation, the need for a quick and forced march towards industrialisation via the road of private capital, the need for the society (meaning one section of it) to bear the burden of this industrialisation, the necessity of displacing large numbers of population groups in the interests of development, the received history of reforms in China and finally the consensus on the idea that at last the nation has been able to make a turn around and now the leap to phenomenal growth is around the corner. It is also important to examine the process of consensus building because then we shall have a sense of the government’s ruthless sense of direction displayed in the month of December and the counter claims of the Opposition of the impending disaster. In fact the argument for industrialisation was met from the beginning by the counter argument about deliberation, careful planning, necessity to secure the consent of the peasantry and hence the need for discussion with various peasant associations, the necessity of a wider dialogue on the roadmap to industrialisation, modernisation and prosperity and finally the need to balance the industrial drive with agricultural stability and growth. The last factor became crucial for the shaping of the counter-claims, because this hinted at the unfavourable trends in agriculture in many parts of the country—farmers’ suicides in some states including West Bengal where deaths due to starvation had been occurring, widening disparity between agricultural and non-agricultural sectors, marked slowing down of the rate of agricultural growth, and ever deepening debt trap for the poor peasants, rural labour, and at times the farmers. There was investment failure in agriculture; agriculture yielded in many places small volumes of trade, and there 122

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were disparities in public services such as education, healthcare, water supply, and connectivity. All in all agricultural productivity was going down—a condition in which turning multi-cropped land over to industrialists created concern, anxieties, scare and panic. In West Bengal, a traditionally intensively cultivated state, this meant even more gloom and despair. According to one commentator writing in the midst of the turmoil of December, if by any reason (in this case by acquisition of land on a massive scale) the annual rice yield fell by about 2 lakh tonnes, there was bound to be food shortage even in a normal year. While this drive for acquiring land promises to go on, government investment in education and public health has gone down, with the consequence that the quality of both education and public health has declined, and this state now overwhelmingly depends on agriculture, to the extent that only about 8 lakh acres of land out of 219 lakh acres remain fallow for a greater part of the year, while the rest comes under seasonal cultivation. On top of that, not all parts of the state have alluvial soil. Some have laterite, some acid and some saline, while the industrialists including foreign companies mostly want land in and around Kolkata, that is to say the alluvial soil of East Midnapore, Howrah, Hooghly, North 24 Parganas, Nadia, Murshidabad and Maldah. On the other hand, companies now want about 125,000 acres of land, and the government has already issued notices for acquiring about 44,000 acres of land mostly falling in the area mentioned. What will be the resultant displacement of life, habitation and resources? What will be the impact on land utilisation pattern and food production? And thus what will be the result on the state’s self-sufficiency in rice, particularly when we consider the fact that in 1977 (the year of Left Front’s rise to governmental power) the per capita availability of rice was 419 grams and in 2006 it rose only to 454 grams? With reduction of arable land and an accompanying plateau in food grain production what will be the impact on wage earners? Will the state have to import rice in addition to wheat, pulses and edible oil, particularly when we remember that in the state of West Bengal the production of food grains had increased dramatically by about 70 per cent from 1980–81 to 2000–2001 and then the production had started to decline? As the readers can see, the whole scenario is full with contentions, with claims and counter claims of different sections tearing the political and administrative milieu apart. In this scenario let us now study the forms of claim making—prescribed, tolerated and the forbidden forms. But to do so we have to see the nature of the regime, which now faces these repertoires, and under which the claims and counter-claims are now shaping up. Besides the reason of general structural and socioeconomic transformation, is there any specific connection between the regime and the way the claims for land were made? Of course there is a significant weight of history as in this case 123

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songs and themes of the agrarian revolt of the late forties led by the communists of those times were now played out and sung repeatedly under the canopy sheltering the fasting leader and her group. Red banners freely mixed with other banners. Red Guards from universities were again on their way, after a gap of nearly 40 years, this time to the villages of Singur. And, an old littérateur of 80 years wrote a daily column in a mass circulation Bengali newspaper throughout the month reminding the readers that this was a government and a party traitor to its past. Land question had come back from economists’ and historians’ chambers to haunt the current time. But the pure weight of history would not have done the trick. Collective claim making by the peasants of Singur and the political forces supporting and mobilising them requires possibilities of developing into full-fledged contention, which in turn depend on the nature, flexibility, and the dialogic trends present in the regime. Besides, collective claim making depends also on networks, existing solidarities and other mechanisms, including the issue of available forms of claims. It is of course natural that collective claim making took time to develop in communist Bengal. For, the Left Front government appeared as a high capacity regime. Coming to power in 1977 it was in many ways a break with the Congress ways of governing. With widened mass base, a participating peasantry in local government business, close link between ‘developmental bureaucracy’ and ‘mobilisational bureaucracy’ (epitomised by the closeness between the BDO and the panchayat pradhan at the bottom, district magistrate (DM) and the zila sabhadhipati at the middle and the Left Front, particularly the CPI(M) party leadership, and the government at the Writers’ Buildings at the top). The radical Left had been decimated in the eight-year armed struggle, the Right was discredited and an organised party committed to discipline and development had lent its full strength to the government in power. With party cadre calling the shots in local administrative life and the opposition of any type easily stopped and crushed, if necessary by killing few, many felt that the Left Front rule would never end. Since in many ways this was a modernising regime calling into permanent use Bengal’s renascent past to bring into reality a new middle class with new cultural and symbolic repertoires (secularism, new theatre movement, progressive cinema, limited land reforms, Bengali education, spread of primary education, mid-day meal scheme, inter-caste dining, rural fairs for literacy and literary works, women’s education in district and other towns etc.) and could boast of a disciplined labour force, that would die rather but not revolt if the massively centralised trade union leadership did not permit it, the state government got backing from successive governments at the centre. Besides, another factor rarely taken into account by contemporary historians of West Bengal is the factor of the decimation of the militant labour in the state in 124

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the eighties and early nineties of the last century in the wake of the closure of jute, tea, cotton and big and small engineering and tools manufacturing factories in the state. From Asansol to Durgapur, from Howrah and Hooghly to 24 Parganas, workers committed suicides in large numbers in this period, their women became prostitutes, children were sold, many more returned and died back in their villages, and acres and acres of vacant factory land today stand witness to the once mighty industrial units of West Bengal. Almost all workers’ protests were curbed or were of no use. In face of the offensive of bosses, workers retreated, and this—a silent counter revolution in the industrial scenario and a silent passive revolution in the social scenario if we take into account the impact of this defeat of the workers on the middle class—ironically strengthened the capacity of the regime, for the capitalist bosses knew that they had the best government in power. They could not complain of any serious misdemeanour from the government, while West Bengal underwent almost a structural change from the mid-nineties in the wake of the workers’ defeat and global opening of West Bengal. High capacity regimes are typically ones with extensive formal democracy, trust of the rulers or the ruling groups on the government, ordered ways of negotiations among groups, similarly ordered ways of interest representations to various organs of government, adjudication and legislation and a capacity to deploy combinations in various measures of coercion, reward, resources, and resolve to tackle contentious claims. West Bengal government not only shows regular regime features, it is a regime with a likewise high capacity. It displays both responsive and facilitating features—it can threaten (responsive) and retaliate, it can also reward people obeying it (facilitating). In short, such a regime has marked preference for certain claims, also for certain ways of putting these claims forward. Also because of its democratic basis it tolerates some claim makings even though it may dislike them, but it certainly punishes the offenders, that is, those who resort to the forbidden forms of claim making. It has at times mixed its responsive and facilitating roles by combining repression and facilitation. Thus while it responded to civil liberties forums in West Bengal on the issue of the abolition of death penalty by nonchalantly hanging a prisoner sentenced to death more than a decade back, it has acted as facilitator of several para-economic and cultural enterprises if they have been found to be of gain to the government. But, the bottom line is that the forms of claim making it prescribes and permits must conform to the given ways of negotiations and representation. What are these prescribed forms? Generally, as evinced in the month of December also, from the perspective of the high capacity democratic regimes, the preferred forms of claim making are reduced to rights to assembly, association, speech and representing in constitutional ways the grievances—mainly in form 125

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of petitions and discussions confined mainly at the lower levels of government. Typically therefore, the local administration in Singur called the Opposition to meetings about seven eight times in the four months preceding December. The local Opposition members of the area could attend and get the honour of being invited to the DM’s chamber, but there was nothing that the DM could do if they did not fall in line. As the Chief Minister had said, Tatas would come no matter whether the Opposition would come to an agreement or not. The Opposition MLAs could visit Singur, raise questions in the legislative assembly and meet the Chief Minister or the Industries Minister if they wished. But they could not, which they did much to the astonishment of the society, break tables, chairs and destroy the files of the Assembly (30 November) for ‘Assembly was the mother of democracy’. But if the Opposition played according to the rules set by the regime, then the government could think of facilitating the Opposition too, by helping the latter to play the role of a loyal opposition. This would be possible when the government would be ready to help the opposition in various ways to the extent of sponsoring the latter, as happened with the big brother CPI(M)’s attitude to the small partners of the Left Front. These parties could certainly raise discordant points about land acquisition policy and methods of the government, air critical views, and claim that their suggestions were better. These were prescribed forms. The governmental capacity being high, the government can have a range of prescribed forms. What is more significant, the range of tolerated forms may become bigger. Yet as I shall show soon, we are now entering a slippery territory. Let us only say this much here that the boundaries between the prescribed, tolerated and the forbidden forms may prove slippery if contentious claim making persists; also a high capacity regime may suddenly start showing weaknesses in face of a persistent claim. This is exactly what happened in the ‘velvet revolutions’ in East Europe. Regimes and contentious claims meet as adversaries, and the contest may take different routes. Therefore, not only governmental capacity matters the persistence of claim making matters also. And as I already indicated, persistence depends on the state of resources for claim making, namely, appealing techniques, coercion, trust and network as a resource and finally the regime’s attitude, which determines how much the claim making form has as a manoeuvring space, more important the manoeuvring scope in the regime space at times. Thus, typically in December the Left Front government was paralysed from within because of discordant voices of the small partners, which encouraged the claim making to persist. Thus the range of tolerated forms of claim making may increase dramatically. Throughout the month of December, almost each day some of the main streets of the metropolis and other towns were occupied and traffic stalled by angry young 126

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protesters, on one occasion bare-bodied, who would even lie down on the roads. After the fast was withdrawn and the administration decided to continue with Section 144 in Singur for another 20 days, there were processions in Singur unobstructed by the police. Trains were stopped at many places on several days; again the government did not intervene. There were three general strikes called by the Opposition, which were by and large observed, which again the government had to tolerate. The regime however claimed that it was democratic, so while it would go ahead with its plans for regenerating West Bengal even at the cost of displacing and dispossessing peasants on a large scale, it would ‘allow’ democratic protests to continue. And, in this case, what was democratic in the eyes of the government? Peaceful assemblies and actions of that sort, though as I said, as the month of December progressed, the range of prescribed toleration increased. What about certain acts of vandalism? Again, the boundary seems blurred. The regime of course cannot permit them, because such acts (vandalism in the legislative assembly, stoning the showroom of Tata Motors and the office of the West Bengal Industrial Development Corporation, the kicking of a boundary stone and throwing it away, torching of an office of the CPI(M) and a panchayat office, cutting of roads, felling trees, torching buses, police jeep, etc.—some in the early days of January 2007) challenge the regime directly. They pose counter power. They pose the issue of justice in the way the Dalits have challenged governmental power in town after town by destroying property, particularly property bearing the marks of the regime. Yet, as December showed, these were tolerated, though not prescribed, because the regime knew that it was facing a persistent contentious claim. But clearly some forms, particularly the ones characteristics of an upsurge, are forbidden in the way revolutions are forbidden by regimes. Therefore, in this case when villagers tried to prevent the party fencing the acquired land in Singur and in the process resisted the police party, this was a forbidden way of claim making. The police beat mercilessly, women and children were not spared, subsequently a girl was raped, killed and burnt, two committed suicide, large number of people were arrested from the villages of Singur, outsiders (except government leaders and police officials etc.) were prevented from going there, even though outsiders by merely going there were not breaking Section 144, arbitrarily people were picked up from the road to Singur and what was declared most forbidden was the tendency of the Naxalites ‘from outside’ going to the villages. This was a strange situation. Each of the actors was an outsider in Singur—the Tatas, the bureaucrats from the Department of Industries and the WBIDC, the Chief Minister who had been elected from another constituency, the state, political campaigners and the police. Yet, the only ‘outsiders’ forbidden to enter Singur were the radical youth, 127

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whose names and photographs were systematically picked up by some newspapers and TV channels as the intelligence arm of the regime. In this case thus, two forms were forbidden: (a) you must not actively resist the police and the party of order in the villages and (b) you must not bring in from outside ‘dangerous elements’, which could connect Singur to wider forms of claim making (think of network that I mentioned) and different forms of ‘action’ thereby helping the claim to land persist. Both of these aspects showed the limits of the democratic regime, for which routine protest is an acceptable part of the game of claim making, but which would not tolerate anything that breaks the rules of the game. Who sets the rules of this game? Of course, the regime sets the rules. This is what we can call the democratic paradox or the democratic deficit. But, most important, what about the indefinite fast that became fast unto ‘death’? Indeed, what is the position of death in contentious politics? Clearly the Opposition cannot kill as a form to make claim. But what when the Opposition leader says that she is going to die, that is would kill herself, to press the claim? Law does not allow such deaths either. Law only allows deaths done by the state. But trying to kill one self has a tradition that goes back to colonial days, hence we know the names of Gandhi, Jatin Das, Bhupendra Kumar Dutta or elsewhere Bobby Sands. People think of this as moral politics, Gandhi himself thought so, which may be the case. But in terms of claim making, fast unto death to press claim is terribly contentious. The regime thinks that it is an act of blackmail and putting pressure. The Opposition thinks that this is the last, most risky, and most contentious way to go ahead—a high wager high dividend game, in the process of playing the actor may die. Here when Mamata Bandopdhyay started her fast many ridiculed, when the fast went on and entered the closing days of the second week, pressure started mounting on the regime, yet the regime tolerated the action, and did not resort to violent transfer of the fasting leader to a hospital, or lath-change the hundreds and thousands of people assembled near the canopy, because it would have been too risky a step. It thought that the fast would end under pressure from various quarters persuaded by the regime’s posture of dialogue. But the juggernaut of claim making rolled on. The fast entered the third week. Now this was hovering between a tolerated form and a forbidden one. The regime’s high voltage postures, letter writings, repeated consultations, various intercessions, issues of statements, rallies, meetings, sit-in strikes, and blockade of roads and trains, appeals to boycott of Tata goods, and other demonstrations showed that the situation created by the indefinite fast was fast reaching a situation of forbidden form, which meant some action would have to be taken by either of the adversaries to break the stalemate of which Gramsci had spoken once. Hurting both and hurtling down 128

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the road of full-blown contention, the fast epitomised all that I have mentioned here regarding the prescribed, tolerated, and forbidden forms of claim making and their slippery boundaries. In this case, as local readers of this essay know, the fast ended with promise of dialogue but no concrete assurance of mitigating any of the major demands. But the claim has persisted. December may be only the remarkable first scene of a theatre, and a more contentious future may be waiting for us, may be a different kind of regime change than the ones we had witnessed seventeen years ago in Europe. Post-colonial India may witness different claims and different contentions. So, what are the lessons apart from the ones that came out from the above description? And this is where I differ from Charles Tilly whose writings on contentious politics over the years have taught us many things about popular politics, and whose ideas about regimes and repertoires have enriched our understanding of collective violence (Regimes and Repertoires, where Tilly refers to ‘prescribed, tolerated, and forbidden forms’ of claim making). To Tilly, democratic and nondemocratic regimes have invariant meanings and therefore their boundary is inflexible. The result is a poorer reading of popular politics, also a poorer understanding of the mix of regimes and repertoires that is constantly happening in contentious politics. But there is a greater difference between Tilly and me. Tilly refers almost ad nauseam to democracy (almost wholly western) and forgets what is crucial in the encounter between regime and repertoire is the regime’s dialogic capacity and not any inherently democratic capacitor. What are the lessons then I think we can draw from the turbulence of December? 1. A regime’s capacity to control contentious politics depends to a great extent on its attitude towards different forms of claim making and their boundaries. 2. The means of control by a regime over claim making depend partly on its institutional capacity, partly on its dialogic capacity. 3. Repertoires of claims can fast slip from one category to another (prescribed, tolerated, and forbidden), and there can be transformation in the nature of the forms. 4. Innovation in claim making accelerates as contention becomes acute. 5. Various incipient trust networks become active and contribute to the persistence of the claim. 6. The capacity-democracy space is marked by dialogic acts, proclivities, and trends. 7. Globalisation can make contention acute. 129

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8. The number of claimants increases to the extent the repertoires of claim can become elastic and this increases in a variable way; thus the sudden beginning of fast brought a surge of protesters and claimants after the strong police action had seemed to quell the claimants. 9. Movement thus grows and becomes increasingly contentious as it keeps on producing streams of issues, actions, events, measures and forces a regime to tie itself up in knots as the latter concentrates all its energy in quelling the movement. 10. Finally, collective violence reaches high level as on one hand the regime operation concentrates on coercive means and is unable to counter the coercion that claim making repertoires bring bear in the movement, and on the other hand the claim making forms reach a high degree of coordination and salience. These 10 particular lessons of December tell us also some general truths of politics that is popular politics. It shows how politics can exceed governmentality due to what can be called the autonomy of politics, or the autonomy of the political subject, whose existence as an autonomous phenomenon paradoxically depends on, for lack of better term we can say ‘unfolding’. This unfolding challenges the location of the regime as defined by the regime’s self-claim about its location; it may disallow a successful repeat of the previous trajectory of the regime in encounters with popular politics (in West Bengal, for instance surrounding and overwhelming a dissenting group of villages with enormous mobilisation from outside, called the ‘Keshpur Line); it may create multiple centres of power; it can create a situation in which forms of claim making will arise increasingly from the bottom; and contention can change the shape of the regime, if not always the regime itself. Finally, this unfolding implies that the most forbidden forms of claim making may suddenly become a reality. Nothing is inherent in the fortunes of a regime’s control capacity or of a claim making form. As the month of December ended along with the end of the Opposition leader’s indefinite fast, the government could have turned a new leaf by taking the following steps through initiating discussion at multiple levels and in a wide ranging way (with Opposition, various trade unions, peasants, village associations, other public bodies, sociologists, geographers, economists and other trade bodies), namely, formation of a land bank through a proper land map, transparent policy of inviting investment, more significantly an agreed compensation and resettlement policy with local consent of the people to be affected where land acquirement is absolutely essential, policy for utilising unused land of the factories closed for long and forever and finding out land in the dry areas, and 130

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take a new policy for reviving industries, particularly small units. In short, holding out the assurance that the dialogic path is the regime path, and by taking that path and not being in an unseemly hurry, the regime loses nothing. Yet, the New Year showed no indication of turning a new leaf, even though the whole think tank of the party of order, called the Central Committee, was in session to frame policies for the nation. On the other hand, consider now these two events—one not connected with Singur but speaks volume of the regime’s control capacity and the other connected to the claim making politics Singur represents. On the night of 31 December as the year was ending, a group of army personnel raided the Park Street police station, occupied its premises, beat up the policemen, broke tables and chairs, tore telephone and other cables and freed from lock up two of their colleagues just put there on account of alleged misbehaviour with women in the mid night on Park Street—taking over a police station, a feat that the Army had not managed in the Northeast even. The fulminations of the state government ended in whimper in a day or two. Second, on 3–4 January as the news of imminent land acquisition on a wider scale reached Nandigram, East Midnapore, where a special economic zone (SEZ) is to be set up, thousands of peasants came out, drove away the police, administrators and the party bosses of the area, threatened the government and the big man of that area Lakshman Seth, the CPI (M) member of Parliament (MP) with dire consequences if the regime persisted with its programme of displacement of the peasantry, burnt down offices, cut down culverts, roads, trees to prevent the police from entering the villages, and declared their resolve by coming out in thousands, men and women with spears, lathis and scythes, in the process losing several lives (by informal count eleven, government figure six) in clashes. The government said once again, the notice had not yet come out, it was all a rumour and mischief of outsiders, once again these so-called outsiders being the radical youth, the Naxalites, who had ‘fomented and incited’ the villagers of Nandigram. In Kolkata, the same party general secretary, that is CPI(M), said that the state government had a definite policy of land utilisation and that the Opposition was behaving irresponsibly, and once again people refused to believe the words of party functionaries and the government. Once again, a democratic regime showed no inclination to dialogue. Claim making assumed forbidden forms—some say it has been a peasant upsurge after long years in Bengal—after the incremental mutations in the form of claim making have been ignored by the regime. Contentions have risen; the connectivity of the forms of contentious politics has gone up, and December projected its long shadow into January and beyond. Events progressed fast after 31 December. The take over of land in Singur by means of Land Acquisition Act in the ‘interests of industrialisation’ was now to be 131

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followed by acquisition of about ten thousand acres of land On 4 January 2007, peasants in Nandigram in face of police bullets and para-military operations dug all approach roads to the heart of Nandigram, and began conducting night vigil parties composed of women, children, and men, to ward off any police entry. Police, armed cadres, and storm troopers of the part of order tried to enter repeatedly for the next few days to bring the insubordinate villagers into submission. The Government blew hot and cold at the same time. It said that it would not forcibly take away land from the farmers; therefore the villagers had no cause to fear. It further said that industrialisation was necessary, and that Maoists were fomenting troubles among misguided villagers. It also said that the villagers of Nandigram had taken the road of lawlessness, insubordination, and the setting up of parallel authority by establish a muktanchal (liberated zone), which no administration could tolerate. Law and order had broken down there and the government would have to act sooner than later. Throughout January the government prevented the entry of human rights activists in that area. Meanwhile Singur was once again in flame. On 22 February the peasants tried to break and uproot the fence that had cordoned Tatas’ land there, and police and the security forces mercilessly beat them. ‘Arandhan’ (no cooking, no eating) was observed in houses of Singur in protest. On a High Court order the government had to lift the prohibitory order Section 144. Opposition parties again started holding meeting there. Meanwhile on 12 March Haradhan Bag, a 62-year peasant of Singur whose land had been taken away by the government to facilitate small car project committed suicide by consuming pesticide. In the eyes of the official communists and their government this was another necessary sacrifice in the interests of industrialisation. Haradhan had exhausted other steps to prevent the forcible acquisition of land before he decided to end his life. On 25 September he was one of the demonstrators agitating in front of the Block Development Office and was severely beaten up by the police. On the same day the government cleared another project by the Salims who were to set up their chemicals hub in Nandigram. On 14 March the government entered in a formal agreement with the Tatas, whereby the Tatas would get a Rs 200 crores loan for their car plant in Singur at a rate of one per cent from the West Bengal Industrial Development Corporation—a government agency—which would take a loan from the market to extend to the Tatas. On the same day, finally, the government decided to enter Nandigram with full force. The result: at least 14 deaths according to official version, according to public at least 50 deaths with rest of the dead bodies being thrown into the Haldi River with some of their heads cut off the bodies to avoid identification of bodies. Some bodies were dumped in the morgue of the nearby big hospital, the Haldia Hospital, where anxious relatives were prevented from 132

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seeing the dead bodies to identify the missing near and dear ones. Of the people who died a significant number consisted of women and teenagers, and mostly Muslims and dalits. On 15 March the head of the government Mr. Buddhadev Bhattacharya issued a statement in the legislative assembly where he said that killings were necessary to bring back rule of law, though to be sure he expressed his remorse at the killings. On 16 March again a general strike was declared by the parties of opposition, with the city of Kolkata in upsurge, and in various parts of the state offices of the party of order set ablaze, one deputy magistrate and other officials severely beaten up, buses torched by defiant crowd when the government forcefully tried to maintain the transport system and break the strike, and students and youth in large numbers everywhere coming out on streets in defence of the harassed and dispossessed, but the adamant peasantry unwilling to give up land. Meanwhile claim makings took on violent turn in some other fields also in the following year, that is 2007, which quickly became known as the ‘ration revolt’ in the countryside. Protests against corrupt ration dealers were simmering in the villages of Birbhum, Bankura and Burdwan. Trouble first broke out on 16 September (2007), but things flared up three days later. PDS (Public distribution system) dealers were accused of privately selling off government-subsidised wheat and rice at higher rates. In Mayureswar and Kirnahar of Birbhum district, about 250 kilometres from the city of Kolkata, the houses of six ration dealers were set ablaze and their families assaulted two days later. Villagers looted property and food grains. An opposition political party, the Socialist Unity Centre of India (SUCI), called a 12-hour strike in the district to protest against corrupt ration dealers, but it was later withdrawn at the behest of local leaders. Protests were also reported from Bankura district, where they had first began. Villagers in Birbhum district continued violent protests. Then a day after a man protesting against corrupt ration dealers was killed in police firing in the district, irate groups of villagers set on fire to PDS or ration shops, stores, and even attacked the houses of ration shop dealers in fresh areas of the district though there was no report of any death. But, A free-for-all prevailed in the district as people looted house after house and resorted to arson. Forces led by the Inspector General of Police (Western Range) Arun Gupta found it extremely hard to cope with the situation as consumers went on looting the shops of ration dealers in Birbhum district. One protester, said to be starving for days, was shot dead by police on Monday during a similar demonstration in Kirnahar. But police was still unable stop villagers across several districts from looting food supplies from shops. Villagers have also set fire to go downs and police vehicles, saying they were starving. Dozens of PDS franchisees surrendered their permits out of fear, while the and police said they 133

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were investigating the allegations of hoarding In any case West Bengal by now was repeatedly coming up in the list of hungry states of the country with sky rocketing prices of edible goods, and inefficient food supply to the needy. Earlier in the same year, an inquiry by the Union Government had found that most of the rural poor in five states were not getting subsidised food supplies regularly. It found that only 10 percent of the rural poor were getting regular supplies in the remote villages of West Bengal. And then protest finally spread to Burdwan district also. A man was killed and dozens of people were on Wednesday after hundreds of people clashed with police in Burdwan, accusing authorities of hoarding food stocks meant for the poor. Again here also the poor villagers voiced the same complaint, namely that the subsidised food grains and sugar meant for them were being diverted to regular markets and sold at huge premiums by corrupt PDS officials. At least 100 people, including dozens of policemen, were injured in clashes in the fourth week of September, against what locals termed as widespread graft in the government’s public distribution system (PDS). The district police chief, Peeyush Pandey admitted deploying massive police force to bring the situation under control. Again, when the latest trouble broke out in Ketugram in the same district, witnesses said that one protester had been killed when police opened fire to disperse a mob, though the police said that they were still investigating how he died. The incident occurred when villagers had laid a siege on ‘ration dealers’ (as PDS agents are commonly referred to), and demanded compensation from them for insufficient supplies of wheat and rice. Police contingent had to be rushed to the spot to rescue the ration dealers; angry at the police action, the villagers had attacked the houses of ration dealers and hurled stones at the police. They also set fire to police vehicles. As things went out of control, police first resorted to a baton-charge and then opened fire. Yet protests did not stop. It now again moved to Birbhum district, where next Monday, a protestor, Ayub Sheikh, was killed in police firing outside a block office in Lavpur as political leaders were huddled inside the office as to how to contain the spreading agitation. Arson, looting and ransacking of ration shops were now reported with alarming frequency, so much so that as the SP Pandey added, ‘Ration dealers and their families are being given adequate protection’. Slowly of course the ration revolt that endured for a month went off the newspaper headlines, as Administration honed strategies to quell the unrest. Hunger remains, the fire of course died down in the festival month that followed. And we do not know when collective violence over hunger will reappear. Yet one thing is certain. Judging the way the public discourse in the state of West Bengal still makes itself known, it is still clearly one of development, and not one of claims or democracy. (On rural protest over PDS in West Bengal, I have used here 134

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the material from [email protected] on behalf of Palash Biswas). What will you choose to call this: a political problem, a law and order problem, a developmental question, an administrative bungling, a problem of democracy, or peasant stubbornness, compulsions of a coercive globalisation, or all these combined? Whatever answer you may choose, one thing is clear, namely, the prescribed, tolerated, and forbidden forms of claim making will remain, and development as a process and issue will not be exempt from this contentious dynamics. Economic rationality will make little sense here, or to be true will make no sense. The choice was always and will be political. Rulers will behave as rulers, ruled will respond as the ruled. In this fundamental division of society these experiences as the one narrated here make it imperative for democratic politics to take a dialogic turn, for we must remember that the rise of the political subject is irresistible, and democratic politics must now get rid of its deficit if it wants to remain relevant all for those whose claims are ignored in the name of development. Yet we have the occasion to ask, what is this age that so glaringly demonstrates the divergence of the economic and the political? How do we explain the decline of the will, which leads to if possible a total denial of the significance of claim makings, as if the society should henceforth be run on the basis of ‘economic rationality’ and not political will? This too is characteristic of modern democracy. We do not have the full occasion here to go into these characteristics of modern democracy. But I shall mention only two, and I hope they will provide glimpses into if I may use the phrase ‘the secret of the political will’ in an age when politics seems to have died down. One is the question of claim making in the age of biopolitics; second is the question of the divergent phenomena of electoral majorities and social majorities in modern democracies. Both are significant questions, and again we cannot go into their full implications. But at least we can make clear the line of further thinking as to what these two inquiries entail in terms of the interplay of democracy and development. First, let us see briefly the issue of bio-politics. One of the landmarks of both development and democracy, better developmental democracy, is the care by the government, in this case the Indian government, for human life, social (life) security arrangements, increasing governmental guidelines for every aspect of life, an appropriate population policy (in terms of number, composition, spread, sociocultural characteristics, etc.)—in short the power of the developmental mode and discourse over democracy, also the democratic stake in the paradigm of development. We can clearly see from the Indian instance how developmental democracy produces a specific form of bio-power and governmentality, which in turn influences the nature of democracy itself. The image of democracy that I have 135

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provided in the above pages is one of contentions, emergence of forms of collective claim making, which determine the relations of these collectives with their rulers. Development provokes to an increasing degree collective claim making as the core of popular politics, yet as I have shows here the particular forms of claim making are influenced and conditioned by the way people are ruled and the particular way sovereign power and governmental power have combined to rule people. We must therefore understand today’s specifics of ruling power and resistance. As we know, Michel Foucault almost without preparing his readers for the turn in his thinking had suddenly suggested an idea nearly forty years ago in The Will to Know (History of Sexuality, Volume 1) that subsequently opened up for us new lines of inquiry into conditions of modern democracies, and the relation of democracies to strategies of rule. He argued that the aim of these strategies has been to integrate life with an efficient system of control over society. One of the principal means of such aim has been to influence the mechanisms of life. Life thus emerged as ‘a political object’ and claims emerged over ‘right’ to life, to one’s body, to health, and in general to the satisfaction of one’s needs. If this gave rise to ‘bio-power’, within this field of bio-power, bio-politics emerged as specific strategies and contentions over the place of body in politics, of collective human life in the production of forms of knowledge, regimes of authority, and practices of physical intervention to make life desirable, legitimate and efficacious. Biopolitics, as Foucault, showed in Discipline and Punish, meant at the end of day the physicality of politics. Nearly 40 years later, faced with this conundrum of development and democracy, and in trying to find out the effects of the combination of the two, we need to go back to some of these insights. Only then we shall be able to see for ourselves what these life controlling aids emerging out of the combination of development and democracy have produced in terms of new forms of power and new forms of resistance. As a consequence the contested field of development and democracy is more crucial and enigmatic than ever. There are several competing truth discourses on both development and democracy, and several locations giving birth to an array of authorities considered competent to speak that truth. All claims to developmental democracy speak for life, all speak of collective existence in the name of life, health, and well-being; they are as if different bio-social collectives, characterised and known in terms of categories of identity, such as race, class (why not), ethnicity, or gender. Therefore, life must be known in terms of certain collective identity, which the individuals can bring to work on their own selves. In a way thus while development produces for democracy more choices at one level, the fundamental structure of society becomes one of control (as distinct from one of 136

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discipline)—control of life mechanisms, which becomes now possible precisely through the existence of development and democracy. Thus with development bio-power as a mode of power is strengthened, because developmental issues affect the society at the level of life; and democracy is the framework that forces development to reinforce bio-political issues. Even though Foucault did not put the issue exactly in this way, when he discussed the related questions at length in Society Must be Defended, but the historical phenomenon, which he was seeking to grasp was precisely this. In fact once when we extend this insight we shall realise that if for the ruler this means bio-power, for the subjugated and controlled it means forging resistance on issues that have life-stakes. If control over life is the name of the war on one side, defence of issues that can be called having great stakes in life becomes the name of the war on the other side. In this connection let us see briefly the significance of the divergence of two phenomena of electoral majorities and social majorities in modern democracies, as in India. As government introduces more reforms, reforms enable the emergence of new technologies—at once legal, political, ethical, and bio-political. As deep technologies take root the culture of dialogue weakens and recedes; government strengthens. Thus government economists can now argue that if in the nineteenth century millions had to pay price for industrialisation in the west, so must be the route today for India. New technologies can bring back in this way old designs albeit with changes. Thus ‘expropriation’ the word made famous by Marx indicates today bio-political choice. Peasantry needs to be expropriated; small landed property and small agriculture must be expropriated by corporate business, technologies must abolish workers, their stations, and stages of labour; certain varieties of food items must vanish and certain others must now be introduced; certain garments have to go, certain others have to come, certain seeds or cultural items must vanish or wither and the genetically modified seeds industry or the culture industry must now occupy the place, and finally the acceptance of Victorian famine like conditions must reappear as the companion to globalisation. To map the choices now being made by the nation to attain development means to map the bio-political possibilities or deficits of each choice induced by international capital, marketing strategies pursued by their writers, campaigners, and intellectuals, who are the carriers of intellectual property rights, as well as new links between life choices and extant forms of knowledge production and geo-politics, with the consequent increase in already massive inequalities in even basic healthcare. Yet reforms increasingly take this path nominally legitimised by elected majorities, social majorities construct themselves on these life-staking issues— uncertain, fragile coalitions, yet no less reminder of that other word made famous by Marx, class—that social group, which would have nothing, stands 137

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condemned to history, and fights for life. The present history of West Bengal shows how our democratic collective is being reshaped by social majorities. These social majorities as distinct from electoral majorities are not deterred by the gross inadequacies of our representational system. They emerge from what the French historian Pierre Rosanvallon calls the ‘growing dissociation of legitimacy and trust’.

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22 That Was Revolt, This Is Civil War Based on a Bengali article published in the Anandabazar Patrika, 19 November 2008

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n undeclared civil war has started in West Bengal. Many are thinking that the decade of sixties is coming back. We are about to witness the return of 1968. But that is not the case. That was revolt, this is war. I do not have the scope here to explain the distinction between the two. There is no time also to ruminate on philosophy, the philosophical issues involved in this distinction. But let us be aware, the war has started. The society will have to pay heavy price—both in humanitarian and human rights terms. The upsurge of the adivasis, the indigenous people, in vast swathes of Junglemahals, including Binpur, Salboni, Jhargram and other areas, now in news is one part of this war. Doubt about the legitimacy of the present rule and the capacity of the present rulers is now widespread. Its credibility is at an all time low. Along with this there are two more factors unnoticed for long and now demanding attention. The first point is, even after the debacle in the form of the partition of 1947, West Bengal began its life in a new way—not looking back but deciding to go forward grappling with the issues of the time. West Bengal regained its singular nature. By singular I mean building up a collective but a singular existence or identity. Much of it was possible due to the Left movement and spread of Leftist politics in North Bengal, central Bengal, Gangetic Bengal and the Junglemahals in the south-western part of the state; also the representational system and a common administration tied all these parts in one common political–cultural whole. However, today this project of building up a collective Bengal in is ruins owing to Kolkata-centric rule, upper-caste dominated party politics, corruption, neglect of agriculture, mad rush to invite monopoly capital and once again neglect of the need for balanced development. We should not be taken aback by the fury with which Junglemahals has responded to administrative measures. The neglect and 139

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the arrogance of an upper-caste dominated administration and rich peasantry and trader-dominated party had been evident for quite some time. The second point is even more ominous. A large section of the upper echelons of police and bureaucracy administering this state has no connection whatsoever with the people of this land. Some of the names of these top officials and administrators are now familiar to us in the context of the police suppression in Junglemahals. These big officials are the mandarins of an all India rule. Their job is to maintain the allIndia rule in this state. Hence, they take it as their job to brief the rulers of the state in a specific way. Thus any event of lodging complaint becomes a matter of security/insecurity, any strong protest becomes sedition and in general popular activism in this way appears to government as a programme of creating terror. In such situations, the recourse known to these police and administrative officials is only one—send armed police, un-uniformed armed party cadres, paramilitary forces and all other governmental personnel to terrorise, threaten, coax, browbeat, beat, arrest, kill, break peasants’ houses and drive away the protesting people in order to pacify and sanitise the area. Social and political issues appear to rulers as matters of security when the bond between those who govern and those who are governed becomes tenuous, loose. The rulers become intoxicated in such situations—at the new prospect of using strong methods—but in the process they lose all sense of justice. Clashes between rulers and angry people seem inevitable from the way events are unfolding. Different groups of people will now face repressing measures. We have seen a variety of these measures in Nandigram. There is a further cause for alarm in this initial phase of civil war as there is no clear demarcation line between the two combatant sides. Throughout the state, in various parts, various groups of people are up in arms with their respective demands, claims, background and stories of deprivation and exploitation; clashes and skirmishes are evident everywhere. It is likely that this will develop into an all-round bloody conflict, and the police and administrative high officials will be able to persuade the ministers and political leaders that only strong arm method will bring the society under submission. Therefore, they will impress upon the politicians that more money and resources would have to be mobilised for reinforcing the security apparatus including requisitioning school buildings in the villages for paramilitary encampment. Chances are slim that administrators will take lessons from Lalgarh. And what can we say about the political leaders? The comments that the wandering Delhi-based leaders of the premier Left party make in course of their occasional visits to Kolkata do not give any hope. And what about the famous members of Bengali intelligentsia—those who are known in the world? There is no evidence that they are feeling disturbed and want to raise their voices publicly against the 140

T H AT W A S R E V O LT , T H I S I S C I V I L W A R impending disaster. Possibly the roots of concern about their own country have been sucked dry by global fame. It is not enough to say that dialogue should return to politics. On an ordinary course, meetings take place between say a district magistrate and a leader of an agitating group of people. Earlier also the district magistrates and assistant district magistrates used to call local leaders for discussion; they do it still now. But clashes do not stop because of that. Just as ceasefire, which means ‘cessation of hostilities’, is part of war, there has to be ceasefire in this social war also. If the rulers want to avert the impending disaster, they will have to talk at all levels of society, they will have to bend down and say to those who are being ruled that they had committed grave errors and that they would now have to place dialogue at the centre of their governing policy. There is no shame in admitting mistakes and going for corrective measures. The war has started. All out clashes have started in Junglemahals, and elsewhere skirmishes have broken out. However, we are still not fully aware of its consequences, the humanitarian cost and the cost in terms of human rights. We have still no idea of the extent to which abuses can be. We must talk on these. What is happening today is not an issue of security but one that is related to social justice.

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23 Elections in the Time of a Civil War Mail Today 9 June 2010, New Delhi

Lok Sabha elections took place amidst a civil war in West Bengal. This chapter is a commentary on the paradox.

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ith the results of the municipal elections in West Bengal now known to all, and throwing up no major surprises, the sense of the impending doom for the Left is getting dense. The realignment and redrawing of the political forces in the wake of the last Lok Sabha elections stand confirmed. The Congress stands a distant third; the Left Front is now decidedly second, and the Trinamool Congress stands first in terms of electoral strength. It seems that will be the order of the day for some time to come. But this scenario, if still has some element of surprise particularly for daydreamers of the Left (or, for some daydreamers of the Congress), will soon lose its novelty. In due course, if nothing awkward happens, the Trinamool Congress will capture governmental power in the state, possibly Mamata Bandopadhyay will be the Chief Minister in a year from now. Possibly, the anxiety of the political class as to whether the Trinamool requires Congress support to come to power will still remain an enigmatic question, etc. With the Left Front refusing to accept fundamental mistakes and quit, or simply quit saying that let people drink the hemlock if they so desire, it is true that we are witnessing now the closing scenes of a prescripted play. Mamata Bandopadhyay was earlier fond of rating these rounds of elections as quarter-final, semi-final, and as the final of a long drawn out competition. So the Lok Sabha elections were the quarter-final, municipal elections the semi-final, and then the final would take place next year. Even though each round 142

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of contest has its own specificity and therefore is a fresh tussle for power, yet as I said as far as this scenario is concerned, the novelty will be soon over. But then what are the intriguing aspects I am suggesting here? Observers in this election have missed the fact that in state after state we now witness the strange co-existence of guns and elections, of the urge to vote and the urge to be insubordinate. If it began quite some time ago in Jammu and Kashmir, and the phenomenon then made its presence felt in the entire North-east, now we can see its spread elsewhere too. By this I am not saying that while elections will be held, there will be attempts to forcibly prevent it with guns. That is only one scenario. Today’s West Bengal epitomizes another scenario, present for some time in recent past in feeble forms in other parts of the country. Thus, in spite of the predictability of the West Bengal municipal election results, or precisely because of the predictability, observers are forgetting that these elections were held amidst unprecedented violence, the death of over hundred lives just few days before the election-day, with on one hand the central and state para-military forces (along with the private army of the ruling party) in their joint operations killing, detaining, arresting, uprooting, and depriving people of their basic necessities at will, with impunity, and complete backing of the governments at both Centre and the state, and on the other hand a determined insurgent mobile army of few thousands looking more like the guerrilla forces of the late nineteenth early twentieth century trying to resist the state matching terror with terror to the extent that other forms of politics are now virtually absent in the conflict-zone. Civilians are dying; hatred is in the air; civilians are also being forced into spying for one or the other of the armed adversary, heads rolling, and the stretching war zone looks increasingly like a desolate large tract of the country’s land lying dead, vacant, with all security gone, everyone except shadowy men and women waiting for the doom. In this time of civil war, when only with guns one survives, what do elections mean? In the specific scenario of West Bengal it may signify many things. The corrupt and arrogant Left Front may crack, its sham Leftism lying on the ground; its core the CPI (M) may also crack in time, and the smaller partners with nothing more to expect from the administration and the patronage and clientele system may leave the Front. It may mean also that the Trinamool Congress may now be encouraged to pick up the peace platform, which clearly people endorse. But it may not mean automatically that this will usher in peace. If we remember the Andhra Pradesh scenario, we can recall how the Maoists were systematically killed and decimated by the government after being lured into dialogue (the peace constituencies were destroyed also in J&K), with the former losing its way in the labyrinth of peace politics and then losing its head. We do not know, it may also tell us how 143

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the political experiment called the Trinamool will survive amidst its natural unpredictability, groupism, personality-cult, lumpen-character of a large section of its cadres, and whether amidst all these a new Front may emerge. Clearly this is a game scenario with several variations and possibilities, with actions of one predicated upon the response of another. Even the Maoists with all their discipline and steadfastness may have to wait for this unpredictable day and think of their future style anew amidst the killings and the battle mode that threaten to consume them. More important in this context is the way in which the democratic space has opened up in West Bengal in the last half decade, through what one can call “civil society” issues, but at the same time very much issues of survival, the activism of Trinamool, and the persistence of the Maoists in the areas populated by the indigenous people. This opened up space will refuse to vanish. Therein is its exceptional significance, and not to be learnt from the scholarly democratic theories emanating from the West. Already Mahasweta Devi and other members of the famed civil society dissenters of Bengal are saying that this new space is a hard won space, and no one should take it for granted. Therefore two things for some time will surely continue: civil war and the civil dissent. This strange duality of society signifies the broad range of legalities, semilegalities, and illegalities co-existing in India. The emergence of the Trinamool in that sense is only a piece for the time being in a much more fundamental process of restructuring of Indian politics. Remember the “pirates of the Caribbean”? After all the Latin American political scenario of this decade tells us how the longcontinuing guerrilla movements joined hands with anarchists, populists, patriots, labor movements, indigenous peoples’ movements, and sections of communists, to inaugurate a time of unprecedented political experiments with Lula, Chavez, Castro, and Eva Morales leading the continent to a new path of democracy? May be that is the significance of what just happened in West Bengal. It may be that the overwhelming number of people in West Bengal voted with hand and in this torrid heat with feet ignoring the war, the catastrophe of more than one hundred deaths, and the stern warnings of the Left, not to the forget the bickering within Congress–Trinamool over share of seats, and showed that they want democracy defined in their own sense and way? May be that the Centre has to realize how low its credibility has sunk in this state? That West Bengal has found again its own special (regional) path! It may well be that, that is the significance! Once again popular politics is forcing us to learn how to live with war and votes at the same time!

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24 Populism and Peace Mail Today 13 August 2010, New Delhi

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esterday’s (12 August 2010) massive peace rally by Mamata Bandopadhyay at Lalgarh, from where the present phase of clash between the radical rebels and the state had begun nearly one and half year ago, has expectedly aroused interest across all sections of the political spectrum, though the war cry from Alimuddin Street and the Writers’ Buildings remains unabated. We are not only witnessing the co-existence of bullets and ballots, and thus the co-existence of civil war and civilian politics in the country, we can also see the simultaneity of war condition and peace condition in West Bengal. Bengal, it seems, will continue to tread the thin line between stability and violent conflict for some time to come. Will this peace rally, by all accounts an innovation in mass politics in Bengal, lead to peace in the Junglemahals? Even though surprises still happen, by all accounts the chances of that are nil. Precisely because, characteristic of our existence by passion and therefore decision from the sense of the moment, the peace politics that we saw making its mark yesterday is sudden, and thus it is neither backed by vision, nor by any hard calculated audit of the possibilities and impossibilities. We have to remember that the greatest of the peace leaders including Gandhi had failed sixty three years ago to pacify the flames of religious war that consumed the country; and today the task of peace has become more difficult with a state bent upon stifling any strong voice of dissent. Peace politics is much more difficult today, to speak the truth, more difficult than conduct of civil war. In one sense Mamata Bandopadhyay’s politics of peace has been able to make a mark, because she is like a hawk watching her state’s condition, judging her options, coalescing with all possible forces of peace or at least of neutrality, and has extremely cleverly made the first move towards a hegemonic politics by holding this rally. While therefore this subaltern peace move has caught many by surprise, 145

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including possibly the Maoists, this in the longer run and in a larger sense will be her drawback, or let us say the principal difficulty that peace politics in Bengal will face, namely that she has few backers in Delhi. It is true that Congress has internal differences of opinion over the trigger happy policy of the Union Home Minister, but these differences are too soft at present to compel any change of government’s policy. And, frankly with Tatas, the Koreans, the Jindals, and several others involved in the game of loot of resources the contradiction has to be much sharper in compelling a new direction. Till then? Do we remember the Andhra experience, or say the Kashmir experience? In Andhra, peace politics had made headway, the rebels had come out, and talks had begun. The government conceded nothing. They insisted on one demand, drop the guns. The rebels were to be tired out in this way. We do not know if they tired. But certainly they went back to jungles with large casualty in the process as peace suddenly came to an end. In Kashmir, peace talk is as old as the first shot fired in the valley. Those talked of peace were the first to die. We do not know if this unending series of failure of peace politics will continue. We can at least have the prima facie belief that Mamata does not want that tragedy to repeat in Bengal. But then beyond appeals, which surely will succeed in cornering the ruling Left Front even more, what concrete proposal does she have? Can she persuade the Delhi government to give peace a chance? Can she find out ways to keep the security lobby at bay while the society begins its search for peace? Can she suggest even two major measures that will facilitate ceasefire? Hence probably the rebels will tactically allow her space, while not lowering their guns. Yet to expect that kind of developments from her will be possibly too much. Arm chair analysts can always ask for good things and good outcomes. In reality, most of the time, we have minimal outcomes. Therefore on a more realistic scale we can expect not many but few things, of which I mention only three here: First, the unity or the front that peace politics is developing in West Bengal will continue. Radical writers, thinkers, democratic activists, and cultural personalities who till date have formed the backbone of protests in Kolkata and other towns in Bengal against misrule will continue to press for peace; and thus Mamata will also keep her hand of welcome extended towards them. Second, the Maoists will respect the autonomy of peace politics, and will draw the right lessons from earlier failures of peace politics—not in the sense of abjuring peace, but finding out the right mode and the right ground. Third, we are witnessing a different kind of bahujan samaj emerging from the belly of the beast. In the Junglemahals, Mahatos, Mundas, upper caste petty bourgeois clerks, petty shopkeepers, shabars, Santhals, dalits—all have joined the 146

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ranks of rebellious protesters. They have also welcomed urban visitors who went there to plead with them to return to the path of reconciliation. Those brahmins who had long oppressed the people of Junglemahals have been put to size. Visible symbols of oppression and domination have been destroyed or ransacked. This new type of bahujan samaj if proves durable will be the main asset to peace politics. Rest can be worked out later, namely conditions of ceasefire, or to speak more precisely, the conditions of an unconditional ceasefire, recognition of injustice and therefore the justness of claims, and peaceful arrangements under which people can expect minimal justice.

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25 Different Ways of Truth Telling Mail Today 29 September 2010, New Delhi

The theme of civil war continues.

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omething common happened in Kashmir and West Bengal, specifically Srinagar and Kolkata, one case reported in details in various columns and on screen, and the other largely ignored in the wake of scandals in Delhi and deaths in Kashmir. Both were situations of truth-telling, marked by different postures of sovereign power, pregnant with different possibilities, and characterized by different ways of articulating politics. In the first case a large team of politicians and legislators led by the Union Home Minster visited Srinagar in the wake of more than hundred deaths at the hands of security forces in civil agitations in the last three months. Some of the team members went to the homes of the political leaders of the valley, and said that they had come to meet the people of Srinagar and the valley, share their anguish and loss, and find out through dialogues way towards a solution to the Kashmir issue. In the other case, in West Bengal in the wide expanse of the southwestern part of the state called the Junglemahals where a large number of people died in the last few months, the Chief Minster in a public meeting had remarked in exasperation, he knew that he would have to talk with the Maoists, and but whom would he talk to? And, these remarks came from him after the villagers led by the Maoists started successfully resisting the ruling party’s efforts to return to the contested area and rule people there in the business as usual style. The Chief Minster further said that he knew that police and army measures could not be effective in the long run, and that dialogue would have to commence, but 148

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these Maoists being believers of violence and revenge, how could the government start a conversation? By implication he was telling that since Maoists were not amenable to government’s reasoning, there was no point in talking to them; the operations had to continue, in as much as in the case of Kashmir, the government was saying that all draconian restrictions would remain in place, but some boys could be released from jail, and each killing by a police or a para-military, or an army personnel, would fetch half-a million rupee from the sovereign power as compensation for the family members of the victim. Henceforth tickets of death command the government conveyed would be signed with soft gestures. Killings will be accompanied by promises of new life. What is to be noticed in both cases is the ambiguous way of telling truth in situation of civil war. In West Bengal the Chief Minster was admitting that he was finding difficult to fight a shadowy foe, whose rules of engagement, publicity, talks, and battle are different from those of the sovereign power. He knew how to kill through due process, through proper procedure, through notifying appropriately the deployment of paramilitary forces, of detention without trial, etc. But he did not know how to invoke rules of democracy when the chains of command of the enemy and its style were not conforming to his rules, that is to say, the sovereign’s rules. But here also he was telling a half-truth, because the Maoists had on several occasions in the past proposed talks, suggested modes, and at the end only its emissaries had been killed by the government forces. The Chief Minister knew all these; still why was he urging the Maoists to be more visible—to talk or allow his counter-insurgency forces to eliminate in the process whoever would surface? Yet, the Maoists would have to find ways to talk, dialogue, and forge a policy of just reconciliation. And, it is for them how urgently they realise it, because they will suffer most due to a lack of appropriate peace politics, in as much as people in Kashmir have paid heavy price because their rebels had nothing called an appropriate peace strategy to carry out what they want through war. But in the present situation, the interesting point is somewhere else. Both gestures show that the sovereign power wants to talk, because rule otherwise rule is becoming difficult. Governing unruly populations is a nightmare for all sovereigns. Yet, how can the sovereign talk? What will it require to invoke the truth that suppression has failed and politics must be conducted in a political way—which means in a non-suppressive way? Hundred deaths, thousand deaths, many thousand deaths, extreme unpopularity, complete boycott by civilian population, wise counsel, election results, what, what will the sovereign power need to invoke or accept the truth? 149

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Clearly accepting such a position entails risk for the sovereign. Loss of legitimacy, credibility, and breakdown of command are some of the usual risk. Greater risk, the sovereign thinks, is a loss or diminishing or reduction of sovereignty. In the recent half hearted visit by the legislators from Delhi to Kashmir or the West Bengal Chief Minister’s remark of despair we have the early signs of truth coming out: the truth of the fear of loss of legitimacy, of failure of war mode of governance, of the incapacity of the government to dialogue, of sovereign’s inability to run the polity in a permanent dialogic mode, accepting as ethics of governance a notion of permanent plebiscite on the quality of those who rule us. For the citizens telling truth is easier. They do it all the time—through votes, at times with hands at times with feet. They converge, congregate, shout, speak, proceed, charter, mumble, gossip, throw stones, farce, satire, publish, and through occasional acts of violence. But for the sovereign to tell the truth is difficult. The reason is that the sovereign is tied to a structure of power. Therefore only in a structured manner truth comes out of the sovereign source, the truth of its failure, or the truth that it wants to talk because it is finding the task of governing increasingly difficult. The result is that even in a lowly magistrate’s office claims or assertions of truth are made, enacted, and accepted in a bizarre way. But truth telling, howsoever programmed, may have unintended consequences. That is where the biggest risk lies for the sovereign. For instance, in response to the West Bengal Chief Minster’s remark, the Maoists may say, here is our signal, here is the letter, here is what we want to talk, and let us begin. This happened in the past, and that may increase the confusion. It may increase the pressure on the government. Or, the rebel leaders in Kashmir may say, we do not want money for deaths, but unconditional release of all prisoners, punishment of the guilty, and a time bound general inquiry (let it be a national inquiry) into what had happened in the last three months in the valley. Or, think what happens when the armed forces admit the truth that with the usual rules of accountability for their actions they cannot do what they are asked to. In other words, what can be the unpredictable outcome when the sovereign cannot explain why it chooses to kill? What can be the consequences of such admission of truth? What will irrupt out of these truth tellings? We must understand the open-ended nature of such war-politics continuum when it plays out in popular politics. Or to give one last pair of instances, what is the signal when from the same delegation to Kashmir two sorts of voices come out—one saying, we must not placate them, the Kashmiris, and hence, there was no point in showing them gestures by going to their houses, the other saying, we cannot do anything now, at least let us visit them? Or, in West Bengal, when the sovereign admits that it cannot meet the demands of recalcitrant people, hence must offer money to those who want to 150

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turn approvers? Can we recall that these were all time honoured ways of colonial government’s truth telling ways, to offer compromises, to backtrack—all of these so that rule could continue? I believe, in popular politics truth has a way of claiming its price. First, it forces persons, institutions, and forces to attach to the truth that has been spoken. Second, in popular politics truth telling has an open ended nature in terms of consequences. Those who study popular politics must take these signs seriously, not the least because they are of consequence to a politics of peace.

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26 The Idea of a Front Mail Today 10 February 2011, New Delhi

This chapter is on one of the innovative techniques of political mobilisation. It discusses the fortunes of the technique in the recent political history of West Bengal.

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ith elections in several states including West Bengal and Uttar Pradesh round the corner, the idea of a front is again gathering attention. Though and not unnaturally the current attention is election-centric, the idea however goes deeper. It reflects the complexities of popular politics and its links with another world of politics, by which I mean parliamentary politics, the politics of gaining governmental power. At one level, in a country like India, the ambition to rule India in a monolithic, homogenous and non-dialogic way, without forming a front, without the support of a front, without sharing objectives, and without sharing power, is preposterous. Even ostensibly monolithic parties are in many ways fronts or coalitions. Thus central leaders share real power with state leaders in a party, and the federal structure plays a big role in the decentralisation of a party’s power from within. Caste leaders forge fronts within and across parties. Powerful business interests likewise impel political leaders and representatives across divides to unite on business related issues. Security agenda as seen in a state-centric mirror find common adherents in Narendra Modi and Chidambaram. Fronts are thus both formal and informal. The main thing is that the idea of the front is contingent. Yet, parties rarely realise this even when practising the politics of front in an ad hoc way. Reality does not allow the utopia of a stable political front to be translated into a durable reality. In UP the BJP and BSP had forged a front few 152

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years ago only to part company swiftly. In West Bengal the Left Front proved to be durable. It seems that the Trinamool and the Congress will form a front to contest the coming Assembly elections and win. Yet, in this likely scenario there are several uncertainties. But before we examine the Bengal case, we should note at least this: Not all fronts are purely parliamentary. The Janata Party grew out of an agitation front and remained essentially so. Possibly it should have remained openly so and practised coalition politics more openly and honestly. As a coalition of several interests, classes, and sections, with a common agenda it could have functioned more efficiently had it openly acknowledged that the Congress path of ruling alone was not good. But at least it took in the government parties of the South who had been defeated in the 1977 Lok Sabha elections. In any case the model emerging out of 1977 elections has survived, and today no single party can capture governmental power. Even a dominant party has to think of forging coalitions. The point is: Do these coalitions represent some common interests? Even though experience seems to suggest a negative answer, these experiences do reflect buildup of common interests of the time, though sharing governmental power remains a big motive. Again, the point is to look at the idea of a front as a contingent one. And, it is not enough to say that a front emerges around a dominant party, a pole. The polar conception of politics only looks at the surface, and ignores the federality of the political processes. Fronts are best seen as the site of interaction and interface of popular politics and vote-centric parliamentary politics. This is not the occasion to present the distilled lessons of front politics in India. Perhaps we shall have to devote an exclusive column to do that cogently. But we can at least briefly survey the Bengal experience given the somewhat uniqueness of that experience, also the fact that the elections are round the corner. The old undivided Communist Party of India in the first general elections in West Bengal had formed a front to fight the Congress, but more significantly this step represented a coalition of interests too. By 1967 this tactic succeeded in breaking the Congress, when the first non-Congress government was formed with the Bangla Congress leader Ajay Mukherjee as the Chief Minster and the Communist leader Jyoti Basu as his Deputy. But more important once again this represented a front of interests and aims of different popular segments honed through the food movement in 1966. The 1977 elections only brought that process to culmination. The Left Front in West Bengal evolving out of the United Front became stable. One may argue that the idea of a front thereafter lost its contingent nature in West Bengal. At one level this reading is true. The CPI (M) was the pole, Jyoti Basu was the architect, and governmental power was the glue. And beneath this was the 153

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alliance of petty producers’ interests, which had proved stable. Also the technique of distributing offices and gains even at the social level according to party profile proved gainful for small parties. Thus occasional conflicts were managed efficiently through the deliberative procedure of Left Front mechanism. Finally, the electoral compulsion was clear. The CPI (M) as history suggests could win at best 39 percent of votes, and therefore needed a front. Also we have to recall that the idea of a front was old in Bengal. After all in the thirties leaders like Bankim Mukherjee were stalwarts in both Congress and the Communist Party, and there was the idea of a Krishak Praja party led by the redoubtable Fazlul Haq, representing tenants’ interests. But the great factor of contingency is coming back. The grumbles of smaller partners in the Left Front have helped Mamata Banerjee and her party’s legitimacy. She wants to forge a front with the Congress, but given the vacillation of the latter, she does not know what will be the front like representing the interests she has coined, namely ma, mati, manush, that is to say, women, villages, and people. She needs a front that will be suitable for populism. She tried to rope in smaller Left parties, but she has up till now not been successful. She has managed informal association with radicals in villages and cities. But again this remains uncertain. But this may prove to be of benefit for a party of protest. Informal fronts are at times more effective. Ruling fronts need the stamp of stability. Protesting fronts can bring to fore the merits of informality and contingency. The lessons are deep. The point is as far as Bengal is concerned: Will Mamata Banerjee learn the lessons of the history of front making? Will she be able to attract enough independents? Will she recall the experiences of popular fronts? Critics say this is unlikely given her Congress background. But politics still produces surprises, and one thing is sure that in the coming years Indian politics hitherto suffocated by polar combinations is going to be prised open by concrete situations, marked by the contingency of circumstances. The Left Front also at least in the country as a whole will learn that pursuing the mirage of a stable Third Front is not the way to practise the politics of popular front.

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27 Elections and Expanding Our Representative System Mail Today 16 March 2011, New Delhi

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lection time has arrived in West Bengal. Strange things will happen and some of these will attract attention. The Opposition leader in West Bengal has now come up with an idea that has surprised many, namely, if her party is voted to power, she would restore the Legislative Council in the state, of course with some redesigning. Given the total Assembly seat strength, we can take that the Council strength would be around fifty. What will be this for? At one level, it may appear that she is thinking of creating one more institution to pack with cronies and followers, and indeed this may partly be the case. On the other hand, there is ground to see this move as a consequence of the enormous social pressure that is forcing the current ruling party, the CPI (M) and the Left Front to retreat and pushing the opposition party the Trinamool Congress forward, notwithstanding the nebulousness and the uncertainties of a party suddenly catapulted to limelight. Mamata Banerjee cannot do away with the civil society. But on the other hand she cannot give the civil society representatives backing her oppositional stance tickets at random, for one Kabir Suman, the rebellious MP belonging to her party, is enough. In other words, she cannot also ignore the presence of these civil society representatives—the artists, dramatists, litterateurs, educationists, civil rights activists, etc.—in the political process, nor can she bring them to the limelight of politics. Yet she knows at her heart, and West Bengal knows it, namely that much of what we see in West Bengal today is less a result of her party’s work than a measure of approval of her mass role, and wide disapproval of the ways and means of the people who rule West Bengal today. 155

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Expectedly, if she wins, she would have to give public recognition of the social unrest that would bring her to power. Exactly that happened in 1977 when another formation had come to power—that time at the Centre—more by default. We saw illustrious people such as Rajni Kothari, L.C. Jain joining the Planning Commission, or other institutions. The year 1977 saw brief spring in the polluted atmosphere in Delhi. Indeed many of the later day noted political personalities had begun their career a decade back as social activists and campaigners. Our election-centric representative system rarely honors such people or recognizes their roles in facilitating popular politics. Even today we have people like Jean Dreze or Aruna Ray who should have been legitimate representatives in an upper council and not depend on the government in power for their voices to be heard. Democracy can only gain if we recognize that vote is not the only yardstick of representation and legitimacy. Beyond lottery there remains a vast area of participation. The challenge is to find ways to ensure variety in participatory modes and recognize their legitimacy. We have heard of the Prime Minster or the Finance Minster inviting FICCI and other powerful sections of society to confabulate on matters dear to his/her heart and what s/he thinks essential to society. But have we heard ever the Prime Minister inviting civil society representatives, human rights defenders, peace activists, committed scholars, and organic intellectuals to listen to them, recognize their roles, and consult them? We may of course say that Mamata will go exactly the CPI (M) way and use the re-born Council in order to reward idiots and sycophants. We cannot say that this will not happen. But I shall still hold that while we take care to minimize the possibility of abuse of any opening up of our restrictive polity, or any creative step, it is still better to listen to the voices of popular politics, and conduct politics on the basis of its appreciation. People may be subject to manipulation, yet those who want to govern us must turn to people. Just think of the way social unrest has forced our vote-centric democracy to come to terms with middle spaces of society, with direct voices of popular groups, of sects and movements, and with critical forces in society. They represent the power of critique as opposed to and distinct from the power of wealth. At the Centre we have seen till date the dubious tradition of nominating wealthy barons to the Rajya Sabha. On the other hand closer to the ground, wealth cannot be honored so blatantly. That is the great merit of Assembly elections, and down below. But this also means that reviving the Legislative Council in post-election West Bengal cannot be the only thing. Legislative Councils if we remember were by and large abolished with the help of Article 169 in the wake of what can be called the second wave of democratisation in 156

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the country. Now only six states have such councils. The first wave of democratization happened in the wake of Independence. The second wave came after 1977. In that second wave, democrats rightly argued that Legislative Councils were sites and nests of nepotism, corruption, vested interests, and landed aristocracy. The Council was considered also a colonial relic. Partly this was so, because we did not have a system whereby in the mode of Rajya Sabha the Council could have representatives of the municipalities and panchayats or persons of their choice nominated to its body. Therefore peoples’ representatives in the heydays of the second wave decided to do away with an organ supposedly parasitic. In West Bengal the Legislative Council was abolished in 1969 with a non-Congress government in power then in the state. In states like Tamil Nadu periodic waves of radical republicanism have sought to do away with the Council, only to bring the institution back in chastened mood and time. But then this is not the only possible way of composing the Council. Social bodies are of diverse types. Our democracy will find ways of incorporating this feature in its functioning. The old Act is in that sense narrow and constricting in ensuring other ways of ensuring popular participation and enabling representation of voices below and segments usually not covered by the vote system. There can be district grassroots leaders’ representation, representation of professional bodies, representation of zila parishads, anchal panchayats, municipalities, representation of minority groups and communities, etc. The main point is that it is time now that we start thinking of expanding the base of our representational system. It is an irony that the Left Front in West Bengal which should have been the natural agency to think of going beyond the present vote-centric system to ensure wider representation and participation of people in the governing process remained content with plastic decentralization. It could not go beyond a panchayat system due to its limited imagination. The decline of panchayat system began about ten years ago, and the rot is evident only now. It could not stop the land grab, which is a different story and I intend to speak of that at a later date, but sufficient to mention this as the worst scandal in the state in the last decade. All this calls for new forms of social vigilance, also new ideas of ensuring representation of new social majorities. We now wait for the third wave of democratization.

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28 Spring Time in Bengal Mail Today 5 April 2011, New Delhi

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t is now spring time in West Bengal. Even though there may not be any spring thunder as there was in the annas mirabils of 1967, spring is spring. New ideas are in the air, fierce controversies over the direction that Bengal should take are raging, disobedience is palpable, hierarchies are breaking down, new groups are being formed, and the prestige of old, respected ideas is at all time low. West Bengal will have elections in this time. Strictly speaking summer will have just arrived. In the science of elections, certain elections are called critical elections. They are critical, as were in India the provincial elections in 1937 and 1946, and general elections in 1967 and 1977, or were post-war elections in United Kingdom in July 1945, because they open up a rigid, immobile, stultified situation with multiple possibilities. They are critical not because those who come to power bring heaven on earth, but because by their very act of coming—irrespective of whether they are returning to power (in this case then the CPI [M] and the Left Front) or a new party of order comes into being—people will have shown that they refuse to behave in the old way, and persistent issues of society will threaten to explode on the face of the government any time with any amount of combination of forces. What had continued for the last twenty five years in West Bengal is an old story known to all. There is no point wasting words on that. What is new can be put very briefly: resistance began against land grab, wheeler-dealers were thrashed, there was public revolt against corruption in public distribution system, peasants belonging to indigenous communities in Southwest Bengal under Maoist leadership defied the government, and there was a general revulsion against the madness to promote private interests in the name of public good, industry at the expense of agriculture, venture capital at the expense of industrial capital, corporate interest 158

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at the expense of small industries, cruelty at the expense of civility and decency, and party at the expense of society. Two factors were critical in this public awakening. First, against the government there was a massive response of the general members of what is called now the civil society. It once again proved that in Bengal what Kolkata thinks would determine the mood of the state and its people. And second, a rag tag party, called the Trinamool, led by an itinerant campaigner Mamata Banerjee, riding on the crest of popular anger and dissent, had done the unthinkable, namely snatching the Left flag from the Left. Her leftist style and populist discourse had enabled her to end Left Front’s legitimacy. Both of these will stand irrespective of what happens in the election. These two factors have opened up the situation, as I said with any number of possibilities. The land question coupled with Maoist insurgency will remain, and what will the new government do with it? Will it try to crush the movement with known counter-insurgency methods including summary killings? It may, but this will have increasingly adverse results. What will it do with Rajarhat type situation where thousands of hectares of land have been eaten up by speculators in the name of building a knowledge city? What will it do with price rise, or with millions of informal workers? Simply, the persistence of problems amidst an open ended election will encourage new formations in these times of dissent. Similarly what will be the new government’s attitude to civil society? The Left scoffs at the idea of a civil society, yet does not know what to do with the intellectual voices of dissent. Probably it will try to incorporate part of it, corrupt another part, but given Kolkata’s tradition, intellectual dissent will perhaps remain one of the main sources of creativity, therefore instability, and rulers’ anxiety. If the opposition comes to power, it will have to acknowledge its debt to society, but this means new culture of governance. It is too much to expect from a rag tag bunch oppositionists. At least we do not know. Likewise what will the radicals of 1967 generation do? The main section of erstwhile Naxalites is still not reconciled to the fact that what they had tried for the last three decades, but could not, has been done by a centrist populist party. They still compare the traditional parliamentary Left with Mamata’s Trinamool, and have forgotten all lessons of popular politics. They still expect that the replacement of the Left has to be with another such Left. While their long efforts against the West Bengal rulers have now been usurped by Mamata, they do not see that their efforts have now borne fruit. What will the Maoists do? Of course they can and will continue on their path. But they also cannot ignore other aspects of popular politics of which they too are a part. They may use one against another in this matrix of forces. But any 159

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long term strategy of the Maoists must include directions as to how to negotiate elections. But most important, West Bengal has raised the question which other conflict zones in India had failed to raise: how can bullets and ballot go together? How can democracy be conducted as a form of governance with so much presence of paramilitary forces, armed camps, private armies, summary killings, and complete suppression of dialogic possibilities? What will be the nature of a government that will have to function in conditions of a violent democracy? It is in all these senses that the coming elections in West Bengal will be critical. If the post-election government can innovate, find dialogic route, and regain trust of the people, the legitimacy of rule will return. If it delays or fails, there will be alternative formations. The history of popular fronts has not been exhausted. Mamata has already exhibited a myopic attitude towards the idea of a front. She thinks that only seat sharing with Congress will do the trick. She has parted with several smaller opposition forces which had joined hands with her during the years of Nandigram and Singur agitation. She has picked up as candidates persons whose reputation and credentials will do her no good in terms of earning legitimacy. A retired high civil servant, or an ex-FICCI secretary, or a retired police general—they cannot be the best of the choices. We must remember, and this is what Bihar elections showed, increasingly voters are concentrating on the quality of the candidate in question—exactly, like years back, when in Kerala, Andhra Pradesh, West Bengal, and even in Bihar, the Left used to put up candidates who would win because they were more trustworthy, living with people, and had proved that they were of the people. Or, when the Left had shown that they could go together as a front, they could accommodate smaller forces also. Rulers must show the quality to rule, which means at times to forgive and forget, to be generous to smaller partners, and not to be schizophrenic. In this way they can be stable. They have to be both loved and feared. In any case, this is going to be a critical election whose consequences will be felt for years. Those who study elections know that from mid-nineties of the last century, state elections are framing national elections. It is in the states that the real electoral battles for renewing legitimacy are being fought. This election will take this trend much forward. In these elections, classes and masses are crossing boundaries of each other. The multitude, based on social majorities, is at last making its presence felt.

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29 Their Civil Society, Our Civil Society Mail Today 13 April 2011, New Delhi

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t is a commentary on two civil societies. In view of Anna Hazare’s fast, you may tell: it is a tale of two societies: their civil society, our civil society. Are these two completely different, or, do they have something in common that transgresses the boundaries of two distinctly different civil societies? Anna Hazare’s fast was against corruption. It was also to demand that there must be participation and leadership of civil society members in the committee to draft the Lokpal bill in order to curb and fight corruption in the government. Anna Hazare’s movement seemed to further say that corruption is the biggest problem, politicians are corrupt, parliamentarians take bribe, and government is either unwilling to combat and check corruption, or is unable, useless, and infirm. Hence the civil society must come forward, force the government to pay heed to its call, and assert its claim. Who is this civil society? Who are its members? Is this the same that we witnessed in 1973–74 in states like Bihar and Uttar Pradesh in the movement led by Jayaprakash Narayan? Or nearer to this time and my place, the same civil society we witnessed for the last two years on the streets of Kolkata, whose foot march, protest, and voices of anger went beyond the metropolis, echoed in the suburbs, and beyond—even in the small towns of Bengal? This is not the first time that Bengal turned its face away when many other parts of the country chose this issue and this form of protest. Perhaps this is the sign of centre-periphery reality of what we call the public, public sphere, and the public voice. Perhaps this is the sign one’s distinctiveness, of one’s unique identity. One should not be ashamed of it. But there is reason to think on these. There is no doubt that corruption is a big problem. Liberal rule everywhere is marked by scandals of corruption. In my teenage I read the daily reports of 161

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Profumo scandal in Great Britain, now I read how the erstwhile US Vice President Dick Cheney combined his personal interest in oil firms with shaping US policy of aggression on and occupation of Iraq. If you read Transparency International reports, you would think that developing countries are vying with each other to get the top spot in the list of corrupt nations. This is partly true, partly due to a clever design of this report, whereby corrupt banking practices, the biggest stock market scandals involving billions of dollars, conjuring up balance sheets resulting in the global crash of 2008, are ignored. As elsewhere in this neo-liberal world, corporate interest, government, entertainment industry, agents, and group of political entrepreneurs have ruled this country for most of the last decade. Many journalists, economists, and sociologists have already spoken on that. This is not confined to the Centre only, it has happened in states—Maharashtra, West Bengal, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, and elsewhere. No state has been spared from this great loot. The great loot has facilitated capital accumulation. Moreover, the loot has continued in the name of globalization, modernization, and development. The government encourages the loot. In many cases it presides over the carnival. States compete with each other in feting the cricketers with land grants and cash awards worth crores of rupee s out of funds meant for education of the poor and development of the needy. Will the civil society we witnessed in Delhi keep in mind this background and coin other associated demands? Will this civil society protest against the shopping malls, the multiplexes, the land loot, loot of food of the poor, continuous ruination of informal workers, and the agricultural policy of the government that has forced suicides of thousands of peasants throughout India? Will businessmen like Adi Godrej, or business chambers or an actor like Anupam Kher who have said that they support Anna Hazare will hold up these causes as well? We shall have to stretch our sense of credulity to believe that Bollywood lying on the bed of black money, or bosses of the corporate world involved in deep corruption in getting telecom licenses will take dip in the holy water of Varanasi and cleanse themselves of mud and sin. We know that the government had raised the issue of constitutional and legal questions in guaranteeing civil society representation in the drafting committee of the Lokpal Bill, and its leadership there. The civil society had rightly said: if there was a will, there would be a way. But will this civil society take the same stand when the government raises precisely these kinds of formal objections and excuses in face of say the Kashmir problem, or in withdrawing the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, or in stopping mass murders that go on in the name of curbing terrorism? Will they say that the problems must be solved? 162

THEIR CIVIL SOCIETY, OUR CIVIL SOCIETY Here away from Delhi the civil society I know wants the para-military forces withdrawn from the Jungle Mahals, and has said that the government must not under any pretext conduct elections with the help of Special Forces. In Delhi, they are saying elections are meaningless, legislators are corrupt, and legislature is a house of sin. Here, Chatradhar Mahato, the leader of resistance in the villages of Jungle Mahals, now in jail, wants to contest the elections and wants his rights restored. Who in Delhi will support the voice of incarcerated Chatradhar, and say that in Jungle Mahals favorable environment to hold elections must be created by the government, that the private armies of the ruling party here must be disbanded, Special Forces must go back to barracks, and summary killings must stop? What remains of the peasants like Chatradhar? Someone’s (as Chatradhar’s) brother has been shot dead in cold blood, someone’s father. Someone’s daughter or wife or mother is in jail, some keeps on trudging through the jungles for months to escape the armed forces and hide indignity with barely any cloth to cover body. Thousands have arrest warrants against them. Anyone who will hit the road in support of Chatradhar in Lalgarh will be immediately arrested. Frankly I do not know if the civil society in Delhi will get to hear the voices from beyond. Democracy’s resonance is of one kind in Delhi. Here the resonance is different. That is why it appears as two distinct kinds of civility in opposing establishment politics: as if it is a case of their civil society, our civil society; a story of two masters—master of their conscience, master of our conscience. In the Russian nineteenth century literary maestro Shchedrin’s story of two masters, they get over the crisis of their lives, get huge dividends, and almost forget to reward the old poor man who helped them to get over the crisis, save giving him five kopeks and a silver spoon. Will the two masters conduct themselves differently, or in the same manner? Yet lighthearted as these foregoing comments may seem to the reader, there is something fundamental in this situation. Rulers would do well to realize early that people are not satisfied with this version of democracy, this vote-centric, parliament oriented democracy. To the crisis of liberal democracy, there are only two alternatives: either fascism or direct democracy. By direct I mean immediate, pressing, democracy at this moment, now. One of JP’s ideas was how to combine direct forms of democracy with prevalent forms. In popular and militant politics, we have witnessed forms of immediate democracy. Left’s experiences in old times and JP’s vision had something in common in this respect. The dream of direct democracy is the inspiration of a civil society. Whatever may have happened in the past, at least now this is true. Even the most popular, representative kind of democracy will fail in the absence of direct democracy, by which I mean, and let me repeat, immediate, pressing, the democracy of now. 163

30 Stocktaking Midway through the War Mail Today 30 April 2011, New Delhi

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ith polling complete on 27 April in Kolkata and the adjoining two districts of 24 Parganas Bengal now stands exactly midway through the elections. Three phases are over, three more remain, though in terms of seats this was a crucial round. In which way are the polls going? No wants to be a pollster anymore. Fortune telling in polls has gone out of fashion. So let us avoid prediction. But we can note some of the things of interest to the readers. By and large the percentage of votes is about 2 points higher till now—by absolute figure a big number. If we take into account new voters, and assuming they are enthusiastic voters, then Opposition has reason to take heart. Of course it is risky to say that increased voter turn out will always favour the opposition. Instances of both ways of the arithmetic going are there. What is noticeable is the increased turnout in North Bengal, about 85 per cent, and the way different social segments and ethnicities have joined the battle. Thus adivasi tea garden labourers, Nepali population in the hills and the Dooars, Muslim population in Malda, urban poor in Siliguri—all have distinct claims to make. Mamata Bandopadhyay received massive welcome in campaign trail in North Bengal, unrivalled in recent time. But expectations will be scary for her in the event she comes to power. In any case, with Left hegemony gone irrespective of who wins, these plural claims on governance will be a new phenomenon. But more significantly as the war front drew closer to the heartland, campaigns intensified to an unforeseen degree. Bitterness increased. The level of polemics went up or reached the pits (decide according to your taste). The conduct of some Left leaders was shocking. Megalomania was there for all to see; abuse, vituperation, threats all in abundance. The Election Commission has taken notice of some of these. The lower depths to which poll campaign has 164

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descended signify the combatants’ desperate mood, but also signals the entry of lumpens and subalterns in the battle in a big way on both sides. Those days of high style rhetoric are over. Your father, mother, daughter, your nature of work, association—everything will be hauled up for public scrutiny if you want to join the battle. More interesting is, how the dynamics of a prolonged campaign forces the combatants to clarify their stand. Take the instance of the Left. Their bitter enemy is Trinamool. But their campaign on whatever substantive ground it stands is against Congress and Congress government’s misdeeds—corruption, price rise, etc. Only lately they are realising that the Trinamool has been able to deflect this by saying that it has dissented on these anti-people moves. Left is also saying that it will present a reformed government if people vote it to power. We are witnessing one of the emptiest political campaigns by the Left in contemporary Bengal history. In the bitterness of battle they have lost moorings. How will they win or what will they do even if they win? But take also the Trinamool, which in any case does not bother much about details of the kind of governance they propose to offer should they come to power. Mamata again is the only exception of their campaigners. She tries, not always successfully, to combine attacks against the Left government’s record with her own plans of how to rule. Negativity is as much here as it is in ruling party’s camp. In some cases, populist promises have made marks. Return of some acquired land, increased compensation, assuring a more open society, more work, better infrastructure etc. are among the promises. But clearly imagination is narrow here. For instance, in Howrah, once famed for small engineering units, closed factories are slaps on Left Front’s face. But if the Left is silent, there is not much light either from the other side. In one interview Mamata gave, there was much cause for anxiety over her idea of how to reform the society. Banning unions, rallies, etc. are suggestions already raising eyebrows. Some of her candidates are openly right wing campaigners. As this later group speaks out, the middle space gradually going over to Mamata’s side again becomes hesitant. Other interesting phenomena will become more visible as the elections enter the dry areas of Bengal. These are blood stained, battle fatigued areas. Jhargram is the area once dominated by the Naxalites. Around this town, on one side in Gopiballavpur Naxalites have candidate there with support from Mamata. But more significant is the fact that the Lalgarh peasants have joined the fray to voice their demands. Maoists are not clear now as to what should be done. They support the peasants who want to contest. But they have no clear approach. The leaflets and manifestos are making rounds. Do not be surprised if you find red guards 165

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from students and youth of Kolkata and metropolitan Bengal campaigning in support of Chatradhar Mahato, the leader of Lalgarh, now contesting from jail. All in all, it is like a war no one is well prepared for. Money and other resources count in this kind of war, but only so much. On campaign style, mobilisation, rhetoric, other plans, and on making voters dream of better alternatives—as if the combatants had no time to think properly. Infantrymen have been thrown in the war suddenly. Hence the desperate battle, ugly, cruel, last man stand to defend or capture each and every inch of territory. Generals are absent. Strangely, the warring parties had time to plan—almost two full years. It only shows politics has become tactical. Days of grand strategy are over. Strangely and paradoxically, the longer the elections, the more tactical the war becomes. West Bengal has this time six phases and a moth long election. The required logistics of victory are proving too much of burden. Yet, the sheer impulse of “paribartan” may be strong enough to carry the day on its own wings.

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his section deals with the uncertain atmosphere prevailing in West Bengal after the change in government. The Left Front lost heavily, the Trinamool Congress–Congress combine won. Mamata Banerjee came to power with the slogan to bring about a change in governance style. Old ways of governing were over in many ways, but many of the old ways remained. What is the reason of this messy change? What are the new ways that the new government could have undertaken, partially undertook or rejected? What then is popular politics? What is the new style of government? What are the changes in society reflected in this messy change? These are some of the questions that the chapters in this section try to answer. Three things are present here: (a) the symptomatic changes in the style of governing, (b) the return of the federal question and (c) the spectre of a radical left in the form of Maoist movement reappearing in West Bengal to haunt the new government as it haunted the previous one. The war and peace question, therefore, continues. It proves to be abiding. The next section, hence, appropriately picks up two of the abiding themes.

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31 Transitional Challenges Mail Today 14 May 2011, New Delhi

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n my life as a political activist and thinker I have never seen such eagerness, anticipation, and expectation with tremor as this time in Bengal, except in 1977, and a decade back in 1966–67. But 1966–67 was different. It was so radical a time in West Bengal that people rarely thought while crying for change as to what an alternative government could be like. The transition in 1977 is however comparable in many ways, because government as a reality had dawned upon the people then. For at least the next twenty years governance in West Bengal sustained legitimacy by working and playing on that divide—pre and post 1977, hence claiming a better form of governance. Now in all senses Bengal has already entered the transition period. People have massively voted for change. In this column once earlier I had said that whoever comes to power would not be able to govern in the old way. They would have to behave differently. This is turning out truer than I had anticipated. So how is the change to be effected? How is Mamata and her team going to negotiate the period of transition? People are already fearful of violence, the smell of revenge is in the air, and each and everyone will watch the conduct of those who will govern and those who will now feel defeated. The Left Front have forgotten to listen to the voice of the people, so they will have to learn anew how to conduct politically and yet look different so as to renew its trust bank. Yet the task for Trinamool is also no less difficult. Legitimacy will no longer depend upon pre and post 2011 divide, but by the conduct of those who had decried the conduct of the other. I had likened this election to be a war. This is indeed a special form of war. Bengal has already entered the tunnel. Thirteenth

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of April does not draw the curtain, but signals that we have entered an uncertain future. The victorious party, the Trinamool Congress now the party of order, can learn from the post-1977 administration. Jyoti Basu did not do anything revolutionary. Indeed within the first few years of the first Left Front regime, Marichjhanpi massacre took place. Dissent was suppressed in other ways also. But it was a Janus faced governance. Jyoti Basu ensured there was no punishment for past misdeeds, and far less therefore any witch hunting. Political prisoners were released. Rural reforms in small measures began. Condition of teachers improved at all levels. Government was gradually tailored to benefit the party. Mass fronts grew spectacularly from the party. The Left Front as a front became a characteristic of rule. The patronage and clientele system was put in place in the remarkable Jyoti Basu way, namely all were welcome in this world of distribution of goods and goodies, certainly opposition politicians, businessmen, youth leaders, etc., provided that they accepted the rule and became part of the system. Normality returned. People started feeling easy. They relaxed. With decentralisation the patronage system prospered even more. Reforms for the poor and lower middle classes were instituted gradually, at the same time assuring the rich that no harm would be done to them. Bengal had achieved passive revolution. I understand this style of rule cannot work any more. This style of rule has exhausted its possibilities as a form of governance. Yet there remains something to learn from the earlier transition. Those who govern have to learn how to rule without revenge, administer without or with minimum bloodshed, how to include as many as possible in the system of rule, and how to exclude the least and marginalise dissent. The new rulers will also exclude some or many, as it happened earlier. They must punish and or marginalise the guilty. There will be inevitably some hard clashes as the new party of order now tries to uproot old entrenched interests. Yet this will fail if they do not know that they must give the people a clearer sense of transition and the politics of alternative. Also while they try to chart out a new path, they must take lessons from the earlier method. In short, transition cannot be negotiated without being dialogic. The greater the victory, the more is the need for assuring the vanquished that there is room for everybody in this new model of victor’s justice. In this way hegemony will spread. The modern prince will rule. The victorious party will not have to do anything spectacular. Pacifying the society, assuring people of continuity of what is good in society, while bringing in changes, and opening up the villages and towns of Bengal will be the first requirement. This is easily said than done. That is where the challenge lies. Can 170

TRANSITIONAL CHALLENGES the victor be restrained in victory? If it can, a new front will come into existence. Bengal needs a new popular front. With the fundamentals of society remaining strong, such as skilled labour force, an industrial structure, a secular work fabric, skilled small peasantry, lush green countryside, vast water bodies, a love for the finer aspects of life, and a healthy scepticism for whatever goes on in Delhi, good and necessary things will come—be it investment or other inputs for economy. The poor will have patience, but the middle classes? That is where the second challenge will be. At once a cross and an asset, governance in Bengal still does not know what to do with the middle classes. This is more a problem with the electronic media playing an unprecedented role this time. The opposition will have to mend ways. Else it will disappear in a short time, as its corpus of ideas is today unbelievably empty. In these dialogic times, the ethic of opposition will have to change. Final thing in this short note: The Election Commission deployed nearly per two persons one heavily armed jawan in the Junglemahals. It conducted the election in six phases staggering it for a month. The media has touted it as the hero of the occasion. Does it know that thereby it has only strengthened the structure of suspense, violence, and surveillance? The more you introduce police methods the more you barbarise the society. There is quite an amount to be commented on this new style of democracy. But we shall wait for a later occasion for that. Never before had the future of politics in Bengal depended on the sense of practical politics and determination of one person—a woman. Let, as of now, the upper-caste Bengali intellectuals refusing to take her seriously cool their heels.

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32 Governing the Multitude—I Note for a long Bengali article published in the Anandabazar Patrika

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n the recently held assembly elections in West Bengal, the erstwhile ruling party and the front candidates were defeated in Rajarhat and Rajarhat–Gopalpur as elsewhere. These two constituencies had become infamous for peasant dispossession through land acquisition by government machinery. Governmental methods had been coupled with arms twisting, murders and other coercive and unsavoury means by land sharks owing allegiance to the then ruling party. Therefore, of particular interest to the public was the defeat of Rabindranath Mandal (popularly known as Robin Mondal), then sitting CPI(M) member of legislative assembly (MLA) of Rajarhat, also the chairman of the Bhangar Rajarhat Area Development Authority (BRADA). He had been contesting the assembly seat of Rajarhat from 1977 and except in 2001 he had won every time. This redoubtable party leader contested the Rajarhat seat in 2011 also and lost. Likewise his party-mate Tapas Chatterjee lost the Rajarhat–Gopalpur seat. The new government soon after coming to power declared on 1 June 2011 that BRADA would be dissolved. BRADA was hated by the peasants and loved by the developers. Further, the new minister in charge of housing announced its decision to put on hold the allotment of land by the Housing and Infrastructure Development Corporation (HIDCO) in New Town after 10 January 2010. New Town was CPI(M)’s pet dream of building a completely new ultra-modern settlement over 3,000 plus hectares of land with plush houses, special economic zones (SEZs), financial hubs, glittering malls, hotels and convention centres; all these by destroying wetlands, fisheries, twice-cropped agricultural land, villages and the flora and fauna. There had been peasant protests, litigations, mass deputations and public discussions. But the erstwhile ruling party had not paid heed to it. Even more hated by the peasants was BRADA. In the name of developing the contiguous areas of New Town, luxury resorts had been built in BRADA area 172

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by duping peasants off their lands. In the name of building roads, nearby and outlying areas near the roads had been taken over and sold off to promoters. Vedic Village and Olive Gardens are two of the most infamous names of resorts built over peasant lands by people very close to CPI (M). If you visit BRADA area you will hear names of Kamal Gandhi, Arun Maheswari and others. Mob anger had burst upon Vedic Village and had partially burnt it down. Yet nothing had changed. And then immediately after the elections this order to dissolve BRADA has come like a bolt from the blue on the gentry. Following the new government’s order there were immediate reports of land prices in vast areas surrounding Rajarhat falling spectacularly. A plot of land off the main road earlier which cost Rs 700,000 a katah came down to around Rs 200,000 overnight. Even in the remote areas under BRADA where the price of land was anything between Rs 100,000–500,000 crashed. Real-estate agents close to erstwhile rulers and who had managed to pick up land cheap are now saying that they would lose huge amounts of money. They now want to approach the new government for help. Of course none of them has anything to say of the ways land was taken from the peasants. The decisions to dissolve BRADA and halt some HIDCO land allotments, however, have been welcomed by a peasants’ forum, Rajarhat Jami Bachao Committee. Its secretary, Nilotpal Dutta, has reminded the new government of the promise by Mamata Banerjee during the poll campaign that 10 per cent land of the land forcibly occupied by promoters and protected by the past government would be returned to the peasants should she come to power. Meanwhile information on secret deals is coming out. Reports now accessed by outsiders tell of arbitrary allotments and determination of prices. In land allotment in the New Town there were no advertisements in newspapers quoting the rates at which the land would be given. HIDCO reportedly gave land in 2005 to the Tata Medical Centre Trust to set up a cancer hospital at a concession rate of Rs 165,000 per katah, while a government institution, Chittaranjan National Cancer Hospital, had to pay Rs 250,000 per katah for 10 acres of land before land offer was finalised with the Tatas. Same happened with others. Tata Consultancy Limited was given 40 acres of land at Rs 250,000 a katah in 2007, whereas Bengal Unitech was given 48 acres of land at Rs 360,000 a katah in 2006. The new minister of housing has questioned why central government agencies like the RITES, Power Grid Corporation and others were not given concessions like those given to private sector players even to set up museums and hotels. Reports like these would not have come out without a new air of openness or the mood to unearth the misdeeds of the past. One can only hope that the Bengal spring will continue for some time. 173

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Several such initiatives have been declared in the last fortnight, notably on return of land to peasants of Singur, pension to school teachers, reform of the basic structure of education, strengthening public health institutions etc. Sceptics as usual are raising questions: Can she do it? She may have the desire. But does she have administrative expertise? We may recall these sceptics were busy in the preelection time also. They come mainly from the educated class and the gentry and are upset with people of lower origins occupying the Writers’ Buildings. The point is administrative skill does not produce public good or bring in public good. Political will is more important than administrative skill. If having a strong party was all that was required, then CPI(M) should have been able to produce public good. Sceptics are also saying: Does this government have some priorities? Is it not simply populism? Here again we shall be wise to go by past history. The Left Front had reportedly land reforms as a priority, while it was clueless in reform of other areas of our social and civic life. The steam behind those limited land reforms soon weakened; only band beating of achievements remained. In this sense, more important than setting priority is the style of governing that is adopted. Whatever success Mamata achieves will depend on the style, the mode and not on the basis of some scientifically determined issues. So we have now a government whose social basis is formed by the small producers, small proprietors, petty businessmen and the huge lower middle classes that abound Bengal from Coochbehar to Junglemahals. The bulk of peasantry also has lent support. Local financiers, who are mostly not industrialists and have earned money through trade and finance, have lent support. If the Bengal spring continues we shall see a new style emerging. This style to the extent one can see in this short time is partly dialogic. Yet measures like dissolving BRADA show the hidden fist. No miracle will happen. But clearly we have entered a new age in politics in West Bengal.

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33 Governing the Multitude—II Mail Today 22 June 2011, New Delhi

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he newly elected government in West Bengal has declared several new initiatives in this month on coming to power. Some of these are appointment of primary school teachers, making their pay and social security provisions secure, dissolving the Bhangar Rajarhat Area Development Authority (BRADA), a land development body loved by land mafia and hated by the peasants, return of land to the unwilling farmers of Singur, and the accord with dissenters of Darjeeling. Besides these the Chief Minster in particular has been visiting hospitals, other ministers are visiting institutions under their respective departmental aegis. Some say that the government is in a hurry. The Chief Minster also admits that yes, she is in a hurry. She does not fear committing mistakes and says that is the way to learn the art of governing. Else she says the way is to follow the moribund route of discussion, file pushing, committee setting, establishments of commissions, and endless meetings in the rooms around the corridors of the Writers’ Building. At one level it seems like anarchy. At another level, it seems that government is like a flock following the leader even to press conferences. Yet another level, it appears that the government has no priority, hence these attempts at all directions. Yet there are already traces of the emergence of a distinct style of governance. Three features can be noted. First, this style of governance is travelling, peregrine. It likes to focus on emerging trouble spots or emerging points demanding attention. It is flexible, and caters to immediate issues affecting the multitude across the land of West Bengal. Mamata herself is the great itinerant. She sets her schedule according to the needs of the day. She likes to go out of the capital city Kolkata to see things at hand and take decisions on the spot. That is also her advice to ministers and officialdom. 175

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Second, this style is dialogic. Because the style is anti-strategic and issue-based, it has to build areas of agreement around issues, and has to enlarge its area of acceptability by moving to demanding spots and issues and initiating dialogue. It is exactly against the style of letting issues fester till they burst on face. Third, it has to cater to multitude, by which I mean catering to various sections of people—the precariously living workers, farmers, petty producers and traders, the unorganised sections, and the far flung areas of the state—who by no means can be called an organic mass. Therefore policies will have to be specific, responses specific, without any grand design, but faithful to the plurality, called better as multitude, and not just people. But this anti-strategic nature of governance should not surprise us if we have carefully followed the history of the style of the leader and her band of followers. She never followed a right wing, pro-liberalisation line of politics. She was market-friendly, but friendly towards the middle and petty sections of society needing market access. She is now presiding over an emerging, fledgling coalition of small and medium interests of the society. She cannot afford to harbour grand design. Grand designs are meant for grand money and grand projections—an eternal dream to catch up. She needs to focus on land productivity, protection of small peasants, supply of food provisions to the needy, utilisation of land locked up in hundreds of closed factories for new productive ventures, improvement of education and public health institutions, and the need for social peace and reconciliation in Darjeeling and the Junglemahals. Both Maoists and the Gorkha Jana Mukti Morcha have responded to greater or lesser degree. Mamata wants to enthuse the officials and the people to think differently. We can only hope that the Bengal spring will continue. But we must also be aware of the pitfalls in the way in which this style of governance is shaping up. This is not an orchid house in which the style will be deployed. Will it be able resist the corporate winds of globalisation marked by big money and arms twisting? Will it be able to solve the land question? Finally will it be able address the question of the precariate, who forms the significant section of the multitude? Politically this style will have to face a hostile and entrenched upper caste middle class, symbolised by more than any other institution the leading Left party the CPI (M). It will also have to negotiate central policies of heavy taxation, administered price rise, encouraging inflation and resource loot. This is too delicate a style—federal yet leader-oriented, conversational yet decision-oriented, tactical and common sense led yet requiring to decisive—to last in the quarrelsome, factional, and violent, atmosphere of West Bengal. Yet we 176

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have the early signs of what can be called the eventual arrival of a rainbow nation, a rainbow politics. There is no doubt that if we look back at 1977—the other signpost with which we can compare 2011—we can still recall the common sense that Jyoti Basu showed in those years of transition. Mamata learnt a lot from that style which even Basu later forsook. In that mode of re-establishing stability, doing nothing flashy but sticking to common sense, building up a front, and trying to build up a new inclusive society, Basu was the pioneer. Mamata has gone far ahead now in that style. But two things here: She lacks a coherent and organised party. But she may say, this was the reason for disaster of the preceding regime, and the lack of an entrenched institution of vested interests called in a mythical sense the party is a blessing in disguise. Second, in the quest for stability Basu did nothing to punish the major wrong doers, and did everything to make them at ease in the echelons of power. Guilty police officers were reinstated, bureaucrats reassured, and the corrupt made to feel at home. The inclusive society was made by cooption, corruption, and selective uses of violence. Is that the way today? We shall have to see how wrong doings are undone and mitigated now. We shall have to see if Bengal can pioneer the practices of transitional justice in India as she did with many other norms.

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34 How to Prevent a Telengana Type Situation in West Bengal Mail Today 11 August 2011 (Originally titled as ‘Preempt a Telengana Like Crisis in Bengal’)

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n India the battle for democracy is being fought in the states and it is in states where its future course will be decided. Of the issues crucial to this destiny is the issue relating to the democratisation of several relationships. By relationships I mean the relation between productive and non-productive classes, between the town and the countryside, well-irrigated areas and dry areas, coastal areas and the inaccessible interior, and relation between castes and genders. Of similar importance is the issue of democratising relation between different regions in a state. The institution of self-government through panchayats and municipalities may have done some democratisation of our country, but clearly in terms of people’s autonomy it is an inadequate measure. The challenge is: how to democratise the relations between different regions in a state or the relation between a prosperous capital of the state and its far flung areas, between thrice cropped lands and dry lands, coastal wealth and the starved interior? As in the case of several other states, in West Bengal also such unequal relationships obtain, in particular the relation between the centralised political and economic power of the capital city and the capital region and the disempowered far flung areas of North Bengal, specifically the Darjeeling Hills, and the Junglemahals in South West Bengal. And, as in all other cases here too we need a restructuring of relations initiated through dialogues towards that restructuring. Dialogue is the route to ensuring justice and autonomy as the core of democracy. From this point of view, and as a very first step, the recent Darjeeling accord between the West Bengal Government, Gorkha Jana Mukti Morcha (GJMM), 178

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and the Central government is significant. To take the path of peace accord and ensuring autonomy is a difficult task. To situate a dialogue on trust and credibility like the one between the hills people and the plains inhabitants calls for the presence of a hegemonic authority, whose legitimacy will be recognised by dialogists and interlocutors. The present West Bengal government provides that presence. Yet there are risks. Those who mediate have to walk on a narrow strip. Those who campaign for the right to self-government have to face immense difficulty in agreeing to co-live in the same state. For the government the task is even more difficult, namely, to persist on the path of dialogue, because this is not a populist path, and failure can only bring down its legitimacy. The rules of the game are intricate. That in West Bengal notwithstanding the difficulties, uncertainties, and the long standing Bengali upper caste chauvinism there is now dialogue or talk of dialogue over the crying need for autonomy in two areas—Darjeeling Hills and Junglemahals—calls for appreciation. Yet as in every call for democracy there is hidden majoritarianism and an element of coercion here. In the case of the Second Darjeeling Accord over the establishment of Gorkha Territorial Administration, the GJMM lays claim to some parts of the Terai (the foothills and adjoining plain land) also. In this case how are we to ensure the rights of other groups, such as the adivasi plantation labourers and poor peasants, also the non-Nepali hill people such as the Lepchas? In the areas claimed by GJMM in the terai, Nepalis may be a dominant group, irrespective of whether they are majority or minority. But the point is that there must be guarantee of the rights of other hill communities and the indigenous tea plantation labourers within an autonomy framework. This can be at least partially achieved through reservation of seats in the Gorkha Territorial Administration and the Council. Also the arrangement has to be wide enough to secure the consent of the minorities, say at least seventy per cent of these minority groups. There is an argument that Nepali influx across the Mechi has been continuous and this has upset demographic balance. Hence the task, it is argued, is not to concede to the demand of Gorkhaland, but check Nepali migration. Migration the world over creates xenophobic feelings of insecurity. We may understand the reason, but there is no way one can arrest the mobility of labour. We can have innovate ways of ensuring patterns of co-existence. We must note also in this connection that the Darjeeling movement has been a broad secular movement and never indulged in ethnic killings or ouster. Bodoland movement has the unfortunate history. Yet there is no room for complacency. In order to ensure autonomy democracy must go deep. Autonomy of minorities within minorities is one way to deepen democracy. 179

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In the second case, that is, in Junglemahals the task of ensuring autonomy is more difficult. This is not because that the Junglemahal movement is not an ethnic movement but a militant peasant unrest, but because both politics and economics are inextricably bound in any agenda of autonomy in Junglemahal areas. Any peace initiative, peace accord, and any arrangement for autonomy in this case must traverse a long path. It can and has to begin with release of prisoners, cessation of hostilities, complete guarantee of stopping all extra-judicial killings, withdrawal of joint forces, demilitarisation of the area, and return of minimum human rights. But it has to address then the issue of access to resources, forest based wealth, of common property resources, in short autonomy of the Junglemahals. The institutional arrangement will not be difficult, what is difficult is to think imaginatively. The challenge is bigger because the central government will not want a return to peace through dialogue and establishment of an autonomous arrangement of self rule there. Its only looking glass is that of security. The call is on both sides. The government strangely thinks that relief and development measures can be enough. It also thinks that by inducting thousands of local youth into a local constabulary is a step towards peace. The Supreme Court judgement on 5 July on Salwa Julum or “Koya Commandos” should open our eyes about the dreadful consequences of raising such vigilante groups. Such a step can only increase killings. Mere relief packages such as distributing bicycles are never enough. They only invite wrath of the people. If the Mamata Bandopadhyay led government thinks that by introducing a Tripura type pacification strategy it will first pacify the area and then agree to peace, it will be severely mistaken. One has to ask: Why does the government treat the two local movements with two different yardsticks? Why the “soft” treatment towards the rebels of North and the hard attitude towards the rebels of the South? Why does it not recognise the villagers’ forum in Junglemahals, namely the People’s Committee against Police Atrocities, and its demand relating to the core issues of autonomy, such as tribal rights and identity, which is crucial for about 50 per cent of the population there? On the other hand the rebels also have to be asked: Do they have a vision to coexist? Do they have a vision of autonomy? Can they allow the peasants belonging to indigenous population groups to self-govern ensured through an autonomous arrangement in Junglemahals? Those who will mediate therefore have a tough task at hand. On one hand a government that thinks that relief and some assurance of package is the panacea, and on the other hand, a rebellious group that has still not come out with its own vision of autonomy. How to bridge the gap, to enlarge the middle ground will be 180

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an immensely complicated task, particularly given the kind of corruption, killings, militarisation, and security phobia that engulfs the issue of autonomy. Autonomy after pacification is the goal of counter-insurgency method of governance. Autonomy through dialogue is the method of deepening democracy. Politics of dialogue, one can say, is business without war. That is to say dialogue is the other name of politics. If dialogue fails there will be Telenganas elsewhere too in India. If there is no autonomy, the capital-centric economy will destroy the inner land, as Mumbai has done to Vidarbha: Prosperity in the capital region, deaths in the faraway lands.

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35 The Challenge of Building a Non-corporate Path of Development Mail Today 15 July 2011, New Delhi

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he new government in West Bengal has a new task. The task is: rebuilding West Bengal’s economy through a non-corporate path. And the big question is: Is it possible to generate enough resource through the non-corporate path to undertake a programme of rejuvenation of the social infrastructure involving universal access to food, mass education, public health, provision of housing, and flood control? All these involve political choice/s of paths and techniques, and we can say with reasonable certainly that the famed Bengali economist had failed disastrously during the last twenty five thirty years to suggest possible path or paths. To quickly recapitulate, these economists never affirmed that land reforms should not have been stopped mid-way, and should have been taken to their logical course including building of rural cooperatives of small producers. They never said that panchayats had become strongholds of rural gentry, speculators and traders, and hoarders; that inequalities were persisting and proving durable, and that rural and urban poverty was increasing again from roughly the beginning of this century. Finally that land grab for private industrialisation and mafia was inimical in all ways for Bengal’s agrarian economy. The most famous economist having written a book on social justice went on defending the bizarre policies of the past Left Front government’s land grab policy in Singur etc. We may ask the lesson? In one line, the government has to be aware of economics specialists, and follow common sense and sound political advice. As Steiglitz said once, in economy sometimes economists are most the embarrassing phenomenon. 182

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Now then the real question: Is a non-corporate path possible? Briefly speaking here are the important seven points. First, land reforms have to be carried out beyond simple registration of share croppers and ensuring non-alienability of the land of poor peasants. Quickly the government will have to find ways of promoting cooperatives. This will ensure rural asset formation and planning from below. This will also ensure access of small producers to rural resources including storage facilities, water supply, etc. More important, it will block the growth of a special trading class—the parasite of Bengal’s economy. It will spread the benefits of development to the countryside and in the districts. Second, and most important of all, is the issue of unorganised workers. The last government had no idea of how to cope with it, while the issue of unorganised workers is at the heart of the relation between economy and democracy. Present legislations are not enough. The past way was to treat the mass of unorganised workers as clients of a patron. But one has to study the system in which the unorganised or informal workers work. It produces fantastic amount of wealth. Yet the government gets nothing out of it due to its attitude to the phenomenon. The informal sector cannot be treated as exceptional, and the government has to evolve ways to govern it. The revenue generated now is squandered away in what may be best called quasi-rent to local trade union bosses, police, local toughs, mafia, and local contractors. Migrant labour is an important segment of the informal section of workers. Again the wealth they produce remains unseen. Once again social security measures coupled with a viable governance regime are needed. Third, Bengal desperately requires the protection of common property resources. For water, grazing land, forest based produce, hill products, etc.—policy of strengthening the common property resources is now the hour of the day. If the state or a private player wants to gain out of it, it will have to pay the local self-governing body. Fourth, Bengal will need a policy of protecting what it treats as “sunset” industries where it was once immensely strong—engineering and machine tools, jute, tea, leather and leather based industries, different cottage industries, and strong and skilled human resources. Only on the basis of these four cardinal policies it can go ahead for the “sunrise” industries, but that too not indiscriminately, not in the mad way of the preceding government throwing caution to all winds. Land-grab, forcible land acquisition, passing off construction boom and real estate development as “development” must be shunned. These spurious policies cause resource drainage, not resource generation. 183

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Does it mean that it will not welcome corporate investment and foreign direct investment? It will, but in a strategic way. This is the fifth point. The preceding government had the outlook of a petty clerk. Therefore it would run after whoever would promise money—savoury, un-savoury, certain, uncertain, real, shadowy. Its greed proved disastrous. The half built townships, vacant industrial lands, unrealised promises of big investments all are testimonies of this greed. The government must learn from China how to use corporate investment in a strategic way and planned manner that ensures balance with other sectors of the economy. Sixth, resources increase often in an imperceptible way: In other words, if society develops, resources increase. The method of burden sharing by the more endowed will ensure better education and health care provisions. The preceding government went in for privatisation at all levels, and encouraging insurance business as a mode of providing health care. Like wise urban development became a matter of private domain. It was in this way that real estate development became synonymous with urban development. Here even small changes will matter. Better social administration generates better revenue. Supervision is not easy, if one has to avoid bureaucratism and corruption. Seventh, and this is linked with the previous point, the challenge will be: Can the government turn the table on the public-private partnership (PPP) motto? Again, the government will require a judicious policy on this. Where will one need this, in which fields and areas, and on what terms? Presently PPP is only a cover for privatisation and handing over precious resources to private businessmen at throwaway prices. To change this, once again we shall need new ways to doing it. These seven aspects of a non-corporate path of development require dialogic management of society. They call for what due to lack of better phrase may be termed as “human security approach” and balanced development. They mean viewing economic relationships as essentially social relationships on which productivity depends. These relationships are between agriculture and industry, industry and services, the overall economy and the unorganised or informal sector, growth and infrastructure, economic infrastructure and social infrastructure, education and health and skill, state and its sub-regions, river basins and dry areas, valley and the hill, and finally corporate investment and the rest of social and economic investment. These are what the great Chinese savant had once said, “ten major relationships”. Once again to repeat by way of concluding: These do not much require great economists from abroad. China did not need them. Common sense serves better. These also mean that West Bengal must not take the Delhi or the Mumbai path or even the Gujarat path of growth as the model. It must develop its own model. 184

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The Left Front erred when it thought that Kolkata should become Delhi leaving behind its own features and strong points. A unique Kolkata will be the indication of a unique Bengal. For all these Bengal needs new thinking, which comes out of dialogues. At the root of this new thinking is a new conception of the relation between economy and democracy.

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36 A Suggestion on Bengal’s Economic Woes Note for an article published in Anandabazar Patrika

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hy think of Europe’s economic woes when we can think of Bengal’s current financial crisis? The story of European financial crisis symbolised by Greece is fairly known. It is said to be one of an uneven financial and economic situation within the euro-zone, government overspending, absence of necessary austerity and prudent measures, speculation by banks and lack of activism and pro-action by the European Central Bank. If that is the case of Europe, in case of Bengal it is said that the preceding state government in last decades overspent, did not raise revenues, while the present government refuses to impose new taxes to garner resources and asks for bailout to the central government. So the similarities are there, though it will be immediately and legitimately pointed out that India, unlike Europe, is a single nation with a unified budget, labour market, capital market, common currency and a common import–export policy. It will be also said that Europe’s economies are too disparate, there cannot be a one-size-fits-all policy and the asymmetries within the European economy will inevitably produce shocks, severe at times, threatening to pull down the economy of the continent. And this is not it will be argued the Indian case. I shall suggest that the dissimilarities of the two situations do not rule out relevance of one to the other. Indeed, West Bengal can learn from Europe. It can think of demanding the creation of a stability fund to help the states in distress with long-term soft loans, similar stability bonds with attractive clauses, propose banks of the respective states, facilitate establishment of local banks and cooperative institutions to raise resources, and introduce other revenue raising measures 186

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backed by states’ autonomy in adopting flexible import–export policy. In other words, even though we are used to thinking of India as a unified economy managed by a single currency, it will be realistic to think of several economies in India, a federalised fiscal world, and thus inevitable differential impact on the working of currency. The rupee is still cheaper in West Bengal, and the individual small sector economy is still strong, with a large service sector (covering education, health, irrigation, administration etc.) supporting a large, unaccounted, unmeasured, unorganised market. Likewise the small trade has flourished over the years in the state. Agriculture is still strong. Raising revenue on these strong foundations will require imagination, and national taxation policies are of little help here, in as much as ineffective is the revenue sharing formula laid down by the National Finance Commission. The union finance minster’s advice to the West Bengal government to raise more resources through taxation and expenditure cuts makes only partial sense. In going overboard Bengal may lose some of whatever competitive advantage it has in certain sectors in national economy. And there is a limit to raising revenue through taxing tobacco or alcohol or raising power tariff. Again, while more revenue realisation through better collection system is a good suggestion, this has limits. Imaginative revenue generating policies will be required. There is no doubt that on all these the state government has a lot of home work to do. Yet, there is only so much that the government can do in terms of raising revenue from the salaried sector. It must find ways to generate productivity to augment its resources. It is here where the union government’s advice to impose more taxes seems to be unmindful of the consequences in terms of its impact on the wage sector. Already its policies have fuelled inflation. Amidst such inflation and uncertainty in the labour (including salaried job) market, raising resources through more taxation and tightening the belt through severe austerity measures are cruel steps. They reveal the technocratic mindset that rules Delhi. These suggestions emanating from Delhi speak of the technocrats ruling the Planning Commission, the Finance Ministry and the Prime Minister’s secretariat. These are best symbolised by none else than the Prime Minister and the Planning Commission Chief. West Bengal did not have large-scale corruption that one associates with Delhi, or say Karnataka. It is accused of extending welfare measures recklessly and expanding government sector and personnel without any restraint. This is a charge only half true. Various austerity measures need to be adopted. But the issue is: who will be responsible for the severe effect these cuts and fresh taxes will have on the wage sector and the general labouring population of the state? Any economic rethinking for the growth of Bengal’s economy must be preceded and matched by 187

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a rescue package. Surely the burden of the package ultimately will be on the state. But the state must be allowed to grow by non-conventional means (because conventional means will not work in this case) to cope with the burden that austerity measures and fresh taxes will create. The need of a stability fund is immediate. Why not think of issue of joint bonds along with wealthy states? Likewise, the central bank—the Reserve Bank—can be the guarantor of last resort. There can be special drawing rights by states for particular purposes. The mandates of the banks, bonds and national and state finance commissions can be imaginatively widened, and disputes may be adjudicated by a bench specialising in national financial matters. It can be a constitutional body, if required. It will be argued that these steps will accelerate inflation because all these mean basically printing more money. But this is not being suggested, and there is no scope of misinterpretation. In any case, the stupendous governmental expenditures are done by the central government. It by itself is indebted. It holds unbelievable amount of food stock for mysterious reasons. And in the first place its policies create inflation. On top of all these it offers various concessions and holidays to exporters, importers, big business tycoons and big traders. Therefore, when the finance minster says that after all revenues are shared and thus states cannot complain of discrimination, the argument does not hold water. The situation is: inflation is created by the centre, which symbolises a ‘unified economy’, while states must go on desperately trying to keep their heads above water because they represent the ‘dispersed economies’, which by the logic of centralisation must suffer. The national Finance Commission is not an answer to such a fundamental problem. Achieving a balanced national economy through centralised financial management is a misguided quest. We must move towards fiscal and broader financial federalism. One can think of other imaginative steps. Think of the nineteenth century banks. What should prevent the emergence of local banks, small town and statewide banking institutions committed to particular lending and borrowing activities relevant for the unorganised, farming and other designated sectors? Likewise, why cannot local self-governing institutions have expanded tax base to raise revenues and be able to borrow? Already we know that in countries like India we cannot have a centralised taxation system effectively covering farming and small sectors. Only decentralisation and a federalisation of economy and financial management can be the answer. Such small or medium level banks can flourish. I am not saying there will be no risk. But the central bank can supervise, monitor and be the ultimate guarantor to prevent bank collapse. Development of small– and medium-level entrepreneurial activities can stimulate growth. Bengal 188

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can learn not only from Greece but in a positive sense from China too. Again the obstacle here is the notion of a centralised economy and the fiat of a central government representing the supposed virtues of a unified economy. The fact is that there are several economies—marked by geography, political divisions, sectoral attributes and scale. A general fiscal structure has to give way to a federal notion of economy and corresponding practices. Unless we have a decentralised fiscal structure, the debt ills of the states will evolve into new subprime for banks. These are like sovereign debts. In such conditions, loans to needy state governments are bound to decrease and confidence on them even of their respective inhabitants will be mortally shaken. Already West Bengal has suffered brain drain in the last three decades. Its once famous technical human power is a shadow of the past. The political economy of the present financial crisis of West Bengal tells us that it is actually a crisis of the idea of a unified economy of the nation, and that the present debt crisis of states like West Bengal may be a moment of disintegration of the unified economy called India. This calls for institutional changes based on the reality of dispersed sectors and setting up of a new architecture of financial and fiscal security of the federalising units of the country. The constitutional provision of a national finance commission is inadequate for federal economic governance and only masks the conflicts around raising revenues and sharing of wealth. In insisting on a bailout package the present West Bengal government is behaving like one groping in darkness for a way out. One may ask, why did not the much more articulate Left Front government realise the nature of the problem even when in the late seventies and early eighties the Bengal Left Front Finance Minister Mr Ashok Mitra argued for more power to the states? Possibly the answer lies in its sacred belief in what constitutes an economy and its ignorance about how to play the market game to the advantage of the peripheral and dispersed economic phenomena. Today with new technical avenues of e-governance it is not impossible to think of more trade-offs among disparate units of economy. Similarly, it is possible to encourage growth in a decentralised way without sliding into anarchy.

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37 A Square Leading to Many Unknown Destinations Mail Today 3 October 2011, New Delhi (Originally titled as ‘A Square as a National Arena’)

This chapter suggests the open-endedness of contentious politics. As present event shows, Cairo is still the mirror.

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he Tahirir Square in Cairo is today an item of political tourism in Egypt. After the Egyptian armed forces removed President Mubarak from power to buy peace in face of freedom clamouring thousands of Egyptians, most visible in form of crowds thronging at the Square, its fame as the Liberation Square spread even more. Originally known as the Ismailia Square after the 19th century ruler Khedive Ismail, who wanted the design of the new downtown district as “Paris on the Nile”, the Square became known as Tahirir (Liberation) after the Egyptian revolution of 1919, its fame reinforced after another revolution—this time the famous change in 1952. If this was not what else could be the focal point of assembly of dissent in 2011? Each Friday Tahrir Square witnesses weekly democracy celebrations, some announcing pre-anniversary programmes. It attracts visits from foreign dignitaries, not particularly known for their love of the post-colonial world or for that matter Egypt, such as David Cameron the British Prime Minister, Catherine Ashton the High Representative for Foreign Affairs of the EU, and Hillary Clinton the US Secretary of State. The Square also attracts curious onlookers, foreign tourists mostly from the West and of course dreamy eyed youth still coming in to assemble and discuss prospects of social transformation and radical change. Each Friday becomes an occasion in the city for discussion, expectation, and for people who 190

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cannot go to the Square to ask if anything has happened there. News flows fast in the city. Words of mouth circulate almost as fast as the whirling SMS messages. The Square is mainly in form of a traffic circle with roads leading to many destinations. If you stand there you do not of course think of the Square only. It does not appear as a thing in itself. Your mind will automatically wander around conjuring up images of thousands of jostling people and agitating bodies. You may wonder where those youths have gone, those who had assembled in this Square in hundreds and thousands in the cold days of January and February this year. Which roads did they take to disperse? Which directions did they follow? How did they dissolve into the multitude of the city and the nation? Did some of them vanish into the indescribable narrow lanes and by lanes of the Khan-el-Khalili, the still continuing Ottoman market place? Khan el-Khalili, once known as the Turkish bazaar during the Ottoman period, is now usually just called the Khan. Built in 1382 by the Emir Djaharks el-Khalili in the heart of the Fatimid City, it continues to represent the market tradition that had established Cairo as a major centre of trade. Did some of those youths land up there, at the Khan, buying new cassettes of impassioned speeches of the radical clerics or the songs of the music groups like Christ for the Blacks? The foreign merchants from faraway lands of Central Asia or the Black Sea still crowd the Khan el-Khalili. Perhaps you will find in the old book stalls at the Khan the early nineteenth century Persian writings of Rammohun Ray that travelled from the colonial city of Kolkata to the centres of learning in Cairo, Damascus, and Istanbul. After all this very market was involved in the spice monopoly controlled by the Mamluks, which encouraged the Europeans to search for new routes to the East. Again, during its early period, the market was also a centre for subversive groups, often subject to raids. Traders of goods and ideas still visit Cairo and its great bazaar the Khan el-Khaili. For all possible ideas on political Islam, Marxism in the Middle East, labour movement, colonialism, radical ideology of Muslim Brotherhood, and directions on the possible trails of the vanishing Imam, Khan is still the place. It is still the place where the youth will come to buy books, records, and cassettes of speeches of the successors of Jamaluddin al-Afghani, who had crossed Cairo more than one fifty years ago in search of a path against colonialism and what he termed as scientific Islam. Or, did some of them escape to the dingy streets of the working class quarters of Cairo? On 15 September the spirit of Tahirir Square reached the most elite university in Egypt, the American University in Cairo, where students and employees began a mass strike and sit-in, against what they termed as exorbitant tuition fee hike, exploitation of local workers, and the university’s conduct during the 191

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Egyptian uprising earlier this year. Students have chanted “get out thieves” and asked Lisa Anderson, president AUC, “Lisa, where did our money go?” Some possibly melted into the dense working class suburbs. The famous Cairo ahramonline now reports labour unrest almost daily and has noted sudden labour militancy, particularly after 1 April this year when tens and thousands of students and labour activists joined hands in the Square demanding democracy and better pay conditions. Only last week, on 22 September, over 2000 state-employed bus drivers and ticket collectors staged a demonstration in front of the Public Transport Agency in Cairo’s Nasr City district to demand better pay and working conditions. Workers at 20 bus depots throughout the city remained on strike on Thursday, leaving only four depots to service the entire capital. Striking workers vowed to maintain their collective action until their demands were met. Or did some leave for Alexandria where workers’ discontent over working conditions in the spinning mills has been on the rise this year? Unrest, police action, army clampdown—all now mark Alexandria. Then the unthinkable happened. On 9 September thousands again gathered at the Square with the call, “Back to the Course”, indicating thereby that the Revolution had run aground with military dictators replacing the corrupt prince Mubarak, and now running the country. The clerics and Muslim Brotherhood abstained from joining the assembly. More than fifty organisations, networks, and platforms, many having just sprung to life after the January–February protest, gave the call and came to the Square. Suddenly the crowd started marching towards the Israeli Embassy. Shouting death to Zionism the crowd attacked the Embassy. Only a desperate call from the Israeli Ambassador to Washington which prevailed upon the Egyptian government to save the Embassy saved the Ambassador and his retinue. Buildings were torched. On way to the Airport from the Zamalek area you can still see burnt out windows, gates and doors, ransacked rooms, and empty buildings with scars of an angry population. Conspiracy theories abound. Who knows who is promoting what? But it does not take much wisdom to understand who gains from military rule, and therefore who raises the spectre of anarchy. Old Machiavelli had said that the Prince must be decisive in order to rule. But to be so he must be organic to the society he will rule. He must know how to defend his city, his people. A corrupt ruler or an oligarchy cannot be the Prince. A vacillating Prince is worse. An Arab world in radical ferment is waiting for such a Prince. In this new century democratic upsurge is being blocked everywhere by new methods and techniques. Yet signs are there of the emergence of the modern Prince who will reinvoke the spirit of the Bath revolution and take it forward. Perhaps the Turks also with their money and recall of the Ottoman world may 192

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become the guarantor, the Pope, of the Middle East where the modern Princes may emerge. What ever be the case, the Tahirir Square will remain. It serves many functions—a traffic intersection, a site of assembly, of socialising, radicalising, rise and defeats of upsurges, of lovers to meet, and families to stroll on the weekend. It is what makes our cities fabulous. As I was leaving Cairo last week I wondered about my city Kolkata. Similarly disorganised, raucous, a city of frenzy, with a wide river as the Nile, barges, and giant ware houses on the river bank, I wondered would the government not one day flatten the city in order to save itself leaving no mark of a place whose function was to excite the crowd and bring the streets back to life? But can any political society do without the streets?

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38 Early but Inevitable Errors in Judgement Mail Today 21 October 2011 (Originally titled as ‘Headed in the Wrong Direction on the Maoists’)

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pparently two unconnected events—but time and circumstances compel us to read them together. One is the known event of West Bengal Chief Minster Mamata Bandopadhyay’s high strung, highly publicised meeting in Jhargram last Saturday where she threatened the Maoists to lay down arms, stop their activities, and come to talk in seven days, or else she would order counter insurgency operations seven days after. The second is the arrest of the labour leader of the legendary struggle at the Kanoria Jute Mill in the early years of the nineties of the last century for workers’ right to self-management and self-ownership of the sick jute factory. This time the charge was that he was obstructing the opening of the mill. This is a person whose one time comrade and deputy is the present labour minister of Mamata’s government. Two clear signs of impatience, two clear errors in judgment occurred on the same day. This impatience is of a leader wanting to appear as a no-nonsense person ready to be tough with proverbial Bengal radicalism. It is at the same time matched by her tolerance of crimes that happened before she came to power, courting those who had oppressed the people at ground level so long and welcoming them to her party, and allowing her strong men to do the same things that their predecessors had done to the tribal peasants of Junglemahals for the past decades. The police meanwhile operates merrily, the Chief Minster runs from one trouble spot to another, assures the aggrieved of rectification, and nothing changes. But she thinks she has to change Junglemahals and discipline labour activism in a day. The impatience will possibly prove costly. This is nobody’s case that the three killings Maoists committed in recent months after she came to power are to be supported. While the case may be, and 194

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as the Maoists have claimed, that these three persons were acting as police informers, trying to form once again a Salwa Julum type force, trying to act as local masters, slipping into the vacant shoes of erstwhile armed CPI (M) party cadres, yet individual killings are unsupportable. The Maoists’ people’s courts that give out the verdicts of death penalty are based on the same institutional principle of punishment and revenge that they seek to oppose. It will be a long time before they realise that people’s wars and people’s struggles to be victorious have to be based on alternative principles. They must win the battle for hegemony before they win the battle for political power. Yet it is clear that the armed radicals in Bengal have learnt some things and are still learning. Violence is at an all time low though police and paramilitary raids, arrests, harassment of villagers, cordoning of settlements, and threats by the joint forces continue. The Chief Minster has gone back on her pre-election pledge. Prisoners have not been released. Central forces have not been withdrawn. The armed radicals are constantly reminding the Chief Minister of her broken pledges. Slowly the civil society opinion is turning against her, with the redoubtable writer Mahasweta Devi, dramatist Bibhas Chakrabarty, and other poets and painters demanding that prisoners be released immediately and her pre-poll pledges be kept. Newspapers except two are watching and observing. Dismay, confusion, and skepticism reign in the air. With the massive mandate her party received, she may ignore these early signs. It is up to her whether she will be prudent or go her way, which will mean deadlock, and perhaps a return to war. Three things in this situation strike an observer: the poverty of ideas towards unlocking closed situations, hence impatience and playing to the gallery, and third, the role of the Union government and the security lobby. Let me explain these three one by one. First concerns the poverty of ideas. The West Bengal Chief Minster in her recent visit to Darjeeling went as far as possible to accommodate the recalcitrant Gorkha leaders in their demand for autonomy, yet did not push for autonomy of the minorities there like the Lepchas within the area. More glaringly she refused to entertain any idea of the autonomy of the terai region comprising tea tribes and the Nepalis. If she had dialogued on that, it would have reduced the ethnic edge of the autonomy movement in the hills and lent it a democratic character. She forgot there can be an ethnic problem, but there cannot be an ethnic solution. The solution has to be democratic. Likewise, in Junglemahals she could have thought of autonomy of the Junglemahal region towards ensuring common property resources, local ownership of forest and other natural resources, and the right of the local population groups to determine their priorities of life, namely whether they want drinking water, education, public health 195

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provisions, proper implementation of the rural employment guarantee scheme, or jobs in a counter-insurgency militia to be raised by the government to repress their own people. The political class cannot think along the line of autonomy because it suffers from the spectre of anarchy. It cannot envision a political society which is not structured vertically, but organised as a world of several interacting autonomies. At least Mamata could have learnt from the Tripura experience of tribal autonomous council made possible by the constitutional amendment of Article 244. Second is the phenomenon of impatience. On this I have said already. The only point to be added is that governance through dialogue requires patience. Timely response does not mean hurry and breaking trust. The trust she won from various quarters was won through months and years of hard work. It can be destroyed in a day. When a ruler thinks that s/he does not need trust and her own sense and judgement is enough, that s/he can use intemperate language in abusing the adversary, we must take it then that serious errors in judgement will duly follow. She has only to look back at the way the previous rulers failed. Her predecessors had thought that what they would decide was enough. Dialogue was redundant. But more important, why is the impatience, this sudden decline of the dialogic trend, and the poverty of imagination towards innovative solutions? Why do not rulers in India learn from the disaster called Kashmir where time and gain opportunity had arrived, the adversary had declared ceasefire, possibilities of dialogue had opened up, yet nothing emerged and the stalemate continues? This is where the third feature of the situation comes to notice, namely the rapid securitisation of the scenario. With the advice of the Union Home Ministry Mamata went back on her pre-poll promises, did not release the prisoners, did not meet the victims of police repression, did not compensate them, and did not take any measure of rehabilitation. The advices of the Union Home Ministry have rarely contributed to peace anywhere, because everywhere it has substituted politics with considerations of security. Its advices do no good to state governments which have to face the heat of the conflicts, and which have to survive the fire of protests, revolts, and rebellions. The options of the West Bengal Chief Minster to negotiate the bends of popular politics are getting limited day by day. Union government’s tight monetary policy, inflationary steps encouraging price rise, random privatisation, and destruction of small business and peasant farming leave no chance for her to protect her people howsoever she desires. Likewise she has to depend on financial largesse of the Centre for day to day survival of her government. On the top of these, she has to depend on the coercive machinery of the Centre to quell militant protest. She

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has to thus abide by the torrent of advice coming from the Centre. Populism will mean increasingly less in this situation. Towards peace and reconciliation, Mamata must walk the extra mile. Or will the inevitable errors in judgement begin so early? Inevitable, because she is not seeing anything beyond populism and one-upmanship I had argued in this column earlier that there was an alternative way for her, for economic regeneration, for building up an accommodative polity. It is up to her which way she will go: dialogue or confrontation, politics or security? Yet, if not equally, the armed radicals of West Bengal are also responsible. They took the wrong lesson from the failure of peace talks in Andhra Pradesh and their casualties. The path of peace and the striving for hegemony is long and tortuous. If they claim to be a vanguard of politics, they cannot allow the gun to command their destiny. All in all West Bengal is now in a cusp of possibilities. The outcome will have significance beyond the state, for the entire country.

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39 A Violent History of Peace Mail Today 30 November 2011 (Originally titled as ‘Peace to Suffer with Kishenji’s Death’)

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ith the rebel Maoist leader Kishenji’s death three days ago, the curtain has come down over peace-making efforts in Junglemahals and in the entire country— at least for the near future. The mediators’ group has resigned in the aftermath of his death. The human rights groups have accused the government and the joint forces of summary killing. The CRPF director general has commented in response if the human rights campaigners would shed tears over the death of policemen. In response to the widespread suspicion over government version the National Human Rights Commission has asked for a comprehensive inquiry. The government denies the charge of staged killing. It says in an innocent style as if nothing has happened that the rebels can still surrender and come for peace talks. As on now peace politics has received a tremendous setback. What is the political cost of the killing of Kishenji and the subsequent development? One may ask: cost to whom? I am not speaking here of the government or those who rule, for they may have gained. The nice covers have fallen. Rulers are talking of loss and gain through killing. I am also not talking here of the rebels who must have now suffered a heavy damage due to the death of one of its leaders. The rebels may think that their path is not of peace, and/or they should think of retaliation. I am speaking here of the entire society—conflict torn, trouble torn, and death torn. Junglemahal, hitherto staying in the back of beyond, beyond the pale of developed India, removed from the gaze of administration, has experienced in recent years restiveness to an unparallel degree. Women of lower classes, youth of the poor peasant families had joined politics and then the militant ranks. No amount of developmental promise can galvanize a society in this way. Peace 198

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would have allowed them to join popular peasant politics, become politically articulate, and would have been the pride of any democracy. It is the entire society that will now bear the cost of this extinction of the possibility of peace in Junglemahals. Bhadraloks would not have been able to do what peasants had done in organizing villages and hamlets in resisting arbitrariness, highhandedness, and coercion. The villagers were no more ready to wait for misery and ignoble deaths. By the logic of the situation in order to defend the killing—encounter, no encounter—the state government has to now go to any length to prove that Maoists are blood suckers. The mass media, particularly the television channels, are now busy in hosting war mongers in talk sessions, discussions, and chat shows. These are the kangaroo courts of the channels. Leaders and cadres of various political persuasions will be compelled to take sides thus resorting to extreme views—in short to defend killings. This happened in Kashmir. It helps no side. It only results in an increasing orientation of polity towards fascist psychology. We may say polity’s fascization. As a result politics takes a back seat. It will not give any sane person pleasure to say that the Maoists have been paid back on their own coin, though Maoists now seem to be partially distanced from local population because of killings they indulge in. If they believe in the efficacy of death penalty, as the case seems to be, that is a backward belief, because death penalty awarded by the Maoist courts only mimics the state. It will not end the trend of surrender and the joining of state ranks by surrendered militants. Likewise death penalty as a rule is not an answer to informers. More often than not these backfire. Apart from resuming killing when the new regime began, which was wrong, the Maoists also underestimated the overall political milieu of a new party in power. Gun was not the answer. Apart from holding patience and caution, building mass movement for peace was the answer and still the call of the day. Such call for peace will mean building public opinion in favor withdrawal of joint forces, end to summary killings, arrest and harassing of villagers by policemen and party toughs, and demand for peace, bread, water, and dignity. The Maoists may have shown inclination for peace talks, but expecting and waiting for the government to come down was unrealistic while not building up peace movement and popularizing concrete demands was a gross error. Peace politics is more dangerous and risky than war politics. In the time of war lines are fairly clearly drawn. The line of peace is crooked. The party of peace must maintain alertness, have people on its side, and know how to concretize demands, fight for small causes, and help the middle space to survive. The middle space is the peace constituency. Yet the middle space is only middle, it cannot 199

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become the principal agent of peace. Possibly one lesson from Kishenji’s death is that peacemakers cannot steer the course towards peace, unless the rebels by themselves have found out the way towards peace while maintaining guard. The urge for combat will be great. All the more therefore, the intelligibility of peace politics must be studied deeply. Not without reason Arafat used to say, “Peace of the brave”. Same is with the government. If it had wanted peace, the way was not to open coffers more recruitments for police jobs, let loose the joint forces, keep peasant leaders behind bars, and talk hot and cold. I had expressed my misgivings on such a policy in my previous column. The unfortunate but almost ill fated thing has happened. Possibly more deaths will follow. In India whoever has wanted peace had had to die. The government or various mysterious forces will see to this. At times the extremists will also kill the peacemaker in suspicion that the latter is joining hands with the government. In such situation of hurt stalemate—and we are talking of political stalemate here—any innovative peace politics must begin with tactics of finding openings for democratic activism. Political creativity is the first need of the time. Kishenji’s death comes at a time when in many ways right wing views, opinions, and polices are on the ascendancy nationwide. Prices are at all time high. Peasant suicides continue un-abetted. Corruption seems beyond control. By all accounts the rich–poor gap has widened. There is an increasing militarization of the polity. In such milieu this death will mean as I have explained the logic of the situation the weakening of popular politics and democracy. Kishenji perhaps never thought in these terms. Perhaps his politics was simple, clear cut. Perhaps there was no middle space in his world view. Yet it is an irony of our time that his death like many others symbolizes the overwhelming need for popular politics towards democracy, and autonomy of the popular politics. That is the biggest loss, though for a moment I do not underestimate the personal loss of the family members of all those who have lost their lives in this what can be called practically a civil war.

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40 Political Change Is Never for Utopia This article originally appeared in Mail Today (10 May 2012) and has been suitably edited for publication of this book

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hat happens when the lower strata of society acquires governing power? West Bengal is a classic instance of a society always in search for utopia, where the middle-class dissatisfaction with the lower strata of society now governing it is increasing day by day. Already the despair with which it spent the last years of the Left Front Raj has gone into oblivion. Its expectation with the new order was high. The expectation was more heightened by promises of the new chief minister. These expectations were not clearly defined. But this very ambiguity was dangerous for stability. Some wanted liberalisation of all kinds and in the name of achieving excellence, supposedly destroyed by the earlier regime, they sought all sorts of global connections. This was represented and spurred on by a prominent media house all through last year. And as the present government refused to follow the line and put some big names in the West Bengal industrial scene behind bars, it changed tune overnight and started bellowing belligerent tune. Some thought that all misdeeds of the past would be done away with and West Bengal would immediately start on a clean slate after the change of government. And when they found that the structure of petty governance, local centres of power and oppression, party-centric way of getting things done etc. had gone too deep in society and the style of rule at the lower levels had not changed, they sighed and said that the chief minister was weak, she had no proper party mechanism, she could not control the petty tsars and there was no change. There is also another group of bystanders who wanted to see Trinamool administration as a clean CPI(M) rule, a CPI(M)-led administration but with a clean face. So, they thought that there should be party-led rule, but without the misdeeds of the party; a middle-class domination but without middle class-centric 201

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frog-in-the-well attitude; a babu culture but with even more global links, daily trips to Europe and the US; and a dressed up administration but with the same babus. In short, they wanted a change without a change. Finally some thought that there would be immediate large-scale investments with happiness all around. All these groups were in for a shock. They found that political change does not introduce cleanliness overnight. There is no clean break in the banal world of politics. In fact, the world can become messier. They found the middle-class sensibilities and sensitivities absent in a government of the low brow. They found the peregrine style of the chief minister too much to digest. They could not find any rationale in the dialogic style the new government wanted to introduce as a way of resolving disputed issues of long duration such as autonomy in the hills or land acquisition. They found the government to be non-strategic, immediate, matter of fact—bereft of long-term planning, wisdom and style. Are these complaints true? Partly they are true. The government is learning by the ropes. The chief minister rushes to every trouble spot. She is often caught on the wrong foot by the wily media. She repeated some of the things Jyoti Basu did and got away with, but she represents the low brow and will not get the pass marks from a media that capitalises on middle-class tastes and aspirations and, therefore, plays to the gallery. She now wants to back the smaller media, but to what effect? Censuring or threatening recalcitrant or a mischief-making media is one thing, but playing the dangerous media game is another. Likewise, she cannot expect any consideration from opinion-makers when the lumpen elements belonging to her party or professing allegiance to her party do the acts that all lumpen elements do—namely, using local connections and engaging in petty oppression. People will say that she has failed. In case of the Left Front rule even if the same thing was happening for more than two decades, people, including the most powerful media house, was careful to draw a line of distinction between clean-dressed and clean-behaved party leaders and the lumpen elements controlling the party below. But Mamata has a cross to bear around her neck. She had promised paribartan, change. Thus, she will be judged by that, and she cannot now blame others and grumble at double standards. The fact is when the lower classes come to power through electoral means and by a judicious combination of street politics and electoral mobilisation, they will take time to learn the art of governing, particularly, the rich and the middle classes. They will try to be always direct, without finesse, without style, without strategy. They will thus need time that this alone will not do. Politics is war without guns. In

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this war they will need planning, control methods, calm and judicious deployment of available forces. Yet clearly as in Bihar there is perceptible change. In Bihar this change began in late seventies and early eighties with Karpuri Thakur trying to implement the backward caste logic of governing. In Lalu’s and Nitish’s time, Bihar underwent a lot of social engineering in order for the hold of the upper classes over government to loosen up. Yet the Dalits and the indigenous people did not get power. They continued to suffer at the hands of new masters. Precisely, West Bengal, therefore, while embarking on social and political engineering must eschew the path of a skin-deep radicalism and its ill-effects. In West Bengal, the question is not of time. The lower strata of society will give Mamata time, notwithstanding the daily wisdoms dished out by the blow hot blow cold media. But the questions will be: Will she and her team learn? Will they focus on certain targeted goals? Will they be able to combine their direct, fire-fighting, dialogic style of governance with more nuanced, administrative, indirect methods? This battle will need a team to win. The odds against that possibility are heavy.

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41 Knight Riders in Kolkata Mail Today 9 June 2012, New Delhi

After one year of experience we have now the elements—at least some of the fundamental ones—of the new rule falling in place. These are namely, a developmental strategy, a direct style of approaching the people, dispensing with a mediating party structure that threatened to swallow the government, defeating the radical left at all costs and a kind of new nationalism to sustain governance and lend it some organic character. This chapter is a commentary on the last element.

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fter the final of the IPL V competition, Kolkata Knight Riders’ victory parade through the streets of Kolkata on 29 May (2012) with full government blessing was a curious event. Cricketer Gautam Gambhir realised that he loved Kolkata city as his own. Other cricketers said that their hearts were all for this poor state. Owner of the team Shah Rukh Khan said that there was nothing wrong for the commoner in partying and enjoying on the street, because this was Bengal’s and Kolkata’s own achievement. The chief minister celebrated the victory of this private sports company with abandon, joined the victory dance, and said that her state might be poor and unable to offer the victorious cricketers any gift, supposedly monetary or land, but had the spaciousness of heart to celebrate the victory as if the sons of Bengal had won the battle. A pure commercial brand and venture had become Bengal’s own through the pleasures of virtual kinship. A kind of new nationalism in West Bengal is in the process of formation. This will not be of the ethnic variety we witness in the Northeast, but the contours of the new nationalism are on the horizon. We can note at least five elements reflected in its genealogy. 204

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First, though it began with rejection of CPI (M) style party structure, it did not mean however that it embraced globalisation with boundless enthusiasm. The real start was made with recalling the legacy of poet Tagore and associating this legacy with all that was now projected as desirable and therefore to be accomplished. Renaissance was Bengal’s contribution to India and Bengal would begin its recovery on that historical basis. Second, the government spared no effort to remind us that this legacy was also secular. Thus the Chief Minster took several steps to associate poet Nazrul Islam’s name with the “new beginning”, and declared few days ago that a university would be set up soon after his name. Stipends were announced for Imams of small mosques in villages and the small towns. Every possible step was taken to project West Bengal as the united home of all who lived in Bengal. Thus by the same token this new nationalism was projected to be inclusive and therefore ready to accommodate demands and dissent from a sub-region like the Darjeeling Hills. Again the posture was the same, namely, in West Bengal all sub-regions are equal. All have place under the new Sun—castes, languages, sub-regions, religions. Third, all kinds of honours and awards were and are being announced and planned for “glorious sons and daughters of Bengal”, forming thus a new cultural society of the rulers. Fourth, this nationalism has turned its face away from the Centre, in the sense of refusing to run around for funds or honours. As if it will not court the corporate bosses mostly based in the North and West of the country or for that matter the Centre. The message is: If the corporate bosses invest in West Bengal, well and good; otherwise West Bengal will look towards public investment. In this manner the new nationalist identity has grown out of the demand for recognition of the rights of the states. This is based on demands to redefine our concept of federalism, and the nationalist route seems to be the best option towards that. Like dignity of Bihar, West Bengal too demands recognition of her dignity. Finally, this new nationalism is janus-faced. It will concede no quarter to the radical rebels; but it will court support from the suddenly grown local rich groups which have made money through chit fund business, trade, and real estate development. Can or will these groups invest in West Bengal in any meaningful way? Can they take the place of the public sector or corporate investment? Chances on both counts are slim. Therefore the point is: How far can this new nationalism go in rejuvenating Bengal? Will it be able to impart an organic feeling to the people so that they can tolerate hardship and keep on supporting this government in the hope of better days to come? Will a nationalist fervour compel the local rich to invest meaningfully 205

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to the developmental agenda of the state? And, finally, will the urban and rural poor find any resonance in this new nationalism and thus provide firm support to this uncertain form of popular politics? The problem with this form of new nationalism is its hollow shape. Hollowness is at times good. It allows flexibility. But the risks are many. It cannot provide any roadmap for resource generation and mobilisation or a durable and meaningful non-corporate path of development. It cannot sustain enthusiasm from below. Even in redefining federal relations its effectiveness proves to be limited. Yet if post-independent India’s political history is any guide, the process of democratisation of society has been inevitably and remorselessly connected with federalisation of the governing structure, including devolution of power below the state level. Autonomy has proved to be a vital feature of Indian politics. In this process of federalisation local nationalist feeling has been instrumental. The problem with this form of the nation is that it cuts both ways: It can help democratisation by forcing wider access to power. But it can be demagogic also. Pretending to be nationalist it can then become the carrier of money power entrenched at the state level, and turn against the radical voices of the society clamouring for justice. Which way this new nationalism will go cannot be predicted right now. To a large extent it will depend on public mobilisation and the attention of the new rulers to the voices of the people.

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Section Five Perennial Themes

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n all societies undergoing transformation certain themes remain of abiding concern, interest and engagement. Popular politics too is largely based on that or we can say, we can trace those abiding themes in an analysis of popular politics. This section deals with two such themes—the national feeling of Bengal and the theme of Kolkata. Both, as I explain in the chapters and the following interview, form part of what Antonio Gramsci called the national-popular.

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42 Eternal Bengal Abridged version of a longer paper submitted at a conference on ‘Bengalis at Home and Abroad’ at Western Sydney University in June 2010

A re-reading of Qazi Abdul Wadud’s Saswata Banga leads to this commentary. Wadud was a famous littérateur in pre-Partition Bengal.

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his book has been a chronicle of transition, yet I want to end it with recalling the theme of eternal Bengal. Few people now remember Qazi Abdul Wadud’s Saswata Banga (1951), the Eternal Bengal. But there is a good reason to recall today that strain of eternal Bengal when ending a chronicle of Bengal’s political present. If the question has been repeatedly raised in the history of Bengal as to what it means belonging to Bengal, it has also implied that this question can be understood only in a historical frame. My intention is to explore briefly that world of reflexive history which, today, in view of the violent and contentious atmosphere in Bengal—I mean here West Bengal—appears to be also politically relevant. There is a line of thinking in today’s cultural historiography on Bengal that extols its language, art, culture and independent intellectual and associational heritage—beginning possibly with Young Bengal and ending with Tagore. The essential features of this received cultural history are supposedly the following: strong impact of romanticism in literature, hence the dominant presence of nature and landscape in art, sensitivities, literature; celebration of nature as life; harmony in the past and harmony of the society, by contrast the calamitous present signified by, above all, the colonial rule and the making of a new Bengali nation based on this aesthetic feeling amidst the calamity. In this way, political and historical identity came to be based on what can be grossly called ‘affect’ and was aestheticised. In short, our self-inquiry has not been through the philosophical route or 209

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even as its substitute through historical route, but through an examination and reconstruction of our aesthetic self. The interrogation and cross-examination of our aesthetic proclivities formed the core of our critical sense of the present. In this background, somewhat simplistically drawn, I want to concentrate on two features: first, the question of death in modern Bengali consciousness and second, the issue of race. My argument is that the phenomenon of transition loomed large over both these issues of death and race; yet both of them were sublimated in such a way in the course of historicising our identity, that the leap from the romantic to the critical remained abortive. Or, to put it more precisely, to be critically aware of the history of our self-consciousness we have to examine this process of sublimation. What is the critical ontology with which we can examine the question of being? How can we relate becoming to being? Or, how do we explain the fact that in the history of Bengali identity a critical sense could arrive in whatsoever limited manner only through the aesthetic? By which I mean the aesthetic negotiation of the two problems of death and race that marked our historical awareness of transition? First, then, is the question of death, because death was the critical issue in this passage or mutation of the modern—from romantic to the critical. It is not that the romantic framework of searching for identity only eulogised life and did not admit the factor of death. The heroic literature that we have in the second half of the nineteenth century would beginn with Nabin Chandra Sen (Palashir Yuddha, 1875), Bankim’s Rajsingha (1882), Ramesh Chandra Dutt’s novels (Bangabijeta, Rajput Jiban Sandhya, Maharashtra Prabhat, all published in 1879) and then Akshay Maitreya’s Siraj-ud-daullah (1896). Some of the novels and writings of that time built probably around the works of Walter Scott, had epic characters dying and some kind of tragedy enacted as part of the romance of life. Yet, it is also true that at the same time, these characters do not tell us the mortal conflicts of the time of transition. Or, if they tell, the narratives focus on the almost ‘historically inevitable’ demise of heroes of the old age and the equally ‘historically inevitable’ emergence of the enlightened Bengali as the modern subject leaving the dirt and death of the time of transition behind. These novelists or writers make use of Sier-ul-Mutakherin (by Sayyid Ghulam Husian Tabatabai, 3 Volumes, first English translation of part of the work published in 1789) and Riyaz-us-Salatin (by Ghulam Husain Zaidpuri, English translation published in 1903) to show that Siraj had to die, and the transition to colonial rule was inevitable given the enlightened ways of the English rule. The death was of an individual person, not of a society. The prince dies, with his death sovereignty passes hand, but there is no indication of awareness that with this a new type of domination begins. Bengal did not have a Mirza Ghalib, who had viewed things differently in the wake of the 210

eteRnal Bengal suppression of the Mutiny of 1857, mass slaughters, and the violent transition in Delhi. Ghalib had written, ‘Now every English soldier that bears arms/Is sovereign, and free to work his will…./The city is thirsty for Muslim blood/And every grain of dust must drink its fill.’ To be truthful, Bengali intellectual intelligibility had no room for owning up to the transition of 1757, the famines thereafter and the peasant revolts characterising the time. Anandamath (1882) narrating the peasant revolt ends as we know by mystifying the issue of sovereignty and transition: When the rebel Jibananda says before the final battle, ‘Let us hasten, let us die on the battlefield’, he is advised, ‘We shall talk of death later. Let us presently say, Bandemataram!’ (the last word translated roughly as ‘Hail Motherland’). But who is this mother? Not the country as usually thought or not only the country, but ‘the dazzling statues or idols of two men’ (figures), one holding the other’s hand, ‘sacrifice (bisarjan) holds the hand of foundation (in the sense of birth, the Bengali word used, pratistha)’. In this mutation, ‘this is what the virtue was like, ‘this is what s/he is now’ and ‘this is what the figure will be’—with this the account ends, and as the novelist tells us, the rebel leader Satyananda, is terrified at the gaze and the prospect of mutation. Even the recognition of 1857 as of central importance in the process of the self acquiring sovereignty was little, except perhaps in the five-volume account of Rajani Kanta Gupta—Sipahi Yuddha (who again took the cue from Kae, Malleson and others, published between 1879 and 1900). Sier, known to the nineteenth century intellectuals of Bengal, tells us of the ways in which the old rule was crumbling down, treachery was all around, greed ate into the levels of society and administration and the political oligarchy along with the financial–military clique survived on intrigue and self-serving measures. It tells of ‘the surrender of common sense’, ‘vanity’ of the aristocracy, the uncertainties of peace, war and truce in that age, and asks rhetorically who could be a ‘high sovereign’ and what could be the marks of princely character and princely qualities. It describes in course of the account of transition the murder of Siraj, the Bengal prince, and the ‘display of the mutilated body on the back of an elephant’ by saying that the prince was ‘slaughtered by way of notifying the accession of new sovereign’ and how Mir Zafar began his reign by placing himself ‘in the abode of sovereignty’. In fact, Syed Ghulam Hussain tells us that Mir Zafar began his reign in a state of intoxication and sleep; meanwhile, Siraj was murdered. In an incomparably economic description of the event of transition, Syed Ghulam Hussain quotes the murderer of Siraj, Miran, the son of Mir Zafar, as addressing a curious crowd in front of the palace, ‘the abode of sovereignty’, on receiving the instruction of his father to take care of the custody of Siraj, ‘Pray Gentlemen, is not my father a curious man with this message? And 211

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indeed as a son to Aaly-verdy-Qhan’s sister, how could I prove dilatory in so important a matter?’ Such was the end of Siraj; revenge brought in ‘revolution’. Sier Mutaqherin is not a simple chronicle, massive in size, but an advice to rulers on how to conduct public affairs and restrict private greed and self-service. Syed Ghulam Hussain tells us that sovereignty passed from the sultans to the Company because government failed; anarchy ensued because the princes lost the art of governing. Thus, though the transfer of sovereignty from one emperor or prince to another was marked regularly by such public acts such as ceremonial entry of the new sovereign in the capital, public prayers, display of the standard, coining of money in the new sovereign’s name and, above all, the murder of the old sovereign and display of the dead body (Tabatabaite of course does not list these like this, but mentions them at several places in his account), yet rule could not be stable as besides the confusing presence of so many ‘nations’ and ‘races’ (as in Azimabad), mercenary administration and ‘dissensions, ruins, and desolation crept under the columns of the Timurian throne’, and there was now a ‘tremendous sign in the air by which Heaven signified its wrath’. Another Ghulam Hussain, Ghulam Hussain Saleem Zaidpuri, also wrote in the same vein in Riaz us Salatin (1788) accounting the way the Sultan rule in Bengal ended and gave way to the Company rule. In the next 150 years after its composition, the Sier again and again surfaced in discussions on sovereignty (say, in the writings of Rajib Lochan Mukhopadhyay, Jogindra Nath Samaddar, Akshay Maitraya, Gaur Sundar Ray, Satish Chandra Mitra, Jadu nath Sircar, and in our days M. A. Rahim, K. K. Datta, Somendra Chandra Nandy, Rajat Kanta Ray and others). For instance, the famous essayist of Bengal Kazi Abdul Wadud referred repeatedly to Sier Mutaqherin as one of most graphic chronicles of the ‘closed destiny of Bengal’ when light simply went out of Bengal’s life. And in these references the issues that repeatedly come up are: Why could we not govern ourselves? Why did we lose out? Even if Siraj was a hero, why did he lose out in that tragic way? In all these inquiries, death does not seem to be a necessary ingredient in the history of a heroic race now destined to lead the national struggle, but only a pointer as to why we needed strong and the ‘right’ kind of character. Siraj was weak. ‘Building up character’ became in this way another trope for return to aesthetics. Thus, poems, novels and plays of Bankim Chandra, Nabin Sen, Akshya Maitreya, Ramesh Cahndra Dutt or the long essays by Wadud and Abul Hussain and the writings of Abul Fazal perch themselves on the connection between heroism and lack of character, and the connection marked by an ambivalence about death and politics itself. Even if politics appears essential and we must involve ourselves in politics, we must prepare through inculcating the right character, which can be done only through practice of aesthetics, and aesthetic education. 212

eteRnal Bengal Therefore, Bankim Chandra would write Krishnacharitra (1886). Even though in this massive work Bankim would address the issue of death—Krishna’s untimely or the self-chosen moment of death—Krishnacharitra is an account of character, wisdom and an exposition of the aesthetics of anushilan or practice. In fact, as I have shown elsewhere, Bankim Chandra’s theory of anishilan in Dharmatattva (1888) tried to lay down a path of practice as a path of virtue, what in modern times we call as practical ethics, developing a political path out of this ethicoaesthetic route required time. Thus, even though Tagore had distaste for politics (which would mean invariably for him killing, death, violence and attrition), yet, particularly in Tagore, we find an equal amount of dedication to prepare the Bengalis as valorous beings ready to counter the scourge of colonial rule. Hence, even the child in his poem ‘Beerpurush’ (1903) dreams to be the warrior on horseback and armed with sword, guarding his mother going in the palanquin through the forest in the dense darkness of midnight. Tagore embraced death more tellingly as he grew old. He already had posed the problem of ‘departure’ in terms of aesthetics in the essay Kabye Upekshita (1900). His aesthetics became increasingly less and less romantic, there was a Socratic detachment, and this death was more a submission to destiny and a realisation that with death life would be fulfilled. Bengalis as we all know identified themselves with his songs, poems, plays and then with his drawings and later paintings, in an impossible and unforeseen way, so much so that while aesthetics became a mark of non-correspondence of a certain philosophy of life to its age, yet till today, politics can acquire mass legitimacy in Bengal only by aestheticisng itself. It must not appear as course and vulgar. You must be ready to go to jail or face the gallows, but you must do so with songs on your lips. Bengal was eternal, beyond history, beyond the rules of life, because it was beautiful, and beauty was virtuous. Kazi Abdul Wadud called this phenomenon as ‘enchanted Bengali’ (sammohita bangali). Yet there remained a problem which we can point out here. If identity means sovereignty of the self, then a sense of collective identity—collective sovereignty—could not be formed without an accompanying sense of achieving some sort of power. Violence and deaths signified the clash of sovereignty. Clash of sovereignty meant that different powers had taken forms, come into contact with one another and were now making claim over the same people and same country to seek rule and guide people’s lives. Clash of sovereignty meant further that contacts must now explode into contentions, rule must be disturbed severely and uninterrupted and undisturbed rule must now crumble down and give way to collective violence. But if this was the path to attain identity, where was the place of beauty and virtue in this? And in what way this identity would be different from that of the western rulers who symbolised violence? Therefore, the 213

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solution that suggested itself was that Bengalis must engage in sadhana (dedication, practice, learning), in which sadhana would involve issues other than god, safety, security and immortality. Sadhana was linked to anushilan and karma (here meaning action). Sadhana was not principally a demand on an individual; the entire nation of the Bengalis would have to be involved. Through conversations the collective sadhana would materialise. This would produce ‘inner strength’— the collective capacity to face death. Individual death could inspire this collective strength. Death had been thus turned into a matter of virtue, the final aesthetics. As the poet sang, ‘Death, you are to me like the Lord….’ But did this solve the problem of identity of the Bengalis? How could the beauty of the land be transferred to being a mark of collective and individual character of the Bengali? It meant above all building up certain marks that would identify the land with the being and for that what was required was the presence of an all Bengal public sphere in which the various fault lines in the society would be submerged. But Nawab Siraj-ud-daulah was a Muslim, a non-Bengali prince, known as fun-loving rent-extracting ruler who might be built up posthumously as a figure of lost sovereignty but not as a figure of the sovereignty of the Bengali self. Again, the numerous peasant revolts were not accepted as actions of the rebellious Bengali—except perhaps in Bankim’s Anadamath—because caste identities stood here as a big hindrance. We can multiply the examples. But the net lesson is the same. It was easy to extol the beauty of the land as singular and unique, but the transference of this virtue from land to its inhabitants was not easy. In this context, we have to take into account the interlude—the second half of the eighteenth century extending to the first two decades of the succeeding one— when early modernity and colonial modernity started interacting with each other, at times forming a single architecture. We have to grasp this specific moment of the arrival of modernity—modern forms of association, language, art, literature, production, city, and politics—in which we find the Bengali thinkers thinking of aesthetics and life that could escape the brutality of the arrival of the modern yet take what was attractive. One can recall here the composition of Madhusudan’s Meghnadbadh Kavya (1861)—a unique moment in a hermeneutic narrative of being a Bengali—for not only here death was being celebrated in an unprecedented way, but the problem of the hero was solved here by making the anti-hero the hero of an epic time. So if the Bengali had been vanquished by the British and Bengal was now a possessed land, so what? Death was the way through which new life could come. Thus it was reminded in Jugantar in March 1906 (the revolutionary journal, the title meaning The End of An Age or The Transformation of An Age) that without connecting its present, past and future, no society could establish itself, and for 214

eteRnal Bengal ‘transformation’ a society needed new ideal, theory, education and, above all, ‘new practice’. ‘Practice’ implied sadhana. Sadhana meant doing with away with indiscipline in thought and lifestyle; it further meant the realisation that individual benefit and collective benefit were dependent on each other. The editor pointed out that under alien rule none of these two was possible and that only with collective good individual good could be assured. But what was collective life? It was above all national life. And what was the fundamental requisite to make national life possible? Again above all, it was ‘appropriate work’, which meant ‘goal-oriented performance’ (upajukta karma ba lakshyabhimukhin anusthan). Jugantar in the subsequent issues went on to illustrate what the group meant by goal-oriented work. Of course it could rarely say that full independence and thorough forcible eviction of alien rule was the goal; therefore, the goal was always explained through what Lenin had called the compulsion of ‘Aesopian language’. The goal was end of poverty, slavery, bad traits in ‘national character’, the infantile attitude in disclaiming responsibility for one’s own action, racist remarks in the society, quarrels, pettiness, cowardice, laziness and, finally and significantly, bad literature. Why bad literature? Because, as the writer surmised, ‘Without a country and without liberty we cannot produce vital art’. In this diagnosis of the ills in the body of the country—and Jugantar rarely used the word jati (nation), it almost always used the word desh (country)—there was little of the invocation of the past glory of the country. If the disease had been recognised, Jugantar argued, redress too had started, first with character (charitra) reformation. Character reform was possible through suitable readings and actions—both individual and collective exercises, which would drill the body and mind into being appropriate agencies for actions. It assured the readers that Bengal did not lack in capacity or ability, it lacked only in determination and contact. Therefore, practice meant finding out ‘right’ people, formation of ‘societies’ at both local and district levels, widen these societies by increasing their membership, organising local movements against ill-effects of alien rule with the aim of inculcating collective spirit, pursuing right style of work and finally ‘appropriate work’, which meant ‘goal-oriented performance’ (upajukta karma ba lakshyabhimukhin anusthan). The Bengali gradually found him/herself at home in this ambivalent milieu of welcoming life and death, aesthetics and politics, domesticity and a desire to take to flight paths, and realism and catholicity that at times verged on a healthy scepticism towards all big and sovereign claims. The Bengali is thus at home in writing poems, at the same time discussing politics and, as a matter of humour, in being a doctor. Life consists of intellect, probing, diagnosing and pointing the ills of society and the body. The combination of aestheticisation, politicisation and medicalisation of the life-world/s of the Bengali makes the question of being the 215

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Bengali a light hearted one, a matter of vulnerability characteristic to the Bengali. Tagore’s character Gora is vulnerable, great characters are vulnerable, the recruit to revolution and war is vulnerable. Life is vulnerable. Death, disillusion and demise can any time take away the greatness of life and convictions. Let me explain little more what I mean by the phrase ‘light hearted one’. If one aspect of this is to accept vulnerability of life and situation, it also indicates an achievement in reaching a threshold in encountering physicality of life, where that encounter would mean locating, deciphering, directing, and interpreting the marks of physicality as marks of virtue and aesthetics. It does not mean of course that art is accepted as the source of being and redemption. It too becomes another ‘ground’ of the interface between aesthetics and the materiality of life—the interface that marks Wadud’s famous title to his collection of the some of the fascinating essays in Bengali literature, namely Saswata Banga. That interface marks our being. The issue of race in the making of modern Bengal is equally interesting and relevant. By race if we mean the most concentrated mark of difference, then Bengal’s experience suggests what a post-colonial resolution of difference could be. And again, Wadud’s writings are enormously suggestive on this. To be sure the question of race appears in modern Bengali thinking in terms of defining who the aliens were, and by that measure, what we would mean by alien-hood. From Bankim Chandra onwards there is a constant attempt to define an ‘alien race’—beginning with defining the British rulers with different colour of skin (white) and by that token many others with same skin colour as of the British conquerors—providing a clue. Yet colour could not be enough. Language and religion also became factors, complicating the race question. Till now rulers were ‘our’ rulers with somewhat perhaps different skin colour, language and by some measure religion. But was this difference so stark as to constitute the rulers into a different race than that of the Bengalis? In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries we do not have much evidence of marking out difference in the process of constituting an identity. But after the Mutiny things started happening quickly on this front. Novels, essays, poems and plays had to deal with the race issue. The impact of the Mutiny and the Wahabi rebellion was felt in the distant villages of Bengal in the latter part of the nineteenth century, as Abul Mansur Ahmed’s Amar Dekha Rajnitir Panchas Bachar (Fifty Years of Politics As I Saw It, Dhaka, 1968) testifies. We have very soon in some writings indications of anthropometric ideas, but not much. More interesting are the cultural, social and religious indications. Therefore even though the Sier was read by various people in the nineteenth century, the dilemma remained: Was Siraj-ud-daullah Bengal’s own ruler? Was he a Bengali prince? If he was not a Bengali, how different was he? In the generic 216

eteRnal Bengal nature of such inquiry we come across two terms in this respect—bidharmi and jati. These two terms have intriguing connotations. Bidharmi is one with different (bi—biporit, opposite; the reference to Wadud’s own compilation of Bengali words, Vyabaharik Shabdakosh 1953) religion. It is not adharma (sin, defiling of religion, sacrilegious). There had always been the problem in modern Bengali being (in both Hindu and Muslim communities), namely, was interaction and relation with a bidharmi an act of adharma? Tagore’s famous novel Gora (1910), possibly built around the historical character of Brahmabandhab Upadhyay (a missionary revolutionary in the early years of the twentieth century and the editor of Sandhya, the anti-colonial journal), discusses among others the issue of bidharma and adharma, and on the question as to whether universalism and cosmopolitanism can rid the Bengali of this problem. Siraj is bidharmi. But does that mean that he is not of Bengal? The matter of language is less important here, because Persian was the accepted language of administrative and court work in Bengal. And, even the local and small princes would have many of the protocols in dress and custom as practised by the Nawabs, or previous to that the imperial aristocracy. Race is thus a complex question in defining a nation. Are therefore the Bengalis a nation or a jati ( jati meaning here not caste, but people)? It seems that in using the word jati again and again Bengali thinking was trying to be nonessentialist. Jati could mean identity of a population group by land, language, religion, caste, colour etc. yet not all at the same time, or a fixed usage at any time. In this unique idea of singularity with singularities, existing in a somewhat Deleuzian sense of fold, we have an indication of the postcolonial resolution of the question of difference. Sanskritic heritage meant little here. The ambivalence is present in the writings of even Bankim Chandra or Sarat Chandra, but much more clearly in Maniruzzaman Islamabadi, Akram Khan, Abul Mansur Ahmed, Tagore, Suniti Chattopadhaya, Kazi Abdul Wadud, Humayun Kabir and who not; whoever tried to think of difference, history and coexistence in Bengal in the past? Take for instance one of the hardest issues in this regard—the Hindu–Muslim difference. Wadud said in his fascinating essay ‘Sammohita Musalman’ (‘The Enchanted Muslim’) that the last 100 years of Bengal Muslims form a period of sadness and grief, because they could not make sense of conflict and collision (sangharsha), when they thought of difference with the Hindus while there was continuous conflict between the marfatpanthi and the alempanthi. He further told in an address to the annual conference of Faridpur Muslim Chatra Samiti in 1927, that ‘we have remained for long mystified with words’, and never saw the reality. And then more directly he posed the question of the nineteenth century idea of the communal difference, divide and split by referring to Sier Mutakherin and Hunter’s The Indian Musalmans. And then arguing that this history was 217

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one of closure caused to a substantial degree by resumption proceedings and a narrative of social split, he asked, ‘When would the Bengali Muslims attain freedom from this closure?’ The closure he suggested was equally of Hindu Bengali history, otherwise why did Ram Mohan’s effort remain confined to the Hindus only, why could it not be all-embracive, and the history he initiated was finally known as Hindu renaissance? His own answer was that the educated public sphere was small with fragile connections with broader society and in this way it remained a problem of intellectual endeavour with limited reach. This emphasis on self-introspection was a mark of the writings also of Wadud’s fellow travellers (Abul Hussain, Qazi Motahar Hossain, Abul Fazal, and Muhammad Shahidullah among others) in search of buddhir mukti (emancipation of intellect). What is clear is the enormous pain marking Bengali thinking as it tried to make sense of the social split while trying at the same time not to fall in the trap of racist thought. As if the query and therefore the search were: how can we live in our specific existential modes but remain together, how can singularities stay within a singularity, thus Hindus and Muslims as singularities in the singularity called the Bengali nation/people or Marfatpanthis and Alempanthis in the singularity called the Muslim society or the Shaktas and Vaishnavas in the singularity called the Hindu society? It is this deep ambivalence towards difference, or any sovereign claim, that made discussions in Bengali informal circles a permanent symposium, known in Bengali parlance as adda. This catholicity was not always treated as virtue; even Tagore wailed, why Bengalis are not decisive, why they like to depend on others’ support. Not that this prevented Bengalis shun the path of hatred or petty mindedness. The Great Calcutta Killings (1946) is inexplicable if we do not consider the complete breakdown of Bengali society in the war time with the famine, the rush of exodus of people leaving in fear of Japanese invasion the nearest ones behind, and the complicity of the Bengali elites and the political class to divide Bengal in order to get rid of the ‘race’ question, and make Bengal homogenous. Bengal’s path to buddhir mukti was linked to the democratisation of society. It meant dialogic negotiation of differences. This was a path that Bengal’s aristocracy, the land-owning class and power brokers chose not to consider. The great experiment to build-up what Antonio Grasmci had in another context called the ‘national–popular’ was over. When we write of ‘blocked dialectics’ and ‘passive revolution’ in explaining our current stagnation, we often fail in taking into account this slice of cultural history. In short, the aesthetic subject emerged in modern Bengal through negotiations with the three political questions of death, race, and the meaning of transition in history. This indicates a type of subjectivity caught in the imagery of a broken 218

eteRnal Bengal mirror, the fragmented aesthetics of the nation in Bengal. The Bengali subject became a brooding person even in rare times of pleasure and conviction. It abjured as far as possible the trials of bravery or sainthood. The Bengali self held on to the aesthetic as a broken image of itself, an image dear to itself. The aesthetic became a ritual of discourse in which the subject was also a subject of politics. Such a situation spoke of four features: (a) it was the unique individuated self that was now the common subject of aesthetics and politics; (b) this division of the aesthetic and political was at once real and virtual; (c) the political self was under the constant examination of the aesthetic and vice versa and (d) finally, the dissatisfaction with the real always resulted in the valorisation of the imaginary—the imaginary world of pure politics, that is politics sanctified by the highest aesthetic norms. This dual displacement, of the real into the imaginary, and the imaginary into the real raises of course a fundamental question: if the imaginary first displaces and then replaces the real, to what extent can we trust the modern Bengali subject speaking of its own aesthetics? To invoke Wadud again, to be enthusiastic was not be ‘enchanted’ or ‘hypnotised’. Muslims of Bengal must be enthusiastic, but not fanatic. Yet as we know though Qazi Abdul Wadud and his contemporaries, and in a certain way blessed by none else than Tagore, tried to end to pangs of alterity (religious dogma and civil society, sacred and the secular, enthusiastic and the fanatic, east and the west of a land called Bengal etc.), Bengal’s subjectivity eternally remained an object to itself. As if, Bengal is the subject that eternally encounters the division of its own subjectivity. Exasperated by this division, Tagore said in the wake of the partition of 1905, ‘Who can divide us if the roots of relations are spread deep between the west and the east (of Bengal, now to stand divided)? If power from outside wants to break us, the force of love will protect.’ And then, Where we are strong, we shall remain resolute. Where it is our duty, we shall remain aware and be responsible for it. Where we have our soul mates (in Bengali atmiya), we shall place our faith and reliance. We shall be never unhappy or dejected. We shall never say that with one act of the government our all round doom is scripted. If that were to be so, then we shall never be saved by an act of cleverness or an opportunity got through providence or government mercy.

We can also cite here the extraordinary career of Munshi Abdul Karim Sahitya Bisharad (1869–53), one of the greatest literary workers of Bengal who will be forever remembered for collecting priceless medieval Bengali manuscripts (punthis) and helping us to understand what Bengali language and literature are today. Byomkesh Mustafi in his introduction to Karim’s collection of the punthis, wrote of the Sahitya Bisharad, 219

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He is a Muslim. He has no right of entrance or passage in a Hindu house. Yet, if he has heard that there is a punthi in a Hindu household, he has gone to that house and stood like a beggar before the door to have a look into the punthi. Punthis are worshipped during the Saraswati Puja day and are brought out at that time. But a punthi cannot be touched by a Muslim on that auspicious day, hence many have not allowed him to even have a look. Some however persuaded by the entreaties of Abdul Karim have shown him the punthis and have turned leafs for the Munshi so that the Munshi could read them. Munshi did not touch them; he had to copy them in this way and write descriptions of these manuscripts.

Abdul Karim himself wrote, We are the morning and the vanishing night stars of an age when Muslims first engaged themselves in modern literary pursuits in Bengali. But I was a deviant. I strayed from the flock of those who had devoted their lives in different ways in the service of Bengali language. My colleagues discussed through the medium of Bengali language and presented before us the lives and deeds of Arabic, Persian, and Turkish brothers. But I chose a different path. I collected the literary deeds of my next door Muslim brothers. My understanding is straight—if I do not know the lives and deeds of my fellow brothers here, what would I do knowing the lives and deeds of brothers of other lands?

In this way Bengal would remain eternal. Aesthetic and ethical thought would forever retain the nobility of Bengal’s identity and that is what would always mark her subjectivity. As we all know, the Left movement in Bengal—at least in West Bengal—drew on these aesthetic resources, till of course governmentalisation of aesthetic and ethical resources and a new patronage pattern created again one more fault line between polite urban culture and the fanatic identities on the street and exhausted the capacity of the Left movement to recreate the aesthetic– political continuum in the making of the Bengali being. Yet notwithstanding the latest twist to the story, or more with this latest turn in the story, we have to admit that this emergence of this split subject torn between the contradictory pulls of the aesthetic and the political cannot be isolated from the historical quest of the modern Bengali subject to know him/herself as a living, working, speaking, performing, agitating and animating subject. Possibly this aesthetic subject always acted as the other of politics, the other world that made politics possible. This history is most evident when we find in Bengal the aesthetic subject conjuring up scenes of revolution (think of the frenzy on the streets of Kolkata in the sixties of the last century over the rebellious play Kollol) and creating what Kant called the ‘enthusiasm’ for the great act (even though artists in the broad sense of the term were least responsible for it). This was the permanent plane of immanence—of enthusiasm, madness and then melancholia. 220

43 “It Does Not Die”—Urban Protest in Calcutta, 1987–2007 Conversation with Ranabir Samaddar by V. Ramaswamy

V. Ramaswamy is a grassroots organiser, social planner and writer. He has translated The Golden Gandhi Statue from America: Early Stories by the Bengali anti-establishment writer, Subimal Misra. The interview note was taken on 8 October 2008 as part of a project on urban history. V. Ramaswamy (2011) ‘“It Does Not Die”—Urban Protest in Kolkata, 1987– 2007’, South Asia Multidisciplinary Academic Journal, 5, Theme ‘Rethinking Urban Democracy in South Asia’; the introductory note was also written by him (http://samaj.revues.org/ index3230.html).

[Ranabir Samaddar is a leading social scientist and a thinker of India, and founder of the Calcutta Research Group and its journal Refugee Watch. He is known for his critical studies on contemporary issues of justice, human rights, and popular democracy in South Asia, in the context of post-colonial nationalism, trans-border migration, community history, and technological restructuring. His recent books include The Emergence of the Political Subject and The Materiality of Politics. Samaddar grew up in a family of communist associations. As a student in Calcutta during the turbulent 1960s, Samaddar was closely involved in the radical political activism of that time, which culminated in his incarceration. After his release he completed his studies and took up a job as a school teacher and then a college lecturer. He also devoted himself to exploring a new political practice in the prevailing scenario of West Bengal. During the 1980s, he was a founding member of a workers’ solidarity platform in Calcutta, which was active in uniting former radical political activists in public action and communication. Among the initiatives of the platform was the building of a squatters’ movement in Calcutta to press for a halt to evictions and for substantive resettlement. Samaddar was also the Coconvenor of the No More Bhopal Committee, a voluntary forum established in the wake of

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the Bhopal gas disaster in 1984. Together with workers and trade unions, the Committee spearheaded public activism and action-research in Calcutta on issues like occupational health and safety. In the late-1980s and early-1990s, Samaddar studied the political economy of emerging technological restructuring in India and globally. He was a Fellow in the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta during 1989–92, and subsequently attached to the Maulana Abul Kalam Azad Institute of Asian Studies. Through the 1990s, Samaddar devoted himself to studies and publication. The Calcutta Research Group (CRG), a coming together of academics, activists, lawyers, trade unionists, journalists and women’s rights activists, was set up in 1996 as a facilitating group in support of the peace movement in Calcutta, particularly the conference of the Pakistan–India People’s Forum for Peace and Democracy. After a stint during 1999–2003 as the Director of the Peace Studies Programme at the South Asian Forum for Human Rights, Kathmandu, he returned to Calcutta to establish the CRG as a full-time research and teaching institute of civil society with a rights and justice orientation. Samaddar has been a close observer of the city of Calcutta, its plural society, politics, civic activism, and people’s movements. A massive wave of protests erupted in Calcutta and West Bengal in late-2006, just a few months after an overwhelming electoral victory for the CPI (M)-led Left Front government of the state of West Bengal. The protest was against land acquisition by the state in Singur, a fertile agricultural area, for transfer to Tata Motors for their car manufacturing plant. In early 2007, there was a conflagration of violence in connection with state plans for land acquisition in Nandigram for a chemical hub. Later in the year, violence erupted in rural areas across the state in protest against the malfunctioning public distribution system. The city of Kolkata was also an epicentre of protest agitations on all these issues, both by the principle opposition party, Trinamool Congress (TMC), led by Ms Mamata Banerjee, as well as independent, leftleaning activists and intelligentsia. There was another groundswell of protest in Kolkata city after a youth, Rizwanur Rahaman, who had married a Hindu business magnate’s daughter and faced police harassment, was found dead in September 2007. In November 2007, the city saw a major protest rally against the ruling CPI (M)’s violent actions in Nandigram by the intelligentsia and civil society. Later that month, violence suddenly erupted one morning in Kolkata, in protest against the residence in the city of the exiled Bangladeshi writer Tasleema Nasreen. In the context of the uninterrupted rule and continuous electoral victories since 1977 by the Left Front, in a state where the intelligentsia and civil society had traditionally supported the left, 2007 marked a turning point. In 2008, Ranabir Samaddar wrote an essay on the prescribed, tolerated and forbidden forms of claim-making in the light of the intense protest agitations in Calcutta and in the state of West Bengal. This interview took place in Calcutta in October 2008, as part of a project commissioned by the Centre de Sciences Humaines, New Delhi, to compile a series of activist narratives on urban protest in Calcutta, 1987–2007, a contribution to an international research project on participation in urban governance in Indian and South African cities. Samaddar talks about the “Mamata phenomenon” and analyses its development. This is remarkably prescient in the light of the unexpected electoral reverses suffered by the CPI (M) in the federal parliamentary elections in India in May 2009, and also in the municipal elections in West Bengal in May 2010, as a result of which a once all-powerful party, with no political opposition, has been reduced

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to powerlessness and faces the prospect of certain defeat in the imminent state assembly elections, thanks to Mamata’s opposition. – V.R.]

How would you describe Calcutta of the 1980s? Calcutta of the 1980s was not Calcutta of the 1960s. Although in the 1980s people tried to do various things in terms of protests, the nature of social and political protest had actually changed. By the mid-1980s, disillusionment with socialism and with China had set in. And in 1989 there was the collapse of the Berlin wall. The Communist Party of India (Marxist), or CPI(M), had hegemony over the state and the urban middle class. Urban radicals and erstwhile Naxalites were somewhat active, but fundamentally speaking, there was nothing of significance happening. Some of us radicals were trying to recreate the protest movements of the 1960s and early-1970s—with that kind of radicalism of students and youth, the disregard for social strictures, an immense belief in human will, an uncompromising attitude to certain things and the commitment to a dialogical process. But the society was not suited to that. It was fatigued and defeated. The revolutionary crust of the society had been decimated. There were also new aspirations now. Students did not want to study in Calcutta, there was an exodus to Delhi, the middle class wanted to send their children abroad for higher education. Thus one was faced with the first backlash of the defeats of the 1960s and 1970s. The period in question can also be seen as one of decline of the CPI(M). They came to power in 1977 with a huge mandate, which was further strengthened in 1982. Even though they were involved with the atrocity in Morichjhampi in 1979, this did not really register in the public mind. The early 1980s also saw the jute mill strike and the Gorkhaland agitation in North Bengal against Bengali sub-nationalism. The political landscape was polarised. There was the CPI(M), as the establishment, the discredited Congress in opposition, and the Naxalites, who were seen as adventurist. But the latter had an instinctive appreciation of people’s issues, a kind of “populism” rather than “intellectualism”. This was, however, quite different from the more recent brand of populism that we see with Mamata Banerjee. Besides, there were also independent leftists/Marxists, like Biren Roy and Ajit Roy, who published the Marxist Review journal. But Calcutta of the 1980s was a passive, dead city, materially and politically. Large numbers of factories were closed. Deindustrialisation was very real, with the largest number of factory closures being recorded in the 1980s. In the 1960s there were militant trade unions, and the student movement of that period must also be seen in the light of the militant labour movement. The Congress was not 223

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a party used to urban protest. Even in the period of the nationalist movement, it was only the radical section of the Congress which was involved in urban protests. So, as an opposition force, it needed someone like Mamata, someone uncorrupted, to come out and find her feet in the political terrain. In the early 1990s, there were elections (parliament and state assembly), and there was the 14-party campaign against the Left Front government. A realisation was dawning that the old style of protest was not possible any more. And of course, globalisation had begun and the aspirations of the middle class had begun to change. Do you see anything ‘unique’ about Calcutta? And how do you view the massive changes that have visited Indian cities like Calcutta and Bombay over the last three decades? Calcutta does have a unique streak, of protest. It is an anarchic city, disdainful of law. That can be understood too, for its having been the second city of the British empire, and having endured famine, partition, deindustrialisation, and the terrible violence of 1971, besides the whole intellectual tradition. Pune too had an intellectual tradition, with its upper caste Brahmin ethos. It was the only city comparable to Calcutta in colonial times, in terms of high erudition, engagement with modernity and modern politics. There was Bombay, with its great tradition of working class movements. But ultimately that comes to a close with the death of the trade union leader, Datta Samant, and into that vacuum steps in the Shiv Sena. Why did Bombay not go the way of Calcutta? That can’t be explained simply in terms of Bombay being the financial capital. Bombay was a cosmopolitan city, not at all a provincial one. There was less of the petty bourgeoisie and more of the working class. But there was a huge transformation with the deindustrialisation in the city. This overall transformation, in the role of technology, with the notion of sunset industries and sunrise industries, and restructuring taking place accordingly—the 1980s was the period when all this happened. Bombay did well in that process, with sectors like oil, oil exploration, financial services and real estate, although its earlier concentration of textile and engineering industries was now over. But Calcutta lost out completely in this process of technology-induced restructuring and transformation. Bombay had a richer hinterland now, including Gujarat, with the latter’s massive industrial growth involving technological restructuring, as well as Karnataka and Kerala, the last with its linkage to inflows from the Gulf. The Bombay hinterland had a wide spread of industries. The IT sector was also beginning to come up. Bombay was now the most cosmopolitan centre. Though Calcutta also had a rich hinterland, was cosmopolitan, had a huge 224

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spread of industries, had industrial hubs like Durgapur, Rourkela and Bhilai in its hinterland, yet Calcutta died. The spirit of the city died by the 1980s. The 1960s saw the last cry of defiance of a city that was going down in any case. Can one talk about a ‘defining feature’ of Calcutta? Has this changed? A city like Calcutta definitely has a character of its own. There are networks, there is social capital, there is a particular pattern of education. Some things are learnt, one is taught to value and treasure certain things. There were clubs (youth associations in paras or neighbourhoods), where youth spent their evenings. All great cities of the world show three or four key qualities. London, New York and Paris, for instance. A pride in the past. A robustness that endures. It is not just a question of amenities. The city must lend itself to the character of a collective. The city is a place of struggle, and a battle for resources. There are deep networks. Calcutta fits the bill in these terms. The life of the city, the roots from which it drew strength, all these were drying up. Petty bourgeoisie education, the old-style schooling, the neighbourhood and community bonding, non-conformism, certain values—all were vanishing. With privatisation of education or the disappearance of neighbourhood playgrounds, social dis-integration grew, a cognitive separation of classes. With a process of transformation one should ask: what is transformed, and what remains? The attempt was to transform Calcutta into an orderly, well-regulated, well-policed, governed, predictable entity. The lawlessness and vitality were sought to be controlled. This used to be a city where anything could happen at any time. That was sought to be changed. What strikes you as the most significant change in Calcutta? There used to be no risk in Calcutta. That is changing. When someone says “larke lenge…” (“we’ll fight for it”), it denotes a complete confidence, with no diffidence arising from any perception of risk or insecurity. This was the attitude of the rabble, a definite feature of Calcutta. That anyone has a right to do something. But this is something that causes difficulty to economists, banks, bourses, chambers of commerce and communication systems. They want the city to be a haven of trade and commerce, with free circulation of information and traffic of all kinds. Remember, Calcutta compelled even Robert McNamara, the President of the World Bank, to travel by helicopter from the airport to the city because of the massive protest demonstrations against him. Calcutta was a kind of primitive ground, of the attitude “This is mine”. The government was there, but government control over the city was shaky in those days. 225

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Risk is the shadow of security. No consciousness of security existed in the 1960s. There was no anxiety. They were simpler times, and life was simpler. When people have no consciousness of “security”, they can take risks. Social classes and groups in Calcutta were prone to a culture of protest. They were so prone to this because there was nothing called risk involved in doing that. The youth didn’t have a sense of risk. Anything and everything was do-able, nothing was impossible. That was a distinct feature of Calcutta. All great cities of the world had this speciality, of provoking the imagination, prompting a sense of freedom, of desire. Notwithstanding the deindustrialisation and economic stagnation, do you see any positive feature in the 1980s and 1990s as far as Calcutta was concerned? The 1980s and 1990s were decades of transition. It was a subdued period. The classic type of Calcutta protest underwent a change by the 1980s. The issues and the methods were different. The protest against squatter evictions in Baghbazar in early 1988, led by the Chhinnamul Sramajibi Adhikar Samiti (Organisation for the Rights of Uprooted Labouring People)—that could be called a classic one. There was wide-ranging participation, there were rallies as well as a hunger strike. Voluntary organisations like Unnayan, or VHAI interacted and worked together with leftist political activists and groups. Not to provide money or funds. After the Bhopal gas disaster, there was an enormous amount of activism. A considerable amount of mobilisation was achieved, there were meetings and sit-in demonstrations. New issues also emerged, e.g. against automation, in support of peasant women in North Bengal or in support of sub-regional grievances in North Bengal etc. The most important event of this period was the 14-party campaign against the state government, in the early 1990s. The issue of public transport and bus fares came to the forefront. That may be seen as a kind of link between the past and the present. For the first time since coming to power, the CPI(M) was on the backfoot. Following the protests led by Mamata in the early 1990s, thirteen supporters of Mamata Banerjee, of the Congress, were killed in police firing in Calcutta on 21 July 1993. In 1990 there had been a violent attack on Mamata Banerjee herself. Another important event in Calcutta was the convention of the Pakistan–India People’s Forum for Peace and Democracy, in 1996. This was organised entirely by the civil society. Then we have globalisation, with its effects coming to the fore around 2000. All the key, cutting-edge issues being articulated today, in this age of globalisation, were actually given voice to in the 1980s and early 1990s. 226

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One cannot be uncharitable to Calcutta of these two decades. During the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s, it was not just leftist protests. There were movements of subaltern people, or urban radicals, and there a genuine desire for a better life. The Left used that underlying urge. In every radical society, after a change takes place, the new rulers’ task is to stop unrest. Otherwise they would not be able to manage the transition to a new path, and to make the diversions necessary for this transition. The Soviet Union, China, Central Asia, all show this pattern. That iron grip over the society was what enabled the Soviet Union to prevail in the Second World War. Unruliness must be stopped. But of course, we had particularly bankrupt Bengali rulers, who simply did not know how to do this. Calcutta represented a problem for all systems. After a period of massive unrest, and riding on a wave of popular discontent, the ruling party, the CPI(M), wanted to stymie the unrest in society. In the latter part of this period, this thrust is stronger, and yes it happens too, but does that mean the sinews and branches that sustain protest are wiped out? We would do injustice to the 1990s if we said protest died out. It does not die. The autonomy of politics, of the city’s own innate character … to give credit to Calcutta, even after something like the massacres of the early 1970s having taken place, once the CPI(M) and the Left Front came in it took only about ten years for the spirit of the city to find its feet. That expresses itself in the activism of Mamata. She could be called “populist”. But populism is enormously important in the initial stage for the restlessness of society to re-emerge. In a period of poverty of politics, of corruption, and degeneration of politics into protection-extortion, people’s issues are articulated by voluntary activists. Mamata’s populism may be seen as a fall-out of that. Mamata may be seen as the true child of the left project on the soil of Bengal. Do you see any difference between Calcutta and, say, Delhi, for instance in terms of civil society organisations? Another facet of Calcutta was that one did not see the emergence of big, “corporate” NGOs, like PRIA or CSE of Delhi. Even Oxfam in Calcutta was not like that. People treated NGOs like the erstwhile civic associations. It was the lower middle class who were working in NGOs. They were not entrepreneurial. In the specific situation of Calcutta, NGOs did not go the way of their counterparts in Delhi. Here there was a notion that whatever is done has to relate to the public, that the public must be with you, that is to say the unruly fellows on the street. There were people who acted as conscience-keepers, with their taunts about 227

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“but what do the people say?” Thus organisations like Unnayan or VHAI also helped in the revival of social protest. They provided radicals a place to assemble and some money for public programmes. In turn these people gave a kind of legitimacy to the organisations. Otherwise they might have gone the way of the NGOs in Bangladesh, or those NGOs who are now being attacked by the Maoists. So the voluntary organisations were a typical transitional fabric. They enabled the protest dynamics to continue. Other civil society efforts, e.g. APDR and human rights and civil liberties activists, were also part of that. Today we have a consciousness that is vaguely leftist, but it is not based on an ideology. There is an issue-based coming together. The human rights movement is like that. This culture emerged with the help of the voluntary organisations. A new culture of protest was being formed. The power of the people of the city to be a nuisance to the rulers—was not exhausted. It took only a decade—the eighties—to constitute itself again. The agenda of global capital to restructure Calcutta—one really cannot say whether that can ever be successful. Paris, London, New York, Milan, even Bangkok—all were successfully restructured. In comparison to any Indian city, Bangkok witnessed massive transformation, with every kind of infrastructure being implanted. But today we find violent protests on the streets of Bangkok. Or look at Hyderabad—today we have Cyberabad, linked to the airport, bypassing the old city, and representing a new entity, in the context of the new global economy. Lewis Mumford has written about how the highways transformed New York, decimating the unruly Bronx. Labourers are the split soul of the city. Labour from the provincial hinterland builds the new city, like Cyberabad. Where do they go after that? They either die, or become drunkards or prostitutes, or are a travelling army of labourers proceeding to build the next new city. Today’s city is not the city of the 1960s. The “dirty things” of the city remain of course, but they are kept outside the city. Colleges, universities, voluntary organisations, new types of organisations—all these helped the culture of protest in Calcutta to survive. Hence we see, in the context of today’s Calcutta, the ruthlessness and fury of Tata: the desire to restructure, and the anger at not being able to do so. Tata has to deal with politics, willy nilly. He shouldn’t have to do so. Whether one is a neo-classicist or an Adam Smithian, economics, in the sense of the pursuit of happiness, is kept separate from politics. But now globalisation is compelling corporate capital to engage in and control politics, and equally, politicians cozy-up to industrialists. But that is a kiss of death. Rulers need to leave a neutral space in which they can engage with the ruled, that is the independent space of politics. 228

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Rulers cannot afford to be shown as partisans. They have to stand above or rise above partisan considerations. If politics and business mix then capital loses a free ground to act in. Hence we had the wall around the car plant in Singur, which was built at gunpoint, under Section 144 (banning public assembly). Politics has to embrace capital in order to modernise the city and make it governable. Capital is extremely frightened here. How do you view left politics in Calcutta at the present juncture? Left politics is dead in Calcutta. Something new is emerging, a social phenomenon, one could call it a new left if one wants. These twenty years, 1987–2007, were crucial for the emergence of this new politics. Calcutta is still showing the way, even after its decimation. One must not underestimate this transition period, the last two decades. How would one explain the reservoir of protest that we see right now if everything was lost after 1977? More philosophically, Bengal is still a pioneer, but so are Tamil Nadu and Kerala partly, but their imagination is still rural and governmental. Bengal is not anti-modern, but it is still the land that is producing counter-modernity, while engaging with modernity. William Carey, Rammohan Roy, Vidyasagar, Tagore—all accepted modernity but were still discontented. Why? They were for modernity plus something. Bengal was the first land to be colonised and modernised. Hence it has the most deep rooted appreciation, intellectual and spiritual, of what colonial modernity is all about, while of course retaining feudal features. Bengal continuously accepted this modernity but interrogated its inadequacies, never satisfied with the given version of modernity. There is an obsession with justice. “Is it just? What are the yardsticks? Can it be better?” The CPI(M) did not understand this truth. The peak of a mountain is the point from where the descent begins. How do you view the emergence of coercion to support the requirements of globalised capitalism, for instance as witnessed in Singur or Nandigram? Is primitive accumulation (i.e. extra-economic, coercive) a historic phase of the past? Or does each phase of capitalism revisit and repeat the story of its primitiveness? Globalisation is supposedly the latest phase of capitalism; it is supposed to make Lenin outdated, and so on. But it is said that “everything is surreal, nothing is concrete, except capital”. The real story of globalisation is something else altogether. Actually, once again, non-capitalised terrain has to be “primitively” acquired and brought to the fold of capital. Globalisation revisits its own past, but in real time. 229

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Tata has also undergone transformation. Their business is today global, and principally through acquisitions. And India is like a colony of this multinational. The metamorphosis of Tata has taken place at the same time as the spotlight was on Reliance. Reliance began with primitive accumulation, with skulduggery. Reliance clicked because it benefited from globalisation. They possessed superior business skills, but they had also switched to the major new fields. Reliance is another classic story of business development. But Tata had begun as an investor, as an industry builder. For sure, they were exploiters. In fact, the Communist Party of India in Bihar was groomed in struggles against Tata. What new industry has that Tata taken up? It had to exit from many spheres (e.g. Haldia Petrochemicals, steel production in Bangladesh). But they have acquired companies internationally. Tata Motors has come to be more significant in the Tata group. The acquisition of Jaguar may be seen in that light. Tata is now like the old British managing agencies, with a foot in everything. West Bengal had its heritage of enlightenment and an industrial working class, but was suffering economic stagnation. It was encumbered with a backward economy in comparison to other parts of India. It had its crust of anglicised and westernised elite. The period of the 1980s and 1990s must be seen in such a context. Bengal was searching for a line. And that line comes, not with Narmada, but with Nandigram. Nandigram is a project that has been in the making for 20 years. It is the fate of West Bengal and therefore the city of Calcutta primarily, to bear the mark of each stage of capital’s growth in India. The struggles in Singur and Nandigram are necessarily against capital, while the Narmada struggle, despite everything else, could not cross the limits of humanitarianism and become directly and politically anti-capital in the way Singur and Nandigram became. Just like Calcutta had to bear the brunt of weavers’ thumbs being cut (in the East India Company era), once again, today, Calcutta faces a similar situation: because Bengal is recalcitrant and resistant.

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Section Six Postscript

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he postscript picks up from where it left in the Introduction: the theme of passive revolution. Passive revolution throughout this book appears as the other scene of radical politics. It is not free of popular politics. Therefore, is its complexity.

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rder comes after mortal blows, if not death blows, to the rebelliousness of society. This happened in West Bengal in 1977. Society was at that time fatigued and scared after almost one decade of rebellion, bloodshed, anarchy, authoritarian rule and the nightmares of massacres. People voted massively for Left Front and brought it to power. If there was hope for reforms in rule, there was also the hope that stability would return, with some assurance of life. Left Front prolonged its rule with the card of stability along with the promise of assuring good life. Something of that nature is happening today. With the misrule, widespread violence at lower levels, anarchy, stagnation, financial disorder and peasant rebelliousness marking the last phase of Left Front rule, people again massively voted for regime change. And once again we hear calls to peace, order, attempts to start new dialogues with the society, promises of stability and, attached to all these, warnings to the rebels of severe consequences if they persist with disorder and revolt. One of the chapters in the last segment in the main part of the collection, therefore, is on the death of Kishenji. Mallojula Koteswara Rao, known as Kishenji, was a non-Bengali, yet in the later years of his life he and the politics he personified dominated the political scenario of West Bengal as never before. For the purpose of this volume I decided not to pursue the contemporary time any further, for with Kishenji’s death one phase of Bengal’s current history seems to have come to an end. After two brief attempts, the Left Front had emerged in 1977 as a party of order by becoming part of the official political world and responsible to the protocols of rule. It successfully cleaned itself of marks of extremism and restlessness associated with radical Naxalite ideas and practices. However, Naxalism remained as the Indian reminder of agrarian revolution and other associated radical ideas. All through the long Left Front rule Naxalite activities continued, and Naxalites 233

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tried to regroup—sometimes with a modicum of success but often suppressed and successfully marginalised by the Left Front with both coercion and social consent—till the Maoists effectively regrouped and re-emerged as a real popular force in the south west of West Bengal. Order has now returned with the suppression of them, at least as of now. We shall need time and composure to find out if the rebels would be able to tide over their loss, search out new paths and encourage new politics in West Bengal. Likewise, we shall need time and composure to find out if the present party of populism, the Trinamool, will irrevocably take the rightist way in order to come out of the crisis that the present economic condition of the state symbolises in as much as Kishenji’s death does. Also the question will remain: is the path of the traditional Left that once rested on many a popular struggle but ended up with rotting in the representational game, corruption, petty governmentality and eschewing all kinds of vision, finally over? We shall also know if the new trend of populist movement marked by a strong anti-establishment tenor and equally strong grassroots personalities will be able to institutionalise itself successfully as a party of order and reform and, therefore, at least for the time being a party of dialogues. This is the ongoing story of passive revolution. Passive revolution in such account is also the story of transition. We can take the cue from Antonio Gramsci in order to understand how society moved away from the path of radical change, but we have to situate this understanding in the specific context of Bengal, postcolonial and critical at the same time. This means making sense of the postcolonial reality in the combined framework of elements such as transition, defeat of radicalism, coalition of propertied classes, a state of blocked dialectic, gradual reforms, governmental reason built on reforms and appearance of stability as the supreme condition of life. Yet the dialectic of revolution / passive revolution never dies. This dialectical understanding gives us at the same time a parallel sense of renewed conflicts and of the reemergence of a radical subjectivity that is impossible to comprehend in the mirror of an unqualified theology of passive revolution. Popular democracy is democracy as practised by the people in an epoch of passive revolution. Therefore, whatever may be the answer to the above mentioned possibilities, there is no doubt that the answer will be decisive for the future of popular democracy in India. For years to come, the story of this transition will remain important as lesson in popular politics and governance.

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Index ABN Seal College, 74 administrative-tourism-conference centres, 12 Advani’s rathayatra, 39–41 aesthetics, 219–20 Ahmed, Abul Mansur, 216 Amar Dekha Rajnitir Panchas Bachar, 216 Anandamath, 211 Ayodhya, 37, 39 Bachelard, Gaston, 87 Bag, Haradhan, 132 Banerjee, Mamata, 54, 91, 101, 119–20, 145, 155–56, 158–60, 165 errors in judgment, 194–97 governance style, 175–77 Bangabijeta, 210 Basu, Jyoti, 57, 91, 153 Basu, Kamal, 17 Bata shoe Co. Ltd., 25, 29 Bengali consciousness, 210 Bengal’s economic woes, 186–89 Bhangar Rajarhat Area Development Authority (BRADA), 172, 175 Bharat Leather Corporation, 26 Bhattacharya, Buddhadeb, 88, 118 Bhopal disaster, 6, 20, 23, 221 Bhupendra Nath Datta Institute, 5 bidharmi, 217

BJP, 55 Boiler Act, 4 Bombay textile strike, 6 Bonus Act (1965), 30 Brooke Bond, 26 Burdwan district protests, 134–35 Calcutta, 8, 80 bourgeoisie, 14 civic services, 17–19 consumerism, 14 defining feature of, 225 globalisation effects, 226–27, 229–30 Left politics, present times, 229 NGOs in, 227–29 pollution issues, 21 restlessness in, 114 1980s, 223–25 1990s, 226–27 satellite towns, 14–15 significant change in, 225–26 structural imbalances in development of, 14 tanneries of (see tanneries of Calcutta) Calcutta Municipal Corporation, 17, 19 capitalism, 38 capitalist modernization, 46 Chakrabarti, Prafulla, 67 Chakrabarty, Nripen, 91

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Chatterjee, Bankim Chandra, 210, 213 Chatterjee, Tapas, 173 Chaudhury, Binoy, 91–92 Chicago Riots, 13 Citizenship Act of 1955, 108 city, housing in, 10–11 civil societies in India, 104–5, 161–63 civil society of West Bengal, 102–11 dichotomies with, 106–7 social movements, 107–11 civil war in West Bengal, 139–41 claims and counter-claims, politics of, 118–37 Clean Air Act, 21 Clean Water Act, 21 communist politics during Jyoyi Basu, 92–94 community harmony, 40 Congress (I), 53, 55 Contract Labour Act (1970), 30 Coochbehar Raj, 73 cooperative movement, 5 Swadeshi days, 6 Corbusier, 10 cordon sanitaire, 9 CPI (M), 56, 99, 124, 127, 131, 143, 153, 155–56, 158, 172, 174, 201 CPI (ML), 47–48 Dasgupta, Jayanta, 95–98 Denham Report, 105 Devi, Suniti, 73 Drakakis-Smith, 9 Dutt, Ramesh Chandra, 210 Eaton, Richard, 69 election campaigns, 54–59, 164–66 election-centric representative system, 155–57 Eluard, Paul, 114 environmental campaigns, 21

Environmental Protection Agency, 21 Eternal Bengal, 209 Factories Act (1948), 30 Factory Act, 4 Fear At Work, 21 Food Movement in West Bengal, 108 French politics, 113–14 Gambhir, Gautam, 204 Gandhi, Rajiv, 6 Ghalib, Mirza, 210–11 ghetto uprisings, 13 Gopalan, A. K., 91 Gorkha Jana Mukti Morcha (GJMM), 178 Green movement, 20, 23 Grossman, Richard, 21 Gupta, Rajani Kanta, 211 Harrison, Paul, 12 Hazare, Anna, 161 hegemony, 40 Hindustan Lever, 5 Hobswam, Eric, 14 Housing and Infrastructure Development Corporation (HIDCO), 172–73 housing in metropolis, 10–11 hunger in West Bengal, 76–79 under Left Front rule, 78–79 Hussain, Syed Ghulam, 211 indigenous people, 109–10 Industrial Disputes Act (1947), 30 industrialisation of Bengal, 88–90 Industrial Relations Bill, 3 Irish Famine (1845–1852), 77 Janata Party, 153 jati, 217 job blackmail, 21, 23

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Index jobs versus environment, 21–22 Jugantar, 214–15 Junglemahal movement, 179–80, 198 Junglemahals revolt, 110 jute industry, 5 Kabye Upekshita, 213 Kalyani, 15, 19 Kazis, Richard, 21 Khan, Shah Rukh, 204 Kolay Biscuit, 4 Kolkata; see Calcutta Kolkata Knight Riders, 204 Konar, Hare Krishna, 92 Krishnacharitra, 212 labor discontent, 112 Land Acquisition Act, 118 land reforms, 92 Left activism in West Bengal, 45 Left Front politics, 100, 153–57, 229 Left’s vision of a socialist India, 38–39 Legislative Councils, 155–57 Lok Shabha elections, 142–44 Maharashtra Prabhat, 210 Maitreya, Akshay, 210 Mamata phenomenon, 54, 57 Maoist movement, 101, 159–60 Marginal Men, 67 mass organizations and mass movement, 45–52 Maternity Benefit Act, 30 Mazumder, Charu, 45 megalopolis, 15–16 Meghnadbadh Kavya, 214 Metcalf, Thomas, 68 migrants of Bengal, 63 as an issue, 71–72 anxiety, 70 border zone and, 65

factors determining migration, 68–69 illegal immigrants, 63–64 internal migration, 68 Muslim peasantry, 69–70 namasudra migration, 69 Nepali migration, 179 peasant, 67–68 population exchanges, 66 refugees, 67 trans border migration, 67 migration, phenomenon of, 9–10 migration in South Asia, 63–64 Misra, Amaresh, 49, 51–52 Misra, Vinod, 47 Mitra, Asok, 18 MKSS, 46–47 modern city, 17 Moorehouse, Geoffrey, 8 Mukherjee, Ajay, 153 Mura, Patu, 78 Namboodiripad, E. M. S., 92 Nandigram, 90 Narayan, Naharaja Nripendra, 73 Narmada Bachao movement, 108 National Campaign Committee, 6 nationalism in West Bengal, formation of new, 204–6 National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA), 77–78, 99 NCCRS, 47 New Poor Law of 1834, 77 New Right in India, 41 approach to liberalization, 42 ideology and politics, 42 national agenda of, 43–44 nation-building effort, 42 social base of, 42 Nitya Gopal Saha of National Tannery, 4 non-corporate path of development reforms for, 183

237

PassIve RevolutIon

In

West Bengal

resources for, 184 role of public-private partnership (PPP), 184 Nuclear Safeguards Initiative (California), 23 Ole John Company, 9 OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration), 21 Party Unity Group, 47 Payne, G., 10 peace politics, 145–47 political change of West Bengal, 201–3 political culture of West Bengal, 53 political society, 103–4 politics of cooperativization, 6 politics of production, 6 population exchanges, 66 populism, 59 Provident Fund Act (1952), 30 public distribution system (PDS), 133–35 Rajarhat area, 81 demography, 81–82 New Town project, 82–86, 172 number of workers, 83 poverty situation, 82 Rajput Jiban Sandhya, 210 Rajsingha, 210 Rana, Kumar, 78 Rao, Mallojula Koteswara (Kishenji), 198–200, 233 ration revolt, 133–35 Ray, Siddhartha Shankar, 17 Roy, B. C., 17 ruralization of towns, 18 sadhana, 215 Salafi, Abul Halim, 71

Salwa Julum, 180 Santhal Hul of 1855, 109 Saswata Banga, 209 Second Darjeeling Accord, 179 second partition of Bengal, 1945–47, 71 secularism, 38–40, 43 Sen, Keshab Chandra, 73 Sen, Nabin Chandra, 210 Sen, Sanjay, 29 Shree Gouri Shankar Jute Mill of Shyamnagar, 4 Sier, 211–12 Sier Mutakherin, 218 Singur land acquisition issue, 118–32 Sinha, Arun, 45 Sipahi Yuddha, 211 Siraj-ud-daullah, 210 socialism, 38 Soviet Revolution, 50 State Leather development Corporations, 26 subjectivity, 218–19 Suman, Kabir, 155 Sundarayya, P. S., 91 super-urbanization, 19 symbol of society’s liberal unity, 37 Tagore, 213 Tahirir (Liberation), 190–93 tanneries of Calcutta. See also tanning industry in India Chinese, 25 E.I. leather manufacturing, 25 legislative measure by tannery owners, 30 reason for decline, 25–26 supply of tannery labour, 29 tannery workers, 24–25 unionization, 24–25 work process, 24 tanning industry in India, 24–25

238

Index export earnings, 27 factors contributing to occupational illness and accidents, 31 gender of labour, 32 human resources, 30 involvement of household members, 29 minimum basic wage, 32 problem of ‘informal’ nature of production, 28 tanning capacity, 26 unionization, 35–36 vegetable tanning, 28 work space and living conditions of labourers, 32–34 Tatas, 26 Thakur, Karpuri, 203 theory of quotidian politics, 105–6 Third World cities, 11 Third World urbanization, 9–10 crime, 13 dehumanization of people, 12–13 structural imbalance of, 11–14 Toxic Substance Control Act, 21 trade unionism 80s, 3 Trade Unions Act (1962), 30 trade union tactics, 5 transitional changes in Bengal, 169–71 Trinamul Congress, 143–44, 155, 170

Trinamul politics, 100 truth telling, ways of, 149–51 unions and environmental campaigns, 22–23 Urbanisation, Housing, and Development Process, 9 urban population of West Bengal, 18 urban ulcer, 8 Usha, 4 Victoria College courses, 74 departments, 74 library, 73–74 Wadud, Kazi Abdul, 213 Weiner, Myron, 43 West Bengal labour scene, 80s, 3 ESI conditions, 5 industrial relations, 4 participative management, 4 work stoppages, lock-outs and lay-offs, 4 Workmen’s Compensation Act (1923), 30 Wretched of the Earth, 8 Wright, Frank Lloyds, 10 Yadav, Mulayam Singh, 39

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR Ranabir Samaddar is the Director of the Calcutta Research Group, Kolkata, and belongs to the school of critical thinking. He has worked extensively on issues of justice and rights in the context of conflicts in South Asia. Samaddar’s particular researches have spread over a wide area comprising migration and refugee studies, the theory and practices of dialogue, nationalism and postcolonial statehood in South Asia, and new regimes of technological restructuring and labour control. His recent political writings The Emergence of the Political Subject (2009) and The Nation Form (2012) have signalled a new turn in critical postcolonial thinking and have challenged some of the prevailing accounts of the birth of nationalism and the nation state.

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