West Bengal under the Left 1977-2011 9780367348502, 9780429328442


373 41 10MB

English Pages [328] Year 2020

Report DMCA / Copyright

DOWNLOAD PDF FILE

Table of contents :
Cover
Title
Copyright
Contents
Notes on Contributors
1 Introduction
I: Politics and Parties
2 The Left Front in West Bengal: From Movement to Government
3 The Left Extremist Politics in West Bengal: from Birth to Resurrection and Beyond
4 The Left Front and The Politics of Regionalism in West Bengal
II: Politics and Policies
5 Governing Urban West Bengal: The Left Front Experiment
6 Industry in West Bengal during the Left Front Regime
7 Agriculture under the Left Front Regime in West Bengal
8 Lost Decades? Human Development in West Bengal with Special Focus on Health
9 Elementary Education in West Bengal: Issues in Governance and Political Economy
III: Politics and Society
10 The Caste Question and Decline of The Left in West Bengal
11 Muslims, Christians and The Left in Bengal
12 Women/Community and Politics in West Bengal
13 Ganashakti 'The enormous pair of bellows': Tracing the History of the Party Organ
14 Civil Social Initiatives in West Bengal
15 Epilogue
Index
Recommend Papers

West Bengal under the Left 1977-2011
 9780367348502, 9780429328442

  • 0 0 0
  • Like this paper and download? You can publish your own PDF file online for free in a few minutes! Sign Up
File loading please wait...
Citation preview

HBK | w: 139.7mm; h: 215.9mm; sp: 21mm | Design: 19 | RAPS ticket: 212312 | Created: 16:2 20/6/19

WEST BENGAL UNDER THE LEFT Edited by Rakhahari Chatterji and Partha Basu

Print edition not for sale in South Asia (India, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bangladesh, Pakistan or Bhutan)

an informa business

ISBN 978-0-367-34850-2

www.routledge.com

Routledge titles are available as eBook editions in a range of digital formats

,!7IA3G7-deifac!

WEST BENGAL UNDER THE LEFT 1977-2011 Edited by Rakhahari Chatterji and Partha Basu

West Bengal under the Left 1977-2011

Edited by

Rakhahari Chatterji Partha Pratim Basu

Levant Books India

First published 2020 by Routledge 2 Park Square, Milton Park, Abingdon, Oxon OX14 4RN and by Routledge 52 Vanderbilt Avenue, New York, NY 10017 Routledge is an imprint of the Taylor & Francis Group, an informa business © 2020 Rakhahari Chatterji and Partha Pratim Basu and Levant Books The right of Rakhahari Chatterji and Partha Pratim Basu to be identified as authors of this work has been asserted by them in accordance with sections 77 and 78 of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reprinted or reproduced or utilised in any form or by any electronic, mechanical, or other means, now known or hereafter invented, including photocopying and recording, or in any information storage or retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publishers. Trademark notice: Product or corporate names may be trademarks or registered trademarks, and are used only for identification and explanation without intent to infringe. Print edition not for sale in South Asia (India, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bangladesh, Pakistan or Bhutan) British Library Cataloguing-in-Publication Data A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data A catalog record for this book has been requested ISBN: 978-0-367-34850-2 (hbk) ISBN: 978-0-429-32844-2 (ebk) Typeset in Minion Pro 10.5

Preface The Left Front government, a social democratic regime, served seven successive terms within an electoral democratic framework in the state of West Bengal between 1977 and 2011 and thereby created a record of sorts not only in the Indian context but in the history of parliamentary politics as a whole. Its early success was attributed to measures such as land reform and redistribution and consolidation of the Panchayati Raj experiment in democratic decentralization which drew wide attention in India and abroad. However, while the run of its electoral success continued unabated, signs of degeneration set in since the 1990s and the government finally – despite registering a dramatic win in 2006 under the new chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharya – lost its way in the quagmire of SingurNandigram land acquisition controversy and collapsed in 2011. The present volume attempts a comprehensive review of the Left Front regime’s career under three sections. The first section titled ‘Politics and Parties’ concentrates on political developments: the backdrop of its emergence and overall performance; the factors of stability and facets of change; the trenchant critique offered by the left extremists; and the regime’s response to the sub-national Gorkhaland demand in the northern fringes of the state. The second segment under the heading ‘Politics and Policies’ interrogates the government’s major policy initiatives which covers urbanization, industry, agriculture, health and education and seeks to assess the fit between promise and performance. The third cluster probes the interface of ‘Politics and Society’ and deals with issues such as caste, community, gender, media and civil society. Finally, an Epilogue has been added to assess the political trends following the fall of the Left Front government. The contributions have been made by experienced researchers and faculty members affiliated to several leading academic institutions of the state. The book is expected to cater to the needs of students, research scholars as well as interested members of the general public.

Kolkata 1 March 2018

Editors

CONTENTS

Notes on Contributors 1 Introduction Rakhahari Chatterji

1 3

I : Politics and Parties 2 The Left Front in West Bengal: From Movement to Government 19 Apurba Mukhopadhyay and Partha Pratim Basu 3 The Left Extremist Politics in West Bengal: from Birth to Resurrection and Beyond Amitabha Ray 4 The Left Front and The Politics of Regionalism in West Bengal Shibashis Chatterjee

40 66

II : Politics and Policies 5 Governing Urban West Bengal : The Left Front Experiment Ambarish Mukhopadhyay

91

6 Industry in West Bengal during the Left Front Regime Srikumar Bandyopadhyay and Partha Pratim Basu

113

7 Agriculture under the Left Front Regime in West Bengal Partha Pratim Basu

136

8 Lost Decades? Human Development in West Bengal with Special Focus on Health Satyabrata Chakraborty

159

9 Elementary Education in West Bengal: Issues in Governance and Political Economy Achin Chakraborty

181

III : Politics and Society 10 The Caste Question and Decline of The Left in West Bengal Praskanva Sinharay

203

11 Muslims, Christians and The Left in Bengal Bonita Aleaz

223

vi

12 Women/Community and Politics in West Bengal Bandana Chatterji

245

13 Ganashakti ‘The enormous pair of bellows’ : Tracing the History of 267 the Party Organ Nilanjana Gupta 14 Civil Social Initiatives in West Bengal Amartya Mukhopadhyay 15 Epilogue Rakhahari Chatterji Index

286 306 313

Notes on Contributors Achin Chakraborty, Director, Institute of Development Studies, Kolkata. Amartya Mukhopadhyay, Former Professor, Department of Political Science, University of Calcutta Ambarish Mukherjee, Professor, Department of Political Science, Vidyasagar University, West Bengal Amitabha Ray, Associate Professor (Retd.), Gurudas College Kolkata and Guest faculty, Rabindra Bharati University, Kolkata Aprurba Mukhopadhyay, Former Professor, Department of Political Science, Burdwan University, West Bengal and Netaji Institute for Asian Studies, Kolkata Bandana Chatterji, Teacher in charge (Retd.), taught Political Science at Shri Shikshayatan College, Kolkata Bonita Aleaz, Former Professor, Department of Political Science, University of Calcutta Nilanjana Gupta, Professor, Department of English, Jadavpur University, Kolkata Partha Pratim Basu, Professor, Department of International Relations, Jadavpur University, Kolkata Praskanva Sinharay, Research Associate, India International Institute of Democracy and Election Management, Election Commission, New Delhi Rakhahari Chatterji, Former Professor, Department of Political Science, University of Calcutta Satyabrata Chakraborty, Former Professor, Department of Political Science, University of Calcutta Shibashis Chatterjee, Professor, Department of International Relaions, Jadavpur University, Kolkata Srikumar Bandyopadhyay, Former Reader, Department of Political Science, City College, Kolkata

1 Introduction Rakhahari Chatterji This book can claim to be the sequel to an earlier book, Politics in West Bengal: Institutions, Processes and Problems published in 1985. The earlier publication examined the decline of the Congress and the growth of the Left in West Bengal between 1947 and 1982. The present volume wants to take the story further focusing on the successes and failures of the Left in government leading to its dramatic decline towards the end of the first decade of the new century. When in the state elections in 1977 negotiations between the newly formed Janata Party and the Left parties broke down, the latter decided to contest separately as the LF (Left Front) with much trepidation. For the big success of the Janata Party in the post-Emergency Lok Sabha elections had overwhelmed everyone. Yet the electors in West Bengal did not miss the opportunity to re-elect the Left and with a thumping majority for atoning the injustice done to it in the aftermath of the elections of 1967, 1969 and 1971 and during the elections in 1972. The people were happy in giving the CPI-M a healthy majority within the LF and in seeing Jyoti Basu, always considered the quintessential leader of the Bengalees, as the chief minister. The Naxal violence had abated, and the authoritarian elements within the Congress had been decisively humbled nationally as well as in the state. Bengal’s left leaning intellectual ethos, liberal political values and a rich cultural tradition based simultenously on rationalism, secularism, spirituality and religiosity expected the LF government with a strong popular mandate under the leadership of Jyoti Basu to restore peace and tranquility and initiate economic development through industrialization, rural reforms and generation of employment. There was cautious optimism all around. This optimism sustained the LF for more than three decades despite the prolonged power shortages, frustrating industrial and employment situations, frequent bandhs helping no one, occasionally drowning into the dark pits as in the cases of Bantala molestation and murder, Marichjhanpi

4

West Bengal under the Left (1977-2011)

atrocities, or murder of Anandamargis in broad daylight in the streets of Calcutta.1 People had so much conviction in Jyoti Basu’s leadership and in the CPI-M’s incorruptability that they were ready to buy these as aberrations or as motivated propaganda by the bourgeois press to sully the image of the party. Hence, even if the allegations of vote rigging in elections were partially true, it does not explain the overwhelming proportion of votes and seats that the CPI-M and the LF were able to bag in election after election. These indeed were positive expressions of popular confidence in the LF led by the CPI-M. Although between 1977 and 2006 in every election save one (2001) the CPI-M received absolute majority of seats in the legislative assembly, it took care to keep the Front as a coalition together though not without hitches, tensions, and severe strains in relationship among the Front partners. If this was good for appearance of some kind of left unity, it also helped the major party to keep serious electoral challenges at bay. The Congress despite claiming around 40 per cent of the electoral votes remained marginalized in the state, sometimes some of its leaders being accused of surviving at the sufferance of the CPI-M, shifting their locations, as it were, between the inner core and the outer skin of a watermelon, the reference being to the colour green of the Congress and red of the Left. The one leader who could throw a real challenge to the CPI-M, Mamata Banerjee, was kept in leash by the other leaders within the Congress for the better part of the 1990s either for their own reasons or for reasons of the national party which during that decade was under the compulsion of courting the CPI-M (and many other state parties as well) for survival against the rising threat of the BJP. In this perspective, much of the electoral success of the CPI-M, especially from the 1990s onwards, was by default. Had the party genuinely realized it, it should have directed its attention to organizational discipline like keeping its cadres under control, being in touch with the people, and not opening the flood gates to admit hordes of opportunists instead of flaunting its electoral success through arrogance. Writing in 1991, Atul Kohli found West Bengal as the best governed state in India, for the CPI-M could provide political stability, marginalize political violence generated by casteist, communal and political extremist forces and bring commitment and capacity closer together.2 This certainly was no mean feat after the decade of violence from 1967 to 1977. Through its most successful programme, “Operation Barga,” it secured tenurial rights for the landless labourers in a labour-abundant agrarian economy.

Introduction

5

The other flagship programme of the CPI-M-led LF government was to regularly hold elections for local urban and rural governments. Its attempt to reinvigorate the panchayati raj and to genuinely decentralize power through effective democratic participation at the rural level in favour of the poor was a remarkable idea. It also ensured that women participate in Panchayat bodies and assume more frequently decision making roles. By repeatedly talking about ‘limited power’ of the state government within the federal and bourgeois set up in the country as a whole the party succeeded in minimizing popular expectations from the government. As the party in power while it governed it also resorted to mobilizational activites through periodically organizing strikes and bandhs against some anti-left conspiracies, or central government policies or capitalist and global imperialism which allowed it to keep the cadres active and mobilizational activity at the grass roots level going. Operation Barga created a lot of positive enthusiasm for the Left Front in rural West Bengal producing a solid vote bank among the middle, lower middle and poorer sections and also among the Scheduled Castes and Tribes within the rural population. This vote bank helped the LF to weather variations in urban support over the years and proved to be a solid support base for the CPI-M until the beginning of the Singur and Nandigram campaigns of Mamata Banerjee. It cannot be denied that Operation Barga coupled with greater opportunities for participation at the panchayat level, apart from producing economic benefits, also gave a rare self confidence and sense of self respect to the rural poor. Yet the benefits of Operation Barga could not be sustained for long for the beneficiaries because it was not supported by making agricultural inputs available at cheaper prices or marketing of the produce easier for these marginal farmers. Reports started to pour in from the late 1990s that these farmers are selling off their lands for survival. Decentralization of power and of development planning through invigorating the panchayati raj institutions at the rural level was supposed to be another major achievement of the LF government. The CPI-M, which came to power with support from urban middle class bhadralok, the refugees and to some extent industrial workers, realized that urban support base could be fickle and hence they must extend their hold on the rural folks to sustain them in power over the longer run. If “Operation Barga” helped them create this support base, decentralization through the panchayati raj institutions went to solidify and stabilize their rural vote bank.

6

West Bengal under the Left (1977-2011)

It would certainly be a mistake to understand this as the only real motive of the CPI-M behind these policies. There is no doubt that the party was genuinely and sincerely interested in securing the interest of the rural poor and the landless. It stemmed from the ideology of the party as much as from the personal experience of rural leaders like Harekrishna Konar and Binoy Choudhury. So also was the case with decentralization of power through the panchayats. Yet, as we have already pointed out, the fruits of “Operation Barga” could not be sustained over the years in the absence of long term vision and ideological clarity. It failed to create a class alliance in rural Bengal which could be positively oriented towards the upliftment of the poor peasantry. In the case of decentralization the initial enthusiasm was soon dissipated by the discovery of the rise of a new class of people representing the party and using the party connection as a structure for realizing personal ambitions. They were the rural party cadres supervising the development activities of the panchayats and disciplining the rural folks against any deviation from party line or party’s dictats. These cadres, and through them rightly or wrongly the party, came to penetrate and dominate every aspect of rural life, the family or home life not excluded. Frequently, violence became the means for eliminating defiance or deviance. Thus, whether intended or not, decentralization of power in rural Bengal led to a decentralization of the powerful. If in the earlier times the power elite was concentrated in the capital city of Calcutta, now there were many smaller editions of the power elite spread through the villages generating fear and awe among the village folks. The omnipotent presence of the party cadres completely altered the chemistry of rural life: the self contained and bounded network of relations within a village became fragmented and connected with strings of power rooted in places unknown to the villagers. Simplicity and openness of the past were replaced by an overwhelming fear and a sense of dependence. In contrast, urban life was more peaceful. The party’s face here was in conformity with middle class bhadralok taste. Elections were more free and fair in Kolkata than in the villages. The party was more tolerant of criticism. It accepted loss of power in Kolkata Corporation elections more than once. The LF, after coming to power, ended the utter lawlessness in examinations at different levels of education to the great satisfaction of the middle class. The cadres were less visible in Kolkata and the party’s control of the teachers’ organizations, students’ unions or government employees’ associations was more sophisticated.

Introduction

7

Despite the calm and the sense of security that the urban middle class appreciated and enjoyed, with the onset of globalization gradually a realization began to set in that the state was not doing much on the industrialization front or on the employment front. The spread of education was good, but the education was not of high quality nor was it tuned to creation of useful skill. The reduction in the number of years of English language teaching and a relaxation with regard to language teaching in general made the educated youths poorer in communication skill. Thus the spread of education led to heightening of expectations among the young in both rural and urban settings without making them more competitive in the job market. Despite Jyoti Basu cultivating good relations with the industrialists, apart from real estate, there was not much interest in making investments. The poor quality of urban infrastructure was certainly a major damper. Besides, despite the LF distancing itself from such working class agitational techniques as the gherao, it failed to enhance labour productivity or to promote commitment to work ethic and discipline. Gradually people began to feel that the CPI-M and the Left have probably developed power fatigue. Buddhadev Bhattacharya, once installed as the Chief Minister, tried to instill some elan into the government, but probably it was too slow and too late. Arrrogance of power became so overwhelming among both the leaders and the cadres that they increasingly isolated the people rather than communicated with them. They stood helpless as Tata’s proposed investment in Singur instead of being projected as the dawn of second industrialization of Bengal came to be seen as the CPI-M’s betrayal of the peasantry.

* Many of the problems, shortcomings and weaknesses that the Left Front government, and particularly its leading constituent the CPI-M, was gradually becoming victim of were being pointed out at least from the mid1980s by researchers and scholars. For instance, Partha Chatterjee in his regular contributions to Frontier magazine between 1984 and 1990 started to point out some of these problems which had potential of becoming insurmountable in course of time. Chatterjee, who maintained close touch with the developments especially in rural Bengal, of course conceded that compared to the 1960s and 1970s, there had been a ‘qualitative change’ in the ‘attitudes and self-confidence of the majority of poor, landless, low-caste peasants in West Bengal villages’ brought about by the panchayat institutions under the Left, yet found that it has failed to create a situation wherein the

8

West Bengal under the Left (1977-2011)

rural poor could either demand right of subsistence or identify the new institutions of rural power as their own.3 He found, writing in March 1984, the state of the public sector so abysmal under the Left that ‘it has had to make an offer, unprecedented in India, to private capitalists to take back some of the units now languishing in the nationalized sector’.4 Not only in the areas of economy or politics, even in the cultural field the Left was quickly losing imagination and creativity. Talking about political theatre, he found while allegations of favouritism and partisan bias were largely unfounded, ‘(J)ust as the workers’ and peasants’ or students’ movements have lost their militant edge, in much the same way political theatre has lost its bite’ which it was famous for in the earlier decades in Bengal.5 And strangely, he pointed out, there was no awareness of the debilitating forces creeping into West Bengal’s politics on the part of the Left, especially, of course, of the CPI-M. The Twelfth Party Congress of the CPI-M held in Calcutta in 1986 found everything about the working of the Left Front government in West Bengal hale and hearty: ‘(I)f there were questions in the minds of the delegates regarding the future implications of some of the present policies, those questions have been effectively silenced, not by providing theoretically grounded answers to them but essentially by ruling out any theoretical discussion’, wrote Chatterjee.6 Similarly, Ross Mallick in his study of West Bengal drew attention to a self-critical inner party document prepared by the Burdwan District Committee of the CPI-M which was withdrawn from internal party circulation. This showed, according to Mallick, that the party was unable to admit criticism from whatever source.7 Mallick, in fact, pointed out how the party as well as the Left Front, working within a federal constitutional structure, fell in a bind, for it could not risk violence nor was it motivationally prepared for taking forward class conflict in the urban sector while its dependence on the middle peasantry prevented it from taking land reform measures to their logical end and politically organizing the lower classes in the rural sector.8 Even the efficiency of its implementation of reforms and development programmes, often introduced and supported by the central government, ‘has been average at best, and more often lower than in most other Indian states’.9 Thus, Mullick observed, ‘with neither socialism nor capitalism developing’, the CPI-M (and the Left Front) fell into the trap of winning elections for the sake of retaining power.10 In an article based on field survey conducted during 2003-05, Abhirup Sarkar argued that the flood of development that marked the onset of the

Introduction

9

Left rule in West Bengal came to a halt in the decade of the 1990s.11 He located the Left Front’s long electoral success in the fact that the poor and the backward sections of the rural society have been consistently voting for the Left. The reason for their consistent support he found not in their economic gains, for there was hardly any; rather it was the product of their sense of gratitude for the dignity they had gained during the Left rule which they never had before.12 If Abhirup Sarkar was trying to understand the reason for the durability of the Left, Pranab Bardhan, in his contribution to the same volume tried to explain the reasons for the downfall of the Left Front in West Bengal.13 Bardhan argued that the collapse of the Left Front in 2011 was not primarily for the land acquisition issue. Rather it was the product of the regulative, oppressive and overwhelming presence of the Left Front, meaning essentially the CPI-M, in every aspect of the daily life of the people in the localities which the people came to consider as unbearable and unacceptable. While the party had created a mafia raj for the ordinary people, it lost control over the lower rungs of its own leadership. Its decentralization initiative failed to lead to spontaneous democratization of the rural society. The Front had patronized the unionized school teachers, health workers, clerks etc. such that without their mediation in no way people could get service in any of these arenas which legitimately they could claim. He also pointed out several areas demanding urgent attention which the Left Front had completely neglected. For instance, it did not find interest in organizing the unorganized and the informal sector in the labour market; its aspiration for monopolizing power led it to ignore the contribution to society and the economy that the NGO sector could make and left that sector, and associational life in West Bengal in general, unsure and impoverished; it did not consider co-operative movement as important; the Left’s overwhelming dependence on the middle and small farmers made it impossible for it to organize the peasants on wage issues as that would directly hit the interests of the former; finally, when land acquisition became unavoidable for industrialization, it failed to identify and act upon modes of compensation which could be of long term benefit for the land losers. The Left failed to find a middle ground such that both industrialization and rehabilitation could proceed apace. On the economic policy front Bardhan felt it was barely essential for the Left to come out of the hypocrisy of rejecting liberalization and accept market capitalism as unavoidable. There is no two opinions about

10

West Bengal under the Left (1977-2011)

market capitalism’s many negative aspects. But the Left indeed had the option of mobilizing people on issues like uncontrolled inequality and the environmental damage that it produces, demands for rehabilitation of the poor, environment protection and macro-economic stability. Here also discovering a middle ground was needed which the Left could initiate but neglected to pay attention to at the cost West Bengal’s long term economic and social development. As a result, not only was the Left Front no different from any other state government in India; in fact, its performance was inferior to many non-Left states. Finally, Dwaipayan Bhattacharyya in a recent study has comprehensively examined the performance of the Left Front government, especially in rural West Bengal where, incidentally, the signature as well as the epitaph of the Left Front were written, and has confirmed many of the above arguments with detailed evidence.14 He points out, while the CPI-M positioned itself at the centre of the rural society in Bengal, its support base, as seen from the composition of the panchayat bodies, were young males of higher social status and predominantly owner-cultivators and teachers.15 The limited character of social mobility that the Left could bring about was seen in West Bengal’s static rank on the Human Development Index between 1981 and 1991.16 The CPI-M successfully retained its support for a long while among the lower castes, the poor and the Dalits through its ability to deliver material benefits to them without making ‘a serious engagement with the inner structures of social hierarchy’.17 While the promise of reform which helped it to galvanize support in its early years gradually melted away, it became afflicted with ‘bureaucratic habits’, ‘corrupt and accumulative tendencies’ and the governmental institutions, losing their innovative sheen, ‘became dated and ineffective’. In no time the people could see through the screen and ‘the organic link between the reformist party and the local society began to disappear’. The people could realize, as Bhattacharyya argues, that ‘the party had lost moral authority to represent them’. While any sign of association with the party was a mark of status and power in the past, now it came to seen as ‘intrusive, totalizing, and threatening for their newly sensitized autonomy’.18 In his detailed analysis of Singur and Nandigram episodes which ultimately became instrumental in bringing down the Left Front rule, Bhattacharyya finds no fault in either industrialization or in acquiring land, even fertile ones as that might be unavoidable for factories in West Bengal. What went wrong, according to him, was that the CPI-M chose to violate its

Introduction

11

own earlier practice of ‘a consultative governmental process’ in which the local leaders and the local people were taken on board for implementing policies.19 The Left leaders now ‘took the population for granted’ and ‘indulged in smug unilateralism’20 leading to the complete loss of credibility of the local leaders on the one hand, and complete loss of public sympathy for the party on the other.

* If 2011 elections brought disaster for the CPI-M and the Left Front in West Bengal, it marked Mamata Banerjee’s fulfillment of a dream. She fought the elections in alliance with the Congress (I) and won for her own party 184 seats out of a total of 294 Assembly seats. And in 2016 elections, she surpassed her own record to win 211 seats without any alliance with any other party. This far outnumbers the highest tally that the CPI-M as a single party has ever achieved. Of course, it is necessary to know why the CPI-M failed so miserably after 34 years of continuous rule, as the scholars discussed have done. But it is also legitimate to ask how was it possible for the CPI-M and the Left Front to survive in power for as long as they did. Counterfactuality notwithstanding, I would like to argue that the CPIM’s (and the LF’s) unexpected durability could have been terminated sometime in the 1990s had there been another party willing to replace it in power, something like what happens in Kerala or Tamil Nadu. But it could not happen because there was no other party genuinely interested to oppose them until the birth of the Trinamool Congress in 1997. In 1977 elections the vote share of the Congress (I) had dipped below 25 per cent but it swung back to 35 per cent in the subsequent elections in 1982 and it continued to remain in the neighbourhood of 35 per cent until 2001. But the state Congress(I) failed to translate this public support into legislative seats. In fact, the party was too fragmented, and unwilling to take on the ruling dispensation in a way that could bring about regime change. Rather they found greater comfort in remaining ensconced in their party positions with the CPI-M’s covert support on condition that they keep Mamata Banerjee at bay. Despite being in the Congress from the 1970s and her stints as General Secretary of West Bengal Mahila Congress(I), General Secretary of All-India Youth Congress(I) or President of West Bengal Youth Congress(I) she was denied the office of the president of West Bengal Congress(I) and the opportunity to lead from the front. With her one point

12

West Bengal under the Left (1977-2011)

agenda of removing the CPI-M from power she was the odd person out within the West Bengal Congress(I). Finding the opportunity to lead the state Congress(I) to that goal blocked forever, she decided to float her own party, the Trinamool Congress in 1997. Indeed, Mamata Banerjee could sense that the enthusiasm generated by land reform and decentralization through panchayati raj in the 1980s had ebbed by the 1990s and a section of the public were thinking of change. Shortly after floating of her party, she achieved success in the Kolkata Municipal Corporation elections in 2000.21 More important than that, in the first state assembly elections that her party fought as a separate entity from the Congress(I) in 2001, she was able to capture 60 seats and 28 per cent of the votes, easily pushing the Congress(I) into insignificance with only 26 seats and single digit vote share (interestingly, the Congress(I) could not recover from that position until 2016 elections when in alliance with the CPI-M it could achieve around 12 per cent of the votes and 44 seats)22. Even though in 2006 she got half the seats she won five years back, her base of support had expanded further and she captured nearly 36 per cent of the popular votes—a remarkable achievement. There was clear indication that her TMC had occupied nearly the entire opposition space in West Bengal and the Congress(I) was completely marginalized (see Table 1). In the panchayat elections of 2008 which followed the Assembly elections she could really achieve a regime change in rural West Bengal, something which was unthinkable a few months back. Her shifting alliances with the NDA and the UPA, in 1999 and 2009 respectively, allowed her to become the central railway minister twice; but more than that, this gave her opportunity, on the one hand, to learn politics and administration more closely and on the other, to create an all-India standing for herself and her party as she was maturing into leadership. Table 1.1: Major Parties in West Bengal Legislative Assembly Elections Total Seats= 294 2001

2006

2011

2016

Seats

V o t e s Seats (%)

V o t e s Seats (%)

V o t e s Seats (%)

Vo t e s (%)

CPI-M

143

36.6

176

37.1

40

33.1

19.2

TMC

60

28

30

35.9

184

38.4

211

44. 9

INC

26

08

21

05.9

42

09.5

44

12.3

26

Sources: The Telegraph 20 May 2016; Dwaipayan Bhattacharyya, Government in Practice, 214.

Introduction

13

Through her many protests and agitations and through her many failures she was hardening as a leader with a single minded goal of occupying the Writers’ Building, the seat of power in West Bengal. The CPI-M and the Left Front meanwhile, sat comfortably with the understanding that with a subservient state Congress(I) and with a central Congress depending on its support for ruling in Delhi there was no threat or challenge to its tenure in power in West Bengal. It decided to treat her movements as personal tantrums bound to disappear in utter futility; or simply as a law and order problem, and not a serious political challenge. It took public support for granted. It thought it had a moral right to define what was democratic and to coerce people if they do not spontaneously come forward in support of its definition of democracy and development.23 With their rule sufficiently routinized and bureaucratized, with corruption eating into their vitality and popularity, with arrogance pushing them into isolation, the CPI-M and the Left Front were living in the paradise of the unthoughtful when the tragic drama began to unfold in Singur and Nandigram. The government’s response lacked both political wisdom and moral responsibility. Mamata Banerjee’s moment had come.24

* Of course, it is possible to point out many shortcomings, wrong or untimely decisions, faux pas and misdirected projections of the CPI-M and the Left while in power which led to their electoral decimation in 2009 and finally in 2011. Changes in personnel and policies of the central CPI-M also had an impact on the functioning and fate of the LF government in West Bengal. But at the end of the day one has to admit that no party in a system of competitive electoral democracy can or should stay permanently in power. As we have mentioned above, for close to two decades it was in power not by its own virtue or rather despite its many vices, only due to the absence of any effective challenge. It is true that while in power it suffered from the dilemma of being true to its ideological commitment of a revolutionary class party on the one hand and, on the other, becoming a liberal party with loftier intentions and better ability to provide a clean and effective government oriented to development than any other party available in the political market of West Bengal or even of India. Unfortunately, it ended up being neither. As a result, West Bengal, instead of being able to make a distinguished mark on the Indian political landscape for being ruled by the CPI-M-led LF government, fell back in terms of performance compared with many other states under the rule of conventional parties. For its

14

West Bengal under the Left (1977-2011)

survivability in the future, the CPI-M will have to come out of this dilemma sooner rather than later. It has to unashamedly decide whether to occupy the liberal-left- secular space which increasingly fewer parties deserve to claim whether in West Bengal and even in India and which constitutes the most dangerous vacuum in India’s political space as the most valued traditions on which our civilization is founded are coming under severe attack or it would remain confined to the Leninist-Stalinist model, which had utterly failed and aspire for the mythical space for a proletarian revolution.

* In the following chapters the authors have asked questions like: how could the Left led by the CPI-M come to power in West Bengal and stay for so long? What were its achievements and failures? Does its rule, seen in the context of its policies and performance, mark it as a unique experiment in India’s state politics? * In chapter two, Apurba Mukhopadhyay and Partha Pratim Basu have drawn attention to the evolution of the CPI-M in power during the thirtyfive years of its rule and has explained its electoral demise in terms of both the organizational deficiencies it developed and the ideological dilemma it faced. The external forces such as globalization further accentuated these problems and the party failed to cope with these. Amitabha Ray (chapter 3) examines the issue of Left extremism as a force opposed to the CPI-M, first in the form of Naxalites and then reincarnating as Maoists in the early years of the present century. He shows how the CPI-M failed to negotiate political extremism and allowed the Maoists to be lapped up by Mamata Banerjee’s anti-LF movement to create a huge space for a successful antiCPI-M agitation in West Bengal. In chapter four, Shibashish Chatterjee looks at the multiple drivers of regionalism in India. For West Bengal, he focuses on financial regionalism which is rooted in the state’s demand for a fairer share of the national financial resources, and on cultural regionalism which embeds itself on one or more identity markers. While financial regionalism is a novel way of conceptualzing the state’s tensions with the Centre, cultural regionalism within the state (sub-regionalism, if you may) for the last three decades has been most threateningly represented by the demand for Gorkhaland. Chatterjee has made a critical assessment of both the issues under the LF regime. Ambarish Mukhopadhyay in chapter five has discussed governance issues, reforms, problems of institution building and inclusive growth in urban West Bengal during the LF rule.

Introduction

15

In chapter six, Srikumar Bandopadhyay and Partha Pratim Basu have turned their attention to the controversial issues relating to industrialization under the LF rule. They point out how the core problems creating hindrances to industrial development in the state, like poor infrastructure, low work culture, difficulties of land acquisition were ineptly handled leading the big industries to bypass the state. Partha Pratim Basu in his chapter on agriculture (chapter 7) draws attention to the achievements and limitations of the land reform programme of the LF government, the slowdown in agricultural output in the 1990s and the LF’s attempt to revive agriculture through a new policy in 2002. He shows how it remained a ‘muddled response’ as a result of the LF’s (and of the CPI-M’s) failure to resolve the conflict between a pragmatic outlook dictated by globalization and the ideological stance it refused to jettison. In the next four chapters the authors respectively examine the achievements and limitations of the LF/CPI-M’s policies in the areas of health, education, minorities and women. If there were some achievements in all these areas, the LF itself created major roadblocks or failed to resolve some of the pre-existing ones. Compared to other states, the left government in West Bengal could not make any mark of distinction in these issue areas. In chapter twelve, Nilanjana Gupta has looked into the origin and evolution of the CPI-M’s Bengali organ, Ganashakti through the period of its rule specially concentrating her analysis on the issues in the election years. She points out the crucial role the organ played in the various campaigns that the party undertook and argues that it reflected the growth of the party itself. In the final chapter (13), Amartya Mukhopadhyay has examined the role of the civil society in West Bengal’s politics both during the heyday of the Left and during the time of its decline. If the civil society was tamed and hegemonized by the Left in the earlier years, from the 1990s onwards it began to reassert itself, finally tying up with Mamata Banerjee’s Singur and Nandigram movements. In the context of the experience of this rather long period the author asks how can the civil society avoid taming and cooption and yet play a positive role in society. Endnotes 1.

2.

Amal Kumar Mukhopadhyay, Bangali Rajnitir Panchas Bachhar (Fifty Years of Bengal Politics ( in Bengali) 1947-97 (Kolkata: A. Mukherjee and Co., 1999); see especially, 148-58. Atul Kohli, The State and Poverty in India (Cambridge: Cambridge Uni-

16

3. 4. 5. 6. 7. 8. 9. 10. 11.

12. 13. 14. 15. 16. 17. 18. 19. 20. 21. 22. 23. 24.

West Bengal under the Left (1977-2011)

versity Press, 1987). Partha Chatterjee, The Present History of West Bengal: Essays in Political Criticism (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1998), 126. Ibid, 111. Ibid, 114. Ibid, 117. Ross Mallick, Development Policy of a Communist Government: West Bengal since 1977 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 212. Ibid, 79, 167, 205. Ibid, 217. Ibid, 218. Abhirup Sarkar, “An Inquiry into the Mystery of the Left Front’s Long Durability,” (in Bengali) in Bamraj (The Left Regime) (Kolkata: Charchapad, 2013), 39-49. Ibid, 48. Pranab Bardhan, “A Preventable Tragedy of the Indian Left,” (in Bengali) in Bamraj, 28-38. Dwaipayan Bhattacharyya, Government as Practice: Democratic Left in a Transforming India (Delhi: Cambridge Press, 2016). Ibid, 15-16. Ibid, 22. Ibid, 134. Ibid, 135-37. Ibid, 167. Ibid, 207. www.elections.in/political-leaders/mamata-banerjee.html 2016. www.indiaongo.in/elections/west-bengal-assembly-election-results Dwaipayan Bhattacharyya, 209. For an elaborate discussion on the developments in Singur and Nandigram, see Ibid, chap. 5.

I POLITICS AND PARTIES

2 The Left Front in West Bengal: From Movement to Government Apurba Mukhopadhyay and Partha Pratim Basu West Bengal has boasted of a rich legacy of leftist politics going back to the pre-independence times and in the aftermath of the collapse of the Congress party’s unilateral domination of the national scenario in 1967, the leftists became part of two United Front (UF) governments in late 1960s. It was, however, in the aftermath of the National Emergency (197577) that the state had its first Left Front Government (LFG), consisting of several left parties coalesced under the umbrella of the Left Front (LF) led by the Communist Party of India (Marxist) [CPI-M] and headed by Jyoti Basu as chief minister. During its first term, the government, despite its notable accomplishments in the fields of land reform and panchayati raj, had to function under the shadow of the fear of being ousted through the instrument of President’s Rule as it happened with the UF governments earlier. However, LF’s winning spree continued unabated in the elections of 1980s and 1990s which earned it the distinction of being the longest surviving leftist regime in the democratic world. But its rule somewhat predictably started losing its sheen over the years, and its popularity as reflected in its electoral performance touched an all-time low during 19992001. After Buddhadeb Bhattacharya took over as chief minister in the new millennium, the Front’s electoral fortunes improved considerably in the Lok Sabha elections of 2004 and the assembly polls of 2006. Yet before long Bhattacharya’s ambitious development agenda got mired in the row over acquisition of agricultural land for industrial purposes which made Singur and Nandigram, the theatres of grim resistance put up by the potential landlosers, household names throughout the country. It also gave the opposition parties in the state – long in a state of utter disarray – a substantial cause to rally around under the leadership of Trinamool Congress chief Mamata Banerjee, and a fast-paced series of developments finally led to LFG’s ouster from power in the assembly polls of 2011. This dramatic twist in its fate was hardly anticipated in 2006 when LF seemed to have regained the

20

West Bengal under the Left (1977-2011)

confidence of the electorate with its convincing margin of victory; yet it is difficult to overlook the fact that the beginning of the end had started much earlier – otherwise the LFG fortress which looked invincible in 2006 could not have crumbled the way it did in 2011 in a matter of a few years. This article seeks to put the removal of the leftists from power in West Bengal in perspective through three sections, the first undertaking an assessment of LFG’s performance in various arenas of governance, the second looking into the factors underlying the stability and continuity of the regime; and the third delving into the course of its final collapse. Assessing performance The premier achievements of LFG, as is well-known, pertained to the spheres of land reforms, and empowerment of the poor and the marginal through democratization of local self-governing institutions like panchayats (rural self government institutions) and municipalities, indeed long before the constitutional provisions inserted under the 73rd and 74th Constitutional Amendment Acts of 1992. However, the land reforms undertaken by LFG were not the product of administrative fiat but the outcome of a long period of struggle by the peasantry and the social and political mobilization of the landless in the countryside.1 LF deployed its peasant unions and, since 1978, village panchayat members to monitor the administrative procedures of land reform laws to scuttle the influence of the big landlord classes.2 These reforms, further, were reinforced by administrative measures as well as augmentation of supportive facilities including extension of institutional credit, supply of modern inputs like HYV seeds, chemical fertilizers and of water (through government owned irrigation structures) to the beneficiaries of the programmes.3 Again, in the backdrop of this empowerment of the rural poor and the marginalized the panchayat institutions offered an opportunity for holding on to and exercising such power with regularity. In West Bengal panchayat elections had not been held for nearly two decades in many areas; and the village councils, traditionally run by powerful local families, used to arbitrate on village disputes. LF initiative instituted direct party-based elections to the panchayats which were tasked with drawing up development plans and distributing state and national funds4 which enabled post-1977 West Bengal to emerge as an example of ‘pro-poor governance’.5 Moreover, the first decade of LF rule ushered in a more egalitarian Green Revolution than had taken place in most other Indian states and West Bengal, historically

The Left Front in West Bengal: From Movement to Government

21

plagued by famine, was arguably transformed into the rice bowl of India. The Union Government’s poverty alleviation programmes were better implemented in West Bengal under close supervision of the party hierarchy;6 benefits of Food for Work and Integrated Rural Development Programme (IRDP) reached the targeted populations; and panchayats played a key role in distributing central funds for building infrastructure such as roads and tube-well irrigation thereby generating off-season jobs. Critics, however, pointed out that as far as land redistribution was concerned, the rate of vesting and distribution – bulk of which was completed by 1985 after which it tapered off – was hardly satisfactory especially in comparison with the record of the second United Front government (1969-71). The ‘high’ land ceiling, according to some scholars, was not helpful for vesting enough land for redistribution among the ‘lowest classes’ so much so that even Benoy Choudhury, former LFG minister for land and land revenue, could not hide his frustration and disappointment.7 Similarly, on LFG’s flagship ‘Operation Barga’, the same West Bengal Human Development Report 2004 noted with deep anguish ‘the rapid increase in landlessness among rural households, despite the continuing process of vested land distribution to pattadars’ and mentioned that nearly 13.23 per cent of Pattadars and 14.37 per cent of Bargadars had been forced or induced to part with their land over time.8 Again, a study of non-land inputs into land reforms in the district of Burdwan, where the communists had a substantial influence, revealed that the Pattadars had a very weak connection with agricultural service institutions, that only 40 per cent were involved in the cooperative credit system, which in any case was in total disarray. It may be recalled that the first decade of land reforms under LFG derived its thrust and tempo from organized mass movements that kept both administrative officials and elected panchayat members on their toes. But 1990s saw a tapering off of the movement for land reforms and in areas where the CPI (M) or one of its coalition partners made a clean sweep in the panchayat polls and viable political opposition could not be built up against such dominance, political movements for land reforms dwindled over time. Coming to the urban industrial scenario, one notes a mood of despair and gloom traceable to the variety of historical reasons responsible for postPartition industrial stagnation and decay in West Bengal such as massive refugee influx, chronic food deficit, dearth of raw materials, adverse freight policy and other discriminatory measures of the Union Government which

22

West Bengal under the Left (1977-2011)

further compounded the problems of poverty and underdevelopment.9 Under the circumstances, LFG adopted a pragmatic industrial outlook: while it rather predictably emphasized development of small and cottage industries as well as expansion of public sector enterprises, it did not call for ouster of the existing multinationals and big industrial houses so long as they reinvested the major part of their profits for generation of employment in the state.10 Further, trade union militancy was put on leash to ensure that there was no replication of the experience of 1967-69, and conciliation of the demands of labour and capital through collective bargaining was advocated to win over the confidence of the industrialists.11 Yet the first decade of LF rule failed to arrest the declining tempo of industrialization, and performance of the public enterprises remained a major butt of criticism due to the government’s inability to run these units either as profitable entities under a capitalist framework or as public services with the state subsidizing the loss.12 From mid-1990s, in the aftermath of the market-ward shift in Indian economy, LFG began to implement an investor-friendly industrial policy in West Bengal which aimed at dispelling the evidently entrenched perception of native and foreign investors about working class intransigence instigated by leftist-led trade unions. The ‘impressive recovery’ of industrial momentum during the latter part of 1990s, however, was ‘not really due to improved performance of organized industry, since growth in certain sectors such as jute and leather has been counterbalanced by the relative slow down in other sectors such as engineering. . . ’ but stellar performance of the service sector thanks largely to the explosion of the IT segment. Further, between 2000 and 2003, more than 11,300 new small-scale and cottage industrial units employing more than 36,500 people, came up in the state indicating that ‘the combination of institutional changes and agricultural growth that occurred over the 1980s in particular, put greater purchasing power into the hands of rural masses, and this contributed to the expansion of rural industrialization’.13 On the other hand, the organized working class of the state not only gained precious little in exchange for restraining its militancy as the impact of globalization was mostly negative, squeezing job opportunities, freezing wages and drastically reducing the size of the workforce in various sectors of the economy. Further, the steady rise of the number of casual, informal and self-employed workers in the progressively globalized world called for a new organizing mode: since many of these workers functioned from

The Left Front in West Bengal: From Movement to Government

23

home rather than factories or offices, welfare benefits and general economic security mattered more to them than wage or job security; and citizenship rights had priority over workers’ rights. But the leftist leadership failed to live up to this task – barring some localized pockets – largely because of their lack of appreciation for the contradictions within the labour movement, especially between formal and informal workers and the special organizational exigencies of the latter.14 Thirdly, LFG attracted solid and sustained support from socially marginalized population groups such as the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes and yet LF regime failed to initiate a process of social mobility on the part of these communities.15 Their presence was rarely reflected in the top leadership of the Front or its leading component the CPI (M), and while their members were more visible in the gram sabhas (the lowest rung of the panchayat system) compared to earlier periods, there again they constituted part of a silent majority. Indeed, the leftist leaders’ proclivity to attach primacy to ‘class’ prevented them from linking social marginalization to caste or other social categories and the solid support base the Front secured among the scheduled communities was attributed to the ample benefits the latter derived from the land reform policies.16 However, social reorganization project aimed at breaking the iron grip of upper castes over all relevant channels of political-cultural mobility not only received scant attention from the LF leadership. A look at the state’s education scenario, following Bhattacharya, confirmed that the existing social divides were only being further solidified.17 Similarly, Muslims remained another source of consistent support for LFG often hailed for its remarkable success in upholding inter-community harmony and social peace and stability even during testing times such as demolition of the Babari Masjid followed by widespread Hindu-Muslim riots in 1993. But the report of the Sachar Committee constituted by UPA Government at the centre in 2005 brought out some stark facts in 2006 concerning the status of Muslims in West Bengal. Contrary to the complacent view of the leftist leadership, it revealed the appalling socio-economic plight of Muslims of the state so much so that even Muslims of Gujarat – which earned an ill reputation following the ‘Godhra riots’ in 2002 – were far better placed in matters of literacy, education and employment compared to West Bengal known for its communal fraternity.18 This embarrassing exposure led LF leaders to try desperately to win back the confidence of the Muslim community through a series of hurriedly announced measures

24

West Bengal under the Left (1977-2011)

such as reservation in education and employment for the community under the Other Backward Classes (OBC) category, enhancement of state grant for Madrasa education, formation of a Madrasa Service Commission, soft loans for small businessmen from the community, inclusion of at least one Muslim member in selection committees for various public jobs and so forth. But these steps apparently failed to attain their objective as Muslim support for LFG – which swelled during 1990s when sizeable sections of the community abandoned their long association with Congress in view of its failure to protect the vandalization of the Babari Masjid – progressively dwindled as was reflected in the panchayat, municipality, parliamentary and assembly elections between 2007 and 2011.19 Promotion of women’s security, welfare and empowerment constituted yet another major accomplishment of the LF regime reflected, for example, in dowry-related issues, participation in panchayat bodies or promotion of selfemployment initiatives. Women in West Bengal, irrespective of caste, class and religion, enjoyed greater security than their counterparts in most other states and reports of the National Crime Record Bureau, Ministry of Home Affairs, Government of India, repeatedly revealed that violence against women was lowest in Kolkata, compared to other metropolitan cities.20 To turn to the socio-economic welfare side, the early measures included expansion of the scope of West Bengal Social Welfare Advisory Board jointly financed by state and central governments charged with social work, rehabilitation programmes and vocational training; enhancement of widow pension; and extension of free legal services to widows, prostitutes and destitute women through the Legal Aid department. Again, from the outset there was an accent on providing, with central government assistance, loans to poor rural women to promote incomegenerating projects especially in small scale and cottage industries.21 Yet critics drew attention to scanty attempts made by LFG to restructure women’s economic, political and social roles: for example, the association between women’s propertylessness and social inequality was ignored; their limited inheritance rights under Hindu Law and Bengal’s customs never questioned; land was redistributed only to the – usually male – heads of households and suggestions for giving joint puttas fell on deaf ears. Similarly, women were under-represented in panchayats and even after reservation of seats had been introduced, women hardly enjoyed functional independence with the sense of efficacy derived from political contestation remaining low.22 In the realm of law and order, finally, LFG made a good beginning by putting an end to the chaos and violence – verging on urban warfare –

The Left Front in West Bengal: From Movement to Government

25

which originated during the turbulent 1967-71 and continued unabated during the Congress regime headed by Siddhartha Shankar Ray23 (1972-77) while political prisoners long languishing in jails were set free as promised in its election manifesto.24 But the government’s record in upholding human rights came to be seriously questioned over the decades as custodial tortures and deaths, atrocities against women by the keepers of the law, instances of unlawful detention and police firing undermined the quality of democratic governance in left-ruled West Bengal.25 The cases of murderous attack on senior UNICEF official Anita Dewan in 1990 who had reportedly detected huge embezzlement of funds/ relief materials; or the mysterious disappearance of Bhikhari Paswan, a casual worker of Victoria Jute Mill, Hooghly who was allegedly picked up by the police during workers’ unrest in the factory in 1993 continued to remain unsolved.26 Indeed, it was probably since the tainted municipal elections in Calcutta in 1990 (during which opposition leader Mamata Banerjee suffered grievous injury) and the post- (Lok Sabha) poll violence the following year that fierce intra-party feuds and turf wars became a regular feature of West Bengal politics which only reached its height after the Trinamool-BJP alliance posed a formidable challenge to Left rule in Bengal in late-1990s.27 Thus, a survey of LF’s record over time in various fields of governance reveals that it represented only a mixed bag of success and shortcomings –this statement applies even to those areas, such as land reform, uplift of the minorities and backward communities or women’s empowerment, often highlighted as its major accomplishments. This naturally raises the question that how under these circumstances LFG managed to survive so long, to which we turn in the following section. Understanding stability To begin with, LFG carried the birthmark of political moderation: imperatives of running the government was prioritized over seizure of state power; and preservation of democratic institutions and use of state power for facilitating development with distribution was emphasized.28 The second United Front (coalition) government of West Bengal (1969) – in which CPI (M) had a strong assertive presence – sought to implement a radical land reform programme with occupation of illegally-owned land by the landless actively encouraged by the government. It produced two consequences: it sparked off stiff resistance from large landowners, the dominant class in rural Bengal on one hand, and the Naxalite movement

26

West Bengal under the Left (1977-2011)

on the other leading to the split between CPI (M) and CPI (ML), the moderates and the ultras.29 Keeping in mind the history of this breakup, CPI (M), after coming to power in 1977, sought to maintain a fine balance between a ‘revolutionary programme’ and compulsions of parliamentary democracy which attracted the epithet ‘reform communism’.30 This strategy, as Bhattacharyya pointed out, brought it rich political dividends as those factions of the Indian left who fully embraced the parliamentary path (CPI) or who rejected it completely (CPI-ML) ended up being marginal players in West Bengal for several decades to come.31 Again, this political middle path followed by LFG enabled it to consolidate its hold over rural Bengal by striking an alliance with the middle peasants as against the erstwhile rural rich (traditional support base of Congress party) as well as the poor and marginalized sections (whose cause CPI ML claimed to project). The middle peasants were reformist rather than radical in orientation which prompted LFG to shun the motto of ‘land to the tiller’ which implied a radical redistribution of land, and concentrate instead on promoting through ‘Operation Barga’ the interests of the sharecroppers. This was a smart strategy which hardly evoked any backlash from the propertied farmers (the jotdars) who presumably had neither the support of the new government nor the resources to combat the middle peasants while gratifying the latter, wary of any move such as comprehensive land reform aimed to improve the condition of the marginalized at its expense, and in the process turned the reformist left into an invincible force in Bengal’s countryside for decades to come.32 It is interesting to note that while in the early post-Partition decades, the Bengal communists had a strong urban support constituency in the course of 1960s and 70s, as Chakrabarty observed, CPI (M) shifted its focus from the urban to the rural milieu and as a result, contrary to the bonding it developed with the middle rungs of the rural society, its government never really attained popularity among the urban middles classes.33 True, initially some of the measures undertaken by LFG such as improvement of law and order, restoration of the sanctity of the educational scenario, implementation of enhanced pay packets for government employees, police personnel and school/college teachers were welcomed by the middle classes. Yet it did not take them very long to take umbrage at the seemingly irreversible deterioration of urban civic services and two things were often held responsible for this grim state of affairs: with a large chunk of the state budget being spent on salaries, increments, and pensions,

The Left Front in West Bengal: From Movement to Government

27

precious little remained for the improvement of public services; and government and semi-government employees, assured of their pay packets and job security, found no reason to apply themselves to serious and punctual work.34 Apart from these general grievances, however, three specific issues that agitated the middle classes call for special mention. First, LFG in 1980s decided to remove English instruction from government school curriculum till Class V and even in the higher classes teaching of the language received a short shrift on the ground of protecting the interests of the first generation learners especially from the rural areas. Second, the party headquarters established a decisive sway over appointments and promotions in colleges and universities since 1980s and obviously people close to the party ultimately made the grade which critics felt seriously undermined Bengal’s long-enjoyed advantage in academic, intellectual and professional pursuits.35 The other side of the story, thirdly, was going out of the way to reward amader lok (‘our men’) from government jobs to cultural bodies where competence or qualification became only secondary considerations. Indeed, Ashok Mitra, a noted economist and a former finance minister in LF government resigned his office in mid-1980s primarily because he could not put up with this indulgence in cronyism.36 Though the spiralling resentment among the urban middle classes significantly damaged LF prospects in Calcutta (Kolkata) and swelled the opposition Congress party’s vote share37 LFG leaders did not seem much concerned because this urban support deficit was perhaps more than compensated for by the emergence of what Bhattacharyya called the ‘party society’38 which vouched for ‘a historic shift in the structures and practices of power in rural society’.39 Party society had its origins in poor peasants’ movements which not only aimed at fulfillment of material aspirations such as food, land, security of tenure, and freedom from excessive rent and high rates of interests but also involved mobilization of the rural poor – dalit, tribal or minority communities – for social justice against indignity, humiliation and segregation. This process arguably reached its culmination with LFG storming into power in 1977 which brought in its wake land reforms and the new panchayat institutions. Sustainability of these reforms, however, called for the display of a robust political will on the ground so that they did not crumble in the face of predictable opposition from local chieftains, local bureaucracy and the landed classes. It was the left parties – and CPI (M) with its sturdiest organizational machinery among all –

28

West Bengal under the Left (1977-2011)

that neutralized this resistance, thereby acted as genuine custodians of the legal rights of the beneficiaries, and consequently acquired a reservoir of goodwill among the village populace which stood the party in good stead for decades together.40 On the flip side, however, the party now established itself as the key institution of rural life in the state – supplanting family, kinship, caste, religion or market – and started mediating every single sphere of social activity from the panchayat to the school, from the sports club to the family.41Thus, although it was not one of its statutory functions, every gram panchayat used to devote a considerable time holding salishi or arbitration hearings on a variety of disputes involving property, marriage, social norms, morality, often with little regard for distinctions between the public and the private, and seeking in most cases to find a resolution that would be most acceptable to all contending parties.42 This new style of functioning required a new type of leadership epitomized by the schoolteacher who led a simple life, represented a superior moral standing, had close familiarity with and easy access to the people, was ready to help them in negotiating their day-to-day issues and assist in their communication with political authorities outside the village. This intervention undoubtedly affected the autonomy of the communities and social bodies but few, however, complained about it as the left parties and their leaders acted as facilitators for the access that the poor gained into the institutions of government.43 Thus the ‘party society’, in sum, constituted a kind of ethical capital for the left parties with the party and its leaders often acting as the crucial link between the rural masses and the rather distant seat of governmental power. Beyond the moderate political agenda, concentrated focus on the countryside and evolution of the party society, two other factors often cropped up in various analyses of the remarkable stability of LFG, i.e. the benefits it derived from the coalition format, and the operation of the well-orchestrated election machinery of the left parties, especially CPI (M). Bhattacharyya listed coalitional mode of functioning as one of the lessons learnt by CPI (M) from the previous United Front experiments of 1967-69 which offered two advantages: it delivered more legislative seats with fewer votes and also helped keep the opposition divided against itself.44 An institutional mechanism in the form of the Left Front Committee was consciously set up to ensure regular discussions and exchanges among the Front constituents outside the government with

The Left Front in West Bengal: From Movement to Government

29

the state secretary of the CPI (M) acting as its convenor, an arrangement purportedly made to underline the distance between LF and LFG though over the years this line of demarcation progressively got blurred. Indeed, the Front experienced its share of internal squabbles, especially on the eve of successive panchayat elections, with the smaller constituents charging the CPI (M) of big brotherly behaviour insensitive to their concerns and CPI (M) putting the blame on the growing political ambitions of the partners who demanded an ever greater slice of the political cake. Nevertheless, these in-house wrangling never threatened LF’s stability and it was political pragmatism rather than ideological cohesion, despite assertions to the contrary, that accounted for the durability of the coalition.45 Finally, LF’s spectacular electoral success was often attributed to CPI(M)’s elaborate and well-oiled election machinery which, following Chakrabarty, could be said to have two components. On one hand, there were the front organizations of the party especially covering the organized sector employees which functioned round the year to maintain a firm grip over the cadres and potential voters. The more important of these organizations included the Coordination Committee which remained the biggest and perhaps most powerful organization of government employees; the All Bengal Teachers’ Association (ABTA), West Bengal College and University Teachers’ Association (WBCUTA), West Bengal Government College Teachers’ Association (WBGCTA) with their sway over various categories within the teaching profession; the Centre for Trade Unions (CITU) with its membership of three million industrial workers; and the Kisan Sabha commanding a huge membership among the peasantry and constituting the ‘live wire’ of the party’s pool of support in rural areas. During election times, on the other hand, the campaign business remained in the charge of an elaborate hierarchy of committees pertaining to each assembly constituency which were answerable to the district committees and finally the state committee located in Kolkata. But it is important to note that while during elections the activities of these committees were focused on the immediate contest, they remained active throughout the year as well being involved in the day-to-day lives of the people of particular localities (somewhat after the fashion of the ‘party society’ discussed above), acting as a link between the localities and the state party machinery, and providing critical inputs to LFG for policy formulation.46

30

West Bengal under the Left (1977-2011)

It follows from our discussion in this section that LFG’s lack of popularity among the urban middle classes was more than offset by its concerted efforts of maximizing rural support through its cultivation of the upcoming middle peasants who were comfortable with the Front’s moderate political agenda, and establishment of hegemony over the masses through the innovative mechanism of the ‘party society’ sustained by the rich legacy of leftist movements in the state. But the epoch-making changes of 1990s seriously upset this fine balance and let loose forces which arguably contained the seeds of the dismantling of LF regime. Comprehending change The decade of 1990s opened with two momentous changes posing long term challenge to LFG, i.e. the collapse of the Soviet Union, which presaged a re-look at leftist ideological parameters; and the central government at New Delhi embracing a liberalized market economy, necessitating contemplation of a policy switch. First, with drastic cuts in government expenditure, continuation of distributive reforms was rendered difficult while the pro-market turn in the national economic policy eclipsed the state’s role in incentivizing agriculture. The land reform drive had already reached a plateau, and rising input costs and inadequate institutional support precipitated an impasse in the state’s agriculture by mid-1990s accompanied by an upward demographic pressure on land. Moreover, following rapid commercialization of the rural economy, agricultural income as a share of family income steadily dwindled in many parts of Bengal’s countryside, highlighting the need to find employment opportunities outside agriculture especially for the younger generations.47 In addition, performance of the panchayats too came under a cloud from perceived partisanship, corruption, inefficiency and overreach which was to be traced to a gradual shift in rural power structure in 1990s. In the wake of economic liberalization and deregulation, a class of petty capitalists – local traders of fertilizer and pesticides, ponzi company agents, local transporters, building material suppliers, rice mill/brick kiln owners, labour contractors etc – strengthened their grip over the local economy. These shadowy operators needed to maintain friendly ties with local party functionaries purely out of instrumental reasons which in turn impacted the character of the left parties, CPI (M) included, and especially their local leaders for whom pragmatic or instrumental concerns – using the party for private gains to be precise – increasingly overshadowed normative or

The Left Front in West Bengal: From Movement to Government

31

ideological considerations. Thus, the two pillars of LF’s popular support – land reform and rural decentralization – suffered serious setback at the turn of the century.48 On the other hand, the lacunae in the industrial sphere, if partially covered up so far by the steady agricultural growth of 1980s, had also started to be starkly exposed. As a result of insufficient central government support, sales tax constituted virtually the only source of the state’s revenue, and the business scenario looked grim partially due to the depletion of the state’s coffers. The new industrial policy kicked off by Chief Minister Jyoti Basu was hamstrung by a weak investment management mechanism on one hand, and intra-party and party-union disputes on the other. Urban political support touched perhaps its nadir, unemployment figures remained alarmingly high and the efficacy of the poverty eradication drive also appeared to be eroding. It was at this juncture that Bhattacharya, the new Chief Minister, launched a vigorous ‘new’ economic policy with an accent on industrialization that appeared to have been rewarded in the 2006 state assembly polls, which were widely perceived at that time as the most ‘free and fair’ ever in West Bengal.49 Bhattacharya’s development agenda had an unabashedly capitalist tenor: private investment including foreign capital was aggressively courted with the goal of expanding employment opportunities; and investors were reassured with promises of infrastructural improvements, industrial peace and administrative revamping.50 Defending his industrialization drive in the wake of a controversy kicked up in 2005 over relaxation of land ceiling laws to hand over 5000 acres of agricultural land to Indonesia’s Salim group for building a township near Kolkata, Bhattacharya argued that the benefits of land reforms undertaken in 1970s and 80s could only be sustained by transforming the state’s predominantly smallholder economy into an industrialized one, especially in light of the reduced land-to-individual ratio. At the same time, he took great pains to repeatedly underscore the differences between LF’s approach and the neo-liberal model of development embraced by the central government. In particular, he stressed that LFG favoured foreign direct investment only where it brought advanced technology and boosted both production capacity and employment, and made it plain that LF was totally opposed to ‘mindless disinvestment’ which, he believed, imperilled the interests of urban workers.51

32

West Bengal under the Left (1977-2011)

LF recorded a thumping victory in 2006 assembly elections bagging 235 seats out of a total of 294 which could also be interpreted as a personal triumph for Bhattacharya who defeated his opponent with a massive margin of 58,130 votes. The ruling combine improved its tally in Kolkata as well as the industrial belts of Howrah and Hooghly districts which was read as affirmation of the growing popularity of the government’s industrialization programme52 especially among the urban middle classes. Critics, even sympathetic ones, however, started drawing attention to a new challenge hovering before the regime, namely, how to reconcile the incompatible aspirations of its ‘new’ support base (the urban middle classes) and its ‘basic classes’ (peasants, the rural poor and the urban petty bourgeoisie). It was also noted that a disproportionate bulk of LF votes even in the 2006 elections came from rural and predominantly agricultural constituencies, particularly the south Bengal districts which constituted the traditional ‘red bastions’ of the state.53 The underlying apprehensions proved prophetic as the controversy was reignited immediately after the elections in connection with acquisition of agricultural land by Tata Motors for a proposed car manufacturing project at Singur, Hooghly – some 40 kilometres from Kolkata. A Krishi Jomi Raksha (Save Farmland) Committee came up to protest this move whose grievances were threefold: conversion of multi-crop land, inadequate compensation packages for displaced peasants, and the potential displacement of population from the affected areas. LF’s woes were compounded when its smaller constituent members – such as the Communist Party of India (CPI), Revolutionary Socialist Party (RSP) and All India Forward Bloc (AIFB) – complained that they had not been properly informed about the nature of the negotiations between the government and the Tata and Salim groups regarding the proposed ventures. The government was further embarrassed with CPI (M)’s Rezzak Molla, the land revenue minister who represented South 24 Pargana’s Bhangar constituency in the state assembly, launching a shrill attack on the chief minister and the policy of farmland acquisition on behalf of private industrialists. On top of it, towards the end of 2006, the Trinamool Congress chief Mamata Banerjee delivered an ultimatum to the government to abandon the Singur project and return the land it had acquired from reluctant landowners; and subsequently she went on a 25day hunger strike to press her party’s demands.54 It may be mentioned in this connection that the landowners of Singur were not necessarily opposed to the policy of industrialization for we have already noted that returns from agriculture in West Bengal had been steadily

The Left Front in West Bengal: From Movement to Government

33

diminishing since 1990s. Thus, initially the foremost issue in Singur was not land acquisition per se but payment of compensation or more precisely exclusion of the affected farmers from the process of fixing compensation or price of their land. The message they sought to put across was that they refused to part with their land on terms dictated by the government keeping them or their representatives – the panchyat functionaries – in the dark.55 New dimensions were added to the land acquisition debate in early 2007 following announcement of steps to acquire a large swath of land in Nandigram, East Midnapore for a mega chemical hub of the Salim group which entailed even more aggressive and determined resistance by the local population. These controversies precipitated bloody clashes on both sides of the issue, and a large section of erstwhile CPI (M) supporters reportedly defected to the ‘Save Farmland’ agitation. Indeed, the industrialization overdrive badly upset a longstanding equilibrium for after all it was land reforms that constituted the key to LF’s electoral success in West Bengal and helped consolidate its support base in the rural areas. The changed approach of the government, its disregard for initiating dialogues, and the looming prospect of loss of livelihood instilled a fear of dispossession into the state’s peasantry and ruptured the organic link between LFG and the rural masses so carefully fashioned and nurtured over time.56 LFG, however, outraged by the defiance of the peasants with the predictable backing of the TMC supremo, some Naxalite factions, and other motley groups launched police action in Nandigram in March 2007 killing 14 protesters in the process which attracted rounded condemnation from across the country, deepened the fissure within the ruling Front, and turned popular bewilderment into red-hot anger. Yet, indifferent to people’s sensitivities, the ruling party made yet another bid to ‘recapture’ Nandigram in November 2007 with the help of armed cadres leading to yet another round of bloodshed. This traumatic incident virtually breached the floodgates of popular resentment and frustration across the state which found visible expression in the spontaneous protest march organized by the leading writers, educationists and cultural personalities, many of them sharing a leftist orientation, in the streets of Kolkata on the following day. Once LFG managed to alienate the peasants on one hand and the intelligentsia on the other – the two core props of its prolonged hegemony in West Bengal – its fate was virtually sealed; last ditch efforts at announcing policy amendments and tendering public apologies as the 2011 elections approached proved too little and too late to arrest the downslide.57

34

West Bengal under the Left (1977-2011)

The explanation for LF’s total debacle in 2011 assembly elections could be sought at three levels: first, the popular antipathy and resistance largely fanned by the arrogance and insensitivity exhibited by the administration in implementing its development-through-industrialization agenda.58 This haughty and condescending attitude of LFG leadership, secondly, was rooted in its palpable disconnect with the demands and aspirations of the vast countryside which in turn indicated a malfunctioning of CPI (M)’s proverbial mass organizations.59 This finally brings us to the crux of the matter, i.e. the fast changing character of the party especially since 1990s when its focus shifted from being a vehicle of popular movement to establishing itself as an instrument of governing the population and gradually appeared to have imbibed ‘ruling party’ traits. Not only had a section of the leadership acquired bureaucratic habits, the policy of inducting the party’s chosen personnel at various levels of government predominantly on interest-based considerations with ideological screening taking a backseat encouraged the emergence of a culture of cronyism, corruption and naked display of power that ate into its vitals. The party expanded in numerical terms, staging of mega rallies to flex its political muscles attested to the skills of its organizers and managers, but its organic linkage with the everyday lives of the masses and communities snapped leaving it as a gigantic vote-delivering machine. The party’s failure to craft a new normative politics in the post-Soviet context – or ‘empiricization’ of Marxism, in its sympathetic critic Prabhat Patnaik’s phrase – led to its alienation from its basic classes, withering of its hegemony, and exercise of domination in a secretive, non-participatory manner to uphold peace and order which often undermined the welfare of the masses. In other words, the compact and mutual trust embodied in the notion of the ‘party society’ was now in shambles, and the masses too realized that the party had lost its moral authority to represent them.60 Conclusion LFG accessed the seat of power in West Bengal in 1977 raising enormous promise especially among the marginal and downtrodden; and despite the discernible shift it brought about in rural governance through the combination of land reforms and panchayat institutions, much of the early promise remained unfulfilled. Yet the key to the perpetuation of its power lay in the hegemony it established in the countryside through its tie-up with the middle peasants – the major beneficiaries of its land reform initiative – and the ethical capital it mobilized through the working of the ‘party society’,

The Left Front in West Bengal: From Movement to Government

35

duly backed up by its well-orchestrated election machinery. The almost simultaneous developments of the fall of the Soviet Union, and the national government in India giving up its long legacy of the Nehruvian welfarism in favour of a market-oriented economic regime in 1990s, however, posed formidable challenges to LFG threatening the gains of both land reform and decentralized governance through panchayats. This brought about a change of guards, and the new Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharya came up with a new answer to these issues, i.e. engineering development through industrialization based on private investment. Initially, this pragmatic policy switch received a good press and expanded LFG’s support among the middle classes but soon it badly faltered on the intricate issue of ‘forcible’ land acquisition by a leftist government on behalf of private industrialists. On one hand, it left LFG’s traditional vote bank – who had gained from its land reform programme – flabbergasted; on the other hand, the newly won middle class support evaporated overnight once the government indulged in strong-arm tactics to break the resistance to its industrialization drive while the opposition parties only lapped up this opportunity to corner the government and ultimately to push it out of office. It was suggested in fine that LFG’s desperate bid to surge ahead with its industrialization agenda needs to be explained with reference to the arrogant and condescending attitude of its top leadership; its loss of touch with the masses and their aspirations; and the changing character of CPI (M), the pilot of LF, which had inculcated especially since 1990s the habit of putting pragmatism over and above normative and ideological considerations. Endnotes 1. Govt. of West Bengal, West Bengal Human Development Report (henceforth WBHDR), Kolkata, 2004. 2. Dwaipayan Bhattacharyya, Government as Practice, Delhi: Cambridge University Press, 2016, 76. 3. According to one estimate, by 2002, 10.70 Lakh acres of land were distributed amongst 26.66 Lakh beneficiaries. The number of bargadars recorded around the same time was 15.04 Lakh and the amount of land cultivated by them was 11.10 Lakh acres; of the assignees of vested land (Pattadars) the S.Cs and the S.Ts constituted 37 p.c. and 19.31 p.c. respectively. For recorded bargadars the corresponding figures were 30.51 and 11.03 p.c. respectively. See Anil Chakraborti, Apurba Mukhopadhyay and Debesh Roy, Beneficiaries of Land Reforms: The West Bengal Scenario, State Institute of Panchayats and Rural Development, Kalyani, Nadia, 2003.

36

West Bengal under the Left (1977-2011)

4. Kheya Bag, ‘Red Bengal’s Rise and Fall’, New Left Review, 70, July-August 2011. 5. See Atul Kohli, Democracy and Discontent: India’s Growing Crisis of Governability, Delhi: Cambridge University Press, 1991; and T. J. Nossiter, Marxist State Governments in India, London: Pinter, 1988. 6. Bidyut Chakrabarty, Communism in India, New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2014, 78. 7. Ross Mallick, Development Policies of a Communist Government, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993, 39-42; Bhattacharyya, n 2, 7577. 8. WBHDR, n 1. As per NSS data, the proportion of landless rural households in West Bengal increased from 39.6 p.c. in 1987-88 to 41.6 p.c. in 1993-94 to as much as 49.8 p.c. in 1999-2000. 9. Bhattacharyya, n 2, 185-86. 10. Ibid. 11. Mallick, n 7, 185-94. 12. Ibid, 179. 13. WBHDR, n 1. 14. Pranab Bardhan, ‘The Avoidable Tragedy of the Left in India II’, Economic and Political Weekly (henceforth EPW), XLVI: 24, June 11, 2011; Monobina Gupta, Left Politics in Bengal, Hyderabad: Orient Blackswan, 2010, 42-3. The 2006 election manifesto of CPI (M) however claimed that LFG introduced a provident fund scheme for unorganized sector workers for the first time in the country (nearly 7.9 lakh workers have already joined the scheme so far), extended financial assistance of Rs. 750 per month to workers of closed factories and tea gardens and provided social security to the construction workers. See ‘Thirty Years of West Bengal Left Front Government’, http://cpim.org/content/thirty-years-west-bengal-left-frontgovt 15. Bhattacharyya, n 2, 18-24; see also ‘noitik adhikar hariyechhilo, taai baam biporjoy’, (Ashis Nandy’s interview, in Bengali), Ananda Bazar Patrika, 24 May 2011. 16. Arild Engelsen Ruud, quoted in Bhattacharyya, n 2, 22. 17. Ibid, 103-5; 113-18. 18. C. Jaffrelot (ed), India Since 1950, New Delhi: Yatra Books, 2012, 574-75. 19. Goutam Roy, ‘jodi sankhyaloghura bolen etodin kothay chhilen’, Ananda Bazar Patrika, 21 April 2011. 20. According the reports of National Crime Records Bureau, Ministry of

The Left Front in West Bengal: From Movement to Government

21. 22. 23. 24. 25.

26. 27.

28. 29.

30.

31. 32. 33.

37

Home Affairs, Government of India, the total number of crimes against women during 2001-03 was 1775 in Kolkata, 6347 in Delhi, 5478 in Chennai and 2594 in Mumbai. Incidents of sexual abuse of women during the same period numbered 118 in Kolkata, 294 in Delhi, 128 in Mumbai and 1359 in Chennai. Between January and May, 2004 there were 12 incidents of rape in Kolkata, compared to 60 in Mumbai and 197 in Delhi. Amrita Basu, Two Faces of Protest: Contrasting Modes of Women’s Activism in India, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994. Ibid. Bag, n 4; Gupta n 16. Amal Kumar Mukhopadhyay, Bangali rajnitir ponchash bochhor (in Bengali), Kolkata: A. Mukherjee, 1999, 128. Tarak Nath Mallick, Left Front in West Bengal: From Movement to Government (1977-1987), unpublished Ph D dissertation, Department of Political Science, University of Burdwan, 2004. This perhaps prompted a commentator to observe that democracy under the LF regime came to connote ‘stability in contrast to the anarchy under Congress misrule’ and the dominant consensus seemed to be that increased popular participation if it threatened to attain anarchical proportions could not be allowed – the government had to prove capable of controlling these excesses of collective activity. See Ranabir Samaddar, Passive Revolution in West Bengal, New Delhi: Sage, 2013, Introduction, vi. Gupta, n 14, 54-55. See Ibid, 152-61. See also Raghab Bandyopadhyay, Keshpurkatha (The story of Keshpur, in Bengali), for a perceptive account of the violent turf wars going on in West Bengal’s countryside in late 1990s. Bhattacharyya, n 2, 12. See also Atul Kohli quoted in Chakrabarty, n 6, 73. Apurba Mukhopadhyay, ‘Left in West Bengal: From Movement to Government’, in Rakhahari Chatterji (ed), Politics in West Bengal, Kolkata: World Press, 1985; Kerem Öktem, ‘A Comparative Analysis of Performance of the Parliamentary Left in the Indian States of Kerala, West Bengal and Tripura’, Journal of South Asian Studies, 35:2, 2012. Ross Mallick, however, traced the roots of this moderation and proclivity to come to terms with parliamentary democracy in the bhadralok or middle class character of Bengal’s communist movement which he felt shaped the policy orientation of LFG. Mallick, n 7, 21-3. Bhattacharyya, n 2, 12. Mallick, n 7, 13-4; Chakrabarty n 6, 83-4; Öktem, n 29. Chakrabarty, ibid, 81, 71.

38

West Bengal under the Left (1977-2011)

34. Bag, n 4; Mallick, n 7, 179. 35. Bardhan, n 14. 36. Mukhopadhyay, n 38, 119; ‘Debashis Bhattacharya and Jayanta Ghosal, ‘Mojjagoto “amra-ora”i hatiyar chhilo bameder’ (in Bengali), Ananda Bazar Patrika, 15 May 2011. 37. Bag, n 4. 38. Dwaipayan Bhattacharyya, ‘Left in the Lurch: Demise of the World’s Longest Elected Regime?’, EPW, XLV: 3, January 16, 2010; Bhattacharyya, n 2, ch 4. 39. Partha Chatterjee, ‘The Coming Crisis in West Bengal’, EPW, XLIV: 9, February 28 2009. 40. Bhattacharyya, n 38. 41. Chatterjee (n 39) notes however: ‘CPI (M), by virtue of a more efficient structure of discipline and command and a more sys¬tematic procedure of training of cadres, is usually more effective in penetrating and controlling every social institution in the vil¬lages where they dominate. But when more than one party functions in a village - the role has been emulated by other parties as well, whether partners of the CPI (M) in the LF or parties of the opposition. They seek to perform the universal mediating role in virtually all social transactions’. 42. To quote Chatterjee (ibid): ‘In some ways, this reflects the absence of other social institu-tions such as landed patriarchs, caste councils or religious lead¬ers who in the past might have performed such functions. It also reflects a social preference for avoiding the more formal machin¬eries of the police and law courts in resolving such disputes. The latter are widely seen to be expensive, time-consuming, corrupt and insensitive to the specific demands of fairness in a particular case that only those intimately familiar with local histories and peculiarities could be expected to know’. See also Bardhan, n 14. 43. Chatterjee, ibid; Bhattacharyya, ‘Left in the Lurch, n 38. 44. Bhattachryya, n 2, 12. 45. Paranjoy Guha Thakurta and Shankar Raghuraman, A Time of Coalitions: Divided We Stand, New Delhi: Sage, 2004, 293-96; Sitaram Sharma, West Bengal: Changing Colours, Changing Challenges, New Delhi: Rupa, 101-2. 46. Chakrabarty, n 6, 85-6; see also Partha Chatterjee, ‘Discipline and Development’ in Chatterjee, The Present History of West Bengal, Delhi: OUP, 1998. 47. Bhattacharyya, n 2, 39-40. 48. Ibid.

The Left Front in West Bengal: From Movement to Government

39

49. Partha Pratim Basu, ‘ “Brand Buddha” in India’s West Bengal: The Left Reinvents Itself ’, Asian Survey, XLVII: 2, March-April, 2007, 291-92. 50. Ibid, 289-90, 292-95. 51. Ibid, 294, 290. 52. Quoting Election Commission figures, Bhattacharyya shows LF made a 10 percentage point gain in urban support in 2006 compared to 2001 assembly elections. Similarly, its upper class support in 2006 compared to 2004 parliamentary elections showed a 10 percentage point surge. In comparison with 2001 assembly elections, the difference in upper class support amounted to 33 per cent. See Bhattacharyya, n 2, Appendix I, 216-17. 53. See Basu, n 55, 299, 301-2. 54. Ibid, 32-4. See also Bhattacharyya, n 2, 190-8. 55. Bhattacharyya, n 2, 193-94. 56. See Basu, n 49, 304; Chakrabarty, n 6, 100-102. 57. Chakrabarty, n 6, 100-106; ‘Buddha, The Tragic Hero’ Times of India, 14 May 2011. 58. Thus Samaddar pointed out that the opposition parties maintained they were not against industrialization per se but wanted discussion over methods, issues including that of SEZs, which were a part of the government’s agenda. They wanted careful planning, need to secure consent of peasantry and a wider dialogue on roadmap for industrialization and modernization; and finally the requirement to balance the industrial drive with agricultural stability and growth. But their counsel ultimately went in vain. See Samaddar, n 25, 89. 59. Saugata Roy, ‘CPM document bares disconnect with poor’, Times of India, 1 September 2011. Chakrabarty (n 6, 99-100) also made the same point when he wrote: ‘In the changed environment of globalization with rising expectations of voters, the incumbent government seemed to have failed to gauge the popular mood, which was reflected in demands for better primary education, healthcare facilities, nutrition, agricultural and non-agricultural wages, compensation for displacement, and regular supply as well as distribution of food through the public distribution system’. 60. Bhattacharyya, ‘Left in the Lurch’, n 38; Sobhanlal Datta Gupta, ‘Reading Lenin in Candlelight: The West Bengal assembly Polls, 2011 and Retreat of the Left’, Socialist Perspective, 39:1-2, June-September 2011,106-7; Patnaik, Prabhat, ‘The Left in Decline’ EPW, July 16, 2011; Hiren Gohain, ‘Decline of the Left: A Critical Comment’, EPW, September 17 2011.

3 The Left Extremist Politics in West Bengal: from Birth to Resurrection and Beyond Amitabha Ray The latter half of the 1960s marked a watershed in two different, but not unrelated, dimensions of politics in West Bengal. The first was the formation of the first non-Congress government in the state, sworn in on 2nd of March1967. The other was the forcible occupation of agricultural land by peasant activists of Kishan Sabha, armed with traditional weapons like spears and bows and arrows, the very next day in Naxalbari, a village in the Siliguri sub-division of the Darjeeling district, and this had an impact that stretched beyond the state boundaries and a relevance that continues up to the present. Taken by it, this incident should not have merited much attention; as such actions of forcible land acquisition had been happening in the state for some time by then. Its time-transcending significance lay in the fact that it paved the way for a new stream of leftist movement, first, in the state and, then, elsewhere in India. Subsequently, this led to the formation of the third Communist Party in India, the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist). A Party is Born The Naxalite movement was born fifty years back in the cross-fire between militant peasant activism and state reprisals in and around the village of Naxalbari.1 However,its foundation lay in a long-standing ideological debate among the Indian communists, which had reached a crescendo within the CPI (M), almost since its formation in 1964. The CPI (ML), in a way, mutated from the Naxalite movement in the crucible of that ideological dissension. Now, what was the ideological debate about, and what kind of a schism within the CPI (M) it might have led to? Communist parties have hardly been free of internal dissensions, stemming from ideological or leadership issues, or both. At Independence, the undivided Communist Party of India was not an exception to this. The major debate the party had to contend with was about how to complete the

The Left Extremist Politics in West Bengal: from birth to resurrection and beyond

41

unfinished project of bringing freedom to the Indian people that had just started with the granting of independence. Was it to be through an armed revolution or through constitutional politics? If it was to be a revolutionary path, then of which model: Soviet or Chinese? After the suppression of the Telengana peasant movement (1946-51) by the armed might of the state, the CPI decided to give up the revolutionary line and accepted the idea of a peaceful transformation of the India towards socialism. But the supporters of the revolutionary line remained within the party, though on a backseat. They took the lead in forming the CPI (M) in 1964, but, when in 1967 the CPI (M) made its intention to follow the parliamentary democratic path by joining the first non-Congress United Front ministry in West Bengal, it alienated the radicals within the party. Sumanta Banerjee observes that, “….the CPI (M) started its journey with suppressed radicals in its ranks”,2 the two most prominent among them being Charu Mazumder and Sushital Roychaudhuri. When, subsequently, the CPI (M-L) came into existence in 1969, Mazumdar went on to become the undisputed leader, at least for some time, and the chief ideologue of the party,3 while Roychaudhuri, also an ideologue, became the editor of ‘Deshabrati’, the vernacular mouthpiece of the party.4 There was a gap of almost two years between the shooting of the arrow that fell a policeman in Naxalbari on May 23, 1967, and Kanu Sanyal’s proclamation at a public meeting in Kolkata on May 1, 1969 that the CPI (ML) was born (on 22nd April, '69, i.e. on Lenin’s birthday).From the point of view of the Naxalbari movement and the subsequent formation of the party, this gap in time was quite eventful. The first flush of peasant militancy in the Naxalbari and its adjoining areas died down by the end of October, ’67 due to sustained police action since the month of July of that year. Almost all the top leaders of the movement were arrested by that time, including Jangal Santhal and Kanu Sanyal5. The movement, subsequently, found its support among the middle-class students, youth, and the intelligentsia of Kolkata and of its peripheral urban centres.6 In November, 1967, the conference of the AllIndia Naxalbari Krishak Sangram Sahayak Samity, acting, so far, as a liaison organization among different left extremist groups, both within and outside of the CPI (M), decided to form the All-India Coordination Committee of Revolutionaries of the CPI (M).7 It was expected to act as platform for unity among all groups and individuals who were supporting the idea and the practice of militant peasant movements unleashed by the Naxalbari movement. In May, 1968, this committee renamed itself as the All-India Coordination Committee of Communist Revolutionaries (AICCCR).8

42

West Bengal under the Left (1977-2011)

Meanwhile, at about same time as the Naxalbari movement, poor tribal peasants of Srikakulam district in Andhra Pradesh had embarked on a militant agitation against exploitation by the high-caste landlords. This led to both police and landlord reprisals against the fighting peasantry, in which some of the latter lost their lives and many were arrested. In retaliation, the peasants took to arms and started guerrilla warfare against both the landlord-moneylender class as well as the state machinery. Soon, the movement spread to the contiguous areas in Orissa and Madhya Pradesh.9 Such struggles, inspired and led by cadres of the AICCCR, also spread to some areas in North Bihar and in Uttar Pradesh10. The spread of armed peasant struggles to different parts of the country was accompanied by the emergence of a good number of left extremist groups as well. These groups did not much see eye-to-eye, and there was a lot of ideological hair-splitting among them. So, a need was increasingly being felt within the AICCR for the formation of a political party which would serve as a common platform of action for all these groups and, also, to give the gradually spreading movement an organizational form11. A kind of post-facto justification for the same came later from Kanu Sanyal at the May Day rally in Kolkata in 1969, while announcing the birth of the third Communist Party in India.12 There were, of course, dissidents who did not support the formation of a party on ideological grounds13. In February, 1969, the second United Front government came back to power in West Bengal, and one of its first acts was to release political prisoners, the important among them being Kanu Sanyal, Jangal Santhal and some other leaders of the Naxalbari agitation, who had been arrested in 1967. In less than three months’ time from their release, the CPI (ML) was formed on the 22nd of April, 1969, the birthday of Lenin. As mentioned earlier, the birth of the party was formally announced on the May Day of 1969, at a public rally in Kolkata. Sumanta Banerjee notes in this connection that, “the new party described its chief responsibility as that of organizing the peasantry and advancing towards seizure of power through armed struggle; the basic tactic of the struggle would be guerrilla warfare”14. An eleven-member Central Organizing Committee (COC) formed the core of the party structure. It had as its members, among others, Charu Mazumder and Sushital Roychoudhury. The party held its first Congress in May, 1970, in Kolkata, where the party programme was adopted15. Identifying the principal contradiction of the Indian society as that between the landlords and the peasantry, i.e. between forces of feudalism and the people, the

The Left Extremist Politics in West Bengal: from birth to resurrection and beyond

43

programme gave the call for an agrarian revolution in the country16. On the insistence of Charu Mazumder, the Party Congress also raised the tactics of annihilation of so-called ‘class-enemies ‘[i.e. anyone taking any critical stand against the CPI (ML)] to the level of a strategy17. Most importantly, the Congress gave its stamp of approval to the supreme ‘revolutionary authority’ of Charu Mazumder, as far as the party was concerned.18 With the call of Mazumder from the platform of the Party Congress to ‘urban dwellers’ to fight alongside the peasantry against the feudal forces, aided by the state power, the theatre of action decidedly shifted to the urban areas of West Bengal, mainly to Kolkata. The ‘line of annihilation’ began to be followed more frequently and more visibly against the so-called ‘class-enemies’, who predominantly were either supporters of opposing political parties, mainly belonging to the CPI (M), and lower-level ordinary policemen, either on or off-duty. The rapidly increasing violence, unleashed by the cadres of the CPI (ML), in the urban areas, as also in rural areas, mainly in Midnapore and Birbhum districts, brought in a sustained and massive state reprisal, particularly after the fall of the second United Front government in 1970 and the subsequent imposition of President’s Rule in the state. From 1971 onwards almost all the front ranking leaders of the party were arrested, and lower level functionaries, the foot-soldiers of the peasant revolution, were either jailed or physically liquidated. Charu Mazumder was arrested in July16, 1972 and died in jail custody twelve days later. With his death, and the incarceration of other major leaders, the central authority and the organization of the CPI (ML) collapsed, bringing the curtains down to the first phase of left extremist politics in post-independence West Bengal. A Party Transformed It is interesting to note that, since the formation of the CPI (M-L) in 1969 and till the late 1990s and thereafter, Naxalite politics was marked by an almost continuous fragmentation into myriad parties and groups.19 For the record, it may be mentioned that, according to a source, in 2008, there were no less than twenty-eight self-proclaimed ‘Maoist’ left parties of various hues in India20. Moreover, in the same time, there were some twenty-three historical or defunct ‘Maoist’ revolutionary organizations in India. One may question the accuracy of these figures, but the fact of fragmentation is more than evident. The CPI (Maoist), on the other hand, represents the merger21, in September, 2004, of two most important22 among such organizations,

44

West Bengal under the Left (1977-2011)

viz. the Maoist Communist Centre (MCC) and the CPI (ML) People’s War, usually known as People’s War Group (PWG). This merger process had an interesting history of ups and downs over a period of more than two decades, and also had an indirect link with the state. The Maoist Communist Centre, formed in 1975, had its genesis in the “Dakshin Desh”, a group formed in October, 1969, by a section of CPI (M) dissidents who, despite being Maoist in their ideological orientation, decided to stay apart from the newly-formed CPI (ML) in April, 1969. “Dakshin Desh”, incidentally, was the name of the publication brought out by the group, even when they were still a part of the CPI (M). This group, led by Kanai Chatterjee and Amulya Sen, differed from the Charu Mazumder-led CPI (ML) on the latter’s adoption of the line of ‘individual terrorism’ as a part of revolutionary strategy, advocating, instead, the path of ‘mass mobilization’ leading to armed revolutionary struggle23. It was active among the Dalits and Adivasis of the Jungle Mahal area of Burdwan district. Commenting on the nature of its activities since 1968 till 1980, Amiya K. Samanta remarked: “Since the party (note: to start with, “Dakshin Desh”, later in 1975 renamed as “Maoist Communist Centre”) had followed the ‘mass line’, the intensity of violence was understandably low in Jungle Mahal. The overwhelming number of participants was tribals(about 80%) and nearly 16% belonged to scheduled caste. Consequently the social justice and human right issues were unobtrusively and inescapably incorporated in the agenda of the revolutionary movement.”24 In the deeply forested territory of Jungle Mahal this group operated with an armed militia comprise of some 30-odd squads. These squads not only conducted political campaigning among local peasants, but also carried out activities like looting grains, capturing fire-arms, and killing landlords and other perceived ‘enemies’. In 1975, it renamed itself as the Maoist Communist Centre. After failing to make much headway in the Jungle Mahal area, the MCC moved to the Chhottanagpur region of the then Bihar (now Jharkhand), a hilly terrain with a large Adivasi concentration, and quite predictably, poverty-ridden and caste-exploited. In this region, the MCC became a formidable force, and in course of time, even gave up its politics of ‘mass line’ and resorted to the line of ‘individual terrorism’ it had once opposed. In 2003, the Maoist Communist Centre and the Revolutionary Communist Centre of India-Maoists (RCCI-M) merged together to form the Maoist communist Centre-India (MCC-I).25

The Left Extremist Politics in West Bengal: from birth to resurrection and beyond

45

The CPI (ML) People’s War, unlike the MCC, carried the lineage of the original CPI (ML), formed in 1969. Following the setback suffered by the party in 1972, the Central Organizing Committee of the CPI (ML) was reconstituted at a meeting held in Durgapur in July, 1974, and Jauhar (Subrata Dutta) was elected as the new General Secretary26. Jauhar reorganized the party and later rechristened it as the CPI (ML) Liberation27. Under its leadership, armed peasants’ struggles assumed an intense proportion in Bhojpur and in rural areas of Patna in Bihar, as well as in the Naxalbari region in West Bengal. Jauhar was killed in a police encounter in Bhojpur in 197528. The second congress of the party was held in Gaya, Bihar, during 26-27 February, 1976, where Vinod Mishra was elected as the General Secretary of the party,29 and following this the party decided to extend its operations to Andhra Pradesh and Kerala. The party had, from its experience during the Internal Emergency imposed in 1975, decided to combine the path of armed guerilla struggles with attempts to forge a broad anti-Congress democratic front, composed even of non-communist parties30. Continuing on this line, the CPI (ML) Liberation launched an inner-party rectification movement in 1978, which sought to combat the total reliance on armed struggles and proposed to supplement it with organizing mass movements of the peasantry, and also the building up of Kisan Sabhas.31 Reacting to this almost fundamental change of political-ideological line on the part of Vinod Mishra-led CPI (ML) Liberation, Kondapalli Seetharamaiah, a very important leader of the party in Andhra Pradesh and a member of the Central Organizing Committee of the erstwhile CPI (ML), broke away to form the CPI (ML) (People’s War) in1980.32 The charge of the People’s War Group against the CPI (ML) Liberation, as expressed by a leader of the former organization, was that, “They converted the Com. Johar-led Liberation, from being a revolutionary movement, into a legalist, reformist and parliamentary movement; and changed the underground organization into an open opportunist and revisionist organization.”33 For a similar reason, N.Prasad of Bihar dissociated himself from the CPI (ML) Liberation, and formed CPI (ML) Party Unity in January 1982.34 Initially, the PWG was active mainly in Andhra Pradesh, while the Liberation and the Party Unity had their respective strongholds in Bihar. In 1998, the PWG and the Party Unity merged together after five years of negotiation.35 This coming together of the two factions not only consolidated the left extremist forces in India, but also, at the same time, allowed the PWG to come

46

West Bengal under the Left (1977-2011)

‘east’ via its newly-obtained access to Bihar. Organizationally, in course of time, the PWG spread its bases to Jharkhand, Orissa, Madhya Pradesh, Chattisgarh, and Maharashtra.36 Ideologically, too, the PWG brought into its agenda of revolution the issues of sub-national (or, ‘national’, since India, in its understanding, was a ‘prison house of nationalities’) identities and autonomy; so long, the focus was solely on agrarian revolution.37 One may remember in this connection that, in the preceding decade of the ‘80s, the voices of sub-national aspirations could make themselves heard with an increasing intensity across India: from Assam and its sister states in the North-east to Kashmir and Punjab in the North and the North-west, and to the demands of ‘Tamil Eelam’ in the deep South. In West Bengal, the agitations for Gorkhaland had introduced a new element in state politics. On the other hand, since the closing years of the previous century, one could witness the phenomenon of merger between and among the radical parties, and, that too, with the ultimate aim of creating one unified left extremist party. It may be noted in this connection that the Joint Declaration by CPI (ML) People’s War and the CPI (ML) Party Unity on the occasion of their merger in August 1998 proclaimed that, “The emergence of the united Party… does not mark the completion of the process of unification of the genuine communist revolutionary forces in India. The newly Unified Party will continue its efforts in right earnest to achieve this unification.”38 The subsequent merger of the PWG and the MCC to form the CPI (Maoist) in 2004 can be seen as some sort of culmination of that process. Calling this later merger “A compact of fire”, Outlook India observed that, as a result, “… the CPI-Maoist will be the richest and largest revolutionary group in India, with a presence in at least 125 districts in 12 States, with another 24 districts targeted in its current phase of expansion.”39 Attempts at such eventual merger had been going on since the formation of the CPI (ML) People’s War in 1980, and mainly at its initiative. After more than two decades of ups and downs, a part of which in the late-90s being marked by the bitterest and violent turf war between the two organizations in Bihar, the merger could ultimately come about. It prompted Ganapathy, the first Secretary of CPI (Maoist), to observe that, “the formation of the Communist Party of India (Maoist) is a new milestone in the history of the revolutionary communist movement of India.”40 About the goals of the newly-formed party, the joint press statement stated, “The immediate aim and programme of the Maoist party is to carry on and complete the already ongoing and advancing New Democratic Revolution in India… by overthrowing the

The Left Extremist Politics in West Bengal: from birth to resurrection and beyond

47

semi-colonial, semi-feudal system under the neo-colonial form of indirect rule, exploitation and control.”41 At the very beginning of this section it was hinted that there was indirect link between this merger and the state of West Bengal. Let us note at the end what the above-mentioned joint press statement had to offer in this connection: “In the past history there were many splits within the M-L movement. But splits are only one side of the coin; the brighter side was that there were continuous efforts to unify the revolutionaries. The CPI (ML) (PU), though it had its origins in Bengal, it spread and strengthened by unifying several revolutionary groups. The CPI (ML) (PW), though it originated in Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu, it unified with revolutionaries in almost all the states where it was working. The MCC too, had originated in Bengal, unified many revolutionary groups in it in many States and became the MCCI.” As we .would see in the next section, that prior to the merger, the CPI (ML) (PW), too, was present for a long time in the political arena of West Bengal, in one way or the other. West Bengal: a Left-Extremist Revival It was almost three decades after the Naxalbari peasant’s movement and the subsequent formation of the CPI (ML) and its containment by the state, West Bengal, could witness a resurrection of left extremist politics, this time in a much more organized and much more violent form. This ‘second coming’ was spearheaded by the CPI (Maoist), and unlike its previous incarnation, it was specifically focused on playing an anti-government, anti-ruling party role, rather than an anti-feudal or anti-big landlord role. The second significant difference to be noted is that this time around the extreme left publicly aligned itself with Trinamul Congress, the principal non-left opposition since 1998 to the Left Front regime, which ruled the state between 1977 and 2011, for the purpose of unseating the LF from power. Identifying, perhaps, the ‘present’ as a continuum of the ‘past’, The Hindu, the daily, called it the “second coming of Maoists’ in West Bengal in 2009.”42 After giving The Hindu its due share of journalistic liberties we might, nonetheless, take this particular heading as the starting point of our discussion on the revival of left extremist politics in West Bengal. Such an accounting would have to take into consideration a number of questions: (i) was the period between the exit of the ‘Naxalites’ sometime in 1972-73 and the subsequent entry of the ‘Maoists’ in 2008 bereft of any political activities of the left extremist variety in West Bengal, and (ii) what might have been the factors behind the left extremist revival?

48

West Bengal under the Left (1977-2011)

With reference to the first query, it has earlier been observed that the cadres of the Dakshin Desh group (later renamed as MCC) were active among the adivasis and dalits in the Jangalmahal area of the Burdwan district between 1968 and1980.43 On the other hand, reports44 of Naxalbaritype peasant agitations under the leadership of Biplabi Krishak Samity in Sandeshkhali, Hingalganj, and Gosaba P.S. in South 24 Paraganas, a part of the Sunderbans, both before and after the Left Front had come to power, had also appeared in a number of issues of ‘Vanguard’, the official publication of the Central Committee of the CPI (ML) People’s War.45 Such reports accused the Revolutionary Socialist Party and the CPI (M), supported by the forces of the state machinery, of actively opposing the Biplabi Krishak Samity in the post-1977 period.46 Moving over to the cultural-intellectual activities, a report47 in the May, 1983, issue of the Vanguard extolled the significant contribution of the West Bengal Revolutionary Writers, Artists and Intellectuals towards giving a final form to the All India League for Revolutionary Culture, which was a culmination of a ten-year old process starting with the formation of the Revolutionary Writers Association of Andhra Pradesh in 1972. The same report went on to mention that the final deliberations among representatives of allied organizations of different states took place in Kolkata on 29th and 30th March, 1983, and on the last day, the formation of the All India League for Revolutionary Culture was announced at a public meeting held somewhere in South Kolkata. About the objectives of the organization, the Press release issued on the occasion said that the League would strive to advance revolutionary culture in order to promote the cause of the New Democratic Revolution, with Marxism-Leninism and Mao-Zedong thought as its world outlook.48 The third dimension of an active presence of the left extremist parties and organizations in West Bengal in the closing decades of the last century could be found in Kolkata playing host to both the first and the second conventions of the All India Peoples Resistance Forum (AIPRF) in 1992 and 1994 respectively. The nature and goals of the said organization was clearly stated in a report49 in the January-March, 1994 issue of Vanguard: “The AIPRF is a broad-based national-level revolutionary mass front composed of about fifty mass organizations of peasants, adivasis, workers, students, women, intellectuals and cultural activists working in West Bengal, Bihar, Orissa, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Tamilnadu, Punjab, Uttar Pradesh, Haryana and Delhi. Also four revolutionary parties

The Left Extremist Politics in West Bengal: from birth to resurrection and beyond

49

- People's War, MCC, Party Unity and People's War (Maharashtra) - are active partners of the AIPRF1. The AIPRF seeks to "build and develop powerful, anti-feudal and anti-imperialist struggles towards the goal of a New Democratic India". On the occasion of the Second Convention of the AIPRF, held in Kolkata on 20th and 21st March, 1994, a procession was taken out, which culminated in a public meeting in Telengana Andolan Maidan (Shaheed Minar).The choice of the name of the venue, perhaps, points to the hold of the Andhra-based CPI (ML) PW over the AIPRF. So, the ‘spirit’ of Naxalbari lived on in different public spaces of West Bengal, though located mostly in Kolkata. It is interesting to note that both the parties, i.e. the MCC and the CPI (ML) People’s War, which later combined among themselves to form the CPI (Maoist),were active, may not be on the surface, in different parts of the state even after the first phase of the left extremist politics had ended in early-1970s. But it is somewhat obvious that all such activities which helped to keep the flames of left extremist politics burning in the state had a surrogate nature about them. Extreme left parties, like the CPI (ML) PW, were trying to address issues of public concern while, at the same time, not willing to do so on their own identities. Most probably, this was a tactical ploy on the part of the party or parties concerned for staying active in politics, while staying out of the unwelcome attention of the forces of the state. Coming to the second question as raised at the beginning of this section, we would like to observe that a fortuitous combination of five separate factors prepared the ground for the revival of left extremist politics in the state in the first decade of the present century. These were, (i) a consolidation of left extremist forces on an all-India scale through the formation of the CPI (Maoist) (hereinafter to be referred as Maoists) in 2004, (ii) the creation of a viable opposition space in the CPI (M) dominated state politics by the newly formed Trinamool Congress (TMC), (iii) an increasing popular disenchantment and discontent with the Left Front Government (LFG), which had been continuously in power for very close to three decades, (iv) two major industrialization initiatives by the LFG, one in Singur and the other in Nandigram, both of which were perceived to have adverse effects on the lives and livelihood of the people located on those sites, and (v) the convergence of interests of the TMC and the Maoists in removing the Left Front (LF) from the seat of power. While the first point has been discussed in detail earlier in this paper, the second needs an explanation.

50

West Bengal under the Left (1977-2011)

An engagement with the evolution of the Trinamool Congress is not within the remit of this chapter, yet, a brief look is necessary on how its actions had impacted other parties and groups which were arrayed against the CPI (M) and the LFG. The birth of Trinamool Congress as a political party was announced at a public meeting in Kolkata on the 1stof January, 1998. It emerged out of almost a decade-long internal strife within the Congress party in West Bengal, in which the main protagonist was Mamata Banerjee, the then leader of the Youth Congress, who had been criticizing the Congress for its failure to organize any anti-LF movement in the state. Her main objection against the state Congress leadership was that due to its inability or unwillingness it had failed to act as a viable opposition to the LFG since the latter came to power in 1977, and had, thus, allowed the opposition space in state politics to shrink significantly. Possessed of and guided by a very high political ambition, she could realize quite early on that to be politically successful in this strongly bipartisan state one needs to pursue a line of constant and visible opposition to the ruling Leftists, particularly the CPI (M).Thus, Mamata pursued her one-point agenda of opposing the LFG in general, and the CPI-M in particular, whenever and wherever she found an opportunity to do so. In course of Mamata’s running battle with the LFG, in general, and the CPI-M, in particular, spread over a period of more than two decades, perhaps none of the issues prior to the Singur agitations in 2006 were resolved the way she would have liked them to be. But, together they had contributed towards creating a rich political dividend for her, the benefits of which she reaped later in subsequent elections from 2008 onwards.50 Electoral fortunes aside, what was more important was how such episodic acts of opposition created a political constituency for Mamata, and, also, carved out a gradually increasing space for anti-LF, anti-CPI (M) politics in the state, which could be accessed and used by other parties, non-party organizations, and even by amorphous civil society groups. The ‘Singur issue was basically a manifestation of ‘development dilemma’ faced by developing societies in the globalized order, that of industrializing a peasant economy. The problem was further compounded when peasant cultivators had to part with the land, they had been cultivating for generations, for a private sector automobile industry to come up, compensations (of various kinds) for such dispossession notwithstanding. It involved the prospect of an uncertain future, as far the question of livelihood was concerned; a loss of social identity; and, more importantly, a

The Left Extremist Politics in West Bengal: from birth to resurrection and beyond

51

possible psychological crisis, since the land to them was not just a ‘means of production’, but it defined their whole life. Particularly in the case of Singur, the issue of dispossession of land assumed a greater significance for three specific reasons: (i) The land, which was to be transferred from the peasant-cultivator to the Tata-s, with the state acting as some kind of a ‘middle-man’, was in a high-fertility, multi-cropping zone. Though a high degree of fragmentation of land had been generating a low return for most of the small landholders, the potentially ‘high return’ dimension provided a good rallying point for the protesters. (ii) The affected or would-be affected persons complained of the government’s not holding any prior dialogue with them on the matter of such land transfer, which made them feel taken for granted. (iii) Finally, with the government taking the lead in acquiring the land, the persons affected or would-be so experienced some sort of state coercion, or anticipated it. Thus, in Singur, the leading role of the government of the day, the LFG, in land-acquisition for a private sector project pushed the socio-economic dimensions of the problem to the backstage, while transforming it into a direct state-vs.-people confrontation. The hidden dimension of the problem was that this was happening in a society where popular culture had never ceased to romanticize the ‘village’ and its ‘peasantry’,51 as Monobina Gupta perceptively wrote, “The peasant had indeed been a lingering, haunting shadow in Bengal’s urban consciousness.”52 Moreover, it was happening in a state in which the major partner of the ruling coalition was the CPI-M, which had long upheld the ‘land-to-the-tiller’ demand and proudly carried the legacy of the Tebhaga movement of the late 1940s. For Mamata Banerjee, this was an opportunity not to be lost, particularly when a large number of the local cultivators in Singur were opposing the land acquisition, and had formed the ‘Krishi Jomi Bachao Committee (Save Farmland Committee). She took up the cause of the landlosers in Singur in her own no-holdsbarred agitational style.53 Much had been written, both scholarly as well as journalistic, on various aspects of land acquisition at Singur by the State Government in 2006 for Tata’s small car manufacturing industry and other ancillary industries, and also on the anti-government agitations on this issue initiated and led by Mamata Banerjee, in which joined, apart from her party TMC, the Congress, the Socialist Unity Centre (SUC), some

52

West Bengal under the Left (1977-2011)

extreme left parties like the CPI (ML) Liberation and the CPI (Maoist), and a number of non-governmental organizations.54 In the context of this present chapter what is of relevance is the involvement and participation of various left extremist groups in the Singur agitation. Both in Singur and in Nandigram, as we will see later, the reality or the possibility of alienation of the peasantry from the land, which sustained it, loomed large over all other issues. If we may remember, the land question provided the ideological bedrock of the Naxalbari movement of the late-‘60s of the last century. In 2007, Liberation, the mouthpiece of the CPI (ML) Liberation, wrote, while reporting on the party’s involvement in agitations in Singur and Nandigram: “Probably the most reassuring message of the current movement is that even after the nearly three decades long domination of reactionary class collaborationism, the peasants of West Bengal have lost none of their spirit of revolt.”55 Continuing, it wrote, “The soul of Tebhaga-Naxalbari is awakening again.”56 In an interview to the Frontline, a national news magazine, in 2009, Koteswar Rao, also known as Kishenji, a member of the Politbureau of the CPI (Maoist), acknowledged the party’s involvement in Singur, not to speak of in Nandigram and Lalgarh later on.57 Not just party publications, the mainstream print media had also reported, during the entire period of the Singur agitations (i.e. between the last week of May, 2006, and the first week of October, 2008) on the participation of Naxalite-Maoist parties under their own banner and, also, as a part of different NGOs.58 Singur was some kind of a shot-in-the-arm for the left extremist parties and groups in West Bengal. It gave them a chance to come out of the woodwork after three decades or a bit more, and join a mass political movement along-side the leading opposition force in the state, the TMC, and also, the Congress and the SUC. This, also, endowed such groups and their movements a kind of legitimacy which was lacking in the earlier Naxalbari phase. When further such opportunities of open political involvement arose at Nandigram and at Lalgarh in quick successions, but in different contexts, they were prepared to jump into the fray. The same reporting in Liberation, as referred to above, wrote towards its end, “The battle initiated in Singur has… reached a higher phase in Nandigram.”59 Nandigram, lying about 150 kilometers South-west of Kolkata, is located in the East Medinipur district and falls under the purview of the Haldia Development Authority. In 2006, after coming to power, the LFG announced its intention to build there a nearly 14,500 acre Special

The Left Extremist Politics in West Bengal: from birth to resurrection and beyond

53

Economic Zone (SEZ), and earmarked a site for it. The proposed site was populated by about 65000 people, mostly Muslim and low-caste cultivators and fishermen,60 and the greater part of the land under cultivation was a single-crop one.61 Apprehensive as they were after the Singur experience, the villagers, who would have been affected if and when the proposed SEZ came up, joined the Bhoomi Uchchhed Pratirodh Committee (BUPC). It was a joint platform of action floated by the TMC, SUCI, Jamiat-Ulema-eHind, and the Congress Party. The CPI (Maoist) supported the BUPC in all possible ways.62 On the morning of the 3rd January, 2007, there was a meeting between Central government officials and the local panchayat functionaries at Garchakraberia, within the so-called conflict zone, regarding the Centrallysponsored Nirmal Gram Yojana Scheme. Under the wrong impression that the process of land acquisition had started, a 3000-strong assemblage of local people attacked the panchayat office, set fire to two police vehicles, and injured a large number of policemen.63 A report in the Indian Express suggested that the entire movement was not just a spontaneous response of aggrieved local people; but, on the other hand, was planned to the last detail.64 From that very night, villagers, under the leadership of the BUPC, started to dig up all approach roads to the villages to prevent the entry of the police, and kept vigil, armed, as they were, with swords, and bows and arrows.65 As it had been well-documented, the agitating villagers, under the leadership of the BUPC, turned the entire Nandigram into a no-entry zone for the state administration for a period of over two months. Faced with such a situation, the state tried to reassert its authority over the area by sending a large contingent of police force to break down the local resistance. The police was confronted by around 2000-2500 villagers armed with various kinds of weapons, and spearheaded by 400-500 women.66 In the ensuing fracas, 14 villagers lost their lives to police firing.67,68 There was a widespread condemnation of this unfortunate loss of lives and other related damages, the primary responsibility for which was laid at the door of the state administration, in general, and the police, in particular. The government, faced with such organized resistance on the field, an articulate and active civil society in a mood of confrontation, and opposition from some of the constituent parties of the LF, had to scrap the plans of a SEZ in Nandigram. But the problems did not end in Nandigram; a new and significant dimension was added to it. There ensued a battle for territorial control in

54

West Bengal under the Left (1977-2011)

Nandigram, in which the members of the BUPC tried to create a ‘liberated zone’ by driving out the supporters and workers of the CPI (M) from the area.69 As a result, many lives were lost and property destroyed in the next few months, the major brunt of which was felt by those belonging to the CPI (M). More than three thousands of such supporters and members of their families were forced to live in relief camps. Incidentally, East Midnapore, had, for long, been a CPI (M) stronghold. A lion’s share of the dividend from this ‘political cleansing’ was later reaped by Mamata and her TMC, first in the 2008 panchayat elections and subsequently in other elections as well. But, what was the position of the left extremists vis-à-vis the Nandigram incidents? By their own admission, the left extremists, particularly the CPI (Maoist), were involved in various capacities in the Nandigram agitations. According to Himadri Sen Roy alias Somen, the CPI (Maoist) Bengal State Secretary, who was arrested by the CID in February 2008, the party was long involved in the said agitations. It started from December 2006, when some of its leaders, including him, visited the area to “assess the temperament of locals” when the protests against the possible land acquisition was at a very initial stage.70 Roy volunteered further information about the party procuring arms for the BUPC, and also spoke about the close connection between the CPI (Maoist), on the one hand, and the local TMC MP and leaders of the BUPC, on the other.71 An earlier newspaper report quoted from a Maoist document in the possession of the said paper, which proclaimed that, “The current struggle at Nandigram is no longer confined to a battle against the CPI (M). This struggle is against the administration and the people of Nandigram want revenge. The revenge will be a violent one.”72 The same report went to note that the Maoists had formed village protection groups in Nandigram, like the Matangini Mahila Samity, an organization of village women. Lalgarh came right on the heels of Nandigram. On November 2, 2008, a landmine blast hit the convoy, carrying the then Chief Minister of West Bengal, Buddhadeb Bhattacharya, Union Minister for Steel, Ramvilas Paswan, and other dignitaries near Salboni in West Midnapore, as they were returning from Salboni after inaugurating the Jindal Steel Plant. The VIPs had a narrow escape as the bombs planted exploded after the cavalcade had passed. The Maoists had accepted the responsiibility of planting the bombs with a view to kill the Chief Minister.73 The police retaliated with a massive search operation in the tribal-dominated areas of Lalgarh, and arrested

The Left Extremist Politics in West Bengal: from birth to resurrection and beyond

55

many innocent people, including school children. The local people also accused the police of severe atrocities, even on women and children.74 As in Nandigram, the local people, mostly tribals, dug up roads, demolished culverts, and created other physical obstacles to render Lalgarh inaccessible to the security forces. They put the Lalgarh police station under lock and key. The agitation, in its initial stage, was led by the local people, organized under the banner of the Sara Bharat Jakat Majhi Madowa Juran Gaonta, a Santali tribal body led by tribal elders.75 Later on the locals formed a Police Santrash Birodhi Janasadharon Committee (People’s Committee against Police Atrocities—PCPA) to organize and give leadership to their movement. Police or any government official could not enter Lalgarh for six months till June 23, 2009, when a combined force of central and state police broke through some of the barriers and reopen the Lalgarh P.S.76 For all practical purposes, that was only a symbolic success for the security forces because for the next eight months or so they could not enter the vast hinterland of Lalgarh, spread over contiguous areas of Bankura, Purulia and West Midnapore.77 There is no need to, recapitulate a detailed narrative of what happened in Lalgarh in those months of blockade, and, also, beyond that period. The public domain is replete with accounts of the trajectory of events that had taken place in and around Lalgarh for about one and a half years. But a number of relevant aspects may be highlighted from the perspective of left extremist politics in the state. Unlike the first two cases, in Lalgarh, the PCPA was closely chaperoned by the CPI (Maoists). Newspaper accounts of the Lalgarh agitations had mentioned a close connection between the PCPA and the CPI (Maoist). At a very initial stage of the agitation, Kanchan, the CPI (Maoist) State Secretary, had said, “We are with the people of Lalgarh. Our guerrilla squad is with them to build an armed resistance.”78 The second significant point to note was the many-fold increase, as compared to the two earlier movements, in incidences of violence, leading to loss of life and destruction of property. A breakdown of those who lost their lives in the protracted period of agitation, according to a report in the Outlook of June 22, 2010 was something like this: 304 civilians, which included 148 passengers of the Gnyaneswari Express, sabotaged by the cadres of the PCPA-CPI (Maoist) combine on May 28, 2010, and the rest mostly belonging to the CPI(M); 41 security force personnel, including 24 Eastern Frontier Rifles men killed in the Maoist attack on the Silda EFR camp, not very far from Midnapore; and 28 belonging to the PCPA-Maoist

56

West Bengal under the Left (1977-2011)

camp79. This physical violence on the part of the Maoists served three purposes: (i) physical elimination of those they perceived to be enemies to their cause; (ii) creating a scare in the minds of others so that they may desist from doing something contrary to the Maoists’ interests, or may, even, relocate themselves, voluntarily or otherwise, out of the zone of Maoist operation; and (iii) create conditions conducive to the establishment of a Maoist ‘liberated zone’ (mukatanchal). In fact, as events in Lalgarh showed purposes (i) and (ii) were but steps to the realization of purpose (iii). In Lalgarh, ‘the enemies to their cause’ were no ‘jotedars’ (big landowners) or ‘mahajans’ (moneylenders) as in the Naxalbari phase of 1960s and ‘70s, but mostly persons linked with the CPI (M) in various capacities, some members of the Jharkhand Party, and members of the security forces. In fact, this selective killing of political opponents had started long before Lalgarh happened in 2008. Outlook India reported in its Web edition of April 14, 2006 that in an area spread over three contiguous districts, Midnapore, Purulia and Bankura, “A total of 19 CPI (M) activists and 20 security force personnel have been killed by the Maoists over the last two years.”80 A CPI (M) pamphlet, Defeat This Politics of Violence (August, 2009), had claimed that, “Over 74 CPI (M) activists and supporters have been killed by the Maoists in the West Midnapore district alone since 2003, out of which 50 were poor peasants and agricultural workers.”81 It went on to note that doctors, nurses, poll officials, security personnel, and tribal activists of other parties were also victims of such violence.82 Monobina Gupta writes, ‘The Lalgarh resistance, by the end of 2009, became yet another rudderless expedition into violence, leaving in its wake a path littered with the dead, most of whom were from the CPI-M rank and file.”83 Such acts of violence on the part of the Maoists, spread over time and over a large area, were not a series of sporadic actions, but, rather, were part of a longterm strategy of establishing sole control over a specific area which might serve as a launching-pad for their activities elsewhere in the state or even beyond. The extent, in terms of time, of the Maoists’ long-term strategy can be gauged from the interview given by Mupalla Laxman Rao, more famously known as Ganapathy, the supreme commander of the CPI (Maoist), to Open magazine on October 17, 2009.84 Ganapathy told the interviewer that, “As far as our party’s role is concerned, we have been working in Paschim Midnapur, Bankura and Purulia, in what is popularly known as Jangalmahal since the 1980s. We fought against the local feudal forces,

The Left Extremist Politics in West Bengal: from birth to resurrection and beyond

57

against the exploitation and oppression by the forest officials, contractors, unscrupulous usurers and the goondaism of both the CPM and Trinamool Congress.” When asked about the plans of the CPI (Maoist) in West Bengal, Kishenji, in the previously quoted interview to the Frontline, said, “Very simply, to establish a liberated area. We decided in 2007 that this [the Jangalmahal] would be a guerilla area. Since then we have progressed a lot….”85. In the same interview, he also said that, “We plan to spread our movement to north Bengal, the plains of Bihar, the central districts of Orissa and eastern Chhattisgarh.”86 About the success of their movement in Lalgarh, Kishenji told the BBC that, “For the first time since the Naxalite movement, we have struck a place which is the weakest spot of the state and which automatically makes it our stronghold…. It was not a liberated area, as has been wrongly referred by the media. But it was surely emerging as an effective guerrilla zone, where we could undermine if not fully drive away the state.”87 Two factors contributed towards the creation of a Maoist base in Lalgarh and its adjoining areas. The most important of these was a severe underdevelopment of the area in terms of all universally accepted indices of human development, and both the fact and the perception at the ground level that the government (primarily, the state government) had not been doing enough to seriously address the issue.88 Moreover, in addition to governmental indifference or inefficiency, the vast number of poor in the highly forested Jangalmahal region, mostly tribals and low-caste Hindus, were severely exploited by private forest contractors, often aided and abetted by forest department personnel.89 It had also been alleged that the police, too, was usually high-handed in dealing with the common people, particularly when they agitated against different incidences of exploitation, or for their rights.90 In her observations on this issue, Monobina Gupta wrote: “Police brutality was a part of the tribal narrative as its abject neglect and pauperization.”91 The Maoists, who were present in the area for a long time as was mentioned before,92 involved themselves with the problems faced by the local people, and organized them for movements for their rights and dues, and, thus struck roots among the locals.93 The second facilitating factor was a combination of two strategies, pursued by two different organizations, which sort of complemented each other. One, pursued by the PCPA, was the strategy of isolating Lalgarh and its adjoining areas from the world outside by cutting off or barricading all approaches to the conflict zone. Thus walled in, the area became some

58

West Bengal under the Left (1977-2011)

kind of a safe zone for the Maoists, where they could give effect to their policy of individual assassination of political opponents and of members of the security forces. The resulting effect of the convergence of the two strategies was the suzerainty the Maoists could establish over large parts of Jangalmahal, albeit for a limited time-span. The second gift was from Mamata Banerjee, who, in the beginning, lent her unequivocal support to the Lalgarh agitation. She organized a sit-in protest against police action in front of the DM’s office in West Midnapore. Equating Lalgarh with Singur and Nandigram, she said, “The Lalgarh agitation is a movement of the people. We support it…”94 In February, 2009, she shared the dais with Chhatradhar Mahato at a public meeting in Lalgarh.95 Mamata had even called for a withdrawal of Central security forces from Lalgarh where it was on a joint mission with the state forces to bring the area back to normalcy, and had threatened that if the Central Government did not comply, then the Trinamul MPs would agitate in the Parliament.96 Coming as it did from the most popular face of the mainstream opposition to the CPI (M), this support from Mamata was a great political booster for the Maoists at that time. A further encouragement to the Maoist activities in Lalgarh came from a section of the urban intelligentsia (‘buddhijeebi’) along with civil right activists and members of different NGOs.97 Lumped together within an amorphous ‘civil society’ (‘sushil samaj’), which appeared on the firmament of state politics after the Nandigram police firing, these individuals became the most articulate critics of the Left Front regime for its ‘undemocratic’ and ‘anti-people’ policies and measures. Some of the civil society activists found in Lalgarh agitation a romantic revival of the Santhal Rebellion,98 though some others spoke out against the senseless violence resorted to by the Maoists there.99 But, all of them condemned the operations of the Joint Forces in the area, called for a halt to such operations, and urged upon the state government to solve the problems peacefully through a dialogue with the PCPA-Maoist activists. That, too, was a kind of support, a standing by their side in the hour of their need. Conclusion In the election to the West Bengal Assembly, held in the month of May, 2011, United Progressive Alliance, the TMC-Congress-SUC combine, literally swept Left Front out of power by winning a total of 227 seats in a House of 294. Mamata’s Trinamul Congress alone won 184 seats, up by 154 over the 2006 election, while the LF, down by 168 seats, could manage

The Left Extremist Politics in West Bengal: from birth to resurrection and beyond

59

to win only 62 seats. The CPI (M), which had been winning a majority of seats on its own in every assembly election since 1977, had to scrape home with only 40 seats, down by 136 in comparison with 2006 Election. Singur, Nandigram, and Jhargram (which includes Lalgarh) constituencies returned TMC candidates. In keeping with the Mamata’s poll promise, the operations of the security forces in the Jangalmahal was kept suspended for a short while, and it was resumed from 1st. June, 2011.100 A peace talk with representatives of the CPI (Maoist) was started in the month of July, 2011, by a group of civil society activists on behalf of newly-elected TMC government. It fell apart with the death of Kishenji in the hands of the security forces on November 24, 2011. Arrests of some of the top Maoist leaders and the surrender of some others following Kishenji’s death broke the backbone of the movement.101 Mamata’s announcement of a ‘development package’ for the Jangalmahal, and also a ‘surrender-cum-rehabilitation’ scheme for the Maoists took the ground away from under their feet.102 The Outlook India report, referred to above, noted: “The area, which recorded 350 killings in 2010-11, witnessed none in 2012.”103 The so-called ‘second coming’ of the Maoists, thus, ended in a whimper. It leaves the questions open as to what did the movement seek to achieve, and what or how much it really could. At the time of its formation, the CPI (Maoist) had stated its primary objective to be, “to carry on and complete the already ongoing and advancing New Democratic Revolution in India… by overthrowing the semi-colonial, semi-feudal system under the neo-colonial form of indirect rule, exploitation and control.”104 But, during the Nandigram and Lalgarh/Jangalmahal phases of the Maoist movement in the state, the leaders of the CPI (Maoist), in all their public pronouncements, had identified the CPI (M) and the Security Forces as their principal enemies, and had taken the path of physically annihilating them as far as possible. Completing the ‘new democratic revolution’ was seemingly absent from their agenda. Perhaps their only achievement, other than the death and destruction, was engaging the friendly attention of Mamata, a section of the media, and a motley crowd of so-called ‘civil society’ activists, though for a short time. When Mamata, after her massive electoral victory, turned her face away from the Maoists, the other two hastily followed suit. At the end of the day, one may remember that the Naxalite movement and the first left extremist party, the CPI (M-L), were born in 1967 and 1969, respectively, when the first and then the second United Front governments

60

West Bengal under the Left (1977-2011)

were in power in the state. One would also remember that the revival of left extremist politics in the state took place during the last decade of the Left Front government. Incidentally, the CPI (M) had been the major partner in the government, both at the time of the ‘birth ‘and once again at the time of the ‘resurrection’ of the Naxalite/Maoist politics in the state. One wonders: was it just a coincidence? Endnotes 1.

2. 3. 4. 5. 6. 7.

8. 9. 10. 11. 12. 13.

Naxalbari is the name of a village and a block under the Siliguri subdivision of Darjeeling district in West Bengal, comprising about 260 sq.km of territory, strategically located. It is bordered on the East by Bangladesh, on the West by Nepal, and on its northern side lie Sikkim, Bhutan, and Tibet. Internally, it is very close to the ‘Chicken’s Neck’, the narrow corridor that connects the main landmass of India with its North-eastern states. In1967, its population was close to 90,000 only. Speaking about the socio-economic composition of the people living there, Mohan Ram observed, “In the Terai (the region on the Himalayan foothills in North Bengal where Naxalbari is situated), 70 per cent of the peasants were poor and landless, 20 per cent were middle peasants, and 10 per cent rich peasants.” Apart from the poor and marginal peasants, there were a large number of lowly-paid tribal and non-Bengali workers in the tea-plantations around, and, thus, the economic exploitation of the poor was compounded by the social oppression of the tribals. Sumanta Banerjee, In the Wake of Naxalbari: A History of the Naxalite Movement, Calcutta: Subarnarekha, 1980, 84. Rabindra Ray, The Naxalites and their Ideology; New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 3rd edition, 2011, 97. Ibid, 128. Sumanta Banerjee, 102. Ibid, 101. ‘The Naxalbari Uprising’, http://www.bannedthought.net/India/PeoplesMarch/PM1999-2006/publications/30%20years/part1.htm (accessed on 23 January 2015) Ibid. Banerjee, 120-122. Ibid, 142-144. Ibid, 145. Ibid, 149. Ibid, 145.

The Left Extremist Politics in West Bengal: from birth to resurrection and beyond

14. 15. 16. 17. 18. 19. 20.

21. 22. 23.

24. 25.

26. 27. 28.

29. 30. 31. 32. 33. 34. 35. 36. 37. 38. 39. 40.

61

Ibid, 145. Ray, 152. Ibid, 152. Ibid, 153. Ibid, 154. Banerjee, 364. Maoist-Influenced Revolutionary Organizations in India; massline. info, http://www.maslineinfo/India/Indian_Groups.htm. (accessed on 22.08.2014) Ibid. Ibid. Amiya Samanta, Ideological Issues in the Naxalite Movement in Pradip Basu (ed) Discourses on Naxalite Movement 1967-2009, Kolkata,: Setu Prakashani, 2010,.368. Ibid, 368. Rajat Kujur, Naxal Movement in India: A Profile, IPCS Research Papers, 15, September 2008, New Delhi: Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, 11. Samanta, 242. Ibid, 242. 30 years of CPI (ML), http://www.loc.gov/websites/wayback/20090629210100/cpiml.org/pgs/ 30yrs/hist30.htm (accessed on 27.08.14). Ibid. Kujur, 3. 30 years of CPI (ML). Ibid. Kujur, 8. Ibid. Ibid. Ibid, 9. Ibid. Ibid, 8. Nihar Nayak, ‘A Compact Of Fire’, http://www.outlookindia.com/printarticle.aspx?225468 (accessed on 27.08.14). Kujur, 11.

62

41. 42.

43. 44.

45. 46. 47. 48. 49. 50.

51.

52. 53.

54.

55.

56.

West Bengal under the Left (1977-2011)

Ibid, 12. The second coming of Maoists’ in West Bengal in 2009,The Hindu, January 1, 2010, http://www.thehindu.com/news/national/other-states/the-secod-coming-of-maoists-in-west-bengal-in-2009/article73858.ece (accessed on 19.08.2014) See p 5 of this chapter. Vanguard-Publication of the CPI (ML) PW: December 1983, and NovDec 1984, www.bannedthought.net/India/Vanguard/index.htm (accessed on 15.09. 2014) Ibid. Ibid. Ibid, May, 1983. Ibid. Ibid, January-March, 1994. 2008 Panchayat Elections; 2009 LokSabha Elections; 2010 Municipal Elections, including those for the Kolkata and Bidhannagar Municipal Corporations; 2011 State Assembly Elections; and 2013 Panchayat Elections. “Kono ek ganyer boduhr katha…” the ‘50s composition by Salil Choudhury and immortalized by Hemanta Mukhopadhyay’s singing is still popular. This is just an example from the vast genre of Bengali literature and music that had usually portrayed the rural life as the ‘paradise’ or as ‘paradise lost’. Monobina Gupta, Left in West Bengal, New Delhi: Orient Blackswan, 2010, 183. Hindu, 22.07.2006; Mamata Banerjee at a public meeting at Bajemalia, near Singur: “Jami nile Buddha, aabar hobe juddha” Statesman, Kolkata, 27.11.2006. Sumanta Banerjee, ‘Peasant Hares and Capitalist Hounds of Singur’, EPW, Dec. 30, 2006; Kheya Bag, ‘Red Bengal’s Rise and Fall’, New Left Review 70, July Aug 2011; Sambuddha MitraMustafi,’ Sister,Soldier’: The hard-won victories of Mamata Banerjee; Caravan Magazine, 1 April 2014, ; http://caravanmagazine.in/reportage/sister-soldier?page=0,2 (accessed on 22.09.14); AnirbanChoudhury, ‘Mamata magic’. The Singur-Nandigram Continuum: Lessons and Significance; http;//www.cpiml.org/liberation/year_2007/February/singur_nandigram.html (accessed on 23.09.2014) Bid.

The Left Extremist Politics in West Bengal: from birth to resurrection and beyond

57. 58.

59. 60. 61. 62.

63. 64. 65. 66. 67. 68. 69. 70. 71. 72. 73.

74.

75. 76.

63

Interview with Suhrid Sankar Chattopadhyay; Frontline, Vol.26-Issue 22, Oct. 24-Nov.06, 2009. News items: Mamata begins fast on Singur plant, The Times of India, Kolkata, December 05,2006; Trinamul leader in law-&-order warning, The Telegraph, December 07, 2006; Mamata ignores appeal to end fast, The Hindu, December 10, 2006;Comeback Stage, Arindam Sarkar, Hindustan Times, Kolkata, Dec. 18, 2006; Farmers’ interests will be protected: CPI(M), The Hindu, January 10, 2007; Mamata goes the Naxalite hit-and-run way-Militant agitation follows meeting, The Telegraph, Kolkata, February 08, 2007; Naxals, NGOs lead Mamata agitation: ‘She will never act without our consent’, Subrata Nagchoudhury, Indian Express, September 01,2008; Extreme reactions, Indian Express, November 04, 2008. Liberation, February 2007. Bag, 91. False alarm sparks clash, The Telegraph, Kolkata, January 04, 2007. ‘Maoists declare war on state, Tamal Sengupta, The Economic Times, November 07, 2007;’ Maoist leader names TMC, Mahasweta as allies, Kartyk Venkatraman, Indian Express, Kolkata, June 20, 2009; Maoist leader focused on Nandigram, Kolkata, Raktima Bose, The Hindu, March 04, 2010. False alarm sparks clash, The Telegraph, January 04, 2007. Nandigram ready for siege, Indian Express, January 04, 2007. False alarm…, The Telegraph, Kolkata, January 04, 2007. Red-hand Buddha- 14 killed in Nandigram re-entry bid, The Telegraph, Kolkata, March 15, 2007. Ibid. Ibid. Bag, 92. Maoist leader names…, Indian Express, Kolkata, June 20, 2009. Ibid. Maoists declare war…, The Economic Times, November 07, 2007. Interview with Gour Chakraborty, http://news.rediff.com/inter/2009/jun/19/interview-with-communistparty-of-india-maoist-spokesman.htm (accessed on 26.09.2014) The Mass Uprising in Lalgarh, http://www.bannedthought.net/India/Lalgarh?CPI-Maoist/MassuprisingLalgarh-MIB-06.pdf (accessed on 28.09.2014) Ibid. The second coming of Maoists’…., The Hindu, January 01, 2010.

64

77. 78. 79.

80. 81.

82. 83. 84.

85. 86. 87. 88.

89.

90. 91. 92. 93. 94. 95.

West Bengal under the Left (1977-2011)

Ibid. Maoists threaten Lalgarh war, The Telegraph, Kolkata, November 13, 2008. West Bengal: A Year of Failure,- Ajai Sahni, Ajit Kumar Singh, Outlook India, Web edition, June 22, 2010; http://www.outlookindia.com/printarticle.aspx?265948, accessed on 02.10.2014. http://www.outlookindia.com/printarticle.aspx?230919 (accessed on 28.08.14) Defeat This Politics of Violence, August 2009, Communist Party of India (Marxist); http://cpim.org/elections-issues/defeat-politics-of-violence (accessed on 02.10.14) Ibid. Gupta; Left Politics in Bengal,.266 “We shall Certainly Defeat the Government”; http://www.openthemaazine.com/article/nation/we-shall-certainly-defeat-the-government, (accessed on 02.10.14). Interview with Frontline, Vol.26-Issue22; Oct.24-Nov. 06, 2009. Ibid. http://subirbhowmikscolumn.blogspot.in/2009/07/blog-post.html (accessed on 02.10.14) Santosh Rana: Lalgarh: a people’s Uprising subverted by the Ultra-leftists; http://www.revolutionarydemocracy.org/rdv15/lalgarhnew.htm (accessed on 02.10.14). Partho Sarathi Ray: A Peace in Pieces: Context of the Failed “Peace talks” in Jangalmahal; Marxist update, Feb.25, 2012, http://marxistupdate.blogspot.in/2012/02/peace-in-pieces-context-offailed-peace.html (accessed on 08.10.14) Nilanjan Dutta: Inside Midnapore: Times of India, Kolkata, 09-11.10.2002 & 14.10.2002, http://sanhati.com/excerpted/2316 (accessed on 29.08.14) Gupta, 237. See p 19 of this chapter. Partho Sarathi Ray: A Year of Lalgarh; Sanhati, January 11, 2010, http:// sanhati.com/excerpted/2040 (accessed on 02.10.14) Mamata plays tribal card, joins Lalgarh agitation, Indian Express, Kolkata, Nov. 18, 2008. Sambududdha Mitra Mustafi: Sister, Soldier: The hard-won victories of Mamata Banerjee; http://caravanmagazine.in/reportage/sister-soldier?page=0,2 (accessed on 22.09.14)

The Left Extremist Politics in West Bengal: from birth to resurrection and beyond

96.

97. 98. 99. 100. 101.

102.

103. 104.

65

Indian Express, Kolkata, September 26,2010 http://archive.indiane press.com/news/withdraw-joint-forces-from-lalgarh-soon-mamata-to-ce tre/688156/ (27.09.14) Gupta, 267. Ibid. Ibid, 271. Partho Sarathi Roy: A Peace in Pieces Pradipta Tapadar: Maoists Regrouping in Jangalmahal; Intelligence Report; Outlookindia.com, Feb. 01, 2013, http://www.outlookindia.com/news/ printitem.aspx?788556 (accessed on 09.10.14) Shutapa Paul: Reds regroup in West Bengal; The New Indian Express, December 09, 2012, http://www.newindianexpress.com/thesundaystandard/aricle1372185ece?service=print (accessed on 09.10.14) Tapadar. See p 8 of this chapter.

4 The Left Front and The Politics of Regionalism in West Bengal1 Shibashis Chatterjee No state in India can remain impervious to regionalism, which is rooted in the country’s manifold diversity of languages, cultures, tribes, communities, religions and so on, and encouraged by the regional concentration of those identity markers, and fuelled by a sense of regional deprivation. But there is no one driver of regionalism. This paper draws a distinction between economic or financial regionalism on the one hand and regionalism or sub-regionalism based on cultural markers on the other. Most work on regionalism has emphasized the latter over the former. This is hardly surprising. India’s diversities are of many kinds. Even after various phases of territorial reorganization since 1950, most regions of India contain sub-regions marked by some social and cultural identity symbols. Ethnic or cultural regionalism has often expressed itself in antagonistic terms to that of the mainstream, fuelled commonly by the sense of long term deprivation, neglect, and unfavorable redistribution of resources. Commonly, regionalism is about internal self-determination, usually taking the form of demands of statehood or substantive autonomy. But internal self-determination also requires economic viability and a sense of self-sufficiency that exudes confidence among people. Political allegiance is largely determined by the capacity of political outfits to provide material benefits and satisfy developmental needs. Issues of distribution and recognition thus remain intertwined in any form of regionalism. West Bengal manifests regionalism in two forms. First, it has constructed a pervasive form of financial regionalism, which can be defined as a provincial claim for a fairer and more just distribution of all economic resources between the Union and the state of West Bengal, stemming both from the need to set the federal imbalances right by empowering states against a disproportionately profligate and powerful Centre, and to reverse a deliberate policy of persistent neglect and discrimination of Bengal and its people. Such a financial regionalism is primarily but not exclusively

The Left Front and The Politics of Regionalism in West Bengal

67

an economic argument for fostering economic growth and holistic development of the province; it is also a political expression of a culture of civility that has deep historical roots and cannot be understood without a context.2 The other form of regionalism that has taken root in West Bengal is more conventional in nature. It is about the claims of regional autonomy based on identity and recognition of ethno-cultural difference. The state’s response to such demands cannot be understood without some reflection on the identity formation of the Bengali bhadralok in a historical perspective. This essay will only look into the second form of regionalism. This paper is broadly a study of political trends between 1980 till the Left Front lost power in West Bengal in 2011. Since the Left Front was theoretically committed to the politics of class, it did not require imagining ‘West Bengal’ in explicitly ‘ethnic’ terms as the government was voicing the claims of a administrative-territorial unit of the state; and it went on claiming more grants and revenue for the state by espousing a vigorous form of economic or financial regionalism that was based on deliberate neglect and political opposition by the Congress-ruled Centre. But by ten years of its rule, it was faced with a violent Gorkhaland agitation that forced it to initiate a new discourse of regionalism that was difficult to be reconciled with its politics of class. The Left explained the movement and responded through its organic model of class-based development but could not entirely avoid ethnic constructions and cultural issues. The Left Front’s electoral defeat in 2011 was triggered by a host of factors, including the demands for separate Gorkhaland and Kamptapur states in northern Bengal. Regionalism and Bengali bhadralok identity The issue of Bengali identity is a deeply complex phenomenon that has mediated the formation of the politics of regionalism in the state in a considerable way. Historically, Bengalis were a community of people defined by language but divided by religion, class and local attachments. Before the advent of the British rule in India, while Bengal’s society was broadly divided between rich landlords and poor peasants, there was a widely shared cultural domain or life-world that united the parts. The mass and the landlords could together witness and celebrate common cultural forms like palagan (musical plays), kirtan (devotional songs), jatra (folk theatre), pantomimes, khemta and kheur (popular vulgar song and dance forms), tarja (folk poetry), and kabi gaan (poetic songs). Despite many

68

West Bengal under the Left (1977-2011)

social differences of caste and class, Bengalis shared a common cultural life before the advent of modernity qua colonialism. In the words of Sumanta Banerjee, “Interestingly enough, parallel to the court culture this alternative stream of folklore was allowed to run its distinct course in medieval Bengali society. It was appreciated by both the upper class patrons and the lower orders even in the new metropolis of Calcutta in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.”3 Colonialism upset this whole process.4 Unlike in the West, where massive waves of industrialization induced urbanization necessitated the creation of new horizontal identities, no consolidated Bengali identity emerged out of the complex interactions between colonialism and the indigenous community. The English educated urban Bengali became the bearers of Bengal’s avant-garde culture and came to constitute the ‘bhadralok’ (literally gentleman or a cultured person steeped in Western education and manners) who self-consciously separated themselves from the vast majority of poor and illiterate or semi-literate peasants who came from the same ethnic stock but inhabited a different cultural space (pejoratively termed as ‘chhotolok’). As Sumanta Banerjee notes, “In 19th century Bengal, the educated Bengali gentry's campaign—both administrative and ideological—against the cultural expressions of the indigenous lower orders was determined to a large extent by the concept of ‘obscenity' which they imbibed from their English colonial mentors, who in their turn shaped the concept in accordance with the rigid and unaccommodating morality of the Victorian society of England. The concept still continues to rule the attitude and behaviour of the Bengali 'bhadralok' (the ‘respectable’ gentry) towards the expressions of the 'chhotolok' (the unlettered lower orders). The latter's raw, uninhibited articulation of perceptions of the surrounding stark reality, is quite often countered by self-protective euphemisms which are typical expressions of the perennial social and political ambivalence of the ‘bhadralok’.”5 The case in Bengal was further complicated by two other historical factors. First, bhadralok needed to separate themselves from the Muslim aristocracy who had ruled Bengal for centuries before losing out to the British. While a large part of this class was not ethnically of Bengali origin, there were many who were. But the Bengali Hindu bhadralok, who had found in British India an opportunity to rise up economically and socially,

The Left Front and The Politics of Regionalism in West Bengal

69

had no interest to accommodate the Bengali Muslim aristocracy, whom they were displacing. The British found in this a golden opportunity to use their notorious divide and rule policy to weaken the most politically articulate people resisting colonial rule.6 Secondly, the Bengal renaissance of late 18th and early 19th centuries not only led to a new cultural awakening within this class, which led the bhadralok on to a path of complex negotiation of modernity, rationality, and cultural difference vis-à-vis the West, but, ironically encouraged them to distance from and often belittle the social and cultural practices of many neighbouring ethnic communities who did not experience any comparable social reforms movement. This loaded a sense of cultural and linguistic superiority in this class that remained a critical element in moulding their cultural identity vis-à-vis other ethnic communities.7 The fact that Calcutta was the capital of India till 1911 and the Bengalis were exposed to colonial modernity much before other eastern communities reinforced this sense of exclusivity often bordering on arrogance. A curious logic of cultural and linguistic hegemony took shape among this class who could use it both for purposes of appropriation and separation as the case may be. The idea of being pioneers in art, culture, literature, science and politics in modern (colonial) India ran deep within the Bengali psyche and unleashed a complex interplay of nostalgia, helplessness, anger and pathos, which engendered a pervasive sense of being deliberately discriminated and left uncared for during the long period of Bengal’s post-independent downfall. Rather than indulge in critical self-introspection, the tendency was to blame others for the misery that slowly engulfed post-1947 West Bengal. As the bhadralok were increasingly confronted by new economic and political challenges, their self-identity based upon cultural exceptionalism remained central to many of their responses. The communal aspect/s of their identity would no longer occupy the centre-stage. But relations with sizeable minorities who for centuries lived within the geographical bounds of the province would remain a thorny issue for the Bengali bhadralok. West Bengal also witnessed the development of a strong socialist/ Marxist political movement that had considerable impact on the bhadralok identity. But, if the doctrinaire Marxism strengthened the class identity of many Bengalis, the social identity of the bhadralok left indelible cultural influences upon the discourse/s of class.8 The Left in West Bengal remained separated along the cultural divide, with most leaders who dominated politics being invariably bhadraloks, who could not, despite their philosophical

70

West Bengal under the Left (1977-2011)

commitment to a politics of class, entirely overcome the cultural distance. But the popularity and long electoral success of the politics of class ensured that while the bhadralok had difficulties in understanding and accommodating other communities and groups in their terms, there was no conscious articulation of any politics of ethnic chauvinism within the state. Bengal’s regionalism invoked a subtle sense of cultural belongingness that did not require any manifest demonization of target groups. The ethnocultural imagination of the bhadralok was so subtle yet claustrophobic for others that it did not require any explicit political or ethnic articulation at all; this subtle hegemony is often benumbing when it comes to its nondialogic negotiation of ‘others’. Yet, one can hardly underestimate the insecurity of partitioned people, jostling in a limited space, with a highly unfavourable land-man ratio that makes all-round development difficult and, most critically, puts enormous pressure on land. Bengal’s sensitivity to any prospect of further loss of territory is a natural corollary of this fundamental psychological insecurity of a divided people. In popular imagination, partition in 1947 was foisted on Bengal essentially by Nehru and Gandhi. These were also the figures that apparently conspired against the tragic denouement of Subhas Bose, arguably the most charismatic political leader of undivided colonial Bengal. Partition, in particular, was a historical blunder for many as it created enormous dislocations from which the province was unable to recover in full. Its grouse against the step-motherly attitude of the Centre was largely born out of this popular reading of history. The economic regionalism of the province against the Centre and the state’s role and response to its many homegrown minority regionalisms must be understood as a part of this broad framework. Ethnic Regionalism in West Bengal While West Bengal has been in the forefront of financial regionalism since the 1980s, the state has itself witnessed strong sub-regional tendencies from mid eighties, with demands of outright break-up of the state. This politics of sub-regionalism concerns chiefly, though not exclusively, the demand for the Gorkhaland made by the majority Nepali or Gorkha community residing in the hill districts of Darjeeling, Kalimpong and Kurseong. But demands for new statehood have also been raised in north Bengal plains, with the Kamtapur movement often taking a violent turn. The Jharkhand Mukti Morcha has also raised separatist slogans in the tribal

The Left Front and The Politics of Regionalism in West Bengal

71

infested areas of Bankura, Purulia and Birbhum districts of West Bengal. The discourse of these agitations has turned both on claims of distribution and the demands of recognition. But these agitations spoke in a language of denial and neglect of the local communities by the dominant ethnic stock. Tribal cultural or ethnic identity as distinct from that of Bengali identity has thus been the chief marker of these movements. While, the articulation of the secessionist discourse is invariably couched in the language of difference, the response of the mainstream political parties of West Bengal from 1986 onwards has also assumed a sublime ethnic connotation, despite the commitment to a politics of distribution across the spectrum. For the Left, this involved a definition of a region by default, since it steadfastly refused to deviate from its politics of class in its official discourses and as a result found it increasingly difficult to negotiate challenges based on cultural identities. The Left’s poverty of imagining and dealing with a politics of multiculturalism is largely responsible for its inability to offer any credible political solution to the secessionist demands based on cultural/ ethnic difference. There is a long history to the separatist movement of the Nepalese speaking people of the Hill districts of West Bengal, a detailed survey of which is unnecessary for this study. The British government followed a version of divide and rule and created a cleavage between Bengalis and the Nepalese, based on both ethnic and linguistic grounds. A section of Nepalese leadership was attracted to this. Between 1907 and 1943 this sentiment continued to persist and occasional representations for self-rule for the Gorkhas were made before the British. The Hill Men’s Association, the Gorkha League Association and the All India Gorkha League were consistent through these years in demanding the exclusion of the Darjeeling District from the administration of Bengal. While the Nepalese speaking people were initially comfortable within the political culture of West Bengal, the insecurity of the Nepalese accentuated after the anti-foreigner agitation in Assam, where, along with Bangladeshi refugees, the Nepalese were also identified as ‘intruders’.9 To guarantee their security, the Nepalese residing in India wanted full recognition as citizens of India. They therefore demanded their language be recognized as one of the national languages and also mobilized for political autonomy in places where they constituted a territorialized demographic majority. The Hill districts of West Bengal constituted just such a setting and became a natural platform for the politics of sub-regionalism based

72

West Bengal under the Left (1977-2011)

upon ethnic assertion. A maximalist organization called Prantitya Parishad was formed in 1980 that demanded the formation of a separate Darjeeling state. They also gave a call to boycott the 1982 assembly election but the Nepalese in general did not pay heed to their call. While the 1982 elections saw the CPI (M) bag three out of the four seats (the other seat being won by the Gorkha League candidate), there was a clear ethnic basis to the elections as all the candidates were Nepalese. In the panchayat elections of 1983, the ethnic parties were overwhelmingly victorious over regular parties, including the Left Front candidates.10 The situation in the Hills took a turn for the worse as thousands of Nepalese were expelled from Assam and Meghalaya as part of an antiforeigner agitation that gripped the northeastern states since the mid eighties. Unfortunately, apart from their ethnic kin in Darjeeling, neither the government of West Bengal nor that of Sikkim welcomed these uprooted people. The Nepalese in Darjeeling took up their cause strongly and protested against what they considered to be unlawful eviction of people who were Indian citizens and had a right to live anywhere in India. Subhas Ghising, the founder of the Gorkha National Liberation Front (GNLF) turned it into a militant political movement and demanded the creation of a state for the Indian Nepalese people in north Bengal, which he called Gorkhaland. He desisted from referring to his people as Nepalese and preferred the term ‘Gorkha’ to emphasize their Indian origin and differentiate them from their ethnic kin in Nepal.11 From the beginning the movement came to combine distributional and cultural issues in a highly effective strategy that galvanized the sentiments of the youth. Ghising claimed that Gorkhaland would solve the problem of unemployment and poverty of the Nepali youth in the three hill subdivisions of West Bengal. Simultaneously, he emphasized the ethnic and cultural distinctiveness of the Gorkhas vis-à-vis the Bengalis, and claimed that their cultural efflorescence and linguistic development demanded political separation. Ghising was thus responsible for unleashing a brand of cultural politics that cleverly utilized a discourse of exploitation and relative deprivation against the successive governments in West Bengal, though, in a master political stroke, he situated the plight of the Gorkhas in the longstanding ambiguity over their legal status within the constitutional and legal framework of India. This afforded him a much needed political space and increased his efficacy as a radical politician in an otherwise vulnerable Indian politics. His political strategy was one of silencing all other political

The Left Front and The Politics of Regionalism in West Bengal

73

parties and their affiliated organizations in the Hills. With his unrivalled popularity and an equally remarkable decline in the political base of the CPI(M), the GNLF emerged as the sole political force in the Hills, and posed an enormous challenge to the political legitimacy of the Left Front rule in a region of ethnic difference. Since the agitation for ‘Gorkhaland’ began, one of the constant refrains of the opposition to this demand, articulated by the West Bengal government especially by the CPI(M), has been that "there cannot be any division of West Bengal". The attitude of the government to this agitation was stern from the beginning. An all-Party meeting held on August 18, 1986, presided over by Chief Minister Jyoti Basu, condemned the movement in unequivocal terms. In a publication named Information Document (1987) II. Gorkhaland Agitation: Facts and Issues, the government noted that the meeting “unanimously holds that the Gorkhaland movement, led by Gorkha National Liberation Front is divisive, anti-people, anti-national and anti-state.”12 The Left saw the necessity to counter the demand politically. And yet there have been reports, though subsequently denied or modified, that many leaders of West Bengal, including the chief minister on several occasions, had made speeches that projected the issue in essentially Bengali versus Nepali terms.13 The Left and the opposition formulated a theory of hostages by suggesting that while the Bengalis in the hill areas of Darjeeling district were under attack from the Gorkhaland agitators, the latter cannot forget that there were more Nepalis in the plains than there were Bengalis in the hills. A slightly different articulation argued that there was no basis for granting the demand as Nepalis were not an ethnic majority if the hills and the plains were combined (since the demand is to include parts of Terai and Dooars as well).14 Over the years, the Nepali youth had gradually become alienated from the party due to several factors—the rise of an educated elite among the Nepalis, their increasing awareness of their separate cultural identity, their suspicion that the party being dominated by the Bengalis is indifferent to their needs and aspirations. In the Hills, the Left's proposal for regional autonomy for Nepali-speaking people was an indirect acknowledgment of the fact that these people had a case that their rights were not adequately protected under the Left Front regime within the given administrative framework. The Gorkha National Liberation Front’s (GNLF) demand for a

74

West Bengal under the Left (1977-2011)

separate state was an expression of that deep sense of political and cultural alienation. When the GNLF started the agitation for a separate state, the Left Front did not, strangely enough, extend the logic of its anti-Centre regionalism to this issue; instead, it decided to play on the distinction between regional autonomy (within West Bengal) and statehood (outside West Bengal) that strengthened the agitation considerably. Mr. Jyoti Basu asked the CPI (M) units in North Bengal to mobilize public opinion against the GNLF’s demand for a separate state. The CM directed the minister for hill areas development, Mr. Tamang Dao Lama to take the lead in launching a campaign against the separatists’ demand. He warned that if separatist forces were not resisted at the building stage, West Bengal would soon break into pieces. He conflated the potential break-up of West Bengal with an eventual disintegration of India unless people continue to believe in the idea of unity in diversity. The completely alienated hill leadership engaged in self-delusion, arguing that there was no public support for the GNLF movement led by Mr. Subhas Ghising. Even during the second phase of the Gorkhland agitation, the Left Front’s orientation did not change. Thus in 2010, the then Chief Minister, Mr. Buddhadev Bhattacharya, cautioned the pro-Gorkhaland leaders against seeking inclusion of Siliguri town, the Dooars and Terai regions to Gorkhaland thus: “Do not even mention the name of Siliguri or Dooars and Terai regions as the people there do not want to be a part of Gorkhaland. If you want an interim arrangement, it will be done with the Darjeeling, Kurseong and Kalimpong sub-divisions only – do not over-step even an inch”.15 In February 2011, Bhattacharya reasserted that the Gorkha Janamukti Morcha's demand for a separate Gorkhaland was unacceptable and ruled out bringing the Dooars and the Terai under any new administrative arrangement for the Darjeeling hills. He said: “The time has come for the [political] leaders in Darjeeling to realise that clamouring for Gorkhaland will yield nothing. It is not acceptable — either to the state or the Centre. It is not realistic; it is not possible.” “They [the GJM] are trying at times to take it [their movement] from the hills to the Dooars, the Terai and even Siliguri…They will never get this region,” the Chief Minister said, cautioning against attempts to stir up trouble in these areas.16 But why could the Left Front not take a more sympathetic view of the Gorkhaland

The Left Front and The Politics of Regionalism in West Bengal

75

demand? Scholars like Sumanta Banerjee hint at cultural explanations that go beyond the fact of lack of sufficient development. There was virtually no possibility of balkanization of West Bengal by allowing Darjeeling to be a separate state or a Union territory. Neither historically nor culturally does the Nepali-speaking majority of Darjeeling share anything in common with the Bengalis. Moreover, this ‘denial’ was at odds with the CPI(M)’s original theoretical commitment to the need for "regional or full autonomy" in regions where "tribals deserve such a status by geography and numbers”. In this case, however, the Left Front began by problematizing the status of the Nepali speaking people of Darjeeling as 'tribals'. Rather, it started to pit the tribes against the Nepalese and deployed demographics to suit its stand. The Front’s decision to fight the movement tooth and nail, stymied the opportunity to prevent a wider ethnic dispute. This can be looked upon as a natural corollary of Bengali cultural supremacy, which is snobbish and completely unyielding to others. The Left responded to this movement administratively. The state and the Union government managed to prevent the break-up of West Bengal through intense bargaining with Mr. Subhas Ghising that led to the constitution of the Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council (DGHC) in 1988. While its constitution did not bring in the much promised benefits, it conferred on Ghising bargaining powers that he later used to great effect by securing a series of concessions from the state government, while little happened by way of development in the hills. While he could politically neutralize his detractors to a great extent, development was scanty and the major issues that had originally led the onset of the agitation were largely untouched by this ramshackle structure. But he did not articulate the problem in developmental terms. The argument was that the Gorkha community could not develop being a part of West Bengal. The language of development, even if development was good, would not have been sufficient. Yet, he remained a part of the structure for pure political reasons Though his grip began to slacken like most authoritarian leaders he remained completely aloof to it. After a protracted battle of attrition with the state government, the first phase of the movement came to a cease on July 1988 as the GNLF delegates unanimously decided to call off the ‘do or die’ struggle and thus paved the way to a negotiated settlement that would keep stability and peace for nearly a decade and a half. The Left Front government categorically

76

West Bengal under the Left (1977-2011)

rejected the demand for Gorkhaland and offered substantive regional autonomy within the boundaries of the state. With the economy plummeting steadily, Ghising was left with no other alternative but to climb down from his statehood demand and accept the Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council formula as a model of substantive regional autonomy. Ghising negotiated fiercely with the government on appending the name Gorkha and getting a few areas in the plains included within the Council’s territorial jurisdiction. He was also largely successful in expanding upon its range of powers. The GNLF agreed to create the Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council on August 22, 1988 and agreed to drop the demand for a separate state. This was a major political victory for the GNLF. In retrospect, while it did bring back peace and stability to the Hills, it politically emasculated the CPI(M) and other Left parties and paved the way for a protracted period of authoritarian rule by Ghising and his cronies. The arrangement could work if it brought meaningful economic development to the Gorkha youth and solved some of their existential problems. However, as the years rolled on, the West Bengal government desisted completely from demanding an economic audit from the GNLF supremo, lest this became a pretext to unleash a new politics of agitation against the state government. The Left had thus gambled on Ghising’s ability to both keep peace in the Hills and its unfettered capacity to respond to his growing demands. On both counts, this politics of mortgage misfired badly. As sub-regionalism become stronger throughout India and national politics increasingly assumed a coalitional character, reviving the full statehood demand in the Hills was only a matter of time. The Left had neither invested in rejuvenating its own formations by linking up innovatively the politics of redistribution with the politics of recognition, nor could it politically align itself with some of the other political forces of the region. Its politics of silence, neglect and a self-imposed distancing denied it the material context of reading the pulse of this troubled region accurately. It sought to strengthen its political grip in the plains, and the more it resisted the political penetration of the GNLF in the Dooars, the more direct became its association with the ethnic Bengalis. This further alienated it from the Gorkhas in the Hills, and automatically, erected major road blocks to its political revival there. Its political discourse based on class unity and the denial of ethnic identity had become

The Left Front and The Politics of Regionalism in West Bengal

77

otiose and dysfunctional in a context where class and ethnicity were bound up in an exceedingly complex relationship. The simple strategy of decoupling them by prioritizing class over the mischief of the other further alienated the Left forces in the Hills. Since the formation of Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand and Uttaranchal 2000, Ghising came under pressure from other hill parties to revive the light for a Gorkha homeland. Surprisingly, despite knowing that the Sixth Schedule cannot be extended to Darjeeling, which is not a tribal area, the Left Front Government took up the case with the Centre to have the Gorkha leader on its side before the crucial Assembly polls; this, in a way, gave the state government a chance to take action against pro-Gorkhaland parties before they could actively launch the separatist agitation. Prominent GNLF leaders like C. K. Pradhan were on the verge of parting. The ground had started to shift from under Ghising’s feet. The Left had no strategy to react to this scenario. After long period of calm, fresh trouble started in 2005 with Ghising refusing to step down as the administrator before elections to the Hill Council could take place in March. The CPI(M) asked Subhas Ghising to resign as Chairman of Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council in case he wanted polls to be deferred. A tripartite meeting was held in New Delhi involving Ghising, Buddhadeb Bhattacharya and the Union Home Minister Shivraj Patil of the Congress-I led UPA regime, ended in a deadlock with Ghising insisting that elections to the DGHC were secondary. The day after the second tripartite meeting to discuss demands raised by the GNLF President failed, CPI(M)’s Darjeeling District Secretary S. P. Lepcha claimed that Ghising should resign as DGHC Chairman and the Council should be dissolved. CPI(M) wanted elections to be held in due time to upheld democracy, peace and development in the region. Bhattacharya said that the DGHC board, was already on a one-year extension and its term was expected to end on March 25 and there was no provision for the present Council to remain in power after March 25. Jyoti Basu, who had ceded his chief ministerial berth to Buddhadeb Bhattcharya, also requested Subhas Ghising not to raise the bogey of a separate Gorkhaland again. Basu alleged that Ghising was averse to holding DGHC polls as he had problems in his GNLF.17 This had apparently little effect on Ghising. Having returned from Delhi after attending the third tripartite meeting to review the Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council Accord of 1988, he addressed a press conference in which he hinted of political turmoil, if the election was held before

78

West Bengal under the Left (1977-2011)

finding an alternative to the DGHC. Alleging that the Centre and the state had imposed the DGHC on him in 1988 Ghising said he wanted a review of the memorandum and warned that the GNLF would not accept a patchwork. Without spelling out what the alternative was he said the options were contained in Article 371, 1-3C and under the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution. He wanted the Centre to act quickly on the matter, and warned that the Hills would enter a state of “political stalemate” if attempts were made to hold elections without finding alternatives to the DGHC.18 The state government decided not to go into any confrontation with GNLF supremo Mr. Subhas Ghising and accepted most of his demands. This was clear when Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharya told opposition legislators on March 12, 2005 that the Darjeeling issue needs to be handled “softly” in view of the Nepal Crisis. “He said we all need to carefully study the crisis in Nepal and handle the Darjeeling issue softly,” claimed Mr. Robin Deb, the chief whip of the Left Front.19 The Darjeeling Gorkha Autonomous Hill Council (Amendment) Bill, 2005 was passed by the state Assembly on March 15, 2005. As demanded by GNLF chief Mr. Subhas Ghising the word “autonomous” mentioned in the original Hill Council Act of 1988 was deleted. Since the Hill Council’s term had expired, it was to be run by an “administrator” or “board of administrators headed by a Chairman” who, by the provision of a second amendment, was described as the “caretaker”. Elections to form a new Council were to be held within six months. GNLF legislator Ms. Shanta Chhetri welcomed the Bill. In her words, “All our demands have been met. It is obvious that Mr. Ghising will serve as the Chairman. Elections to the Hill Council will be held in six months.”20 As the events unfolded, Ghising controlled the situation and the Left Front simply fell in line to his antics. He delayed elections through various means. His sole aim was to stall the electoral process – like demanding that Siliguri be included in the purview of the Hill Council. The extension was eventually granted on the understanding that his other demands would be sorted out by September. However, he did play on with delaying tactics and the Left kept whetting his appetite further. He was playing on a dual strategy that as much showed his strength vis-à-vis the West Bengal government as it exposed his political vulnerability in the region. The only conclusion seems to be that Ghising was not inclined to face the electorate. His real fear was popular discontent. Hundreds of crores of

The Left Front and The Politics of Regionalism in West Bengal

79

development funds did not improve civic amenities. On the contrary, the GNLF-controlled municipality liberally handed out contracts for random constructions often on hill slopes regardless of ecological consequences. There were allegations of Ghising and his men pocketing huge kickbacks. Public sentiment against the ruling dispensation got reinforced by divisions within the GNLF. With his objective met, Ghising rolled out concessions. Assuring both the Union and the state governments that the GNLF would abstain from agitation over its demands, he made it clear that he would accept whatever was handed down in the Sixth Schedule. “If we don’t get justice, what can we do? Bargaining with the state and the Centre is a waste of time. Hence, I will accept whatever they give us and sign under protest”, the GNLF Chief said in his speech. However, the politics of maximalism was inevitable in the Hills. His crafty ploy did not go down well with the opposition People’s Democratic Alliance that dubbed Ghising’s mellowed stance as yet another strategy to deceive the Hill people.21 Despite the prospect of being blown away by more radical elements, Ghising persisted with his tinkering. But with only 10 seats falling in the reserved category, the government made it clear that will not classify all hill communities as tribal.22 In a politically calculated move, the revival of the statehood demand among some disenchanted groups prompted Ghising to raise the demand for tribal status for all hill people. Yet ironically, in 2004, he had railed against certain communities, in particular, the Tamangs, asking them to unearth their roots so as to prove their tribal identity. This game, however, backfired for Ghising. The ground has by then shifted from under his feet. New and more aggressive young Turks have arrived. It was only a matter of days that Subhas Ghising would be paid back in his own coin. The Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM), formed earlier in 2007 by former Ghising associate Bimal Gurung to campaign for statehood, drew most of its office-bearers from Ghising’s Gorkha National Liberation Front. These contradictory and dynamic political impulses among the Gorkhas are part of the other identities jostling for space and recognition in the region. Fresh violence demonstrated that north Bengal, a multi-ethnic, multilingual, and a multicultural region, has a fragile social fabric.23 Ghising resigned from the DGHC caretaker administrator’s post in Siliguri on March 11, 2008. His corruption and authoritarianism and the supine role of the state government to keep him in perpetual good humour

80

West Bengal under the Left (1977-2011)

were together rejected by the masses who had found in Bimal Gurung a raw machismo that seemed far more acceptable to the dubious intellectualism and unscrupulous cunninness of Subhas Ghising. Bimal Gurung’s aggression robbed the state government to offer an olive branch. Buddhadeb had, in fact, understood the fact better than most leaders. That Ghising’s exit would not change ground realities was clear to him. Admitting so in his public speech here at the CITU’s 9th State Conference, the chief minister conceded: “The situation in the Darjeeling Hills is still fluid. The state government has succeeded in plugging the ongoing tumult to an extent but the situation demands more attention. We want peace in Darjeeling hills and so the process of dialogue with all sides would continue.”24 The ground reality has been made even more complex by the fact that Left was losing its iron like grip on the politics of the plains in north Bengal both due to the gradual rise of the Trinamool Congress and the increasing disturbance of a host of sub-regional demands in parts of Cooch Behar and Jalpaiguri districts that received intermittent and expedient political support from the other opposition parties. For example, the then Union Information and Broadcasting Minister Priya Ranjan Das Munshi complained that the situation in Darjeeling had spun out of control due to complete negligence on the part of the state government. According to Das Munshi, “State intelligence source should have intercepted the trouble that was brewing in the area and the chief minister should have taken adequate measures to prevent such a flare-up.”25 The situation was turned even more volatile by the GJMM’s demand to include Siliguri as part of the Gorkhaland. This directly challenged the political base of the CPI(M) and the strongman of the party in Siliguri, Asok Bhattacharya, became an uncompromising critique of the agitation. Bhattacharya said: “Why is Siliguri being included in the demand for Gorkhaland? What is the motive behind this provocation? This time the agitation is worse since Siliguri was never affected during the earlier agitation for Gorkhaland. But now there are serious attempts to destablize the relations between Bengalis and Nepalis. Earlier the violence was restricted to the Hills. But this time the violence is being fomented in the plains.”26 On June 14, 2008, while rejecting the offer of peace talks by the West Bengal chief minister, Bimal Gurung said that "Mr. Asok Bhattacharya was the mastermind of yesterday’s violence targeting the Gorkha community in Siliguri and should be arrested by coming Monday.”27 What is crucial is the fact that in both these statements ethnicity became the terms of reference.

The Left Front and The Politics of Regionalism in West Bengal

81

Nepali or Gorkha and Bengali identities have found clear recognition in the political unrest that divided the Hills and the plains by demographics. While GJMM sought to bridge the divide, but their claim was based entirely on ethnic grounds. The Nepali majority areas in the Dooars were to be included in Gorkhaland. The Left by default had taken to the trap. Once the agitation has been drawn up in ethnic terms, there could not be any retreat to the pristine verbiage of class. Care was taken to sanitise the language of the Left; but in a democracy where politics rests on the game of numbers, once unity is achieved by mobilizing a community, it is inevitable that the other communities, in some form or the other, would also be politicized. Ethnicity had never been the conscious language of the Left. Cornered by the GJMM and the Kamtapur movement, the Left had no option but to bring out the Bengali identity from the closet. Why did the DGHC as the solution to the Gorkhaland agitation of the eighties fail? While this pro-Gorkhaland narrative seems persuasive,28 it does not point out the most critical dimension of the problem: the political decline and complete alienation of the CPI(M) and other mainstream Left parties in the Hills that created and strengthened the space for ethnic politics in the region. It was their decision to leave the Hills to Ghising and his party that proved politically disastrous in the long run. The Left forces failed to face their rejection openly. Why could not the Left create a mass leader in the Hills? Why did it shy away from ethnicity and culture? What prevented the West Bengal government from demanding audits from Ghising? Answers to such questions explain the gradual radicalization of the Gorkhaland agitation far better than some of the factors that are emphasized in routine analyses. It is important to bear in mind that the Gorkhaland is not the only separatist movement in North Bengal. There are in fact many imaginations of this land, and some of these contest the claims that Gorkhas make for the region. This paper makes the broad point that Gorkhaland is contested not only by the ethnic Bengalis and the political parties based in the plains; there are other ethnic communities and tribes who are also vociferously opposed to the idea of Gorkhaland, fearing that this would merely replace the domination of the Bengalis by the Gorkhas. Moreover, living together for many years in the Dooars, alongside Bengalis and other non-tribal communities, these tribes have developed both politico-economic and socio-cultural stakes that make them extremely wary of any terrtitorialized idea of dividing a shared and common socio-cultural space. The argument

82

West Bengal under the Left (1977-2011)

that autonomy is best protected through separate statehood is not a widely shared gospel of truth. While this is undoubtedly the political belief of the overwhelming majority of the Gorkhas in the Hill districts of the province, the tribal people of plains, a part of which is also claimed by the Gorkhas, resist such claims tooth and nail. Their resistance is partly a reflection of alternative imaginations of this landmass where history, culture and economic geography are all contested categories. Meanwhile, Nepalis in the Dooars seemed to be divided on the inclusion of the Dooars in the DGHC. While one section felt the demand to be just, another section seemed convinced that the GNLF has demanded the Dooars solely with the intention of using it as a bargaining counter to get Siliguri. A land that has witnessed rapid demographic modifications because of purposive resettlement of many communities over the years betrays plural conceptualization/s of regional identities at many levels of collective existence. The imaginations of the Gorkhas with their accent on territorial separation, that of the Rajbangshis vying for a state of Kamtapur or greater Cooch Behar, and the tribal population articulating their resolve to resist such political discourses, not to underline the orthodox Bengali view of holding on to post-1947 borders at all costs, create a complex topography of alternative regionalisms in north Bengal. But the region is not only contested by alternative imagination/s of power, territory, and cultural space; many of these visions are themselves divided or fragmented from within. Apart from the Gorkhas, the Lepchas and the Rajbangshis also have politically divided voices. While most Bengali dominated political outfits are fundamentally opposed to the idea of any new partition of the province, the more influential parties have mostly stayed away from vigorous counter-mobilization strategies against the Hill agitations. But they are far more politically aggressive in the adjoining plains, where the mixed demographic composition provides the opportunity to more seriously invest in the ideas of alternative regionalisms. More fringe elements like the ultra-leftists and Amra Bangali, a rabid ultra-ethnic political outfit, have diametrically opposed takes on the Gorkhaland movement, with the former supporting the cause of an separate province, while the latter taking a maximalist stand on complete rejection of all statehood claims. Ethnic imaginations are thus, in conformity with the given complexity of the region, far from being uniform in north Bengal. This innate complexity and variations on the theme of what constitutes a region needs to be sufficiently factored in

The Left Front and The Politics of Regionalism in West Bengal

83

any analysis of separatist regionalism/s and the variegated mainstream response/s to the same. The way the Gorkhas have defined their identity and the manner in which the mainstream political parties in West Bengal have responded reveal a highly suggestive pattern. The Gorkha’s have demanded a homeland for them. They feel this is essential to their cultural and ethnic aspirations. This is the precondition of their development. Hence, the logic of development, based on redistributive considerations, has not worked favorably with them. While the demand for Gorkhaland has a material basis in long term underdevelopment and neglect by the state, the movement has captured popular imagination by emphasizing upon ethnic and cultural differences from the non-tribal plains people, the majority of which happen to be ethnic Bengalis. A cursory glance into some of the other sub-regional demands in West Bengal be it for the state of Kamtapur or Greater Cooch Bihar in north Bengal, or the Jharkhandi movement in the western tribal belt, reveals the salience of the politics of recognition of people who not only feel economically exploited and sociopolitically marginalized, but derive this sense of alienation and injustice from a perceived sense of cultural or ethno-linguistic difference vis-à-vis the dominant Bengali population of the state. In response to such ‘regional construction/s of the other’, the mainstream political parties of the state have found it increasingly difficult to formulate an explicit counter narrative. In their response, on the one hand, they have sought to accommodate such claims by allowing more regional autonomy; and on the other, they have been forced to invoke the model of ethnic and cultural syncretism, in order to nullify the politics of recognition that apparently thrives on cultural difference. But this narrative has been problematic since it hinges on the inviolability of dividing the territory of the state, without responding in any convincing manner to the arguments of cultural recognition unleashed by the territorially concentrated minorities. A victim of ‘Partition’ and witness to a mass scale settlement policy in north Bengal, the West Bengal government, no matter which party has come to rule, remains ultra-sensitive to any prospect of further vivisection of the state on ethnic lines. But in order to emphasize territorial inviolability, it has nevertheless had to construct a sub-textual identity raised on Bengali nationalism. While the state has never been overtly ethnic in its dealings against the politics of recognition underway within its frontiers, it has repeatedly been forced to use cultural metaphors, to drive home the inseparable continuity of the life forms of the hill and plain dwellers of the province.29

84

West Bengal under the Left (1977-2011)

Conclusion This paper argues that there is no strong evidence of any politics of recognition emerging from within the contours of Left politics in West Bengal. While the Centre constantly indulged in ‘the historic neglect’ of Bengal by a set of deliberately ruinous policies dwarfing her industrial growth, the bhadralok politicians of the Left Front government took care not to invoke ethnic or cultural metaphors to politically articulate such a stand. The dominant expression of regionalism remained therefore, economic or financial. This economic regionalism was intensely political as it was a useful ploy against the local Congress, which, despite having lost its unilateral political dominance, continued to drive federal politics throughout much of the three decades since the early 1980s. Moreover, the clear sensitivity towards a certain middle-class ‘bhadralok’ identity remained the constant sub-text of such politics. The wounded feelings of the Bengali bhadralok, who had once dominated the political imagination of the country and led most states in education and industry, have shaped the contours of Bengal’s regionalism, consciously expressed in idioms of economic deprivation at the hands of an overbearing but parochial central government rather than in the discourses of ethnicity or culture. However, this relatively benign regionalism had been forced to reveal its cultural face, albeit implicitly, when confronted by a spate of separatist movements within the political borders of the state. For without invoking the idea of an absolute territorial sanctity of the settled borders, it was and continues to be impossible to combat this threat. But any logic of territorial inviolability must be culturally populated to make ‘political’ sense. It could not be any different for West Bengal as well. The very existential politics of the state thus revolves round a bind. It must, on the one hand agitate against the Centre to fulfill its economic demands for development. And on the other, it needs to articulate a politically viable logic of substantiating the infallibility of settled borders in culturally accessible terms. The boundaries of the politics of redistribution and the recognition have collapsed in West Bengal. The sub-text of a politically silent yet existentially suffocating Bengali identity guarantees that the settled discourses of political theory would not work in this state. Endnotes 1.

The author acknowledges invaluable research assistance provided by his doctoral student, Ms. Sreya Maitra, Assistant Professor, Maulana Azad

The Left Front and The Politics of Regionalism in West Bengal

2.

3. 4.

5.

6.

7.

85

College, towards the making of this paper. The author is deeply indebted to Professor Partha Pratim Basu of the Department of international relations for his valuable comments. For details, see “Regionalism in West Bengal: A Critical Engagement”, India Review, Taylor & Francis, Philadelphia, Volume 13, Issue 4, 2014, pp. 417-435. Sumanta Banerjee, The Parlour and the Streets: Elite and Popular Culture in Nineteenth Century Calcutta, (Calcutta: Seagull, 1998), p. 83. The gradual transformation of the bhadralok identity has spawned a considerable literature. For a survey of the major strands, see Poromesh Acharya,. ‘Bengali Bhadralok and Educational Development in 19th Century Bengal,’ Economic and Political Weekly, XXX, No. 13, April 01, 1995, pp. 670-673; Sumanta Banerjee, The Parlour and the Streets: Elite and Popular Culture in Nineteenth Century Calcutta, Calcutta: Seagull, 1998; Tithi Bhattacharya, The Sentinels of Culture: Class, Education and the Colonial Intellectual in Bengal, New York: Oxford University Press, 2007; Rajat Kanta Ray (ed.), Exploring Emotional History: Gender, Mentality and Literature in the Indian Awakening, New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2001; Tapan Raychaudhuri, Perceptions, Emotions, Sensibilities: Essays on India's Colonial and Post-Colonial Experiences, New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1999; Sumit Sarkar, Swadeshi Movement in Bengal, 1903-1908, New Delhi: People’s Publishing House, 1973. Sumanta Banerjee, “Bogey of the Bawdy Changing Concept of 'Obscenity' in 19th Century Bengali Culture”, Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 22, No. 29, Jul. 18, 1987, p. 1197. The role of the British in fomenting the divide is brilliantly captured by Sekhar Bandyopadhaya. In his words, “Indeed it was the anti-Bengalee feelings of the colonial bureaucracy, which Curzon was initiated into even before he became the Viceroy, and a desire to weaken this politically articulate community, which seems to have provided the prime motive behind the partition.” Sekhar Bandyopadhyay, From Plassey to Partition: A History of Modern India, Hyderabad: Orient Longman, 2004, p. 253. On this, also see Sumit Sarkar, Swadeshi Movement in Bengal, 1903-1908, New Delhi: People’s Publishing House, 1973; Sukharanjan Sengupta, Curzon’s Partition of Bengal and Aftermath, Kolkata: Naya Udyog, 2006. On Bengal partition, see Joya Chatterjee, Bengal Divided: Hindu Communalism and Partition, 1932-1947, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995, and Joya Chatterjee, The Spoils of Partition: Bengal and India, 1947-67, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007. The British sowed the seeds of discord in the Hills. Darjeeling was annexed by the British from the feudal lords of Sikkim, while parts of Terai were annexed from the Bhutanese kingdom. British vacillated on the adminis-

86

8.

9.

10. 11.

12. 13.

West Bengal under the Left (1977-2011)

trative status of the hills for a long time. They also consciously encouraged Nepali migration to work in tea plantations and mining industries that led to a rapid increase in Darjeeling’s population. The decision to place the region initially under the Bengal Presidency and then, after 1947, to incorporate it a part of the state of West Bengal were conscious decisions by the colonial power. While it did not immediately cause any major ethnic discord, a sense of separate cultural and ethno-linguistic identity and political demands based on it did not take much time to surface. There is a welter of literature on this. For standard exposition of some of the issues, see Gautam Chattopadhyay, Communism and Bengal's Freedom Movement, New Delhi: People's Publishing House, 1970. Also relevant is Dipesh Chakraborty, ‘Of conditions and culture’ and ‘Class and community’ in Dipesh Chakraborty, Rethinking Working Class History: Bengal 1890 to 1940, Princeton N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1989, pp. 65-115 and pp. 186-218; Chakladar, Snehamoy, Sub-Regional Movement in India With Reference to Bodoland and Gorkhaland, Kolkata: K.P. Bachi & Company, 2004, pp. 8485. Ibid, p. 85. Gorkhas demanding autonomy and self-rule over the hilly tract of the district of Darjeeling, West Bengal has a long past. The craving for Gorkhaland is indeed a historic occurrence. The idea of a separate administrative arrangement for the Darjeeling hills was mooted during the early years of the twentieth century and then onwards the demand for segregation went on unabated. During the 1980s the movement for a separate state for the ethnic Gorkhas spear-headed by Subhas Ghising reached its zenith. The fierce battle for Gorkhaland continued roughly for two years resulting in the plundering of human life and livelihood besides destruction property and resources. Finally in 1988 the aggrieved Gorkhas were persuaded to accept a Hill Council. Soon after the setting up of the Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council (DGHC), the movement was temporarily stalemated. However, in the recent past the movement resurfaced with a new leader (Bimal Gurung) and a new political platform (GJM). Information Document (1987) II. Gorkhaland Agitation: Facts and Issues, Government of West Bengal, 1986, p. 42. On the relation to Bengali identity the politics and developmental concerns of Gorkhaland, see Anjan Ghosh, ‘Gorkhaland redux’, Economic & Political Weekly (Mumbai), Vol. XLIV, No. 23, June 6, 2009, pp. 10-13. Also relevant is Sumanta Banerjee, “Paradoxes in inventing Bengali identity”, 2013. www.india-seminar.com

The Left Front and The Politics of Regionalism in West Bengal

87

14. Witness, for example, the observations of the land and revenue minister of West Bengal, Benoy Krishna Choudhury, reported in The Hindu (October 17, 1986) and The Statesman (October 19, 1986). According to the report in The Hindu, the minister during an address to the Advocates' Association in Bangalore said, ' if the Gorkhas who were in a minority in West Bengal could create trouble for the population of the rest of the state, they would be at the receiving end if the six crore Bengali-speaking people started telling them enough". According to The Statesman's special representative in Madras, Benoy Choudhury told a press conference in that city that "if in spite of all this the Gorkhas who were in a minority in West Bengal created problems for the state, the 60 million Bengali-speaking people would not take it lying down". “Gorkhaland Agitation: Dangerous Twist”, Editorial, Economic & Political Weekly. Vol. XXI, No. 44-45, November 01, 1986, pp. 1912-1913. Also useful is, “Gorkhaland: Fragile Social Fabric”, Editorial, Economic & Political Weekly, Vol. XLII, No. 42, October 20, 2007, p. 4196. 15. “Buddhadeb rules out Gorkhaland state”, The Hindu, February12, 2010 Source: http://www.thehindu.com/news/national/other-states/bu dhadebrules-out-gorkhaland-state/article105757.ece (accessed on November 14, 2014). 16. “Buddhadeb rejects Gorkhaland demand again”, The Hindu, February 21, 2011. Source: http://www.thehindu.com/news/national/buddhadeb-rejectsgorkhaland-demand-again/article1475207.ece 17. “Resign, CPM tells Ghising,” The Hindustan Times, February 19, 2005, p.5. 18. “Ghising blows hot in Darjeeling: Hints at trouble if his demands are not met,” The Hindustan Times, February 25, 2005, p.5. 19. “Handle Hills issue ‘softly’: Chief Minister tells opposition”, The Statesman, 12 March 2005, p.5. 20. “Amended DGAHC Bill passed”, The Statesman, 15th March 2005, p.5. 21. “Ghising volte face raises opposition hackles”, The Hindustan Times, August 2, 2005, p.4. 22. The hills have a tribal population of 35 per cent, including the Bhutias, Lepchas, Yolmos, Limbus and Tamangs. 23. “Gorkhaland: Fragile Social Fabric”, Editorial, Economic & Political Weekly, Vol. XLII, No. 42, October 20, 2007, p. 4196. 24. “Buddha buys breathing space in the Hills”, The Statesman, March 2, 2008, p.1. 25. “Priya blames Buddha for Darjeeling flare-up”. The Economic Times, June 12, 2008, p.2. 26. “Asok adds fuel to fire”, The Statesman, May 3, 2008, p.1.

88

West Bengal under the Left (1977-2011)

27. “Gurung rejects Chief Minister’s call, for Asok’s arrest,” The Statesman, June 14, 2008, p.1. 28. “Storm brewing in the mountains”, Mahendra P. Lama, The Telegraph, July 3, 2008, p.11. 29. Anjan Ghosh argues, “The state government’s response to the renewed agitation in the hills was predictably majoritarian. It maintained that the demand for a separate Gorkhaland was an attempt to further divide West Bengal, thereby evoking the bogey of partition and its association of loss.” (Ghosh: 2009, p.12)

II POLITICS AND POLICIES

5 Governing Urban West Bengal : The Left Front Experiment Ambarish Mukhopadhyay Introduction During the latter half of the last century, urbanization has become a powerful force throughout most of the world. In fact, the urban transformation of the globe is being seen as the lasting legacy of the 20th century. Presently we are at the beginning of a new urban era. The process of profound urban transformation is now unfolding mainly in the developing countries of the South. In 2005, the majority of the world’s urban population lived in Asia (1.6 billion people). The UN World Urbanization Report 2005 states that starting with an already large urban population in Asia, and having a relatively high growth rate over the next 25 years, Asia will rank first in urban population by 2030.1 The developing countries are presently experiencing a faster rate of growth of urban population, and India is no exception. Though the rate of urbanization in India since independence has mostly remained comparatively lower than the same in several other developing countries, in terms of absolute numbers. India now possesses the second largest urban population in the world (285 million, according to Census 2001, and 377 million as per Census 2011 provisional figures) after China. Even at the current conservative rate of urbanization (around 31%), India is likely to have 400 million urban dwellers by 2025. IN 2011, at 377 million, there has been an addition of 90 million people during the last decade. Urbanization in India is then, no doubt, an expanding phenomenon. Urbanization offers both opportunities as well as difficulties for the city dwellers. On the one hand cities are recognized as centres of development, engines of economic prosperity and the index of human advancement. On the other, increasing population in the cities puts tremendous pressure upon the existing infrastructure and public services and also leads to environmental pollution and degradation. This poses major challenges before the urban policy makers and planners. To deal with such challenges

92

West Bengal under the Left (1977-2011)

on the urban front, the focus should be on balanced urbanization, good urban governance and sustainable development of cities. With ongoing rapid increase in her urban population, India also faces the challenge of proper urban management. How the cities in India are being governed, how the policy-makers are coping with the problems arising out of rapid urbanization, how are the needs and demands of the urban dwellers are being addressed, how is the quality of city life – are the major issues which demand attention and analysis. The present paper is a modest attempt to look into the process of urban policy making and urban management in West Bengal (which now ranks 4th amongst the Indian states in terms of the absolute size of urban population) during the rule of the Left Front government (hereinafter LF) since 1977. Before going into the details of LF’s policies on urban governance and urban development, we will briefly examine the nature of urbanization process in West Bengal. That will help us understand better how urban West Bengal looked like during the late 1970s when there was a change of guard in the state. We will then try to identify the major challenges faced by the LF in the context of urban governance. The next section of this paper will try to focus on the policies pursued by the government to deal with the challenges. In the concluding part an attempt will be made to present an overview of the role of LF in governing urban West Bengal. Pattern of Urbanization in West Bengal Pre-independence While urban centres sprang from industrial revolution in the West, they emerged out of the needs of colonial commerce in India. The pattern of urbanization that evolved in Bengal during pre-independence period was largely the creation of the British colonial rule. Beginning in the mid-1830s, setting up of jute mills on both sides of river Ganga in the neighbourhood of Calcutta, the railway towns after 1851, and the coal mining and tea plantation towns in the second half of the 19th century formed the basis of the urbanization pattern based on industries.2 In pre-colonial times, towns in India developed around large trading centres, army camps, or places of pilgrimage, or where the royal court was located. In Bengal, where textile production was of very high standard, a number of large towns such as Tamralipta, Saptagram, Dhaka, Murshidabad, Malda etc. grew out of thriving and dynamic commercial and manufacturing activities in their

Governing Urban West Bengal : The Left Front Experiment

93

respective hinterlands.3 The onset of British colonial rule in Bengal led to rapid de-urbanization and de-industrialization of the region. The traditional textile industry faced a severe blow and other rural based industries suffered from the competitionof factory-made cheaper products. The economic base collapsed. The population of the then large urban centres registered massive drops. Large scale village-ward migration occurred intensifying the pressure on land and creating problems for the rural economy. Urbanization in Bengal during colonial rule took place in this backdrop of decay of old towns, stagnation of agriculture, destruction of age old handicrafts, loss of jobs for artisans and impoverishment of peasantry.4 The new towns that developed, particularly in and around Calcutta, were small pockets of industrial activities catering to external markets. They had few linkages with the local market in terms of labour supply, market demand, or even meeting the consumption needs of their population. The growth of Calcutta as a port city – which was also the capital of British India till 1911 – overshadowed everything else. The main basis of Calcutta’s economy was export trade. It was elaborately linked by way of roads and railways with the hinterland, which covered, in addition to Bengal, the larger parts of northern and eastern India. It was closely linked particularly with the jute, coal, tea, and indigo centres. The construction of railways facilitated large scale migration of population over long distance, leading to increasing concentration of population in and around Calcutta in search of jobs in jute and other factories.5 The city of Calcutta grew with massive upsurge in population from the later part of the 19th century to the end of the colonial rule. From a city of 428000 persons in 1872 it reached the 2167485 mark in 1941. In 1951 the population of Calcutta was 2698494.6 The pattern of urbanization that evolved in Bengal had two distinct characteristics. First, it was externally imposed in order to meet the needs of the colonial economy and was mainly based on export trade. Secondly, it was completely delinked from the developments in the rural areas. While Calcutta – the port city and administrative centre – grew, as well as certain other towns having their origin in colonial industrial activities, the rest of Bengal remained backward. There was no harmonious hierarchical distribution of towns by size categories – from very large to very small – each playing its part in the system of distribution of goods and services.7 Such a pattern of urban growth naturally left a mark on the post-independence trajectory of urban development in West Bengal.

94

West Bengal under the Left (1977-2011)

Post-independence A salient feature of urbanization in West Bengal since independence has been its high degree of spatial concentration with Calcutta holding the pre-eminent position. The pattern of lopsided urbanization that evolved in Bengal during the colonial rule, continued even after independence. Within a few years after independence (in 1951) the Calcutta Urban Agglomeration (CUA) – comprising the districts of Calcutta, North 24 Parganas, South 24 Parganas, Howrah, Hooghly and Nadia – emerged with its mammoth dominance in the West Bengal urban scenario. The CUA, with the city of Calcutta at its centre, accounted for about 75% of West Bengal’s urban population. The dominance of Calcutta was not confined to the demographic sphere alone. During the post-independence period it emerged as the economic, administrative and cultural capital of West Bengal. It operated as a powerful magnet attracting investors, scholars, artists, intellectuals, sportsmen and others towards it. This led to a disparity in the pattern of urbanization in West Bengal. Urbanization was concentrated in Calcutta and its adjoining districts. Around two-thirds of the state’s total urban population lived in these areas. All the districts of North Bengal taken together accounted for 10% of the urban population, and just only 7% lived in the five districts of Medinipur, Purulia, Bankura, Birbhum and Murshidabad. The process of urbanization was highly centralized. A comparison with the population of other states in India reveals that the urban population in West Bengal is more unequally distributed than in any other states. Punjab, Maharashtra, Gujarat, Tamil Nadu are some of the examples having more than one major urban centres. West Bengal has lacked such pattern of distribution of urban population. The population of Calcutta metropolis has shown a very high ratio for any ‘primate city’ in the world.8 Such concentration of urban population declined only slowly during the post-1951 decades. The share of Calcutta UA dropped down to 63.5% in 1981 and 58.6% in 1991. Thus there was a decline of 11% in thirty years. During the next decade it declined by another 5%. During the 1960s and 1970s, the share of Calcutta in the urban population of West Bengal went down due to the stagnation in the traditional jute and engineering industries located in this region. Side by side there was the growth of Durgapur as the steel town. Various public sector investments were made in the AsansolDurgapur region. As a result, the region’s share in urban population increased from 3.2 per cent in 1951 to 7.8 per cent in 1981. During the

Governing Urban West Bengal : The Left Front Experiment

95

1980s urban concentration declined further as a result of the growth of Siliguri in North Bengal, and the relatively faster growth of small and medium towns consequent of fast agricultural growth since the late 1970s.9 In 1991 the percentage of urban population in West Bengal increased to 27.48 from that of 26.47 in 1981. According to the 2011 Census, a little over 28 percent of the total population of the state lived in urban areas. It may be noted that the level of urbanization in West Bengal has always been ahead of the national average since the beginning of the last century. The 2001 Census data however reveal that the two rates have almost converged.10 According to the latest Census (2011), the rate of urbanization in West Bengal has increased rapidly during the last decade. The growth rate of urban population in the city of Kolkata (areas under Kolkata Municipal Corporation) however has declined during this period. The rate of increase was only 1.88 percent. Increase in urban population has occurred in other parts of the Kolkata Urban Agglomeration (KUA) and in most of the districts in West Bengal. The decadal growth of urban population in West Bengal has been a shade higher than the national average. While the national average is 31.36 percent, in case of West Bengal the same amounts to 31.89 percent. Out of the total population of 91,347,736 in West Bengal, 29,134,060 persons live in urban areas. While the rural population in the state has grown by only 7.73 per cent since 2001, the urban population has leapt up with most of the 19 districts showing a higher population growth in urban areas.11 The 2011 Census further reveals that since 2001 there has been a huge increase in the number of towns across the state. The Census of India has classified towns in two categories – Statutory Towns and Census Towns. All places with a municipality, corporation, notified area authority, cantonment board, etc. are known as Statutory Towns. All other places which have a minimum population of 5000 people, a population density of at least 400 per sq. km. and where at least 75 per cent of the male working population is engaged in non-agricultural pursuits, are known as Census Towns. The population explosion in the urban areas of the state during the last decade has been mainly due to a sharp rise in the number of Census Towns since 2001. From 255 in 2001, the number of such towns has gone upto 750 as per 2011 Census. This is an indication that people with rural background are increasingly discarding agriculture as a livelihood and opting for more urban alternatives. Though within the jurisdictions of the panchayats, the Census Towns are by character semi-urban centres enjoying minimum

96

West Bengal under the Left (1977-2011)

basic civic services and amenities. Since 2001 the number of such towns has increased throughout the state covering almost all the districts. To cite some examples, in the district of Howrah the number of Census Towns increased from 50 in 2001 to 135 in 2011; South 24 Parganas registered an increase from 14 to 111; in North 24 Parganas it was from 20 to 78; and in Malda from 3 to 27. The total number of towns in West Bengal (both Statutory and Census taken together) has increased from 378 to 909 during the last decade.12 Urbanization and Urban Development On the whole, since independence, the state of West Bengal has witnessed a steady rate of urbanization. It now ranks fourth amongst the states in India in terms of the absolute size of urban population. Urbanization however is not synonymous with urban development. The first does not always necessarily lead to the second. In fact increasing pace of urbanization calls for proper urban management. More and more concentration of people in cities and towns leads to growing demands for civic services and amenities. This underscores the crucial role of urban management in improving the conditions of city life. An urban local government institution (municipal corporation / municipality) with a truly representative character and adequate autonomy of jurisdiction and powers is essential to carry out the task of governing cities and towns. Municipalisation thus should go hand by hand with urbanization. It is only through effective policy intervention on the part of the urban planners and policy makers that the issues and problems related with rapid urbanization can be properly addressed. It is well-known that urban local government institutions in India and for that matter in Bengal emerged during the British rule. There were several attempts at municipalization. In spite of that, the urban government institutions that came into being during the colonial rule represented, in general, the examples of local government from the top and were not fully representative and self-governing in nature. Born out of imperial needs to mobilize local resources by utilizing local elite support and to create opportunities for political participation of the educated elite, municipal government in Bengal had grown up amidst a profound conceptual dilemma. What emerged was a toddling grassroots democracy closely supervised by overbearing Imperial bureaucracy.13 With the achievement of Independence, it was expected that the urban local government institutions were to be completely restructured

Governing Urban West Bengal : The Left Front Experiment

97

and overhauled. Unfortunately, in spite of repeated pronouncements of the policy makers, the idea of ‘democratic decentralization’ was not given sufficient attention and the urban local bodies were not assigned rightful place in the process of urban governance. Neither at the level of the central government nor at the level of state government in West Bengal was there any conscious thinking to deal with the problems of urbanization through planning decisions and concrete programmes. Nobody bothered to make changes in the pattern of top-heavy centralized urbanization in West Bengal. The preoccupation was with Calcutta, though that failed to bring about any significant change in conditions of city life in that metropolis too.14 In this backdrop let us now look at the nature of urban governance in West Bengal during LF and pre-LF rule. Urban Governance in West Bengal Pre-LF period The first major effort in urban planning was made in the early sixties when the Calcutta Metropolitan Planning Organization (CMPO) was set up by the West Bengal Government in 1961.In 1966 CMPO drafted an overall plan for the next twenty years known as the Basic Development Plan for the Calcutta Metropolitan District (1966-86). This plan was later revised and a new organization Calcutta Metropolitan Development Authority [(CMDA), presently known as KMDA] was formed to realize the plans formulated by the CMPO. The Basic Development Plan was an attempt to arrest the unprecedented urban growth in Calcutta by introducing a bipolar strategy of urban growth. The plan has tried to motivate the growth of adjoining municipalities and planned to set up Kalyani as the new growth centre in the north of Calcutta. Unfortunately, this bi-polar strategy failed to achieve its target of arresting unplanned population growth in the city of Calcutta.15 At a much later period the KMDA launched the perspective plan “Vision 2025” and adopted a multipolar growth strategy by giving impetus to new urban centres near Kolkata. So far as urban local government was concerned, after Independence, West Bengal inherited a Calcutta Corporation facing serious difficulties. The state government stepped in to take over the management of the Corporation from the elected elements. Amidst serious allegations of maladministration and mismanagement, the Corporation was superseded by the government in 1948. Subsequently in 1951 a new Calcutta Municipal Act was enacted to govern the civic body of Calcutta. However, since the

98

West Bengal under the Left (1977-2011)

mid-sixties the working of the Calcutta Corporation had been marked by prolonged conflicts between the elected councilors and the appointed commissioner. Due to fragmented structure and splintering of authority, the needs of the city as a whole, its planning for development, attention to mobilization of resources, and enlisting of active popular support for civic development seemed to be nobody’s concern. Ultimately the civic body was again superseded in 1972. For the rest of urban West Bengal outside the city of Calcutta, the general model of local government was that created by the Bengal Municipal Act 1932. The urban government institution constituted was the ‘municipality’. The Act bestowed the charge of municipal government on the collective body of ‘Commissioners’ elected by the people (though initially on a restricted franchise) and the municipal board was empowered to act as the sole repository of all statutory authority of the municipality. The management pattern visualized under this Act resembled the ‘weak mayor-council’ pattern of municipal government. The Bengal Municipal Act 1932 was operative for more than sixty years. As amended from time to time, this Act governed all the municipalities in West Bengal in the post-independence period till a new legislation – The West Bengal Municipal Act 1993 – was passed in the West Bengal Assembly and came into force in July 1994. Urban local government institutions in West Bengal did not, however, perform effectively during the post-independence period. For almost three decades since independence, those lacked autonomy of powers and jurisdiction and were under excessive bureaucratic control. As regular elections to the municipal bodies were a far cry, they lost their representative character. Most of the elected local government institutions either remained superseded by the state government or were dissolved. As a result, the task of urban management suffered. The rate of municipalization was also very slow in the state and could not keep pace with the ever increasing urban population. During 1947-1977 only 17 new municipalities were formed in West Bengal. The LF government came into power in 1977 amidst this dismal scenario of urban governance in West Bengal. The new government faced three major challenges: (i) to check the increasing population pressure on Calcutta and to reduce the dominance of the primate city; (ii) to develop a harmonious relationship between the city and the hinterland; and (iii) to restore the representative characters of the urban local bodies and to ensure people’s participation in the process of urban governance. In the next section of this paper we

Governing Urban West Bengal : The Left Front Experiment

99

will look into the policies pursued by the LF government to meet these challenges. Urban Governance during the LF Rule Major Policy Thrust Just after coming into power the LF government constituted the Urban Development Strategy Committee in the late 1970s. The major recommendations of the Committee were as follows: a) reduction of difference between the development grants and per capita development expenditure earmarked for Calcutta Metropolitan Area and that of urban centers outside Calcutta; b) utilization of regional resources in municipal development; c) giving priority to the improved quality of life of the urban poor and weaker sections of the society; d) decentralization of the development projects; and e) to make the municipalities capable of providing urban services as well as micro-planning for their area.16 It is evident that the central focus of these recommendations was decentralization of development programmes and, preparation and implementation of the programmes by the urban local bodies (ULBs). In fact, these recommendations constituted the core of the LF government’s approach to urban development. The government announced that the emphasis of the state’s urban development policy was to create a livable, environmentally balanced, dynamic and investment friendly municipal system. It was termed as the “Alternative Urbanization Policy of West Bengal”. The major facets of this policy can be summarized as follows: (a) decentralized and balanced urbanization; (b) democratic and participatory governance of ULBs; (c) improvement of the quality of life of the urban poor, particularly of the children and women; (d) integrated development of small and medium towns outside Kolkata Metropolitan Area (KMA) as well as the peripheral rural area; (e) development of urban slums with a view to improve the infrastructure for basic civic amenities, and quality of life; and

100

West Bengal under the Left (1977-2011)

(f) make adequate provisions for basic minimum services like water supply, sewage and sanitation, waste removal, electricity and so on.17 In short, the ‘alternate’ policy of the LF government emphasized that urban development cannot be looked at in isolation from rural development and development of small and medium towns. The state government did make some sincere efforts to implement the recommendations of the Urban Development Strategy Committee. In 1976-77, the per capita development grant within the city of Calcutta was Rs. 61.54 while the same was Rs. 19.88 for the municipal areas within Calcutta Metropolitan Area (CMA) outside Calcutta Corporation, and Rs. 0.87 for urban areas beyond CMA area. Within a span of two decades, the differences were reduced considerably. During 1998-99, the per capita development grant for CMA area was Rs. 192.27, which was marginally more than the amount – Rs. 161.32 – sanctioned for areas beyond CMA.18 Attempts were made to increase the amount of money spent for the development of urban infrastructures in respect of non-metropolitan towns compared to the metropolitan ones. In 1970s, 70 per cent of the urban population of the state used to live in greater Calcutta or CMA. In the following three decades, the percentage came down to nearly 59; which indicates that the small and medium-sized towns were given due importance during the period. During 1971-91, the number of Class-I cities (population 1,00,000 and above) in the state increased five folds compared to the national average of two fold increase. The growth of such cities were not confined to the adjacent districts of Calcutta only. They were spread in districts like Nadia, Midnapore and others. The growth of Class-I cities was accompanied by the upgradation of other size-class towns also. During the 1980s widespread agricultural growth, equitable sharing of agricultural surplus and increased share of the rural sector in public expenditure expanded the rural market. These were largely the outcomes of a political process which ensured land reform and empowerment of the rural people. Such developments led, on the one hand, to the location shift of various secondary and tertiary activities in favour of the rural areas and the faster growth of smaller towns, and, on the other, to the reduction of urban concentration in Calcutta region.19 The urban development programmes taken up by the LF were broadly of three types. First, the Central Sector Schemes (CSS) formulated and funded by the national government and to be implemented by the state government and urban local bodies. Some of the important such schemes are Swarna Jayanti Sahari Rojgar Yojna (SJSRY), National Slum

Governing Urban West Bengal : The Left Front Experiment

101

Development Programme (NSDP), Integrated Development of Small and Medium Towns (IDSMT), and Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM). Secondly, the programmes aided by external agencies such as World Bank, Asian Development Bank (ADB), and the Department for International Development (DFID), UK. Calcutta Slum Improvement Programme (CSIP), India Population Project VIII (IPP VIII), Environment Improvement of Urban Slums (EIUS), Kolkata Environmental Improvement Project (KEIP), e.g. fall under this category. Thirdly, there are programmes under Public-Private Partnership (PPP). Having considered the resource constraint of the municipal bodies, the Municipal Administrative Reform Committee considered available options and suggested that PPP may be introduced for infrastructure development like roads, bridges, transport, water ways, telecommunication, power and commercial complexes. The LF government announced its policy in this regard in 2003. 23 Certain models like Build-Operate-Transfer (BOT), Build-Own-Operate (BOO), BuildOwn-Operate-Transfer (BOOT), and Build-Own-Lease-Transfer (BOLT) have been explored as promising options in this respect. Variants of PPP such as floating municipal bond, tradable development rights, offering land as equity in joint ventures are also being considered. Steps towards Municipal Reform Within a period of two years after coming into power, the LF government enacted and enforced the West Bengal Town and Country (Planning and Development) Act in 1979. The basic objective of this Act was to develop the towns and villages of West Bengal. The Act entrusted the CMDA with the task of formulation of plans for the CMA (consisting of 3 corporations in Calcutta, Howrah and Chandannagar, 31 municipalities, 3 notified areas, 70 non-municipal towns and 390 mouzas of different villages). According to this Act, the state government was to declare planning areas for various regions and form an organization for the development of those regions. CMDA, for example, was to work for the development of the CMA. The main tasks of CMDA were to prepare Present Land Use Map, Outline Development Plan (ODP), Detailed Development Plan (DDP) and adopt other necessary measures to realize the developmental goals. Legal and Institutional Changes In tune with its policy of urban development, the government took steps for holding of municipal elections at regular intervals. To make the process of

102

West Bengal under the Left (1977-2011)

participatory urban governance more inclusive, the minimum age for voting in civic polls was brought down to 18 from 21. Relevant amendments were made in the outdated municipal rules and regulations; and new laws were enacted to help the ULBs keep track with the changing urban scenario. One of the most significant of such new legislations was the Calcutta Municipal Corporation Act 1980 which came into force in January 1984. With the enactment of this Act, the erstwhile Corporation of Calcutta emerged as the Calcutta Municipal Corporation (CMC) having all the attributes of a full-fledged civic government. For the first time in the country, this Act created the ‘Mayor-in-Council’ system of urban governance. This, in fact, ushered in a cabinet system of government for the city of Calcutta, and the state government was a pioneer in this respect. The Act created three authorities – the Corporation, the Mayor-in-Council and the Mayor. The process of urban administration was sought to be decentralized by making provisions for the creation of Ward Committees and Borough Committees. Significant changes were made in this Act relating to the supersession of the civic body by the state government. It was made mandatory that the CMC has to be heard and its representation, if any, evaluated by an independent body before supersession. The maximum period for which the civic body maybe kept superseded was also limited to one year, with only one possible extension of six months. After that, holding of fresh election was made compulsory. The Act thus sought to restore the democratic character of the city government. With the change of name of Calcutta to Kolkata, the erstwhile Calcutta Municipal Corporation is presently known as Kolkata Municipal Corporation (KMC) and governed by the 1980 Act as amended subsequently from time to time till date. At present there are two types of elected urban local bodies in West Bengal – Municipal Corporation (total 6 in number – at Kolkata, Howrah, Chandannagar, Asansol, Durgapur and Siliguri) and Municipalities (total 127). As mentioned earlier, the 1980 Act came into force in mid 80s.The Howrah Municipal Corporation Act soon followed suit. Four separate legislations for the rest of the municipal corporations were enacted during the 1990s. Following the Kolkata model, the ‘Mayor-in-Council’ system was established in the other five municipal corporations also. As regards the governing of the municipalities, the Bengal Municipal Act 1932 was replaced by a new enactment – The West Bengal Municipal Act 1993. The Act, passed in the state legislature, came into force in July 1994. As amended till date, it governs all the municipalities in West Bengal. The Act

Governing Urban West Bengal : The Left Front Experiment

103

has closely followed the pattern of municipal governance as recommended in the 74th Constitution Amendment Act in the spheres of structure, composition, powers and functions, planning and finance of urban local bodies. After the Amendment Act came into force, the state governments were directed to pass conformity legislations to reform and remodel the system of urban government in their respective jurisdictions in accordance with the provisions of the constitutional amendment. The LF government was a pioneer in this task by enacting the 1993 Municipal Act within a very short period since the 74th Amendment Act became operative. In tune with the ‘Mayor-in-Council’ system in the municipal corporations, the cabinet system of urban government – named ‘Chairman-in-Council’ – was introduced by the 1993 Act for the municipalities also. To decentralize the working of the municipal government, the Act provided for constitution of Ward Committee and Borough Committee. In pursuance of the XIIth Schedule of the Constitution (incorporated by the 74th Amendment Act), The West Bengal Municipal Act 1993 also extended the functional domain of the municipal bodies to include a long list of obligatory and discretionary functions in the sphere of public works, public health and sanitation, town planning and development, education and administration. Strengthening Municipal Finance Steps were also taken to strengthen the financial position of the municipal bodies. The Urban Development Strategy Committee (UDSC) laid down a clear policy guideline favouring balanced urban development. Close on the heels of UDSC, the LF government set up the First West Bengal Municipal Finance Commission (WBMFC) in 1979 under the Chairmanship of Professor Bhabatosh Datta. It was to examine the state of municipal finance in West Bengal and to recommend measures for streamlining state-municipal fiscal relations and domestic resource mobilization by municipal bodies themselves. The Committee found it socially desirable to encourage healthy growth of municipal institutions as local instrumentality of urban development. As a sequel to the report of the WBMFC, a new grants structure was introduced by the state government to ensure municipal financial solvency and to encourage steady capital investments for new development works. The Second Municipal Finance Commission was constituted in 1993 with Professor Mohit Bhattacharya as the Chairman. The Committee in its comprehensive report made significant recommendations among others, to bridge or reduce municipal revenue gap, review the existing principle of revenue transfer from the state, and

104

West Bengal under the Left (1977-2011)

mobilization of urban local bodies’ own resources. Accordingly, the state government took initiative to explore new avenues of income for municipal bodies, and to raise the quantum of financial assistance on both plan and non-plan heads. One of the redeeming features of the 74th Amendment Act regarding municipal finance is the mandatory constitution of Finance Commission (FC) by the state governments once in every five years (Article 243 I). The FC has the mandate to suggest ways and means of improving the financial position of the urban local bodies. The Governor is required to place before the state legislature the recommendations of the FC along with an explanatory memorandum containing the actions to be taken on it. Thus, the suggestions and observations of the FC shall have to be taken note of by the state government. In conformity with the constitutional dictum, the state government in West Bengal constituted three State Finance Commissions (SFC) at regular intervals – the First SFC in 1994 under the Chairmanship of Sri Satyabrata Sen, the Second in 2000 headed by Sri Debkumar Basu and the third in 2006 with Sri Sukhbilas Sharma in the chair – after the enactment of the Constitutional Amendment. Decentralized Planning Development presupposes the need for adequate planning and successful implementation of the same. If the urban local bodies are bestowed with the overall responsibility of development from below, it also must have a due share and a right to participate in the planning process. The 74th Amendment thus makes provision for the representation of municipal bodies in the Committee of District Plans. It also provides for Metropolitan Planning Committee for a metropolitan area to prepare a draft plan for the area as a whole.20 The Amendment Act induces the state legislatures to make such laws as would lead to devolution of power and responsibility to the municipalities in respect of preparation of plans for economic development and social justice. In the pre 1977 period, the urban local bodies in West Bengal has very insignificant role in the implementation of development programmes in their localities, as they had remained superseded for most of the time. After coming into power, the LF government took active initiatives to reshape and revamp the municipal bodies and to strengthen the participatory planning process. The state government framed legislations to ensure active people’s participation, especially of the economically and socially weaker actions of the society, from planning to execution of the development plans. In 1994, the District Planning Committee (DPC) Act and the Metropolitan Planning Committee (MPC) Act were enacted which

Governing Urban West Bengal : The Left Front Experiment

105

laid the foundation for decentralized planning process. The DPCs have Urban Development Sub-committees whose task is to integrate the plans formulated by the municipalities within the overall district plans.21 In 1990 the KMDA documented a development perspective for the period 19902015. This plan suggested the strategy of overall and sectoral development to be followed in Kolkata Metropolitan Area (KMA) during the period. The KMA has Kalyani, Bansberia and Gayeshpur in its northern end and Baruipur, Ulberia and Pujali in the southernmost part, having a spread of 1785 sp. km. The metropolis covers the urban agglomerations on both sides of river Ganga and includes 41 urban local bodies within its periphery. The plan emphasized on a poly-centric urban structure to handle the expansion of Kolkata Metropolis. It suggested that future urban growth has to be channeled to newly developed areas or towns within the KMA, outside the main metropolitan centre. While developing new towns, importance should be given to job opportunities, transport and communication, basic civic amenities, supply of land etc. However, KMDA failed in materializing this plan due to problems of land assembly, local political resistance etc. Kolkata Metropolitan Planning Committee (KMPC) was constituted in 2001 under the chairmanship of the then chief minister of the state to prepare a development plan for the metropolitan planning area as a whole. With a view to draw up a perspective plan for the next twenty five years, a plan document, viz, ‘Vision 2025’ was prepared. The document contains sectoral plans for economic development and employment, social infrastructure, land use, transport, housing, water supply, drainage, sanitation and environment, solid waste disposal, and eco-friendly urban development.22 To ensure representation of the organizations and authorities who are in one way or the other related to the development planning of the KMA, provisions have been made for the inclusion of the railways, port authorities and the overlapping district planning committees apart from the Central and state Government functionaries. Institution Building Municipal reforms are not ends in themselves. Their major goal is to create responsible, responsive, transparent and accountable urban government. The LF’s concern for improving the quality of municipal administration led it to take steps for increasing the efficiency of the existing ULBs, as well as for building other institutions which will assist and support the local

106

West Bengal under the Left (1977-2011)

government institutions. The Directorate of Local Bodies (DLB), Municipal Engineering Directorate (MED), Institute of Local Government and Urban Studies (ILGUS) and the Central Valuation Board (CVB) are such institutions. The DLB and the MED have been set up to extend technical and administrative support to urban local bodies. The CVB was created with a view to obtain uniformity and objectivity in the valuation and assessment of lands and buildings within municipal areas so that higher level of municipal revenue can be secured. The ILGUS was constituted for exclusively catering to the needs of urban local bodies, organizing regular training programmes for elected representatives, officials and community based organizations to equip them with the latest techniques to deal with the ever increasing urban problems.23 The functional domain of ILGUS also includes project formulation, implementation and monitoring. It works as an advisory body to the state government. Moreover, the State Urban Development Authority (SUDA) was set up in 1991 to work as the state level body for monitoring the implementation of anti-poverty programmes in urban areas. The idea of SUDA forms part of SJSRY which is a centrally sponsored anti-poverty programme. Similarly, in the districts, District Urban Development Agency (DUDA) has been constituted. SUDA acts as the apex body of the DUDAs which are entrusted with the tasks of allocating funds and monitoring implementation at the district level. Keeping in tune with its policy of decentralized and balanced urban development, the LF took active initiative to constitute various Urban Development Authorities. In conformity with the provisions and aim of the West Bengal Town and Country (Planning and Development) Act 1979, nine such authorities were created – i) Kolkata Municipal Development Authority (KMDA), (ii) Asansol-Durgapur Development Authority (ADDA), (iii) Siliguri-Jalpaiguri Development Authority (SJDA), (iv) Haldia Development Authority (HDA), (v) Sriniketan-Santiniketan Development Authority (SSDA), (vi) Digha-Sankarpur Development Authority (DSDA), (vii) Medinipur-Kharagpur Development Authority (MKDA), (viii) Jaigao Development Authority (JDA), and (ix) Bardhaman Development Authority (BDA). These Development Authorities are supposed to facilitate industrial, infrastructure and social development activities within their respective jurisdictions. Their efforts are aimed at improving the urban infrastructure and providing better civic amenities to various sections of the society resulting in overall development of the region.

Governing Urban West Bengal : The Left Front Experiment

107

To sum up, the municipal reform measures undertaken by the LF government during its three decades long stay in power were in tune with its alternative policy of urban development. This policy “was based on four cardinal objectives – decentralized and balanced development, people’s participation in planning and execution of development works, transparency, responsibility and accountability in municipal administration, and democratic decentralization in decision-making authority.”24 There were sincere attempts on the part of the LF to view the tasks of urban development and management in a new perspective. Major changes were brought about in the institutional instrumentalities of urban governance in West Bengal. Structural domains and functional jurisdictions of the ULBs and other institutions engaged in the task of governing urban West Bengal went through quite visible transformations compared to the pre-LF period. However, it is also to be noted that the LF experiment in urban governance in West Bengal ultimately came out to be a mixed bag of achievements and failures. In the next and concluding part of this paper we would try to identify the major areas where the outcomes of the alternate urban development strategy and municipal reforms have not been upto the mark and failed to reach the level of expectations. Concluding Observations Any comprehensive study on the role of LF government in urban development and management is still lacking. The existing researches have dealt with one or the other particular aspect of urban governance in West Bengal during the LF regime. However, such studies help us to locate the grey areas. Those are as follows. As regards the resource mobilization by the ULBs, their performance has not been satisfactory in general. In case of property tax collection, e.g., only 7 per cent of the total number of municipalities could collect 70-80 per cent of revenue, 15 per cent of them could reach the 50 per cent target and the others remained to much lower ranks. Moreover, often the cost of collection of taxes surpassed the amount of tax revenue.25 This is a clear indication of financial mismanagement and inefficiency on the part of the ULBs. It should be kept in mind that local resource mobilization evokes local initiative and participation. Thus, proper and enhanced mobilization of resources is of vital significance. There are loopholes in the functioning of the CVB as well. Properties are often under assessed due to the nexus between the municipalities and the CVB. Narrow partisan considerations prompt the misuse of power.

108

West Bengal under the Left (1977-2011)

As regards decentralized urban planning, West Bengal was one of the few states to constitute DPCs in the early 1990s and the first in the country to create the MPC. However, their functioning has not been satisfactory. The DPCs, for example, on number of occasions, failed to score upto the mark. “The chairpersons of the municipalities have repeatedly emphasized that their voices were not heard properly in the DPC meetings which were dominated by the rural segment.”26 In order to make the decentralized planning process successful, the LF government identified the district sector schemes and those were transferred to the municipalities and the panchayats. The local bodies were also empowered to assign the line department officials specific functions and responsibilities in connection with the preparation and implementation of plans and schemes. “But the fact remained that the line departments refused to cooperate with local bodies. They abstained from attending meetings and hardly cared to interact with the local bodies.”27 The nine Urban Development Authorities were constituted by the LF government in different regions of the state with the hope that those will facilitate the task of urban development working in unison with the ULBs within their respective jurisdictions. But these bodies have often been in conflict with municipal governments. Overlapping of territorial and functional jurisdictions between the ULBs and the Development Authorities, differences in role perceptions between the elected municipalities and nominated development authorities and the lack of a clear cut demarcation of the duties and responsibilities of these two kinds of authorities have, on number of occasions, resulted in setbacks in the process of proper urban management. In fact, the Municipal Administrative Reforms Committee (2000) constituted by the LF recommended that in view of the emergent process of decentralised urban planning (planning by municipal bodies) with active citizen participation under the overall umbrella of the district plan, the state government may consider abolishing the development authorities or bring them within the framework of district planning as support agencies.28 To make the process of urban governance more participatory in nature, the LF government made the constitution of Ward Committees (WCs) mandatory for all municipalities irrespective of the size of the population (The 74th Constitution Amendment Act made provisions for WCs in municipalities with population of three lakhs or more). It was one of the most significant steps taken by the LF to bring local government closer to

Governing Urban West Bengal : The Left Front Experiment

109

the people. However, the functioning of the WCs over the years have not been very satisfactory. A number of studies have focused on the weaknesses and failures of WCs in West Bengal during the LF rule.29 The meetings of the WCs are not held regularly and the residents of the wards are often not being properly informed of these meetings. Thus attendance remains poor. The common people do not take much interest and many of them do not have adequate awareness about the WCs. The involvement of the women and the younger people in the working of the WCs has been very poor. Women empowerment through reservation of seats has not reached a great height because they do not have effective strength in the political forum where major decisions are taken. The studies have pointed out that the members of the WCs do not have proper role perception. Most of the WC members are unaware of the local status of the body they belong to. This has been broadly attributed by the researchers to the inability of the state government and the ULBs to impart proper training to the members of the WCs. The working of the WCs indicates that there is lack of effective linkage between the WC and the ULB. It has been suggested in one of the studies that meetings between the members of the WCs and the ULBs should be held at regular intervals, particularly on the eve of the meetings between the WC and the common people. It is hoped that “ such meetings may prove to be mutually beneficial to both the parties as it provides the ULBs with an opportunity to be better informed about what is happening in the wards and inculcates in the members a sense of belonging to their wards.”30 Such scenario reveals that effective functioning of the WC will depend on the professionalism of the personnel associated with the body and the social interaction which would get focused on the WC in order to raise the quality and extent of commitment on the part of the city people. The main thrust of the functioning of the WC should be to bring the urban local government closer to the people. The process of urban governance in present day India can be characterized with the co-existence of two opposite trends – the movement to bring the government closer to the citizens through decentralization, and the movement ‘out from government’, by which the government works with the private sector and civil society groups in providing services to its citizens.31 This has been a result of the neo-liberal agenda being implemented since the 1980s. There has been a clear policy shift regarding urban development. Metropolitan cities have largely become the arena of

110

West Bengal under the Left (1977-2011)

action. Big projects, large investments, land grabs, eviction of the poor have become common incidents. Today, “the dominant vision of the urban is as ‘engines of economic growth’, a slogan which is in the JNNURM’s preamble, overlooking the fact that cities are also habitats for the migrant poor.”32 Such elitist vision of cities, and the irreconcilable agendas of infrastructure development and poverty alleviation have created a situation of deliberate policy confusion. Cities are being presented in eye-catching gorgeous packaging to attract big investors. Modern or state-of-the-art urban infrastructures and luxurious high-end real estates are being sold to the upwardly mobile. These steps are promoting big money and big players in the urban space, opening up cities for monopolistic control. This ongoing transformation in urban India represents a consensus in the urban visions of all political dispensions.33 The Left in West Bengal was also no exception. During the last two decades of the LF rule there was a discernible policy tilt in favour of the metropolitan city, and catering to the needs of the urban rich. Its declared policy of balanced urbanization, upgrading the district towns, and reducing the primacy of Kolkata, remained short of achieving the desired target. No other town or city has yet emerged as a parallel to the primate city of Kolkata and the dominance of the metropolis continues. The balance between high investments and urban transformation in metropolitan areas, and to respond to the needs of the urban poor has kept fluctuating. The LF government has often succumbed to pressures leading to policy swings. The process of decentralized urban governance was constrained on occasions by partisan considerations. During the last legs of its terms in power, the LF failed to translate its massive electoral mandate into effective policy decisions and outcomes, thus alienating a large section of the middle class and the urban poor from the process and outcome of urban development. The LF experiment in urban governance in West Bengal thus has not been fully ‘inclusive’ in nature. Endnotes 1. UN 2005, World Urbanization Prospects: The 2005 Revision, New York, United Nations. 2. Biplab Dasgupta (ed.), Urbanization Migration and Rural Change: A Study of West Bengal, 1988, Calcutta, A. Mukherjee & Co., p. 14. 3. Planning Commission, Government of India, West Bengal Development Report, 2010, New Delhi, Academic Foundation, p. 101. 4. ibid.

Governing Urban West Bengal : The Left Front Experiment

5. 6. 7. 8. 9. 10.

11. 12. 13.

14. 15.

16.

17.

18. 19. 20. 21. 22. 23. 24.

25.

111

B. Dasgupta (ed.), op.cit, p. 15. Census of India. B. Dasgupta (ed.), op.cit, p. 18. ibid., p. 19. Pabitra Giri, “Urbanisation in West Bengal, 1951-1991”, EPW, November 21, 1998, p. 3033. Dhirendra Nath Konar, “Nature of Urbanization in West Bengal in the Post-independence Period”, Economic Affairs, Vol-54 No. 3 & 4 (2009), p. 150. Census of India 2011, Provisional Population Totals: Rural-Urban Distribution. ibid. Ambarish Mukhopadhyay, ‘Urban Governance: Issues and Problems’, Rakhahari Chatterjee (ed.), Politics India The State-Society Interface, New Delhi, South Asian Publishers, 2001, p. 128. B. Dasgupta (ed.), op.cit., p. 28. Mala Mukherjee, “Urban Growth and Spatial Transformation of Kolkata Metropolis: A Continuation of Colonial Legacy”, ARPN Journal of Science and Technology, Vol. 2, Special Issue, ICESR 2012, p. 367. Urban West Bengal: A Policy Statement, Municipal Affairs Department and Urban Development Department, Government of West Bengal, 2003, pp. 12-13. Jayanta Acharya and Nandita Sen Chakraborty, “Urban Development”, West Bengal Development Report, Planning Commission, Government of India, New Delhi, Academic Foundation, 2010, p. 109. Urban West Bengal, op.cit, pp. 13-14. P. Giri, op.cit, p. 3038. A. Mukhopadhyay, op.cit, pp. 180-81. Urban West Bengal, op.cit, pp. 17-18. Ibid, p. 19-20. Ibid, p. 42. Prabhat Kumar Datta, Urbanisation and Urban Governance in West Bengal : The Perspective of the Left Front Government, Paper on Democratic Governance, UGC-DRS (Phase II) Programme, Department of Political Science, University of Calcutta, Kolkata, 2013, p. 13. Prbhat Datta, Urbanisation and Urban Governance in West Bengal, Institute of Local Government and Urban Studies, Department of Municipal Affairs, Government of West Bengal, 2000, p. 29.

112

West Bengal under the Left (1977-2011)

26. 27. 28. 29.

Prabhat Kumar Datta, op.cit, p. 33. Ibid, p. 34. Ibid, p. 18 See, Archana Ghosh and Madhulika Ghosh, ‘Decentralisation of Urban Governance in West Bengal : Role of Ward Committees’, Urban Mangement, September 2004. Prabhat Datta, ‘Law and the Field : Citizen Participation and Urban Governance in West Bengal’, in Dipankar Sinha and Kaberi Chakrabarti (eds.), Democratic Governance in India : Reflections Refractions, 2007, New Delhi, Kalpz Publications,. Prabhat datta and Dipankar Sinha, Participatory Urban Governance in West Bengal, 2007, DasGupta, Kolkata. Ambarish Mukherji, ‘Decentralized Urban Governance : A Study of Ward Committees in an Urban Local Body in West Bengal’, Urban Managemnt, November 2008. Prabhat Kumar Datta, op. cit, p. 22 I.S.A Baud and J. De Wit (eds.), New Forms of Urban Governance in India : Shifts, Models, Networks and Contestations, 2008, New Delhi, Sage Publications, p. 5. Darshini Mahadevia, “ Branded and Renewed? Policies, Politics and Processes of Urban Development in the Reform Era”, EPW, July 30, 2011, Vol XLVI No. 31, p. 56 Ibid, p. p. 56

30. 31.

32.

33.

6 Industry in West Bengal during the Left Front Regime Srikumar Bandyopadhyay* and Partha Pratim Basu The Bengal province emerged as one of the earliest hubs of commerce and industry during the colonial rule in India and in 1947, the new state of West Bengal counted among the most industrialized states of the new nation. However, the industrial scenario of the State experienced a slow but steady slide especially in the manufacturing sector in the early decades following independence. The Left Front Government (LFG) came to power in 1977 but initially agriculture and rural development clearly remained its top priority and as a result the industrial sector failed to make much headway during the first 25 years of its rule. However, a new market-oriented and investorfriendly Industrial Policy was adopted by LFG in tune with the structural transformation of the economy brought about by the Union government in 1991. The promises carried by this policy makeover to lift the state out of the industrial morass it had been in since 1960s was further bolstered by the ‘big push’ provided by Buddhadev Bhattacharya, the new chief minister, in the new millennium. But the hopes were ultimately dashed to the ground when the Tata Motors had to withdraw their small car project – claimed as a major achievement of the new government’s aggressive industrialization drive – in 2008 following widespread agitations over acquisition of land for industrial purposes. This article begins with a brief section on West Bengal’s industrial scenario between Independence and assumption of power by LFG; the second section looks into LFG’s early industrial initiatives and why these could not really take off; the third section focuses on the new economic policy of 1990s and the follow up measures; the two following sections review the outcome of these measures; the last section considers the small scale industries which since mid-1960s constituted the mainstay of the state’s industrial setup which is followed by some concluding observations. * Srikumar Bandyopadhyay would like to thank Prof. S. Majumdar, Prof. T. Mukhopadhyay and Prof. N. Ray Choudhury of City College Kolkata.

114

West Bengal under the Left (1977-2011)

Background West Bengal was regarded as a highly industrialized state at the time of Independence, but ever since the state’s industrial scenario had been marked by progressive decline. Various factors conjointly conspired for this state of things some of which may be summarized here. Partition: The Partition of India dealt a mortal blow to jute industry, one of the two major industries of the state along with engineering. While the jute mills and factories remained inside India, bulk of the land producing jute fell across the border, and import of raw jute from East Pakistan escalated the cost of production in West Bengal. The problem was further aggravated by the Nehru government’s policy of import substitution, and jute substitutes reducing international competitiveness of jute products. On the other hand, the engineering industry in 1940s became largely dependent on war-related demands and therefore suffered a setback with the end of the Second World War. Centre-state relations: After independence, industrial development in the state was perpetually hounded by trouble-torn Union-state relations irrespective of the parties in power.1 Successive state administrations complained that the Union government’s policy of licensing and the system of quota for allocation of materials badly hampered the interests of West Bengal’s industry. Under the industrial policy adopted in post-independence India, companies needed license from the Union government to set up new plants. In an effort to promote industry in the backward regions, the government pursued a discriminatory licensing policy against applications for the industrially advanced regions. This made it more difficult to start new industries in West Bengal compared to many other states. Again, the government of India’s policy of freight equalization for steel and coal proved another deterrent to industrialization in West Bengal. This policy, introduced in 1956, in one stroke removed whatever locational advantage this state had due to proximity of the sources of coal and steel, key inputs of heavy industries.2 This in turn eliminated an important incentive for entrepreneurs all over India to invest in West Bengal as in the past and the state was no longer considered a lucrative destination for private capital. New industrial initiatives: In an attempt to redraw the state’s industrial map, Durgapur and Kalyani were sought to be developed as new industrial hubs after Independence. Initially Durgapur grew up with three major public sector projects viz. Durgapur Steel Plant (DSP),

Industry in West Bengal during the Left Front Regime

115

Damodar Valley Corporation (DVC) and Fertilizer Corporation of India (FCI). These initiatives sponsored by the Union government undoubtedly turned Durgapur into a thriving industrial township but they could not compensate for the flight of private capital from the State. Kalyani on the other hand proved a non-starter and failed live up to the expectations from the very outset. Decline of engineering industry: A series of economic crises in the 1960s had their toll on the Union budget and sizably reduced the Central government’s developmental outlays. What affected West Bengal most was the reduction in the Railway budget,3 and the principal victim was the state’s engineering industry, a major source of employment. A large chunk of the demand for its products came from the railways and the bulk of the business of leading companies like Jessop, Andrew Yule, Braithwaite, and Burn Standard was to supply parts and components to the Railways. Simultaneously, numerous small factories under corrugated iron sheds in makeshift mud and thatch structures in the bye lanes of Howrah would act as sub-contractors of these major companies. A shrinking Railway Budget dealt a deadly blow to these large and small producers alike.4 Political instability and militant trade unionism: The period between 1967 and 1972 was a period of political instability and turmoil in the state. The two United Front Governments formed during this period with leftist parties as the dominant component remained ridden with internal squabbles and disunity. Moreover, the clear priority for the leftist constituents of the governments was to change the face of the state’s agrarian sector; as a result they had little time to spare for industrial development. In fact, given its ideological proclivities, the ruling combine openly expressed its aversion to invite new private investment in the state. On top of it, a radical trade unionism backed by leftist political and intellectual support brought in a militant frictional atmosphere in the industrial arena of Bengal which scared away new private investment to a significant extent. Strikes by workers were already a popular instrument of labour movement, but actively cheered by the incumbent labour minister, the practice of gherao (physical confinement of a manager to his office by workers standing guard at the exit) added a new dimension to trade union movement in the state. This heightened level of militancy jeopardized individual property as well as his personal freedom prompting the factory owners to worry about the security of their investment in the state.5 The Congress regime (1971-77) restored a semblance of political stability and sought to rejuvenate some

116

West Bengal under the Left (1977-2011)

existing big industries while a number of industries were nationalized. However, these initiatives were not enough to breathe new life into the overall industrial scenario of the state, particularly to erase the impression deeply etched in the psyche of India’s industrial barons that militant trade unionism was the worst impediment for new industrial ventures in West Bengal. Left Front Government (LFG) in power The Left Front (LF) which came to power in the state in 1977 was keen on completing the incomplete task of agricultural transformation launched during the United Front Governments of late 1960s. The Industrial Policy Resolution it adopted in 1978, was somewhat predictably oriented towards self-reliance, creation of industry by strengthening the public sector and loosening the stranglehold of monopoly houses and multinational corporations (MNCs) on the economy of the state.6 Still three elements of this policy need to be taken note of.7 First, its attitude towards MNCs smacked of equivocation. It was stressed that the sick industrial units were not to be revived under the older management and control because these MNCs have since Independence only siphoned off hefty profits from these units. But the share of these profits they reinvested in state was used for setting up new units in capital intensive, low employment areas. Also, they cared little for keeping traditional industries (jute and engineering) in good trim through research and development activities. Yet the statement also conceded that it is not possible to count out altogether the MNCs and big industrial houses for they currently accounted for a sizable proportion of the output in the organized industrial sector in the state. Thus a rider was introduced: ‘as long as the laws of the land are not contravened, the state government may however allow the existing MNCs and big industrial houses to plough back their capital, but only along lines previously agreed to and vetted by the [state-level official] Industrial Advisory Council.’8 Secondly, it called upon the state government as well as the workers of public sector undertakings to organize themselves so as to tone up their performance and make the units profitable. This advisory came in view of the alarming situation in the state with an accumulated loss of about Rs 150 crores in the 40-odd public undertakings and corporations. Thirdly, it proposed to provide facilities to the small scale units for product marketing, quality testing and even exports in order to anticipate the practice followed

Industry in West Bengal during the Left Front Regime

117

by MNCs and big houses to buy the products of small units at giveaway prices and then sell them at premium rates under their brand names. These units, given their potential for employment generation, were to be accorded preference in the matter of extension of governmental financial assistance and also encouraged to form co-operatives to add to their strength. Thus, viewed as a whole, the policy statement read more like a pragmatic – rather than ideological – exercise. The state, however, managed to draw very little investment between 1977 to 1993, in the state sector as well as in the private sector; and, according to LFG, one key factor behind this stalemate was the obstructive attitude of the Central government. To boost industrialization, LFG claimed to have given top priority to electricity generation and infrastructure development but these initiatives did not meet with the cooperation expected from the Centre. In fact, LFG alleged that it took the Delhi seven years to sanction the thermal power station at Bakreswar. Similarly, it had to wait for more than 11 years to obtain all the clearances for Haldia Petrochemicals. Yet given the requirement of Central endorsement in setting up large and medium-scale industries, the government had no option but to look up to the Union government.9 Though obtaining a license from the central bodies for any investment proposal in West Bengal was a great hindrance, this was not the only explanation for the stagnant investment scenario. Reluctance of private companies to invest in the state too had to be taken into account; and a search for the possible causes of such lack of enthusiasm on their part inevitably led to the turbulent industrial relations in the state as the prime suspect. But the fact of the matter was that while LFG did initially lend support to militant trade unionism in industry, before long it began to promote bilateral negotiations between labour and management rather than confrontation as the primary means for addressing industrial feuds. To look at some figures, in 1977 there were 397 instances of work stoppage due to industrial dispute of which 206 were strikes and the remaining 191were lockouts. By 1980, however, the total number of major industrial disputes came down to 208 consisting of 78 strikes and 130 lockouts. In fact, in the years that followed, the number of strikes continued to decline: in the year 1991 there were only 21 strikes, and, by contrast, there were 192 lockouts. These data seemed to reflect the diminishing levels of LFG support for militant labour movement compared to the past. On the other hand, the steady increase in the number of lockouts over time indicated

118

West Bengal under the Left (1977-2011)

that management was progressively turning obstinate in settling disputes, and workers became ever more vulnerable under an avowedly pro-labour government. Indeed, there were numerous instances of company failure due to managerial incompetence including Kesoram Cotton Mills, Metal Box and Hind Motors.10 Then how would we explain the lukewarm attitude of the private investors towards West Bengal? Apart from complaints about poor infrastructural facilities (power, ports or industrial estates among others), their misgivings seemed to stem from two sources. First, the lackadaisical attitude of the authorities: for example, the state government did institute a wing – Shilpa Bandhu – within the West Bengal Industrial Development Corporation (WBIDC) to give effect to the single-window concept but the department did not function effectively until revived and restructured in 1994. Moreover, the formally available incentives such as capital subsidies were never available in time. Even information regarding the incentives or the existence of Shilpa Bandhu for that matter was not coherently presented to the investors.11 Secondly, it was mentioned by the industrialists that despite the workers having been kept on a tight leash by the government, labour productivity in the state measured by value added income remained much lower compared to states like Gujarat or Maharashtra. They also faced problems over recruitment of skilled, semi-skilled and unskilled workers and often had to give in to the demands of local trade union leaders who would press for enrollment of persons nominated by them irrespective of their suitability for the job in question.12 By way of explaining the state’s failure to attract private investment despite the efforts of the government and the chief minister, Sinha drew our attention to the fact that the CPI-M’s support base came, along with rural peasantry, from the urban working class largely organized in numerous public sector factories. This social base goaded LFG ‘to a policy of protection rather than productivism’ despite the shift at the policy level in favour of private sector-led industrialization.13 Roy, on the other hand, dismissed the explanations offered by the industrialists for cold-shouldering the state government’s overtures as “excuses” and “alibis”. But even he acknowledged that ‘State-run undertakings belonging to both central and state governments are more security-oriented than productivity-oriented. Job security is the most important consideration. This orientation in the policy framework is one of the most important factors at the root of many troubles. The management of state-run

Industry in West Bengal during the Left Front Regime

119

undertakings have failed to impress upon the workers the fact that while job security is important, production and economic viability of the units are more important. . .’14 New Economic Policy and Industry In early 1990s, India’s economic policy underwent a sea-change: the Nehruvian socialistic model was discarded in favour of a marketoriented transformation of the economy. Initially this ‘rightward’ shift was denounced by the leftist parties which they felt was effected under the diktat of the IMF-World Bank combine. But soon the liberal line of the ruling party and the state identified the positive implications of the new policy regime for industrial advancement of the state. Abolition of licenses on the one hand and removal of the freight equalization policy on the other deserve special mention in this connection. With the abolition of the ‘permit license quota raj’ the unilateral control exerted by the Central government over the process of industrialization came to an end. Similarly, with partial withdrawal of the freight equalization policy, the state’s locational advantage in terms of its proximity to the steel producing regions was restored. At the same time, the onus of attracting investments and setting up new industries within their territorial jurisdictions was by and large passed on to the states. Thus a keen competition among the states to draw industrial investment, domestic as well as foreign, resulted in prodding them to project an industry- and investment-friendly image. This image makeover involved several factors: easy and prompt disposal of proposals for setting up new industries cutting through bureaucratic Gordian knots, improving infrastructure and other facilities, extending tax concessions to entrepreneurs and ensuring favourable industrial relations. The government of West Bengal announced its new Industrial Policy Resolution in 1994, which could be summed up as follows. a) Foreign technology and investment as may be appropriate and mutually advantageous were welcomed. b) While the role of public sector as the ‘vehicle for social justice and balanced economic growth’ was acknowledged especially in the big and infrastructure-related industries, the government welcomed the private sector as an agent of accelerated growth; and the potential of the joint sector was recognized as an effective instrument of mobilization of resources and expertise.

120

West Bengal under the Left (1977-2011)

c) Especial emphasis was laid on upgradation of infrastructure such as road, power, communication etc. d) Development of social infrastructure – housing, health, education, water supply, technical education institutions etc was also underscored. e) As to sick and closed public sector units, the government promised to extend its help and support to the management and workers in evolving rehabilitation packages for consideration by the Bureau of Industrial and Financial Reconstruction (BIFR). In the case of sick and closed private sector factories, the government sought to reopen them under the existing management wherever possible or by inducting new promoters where necessary. f) In the field of industrial relations, the mechanism of tri-partite negotiations among the workers, management and the government was prioritized. As a part of this industrialization drive, LFG appointed Somnath Chatterjee, a leading CPI-M parliamentarian, as Chairman of the West Bengal Industrial Development Corporation (WBIDC) to infuse dynamism into the body supposed to take care of business interests in the state. Chatterjee sought to strike a rapport with the media in order to put across the message of the government’s seriousness in pursuing economic reforms and courting private investment. Further, to boost the industrial prospects of the state, LFG organized a conference ‘Destination West Bengal’ in 1999 where the McKinsey Advisory Council made a presentation on the competitive advantages and possibilities for industrialization in the state. Certain sectors – infrastructure, petrochemicals, ancillary industries, agro-based industries – were particularly highlighted.15 As Jyoti Basu stepped down as chief minister in favour of Buddhadev Bhattacharya in 2001, the prospects of industrial rejuvenation in the State seemed to brighten further. The new chief minister led business delegations to Thailand, Southeast Asia, Italy and also interacted with entrepreneurs within India, exploring possibilities for fresh investment in the state. Again, in the context of the Union government’s ‘Look East Policy’ focused on boosting trade with East/Southeast Asian states, West Bengal sought to play up its strategic location and potential to effectively function as India’s

Industry in West Bengal during the Left Front Regime

121

gateway to the Asia-Pacific region. The construction of various industrial parks – a ‘rubber park’ at Domjur, a park for ‘tannery and leather industries’ at Bantala, an ‘apparel park’ for textiles and hosiery at Howrah among others – were under way.16 Bhattacharya also came down heavily on irresponsible trade unionism and sent a strong message to workers to ‘deliver’ and not simply ‘clamour for more’. A programme for restructuring the non-viable public sector units in the state with the support of Britain’s Department of International Development (DFID) was also launched in right earnest.17 These measures earned the new chief minister rich tributes from the captains of Indian industry18 and several industrial houses, national (e.g. Tatas, Jindals, Infosys and Wipro) as well as foreign (Salim and Pepsico) came forward to set up new ventures in the state. However, a sense of misgiving was also taking shape especially within the conventional leftist circles that capital, both foreign and indigenous, seemed to be engaged in an aggressive drive for imposing its hegemony under the protection of LFG.19 But Roy combated this argument by pointing out that India was essentially a ‘centre-oriented’ country with all tangible powers vested in the Union government where the states had to willy-nilly toe the line of the Central policies – there was hardly any scope for them to follow their own policy framework for development programmes. Secondly, West Bengal needed investment in industry ‘on an immediate basis and at a fast pace’ to overcome the effects of the near-stagnation situation in the State since mid-1960s. Since new investment in the state sector was virtually ruled out, the only course open before the state government was to take advantage of the new situation, i.e. the surge in investment proposals from both domestic and foreign players. Finally, attention was also drawn to the ‘precautions’ incorporated in the new industrial policy against ‘wholesale promotion’ of foreign capital, e.g. foreign investment was welcomed only in the areas of new technology which was essential but not locally available; or provisions for safeguards against workers being treated as mere pawns in the hands of the private owners of the enterprises.20 The Macro-view: Big and small investments We would begin this section by looking at some time-series data regarding the functioning of joint stock companies in West Bengal in the new millennium – their number, volume of paid up capital, employment generated etc – in a comparative perspective.

122

West Bengal under the Left (1977-2011)

TABLE 6.1: Number of Joint Stock Companies at work in some states and their paid up capital STATES

2006 Number Paid up capital (In Crores)

2007 2008 Number Paid up Number Paid up capital capital (In Crores) (In Crores)

Andhra

48218

42754

50010

48867.39 53586

53732.07

Gujarat

45861

52745

49279

71590.44 41630

70590

Karnataka

35927

41949

38590

50424.52 41410

54505

Maharashtra

158868 102690

167059

149656.39 169015

191287.3

West Bengal

87597

70876

66596.80 80559

72463.4

61279

Source : Economic Review , Govt. of West Bengal 2008-09 and Ministry of Corporate Affairs, Govt. of India, 2009.

Table 1 shows state wise the number of joint stock companies at work and their paid-up capital in some states between 2006 and 2008. In terms of sheer number of companies, West Bengal was behind only Maharashtra; and till 2008 the state was far ahead of Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat and Karnataka. The table also shows that except Gujarat and West Bengal, all the other states experienced a steady increase in the number of companies in those three years. But the column of the paid-up capital would give us a different picture. In Gujarat in 2006 the paid-up capital for 45,861 companies was Rs. 52,745 crores, in 2007 for 49,279 companies the paid-up capital increased to Rs.71,590 crores, and in 2008 the number of companies came down to 41,630 but the quantum of their paid-up capital was Rs.70,590 crores. In the case of West Bengal in 2006 the paid-up capital for 87,597 companies was Rs. 61,279 crores, in 2007 the number of companies came down to 70,876 and the paid-up capital was Rs. 66,596.8 crores, and in 2008 the paid-up capital for 80,559 companies was Rs. 72,463.40 crores. So going by the number of companies West Bengal was ahead of Gujarat but in terms of the ratio of number and paid-up capital Gujarat had a clear edge over West Bengal. It also indicates that Gujarat could attract big capital and investment in the state than West Bengal. In fact, the success in attracting big capital is far more pronounced in the case of Maharashtra.

Industry in West Bengal during the Left Front Regime

123

West Bengal’s relative inability to attract big capital and investment was further corroborated by Table 2. TABLE 6.2: Number of new industrial projected implemented in West Bengal YEAR

NO. OF PROJECTS

INVESTMENT (In Crores of Rs.)

DIRECT EMPLOYMENT

2001

86

2194.54

9653

2002

113

2325.95

19491

2003

137

2335.19

10772

2004

196

2243.80

26070

2005

227

2515.58

27521

2006

221

3436.15

25394

2007

291

5072.82

41219

2008

187

4060.78

19923

Source: Economic Review, Govt. of West Bengal, 2008-09.

It follows that in 2001, 86 new industrial projects implemented in West Bengal accounted for a total investment of Rs. 2194.54 crores; in 2005 for 227 new projects implemented, the cumulative investment was Rs. 2515.58 crores; in 2008, for 187 new projects implemented together attracted an investment of Rs.4060.78 crores. Thus, juxtaposing the number of industries and quantum of investment it follows that the bulk of the industrial units must have been only of moderate size. A survey of the available literature revealed that this state of affairs could be attributed to five sets of factors, a combination of old and new: poor infrastructure, (especially power and road conditions); lack of skilled workforce; over-regulation; role of the ‘party’; and last but not the least, difficulties associated with land acquisition. Infrastructure: The most potent and perennial factor behind West Bengal’s failure to attract large investment, analysts agreed, was infrastructural weakness and its failure to improve it over time. The state’s slide in terms of infrastructure index calculated by scholars (in terms of roads, railways, ports; irrigation; electricity; telephone; loan-deposit ratios of banks; and tax collection of the state government) in 1990s and the new millennium continued unabated.21 In this respect the northern states of Punjab, Haryana and all the southern states put up a much better show compared to West Bengal.

124

West Bengal under the Left (1977-2011)

TABLE 6.3: Installed capacity and generation of power in some states in India STATES

INSTALLED CAPACITY (Mega Watts)

GENERATION (million units)

REMARKS

Maharashtra

17499 in 2006 24529 in 2012

49352 in 2006 83017 in 2012

Power deficit state.

Andhra Pradesh

19320.58 in 2021

Not available

Power deficit state.

Gujarat

12512 in 2010

69883 in 2010

Power deficit state.

West Bengal

8934 in 2008

47623 in 2008

Power surplus state.

Source: Websites of the States – Maharastra Mahadesh.com. www.apind.gov. in. www.as.ori.nic.in. Economic Review, Govt. of Gujarat

To begin with, predictability of power supply was of crucial importance for someone who was running a business. A cursory look at Table 3 which presents data on the installed capacity and actual generation of power in some states including West Bengal in comparative terms portrays the latter as a powersurplus state (though with the lowest capacity and generation). However, this situation was largely explained by the existing low level of industrialization though it could simultaneously be argued that for setting up new industries power should not have been a critical problem in the state. But then the quality of power needed improvement alongside significant augmentation in powersupply capacity and transmission and distribution systems since the power situation reportedly was much worse beyond the metropolitan districts.22 TABLE 6.4: Length of roads in selected states (in kilometers) as on 31.3.03 Category

Andhra

Gujarat

Karnataka

Maharashtra

Odisha

W.Bengal

1. Highways a. National b. State c. P.W.D Roads

4038 8201 52838

2461 19163 52470

3570 9829 28286

3626 33405 29058

3301 4050 38542

1898 3533 12565

108633

43540

84924

156427

160345

42479

173710

117634

126609

222516

206238

60475

2. Zilla Parishad Panchayat Samiti Roads Total

Source: Economic Review 2008-2009, Statistical Appendix, Govt. of West Bengal.

Industry in West Bengal during the Left Front Regime

125

Table 4 which shows the length of roads as existed in select states till the beginning 2003, heavily underscores how pathetically West Bengal lagged behind all the other states included in the table in all road categories – three types of highways (national, state, and PWD) as well as roads maintained by state under the authority of various layers of the local government. Poor roads delayed shipments and raised shipping costs, and in some cases, such as flowers and fish, delays in getting to the market could make production entirely worthless. A case study of a failed mini-steel plant in Purulia in a report on industrial sickness in eastern India in the early 21st century highlighted that each year the plant paid Rs 25-30 lakh extra for transportation (compared to the liquidation value of the plant, Rs 81.5 lakh).23 Labour skill: This scenario was aggravated by the inadequacy of social infrastructure such as poor quality of labour arising out of lack of education, particularly technical education. True, West Bengal even in the early 21st century compared well with other states in terms of the education of its current workforce. Yet the situation as far as primary enrolment rates for children aged between 5 and 9 as well as the percentage of students who dropped out before reaching the secondary level was concerned appeared alarming and likely to have a negative impact on the quality of workforce in future. The state, moreover, long ceased to be the magnet it had formerly been for young talents. Rather placement data from the state’s better engineering and management institutes revealed that an abnormally high segment of their students found placement outside the state – a sad commentary on the available labour skill in the state.24 Regulation: A report prepared jointly by the World Bank and the Confederation of Indian Industries (CII) early in the new millennium based on the study of over a thousand firms held ‘over-regulation’ (measured, for example, by the number of visits to an industrial unit made by as government inspector) responsible for the lukewarm investment climate. These visits, the report felt, were wasteful in nature and fraught with the possibilities of corruption. More importantly, they projected the image of a ‘regulation-happy’ administration which was less likely to be investorfriendly.25 Party: It was further reported by business organizations that while earlier businesses had to negotiate with the government, more recently they had

126

West Bengal under the Left (1977-2011)

to deal with the ‘party’ – ruling and opposition. It was maintained that the people at the top might have adopted business-friendly policies for broader political achievements but these changes were not acceptable to local bigwigs long accustomed to rent-seeking behaviour. This smacked of ‘institutional stickiness’ ensuing from a clash of long-term and immediate interests of different levels of political elites. Indeed, the ‘party’ in West Bengal seemed to have stretched everywhere so much so that the administration was often paralyzed or incapacitated for action. Bureaucrats interviewed by scholars often highlighted the increasing tension between formal governance and informal party control which they felt was responsible for eroding the credibility of the government and hamper infrastructural development in the state.26 Land acquisition-The Tata Motors fiasco: This brings us to the contentious issue of land acquisition in West Bengal which was essential for building factories and boosting infrastructure i.e. roads, bridges, airport, townships and so forth. The view was widely shared by industrialists that land acquisition for industrialization remained a prickly issue in the state especially because land records were either antiquated or unavailable. Moreover, there was no ‘land bank’ since LFG, though in power in a denselypopulated, highly fertile agrarian state for more than three decades, never seriously undertook any resource analysis in this respect. Matters came to a head with the Singur-Nandigram imbroglio of 2006-09 which propels us to attempt an indepth understanding of the complexities involved through a small case study of the germination and termination of the Tata Motors project at Singur. The Tata Motors Limited (TML) was goaded by LFG to move its ‘revolutionary’ Nano (small car) project from Pantnagar, Uttarakhand to Singur West Bengal in 2006 which it rightly claimed as a stunning success of its industrialization drive. Apart from the obvious technoeconomic merit of the project, there was a general expectation that its accomplishment would bring in its wake many ancillary industries resulting in manifold expansion of industrial output and employment in the state. Yet opposition to the project developed from the very outset mainly on two grounds: acquisition of 997 acres of fertile land in Singur in the Hooghly district, and the contents of the agreement the government arrived at with Tatas was kept a closely guarded secret. At the height of the Singur protests, an official notification to acquire a much bigger area for a chemical complex in Nandigram was issued. The peasants there literally

Industry in West Bengal during the Left Front Regime

127

rose in arms to preempt the move which led to police firing killing 14 in March 2007 and sparked an unprecedented wave of sympathy for the agitators cutting across party lines in the state and beyond. Even the former chief minister Jyoti Basu expressed concerns about the Nandigram incident and several LFG partners voiced serious misgivings regarding the police action. The fractured opposition parties of the state closed ranks over the issue and the Trinamool supremo Mamata Banerjee undertook a dharna. But the West Bengal leadership of CPI-M remained adamant for which it had to pay dearly in the panchayat elections of 2008: the party was wiped out in Singur and Nandigram, and out of 14 districts councils, it lost control over three, including East Medinipur and South 24-Parganas.27 In the face of this gathering storm, the TML finally shifted the project to Sanand, Gujarat in October 2008. With the successful execution of the TML project which was to produce the world’s cheapest car in West Bengal, the state’s industrial landscape could have made a dramatic turnaround. But it was the overconfidence of the government about the correctness of its industrial strategy (and popular support for the same) as well as lack of professional and political management skills on its part fed upon by the opposition parties that ultimately led to the undoing of the project.28 Industrialization programmes cannot be carried out sans land, and, given the state’s land-man ratio, sparing agricultural plots altogether while obtaining land for industrial purposes in West Bengal was impossible. While it was argued that the space occupied by sick and closed industries could very well be used for setting up new ones, this was not always possible for the investor’s preferences had to be accommodated as well. The Tatas opted for Singur for three reasons: its location next to the Durgapur highway, its proximity to Kolkata, and adequate supply of underground water needed for an automobile factory. Thus, in this regard the government hardly had much choice – otherwise Tatas would have moved the factory out of West Bengal.29 The more crucial issue, however, which demanded a creative response from the government was displacement of people and loss of livelihood implied by large scale land acquisition. An appropriate compensation and rehabilitation package for the victims was called for and here the government was found wanting as the package it announced seemed grossly inadequate. Valuation of land for this purpose was made in terms of market prices which in turn was determined by averaging

128

West Bengal under the Left (1977-2011)

past prices over a period of time. But this practice was bound to result in undervaluation especially under conditions when land prices were likely to increase steadily (as was the case in Singur) and consequently the farmers found the compensation declared by the government unacceptable. Moreover, it was not simply a question of compensating the landowner but the bargadar (sharecropper) as well who, thanks to the land reforms introduced by LFG earlier, had been earning a share of 75 % of the produce provided he was prepared to bear the cost of cultivation along with a guarantee that he would not be evicted from land. This promise too was violated for the bargadar, now evicted, was, according to the government’s formula, being paid only 25% of the sale proceeds whereas, in view of his right to the land, he could very well have claimed 75%, and not 25%, of compensation. Finally, the issue of compensating the labourer working on the land that was being taken away also came up for at one stroke the value of his expertise – of a very specific kind which was not of much use in any other sector of the economy – was greatly reduced leading to decline of the value of his human capital. After all, it was argued, when a government factory closes down, the worker whose job is terminated is usually compensated through a retirement package, and the same principle should have been followed by the government when land was acquired making people jobless.30 But it appeared that the government’s capacity to offer a fair and decent compensation package was seriously circumscribed by the deal it entered into with the Tatas. On the land in Singur, where they proposed to build their automobile factory, the Tatas were to get a 90-year lease from the government for which they were not required to make any one-time payment. Instead, for the first five years they were pay Rs. one crore a year as rent and the yearly payment was to increase by 25 per cent for each five-year interval for the next 25 years. Again, for subsequent 30 years payments were to increase by 33 per cent at a fiveyear interval and for the final 20 years the rent was to be Rs 20 crore per year. On top of it, the government was to give a Rs 200 crore loan to the Tatas at 1 per cent rate of interest and the VAT proceeds accruing from sales of cars was also to be handed back to the Tatas as a 1 per cent loan for the first 10 years. On the other hand, by its own admission, the government of West Bengal was to pay Rs 130 crore as compensation to the landowners, an amount likely to yield a yearly interest of at least Rs

Industry in West Bengal during the Left Front Regime

129

13 crore which meant there was a straightforward subsidy of Rs 12 crore a year on the purchase of land. This coupled with the virtual interest free loan, the tax breaks and the mild five-yearly 25 per cent increase in rent which could not even cover an inflation of 6 per cent per annum made it clear that the Tatas were offered the land in Singur virtually on a platter. The critics thus maintained that the government of West Bengal was too concerned about the investors and too little about the displaced. No doubt this predicament was an unfortunate byproduct of the Indian states entering into an unhealthy competition among themselves to attract private investments under the liberalization regime. Yet this position was not only morally untenable but more importantly unviable as a long-term strategy of industrialization.31 Small scale sector As mentioned above, following extensive disinvestment in the infrastructure sector by the Union government in mid-1960s, the engineering industry in West Bengal which had developed an increasing dependence on the Railways, suffered a severe setback. This produced large-scale unemployment in organized manufacturing in the state: large units gradually decelerated and the skilled workers employed therein opened small shops in the neighbourhood. Bigger entrepreneurs started farming out production to the small scale units in general and unorganized sector in particular and consequently unorganized manufacturing in the state emerged as an important sector. In this context, the manufacturing firms in West Bengal, as Chakravarty and Bose observed, ‘tended to get locked in a low productivity-low wage segment of the spectrum of products dominated by the small firms largely in the unorganized sector’. This predominance of the small-scale/unorganized sector in the state’s industrial setup continued unabated defying the expectations generated by the reorientation of industrial policy in 1994. According to Figure 1, since the mid-1990s unorganized manufacturing, in fact, contributed almost as much as the organized sector, and even more with the passage of years. Further, the rate of growth of organized manufacturing remained consistently lower than that of unorganized manufacturing both before and after the inauguration of the new industrial policy regime in the state.32

130

West Bengal under the Left (1977-2011)

Figure 6.1: Percentage share (at 1993-94 prices) of the registered and unregistered manufacturing in total manufacturing output of WB during 1980-81 to 2004-05

^ŽƵƌĐĞ͗EĂƟŽŶĂůĐĐŽƵŶƚ^ƚĂƟƐƟĐƐ͕tĞƐƚĞŶŐĂů33

A host of factors – most importantly ancillerization or sub-contracting as already indicated – accounted for the proliferation of these small production units. Given the infrastructural inadequacies, large-scale units preferred not to expand their capacity but farm out to the unorganized sector. They could in the process evade militant trade unionism while simultaneously taking advantage of the incentives announced for the small firms. In the era of liberalization and globalization small units have become relatively more profitable than their bigger counterparts. It’s easier for small and micro units to procure raw materials at cost- effective prices. Small and micro units enjoyed governmental support in various forms e.g. tax concessions, subsidized power and lenient labour laws. The small and micro units procured cheap labour with scant responsibility towards the workers as labour movement was virtually absent in this segment. Also, direct participation of the owner in the production process ensured larger control by him over the industrial unit.34 Such fragmentation and ancillerization, however, as Ajitava Raychaudhury and Biswajit Chatterjee, pointed out, had their share of

Industry in West Bengal during the Left Front Regime

131

problems as well. Since the work done by the small units was actually outsourced by the large factories, these units were dependent on these parent organizations. In good times the small units worked as the backbone of the large factories and in bad times they suffered with their order-providers. The owners of these small units, mostly erstwhile skilled workers of the large factories, operated with worn-out second hand machines, at times without fixed factory sheds or steady supply of power. These units generally had no direct access to final markets which coupled with low demand resulted in poor quality, bad after sales service and untimely delivery, thwarting the competitiveness of local industry and its growth.35 While ancillerization had a long tradition in Bengal industry, particularly in engineering and transport, the practice widened – for example to include the textile segment (organized large-scale purchase of traditional Bengal weaves especially for exports) – with the advent of liberalization policies in 1990s. Moreover, improvement in road conditions in the post-1994-95 period helped reach distant villages and tap unexplored possibilities. In fact, textiles held the highest percentage share in the value added of West Bengal’s manufacturing in both organized and unorganized sectors, and that too kept on increasing. Chakravarty and Bose noted that the elasticity of unorganized sector output was as high as 1.2 with respect to the organized sector during 1980-81 to 2004-05. But that the elasticity was higher in the first half till 1994-95 compared to the second perhaps had to be explained with reference to the fact of quite a few large trading firms acquiring products directly from the unorganized producers for export purposes.36 Interestingly, Chakravarty and Bose drew our attention to the role of the ‘vulnerable workforce’ in the state in determining how the non-performance of large-scale industry was giving way to the unorganized sector. Use of contract labour is increasing in organized manufacturing all over the country and West Bengal was no exception. In the context of uncertain market conditions, management found it increasingly easier to adjust their production plans by retaining a small core of permanent workers alongside a large number of contract workers under highly flexible work conditions and lower wage-cost. When permanent employees retired (at times under the voluntary retirement scheme), the firms never filled those vacancies as they could conveniently transfer production responsibilities to easily available contract/casual workers at much lower wages. Few new permanent jobs were created as a result in the worker’s category in recent years and simultaneously, as already mentioned, a majority of the large and

132

West Bengal under the Left (1977-2011)

medium firms contracted out their production considerably. But how was it possible that the large farms could increasingly outsource a substantial amount of production when their production capacity was not optimally utilized? And how did the trade unions respond to this state of things especially when even the contract workers belonged to the same unions? The answer furnished by the industrialists fell in two parts: the unions, though largely domesticated under the new policy dispensation, showed greater interest in bargaining for higher wages than filling up vacancies or making the contract workers permanent. In other words, they were keener to defend the interests of the insiders – the permanent workers – rather than that of the outsiders or the non-permanent employees. On the other hand, the efforts of the ruling party or its trade union wing to beef up work culture in the state under the new policy regime fell flat upon the permanent workers who had mostly become habituated not to work or to work only on overtime payment. These factors together accounted for the fact that jobs were outsourced without exhausting the labour potential of permanent workers.37 Concluding observations It follows from our analysis that the factors initially responsible for West Bengal’s industrial deceleration in the first two decades after Independence (e.g the effects of Partition or certain Central government policies) were largely exogenous to the state except the growth of a radical and confrontationist trade union movement which had extensive support from leftist circles including the United Front Government of the late 1960s. Interestingly, we have noted that the first industrial policy resolution of LFG (1978) while stressing public sector as the engine of industrial development and vowing to weaken the MNCs’ grip over the state’s economy did not rule out private investment altogether. A guarded message was also issued to the workers to improve work culture given the cumulative losses suffered by the state’s public sector undertakings. Indeed there was a visible decline in trade union militancy as evidenced by the number of lockouts gradually outnumbering the number of strikes over the years. Yet it seemed to have little impact on the industrial scenario thanks to electoral compulsions of the ruling party, the difficulties of shedding the tag of a state marked by industrial turbulence and overt infrastructural backwardness. The new economic policy under the shadow of the Union government embracing a liberal economic agenda brought into being an array of

Industry in West Bengal during the Left Front Regime

133

incentives and institutional measures for wooing industrialists, and the new chief minister’s aggressive industrialization drive in new millennium was welcomed by the industrial magnates. A number of investment proposals streamed in with Chatterjee Group showing interest in HPL, the Jindals agreeing to set up a steel factory at Salboni and to crown it all, the Tatas were to launch the unique Nano car project at Singur. But most of these new projects ran into troubles over land acquisition issues culminating in the withdrawal of the Tatas from the state in the face of a concerted protest movement developed over the TML factory coming up at Singur. While inept handling of the ‘save farmland’ agitation on the part of the government (which the opposition parties took ample advantage of), was largely responsible for this development, other factors that hindered the realization of the promises of industrialization included the perennial infrastructural issues, shortage of skilled labour, administrative regulations and party overreach. As a result West Bengal’s industrial scenario remained dominated by the small scale sector which outstripped the growth of big manufacturing units ever since mid 1960s only further strengthened by certain developments under the liberalization regime. Endnotes 1. Atul Kohli observed, the traditional ambivalence of the Bengali bhadrolok towards Gandhi fed the belief that Congress and Delhi did not have Bengal’s interest at heart, a belief that was reinforced by a sense of regional nationalism. This ethos of distrust and suspicion towards the Centre led the state to adopt a confrontationist strategy and prevented it from lobbying pragmatically to obtain licenses and industrial investment. See Deepita Chakravarty, and Indraneel Bose, Industrializing West Bengal? The case of institutional stickiness, Working Paper No 83, Centre for Economic and Social Studies, Hyderabad, 2010. 2. Before the introduction of this policy West Bengal purchased steel from Jamshedpur at the price of 130 rupees per ton and after its introduction the state’s industry had to pay Rupees 470/- per ton. On the other hand for Bombay the same were 620/- rupees per ton before the introduction of this policy and 470/- after words Thus West Bengal had to pay more while other States paid less for the procurement of steel as a consequence of the policy of freight equalization in steel. 3. In 1964-65 developmental outlays for the Railways was Rs. 2,753.7 million. This declined to Rs.1, 607 million in 1966-67 and fell further down to Rs. 942.9 million in 1969. See Subhas C. Ray, The Political Economy of Decline of Industry in West Bengal: Experiences of a Marxist State within a Mixed

134

4. 5. 6. 7. 8.

9.

10. 11. 12. 13. 14. 15. 16. 17. 18. 19.

West Bengal under the Left (1977-2011)

Economy, Working Paper 2011-10, Department of Economics, University of Connecticut, May 2011. Ray, ibid. See Chakravarty and Bose, n 1. Also Ray, n 3. S.N. Roy, ‘West Bengal’s Industrial Development Policy’, Economic and Political Weekly (EPW), Vol 31 No 18, May 4 1996. ‘West Bengal’s Industrial Policy’, EPW, Vol. 13 No 2, January 2 1978. The correspondent went on to add: ‘This last point seems to contain an eloquent rationale for the Front government's announcements made by the Chief Minister, Jyoti Basu, the Industries Minister, Kanailal Bhattacharya, and their other cabinet colleagues from different forums welcoming MNCs and big business houses and imploring them to invest more money in the state’. Another correspondent notes, rather frowningly, in December 1985, that Jyoti Basu's industrial policy of wooing MNCs and Indian big business houses was ratified by the recently held West Bengal state conference of the CPI-M. EPW, Vol 20, No 51-52, December 21, 1985. ‘Somnath Chatterjee, chairman of the WBIDC, narrated a story on the discrimination in issue of licences. An industrial house had units in Rishra as well as in Bahadurgarh. Both the units needed installation of captive generating sets to overcome the disturbances in production caused by power shortage. Accordingly, applications were submitted to the Central Electricity Authority for licences for installation of generating sets in both the units. While the licence for the generating set for the Bahadurgarh unit was received within seven days, it took years to have the same for the Rishra unit. Such experiences were not exceptions but the rule’. See Roy, n 6. Also, Chakravarty and Bose, n 1. Ray, n 3. Assema Sinha, The Regional Roots of Development Politics in India, OUP: New Delhi, 2005. ‘West Bengal: Industrial Morass’, EPW, Vol. 15 No 11, March 1 1980. Sinha, n 11. Roy, n 6. Chakravarty and Bose, n 1. Ibid. See Partha Pratim Basu, ‘ “Brand Buddha” in India’s West Bengal: The Left Reinvents Itself ’. Asian Survey, Vol XLVII No 2 March-April 2007. Sitaram Sharma, West Bengal: Changing Colours, Rupa: New Delhi, 2014. Ranjit Dasgupta, ‘West Bengal: Industrial Development Policy’, EPW Vol. 30, No 30, April 29, 1995.

Industry in West Bengal during the Left Front Regime

135

20. Roy, n 6. 21. Chakravarty and Bose, n 5. 22. Ibid. See also Abhijit Banerjee, et al. ‘Strategy of Economic Reform in West Bengal’, EPW, Vol 37 No 41October 12 2002. 23. Banerjee et al, ibid. 24. Chakravarty and Bose, n 5; Banerjee et al, ibid. 25. Banerjee et al, n 25. 26. Chakravarty and Bose, n 1. 27. Indeed the ‘Singur-Nandigram factor’ was widely believed to be primarily responsible for LFG’s ouster in the assembly elections of 2011. 28. Sharma n 18. 29. Abhirup Sarkar, ‘Development and Displacement: Land Acquisition in West Bengal’, EPW, Vol 42 No 16 April 21 2007. 30. Ibid. 31. Ibid. 32. Chakravarty and Bose, n 1. 33. Ibid. 34. Ajitava Raychaudhury and Biswajit Chatterjee, ‘Patterns of Industrial Growth in West Bengal in Last Two Decades: Some Policy Suggestions’, EPW, Vol 33 No 47-48 November 21 1998. 35. Ibid. 36. Chakravarty and Bose, n 1. 37. Ibid.

7 Agriculture under the Left Front Regime in West Bengal Partha Pratim Basu The agricultural scenario in colonial Bengal was dominated by the zamindari system which transferred ownership of land into the hands of a number of non-cultivating (and often absentee) landlords, a huge parasitic class of rent receivers living off a pauperized peasantry showing little interest in agricultural progress. The top layer of zamindars was of course removed by the Nehru government, but its mantle had passed on to a new rentier class, the jotedars – the traditional overseers with medium-sized holdings who formed the bedrock of Congress support in post-independence India. On the other hand, the lowest strata of actual cultivators were the bargadars or sharecroppers, who usually with tiny plots of their own worked half the land, with scant security of tenure and often subject to debt bondage. The sharecropper’s share of crop varied from one-half through two-fifth to one-third – depending on the fertility of the land. His status was markedly different from that of the agricultural labourer, though he was often equated with the latter in contemporary settlement records presumably to deny him any claim to his land.1 The first important legislative initiative of the state’s Congress government in this direction was the passage of the Bargadar Act (1950), which sought to make eviction of sharecroppers difficult except where the owner chose to take back the land for self-cultivation, or where the sharecropper was guilty of improper use of land. Under the West Bengal Land Reform Act (1955), sharecroppers’ entitlement was raised to 60 per cent of the crop if they contributed both labour and inputs. However, these Acts not only failed to achieve their goals but, ironically, remained responsible for large scale eviction of tenants who had no written contract to support their claim as tenants. Moreover, though ceiling provisions were introduced in the 1955 Act, by 1967 when the Communist Party of India (CPI-M)-dominated United Front Government (UFG) was catapulted to power, only 3, 00, 000 acres of land had vested, though it was common

Agriculture under the Left Front Regime in West Bengal

137

knowledge that the landed gentry still controlled huge chunks of agricultural land way beyond the ceiling through various devious means. UFG, on the initiative of then Land Revenue Minister Hare Krishna Konar, launched a quasi-judicial campaign to unearth the clandestinely held land strictly according to law and established procedures as against the violent land grab tactics of the Naxalites or the CPI-ML, the breakaway faction of the CPI-M. As a result, by 1970, about a million acres of good agricultural land was vested in the state.2 The Congress regime of 1972-77 produced a peculiar paradox. A number of provisions were introduced in the 1955 Act to strengthen the bargadar’s claims and his share was raised to 75 per cent of the produce if he contributed inputs in addition to labour. These highly significant changes, however, remained largely confined to the book, without being known to the sharecroppers, the intended beneficiaries. Indeed, fresh attempts were made to get back the land lost by the landed aristocracy and under the shadow of the National Emergency (1975-77) the sharecroppers were very often subjected to harassment by the police and the court of law, and sent to prison without trial.3 UFG’s unfinished land reform agenda was resumed by the Left Front government (LFG) installed in 1977 which pursued a three-pronged strategy within the constitutional parameters and effected substantial transformation in the state’s agrarian structure. These land reform measures, though the butt of considerable controversy, together with the adoption of Green Revolution technology, produced an unprecedented hike in the state’s agricultural output in the course of 1980s. But this positive trend was largely reversed in the following decade and an alarmed government proposed a new agricultural policy framework in 2002 somewhat in keeping with the principles of economic liberalization making waves since 1990s. The new policy outline, however, met with stiff resistance from various quarters so much so that during the rest of LFG’s tenure these proposals remained only partially and haphazardly implemented. Land Reform Measures under LFG

A three-pronged strategy The rural vote contributed substantially to the maiden electoral success of the Left Front in 1977 which was read as a mandate for continuing the propoor redistributive change undertaken by UFG and, expectedly, agrarian

138

West Bengal under the Left (1977-2011)

reform featured high on the agenda of the new government. Three major steps were taken in this direction in the early years of its rule: t

3FEJTUSJCVUJPO PG DFJMJOHTVSQMVT MBOE BNPOH UIF MBOEMFTT BOE MBOE poor.

t

-BSHF TDBMF UFOBODZ SFGPSNT XIFSFCZ TIBSFDSPQQFST XFSF PďDJBMMZ registered by the state and given permanent legal right of cultivation in addition to enabling them to increase their share in the total produce vis-à-vis the landlord.

t

"OFMBCPSBUFQPMJDZPGEFDFOUSBMJ[FEHPWFSOBODFTUBSUJOHBUUIFWJMMBHF level which bestowed substantial financial authority on the local governments to carry out developmental projects.

To begin with the issue of land distribution, about 5 lakh acres of land were vested to the state during 1967-70 thanks to the efforts of UFG, a process that continued upto the beginning of 1972, and total agricultural land vested thus to government was about 9.5 lakh acres. Under the stewardship of LFG, the cumulative area of vested agricultural land rose to 12.12 lakh acres by the end of 1980, a kind of all India record despite the fact that it had to negotiate the setback suffered by the process during 1972-77. Again, out of these 12.12 lakh acres, 6.7 lakh acres were distributed among 12 lakh beneficiaries, of whom about 57 per cent were from Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes. The rate of distribution of ceiling-surplus vested agricultural land, however, remained somewhat slow due to weakening of the peasant movement in the countryside, endless litigation indulged in by the former landowners, and prevalence of conservative outlook among a section of the judicial circles.4 In the area of tenancy reform, leadership was provided by Benoy Chaudhury, the Land Reforms Minister and a highly respected peasant leader5 who adopted Paulo Freire’s process of conscientization followed by action.6 To deal with the most important lacuna of the existing legislation, i.e., the immense difficulty involved in proving the authenticity of the tenancy agreements, three concrete legislative measures were introduced. First, the onus for proving that a person, not a family member, cultivating the land was not a tenant was put on the landowner. Secondly, non-issue of receipt by landowner in exchange of crop share received from the sharecropper – the only document needed to be produced by the sharecropper to prove his status as tenant – was declared as a criminal offence.7 The final, and most

Agriculture under the Left Front Regime in West Bengal

139

popular, measure was to launch a campaign for recording the sharecroppers (bargadars) code-named “Operation Barga” (OB) which would speed up the established but time-consuming method of recording through the settlement machinery. The first step in the campaign was to identify areas with an expected high level of concentration of sharecropping; and set up camps there, where a group of officials would meet villagers collectively. The collective strength of the officials would counter the possibility of intimidation by the vested interests, while the collective participation of the villagers in the camp would make it easier to verify the claims of sharecroppers on the spot.8 Those confirmed as sharecroppers would be issued “temporary certificates” called parentis, which could then be used as evidence of their right and also to obtain bank credit; and by the end of 1981 about 1.2 million sharecroppers were recorded through this exercise. The landowner’s “right” to take back the land from the sharecropper on the grounds of “self-cultivation” granted in the 1955 Act was duly qualified to guard against abuse.9 A third component of the land reform package was decentralization of rural power through the three-tier panchayati raj which had been lying dormant in the state for almost two decades without a single election being held. This, among other things, implied greater representation of small cultivators and landless labourers in the elected bodies of the local selfgovernment and participation of the poor in the local decision-making process. Comparing gram panchayats in 1978-83 with those in 1988-93, it was found that representation of bargadars increased from 1.8 per cent to 11.3 per cent, that of landless labour from 4.8 percent to 16.8 per cent and the representation of cultivators with land holding below three acres along with the landless increased from 21.8 per cent to 30.17 per cent. This gave the rural poor not only a voice in the decision-making process, but, more importantly, a kind of dignity and social prestige unheard of in the previous political regime.10 Bandyopadhyay,11 however, alludes to deeper political reasons behind LFG’s decision to revive the panchayati raj. In 1978, when panchayat elections were held in West Bengal, CPI-M was required to put up – along with its minor partners – around 80,000 candidates which appreared a really tall order for a party till then largely an urban outfit. This void, however, was filled in by the middle and upper peasantry, the foremost beneficiaries of the ouster of the jotedars through the execution of LFG’s land reform agenda, who offered themselves en masse as Left Front candidates. This decision was propelled not by any ideological consideration

140

West Bengal under the Left (1977-2011)

but by an urge to protect their self-interests and CPI-M also welcomed them who constituted the much-needed rural base it did not have so far, which amounted to a win-win situation for both sides.12

Achievements The single most notable feature of West Bengal agriculture since LFG came into power in 1977 was the remarkable growth in agricultural output compared to the dismal picture presented by the state till the end of the 1970s. According to some estimates13 the growth rate of agricultural output was 1.74% for West Bengal in the post-Partition period between 1949 and 1980, continuation of a prolonged agricultural stagnation that characterized Bengal in the colonial period. However since 1980s West Bengal experienced a structural break and entered a period of high agricultural growth some evidence of which is presented below. It follows from Table 1 which contains figures for growth rate of rice production – West Bengal is primarily a rice producing state with nearly 70 per cent of total cropped area under foodgrains – that from the low decade of the 1970s, the spurt of 1980s was highly significant. There was of course a deceleration in 1990s but even then the figure of 5.03 in 1980-95 was way above the national average and also that of high-performing states.14 Table 7.1: Rice Production in West Bengal Period

Compound annual rate of growth

1950-60

1.01

1960-70

2.28

1970-80

1.22

1980-90

6.41

1980-95

5.03

Source: Madhura Swaminathan, Economic and Political Weekly, October 3 1998 (cited in D. Bandyopadhyay. ‘Land Reforms and Agriculture: The West Bengal Experience’, Economic and Political Weekly, 38: 9, March 1 2003 879.)

Table 2 provides a thumbnail picture of the trends in the production of major crops in West Bengal since the 1950s. In 2000-01, the area under the monsoon-fed aman, the major rice crop of the state, was about 67% of the total area under rice production. However, West Bengal registered tremendous progress in the production of irrigation-fed winter crop (boro) which now covered 25.79% of the gross-cropped area under rice. The

Agriculture under the Left Front Regime in West Bengal

141

productivity of boro being much higher than that of aman, it contributed to a higher percentage (33.35) to the volume of output, compared to its relative share in the gross-cropped area under rice production in this state. Among other crops, West Bengal produced oilseeds (cropped area being 594.92 thousand hectare) and jute (612.994 thousand hectare), both of which registered impressive progress in production during the Left Front’s rule, so did the production of vegetables and fruits in the state.15 Table 7.2: Average Point-to-Point Growth Rates of Major Crops in West Bengal Avge growth rates for periods

Food grains

Rice

Wheat

Total Cereals

Total Pulses

Total Oilseeds

Rapeseed and Mustard

Potatoes Sugar cane

Jute

1959-69

4.9

4.5

46.5

5.1

1.6

6.6

8.2

2.5

9.4

18.1

1970-79

0.8

0.4

8.8

0.9

--0.9

6.5

5.0

14.5

--3.9

3.6

1980-89

6.9

8.4

0.1

7.3

--2.3

18.8

22.7

9.3

2.2

6.3

1990-99

2.4

2.5

4.4

2.5

--3.0

0.03

--0.8

6.4

14.2

5.0

1959-99

3.7

3.9

14.9

4.0

--1.1

8.0

8.8

8.2

5.5

8.2

1986-87 1994-95

4.42

5.03

0.42

4.67

--6.33

9.77

9.62

8.44

4.98

0.46

2.4

3.0

2.34

2.01

0.08

0.02

8.49

27.74

5.83

1995-96 2.30 1999-2000

Source: Ratan Khasnabis. ‘The Economy of West Bengal’, Economic and Political Weekly, 43:52, December 27 2008, 105.(Prepared from the Data of Bureau of Applied Economics and Statistics, Government of West Bengal)

Some scholars,16 however doubted the, 6 per cent plus annual growth figures and also questioned the methodology of collection of data by the Government of West Bengal. Commenting on the matter, Bandyopadhyay observed that till early 1980s, the Bureau of Applied Economics and Statistics (BOAS) used to conduct independent sample surveys for average estimation and crop cuts for yield estimation and the figures given by the Department of Agriculture (DoA) were used to be checked against the data furnished by the BOAS. Since early 1980s however, the DoA’s figures alone were taken as official figures which smacked of institutional bias in favour of a higher production figure to give credit to itself. These scholars again pointed out that even if the DoA’s figures were reliable, there was a problem regarding the choice of the base year: in 1981-82 and 1982-83, harvests in West Bengal were low; and choosing the base year as 1983-84 with the same production figures the annual rate of growth would be 4.3 per

142

West Bengal under the Left (1977-2011)

cent per annum. Responding to this argument, however, Bandyopadhyay maintained that even this conservative figure indicated that West Bengal’s performance, though not as spectacular, was highly impressive far surpassing prior growth rates in the state and comparing quite favourably with agricultural growth rates elsewhere in India.17 The explanation for this structural break in agricultural production falls in two parts: introduction of Green Revolution technology and advent of the institutional reforms in land relations under the auspices of LFG. The technocrats attributed this success primarily to application of HYV seeds for the main aman paddy crop, extensive cultivation of boro, use of groundwater on a large scale and increased use of chemical fertilizers.18 Especial emphasis was laid on widespread popularity of the boro crop utilizing high-yielding variety seeds while the huge amount of water required for its cultivation was met primarily by privatelyowned shallow tube-wells.19 Further, a substantial expansion in multiple cropping had a major impact on the increase in non-traditional farm products and allowed a switch to cash crops such as vegetables and oilseeds. The extension of cultivation in the dry season – the key to multiple cropping – was made possible by the increased supply of two essential inputs, irrigation and fertilizers. Money for wage employment was extensively used for construction of small and temporary bunds or weirs for impounding water for irrigation, and rain water harvesting structures.20 Though extension of Green Revolution technology in early 1980s contributed substantially to the spurt in West Bengal’s agricultural output, it was around the same time that the same technology was applied in neighbouring East Indian states such as Bihar and Orissa which also experienced moderate increase in the rate of growth. Yet the record of these states was hardly comparable to West Bengal’s achievements portrayed above and the difference in their experiences has to be accounted for in terms of LFG’s successful land reform initiatives.21 The most obvious argument in favour of land reform was equity, i.e., in a land-scarce country with a significant section of the rural population below the poverty line, the case for ensuring that everyone has access to some minimum amount of land seemed compelling from this point of view. Moreover, redistributive land reform, it was argued, by allowing land poor and landless households to access land resulted in small family-holding agriculture which was generally more productive than large-scale farming through hired labour.

Agriculture under the Left Front Regime in West Bengal

143

To turn to the specifics of the West Bengal scenario, the middle peasant classes that came to power in the panchayats after the exit of the rentier landed gentry were productive agents and thus sincerely interested in pushing up the rates of production. This coincided with a second propitious development: from 1980 onwards the Sixth Five-Year Plan initiated a massive transfer of Plan funds for rural development and poverty alleviation schemes. The middle peasantry, now in power in the panchayats, started using public funds (particularly wage employment funds) for creating public works/infrastructural resources in support of agricultural production.21 In this context, Bandyopadhyay22 pointed out that while the bulk of the old aristocracy had migrated to towns after the confiscation of benami lands, the few among ex-zamindars and big tenure holders who stayed back in the rural areas played a crucial role in initiating capitalist farming in the state. A section of them, distrustful of their own bargadars – who had ‘switched sides’ – took to self-cultivation through wage labour which was facilitated by four factors: they had money; they had some education; they could absorb the new technology; and they could take risk. From mid-1970s, they started experimenting with capitalist farming with HYV wheat, and, Bandyopadhyay stressed that the wheat boom of Birbhum and early boro cultivation were largely their handiwork. Thus a lesser known impact of redistributive land reforms was to turn a segment of the rentier class into entrepreneurial productive agents in agriculture, and having watched with interest their success, the middle peasantry adopted the new agricultural practices on a large scale from late 1970s and early 1980s.

Critique LFG’s land reform initiatives have all along been mired in criticisms and controversies of both ideological and pragmatic varieties – we have already mentioned the disagreements regarding agricultural growth figures. One group of critics brought the charge of “reformism” or dilution of CPI-M’s ideological radicalism, shift in the focus of its agrarian programme away from “class confrontation” to issues of “development with redistribution” and substitution of “broad-based political unity aimed at reform” for “revolutionary confrontation with the propertied classes.”23 Ashok Rudra was much more forthright when he asserted that if a political party aimed at majority support among the agricultural population, it could not but ultimately betray the most exploited and most oppressed sections of the rural masses for the interests of the weaker sections would automatically be sacrificed in trying to maintain an alliance with the rich peasants.

144

West Bengal under the Left (1977-2011)

Mallick also alluded to the reluctance of the Communists to work for greater mobilization of agricultural labourers and marginal cultivators with enforcement of land expropriations by the state government for this was fraught with the risk of increasing polarization within the rural society which would result in a backlash from LFG’s support base among the middle peasants ultimately driving them out of power. Similarly, Ratan Khasnabis spoke of rent-earning authority of the non-cultivators, condemned by the bourgeois democratic revolutions, receiving communist sanctions through OB which reduced an erstwhile revolutionary programme to an ordinary reformist one.24 In reply, supporters of LFG pointed out that these critics while questioning the motivations of the government seemed oblivious of the constitutional limitations under which it had to operate which made it unrealistic to suppose that the government of a single state would be able to change the mode of production and bring about a fundamental change in the agrarian relations. These constraints, they maintained, were of three kinds: administrative (i.e., the top echelons of the bureaucracy and the police were recruited by the Union government); constitutional (i.e., any legislation undermining the right to property was bound to be challenged in the courts of law); and political (i.e., the discretionary powers of the Union government could be selectively used to frustrate the radical legislative measures undertaken by state governments).25 Others complained that these critics failed to correctly grasp the programmatic understanding of the agrarian question by the CPI-M which (according to section 87 of the party programme, readopted in 1964 on the basis of the 1951 Calcutta Congress of the undivided CPI), was as follows: While adhering to the aim of building a socialist society, the Communist Party of India, taking into consideration the degree of economic development, the degree of the political-ideological maturity of the working class and its organisation, places before the people as its immediate objective the establishment of people's democracy based on the coalition of all genuine anti-feudal and anti-imperialist forces headed by the working class. . . This alone can quickly and thoroughly complete the unfinished basic democratic tasks of the Indian revolution and pave the way to putting the country on the road to socialism.27 The reference to the decades-old party programme at least clarified that recently, i.e., after the party assumed power and started functioning in the

Agriculture under the Left Front Regime in West Bengal

145

state apparatus (or, as some have argued, started ‘compromising’ with the imperatives of electoral politics), there was no shift from a revolutionary to a social-democratic and reformist policy orientation.26 Again, quoting statistics from early 21st century, some scholars maintained that while the quantum of land redistributed or recorded under OB programme or number who registered themselves as bargadars till the turn of the century remained impressive, these figures should not be taken at face value – indeed they most likely reflected an upward bias because much of the redistribution of land occurred before LFG came to power in 1977.27 However, these critics overlooked the fact that in the period between the fall of UFG and formation of LFG, the land distributed earlier was realienated on a wide scale. Thus, immediately after assuming power, LFG launched a vigorous peasant mobilization drive involving the kisan sabhas (and other front organizations as well) for reoccupation of the alienated land. Of course, this movement was later reined in following its projection by the opposition as a ‘land grab’ movement and cases where it had not unnaturally led to violent conflicts raising the spectre of the imposition of President’s Rule in the state. Yet the political will displayed by LFG in effectively implementing the provisions of the 1973 Act and mobilizing the potential beneficiaries first through peasant organizations and then through the panchayat bodies was largely responsible for the success of the land reform measures in West Bengal.28 A third criticism highlighted the tardy progress made in terms of recording of sharecroppers and even after five years of the launch of OB, these observers complained that nearly half the sharecroppers went unrecorded. One response to this complaint was that there were reasons to believe that the proportion of sharecroppers in the state had declined in the post-independence period. This was partly the result of largescale evictions in the first couple of decades reflected in the rapid increase in the number of agricultural labourers over the years; or followed from the landowners dragging their feet to initiate sharecropping agreements afresh for fear of the legislations awarding a high share of the crop to the sharecropper and shielding him against eviction; or was attributable to the tendency towards a decline in the size of the holdings and hence, a declining need to get it cultivated by sharecroppers. On the other hand, a section of sharecroppers were reluctant to get them registered on several grounds such as a lingering sense of loyalty to the landowner with whom the sharecropper's family may possibly have been associated for many years; or the fear of inviting

146

West Bengal under the Left (1977-2011)

the wrath of the powerful people in the village especially in those districts where the poor were not well-organized. Nevertheless the basic argument that registration of sharecroppers remained less than total was not rejected though it was pointed out that the exact proportions of those yet to be covered was difficult to calculate.29 Some critics focused on the effectiveness of land reforms in meeting the immediate objective of providing security of tenure to the sharecroppers, one major goal of OB though an area which admittedly remained under-researched. A study by the State Institute of Panchayats and Rural Development in West Bengal30 based on a survey conducted in 2000 sought to evaluate the issue of security of tenure in two ways: in terms of retention of the possession by sharecroppers of barga land they had registered, and in terms of their subjective perceptions. It stated that at the state level, 85.6 percent of the bargadars were reported to have held on to their barga land while the remaining 14.4 percent lost possession of the land for a variety of reasons. This, however, was followed by two interesting findings: the majority of bargadars who lost their land after registering it, apparently were not evicted from it; and secondly, for 66 percent of the dispossessed bargadars the study did not report a specific reason for dispossession but clubbed together all other reasons under the ambiguous category of “Others” (such as surrender of barga rights, natural causes like diluvium and forcible dispossession by anyone other than the landlord etc). Examination of the subjective perception of the sharecroppers revealed that about 74 percent of the bargadars reported a sense of security about their tenancy rights while the other 26 percent did not. It seems intriguing that, although 85.6 percent of the bargadars had retained their registered land at the time of the survey, only 74 percent actually felt secure about their tenancy rights and this significant difference between the actual reality in terms of dispossession and the perceived sense of insecurity encouraged these critics to take it as a possible indicator the real threat some bargadars faced of losing their tenanted land. However, another survey.31 conducted by a US research team around the same time referred to ‘deals’ between the bargadars and landlords which resulted in the bargadar receiving either ownership of a portion of the barga land (ranging from 25% to 60% of the land) or a cash equivalent, in return for giving up protected bargadar rights on the remaining land 51. This report further asserted that such deals were mentioned by earlier surveys as well, but their findings varied on two counts: first, earlier reports typically described such deals as coercive, whereas

Agriculture under the Left Front Regime in West Bengal

147

their respondents reported the deals to be non-coercive. Second, earlier village studies found such deals to be rare, whereas they found them to be quite common, possibly suggesting a recent increase in such transactions. However, as already indicated, this remains an under-researched area and any conclusion needs to be treated with the warranted degree of caution. A final issue that received critical attention was whether and how far the land reform measures actually succeeded in enhancing the sharecroppers’ share of the output. It was found that while only 14.1 percent of the tenants received more than half the produce in 1976, by the year 2000 the corresponding figure was an overwhelming 80.8 percent. Moreover, in 1976 only 6.4 percent contracts ensured the legally stipulated 75 percent of the produce for the tenant whereas by 2000 about 49.2 percent of the tenants received 75 percent of the output. This, however, the critics warned, should not be taken as a unilateral measure of the improvement of the sharecroppers’ conditions in view of a peculiar feature of West Bengal’s agricultural practices. Though historically, cost sharing was a rare phenomenon in West Bengal where tenants provided all the inputs in traditional agriculture, since 1970s – with the advent of Green Revolution technology – cost sharing arrangements emerged between the sharecropper and the landlord with regard to the new inputs such as HYV seeds, chemical fertilizers and pesticides. This implied that bargadars could be worse off if cost sharing was absent, even if they received the mandated 75 percent of the produce: financing expensive inputs without the landlord’s help might be impossible for poor bargadars and consequently the productivity of the tenant’s land and his net income could fall, even if he received a higher percentage of the total output. In other words, a bargadar could be worse off with a higher crop share in the absence of cost sharing arrangements simply because the gain from the higher share was outweighed by the loss arising from the higher input costs that he now had to bear alone. Thus interpreted, the above data did not indicate betterment in the economic condition of the tenants but on the contrary, since it merely reflected the steady decline in cost sharing over the same period.32 Thus, of the volley of criticisms faced by LFG’s land reform initiatives, the one pointing to the land appropriation and redistribution measures undertaken by UFG to detract from the credit of LFG seemed rather unfair as it failed to take into consideration the reverses suffered by the programme under Congress rule (1972-77) and LFG’s determined action towards bringing it back on the rails. Nevertheless, more plausible limitations of the

148

West Bengal under the Left (1977-2011)

OB, LFG’s flagship scheme pertaining to agricultural reform, were exposed in the areas of coverage of sharecroppers, guaranteeing foolproof security of their land tenure, and the faceoff between a higher share of crops received by the sharecropper and higher input costs incurred by him under the Green Revolution regime. Finally, though the votaries of the government sought to defend the focus of LFG’s reform initiatives on the sharecropper – and not the agricultural labourers – with reference to the CPI-M party programme and the environmental constraints within which the government had to function, the charge of compromising its revolutionary ardour of the early 1960s could not perhaps be dismissed as altogether baseless. Slowdown in the 1990s The 1990s, however, witnessed a significant retardation of agricultural growth in West Bengal. The growth rate of foodgrains in West Bengal, calculated on point-to-point basis declined from 6.9% per year in 1980s to 2.4% per year in 1990s. Rice, the most important crop of the state that came under Green Revolution technology in1980s was now growing only at the rate of 2.5% per year. This rate was higher than the average growth rate of rice in 1970s but lower than the growth rate that it had recorded during 1960s, i.e., during the period when the rice crop of the state was yet to switch over to Green Revolution know-how.33 According to another estimate, the average yield of rice in West Bengal in 1999-2000, of 2,259 kg per hectare, was higher than the national average of 1,928 kg per hectare, but lower than the better performing states of Tamil Nadu (3,278 kg/hec) and Punjab (3,346 kg/hec).34 Of the several factors responsible for this decline in production, the first and foremost was that frontiers were reached in bringing new land under cultivation of boro rice, which was an extremely water intensive crop, and expansion of boro cultivation had to stop being constrained by (non)-availability of water.35 This in turn was related to the steep hike in the element of paid-out cost of the farm, particularly the irrigation cost and the fertilizer cost which increased heavily during this period under the economic liberalization regime embraced by New Delhi since 1991. Irrigation and fertilizer (also insecticides, the cost of which increased by 78.01% between 1991-92 and 1996-97) being the basic ingredients of the new technology adopted by the farmers, they had hardly any choice in cutting down on these items of paid-out cost as the prices of these inputs were determined by market forces over which they hardly had any control.

Agriculture under the Left Front Regime in West Bengal

149

Intervention by the state of course might have helped them tide over this crisis, but under the new dispensation of economic liberalization it was in no mood to step in on the side of the peasants. Given such a scenario, the peasants could hardly absorb the price shocks; consequently, the crisis mounted and the agrarian economy faced an inevitable deceleration.36 Securing a higher price for the output the peasants produced also depended on the market forces, both national and of late international, thanks to the opening up of the economy to the global market. While provision for state intervention in the form of offering support prices was still there, the role of such a support programme was gradually declining in the economy. On the other hand, faulty marketing strategies remained a major impediment for West Bengal to export its rice to other states and abroad which, coupled with a lack of demand within the state, led to a crash of foodgrains prices. The lack of adequate marketing channels and consequent dependence of the small and marginal farmers on the large traders adversely affected their conditions in several ways. First, because the farmers were compelled to sell their products through the traders, the actual tillers of the soil received a low and non-remunerative price. Second, often the farmer was dependent on the trader for production and consumption loans as well which compelled him to accept an even lower price. Third, in some cases the traders themselves, happy with their feudal practices, were not well informed about all possible markets nor dynamic enough to explore new possibilities, and the farmers suffered in consequence. Fourth, because the farmers were ill-informed about marketing possibilities and did not have access to spatially far away markets, they could not – in the absence of adequate guidance from the traders – take the risk of shifting to new and more remunerative crops.37 Again, around 20 per cent of arable land then under barga cultivation had reached a plateau in production and productivity, being cultivated sub-optimally because of the inability of registered sharecroppers to access other necessary non-land inputs. One of the major reasons for this was their lack of title to land for which there was no provision in the West Bengal Land Reforms Act. If they were given title to the land they cultivated and made raiyats directly under the state, their creditworthiness would have immediately improved and they might have been able to access other non-land inputs important to raise production from the stage of suboptimality to optimality. Furthar, without consolidation of landholding, a major breakthrough in production could hardly be achieved while it was

150

West Bengal under the Left (1977-2011)

acute fragmentation of holding that became a major constraint to intensive use of electro-mechanical appliances, and even biochemical technology in West Bengal. The aversion of the Left parties in the state to the idea of consolidation of landholding, Bandyopadhyay felt, stemmed from the apprehension that by this process, small and marginal farmers would lose out to medium and big farmers. Though the fear was not entirely baseless, it could have been obviated through proper implementation of the provision in the state’s land reform law for consolidation of landholdings of owners of up to one hectare thereby protecting by and large the interests of small and marginal farmers.38 Finally, insufficiency of institutional credit in rural areas compared to the requirement was another serious roadblock to growth of agriculture in the state. This, according to Bandyopadhyay, had to be attributed to LFG’s failure in organizing a cooperative credit supply system during its long rule and this void was filled up by two categories of dubious lenders. First, there were suppliers and vendors of agricultural appliances, machinery and agricultural inputs like seeds, fertilizers and pesticides who also extended credit to farmers to push their sales. However, this produced a variety of collateral damage for the peasants: they supplied commodities at marked-up prices and often bought produce at a price which might not be remunerative to farmers; they also acted as extension agencies in the context of the virtual collapse of the state’s own extension system; lastly, to sell their products they at times also gave improper advice detrimental to the farmers’ interest. The second category of lenders was salaried persons who lent out of accumulated money (or even borrowed from banks to re-lend to cultivators) at exorbitant interest rates sometimes as high as Rs 7 per month or 84 per cent per annum. The proximity of this new breed of unlicensed shahukars to ruling parties through employees’ unions or associations gave them the protection they required while enjoying a license for exploiting the hapless peasants.39 It follows that the steadily rising agricultural productivity graph and the unprecedented increase in foodgrains production experienced by West Bengal in 1980s reached a plateau in 1990s. Part of the problems resulted from the espousal of neoliberal economic policies by the Union government which had a twofold adverse impact on farmers’ interests – steep hike in the prices of inputs now left to be determined by the vagaries of market forces and gradual withdrawal of state support in the form of subsidies etc. However, the shortcomings of the state government especially in the

Agriculture under the Left Front Regime in West Bengal

151

areas of developing a viable marketing mechanism for agricultural produce, forging an effective system of institutional credit so as to protect farmers from falling prey to questionable moneylenders or undertaking appropriate initiatives for consolidation of landholdings were no less responsible for the downturn suffered by the state’s agricultural sector since1990s. New agricultural policy In the context of the alarming decline in agricultural output, LFG announced a new agricultural policy in 2002 to give a boost to the sagging morale of the state’s peasantry. Its primary goal was commercialization of agriculture, or to bring about a shift from agriculture to agribusiness to ensure full utilization of land, its products and manpower which it was claimed would generate further employment and higher income for farmers and create a new momentum for the rural economy. This new policy perspective was reportedly based on the recommendations of McKinsey, a US consultancy firm invited by the government in early 1990s to submit a report on the problems and prospects of West Bengal’s agriculture. Its report proposed three fundamental changes in the agricultural sector: first, to promote nongovernment initiatives in agriculture or more precisely, open it up to private players and multinational corporations which would lead to integration of the peasants’ land and labour and MNCs’ capital and technological knowledge and conjointly provide a big push to export trade in agricultural commodities. The second element was to encourage diversification in agricultural products, to curtail the areas of cultivation devoted to food crops such as paddy and wheat, and attach greater importance to production of commercial crops such as fruits, flowers and vegetables such as mango, litchis, pineapple, cashew nut, vanilla, coco, mushroom, spices, potato, tomato, aromatic rice, flowers and ornamental plants etc.40 Thirdly, it recommended contract-based cultivation and marketing of agricultural products between peasants and MNCs under which farmers would receive remunerative prices while MNCs would get a fair amount of the returns for supply of capital and marketing the entire produce through its global outlets. It was further pointed out that fragmentation of holdings, largely resulting from LFG’s land reform and redistribution policy, constituted a major impediment to foreign investment in agriculture in West Bengal since entering into contracts with so many peasants was a huge problem. This encouraged the government to amend its land reform laws in the interest of consolidation of holdings and furtherance of the cause of contract farming.41

152

West Bengal under the Left (1977-2011)

The new policy, especially the notion of contract farming, found staunch support from a number of leading Indian economists based in the United States in a major article published in the Economic and Political Weekly who felt that it would effectively combat the problem of marketing, the bane of West Bengal’s agriculture as already noted: Consumers in the rich countries are increasingly reluctant to eat anything that is not guaranteed to be ‘safe’, meaning that their production has taken place in tightly monitored environment. Lobbyists and spokespersons from import competing industries in these countries are always happy to push for even tighter regulations of imports of edibles, for obvious cynical reasons. This makes multinationals a vital intermediary in these industries. They are the ones that can deal with the regulatory machinery and have the requisite credibility with the consumers for being quality and safety conscious. It is foolhardy to think that a local firm . . . will be able to compete with these firms to get access to these markets. Just imagine what would happen to exports from West Bengal if someone spreads the rumour that the local firm is growing fruits on arsenic-infested land. This, we think, is the main reason to take the recent proposals for contract farming seriously. Under contract farming farmers will contract with multinationals to produce, say, pineapples on some fixed amount of land in the current year, and the multinational will promise to buy everything he grows at a fixed price.42 Yet the proposed policy framework not only became a target of attack from the critics of LFG but some of the Front partners too expressed their serious reservations about it. At one level it was argued that corporatization of agriculture would call for rehabilitation of a substantial number of farmers who would lose their jobs once agricultural production was rationalized, and put the onus on the government to create new job opportunities outside the agricultural sector to absorb this ‘reserve army’ of agricultural proletariat.43 What caused greater consternation, however, was the prospect that implementation of the new policy would entail corporate domination of West Bengal’s agricultural scenario with peasants virtually turning into their subjects. To begin with, the MNCs would have the last word regarding what to produce as well as the type of seeds and fertilizer and quantum of water to be used for this purpose; similarly, they would give loan against fixed rate of interest as primary capital and buy the produce partly in fixed rate and partly in market rate. Moreover, the farmers would be exposed to the

Agriculture under the Left Front Regime in West Bengal

153

fluctuations of the world market and uncertainties of the new technology; if the contract involved putting the farmer’s land as collateral, there was a real risk of farmers becoming dispossessed of the same; in cases of “crop failure”, the peasants would have to bear the expenses – for the MNCs had the option to “revoke” the contract – and it would be near impossible for them to revert to earlier foodcrops so easily; and finally, the MNCs could always exploit the contractual loopholes to deceive farmers.44 It may be noted that the team of Indian economists referred to above who backed the new policy to the hilt asserted that allusion to contract farming should not bring back the spectre of the neelkuthis of the 19th century (i.e., the plight of the Indigo cultivators during the British East India Company regime). They also offered a set of suggestions for mitigating these problems and expressed the confidence that the “pro-people governments” of an independent country would certainly be able to undertake effective measures to protect its peasantry from the probable damaging consequences.45 However, Bandyopadhyay pointed out that their hope was likely to be belied because state governments in the climate of economic liberalization were locked in a stiff competition with one another in soliciting MNCs to invest in their respective states. In such a situation, it was almost impossible for these governments to place any severe restrictions on the functioning of MNCs and thereby drive them to shift their bases to another state which would allow them greater freedom of operation. Moreover compared with the formidable financial clout of MNCs, the near-bankrupt status of the state governments had considerably compromised their power of bargaining and maneouvering.46 Again, as to the proposal for introducing variations in agricultural production in the interest of stepping up exports, it was argued that in a predominantly subsistence agrarian system with an overwhelming majority of small and marginal farmers, releasing a significant proportion of cropped area under paddy cultivation for production of oilseeds, pulses, fruits, vegetables, flowers and other nonfood crops was bound to prove damaging to their interests. Subsistence paddy cultivation ensured full or partial household food security to farming families while moving to nonfood crops would expose such farmers to the idiosyncrasies of the market forces further adding to their vulnerability. In fact, in West Bengal, the land used for producing rice, wheat and other staple food items was already in decline – in this context, this new thrust in the direction of production of cash crops might seriously hamper the supply of major foodstuff and endanger the food security of the state itself.47

154

West Bengal under the Left (1977-2011)

Finally in order to augment production of foodcrops in a decreasing land area, the new policy encouraged abundant use of HYV seeds, chemical fertilizers and insecticides – which again would be supplied by the MNCs – oblivious to the deleterious effects of these chemicals on the health of the farmers, or of HYV seeds and GM food on biodiversity of the state. Indeed, it was argued that the huge boost in production which we have seen was attributable to the unprecedented expansion of boro cultivation and plentiful use of HYV seeds called for huge water supply. This need was satisfied through ample extraction of groundwater through thousands of deep and shallow tube wells and submersible pumps, leading to alarming depletion of the state’s water table and high incidence of arsenic-related diseases in various parts of rural Bengal. While the euphoria of Green Revolution had already run out of steam in Punjab and Haryana, these critics maintained, promotion of this policy of commercialization of agriculture propped up by high-tech inputs to ensure a fair price for agricultural produce in the international market and lift the state from its current stalemate was anachronistic in the least and perilous at its worst.48 Thus, LFG’s new agricultural policy document received staunch backing from a section of academics who hailed it as a pragmatic and sensible move to combat the perennial problems of capital, marketing and technology in the agricultural arena. Its critics on the other hand – which included some of the constituents of the Left Front as well – highlighted the potentially negative fallout ranging from unwarranted subordination of the interests of state’s agriculture to the whims of the MNCs, through threats to food security, to debilitating impact on the health of human beings as well as the environment. Confronted with this strong note of disapproval, the switch to this new policy remained desultory and incomplete leaving little scope for making any objective evaluation of its consequences for the state’s farming community and agricultural yield. Concluding observations This article reviewed the major developments in West Bengal’s agricultural economy under the Left Front’s rule (1977-2011): LFG’s land reform initiatives and shift to Green Revolution technology which led to impressive strides made in agricultural productivity; limitations of its policies resulting in a setback in 1990s; and the new agricultural policy proposals unleashed by the government in the new millennium. Three issues need to be stressed by way of conclusion: first, while the critics who derided the Left

Agriculture under the Left Front Regime in West Bengal

155

Front’s achievements in land reforms as less than revolutionary did have a point, it had to be acknowledged in the same breath that it was difficult to expect a strikingly different outcome from a government functioning within intricate constitutional limits presided over by a watchful and at times hostile Union government. However, secondly, the slowdown in production in 1990s had to be attributed as much to the changes entailed by neoliberal economic reforms launched by the federal government (e.g., soaring agricultural input prices and waning state support to the farmers) as to the lack of adequate attention on the part of LFG to crucial issues such as developing a viable marketing strategy for agricultural produce, setting up an efficient system of institutional credit so as to protect farmers from being victimized by dubious moneylenders, initiating appropriate measures for consolidation of landholdings, or furnishing land titles to sharecroppers. Lastly, the new agricultural policy constituted a rather muddled response emanating from the government’s vacillating stance towards espousal of the neoliberal mantra which opened up cracks within the Front as well. The administration with a pragmatic outlook was not loath to embracing neoliberal policy instruments in the interest of overcoming the agrarian impasse, but the ideological dissensions precipitated by such moves proved to be a huge deterrent. LFG was visibly caught on the wrong foot as the proposed policy measures (e.g., allowing entry of MNCs in the state’s agricultural sector which fed the apprehension of alienation of small and marginal farmers’ limited landed possessions) appeared to collide head-on with its long-held ideological convictions or its much-touted land reform policies. Endnotes 1. Biplab Dasgupta. ‘Sharecropping in West Bengal during the colonial period’, Economic and Political Weekly, 19: 13, March 31 1984, A 2; Biplab Dasgupta. ‘Sharecropping in West Bengal: from Independence to Operation Barga’, Economic and Political Weekly, 19: 26, June 30, 1984, A 85-86; D. Bandyopadhyay. ‘Land Reforms and Agriculture: The West Bengal Experience’, Economic and Political Weekly, 38: 9, March 1 2003, 879. 2. Ibid. 3. Ibid. 4. Ratan Ghosh. ‘Agrarian Programme of Left Front Government’, Economic and Political Weekly, 16:25-26, June 20 1981, A 53. 5. For an interesting comparative study of Hare Krishna Konar and Benoy Chaudhry’s approaches to the land reform issue, see D. Bandyopadhyay..

156

6. 7. 8.

9. 10. 11. 12.

13. 14. 15. 16. 17. 18. 19. 20. 21. 22. 23. 24.

West Bengal under the Left (1977-2011)

‘Land Reform in West Bengal Remembering Hare Krishna Konar and Benoy Chaudhury’, Economic and Political Weekly, 35:23, May 27 2000. Incidentally, Bandyopadhyay, as an IAS officer who later became the Land Revenue Commissioner of West Bengal remained deeply involved in the process of the implementation of the land reform programme in the state under both UFG and LFG. Bandyopadhyay, n 1, 881. Dasgupta, n 5, A 86. Bandyopadhyay notes that the basic ingredients of the OB methodology were suggested by Sambu Tudu, a tribal sharecropper activist in one of the conscientization camps. See n 2, 881. Dasgupta, Economic and Political Weekly, 19: 26, June 30, 1984 (n 1), A 8687. Abhirup Sarkar. ‘Development and Displacement: Land Acquisition in West Bengal’, Economic and Political Weekly, 42: 16, April 21 2007, 1436. Bandyopadhyay, n 1, 882. The shift in power, according to Rogaly, away from the absentee landlords towards rich and middle peasants in West Bengal since the late 1960s actually conformed to an all India trend.See Ben Rogaly. ‘Containing Conflicts and Reaping Votes Management of Rural Labour Relations in West Bengal’, Economic and Political Weekly, 33:42-43, October 17-24 1998, 2730. J.K. Boyce. Agrarian Impasse in Bengal, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987. Bandyopadhyay, n 2, 879. Ratan Khasnabis. ‘The Economy of West Bengal’, Economic and Political Weekly, 43:52, December 27 2008, 105. See Bandyopadhyay, n 1, 880. Ibid. Ibid. See Sarkar, n 10, 1436. G.K. Lieten. ‘Depeasantisation Discontinued: Land Reforms in West Bengal’, Economic and Political Weekly, 25: 40, October 20 1990, 2270. Bandyopadhyay, n 1, 880. Ibid, 882. Atul Kohli. State and Poverty in India, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1987, 98-100. Ashok Rudra. ‘One Step Forward, Two Steps Backward’, Economic and Political Weekly, 16: 25-26, June 20 1981, A 61; Ross Mallick. Development Policy of a Communist Government: West Bengal since 1977, Cambridge:

Agriculture under the Left Front Regime in West Bengal

25. 26. 27. 28. 29. 30. 31.

32.

33. 34. 35. 36. 37. 38. 39. 40.

157

Cambridge University Press 1993, 29-30; Ratan Khasnabis.. ‘Operation Barga Limits to Social Democratic Reformism’, Economic and Political Weekly, 16: 25-26, June 20 1981. Dasgupta, n 9, A 88 Quoted in Lieten, n 20 Ibid 2267. Ibid; Khasnabis, n 15, 114 (see endnote 8). Dasgupta, n 5, A 89-90. Anil Chakraborti. Beneficiaries of Land Reforms: The West Bengal Scenario, Kalyani: State Institute of Panchayats and Rural Development 2003. Tim Handstad and Jennifer Brown. Land Reform Law and Implementation in West Bengal: Lessons and Recommendations, Rural Development Institute, Seattle, December 2001, 44-45. Anirban Dasgupta. n.d.‘Land acquisition to consolidate land Reforms? The West Bengal Experience’,www.peri. umass.edu% 2Ffileadmin% 2Fpdf% 2 conference_papers% 2Fkhan% 2FDasgupta_Land.doc&ei=gpYvU5jiE8ONygGojIGwDQ&usg=AFQjCNHIxPaIMlkvGvrMf52FqzcLY83CTQ Khasnabis, n 15, 107. Bandyopadhyay, n 1, 883. Sarkar, n 10, 1437. Khasnabis, n 15, 108. Sarkar, n 10, 1437. Bandyopadhyay, n 2, 883. Ibid. In this report West Bengal was divided into four regions for effecting a grand transformation of the agrarian sector. It was advised that production of paddy should be increased in the districts of Bardhaman, Birbhum, Medinipur and Bankura from the aggregate total from 2.65 tonnes to 3.61 tonnes per hectare resulting in an expected increase of 33.50 per cent so that 55 per cent paddy produced by the state were grown in those four districts. Secondly, the districts like 24-Parganas (North), Hooghly, Nadia, Murshidabad and Malda were to be converted into a different agrarian region with 25 per cent of agricultural land earmarked for commercial crops instead of the existing paddy cultivation. In North Bengal, in the districts of Darjeeling, Jalpaiguri and Dinajpur at least 15 per cent paddy land should be converted to the cultivation of pineapple, spices, vegetables and oil seeds. McKinsey, however, advised continuation of cultivation as before in 24 Parganas(South), Purulia, Coochbehar and some other districts. See N.B. Kar, n.d. ‘Introduction of Globalization http://shodhganga.inflibnet. ac.in/bitstream/10603/2970/19/19_chapter%2015.pdf

158

West Bengal under the Left (1977-2011)

41. In consonance with the purpose and suggestions offered in the McKinsey report, the LFG amended its land reform policy: the West Bengal Land Reform (Amendment) Act in August 14 2005. The Section 14(Z) of this new act legalized entry of FDI in all sectors, like contract farming, tourism, plantation, etc. It also empowered government to capriciously change land use pattern. See T.K. Das. ‘West Bengal Agricultural Policy: Lepcha Farmers at Stake’, Lepcha Aachulay Magazine, July 9. http://aachulay.blogspot. com/2010/07/west-bengal-agricultural-policy-lepcha.html 2010. See also Kar ibid; Dasgupta n 50. 42. Abhijit Banerjee et al. ‘Strategy for Economic Reform in West Bengal’, Economic and Political Weekly, 37:42, October 19 2002, 4214. 43. Sarkar, n 10, 1437. 44. Kar, n 40, 165, 167. 45. Banerjee, 4214-4215. 46. Bandyopadhyay, n 1, 884. 47. Das n 41; Dasgupta n 32, 14-15. 48. Kar, n 40, 162-167; Dasgupta, n 32, 14-15.

8 Lost Decades ? Human Development in West Bengal with Special Focus on Health Satyabrata Chakraborty The Beginning and the Change The first Left Front (LF) government assumed office on 21 June 1977 with Jyoti Basu as the Chief Minister. The Chief Minister of the Seventh Left Front, Buddhadeb Bhattacharya resigned on 13 May 2011 following a massive mandate for Mamata Banerjee-led Trinamool Congress (TMC)Congress alliance with the TMC as a much bigger ally. To be precise, then, LF ruled for one month less long 34 years. Such an uninterrupted rule by a communist party-led government in a constituent state of a federal electoral democracy is a historic phenomenon by itself – not only in India, probably by world standard too. How has such unique regime stability been able to bring about development in the state is one of the principal issues this book proposes to address. This chapter has a very specific objective. It seeks to understand the state of human development with special focus on health during the time period of LF rule. Human Development in India The noted Pakistani economist Mahbubul Haq and his Indian collaborator Amartya Sen are regarded as the propounders of the idea of human development; it is on their initiatives that the first Human Development Report (HDR) was prepared under the aegis of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in 1990. The Report inaugurated with a simple premise: “People are the real wealth of a nation.” And this continues to be the guiding spirit of the idea of human development, though in course of time many additions and refinements have taken place with regard to the measure of human development.

160

West Bengal under the Left (1977-2011)

At the beginning of the 21st century, India, along with China, was considered to be the ‘engine of global growth’. For about a decade India’s growth rate was quite appreciable, and in 2010, it reached 10.1%. Since then the global financial crisis set in significantly affecting India’s economic growth. In 2012, it nosedived to 4.9%. It is now felt that in next 2-3 years India’s rate of growth would remain, at best, around 6%.1 We mention this only to reiterate that growth is needed for improvement in human development indices, though growth is not necessarily or intrinsically human development-enhancing. Human Development in West Bengal Demography and Economy In 1951, in the first census after India became independent and partitioned, the total population of West Bengal was 26 million. In 1981, i.e. in the first census after Left Front came to power, it rose to 56 million. When the LF went out of office in 2011, the number stood to 91 million. With an area of slightly less than 89 thousand sq km the density of population in the state is 1028, which is second highest in India after Bihar.2 Despite declining rural population the state still had 68.11% of the people living in rural areas. Though West Bengal’s rate of literacy (77.08%) is somewhat higher than the average of India, there are significant internal differences.3 The socially disadvantaged categories of people, namely, the SCs, STs, OBCs, ‘others’ and Muslims – constitute majority of population. It may be remembered that most of these people live in rural areas, contributing to significant rural-urban differences in human development achievements, as we would refer to frequently in the following discussion. With these demographic highlights let us have a very brief look at some elementary economic facts the relations of which to human development indices cannot be ignored. In India’s total GDP for 2012 of 5.4 lakh Rupees West Bengal’s share was 6.48%.The respective shares of industry, agriculture and services to it stood at 18%, 24% and 58% respectively. Per capita GDP in the state was Rs. 55,222, against India’s average of Rs. 61,564. Among the major states, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Gujarat, Karnataka, Kerala, Haryana and Punjab have higher per capita GDP, and only Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Bihar are below West Bengal.4 According to Tendulkar Methodology, in 2009-10, 26.7% or nearly 24 million of the total population of the state

Lost Decades? Human Development in West Bengal

161

were below poverty line. While it is slightly less than the Indian average of 29.8%, among the major states only Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Bihar, Orissa, Assam, Chhattisgarh and Jharkahnd have higher poverty levels. Kerala has only 12% of her total population in the BPL category. But one should also note that going by the same methodology the incidence of poverty in West Bengal declined to 26.7% in 2009-10 from 34.2% in 200405.5 According to NSS data, in 1983, monthly per capita consumption expenditure in the state was Rs. 122.03. In 2004-5, it rose to Rs. 712.19, which is above the Indian figure of Rs. 700.33. Planning Commission data show that between 1983 and 2004-5 incidence of poverty declined from 54.9% to 24.7%, which is again lower than that of India in general.6 Thus LF’s success in the reduction of poverty cannot be ignored. However, we should simultaneously admit that there remain significant disparities in poverty reduction between urban and rural areas as well as between different social groups, the rates of poverty being higher among SCs, STs and Muslims. We present this brief sketch of demographic and economic scenario because they are widely believed to be somewhat associated with the performance in the human development sector. However, the nature of association of all the factors with all the dimensions of HDI for all the states is not identical.

West Bengal Human Development Report (WBHDR) The first and, and as yet the only human development report for West Bengal, was published in 2004 by the Development and Planning Department, Government of West Bengal. The report is authored by Jayati Ghosh, the noted economist. Quite comprehensive in its coverage, the WBHDR is not just confined to known human development dimensions like health, education, nutrition etc. Its most remarkable features are detailed discussion on land reform measures, state of agriculture and industry, unemployment and poverty, infrastructure, and the experience of decentralization of development functions through elected participatory institutions at different levels of the rural society, which are likely to have important bearings on the state of human development. The WBHDR, in this sense, looks at human development from a holistic perspective. However, the specific issue that the report seeks to address is how far the two major initiatives of the Left Front Government, viz. land reform and decentralization have impacted human development and other social conditions of life in the state.

162

West Bengal under the Left (1977-2011)

The WBHDR has been received with international acclaim. In fact, it won the prestigious award for ‘Excellence in Quality of Analysis’ out of 67 reports of 40 countries/regions. Moreover, it was the first state HDR to have received this award.7 Before going into the details of WBHDR let us give a look at West Bengal’s position as found in the National Human Development Report 2001. In the National HDR 2001, the HDI was estimated for only 15 states out of which West Bengal’s rank was 8 with total HD value of 0.472, which was exactly the same for India. Above West Bengal were, rankwise, Kerala (0.638), Punjab (0.537), Tamil Nadu (0.531), Maharashtra (0.523), Haryana (0.509), Gujarat (0.479), Karnataka (0.479). Among the select states, those below West Bengal were Rajasthan, Andhra Pradesh, Orissa, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. It may be noted that the 2001 estimates were made for those states for which ‘some data, including the Census 2001 was available. The figures point out two important features: the states which were above West Bengal in 2001 had all higher HD value in 1981. Second, between 1981 and 2001, increase in West Bengal’s value was higher than all the above states except for two – Tamil Nadu and Rajasthan. Despite the relatively higher growth in human development value, West Bengal’s rank remained the same during the two decades.8 According to India Human Development Report 2011, West Bengal’s rank among 23 Indian states was 13 in 2007-2008. In 1999-2000 also, West Bengal occupied the same position, though between the two calculation years its HDI had increased from 0.422 to 0.492. The following table presents data by West Bengal’s districts (Medinipur had not yet been bifurcated). As we find here, West Bengal suffers from quite prominent uneven human development, and much of West Bengal’s development is Kolkata-centric. Kolkata ranks 1st in WBHDI with a value of 0.78. The second in rank, Haora, often called the twin city of Kolkata, just on the opposite bank of the river Hoogly, scores a value of 0.68. Another notable feature is the relative underdevelopment of the districts of northern part of West Bengal. But for Darjeeling, and partly Jalpaiguri, most of these districts have quite poor ranking, with Maldah and its neighbouring district, Murshidabad, having quite poor HDI value as well as ranking.

Lost Decades? Human Development in West Bengal

163

Table: 8.1 Human Development Index: West Bengal Districts Sl. Districts No.

Literacy rate* (%) (2001)

School enrolment rate

Percapita DDP (Rs.) at Current Prices.

Health Edu- InHDI HDI index cation come value rank index index

1 2 3 4

72.87 63.62 67.21 48.63

70.1 51.9 58.8 49.6

18529.18 16749.07 13855.35 11182.86

0.73 0.61 0.50 0.62

0.72 0.60 0.65 0.53

0.49 0.38 0.41 0.39

0.65 0.53 0.52 0.51

4 10 11 13

5 6 7 8 9 10 11

12 13 14 15 16 17 18

Infant mortality rate/ life expectancy rate Darjiling 68.9 Jalpaiguri 62.0 KochBihar 54.9 Uttar 62.0 Dinajpur Dakshin Dinajpur Maldah 54.5 Murshi59.0 dabad Birbhum 57.0 Barddha- 69.4 man Nadia 64.0 North 68.4 Twenty Four Parganas Hugli 70.9 Bankura 64.9 Puruliya 61.5 Medinipur 66.0 Haora 71.4 Kolkata 74.5 South 67.4 Twenty Four Parganas

64.46

14579.19

50.71 55.05

41.5 49.8

14777.20 0.49 13392.39 0.57

0.48 0.52

0.36 0.29

0.44 0.46

17 15

62.16 71.00

57.5 60.8

12791.72 0.53 17537.98 0.74

0.61 0.71

0.27 0.47

0.47 0.64

14 5

66.55 78.49

64.1 69.6

16211.46 0.65 14768.32 0.72

0.66 0.76

0.42 0.49

0.58 0.66

9 3

75.59 63.84 56.14 75.17 77.64 81.31 70.16

66.4 60.6 54.1 70.7 68.5 72.3 63.0

16279.65 15741.64 13044.67 15526.01 15591.44 33299.50 13630.22

0.67 0.62 0.55 0.74 0.75 0.8 0.68

0.46 0.26 0.18 0.45 0.53 0.73 0.40

0.63 0.52 0.45 0.62 0.68 0.78 0.6

6 11 16 7 2 1 8

0.77 0.67 0.61 0.68 0.77 0.82 0.71

*LiteratePopulationexcludeschildrenofagegroup0-6years (Source: Census of India,2001) Reproduced from WBHDR (2004), p. 219

164

West Bengal under the Left (1977-2011)

Health in West Bengal This section is presented under several themes like health related demographics, nutrition, reproductive and child health and disease burden. health-related demographics In 1971, the decadal growth rate of population in West Bengal was 26.9%. While it was a considerable decline from (the first post-partition decade) 1961 (32.8%), the growth rate came under the 1971 level only in 2001. In 2011, decadal growth rate in population in West Bengal was 13.90%, against Indian average of 17.64%. Among the major states, only Kerala and Andhra Pradesh had noticeably lesser rate of growth. It should be noted that unlike these states, West Bengal has porous borders with Bangladesh, Nepal and Bhutan. The natural rate of growth in West Bengal is therefore not exactly reflected in the figures, and it is likely to be lower than those cited above.9 However, this decline is not uniform across urban-rural divide, districts and religious communities. The rates of growth in South 24-Parganas, Malda, Murshidabad, Uttar Dinajpur districts, and among the SC, ST and Muslim population have been higher than the state average.10 Sex ratio, the number of female per one thousand male, is a demographic feature indicating many aspects like state policy, social attitude, nutrition, education etc. In many third world countries, declining male-female ratio is a matter of serious concern. In West Bengal, the number of women per 1000 men has always been higher than the all-India figure. For instance, in 1981, in West Bengal the sex ratio in child population in age group 0-6 was 982 against the all-India figure of 962. In 2011 census, these two figures stood respectively to 950 and 914. Between 1981 and 2011, the number of women per 1000 men in India and West Bengal reduced respectively by 48 and 32. True, the West Bengal scenario is still better than all the north and north-western states. But, it is far worse than Tamil Nadu and Kerala.11 However, if we look at the total population in the state, we find between 1971 and 2011, the percentage of male population to total population has declined from 52.89 to 51.37. On the other hand, during the same time the rise in female population to total population has been from 47.11% to 48.63%.12 Apart from Kolkata for obvious reasons, male-female difference in number is not very prominent in most districts, though it is relatively high in Burdwan, Malda, Murshidabad and the two 24-Parganas.13 It is growingly asserted that education, especially female education, and health are positively related. As far as literacy is concerned, West Bengal has

Lost Decades? Human Development in West Bengal

165

always been ahead of all-India average. In 1981, four years after the LF came to power, literacy rate in West Bengal was 48.65% against India’s 43.57%. In 2011, when the LF went out of power, the rate of literacy in the state rose to 77.08%, an increase of nearly 30 percentage points. However, during the same time, India also witnessed roughly the same rate of progress. More significantly, according to the latest (2011) census, West Bengal ranks 20th out of 35 states and union territories in literacy rate, while Kerala’s ranks 1st. Among the major states, apart from Kerala, Maharashtra (12th), Tamil Nadu (14th) and Gujarat (17th) are above West Bengal. Tripura, a small state with considerable tribal population and ruled also by the CPIM for long ranks 4th with 87.75% literacy.14 Related to population growth are birth and death rates. We have data since 1983. In 1983, birth rates in India and West Bengal were respectively 33.7 and 32. In 2010, birth rate for India declined to 22.1, and that for West Bengal stood at 16.8. Another notable feature is that the decline in birth rate in the state has been consistent over nearly three decades, with only marginal breaks in 1986 and 1987.15 Similarly, death rate in West Bengal has always been lower, even if marginally, than the all-India average. In 1981, death rate in West Bengal was 11 against India’s 12.5.16 According to the National Health Profile 2011, in 2010, these figures declined respectively to 6 and 7.2. Death rate of women has been consistently lower than that of men. However, death rate in rural areas in India in general has been higher than in urban areas. In West Bengal, on the contrary, rural death rate for the same year was 6 against the urban rate of 6.3.17 One of the most important parameters of the health situation of a people is infant mortality rate (IMR) i.e number of death per 1000 live births. West Bengal’s performance in this respect during the last few years has been quite notable. In 1981, IMR in West Bengal was 95 against India’s 115. In 2001, the figures declined respectively to 53 and 71. In 2009, West Bengal’s IMR declined to 33 against India’s 50. In fact, except for north-eastern states, West Bengal now occupies fifth position in respect of low IMR among all the states in India. No less significant is that ‘there is a very low gender gap in IMR’ in the state. In more recent years, IMR in West Bengal has further come down to 29, far better performance than most states in India. The reduction in IMR definitely points to improvements in public health, health awareness as well as delivery system. However, rural-urban gap in IMR is a seriously disturbing feature in India. While Kerala is an eloquent exception, West Bengal with 8% IMR is somewhat in a better position than Gujarat (23%)

166

West Bengal under the Left (1977-2011)

and Maharashtra (17%).18 Another related parameter is Child Mortality Rate (CMR) or Under 5 Mortality Rate (U5MR) which shows the number of children dying before their fifth birthday (0-4 years) per 1000 live births. Only five states have achieved Millennium Development Goal (MDG) of 42 child deaths per thousand by 2015. West Bengal is one of them along with Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra and Delhi. However, with CMR at 40 West Bengal’s position is not really comfortable, especially when compared with Kerala’s 14.19 With regard to Maternal Mortality Ratio (MMR) also, West Bengal stands fifth in India. MMR is measured by the rate of maternal mortality in 100,000 live births among women aged 15 to 49 years. According to the SRC data, in 2008, MMR for India was 254 whereas for West Bengal it was 141. While this is an impressive performance, West Bengal still lagged way behind the MDG target of reducing MMR to 109 by 2015. It may be noted here that Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Maharashtra have already achieved that goal.20 Very significant for reducing IMR, CMR and MMR, are antenatal and postnatal cares and universal immunization. Interestingly, in these respects, West Bengal’s performance is quite poor. According to SRC, in 2010 only 51.1% pregnant mothers underwent full antenatal check-up, i.e. took three antenatal visits, received 1 TT injection and consumed 100 iron tablets.21 However, according to District Level Household Survey (DLHS) 3rd round data the figure was just 19.5%. In 2002-04, this was even less – only 14.8%. Related to this is the issue of safe delivery. West Bengal has declared 100% institutional delivery as its goal. However, in 2007-08, the rate of institutional delivery was 49.2 per cent! And in both these respects, there are considerable urban-rural variations, the rural scenario being alarmingly worse.22 The key to safe motherhood and growing healthy baby is balanced and adequate nutrition. West Bengal’s record in nutritional status of children is rather poor. According to NFHS-III, in 2005-06, 37.6% of the children under age three were underweight. Though it is lower than India’s record of 40.4, only 7 out of 29 states performed worse than West Bengal. However, the rate of reduction in the share of underweight children in West Bengal has been better. Thus, between NFHS-I (1992-93) and NFHS-III (2005-06) the percentage of underweight children in the state came to be reduced by 15.6 points, while for all-India, it was 7.5. It may also be noted here that in 1992-93. West Bengal’s share of underweight children was more than that

Lost Decades? Human Development in West Bengal

167

for all-India. By 2005-06, it could reduce this share to nearly 3 percentage point lower than that of India as a whole.23 West Bengal also cuts a sorry figure with regard to Body-Mass Index (BMI) of and anaemia in women, two other indicators of nutritional status measured by National Family Health Survey. BMI is calculated on the basis of height and weight measurement. As many as 39.1% of women surveyed in the state under NFHS-III in 2005-06 had below normal BMI, while the corresponding all-India figure is 35.6%. In Kerala the rate of such women is just 18%. More significant to note is that only five states have poorer figures compared to West Bengal. These five states are Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh and Orissa. These states are worst performers in most of the human development indicators, especially indicators related to health. A more alarming situation obtains with regard to anaemia in women. In 1998-99, 62.7% of ever-married women were anaemic against all-India figure of 51.8%. In 2005-06, these figures rose respectively to 63.2 and 55.3 per cent. Only 4 states – Bihar, Jharkhand, Tripura and Assam -- have more anaemic women than West Bengal.24 The situation is somewhat comfortable with regard to immunization. According DLHS 3 conducted during 2007-08, 75.8% of the surveyed children between 12-23 months were fully immunized. However, according to Coverage Evaluation Survey data pertaining to 2009, 64.9% of the children in West Bengal were fully immunized. Though it was above the Indian average of 61.0%, there were as many as 15 states that performed better than West Bengal in this regard.25 The task of ensuring safe motherhood and child development has been entrusted to the centrally sponsored Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) since October 1975. Among the long list of functions to be performed by the ICDS workers are serving food to the children for supplementary nutrition, visiting pregnant and lactating mothers and ensuring full antenatal care and universal immunization. The above figures about nutrition, anaemia and immunization indicate that the ICDS have fallen far behind the tasks entrusted.26

Disease Profile Shifting our attention from the fundamentals of public health to the disease burden of West Bengal the following picture emerges. West Bengal is characterized by a number of communicable diseases. For instance, up to November 2010, we find as many as 1,08,180 reported cases of Malaria. While Orissa is the worst victim, West Bengal had fifth largest number of

168

West Bengal under the Left (1977-2011)

people suffering from Malaria. Though absolute figure of reported cases of Dengue is not alarming, its prevalence is more in West Bengal than in 20 other states of India. West Bengal is worst affected by Acute Diarrhoeal Diseases. In 2009, for instance, reported cases of such diseases in the state was much higher than in most of the states except for Andhra Pradesh (relevant data for Bihar were not available). A more or less equally gloomy situation obtains with regard enteric fever (typhoid) and acute respiratory infection. In the same year, highest number of cases of Measles was reported from the state. Cases of pneumonia and TB are also quite frequent in West Bengal. Among the non-communicable diseases, West Bengal’s burden ranges from moderate to high with regard to blindness, mental disease, diabetes, hypertension and cancer. Around 6-10% of the population is also estimated to be carriers of thallasemia.27 Healthcare: Policy, expenditure and infrastructure With the burden of such communicable and non-communicable diseases and the wide and elaborate responsibility for improving the health related demography, where does the state really stand in regard to its healthcare arrangements? To have some idea about this let us, first, look at the broad contours of national health policy that evolved over the years and which the state has also by and large adopted. Indian state proclaims itself to be a democracy with its commitment to development and human rights. Health does not figure in the list of fundamental rights guaranteed to the Indian citizens though concerned social thinkers like Amartya Sen believe that there is ‘a strong case for thinking about education and health in terms of fundamental rights’.28 However, there is explicit reference to nutrition and public health in Article 47 of the constitution as obligation of the state. Health also finds indirect reference in Article 48A which directs the state to protect environment. Both the articles are part of the Directive Principles of State Policy which is important as guidelines of state action even though they are not justiciable. However, J.S. Verma, former Chief Justice of India argues that these two articles “have been judicially interpreted to expand the meaning and scope of ‘right to life’ guaranteed as a fundamental right in Article 21 of the Indian Constitution. Thus, the Constitution in India elevates the ‘right to health of the highest attainable standards’ to a guaranteed fundamental right which is enforceable by virtue of the constitutional remedy under Article 32 of the Constitution.”29

Lost Decades? Human Development in West Bengal

169

Even before independence of India in 1947 two important developments regarding health system took place. In 1938, the National Planning Committee of the Indian National Congress set up a subcommittee under the chairmanship of S.S. Sokhey to study the health situation of the country. The committee found poverty as the source of health problems. It also proposed appointment of one Community Health Worker (CHW) for every 1000 people. The CHW was supposed to work as the base of rural health service.30 In 1943, the Government of India appointed a committee for more or less the same purpose with Joseph Bhore as the Chairman. Its report was adopted by the Government of India after independence as the basis of the health system in the country. The Bhore Committee’s focus was on preventive care, and it placed Primary Health Centre at the core of the health system. In course of time, however, a major shift away from this emphasis on prevention was noticed.31 Much later, in 1978, was held the Alma-Ata convention in Kazakhstan. India is a signatory to the declaration of the Convention jointly sponsored by WHO and UNICEF. The Declaration accepted WHO’s broader definition of health and adopted the goal of ‘health for all by 2000’. Some of the highlights of the Declaration may be noted in this connection. First, it declared that ‘the Government has a responsibility for the health of their people’. Second, it is the right as well as the duty of the people ‘to participate in planning and implementation of their healthcare’. Third, Primary Health Care (PHC) should be brought as close to where people live and work as possible. Fourth, PHC should be grounded in ‘the conditions and characteristics of the country and its communities’. Fifth, PHC should address the main health problems in the community ‘providing promotive, preventive, curative and rehabilitative services’. Sixth, the principal aspects of PHC are basic health education, ensuring adequate food, nutrition, safe drinking water and basic sanitation, providing for maternal and child health including family planning, prevention of locally endemic diseases, making treatment of common diseases with essential drugs available and relying on grassroots health workers acting as a team. Finally the Declaration called upon the states to take appropriate measures to ensure PHC for all people.32 Local self-government institutions were thought to be best placed to make the goal of ‘health for all’ realizable. In fact, decentralization is the buzzword in contemporary participatory democracy and development discourses. In rural India, Panchayati Raj Institutions (PRIs) are the constitutionally recognized bodies for people’s representation at the

170

West Bengal under the Left (1977-2011)

grassroots level. Along with acting as delivery agencies they are supposed to garner people’s initiatives for self-rule and self-development. Kerala, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh and West Bengal offer some of the interesting, though different, experiences of relative success of PRI intervention. Involving the PRIs in human development initiatives is a relatively recent phenomenon. Following the 73rd Amendment of the Constitution the West Bengal Panchayat Act 1973 empowered the state government in 1994 to transfer as many as seventeen functions, including some health-related functions, to PRIs. The declared objective of the change is `to ensure ‘people’s health on people’s initiative’. As for the Gram Panchayats (GP), the lowest tier of the rural self-government, the obligatory public health related duties are to provide (a) sanitation, conservancy and drainage and the prevention of public nuisances; (b) curative and promotive measures in respect of malaria, small pox, cholera or any other epidemic; (c) supply of drinking water and the cleansing and disinfecting of the sources of supply and storage of water. For the promotion of such functions the government has provided each GP with necessary funds for the construction of a Head Quarter sub-centre in its premises. The sub-centre will be manned by one female health assistant and one male health assistant. All the sub-centres within the GP-area will be supervised by one Health Supervisor posted in the Head Quarter sub-centre. The GP is to extend cooperation in running the sub-centres. It is also required to provide rooms and infrastructure to the ICDS centres. Ensuring improved sanitation and safe drinking water to every household are among its essential functions. The GP functionaries are supposed to supervise, coordinate and monitor the functions of the health and ICDS workers.

Health Expenditure How is the state of public expenditure and infrastructure to implement this ‘health for all’ policy? While, as Ivan Illich said long back, health has been growingly ‘medicalised’, medicare facilities fall far short of the minimum requirements. India’s health expenditure is among the lowest in the world. According to one account, developed countries of Europe and North America and even some Latin American countries spend from 15% to 20% of their annual budget for health care. India’s neighbour China spends 9.9% of its total budget as health expenses. Even for countries like Thailand and Iran the figures are respectively 11.3% and 11.5%. By sharp contrast, India’s health expenditure is 3.7% of its total annual spending.33

Lost Decades? Human Development in West Bengal

171

In 2010-11 budget of the government of India, a total amount Rs. 251.54 billion was allocated for health which, according to Ravi Duggal, was just 0.36% of the projected GDP. If the estimated expenditure supposed to be incurred by the state governments is taken into account, the overall health budget turned out to be barely 0.89% of GDP. This was far below the first UPA government’s promise of taking public health expenditure to 2-3% of GDP. With liberalization as the driving ideological force the government has explicitly announced its role as an enabler and facilitator. Effectively it has meant abdicating its role of directly providing even the basic minimum services like public health. Assessing the role of the two successive UPA governments Dugal writes: “The rural public health system continues to suffer from the same malaise as earlier – not enough doctors and nurses, inadequate medicine supplies, poor maintenance etc. What was worse was that the reasonably robust urban public health system has also begun to collapse with rapid private sector growth and expansion, including the support of private health insurance. Thus the inadequate public investment in health during the previous UPA regime actually led to the boom in private healthcare which has now jumped to 5.5% of GDP. Since private insurance covers barely 2% of the population, most of this expenditure is out-of-pocket indicating a huge burden on households who often have to sell assets or take loans for their hospitalization needs. Thus the UPA-1 government had failed to make any significant impact in the public health domain and the current budget tells us that it is unlikely to make any impact in its current avatar.”34 Let us now look at the healthcare infrastructure obtaining in and the expenditure incurred by the state for health. According to a study conducted by the Centre for Enquiry into Health and Allied Themes (Cehat) in 2005, the revenue expenditure of West Bengal on health in 1970-71 was Rs. 266.92 million. In 2000-01, it rose to 13766.15 million. In 1970-71, three states incurred more expenses than West Bengal. In 2000-01 only Maharashtra’s spending was more than that of West Bengal. It is important to note that while during the same period Government of India’s revenue expenditure for health was only 0.75% of its total revenue expenditure, the relevant figure for West Bengal was 6.23%, and it was more than all other states except Bihar. However, the data have another important dimension. If we take a time-series view we find that the share of revenue expenditure for health to total expenditure has declined for all the Indian states including West Bengal. Thus, in 1950-51, health’s

172

West Bengal under the Left (1977-2011)

share to total revenue expenditure of the state was 9.89%. Steadily declining in all the following decades it came down to 6.23% in 2000-01. However, during the same period the relevant share in the case of Union Government increased from 0.47% to 0.75%.35Another study was conducted by the New Delhi-based Economic Research Foundation, India for the MacArthur Foundation, India in 2006. It shows that in 2001-02, the source of 68.8% of total health spending was the households, and the Union and state governments’ share were respectively 7.2% and 14.4%. It also shows that in 2004-05, in West Bengal per capita health expenditure was Rs. 1188 of which 78.4% was borne by the households, while public funding was just 17.3%. The study also shows that annual rate of growth of health expenditure by the state government from 1993-94 to 2002-03 was 7.26%. Between 1998-99 and 2002-03, the rate of growth came down to 1.46%. In 2001-02, per capita spending by the West Bengal government for health and family welfare was Rs. 102.31. Among the major states Andhra Pradesh, Kerala, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra, Punjab and even Rajasthan spent more. Only three states had increased per capita government spending for public health between 1993-94 and 2001-02, and West Bengal was one of them along with Kerala and Maharashtra. However, for West Bengal the increase was not very substantial and its per capita spending on public health was only 18.8% of the amount spent by Maharashtra, the highest spending state. In fact, according to one account, around 2008-09, West Bengal spent only 0.8% of its GDP for public health.36

Health Infrastructure India has 0.47 doctors per 1000 population. The relevant world and developed country figures are respectively 1.5 and 2.8. The respective figures for hospital bed per 1000 population for India and the latter two are 0.8, 3.3 and 7.2. Going by official figures relating to health infrastructure, especially the number of doctors, the scenario in West Bengal appears to be not that bad compared to many other states. According to National Health Profile, in 2007, West Bengal had 55,200 qualified allopathic doctors registered with the Medical Council of India. Though the report is admitted to be incomplete, only three states viz. Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Maharashtra had more doctors. However, among 20 major states, as many as 10 have more registered dental surgeons than West Bengal, the total number of dental surgeons in West Bengal in 2007 being 1957. During the same year the number of government allopathic doctors and dental surgeons in the state were respectively 6113 and 444 Among the major states, Andhra Pradesh,

Lost Decades? Human Development in West Bengal

173

Gujarat, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Uttar Pradesh had more population under one doctor in comparison to West Bengal. West Bengal has a serious shortfall in nursing staff. In 2007, it had 47,114 GNMs (General Nursing and midwifery), while the corresponding figure for Tamil Nadu was 163,561; even a smaller state like Kerala had 83,335 GNMs. Apart from these two states, more general nurses are found in Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat, Karnataka, Madhyay Pradesh and Maharashtra.37 According to world average, there should be 30 hospital beds per 10,000 population. The WHO recommendation is 1.9 beds per 1,000 population. In India, there is one government hospital bed for 879 people on average. Out of 1.37 million beds available in the country 8,33,000 were in the government hospitals.38 Going by official record, there are 13,925 hospitals including 13 Medical College Hospitals and 1,07,346 beds sanctioned in West Bengal out of which 2013 hospitals and 34, 281 beds are in the private sector. The rest are owned by the state government, the central government and its different undertakings, local bodies etc. The number of hospitals also include10,356 health sub-centres which have no beds, mostly no doctors, and sometimes no trained health worker or female health worker.39 Whatever the position of West Bengal compared to other states, it suffers from acute inadequacy of physical infrastructure of hospitals. Moreover, there is very serious urban-rural gap. All the multi-speciality hospitals and most of the doctors including specialist doctors are concentrated in and around Kolkata. Barring Bardhaman and Siliguri there is acute scarcity of healthcare infrastructure even in district towns, and the conditions obtaining in the rural areas are pathetic. The PHCs which have bed often tend not to get patients admitted and refer them to the sub-divisional and district hospitals which themselves are ill-equipped. All these result in unbearable pressure on the hospitals in Kolkata. But the government hospitals in Kolkata also suffer from diverse types of inadequacies. A rather lengthy reproduction of a Times of India report makes us aware of the ground reality obtaining in the state. Referring to the rural and district hospitals the report starts: “Most are short-staffed by at least 30%. With health infrastructure in districts being almost non-existent, patients flock to  Kolkata hospitals, putting them under enormous strain. The result has been predictable chaos. None of the leading hospitals — Calcutta Medical College, SSKM, N R S Medical College, R G Kar Hospital or Chittaranjan National Medical College — are equipped to handle the teeming numbers. Last year, more than 70 lakh were treated at these

174

West Bengal under the Left (1977-2011)

hospitals. Doctors, suffocated by this load, often tend to be quick and careless during examinations. Wrong or delayed diagnosis is the norm rather than the exception… …..Recruitment of doctors and staff has been paralyzed for several years.. ….. The number of beds, too, has remained more or less the same despite patient load going up manifold……. The total number of beds in government hospitals is just 56,000 when it should be at least double the number. Even Kolkata’s biggest and most modern state-run hospital — SSKM — has just four operation theatres (OTs). On an average, a surgeon gets to use the OT just once a week. The result? Inordinate delay in surgeries…….. In rural areas, health centres have just 40% of the staff strength. Posts of health assistants, supervisors and block sanitary inspectors have been virtually abolished….. Specialized hospitals like the Infectious Diseases Hospital and the B C Roy Post Graduate Institute of Paediatric Sciences are also under strain as dying patients are rushed here from districts and suburbs. This is particularly true of B C Roy Hospital where crib deaths occur routinely. A referral chain was prescribed by experts 15 years ago but it was never implemented….. While the five-six specialty hospitals in West Bengal are bursting at the seams, there are a dozen smaller ones that have less than 30% bed occupancy. Their OTs lie idle and equipment, largely unused. Senior government doctors say these OTs could easily be used to operate patients who have been waiting for months at hospitals like Calcutta Medical College, R G Kar or SSKM. ‘But planning has never been a priority in West Bengal’s health sector. Or else, things wouldn’t have slipped to this level,’ said a hospital superintendent.”40 Lest it seems a journalistic overstatement we produce another assessment of the healthcare situation made by the state government, the central government and the DFID, UK in 2005. Titled Health System Development Initiative: Programme Memorandum it writes: “The performance of the public health delivery system is crippled by several constraints: vacancies and absenteeism of staff; urban / rich bias in the distribution and use of facilities; lack of drugs and other essential supplies at the field level; and low staff motivation and management capacity. The fiscal crisis facing GoWB has resulted in sharp cuts in health and other development expenditures. There are other distortions in sector finances – the disproportionately low share devoted to the primary sector, the high proportion devoted for staff and other administrative costs leaving little resources for new capital spending and non-wage recurrent costs. The poor quality and low funding of the public system has resulted in the growth of an unregulated and poor

Lost Decades? Human Development in West Bengal

175

quality private sector. For poor households this has led to high out-ofpocket expenditures (often pushing people further into poverty) even while health services are inadequate.”41 Conclusion To sum up, health system in West Bengal, as in most other parts of the country, suffers from some major problems viz. inability to reach the rural people, especially the rural poor in order to improve the public health situation, extreme inadequacy of doctors and health centres in rural areas, overloaded government hospitals in Kolkata and questionable quality of service rendered there. Not that the Left Front government remained oblivious to these problems. In fact, these were repeatedly highlighted by the government itself. It also took some policy measures to address these problems. But their efficacy remained extremely limited. To take preventive care to the doorstep of the rural people the GPs were given the primary responsibility and the ICDS workers were expected to work in tandem with the panchayats. How active have the GPs been in respect of public health related functions? In 2007, the present author and his co-researcher conducted a study of 28 GPs from seven districts from across the state under the auspices of the State Institute Panchayat and Rural Development, Government of West Bengal. Along with GP functionaries, we interviewed 2800 respondents, 100 from each GP. The investigation revealed considerable variations in terms of public health attainments in different GP areas. But we also noticed that better attainments were associated with better endowment factors like education, income and proximity to urban areas. It was therefore difficult to assess the role of the GP or the party running the GP in public health performance. We could guess that the agility, motivation and will of the Pradhan may make some difference provided the party leadership at the relevant level is not too constraining. If personality-based performance is really confirmed that does not augur well for the system introduced. In fact, our investigation reveals certain limitations of the decentralized public health system introduced in West Bengal. One of the crippling factors appears to be lack of cognition on the part of the functionaries. Since the GP is the grassroots institution of democratic governance, the basic purpose of assigning a role to it in public health was to bring government actions in this crucial area of human wellbeing under democratic accountability in the sense of day-today social vigilance and monitoring. As yet, such perceptual transformation

176

West Bengal under the Left (1977-2011)

is not in sight – neither among the GP functionaries, nor the staff of the line departments. As a result, the former cannot make demands and the latter cannot think of complying. For the line department staff, it is more of a new bureaucratic formality – to hold the statutory monthly meeting with GP and keep routine records. The lack of cognition is reflected in lack of coordination. When asked in the formal interview if they found any coordination problem among the different agencies involved in health related functions a good majority of the functionaries denied the occurrence of any such problem. Such no-problem attitude, we hold, comes from their non-involvement. This was confirmed in course of our discussion with the health and ICDS staff who presented a much less rosy picture. If the GP functionaries fail in coordination function, much of the problem lies with the existing framework. For a host of public health duties the GP is statutorily responsible and politically accountable but they have simply no control over those who are to perform such duties. The health and ICDS staffs are accountable only to their respective departments. Lack of control contributes to lack of initiative which was evident in most GPs with only a few exceptions. Initiative is encouraged by autonomy. An enterprising Pradhan may carve out some space even within the framework but generally little effective autonomy is contemplated at the systemic level. The GPs appear to be drowned in the proverbial GOs (Government Orders) containing specific ‘guidelines’ even on minute details about dos and don’ts. The problem of ‘too many and too often’ tends to reduce the Pradhan as non-functioning head-clerk discouraging the vision of GP as the institution for mobilizing people’s energy and initiative in order to ensure their participation in governance.42 In regard to healthcare, as we have already seen, West Bengal, like all other Indian states, has to go a long way to have the recommended doctorpatient ratio. A more worrying feature is acute scarcity of doctors in rural areas. In December 2009, the government passed a bill in the Assembly providing for a 3-year diploma course with the objective of deploying these diploma holders in rural Bengal. However, the scheme faced stiff resistance from the opposition parties, the Medical Council of India and the Indian Medical Association and as a result, no headway could be made in creating a new cadre of medical practitioners to tide over the problem of evershrinking number of qualified doctors in rural areas. The poor quality of treatment in the government hospitals has often been attributed to the absenteeism and short duration of stay of the senior

Lost Decades? Human Development in West Bengal

177

doctors in the hospitals allegedly because of their private practice. As a result, in the early 1990s, doctors in teaching hospitals were debarred from private practice and they were offered a non-practising allowance. This had several adverse consequences. Quite a number of senior doctors left government service, as private practice was far more lucrative. Many others remained engaged in clandestine private practice while continuing to enjoy the non-practising allowance as well. Many talented doctors simply refused to join government services. As a result, the government was forced to soften its earlier policy, and in July 2003 it passed the West Bengal State Health Service (Amendment) Bill allowing teacher-doctors to attend pay-clinics within the hospital the revenue from which would be distributed among doctors, para-medics and the government. Accordingly, pay-clinics have been operating in a number of city hospitals. While the clinics are considerably less costly than treatment in the private hospital, the arrangement has been accused of allowing privatization of healthcare from the backdoor. As a similar pragmatic measure the government had entered into Public-Private Partnership in regard to costly diagnostic tests. In addition to this, to tide over financial crisis plaguing healthcare services the government introduced user-charges in 1992. Not that the charges were exorbitant. Nevertheless, that put some additional burden on the poorest section that depends mainly on public hospitals without bringing about any visible change in the quality of hospital services. Meanwhile, the ailing public healthcare system has given a tremendous boost to the invasion by private providers.43 The major maladies of public healthcare system in West Bengal are spending by the government much below the requirement for infrastructure and human resource development, absence of sound monitoring and very poor performance of the rural health services. These are the central areas where intervention is urgently needed to realize the goal of ‘health for all’. 44 Endnotes 1 2

3

http:// www.gfmag.com/ component/ content/ article/ 119-economic-data / 12368-countries-highest-gdp-growth.html#axzz2TzPr4vyF, 22.5.13 http:// www.census2011.co.in/ density.php,25.4.13; http:// www.wbhealth. gov.in/ Health_Stat/ 2010_2011/1/Trends_in_population_in_West_Bengal_1901_2011.pdf, 25.4.13 http:// www.bengalchamber.com/ economics/ west-bengal - statistics 2011 - 2012. pdf, 23.5.13

178

4 5

6 7 8

9

10

11

12 13 14 15 16

17 18

West Bengal under the Left (1977-2011)

http: // unidow.com/india%20home% 20eng/ statewise_gdp.html, 23.5.13 http: // planningcommission.gov.in / news / press_pov1903. pdf, 12.3.2013 India Human Development Report 2011, Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2011, pp. 266-7 http:// www.undp.org/ content/ india/ en/ home/ presscenter/ pressreleases/ 2004/ 10/ 14/ west-bengal-hdr-bags-global- undp-award/, 25.5.13 National Human Development Report 2001, Planning Commission, Government of India, New Delhi, 2002, p. 25, http://planningcommission.nic. in/reports/genrep/index.php?repts=nhdcont.htm, 21.5.13 http: // www.mapsofindia.com / census2011 / decadal- growth- rate. html, 11.4.2013; http:// censusindia.gov.in/ 2011-prov-results/data_files/india/ Final_PPT_2011_chapter3.pdf, 11.4.2013 http: // wcd.nic.in/publication/GDIGEReport/Part2.pdf,11.5.13; http: // www. bengalchamber . com / economics/west-bengal-statistics-2011-2012. pdf, 12.5.13; http: // www.voiceofdharma.org/books/tfst/appii1. htm, 28.5.13 Census reports of relevant years as quoted in G. Janaki Ramaiah et al, “Declining Child Sex Ratio in India: Trends, Issues and Concerns”, Asia-Pacific Journal of Social Sciences, vol III(1), January 2011, http://www.socialsciences-ejournal.org/5.10.%20Chandrasekharayya.pdf, 25.5.2013 Economic Review 2011-12, http://www.bengalchamber.com/economics/ west-bengal-statistics-2011-2012.pdf, 24.5.2013, p. 4 ibid. p.6 Census of India 2011, State of Literacy, http://censusindia.gov.in/2011prov-results/data_files/india/Final_PPT_2011_chapter6.pdf, 25.5.2013 http://www.wbhealth.gov.in/Health_Stat/2010_2011/2/Chart-1.pdf, 6. 6. 2013 http: // vidyasagar.ac.in / university_faculty_publication / Databse% 20For % 20 Planning % 20 and % 20 Development % 20 in%20West%20Bengal % 20% 20Districts%20of%20West%20Bengal%20by%20Prof%20Sachinandan%20Sau.pdf, p. 17 http: // cbhidghs.nic.in/writereaddata/mainlinkFile/06%20Demographic % 20 Indicators % 20 2011.pdf, p.17 http:// infochangeindia.org/ children/ statistics/statewise-infant-mortality-rates-in-india.html, 23.5.2013; http://indiacurrentaffairs.org/infant-mortality-rate-in-india/ 23.5.2013; http://mospi.nic.in/mospi_new/ upload/sel_socio_eco_stats_ind_2001_28oct11.pdf, 6.6.2013; C. P. Chandrasekhar &Jayati Ghosh, “The good news about health in West Bengal”, http://www.thehindubusinessline.com/todays-paper/tp-opinion/the-goodnews-about-health-in-west-bengal/article994271.ece, 21.11.13

Lost Decades? Human Development in West Bengal

179

19 http:// censusindia.gov.in/ vital_statistics/ SRS_Bulletins/MMR_release_070711.pdf, 23.5.2013 20 http:// leftgovtwb.blogspot. in/ 2011/ 03/ believe-it-or-not-bengal-isamong-best.html, 6.6.2013; http:// www.thehindu.com/ news/ national/ impressive-drop-in-maternal-infant-mortality - rates/ article2208208. ece, 18.11.13; http:// atiwb.gov.in/ index_htm_files/Public%20Health% 20in%20West%20Bengal.pdf, 27.11.13 21 http:// www.slideshare.net/ DurDesherPathik/study-on-utilization-of-antenatal- care-and-outcome-of-pregnancy-in-a-medical-college-hospitalof-kolkata-wb-23788340, 23.7.2013 22 http://www.rchiips.org/pdf/rch3/state/WBengal.pdf, 23.4.13 23 http://planningcommission.nic.in/data/datatable/0904/comp_data 0904. pdf, 29.11.13 24 http://planningcommission.nic.in/ data/ datatable/0904/ comp_data 0904. pdf, 29.11.13 25 http:// www.inclentrust.org/ uploadedbyfck/file/ CDC% 20Material% 20on% 20epidemiology/ Presentation% 20Prepared% 20for%20CHF%20 INCLEN%20Advanced%20Vaccinology%20Co.pdf, 30.11.13 26 Gayatri Basu and Satyabrata Chakraborty, “Public Health Initiatives Undertaken by Gram Panchayats”, in Alok K. Mukhopadhyay, Satyabrata Chakraborty and Apurba K. Mukhopadhyay, Gram Panchayats In West Bengal: Institutional Capabilities and Developmental Interventions, Vol. II, Mittal Publications, New Delhi, 2012; Satyabrata Chakraborty, “Child Development: A Study of AnganwadiCentres in Select Municipal Wards in West Bengal”, The Calcutta Journal of Political Studies, Vol. 7 & 8, 2009 27 National Health Profile 2010, http://cbhidghs.nic.in/writereaddata/mainlinkfile/file1012.pdf, 13.4.2012; http://atiwb.gov.in/index_htm_files/Public%20Health%20in%20West%20Bengal.pdf 13.4.2012 28 Jean Dreze and Amartya Sen, India: Development and Participation, Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2002, p. 42 29 http://www.nhrc.nic.in/Publications/publichealthText.pdf , 19.2.11 30 Debabar Banerji, “Politics of Rural Health in India”, Economic and Political Weekly, 23 July, 2005 31 N.H. Anita, G.P. Dutta and A.B. Kasbekar, Health and Medical Care: A People’s Movement, FRCH, Pune, 2000, pp.7-9 32 Declaration of Alma-Ata cited in T.H. Tulchinsky& E.A. Varavikova, The New Public Health: An Introduction for the 21st Century, Academic Press, California, 2000, p. 56; Gayatri Basu &Satyabrata Chakraborty, “Public Health Initiatives Undertaken by Gram Panchayats” in Alok K. Mukhopadhyay,op. cit.

180

West Bengal under the Left (1977-2011)

33 http:// www.visualeconomics.com/how-countries-spend-their-money/, 25. 4. 11 34 Ravi Duggal, “India’s Health Budget 2010-11: The Malaise Continues”, http:// www.mail-archive.com/national-ofrum-of-india @ yahoogroups. co.in/msg0047.html, visited on 25.4.11 35 Leena V Gangolli, Ravi Duggal, Abhay Shukla, State of Healthcare in India, Cehat, Mumbai, 2005,http://www.cehat.org/publications/PDf%20 files/r51.pdf, 8.3.2008 36 http://www.macroscan.org/anl/oct06/pdf/Health_Expenditure.pdf, visited on 31.5.2012, Indira Chakraborty, “Public Health Privatization in West Bengal” (Sanhati, 9 August, 2009, file:///D:/Health%20privatisation%20 wb.htm 37 National Health Profile, 2007, http://www.cbhidghs.nic.in/writereaddata/ linkimages/Health%20Human%20Resources4484269844.pdf, 31.5.2012; http:// mohfw.nic.in/ WriteReadData/ l892s/ 972971120FW% 20Statistics%202011%20Revised%2031%2010%2011.pdf, 31.5.2012 38 http:// www.indianexpress.com/ news/ healthcare-woes-india-has-1-govthospital-bed-for-879-people/ 1159232/,23.9.13 39 http://www. wbhealth.gov.in/Helath_state/2010_2011/6/VI.1.pdf , 14.8.13 40 http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/home/stoi/What-is-ailing-Bengal-hospitals/articleshow/10626408.cms, 25.7.13 41 http:// www.wbhealth.gov.in/ externally_aided_projects/ hsdidfid%20programme%20memorandum.pdf, 12.4.13 42 Gayatri Basu and Satyabrata Chakraborty, “Public Health Initiatives Undertaken by Gram Panchayats”, in Alok K. Mukhopadhyay et.al, op. cit, pp.109-78 43 http:// www.nihfw.org/ WBI/docs/ PPP_SessionBriefs/ PPP% 20 Course % 20 sessions/ Need % 20and%20Scope%20for%20PPP/Private%20Sector%20in%20Health%20Care%20Delivery%20in%20India.pdf, 27.8.13 44 Satyabrata Chakraborty, How Sick are Government Hospitals? : Media Representation and Patients’ Experience, UGC-DRS Occasional Paper, University of Calcutta, 2013

9 Elementary Education in West Bengal Issues in Governance and Political Economy Achin Chakraborty Introduction Some time in the middle of 2011 the National Commission on Children conducted a public hearing of complaints about cases of violations of the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act (RTE, for short) in West Bengal. It turned out, rather surprisingly, that some of the violations had their origin in the notifications that the Department of School Education had issued as an interim measure in the absence of the Rules which the state government was supposed to frame in order to implement the mandates of the RTE. The state government eventually managed to frame the Rules and published them in March 2012, two and a half years after the RTE was published in the Gazette of India in August 2009. Barring one or two, no other state took such a long time to frame the Rules. In the absence of the Rules, the Department had issued a series of interim notifications of ad-hoc kind. The objective of one such notification issued on January 6, 2011, by the School Education Department of the Government of West Bengal, was ostensibly to stop ‘physical punishment’ and ‘mental harassment’ of students. Surprisingly, the point number 5 of the notification mentioned some actions which “shall not constitute physical punishment or mental harassment, if a teacher, administrator or a school authority takes such action to regulate, control and check the disciplinary activities of the disobedient child.”1 There were seven such actions that did not constitute physical or mental punishment, which included “removing temporarily a child from a class room in cases where his presence disrupting (sic) the functioning of the class”. Armed with such impunity, the teachers kept on removing ‘disrupting’ students from the class and made them stand under the scorching sun. One wonders how such an action does not constitute physical punishment. Quite a few of such cases were brought to the Commission’s notice.

182

West Bengal under the Left (1977-2011)

The procrastination and sloth combined with a kind of we-know-it-all attitude that characterised the governance of elementary education in West Bengal refused to go away even at the fag-end of the left regime. Amartya Sen repeatedly alerted us about the Indian state being overactive in certain fields and thoroughly underactive in others. Elementary education in West Bengal, for long, has been the victim of over-zealous actions on certain aspects and complete neglect of certain others. Debates on whether or not Sahaj Path (authored by Rabindranath Tagore) should be taught often overshadowed the fact that there were a large number of primary schools in the state where the pupil-teacher ratio and student-classroom ratio were far in excess of the norm. The neglect was particularly glaring on what might be called ‘the nuts and bolts’ of the system. Important policy changes were made on the advice of the so-called ‘educationists’ who were primarily driven by certain random ideas either vaguely informed by some normative ideal or some commonplace approach apparently based on ‘experiences’. The suggestions were rarely based on the cumulative knowledge base on education policy making. For example, even though the benefits of cooked mid-day meal were quite well-known from the experience of Tamil Nadu, the state government was initially very reluctant in its implementation, and a section of the ‘educationists’ continued their stance against the programme on the ground that it would adversely affect the quality of education in schools as the teachers would have to remain busy organising cooked meals. There is nothing defeatist in accepting the fact that it is the mid-day meal that primarily draws many children in to schools who would otherwise remain out-of-school. Even with very little achievement in learning these students are definitely better off in school than being out of it. A few years of schooling, even if it is of poor quality, enables the child to reap many benefits over time as she grows. The heartening fact is that, in spite of the negative views held by many in the government about the possible consequences of cooked mid-day meal on teaching and learning, the performance of the programme has been satisfactory. How does one try to understand the supposed underperformance of West Bengal in elementary education? The randomly chosen observations presented at the outset all seem to illustrate some aspects of governance – understood either in the sense of public administration narrowly conceived or broadly in terms of the political economy that encompasses, inter alia, the normative viewpoints held by the privileged classes, what is frequently referred to as ‘the mind-set’ in common parlance. The factors touched upon briefly here might be seen as providing the ‘proximate’ causes, which by no

Elementary Education in West Bengal Issues in Governance

183

means preclude the possibility of a deeper political economy understanding of the problems. In this paper, we first make an attempt to take stock of the progress in elementary education in West Bengal and try to show how some important aspects of the process to which adequate attention should have been paid if we were serious about achieving universalisation of elementary education in the state. We finally try to go beyond the ‘proximate’ factors and venture into a somewhat idiosyncratic exploration of a seemingly unexplored terrain. West Bengal in a comparative perspective

Reckoning the outcome The observation that West Bengal has not been able to make spectacular progress in elementary education is not much in dispute, even though the task of reckoning progress in quantitative terms is far from straightforward. Serious measurement and data problems prevent one from making unambiguously conclusive statements. However, to make any comparative statement – conclusive or otherwise – one has to depend on the available data on indicators that are widely accepted as ‘standard’. The indicators for reckoning progress can be generally of two kinds – input-type and outcomeoriented. Even though ideally we should focus on the ultimate outcome, i.e. universalisation of elementary education with quality learning, the common practice is to look at gross and net enrolment ratios (GER and NER) and the rate of dropout, which are taken as indicators of outcome, for unavailability of time series data on learning. Examples of input-type indicators are pupil-teacher ratio, student-classroom ratio, percentage of schools with girls’ toilet, and so on. Various attempts have been made in the past to assess learning achievement of school children based on sample surveys of students.2 But although these cross-sectional survey-based studies were done at different points in time, the findings could hardly be meaningfully compared and used for reckoning progress as the studies differed in methodology. Since 2006, Pratham, a reputed non-government organisation has been conducting nationwide surveys every year on various aspects of elementary education including learning achievement. Pratham’s Annual Status of Education Reports (ASER) provide the only source of comparable data on learning achievement generated at regular intervals and are widely used in public discussions. In terms of the most rudimentary indicator of achievement, i.e. literacy, West Bengal trails behind six major Indian states, viz. Kerala, Himachal

184

West Bengal under the Left (1977-2011)

Pradesh, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, Uttarakhand and Gujarat, as per Census 2011 data. If we included the smaller states as well, West Bengal’s rank would slide down to 13. In West Bengal, 23.7 per cent of all persons aged seven years and above turn out to be non-literate in 2011. Non-literate females in rural West Bengal constitute 34.5 per cent of the rural female population aged seven years and above. What is more remarkable is that quite a few states have surpassed West Bengal in the past three decades starting from more-or-less the same or a lower literacy rate. Himachal Pradesh is a case in point. In spite of all odds due to the hilly terrain and low density of population per square kilometre, the state had to put in intense effort to improve school infrastructure including teachers, and the result has been spectacular. Starting from a low 42.5 per cent literacy in 1981, which was more than six percentage points lower than the literacy rate in West Bengal, Himachal Pradesh has now surpassed West Bengal by 6.5 percentage points. Gujarat too has surpassed West Bengal in literacy, starting from a lower level in 1981. The gap between the literacy rates in Tripura and West Bengal has considerably widened since 1981 when the rates were not much different from each other. The literacy gap between Tripura and West Bengal now stands at eleven percentage points (Figure 9.1).

Figure 9.1: Progress in literacy in a select number of states in India Source: Census of India981-20, 111 ( New Delhi: Govt of India).

The current level of illiteracy can be viewed as the result of past nonenrolment and dropout. To achieve total literacy in a short span of time the standard policy approach emphasises programmes for adult literacy and continuing education on the one hand and universalisation of enrolment and ensuring that the children do not drop out, on the other. While

Elementary Education in West Bengal Issues in Governance

185

significant progress has been made on the second aspect in the past decade, the adult literacy programme, which was implemented in a campaign mode in the nineties, eventually ran out of steam, leaving a substantial number of adult non-literates unreached. Even the positive gains from the programme could not be kept up as the neo-literates lost their literacy skills for the limited reach of the post-literacy and continuing education programmes. If literacy rate is the most basic indicator of ‘culmination outcome’, percentage of out-of-school children might be considered as an intermediate outcome which would reflect non-enrolment and dropout. The direct indicators of enrolment, such as the gross and net enrolment ratios (GER and NER) as available from the DISE data are rather meaningless. The GER at the primary level has been exceeding 100 since the beginning of SSA. Since GER at the primary level is defined as the ratio of the number of children enrolled in primary classes and the number of children in the age group 6-10, the numerator is likely to exceed the denominator if a good number of enrolled children are either below six or above ten. In other words GER cannot be used to track progress towards universalisation of enrolment. Theoretically, NER should provide the information on out-of-school children as it takes the numerator as the number of children in the relevant age-group who are enrolled. But actually the NER figures obtainable from the DISE data compiled by the National University of Educational Planning and Administration (NEUPA) are fraught with problems. Nevertheless, it can be roughly said that the percentage of children in the age group 6-14 years who are out-of-school has declined significantly in West Bengal since 2001.

Figure 9.2: Percentage of children (6-14 years) who are out-of-school (2011) Source: ASER 2011

186

West Bengal under the Left (1977-2011)

Data from Census 2001 show that there were about 50 lakh children aged 6-14 years who were not attending any educational institution. They constituted 29 per cent of all children in the same age group. Against the backdrop of this huge number of out-of-school children, the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA) was launched in 2002. ASER data now show that the percentage of out-of-school children significantly declined over the decade and reached 4.3 in 2011. However, the overall aim of SSA, which was to provide quality elementary education to all children in the age group 6-14 years by 2010, clearly was not attained. Even though a decline from 29 per cent to 4.3 per cent ought to be taken as a significant achievement, what is to be noted is that, relatively speaking, West Bengal was still trailing behind 16 major Indian states in 2011 in term of the percentage of children who were out-of-school (Figure 2). From inter-state comparisons if we turned to the issue of uneven progress in school completion within West Bengal, we would notice a high degree of inter-district disparity. The number of children who appeared in the Madhyamik Examination in West Bengal in 2013 formed only 35 per cent of all children in the state who were enrolled in Class I in 2003. In other words, roughly 65 per cent children dropped out before completing Class X. This average drop out figure masks the fact that in Malda and Uttar Dinajpur as high as 82 per cent dropped out before completing Class X (Figure 3).

Figure 9.3: Percentage of children enrolled in class I in 2003 who appeared in Madhyamik Examination in 2013 Source: West Bengal Board of Secondary Education

Elementary Education in West Bengal Issues in Governance

187

From outcome to inputs While charting out strategies to achieve universalization of elementary education in India the standard policy view tends to focus on the shortfall in physical and financial resources from certain normative standards and ends up recommending substantial enhancement of allocation of public resources to the sector in question. The proponents of this view, who might be called supply wallahs,3 seem to believe that it is the inadequate spending and inadequate physical infrastructure that is behind the poor education outcomes in India. They are often criticised by the demand wallahs who believe that unless there is enough interest among the parents to educate their children there is no point in setting up schools. Even though it is generally acknowledged that the educational outcome is the result of the supply side as well as the demand side factors. Inadequate supply fails to generate adequate demand as the potential users remain unaware of the value of the service if the service itself is unavailable or of poor quality. Therefore there is a strong case for improving the school infrastructure no matter how weak the demand appears to be. The supply wallah position can hardly be dismissed as there is plenty of evidence from the history of Europe and America which brings out most forcefully the role of the government in promoting mass education which in turn led to sustained economic and social development. Those experiences later inspired Japan to achieve universalisation of school education by the first decade of the twentieth century, largely driven by state initiatives. Later, South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, Hong Kong and China followed more or less similar routes.4 If we focus on the input-based indicators of primary education for major Indian states, we find that West Bengal’s relative ranking in terms of a composite index based on a select set of indicators is rather low. In Table 1 we have included six indicators of primary school infrastructure: the ratio of the number of primary schools to that of upper primary or secondary schools, the percentage of single-classroom schools, the percentage of single-teacher schools, the percentage of schools with students-classroom ratio (SCR) exceeding 30, the percentage of schools with pupil-teacher ratio (PTR) exceeding 30, and percentage of schools without girls’ toilet. The composite index is the arithmetic mean of the normalised values of the indicators. Since for all the indicators higher values indicate relatively worse situation we have used the normalisation formula (Maxi – Xi)/(Maxi –Mini) to convert any indicator value into a pure fraction, where Maxi

188

West Bengal under the Left (1977-2011)

and Mini are the maximum and minimum values, respectively, of the i-th indicator and Xi is the value of the i-th indicator for the state concerned. The data have been taken from DISE for 2010-11. West Bengal ranked third from the bottom in terms of the composite index of primary school infrastructure in 2010-11. The only two other states, whose ranks fell below that of West Bengal, were Bihar and Assam (Table 1). Table 9.1: Ranking of states in terms of a composite index of primary school infrastructure, 2010-11 Primary/ UP & above

%single classroom schools

%single %schools teacher with schools SCR>30

%schools %schools with without PTR>30 girls' toilet

Composite index

Kerala

1.67

0.6

0.2

22.1

13.3

6.4

0.917

Himachal Pradesh

2.15

4.5

7.9

4.1

6.4

19.7

0.859

Punjab

1.64

3.2

7.8

20.2

27.4

1.7

0.852

Tamil Nadu

2.31

0.0

3.9

23.5

29.8

7.9

0.831

Uttarakhand

2.40

2.6

19.5

15.1

7.65

9.9

0.790

Gujarat

1.35

5.5

2.2

48.0

40.0

5.8

0.785

Maharashtra

1.64

8.3

6.1

31.4

29.9

11.7

0.782

Karnataka

1.76

11.7

14.2

20.2

22.8

8.6

0.765

Haryana

1.47

3.0

7.6

39.7

49.5

17.2

0.734

Uttar Pradesh

2.14

0.9

3.0

58.3

66.0

11.2

0.678

Chhattisgarh

2.24

3.7

9.2

31.7

29.1

48.0

0.673

Rajasthan

1.77

4.7

31.0

24.9

38.7

11.8

0.655

Orissa

1.87

8.3

20.9

34.3

46.0

24.2

0.622

Madhya Pradesh

2.35

4.7

17.0

38.0

53.4

31.3

0.598

Jharkhand

1.77

1.6

15.2

52.9

66.8

33.6

0.581

Jammu & Kashmir

2.06

22.8

16.4

14.3

8.6

70.5

0.581

Andhra Pradesh

2.44

32.7

17.1

29.4

17.3

23.6

0.576

West Bengal

5.13

14.4

3.2

51.9

41.5

10.6

0.548

Bihar

2.51

5.8

6.5

77.0

88.4

45.8

0.448

Assam

2.55

35.9

21.0

45.7

40.9

42.8

0.403

Source: DISE, 2010-11.

Elementary Education in West Bengal Issues in Governance

189

It can be noticed from Table 1 that the ratio of the number of primary to that of upper primary and secondary schools is the highest in West Bengal among all the states. The state government had earlier questioned the rationale for using this ratio as an indicator of access to upper primary schooling by pointing out the fact that while almost all the primary schools had only one section in class IV most upper primary/secondary schools in West Bengal had more than one section in class V. This means, according to the government’s logic, that the appropriate ratio to compare should rather be the ratio of the number of sections in class IV to that in class V. This ratio turned out to be 2:1 for West Bengal, which is quite good. But what this logic ignores is that if for every five primary schools there is only one upper primary or secondary school, many students would probably find the UP/secondary school far away from their residence. The Right to Education Act stipulates that the nearest UP/secondary school from any habitation must be within three kilometres. Clearly, because of multiple sections in UP/secondary schools whoever completes the primary stage finds a place in class V, but a typical child may have to travel a long distance – longer than the stipulated three kilometres – to reach the school. The district officials tend to think of progress invariably in terms of district averages, even though all the indicators can be computed down to the block and circle levels. The standard indicators are of two types: average type and the tail-of-the distribution type. The pupil-teacher ratio for the district as a whole indicates one aspect, whereas the percentage of schools in the district with pupil-teacher ratios exceeding thirty, for example, indicates an altogether different aspect of the situation in the district. If the emphasis is given more on the bottom of the distribution, the average improves with a resultant egalitarian distribution. In Table 1, instead of taking the average student-classroom ratio and pupil-teacher ratio for the states, we have taken the percentage of schools with SCR exceeding 30 and the percentage of schools with PTR exceeding 30. In terms of either of the indicators West Bengal’s relative position was rather low in 2010-2011. However, one might ask: How important is the infrastructure in retaining children in school? In the absence of adequate data to conduct a methodologically rigorous analysis of the connection between the two we take resort to a rather crude method which helps us appreciate the connection. Figure 4 presents the scatter plot of the composite index values of school infrastructure presented in Table 1 and the percentage of children who are out-of-school for nineteen states. The plot indicates a negative

190

West Bengal under the Left (1977-2011)

correlation between the two (correlation coefficient being – 0.66), implying that better the infrastructure lower is the percentage of children who are out-of-school. In other words, if not generally, at least in the Indian context, one can argue that better infrastructure is likely to bring down the number of out-of-school children.

Figure 9.4: Percentage of out-of-school children and composite index of school infrastructure across states of India (2010-11) Source: ASER and DISE

Understanding the ‘system’ While agreeing with the supply side view as we do, we might still want to know how the enhanced expenditure on infrastructure would be translated into better outcomes. There is no unique pathway from expenditure to outcome, for it depends on the ‘system’ in place. By ‘system’ we mean all kinds of providers and consumers of services who interact as active agents. Besides the government, there are other providers of elementary schooling including private and non-government organisations. In this section we make an attempt to identify certain features of the ‘system’ of elementary education that need to be taken into account while specific forms of supply side interventions are envisaged, and without which, certain interventions may lead to unintended consequences. Certain empirical features of the elementary education sector in West Bengal vis-a-vis India in the recent period are highlighted in support of our argument. One reason for unintended consequences seems to be the lack of interest on the part of the policy makers in understanding the role of the private

Elementary Education in West Bengal Issues in Governance

191

sector while situating it in the overall context of the system. Although the growth of private schooling in India is quite visible even in rural areas, the implications of this change remain poorly understood ostensibly because of data limitations. Official statistics obtainable from such sources as the DISE provide very little information on private enrolment. However, at least for the past couple of years now ASER has been filling this gap. From the viewpoint of the basic theory of choice, one can postulate that if parents are supposed to know what is best for their children then by observing their choice we come to the inevitable conclusion that private schools are of better quality than existing public schools, at least in the parents’ perception. If this perception turned out to be wrong, people would have learnt from it and revised their choice. Figure 5 presents the percentages of children age 6-14 enrolled in private schools across the major states of India, drawing on the data given by ASER 2006 and 2012. In India as a whole, the percentage has increased from18.8 to 28.3. We need to add a caveat at this point. In school education sector the definition of ‘private’ is never clear-cut since many so-called private schools are heavily funded and regulated by the state governments, and there is no uniform pattern across the states. In some states, subsidies cover a large proportion of total expenses of private schools, and government control over hiring and firing of teachers, salaries, and student admissions criteria accompany these subsidies. Thus, in terms of the sources of funding and controlling of the decision-making like recruitment of teachers, publicprivate categories turn out to be rather varied, instead of being bipolar cases of ‘pure’ private and ‘pure’ public. However, the data sources are not finetuned to capture this complexity. The fact that enrolment in private schools is rising fast shows that people’s belief is somewhat vindicated. However, the puzzle does not go away. First, the percentage of children enrolled in private schools varies quite a bit across the states – ranging from a low 6.2 in Odisha to close to 60 in Kerala. We need some explanation for this variation. Second, the wide variety of small, unrecognized and unregulated private schools, frequently with poorly trained teachers, would hardly convince one about the superiority of private schools vis-à-vis the government schools. In the private schooling market various quality and price combinations are available, and towards the lowest end of the quality spectrum the actual quality is more likely to fall short of that of the public schools. Of course it is a contentious issue how we choose to reckon quality.

192

West Bengal under the Left (1977-2011)

Figure 9.5: Percentage of children age 4-16 years who are enrolled in private schools Source: ASER, 2006, 2012

It is generally hard to explain why we see a particular mix of private and public schooling in a country or a region. Different combinations of public and private provision (funding and management) are, in fact, observed in different countries, and the percentage of enrolments that are private at the primary and secondary levels covers the entire spectrum from 1 per cent to 100 per cent!5 One might argue that in developing countries the large enrolment in private schools is due to limited public spending, which creates an "excess demand" from people who would prefer to use the public schools but are unable to find a place. This is what the supply-wallah position is built on. Notwithstanding the fast growth in private schooling, the assumption that still seems to underlie the supply side prescriptions is that the resource allocation question in the public sector can be considered independent of the existence of a varied and growing private sector. One alleged consequence of the inadequacy of the government’s effort to improve supply is that the vacuum created by the absence of public facilities has been filled by the private sector which is essentially driven by the profit motive. In this view, the emergence and growth of the private sector in elementary education are seen as the results of the failure of the public sector. As a consequence, most expert committees express the expectation that once the public provisioning improves following their recommendations, the importance of the private sector will automatically come down. All the expert committees on elementary education have so far paid little attention to the fact that the growth and popularity of private

Elementary Education in West Bengal Issues in Governance

193

schooling cannot be explained away simply by pointing out the lack of adequate supply of government schools. Economists have long been trying to understand the question of public provisioning of private goods, such as education. Why do the governments do what they do? In the normative literature, the reasons that are put forward for government intervention in the provision of education are externalities or other market failures such as imperfect information. Besides the market failure argument, one can bring in what Stiglitz calls ‘ethical failure’ as well, which roughly says that even if the market is efficient in the static allocative sense, there is still the possibility that a large number of children cannot access school education. In the positive literature though, public provision of education is viewed as a form of redistribution. For example, Epple and Romano6 view it as redistribution from the rich to the poor since the poor do not have enough means to finance private education. In the context of higher education, Fernández and Rogerson7 show that public provision of education is actually redistribution from the poor to the rich, where the former are financially constrained from attending universities. Gradstein and Kaganovich8 perceive public education as redistribution from the old (who do not benefit from education) to the young (whose future income is positively correlated with education). Pritchett9 raises an even more fundamental issue with the state’s ‘desire’ to provide schooling. He asks why did governments produce schooling rather than simply finance it, as they did with many other services? While schooling was expanding fast, why was there a deliberate elimination of citizen engagement and reduction in the local control of schools? While there were multiple factors behind direct provisioning by the government, the decisive element, according to Pritchett, was the desire of nation-states (or state power) to control the socialization of youth. He argues that, while all other goals of schooling can easily be achieved without government ownership, socialization could only be achieved with direct ownership. We argue here that the lack of access to education of reasonable quality cannot be considered independently of the working of the economy. The channels through which increased public expenditure is translated into better educational outcome can be multiple, and understanding these channels requires understanding the market and non-market allocation mechanisms in a ‘general equilibrium’ kind of framework. Rising average income and its changing distribution, for example, affect the decision of the private providers of education, who are likely to offer a higher price-

194

West Bengal under the Left (1977-2011)

quality combination than was offered previously. This may affect the user’s perceived standard of quality that she would expect from any provider, including the public, which in turn may influence the decision to bypass the public facility, in spite of more resources having been pumped into it. This goes against the supply wallah’s expectation that increased public expenditure would gradually reduce the popularity of private schooling. Low share of enrolment in private schools, high incidence of private tuition In view of the analytical perspective presented above, the most puzzling aspect of school education in West Bengal turns out to be the incidence of very high private tutoring coupled with a relatively low share of enrolment in private schools. If parents are assumed to know what is best for their children and that they are voting with their feet, we could see a much higher percentage of children in West Bengal going to private school than what we do. How can one explain the ‘revealed preference’ for government schools in West Bengal? Is it the better quality of government schools vis-à-vis private schools that make them popular? Let us seek a speculative answer to this. While relatively low quality of government schools elsewhere disappoints the quality conscious parents who in turn exercise their ‘exit’ option by opting out, the exit itself further deteriorates quality as it is likely that the first ones who opt out of the government facility are the most vocal sections of the population, leaving behind the parents who find it difficult to put pressure on the school management to improve quality.10 Therefore in a system where private providers have significant presence the quality of the government facilities tends to further deteriorate. However, the contrasting picture of Kerala and West Bengal does not seem to conform to the speculation that the quality of public facilities will deteriorate if more and more people ‘exit’ these facilities. Various accounts suggest that quality of instruction in government schools in Kerala is no worse compared to that in West Bengal. Yet the percentages enrolled in private schools vary quite a bit between the two states. It seems that as private income increases preferences are expressed in favour of private facilities ostensibly for perceived quality differences. Figure 6 presents the scatter plot of private school enrolment against rural poverty. As expected, we find a negative relationship between the percentage of people in rural areas who are below the poverty line and the percentage of children age 6-14 years who are enrolled in private schools. It is therefore apparent that parents of children are voting with their feet as and when they can afford it.

Elementary Education in West Bengal Issues in Governance

195

Figure 9.6: Rural poverty and private enrollment across Indian states Sources: ASER 2012 and Planning Commission

Then, is it the lack of supply incentives for private schooling that has resulted in less rather than more of private schooling in West Bengal? We have reason to suspect that. The seemingly negative correlation at the state level between poverty and enrolment in private schools gets further complicated by the parents’ so-called willingness to pay for private tuition. In West Bengal, the percentage of school-going children of age 6-14 years who take private tuition is 73, which places the state far above others (Figure 9.7).

Figure 9.7: Percentage of school-going children aged 6-14 taking private tuition Source: ASER 2012

Thus it would be misleading to conclude from the high enrolment in

196

West Bengal under the Left (1977-2011)

government schools in West Bengal that parents are not exercising their exit option because they are satisfied with quality of instruction in government schools. The exceptionally high dependence on paid private tuition reveals on the contrary that parents are reluctant to leave their children’s future to the government schools alone. Various surveys also corroborate the fact that all is not well with the quality of schooling in West Bengal. Transcendental institutionalism of the left Martin Hollis begins his book The Philosophy of Social Science with the invocation of a Russian cartoon that had appeared after the fall of the Soviet Union. The cartoon shows a tattered Marx, Engels and Lenin seated on a Moscow kerbstone with hats held out for kopecks. Marx is saying to the others, ‘But the theory remains true!.’11 One might be curious to know what this cartoon had been doing in a textbook on the philosophy of social science. The motivation ostensibly was to give a dramatic twist to the standard way of thinking about the distinction between the systemic and agency-based approaches in social sciences. As the certainties of the bipolar world, which we had been so used to till the late eighties in the past century, exploded, the philosopher of the rational choice persuasion found an apt occasion to look afresh at the contrasting social science approaches. The dramatic turnaround in the configuration of the political power in West Bengal on May 13, 2011 provides a similar occasion to reflect on the political certainties that the people of the state had been so used to over the long 34 years. While political analysts keep offering their explanations for the decisive defeat of the left front, we take a somewhat different route here. We take a close look at what might be viewed as the underlying Weltanschauung of the left political tradition and how it is self-consciously posed against any comparative perspective. After the left front came to power in West Bengal in 1977, we used to see the following writing on the wall (literally), ‘protect the left front government in the same way as we protect our eyeballs’. This slogan seemed to be predicated on the existence of a host of real and not-so-real ‘enemies of the left’. The underlying tone was: here is an ideal institution (i.e. the left front government), which has to be protected as an entity of utmost value in itself. What it seems to be saying is that the left front government can never be anything but good and just, for the simple reason that it is a government run by leftists. Even when the government allegedly faltered on some of the basic standards of governance, the common defence often took

Elementary Education in West Bengal Issues in Governance

197

the form of a host of constraints supposedly being created by the ‘forces that do not want to see communists in power’. As a matter of fact, a large number of the supporters of the left in the state reconciled themselves with the consequences of what they called the Centre’s ‘step-motherly attitude’ toward the people of the state. What is remarkable is that even after the massive electoral debacle of the left front partners in West Bengal, many of their supporters seem to have been maintaining the view that it is only a left regime which is committed to the cause of the poor and the toiling masses. These ‘committed voters’ seem to form a large chunk of the 41 per cent who voted for the left front in the 2011 assembly election. They hold on to this view in spite of the recent turbulent history of West Bengal that clearly points to the contrary direction. The overwhelming majority of the crowd that gathered around Ms Mamata Banerjee’s clarion call to overthrow the government clearly consisted of the poor and the marginalised. The earlier reaction of the left front, after the downslides first in the panchayat election and then in the parliament election, was that the people were misled by the opposition. The explanation ran in terms of the supposed failure in ‘making people understand’. It seems that there is a deep disconnect, almost schizophrenic, between the value premise that ‘being left’ is always lexicographically superior to all other considerations, on the one hand, and the series of bad and morally unjust consequences of an actually existing left regime, on the other. How does one explain this disconnect? We make an attempt to find its root in what Amartya Sen calls ‘transcendental institutionalism’ which he thoroughly discusses in his The Idea of Justice.12 The view still held by the left leaders as well as a large section of their followers seems close to the ‘transcendental approach’, or more specifically ‘transcendental institutionalism’. In The Idea of Justice, Sen makes a devastating critique of this philosophical view and builds up a case for what he calls the ‘comparative approach’. Even though while critiquing the transcendental institutionalism he does not explicitly address the transcendentalism in mainstream socialist or communist thinking, his powerful critique is equally applicable to the wide variety of transcendental thinking ranging from Robert Nozick’s kind of libertarianism to John Rawls’s Kantism to Socialism of Marx’s The Critique of the Gotha Programme and other varieties of socialism. I would argue that the transcendentalism inherent in the left thinking in India blocked its ability to see things in a comparative perspective, which in turn led to an overwhelming focus on

198

West Bengal under the Left (1977-2011)

protecting the regime by all means, ignoring plurality of concerns and considerations. As a matter of fact, any attempt to make a comparative assessment of human development achievements of West Bengal vis-à-vis some other states was usually faced with certain counterpoint that would basically assert lexicographic priority of the so-called ‘progressivity of the regime’ over and above everything else. This transcendental approach toward a regime comes close to a kind of fundamentalism, the traces of which could be seen in the articulation of the left leaders. As Sen argues convincingly, the comparative approach is the most fruitful way of thinking about justice. The bewilderment on the part of the left was quite apparent when the Trinamul Congress snatched the entire gamut of pro-poor rhetoric, on which the left thought they had the exclusive property right, and put to effective electoral use. Endnotes 1. The Kolkata Gazette (Extraordinary), Thursday, January 6, 2011, p 49. 2. See Indian Statistical Institute and State Council of Educational Training and Research, Achievement Level of Primary School Children at the End of Class IV (mimeo),1995; Jyotsna Jalan, (with Jharna Panda), Low Mean & High Variance: Quality of Primary Education in Rural West Bengal, Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta, 2010. 3. Abhijit V. Banerjee and Esther Duflo, Poor Economics, London: Random House, 2011. 4. Jean Dreze and Amartya Sen, An Uncertain Glory: India and Its Contradictions, London: Allen Lane, 2013. 5. Estelle James, ‘Why Do Different Countries Choose a Different Public-Private Mix of Educational Services?’ The Journal of Human Resources, Vol. 28, No. 3, 1993, pp. 571-592. 6. Epple, Dennis, and Richard E. Romano, ‘Public Provision of Private Goods’, Journal of Political Economy, IV, 1996, 57-84. 7. Fernández, Raquel, and Richard Rogerson, ‘On the Political Economy of Education Subsidies’, Review of Economic Studies, LXII, 1995, 249-262. 8. Mark Gradstein and Kaganovich, Michael, ‘Aging Population and Education Finance’, CEPR Discussion Paper No. 3950, June 2003. 9. Lant Pritchett, The Rebirth of Education: From 19th-Century Schooling to 21st-Century Learning, Washington DC: Brookings Institution Press, 2013. 10. Albert Hirschman, Exit, Voice and Loyalty: Responses to Decline in Firms, Organizations and States, Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press,

Elementary Education in West Bengal Issues in Governance

199

1970. 11. Martin Hollis, The Philosophy of Social Science, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994. 12. Amartya Sen, The Idea of Justice, London: Allen Lane, 2009.

III POLITICS AND SOCIETY

10 The Caste Question and Decline of The Left in West Bengal Praskanva Sinharay “Mouchake dhil poreche (a stone has struck the beehive)!” – Rezzak Mollah, former CPI(M) leader1 The firebrand peasant leader, Rezzak Mollah, who has been elected to the state assembly for consecutive tenth time now in 2016, formally launched a vehement attack on his former party CPI(M) three years back in 2013 for persistently ignoring the caste question and development of the minorities during its longstanding regime for over three decades. He criticized the party for being brahminical in its composition and actions and argued that “the Dalits and minorities are giving their lives for the party while the Brahmins and the Kayasthas are bossing over.”2 A former Dalit leader of the party, Kanti Biswas, supported Mollah’s criticismsand himself pointed out that “since the days of the undivided Communist Party to today’s CPI(M), nobody from the scheduled communities could find a place in the state secretariat.”3 Although an integral member of the CPI(M) since 1972 who had won nine elections at a stretch as its candidate, Mollah was immediately kicked out of the party for his “serious anti-party activities” and “tarnishing the party’s image in the eye of the people.”4 Given his personal charisma and support base, he launched a new forum without much delay to uphold the political concerns and demands of the Dalits and Muslimsand called it the Samajik Nyayvichar Mancha (SNM) or Social Justice Forum. The forum became an amalgamation of a host of Dalit and Muslim organizations which had found a perfect platform to now launch a united struggle against the perennial upper-caste dominance in the state. The leaders of the forum decided to fight the state assembly elections in 2016 and aimed at having a Dalit as the chief minister and a Muslim as the deputy.5 However, quite surprisingly, Mollah soon dumped the nascent forum,6 joined the Trinamool Congress (TMC) in 2016 before the state assembly polls, and became a minister in the second Mamata Banerjee governmentafter winning as a TMC candidate.

204

West Bengal under the Left (1977-2011)

What is interesting about this story is not simply the peasant leader’s alleged hunger for power, as his critics often easily conclude; rather it brings before us larger questions regarding the changing dynamics of caste in the politics of contemporary West Bengal. Mollah’s entire episodeprovokes us to investigatethe story ofthe metaphorical beehive:the mighty structure withdelicate networks that has ruled the state for decades and has beenunquestionably dominatedby the urban, upper-caste elites, butis finally on the verge of ‘dying.’7 On the other hand, the SNM, although a short-lived political venture, rekindled the possibility of Dalit-Muslim alliance, albeit momentarily, in order to contest the urban, upper-caste bhadralok hegemony in the postcolonial politics of the state.8 Lastly, the voices of dissent surfaced not only from within the party alone, rather the mainstream Left as a solid coalitionhas increasingly lost its political salience, social base and ideological impetus in its erstwhile bastionover the last decade. This has been reflected in the Left Front’s (LF) poor electoral performance. One of the crucial factors behind the LF’s electoral and organizational debacle, as different studies have already shown,is the loss of support from the minority communities: the Dalits and the Muslims.9 This chapter therefore seeks to interrogatethis changing politics of caste in West Bengal. It asks: why and howthe Dalits, who have been loyal supporters of the official Left for a considerable period of time,are now shifting their allegiancetowards new political choices over the last couple of years? I shall argue that it is the Left’s disregard towards the caste question at the theoretical levelas well as cunning engagement with itin praxis during its prolonged regimein the state has led to theeventual alienation of the Dalits. The different lowercaste groups have started to mobilize themselves autonomously over the last decade under the banner of different group-organizations which politically represent their specific group rights and demands, and negotiates the political parties and government in exchange of electoral support. One such important group in contemporary West Bengal are the Matuas,10 who are almost exclusively Namasudras, and led by their frontline organization called Matua Mahasangha (MM) which claims to have political influence over its followers populated thickly in more than 70 constituencies,11 I shall talk about three specific cases from the contemporary political life of the Matuas in order to address the central question of this paper. These instances, as we shall see later in this chapter, expose the upper-caste character

The Caste Question and Decline of The Left in West Bengal

205

of the mainstream Left and show how it has failed toaddress the local concerns and demands of the Dalits in West Bengal. The Left and the Caste Question Let us begin with the question: how did the Left perceive caste? The nationalist Left and the Marxists, as Partha Chatterjee has argued,from the very beginning didn’t accept caste as“essential to the characterization of Indian society”, and regarded it as “a feature of the superstructure”, that is, an “ideological product of the specific pre-capitalist social formations” which shall disappear with the advent of modernity.12 Clearly, this didn’t happen and caste continued to perpetuate in different forms in the postcolonial context. Leaders like B.T. Ranadive, who is one of the few communist leaders who at least seriously engaged with the caste question, accused the bourgeois nationalists for being double-faced who embraced the legal-political principles of modern state while retaining the old feudal production relations and the hierarchical social ideologies.13 The memorandum of the CPI(M) on National Integration (1968) stated: “…It is a common practice, throughout the country – the legacy of the evil practice of untouchability and social oppression and brutality that persists in our rural areas, even after 20 years of independence and in spite of our laws and commissions for Scheduled Castes and Tribes! It is a result of the growth of feudal and semi-feudal landlordism and of the ‘new rich’, on the same feudal caste and social basis, and of their grip over the village economy and life! It is a reflection of the failure of the government to liquidate the medieval feudal economic base, of its failure to abolish landlordism, give land to the tiller and assure him land and employment, fair wages, and decent living conditions…”14 In a nutshell, the struggle against untouchability and caste has been linked by the official Leftexclusively with the need for an agrarian revolution, redistributive economic policies like land-reforms and common struggle against imperialist and reformist forces.15 Such a theoretical perspective on the caste question by the official Left didn’t improve much till date.The CPI(M) Resolution adopted at the All India Convention on Problems of Dalits held at New Delhi on February 22, 2006 says: “There has been no basic change in caste system after nearly 60 years of independence…as the bourgeois compromised with landlordism fostered caste prejudices.”16 This particular resolution of the CPI(M), the most influential partner in the LF,

206

West Bengal under the Left (1977-2011)

quite interestingly, also acknowledged as well as criticized the stalwarts of anti-caste movements: “The 19th and 20th centuries saw great social reformers like Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, Sri Narayan Guru, Jyotiba Phule, Periyar E.V. Ramaswamy Naicker and others. These social reform movements conducted many struggles against the caste system, caste oppression and untouchability in many ways. But despite the struggles against caste oppression, the social reform movement did not address the crucial issue of radical land reforms. It got delinked from the antiimperialist struggle”. Following the official declarations of the mainstream Left on the caste question, what we realize is that it subscribes more or less to an old orthodox view of caste only as a feature of pre-capitalist social order. Such a deterministic view of caste only in terms of economic relations, adopted quite intentionally, eclipsed its understanding of the actual operation of caste at the level of everyday life in its modern avatar. Secondly, the fashion in which it has acknowledged the contributions of Ambedkar and others is evidently half-hearted without any serious engagement with their political thoughts and actions. And lastly, the Left has always labelled the independent mobilizations of Dalits under different political formations, both at the regional and national level, as ‘identity-politics’ which is essentially narrow, “pernicious” in nature and scope, and solely aimed at winning elections. This naive view onthe caste question, without any serious engagement with it, explains the ideological poverty of the mainstream Left to appreciate and ally with the different anti-caste movements. Situating West Bengal West Bengal is a peculiar case. Compared to the states of north, west or south India, this eastern state didn’t witness any organized Dalitpolitical assertion until recent past.17 Although Dr. B.R. Ambedkar was elected to the constituent assembly in 1946 from Bengal and the fact that the late colonial politics of the province provides us a rich history of Dalitmovement; Dalits continue to be under-representedin the postcolonial politics of the state. The politics of West Bengal, as scholars have observed, has been dominated by the urban, upper-caste bhadralok – mostly constituted by the Brahmans, Kayasthas and Baidyas, who apart from their higher ritual status were historically the beneficiaries of the Permanent Settlement (1793), English education and white-collar professions.18 The hegemonic domination of the

The Caste Question and Decline of The Left in West Bengal

207

upper-castebhadralokensured “the overall dominance of modes of culture and thought of the urban intelligentsia” in almost every field of public life in Bengal and thereby “prevented any successful aggregation of caste interests in the state election scene.”19 post-independence. However, this did not mean that “caste authority and caste linkages” didn’t prove to be important in order to secure vote-bank for all the political parties; rather the caste question broadly remained a hush-hush thing thrown in the unorganized ‘informal’ domain of popular politics.20 The LF didn’t disturb this structure.Unlike Kerela, where the Left movement has contested the hegemony of the Namboodiri-Nair-Syrian Christian elite and produced leaders like K.R. Gowriamma, E. Balanandan and V.S. Achuthanandan who have come from Ezhava background, the Bengal Left parties didn’t contest the hegemony of the urban, upper-caste bhadralok.21 Rather during its long electoral standing in West Bengal, the LF persistently denied the perpetuation of caste-based discriminations and atrocities on Dalits and publicly regarded ‘caste’ as an irrelevant category in the political life of the state. This was evident when Jyoti Basu commented in 1980 that caste is a “legacy of the feudal system and viewing the social scene from the casteist angle is no longer relevant for West Bengal.”22 The former chief minister’s outlook on caste echoed his party’s unwillingness to critically engage with the category. But his statementwas clearly far detached from the real life of caste in the state. As different studies have shown us, there arenumerous examples of what Gopal Guru calls “active mode of social boycott”23 of Dalits, let alone the passive mode,in different parts of the state. These include separate sitting arrangement for Dalit students in schools, denial of entry of Dalits in temples and houses of the upper-castes, manual scavenging and so forth.24 The Marichjhapi massacre is one of the darkest chapters in the present history of West Bengal where the LF government conducted a systematic attack on the refugees who were exclusively Dalits.25 Another eye-opening case of structural violence unleashed on Dalits by the brahminical establishment in higher academic spaces was the tragic story of Chuni Kotal, a Lodha girl who chose to commit suicide after being abused continuously by the upper-caste faculty of a state university.26 And finally, one can remember the LF government’s political position vis-à-vis the question of implementing the recommendations of the Mandal Commission when the chief minister remarked that in West Bengal, “there were only two castes – the rich and the poor.”27 The LF during that time formed a one-man committee under Binay Chaudhuri who

208

West Bengal under the Left (1977-2011)

submitted a report within a month whichconcluded that Other Backward Classes do not exist in West Bengal.28 However, quite interestingly, as sociologist Anjan Ghosh noted, that in spite of persistent caste inequalities and violence on Dalits, the caste question was virtually absent at the level of formal-institutionalized-public domain of politics of West Bengal. When the Left Front ensured a continuous sixth term electoral victory, Ghosh thus concluded “Cast(e) out in West Bengal.”29 The question therefore is: how did the LF then manage to get the support of the Dalits and other minorities during its longest career as ruling coalition in the state? In Bengal, the communist party from the very beginning controlled by middle-class bhadralok and, as Marcus Franda remarked, it was“the most elitist movement, at least in terms of its leadership.”30 However, the association of communists with the lower-castes dates back to the days of the Tebhaga movement when the Bengal Provincial Kisan Sabha mobilized the Dalit peasantry.31 This was also the time of absolute political turmoil since the transfer of power was going to be accompanied by the partition of the province. The two communist leaders in the Bengal Legislative Assembly, Jyoti Basu and Ratanlal Brahman voted against the Partition resolution which,as Sekhar Bandyopadhyay noted, didn’t matter much.32 In a more recent work, Partha Chatterjee presents a contradictory argument that “the entire spectrum of Hindu political opinion in Bengal from the Hindu Mahasabha on the right to all factions of the Congress to the Communists on the left were unanimous in 1947 on the necessity to partition Bengal” precisely because the upper-caste Hindu elites were “alarmed by the prospect of Muslim-majority Bengal joining Pakistan.”33 Partition,however, led to the fragmentation of the erstwhile Dalit movement in undivided Bengal, the leaders of which were now keen to make “strategic alliances, dictated by the shifting paradigms of partition politics.”34 The CPI, during this period of massive population transfers, led the refugee movement in 1950s and 1960s under the banner of the United Central Refugee Committee (UCRC) anddemanded the proper resettlement of the refugees, mostly upper-castes, in colonies which were proliferating in and around Calcutta.35 The lower-caste refugees who were resettled in camps fought for decent rehabilitation measures,36 although the bulk of them were deported and rehabilitated outside West Bengal in Dandakaranya, Andaman and Nicobar Islands, Orissa and so forth.37 In the 1960s, the communists also successfully mobilized a large section of the Dalits during the militant agrarian movements in the districts of

The Caste Question and Decline of The Left in West Bengal

209

north Bengal, Birbhum, South 24 Parganas, Midnapur.38 These agrarian movements increasingly brought the Dalits close to the politics of the Left who struggled for the abolition of landlordism and introduction of land reforms. When the Left came to power in the Writers’ Building in 1977, it immediately launched two path-breaking policies – on the economic front, it broke the concentration of land in a few hands through tenurial reforms, imposition of land-ceilings, and redistribution of small plots of land to the rural proletariat; and on the administrative front, it introduced the three-tier decentralized local government institutions consisting of elected representatives at the grass-roots level for the democratic management of rural issues.39 These initial steps taken by the LF indicated that the new government on the one hand wanted to break the erstwhile political authority of the old Congress regime at the rural level that derived its privileged status from landed property or caste loyalties or religious associations; while on the other, it aimed at crafting its own image as a leadership thatderived its “authority from their participation in political movements and by the fact that they represented the ‘party’.”40 Such initial steps taken by the LF produced “a specific form of sociability” which Dwaipayan Bhattacharyya has called “party society” in West Bengal countryside.41 Bhattacharyya argued that “the older forms of patron-client relationship based on social and economic hierarchies” was replaced by the organizational grid of the political party whichemerged as the “chief mediator, the central conduit, in the settling of every village matter: private or public, individual or collective, familial or associational.”42 The CPI(M), he noted, was the chief beneficiary of the party-society in the initial years of the LF. How did the party then engage with the everyday politics of caste in the villages? While Bhattacharyya claims that party-society was “a big step in democratising rural politics,”43 Arild Ruud’s research in Burdwan district show that the CPI(M) in practice didn’t disturb the caste stereotypes and the “dominant ideology of village society was one of inequality, hierarchy and rank, separateness and distinction.”44 Dayabati Roy, in her work on everyday politics in two villages in Hoogly district, also argued that caste continued to be “a major reason in rural areas by which everyday politics revolves” as she observed that in the economic field, the lower-caste people depended on the upper castes; at the cultural-ideological level, caste hierarchy prevailed both within the party and the village society; whereas in the legal-political field, the upper-caste leadership pretended

210

West Bengal under the Left (1977-2011)

to safeguard the interests of the lower-castes.45 In another study conducted by Rajarshi Dasgupta in two villages in north Bengal, he concluded that the “working of the CPI(M)...can be conceived as the interlocking of a complex and intricate machinery, whose parts have autonomous functions, even contradictory movements on the face of it.”46 It is therefore not very difficult to understand that the way the mainstream Leftactually functioned in praxis and what it intended to be or rather stood for didn’t synchronize when it boiled down to the caste question. The fact that the party could evolve and function as the key mediator in the politics of rural West Bengal during the LF regime is not only because it successfully dismantled the older hierarchies through the economic and administrative reforms, rather the organizational ‘machinery’ of the party could also champion itself because of its sophisticated treatment of caste at the level quotidian village politics. Crisis of Party Society and Emerging Politics of Groups The ‘party society’ finally met with a crisis. In the wake of the anti-land acquisition movements in Singur, Nandigram and elsewhere since 2006 onwards, the growing gap between ideology and praxis became explicitly visible in the official Left politics. The Left which once raised the slogan ‘Land to the tillers’ had become “an apologist for corporate capital”and was forcibly grabbing land from the peasants for industrialization.47 Bhattacharyya argued that since the party-society couldn’t “reproduce its initialconditions of being” and“regain the spirit of the movement as governing the population became its primary objective,”48 it entered a state of political instability. It is during this unstable political situation, a strong opposition to the model of party-society cameup from different marginal groups which have been mobilizing themselves independently through the local networks of caste, ethnicity,and/or religion.49 This new politics of the group, members of which share similar histories of oppression and marginality, common cultural practices, and identical political concerns, revolves around the question of recognition. And the organizations leading these groupstend to replace the erstwhile role of the political party in rural politics since the moment of crisis, and emerge as the new mediator between the group-members and the formal-institutionalized world of politics.The Matuas, mobilized by the MM primarily on the grounds of their caste affinities, constitute one such important group in contemporary West Bengal who have gradually shifted their support from the LF to TMC under the guidance of their frontal organization. Let menarrate three instances from a field-based study on thepolitical life of the Matuas in order to show

The Caste Question and Decline of The Left in West Bengal

211

how and why the Dalits have increasingly shifted its support from the LF and mobilized themselves independently over the last decade. A hunger-strike and changing political equations In 2003, the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance government passed a new law – the Citizenship Amendment Act (2003) which denied citizenship to the refugees who have crossed the border after 1971 marking them as illegal migrants. The law came as a threat to the bulk of Namasudra refugees who are mostly Matuas and have migrated to India after 1971. In the past,these refugees had been the victims of the discriminatory rehabilitation policies of the government in India and were resettled in camps outside West Bengal.50 While the Congress government had incorporated the refugees from Bangladeshwho have arrived after 1971 mostly as ‘unrecognized refugees’ and the BJP insisted on labelling the Muslim migrants as ‘infiltrators’, as Sandip Bandyopadhyay observed; the LF in West Bengal played a ‘queer role’ on this count as they recognized the refugees in a clandestine manner for electoral benefits although their approach towards issue was not to solve.51 Interestingly, after the new law was passed, the LF government in West Bengal stood by the central government’s decision and the chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharya commented: “…on the question of dealing with illegal infiltrators from Bangladesh, our state government is in agreement with the government of India that whenever such infiltration is detected, the foreign nationals should be pushed back forthwith.”52 The non-cooperation of the state government on the question of migration seriously angered the Dalit refugees. On December 15, 2004, a hungerstrike was called by MM at Thakurbari, the headquarters of the MM in Thakurnagar, a refugee settlement in the district North 24 Parganasabout 50 kilometres north of Calcutta.53 They demanded that the 2003 citizenship Act must be immediately repealed and all refugees migrating from Bangladesh must be given unconditional citizenship. Twenty one Matuas led by Ganapati Biswas, the former general secretary of MM, and refugee leader Sukriti Ranjan Biswas, sat for the fast unto death programme. Hundreds ofdevotees visited on a regular basis their revered Thakurbari where the heirs of their preceptors – Harichand and Guruchand Thakur –now live. On the 5th day of the strike, the police along with the local Sub-Divisional and Block Development Officer intervened to dismantle the crowd assembled at the venue of protest. The Matuas surged forward in huge numbers, recalled Ganapati Biswas, in order to resist the police which was encroaching into their sacrosanct space – the Thakurbari and

212

West Bengal under the Left (1977-2011)

the temple premises.54 The women, Ganapati babu categorically mentioned, played a significant role in guarding the venue. The massive presence of the Matuasfinally compelled the police to leave in order to avoid unwanted tussle. The police intervention was strongly condemned by the MM. On day 7, the strike was ultimatelycalled off when Member of ParliamentRamdas Athavale visited Thakurnagar as the prime minister’s representative and assured the protestors to look into their demands. Later in 2005, a team of Matua delegates met prime minister Manmohan Singh to discuss their demands. The LF had always enjoyed a prominent support base in the area, especially CPI(M) and the Forward Bloc. Although the Left didn’t have any direct engagement with the Thakurbari, the gossips which circulated in the areaand outside was that the then Sanghadhipati (organizational head) of MM Kapil Krishna Thakur and general secretary Ganapati Biswas were politically inclined towards the LF. However, after the movement which was organized independently by the organization, the Leftstarted to gauge its declining influence and growing unpopularity.This was evident in its changed style of campaign among the Matuas in the coming years.The LF leaders like Subhas Chakraborty, Biman Bose, Ashoke Ghosh, Brinda Karat visited Thakurbari to meet the religious head of Matuas Baroma Binapani Devi to win her support. MM received huge attention from other opposition political parties. However, it was now more interested in mobilizing the Matuas independently as distinct group in order to negotiate with the different political parties and government in exchange of electoral. This was evident in 2010 when frontline leaders of all political parties attended the MM convention at Esplanade in the heart of Calcutta to win their support before the 2011 assembly elections. Demand for a college and contest over its name One of central concerns of Matua movement since the colonial times has been their struggle for education. There are numerous stories about Guruchand Thakur which are widely circulated orally as well as in Matua print literature about his contribution in educating the Namasudras. He had established a number of schools for his community and instructed his followers, as is documented in Guruchand Charit written by Mahananda Halder, that education alone is the key to political power. However, the contributions of Harichand-Guruchand towards their community have never been adequately acknowledged.

The Caste Question and Decline of The Left in West Bengal

213

In Bagdah (North 24 Parganas), the Matuas constitute the majority of the population. In the early 2000s, therehad been a demand for a government college in their area and the local Matuas wanted it to be named after their preceptors Harichand and Guruchand Thakur. The MM organized meetings among its followers, mobilized support, and entered into a dialogue with the local administration to look into their demand. Finally, a meeting was held with the local people, convened by the headmaster of Helencha High School, Nakul Chandra Hira, and attended by Upendranath Biswas (the then joint CBI Director) and Sattendra Nath Biswas (chief security officer, Indian Museum), where a resolution to establish a college at Helencha was adopted.55 It was eventually decided that the Helencha High School would donate 1 acre of land, INR 50000 as load for the college fund, and 9 classrooms for temporarily starting the college till it builds an own building. A committee was formed with Kamalakshmi Biswas as the president, Bimal Krishna Bagchi as the vice-president and Santosh Kumar Biswas as secretary to look into the administrative procedures to set up the degree college. Adisagreementbroke out when it came to the question of naming the college. Nakul Chandra Hira proposed that the college should be named after Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, whereas Manindra Bhusan Biswas (exMLA, Bagdah) subscribed to the popular demand and proposed the name ‘Sri Sri Harichand Guruchand College’ to commemorate the Matua icons. To resolve the contest over name, a three-member committee consisting of Kamalakshmi Biswas, Bimal Krishna Bagchi and Santosh Kumar Biswas was formed which decided to name it after Ambedkar. The college was finally named ‘Dr. B.R. Ambedkar Satabarshiki Mahavidyalaya’, and was recognized by the Government of West Bengal in 2005. The local Matuas furiously reacted to the change in name of the college. The decision of dropping the name of Harichand-Guruchand was perceived as an attack on the religious sentiments of the Matuas. And the entire anger was directed towards the LF because the committee which decided upon the final name of the college was led by the then Forward BlocMLA from Bagdah and was overwhelmingly controlled by the Left. It was clear among the locals that it was the LF which made the cunning move of proposing the name of Ambedkar as an alternative to HarichandGuruchand. A former office bearer of MM, during our interview, called the LF’s decision a ‘kowshawl’ or trick played for undermining the efforts of the Matuas in setting up the college. He recollected, “I tried to convince them, that Ambedkar is someone from among us. So are Harichand and Guruchand. There are already hundreds of school, colleges, and so many

214

West Bengal under the Left (1977-2011)

things in the memory of Ambedkar. But there is not a single in the name of Hari-Guruchand. Let us at least build this college commemorating them… The LF was determined to not name the college after Hari-Guruchand under any circumstances at that point of time. And they didn’t. But they only had to pay the price which they realized later.”56 After this incident, the MM organizationally campaigned against the Left and instructed the local Matua dals (groups) to ensure the LF’s defeat in Bongaon’s by-election in 2007. The Left lost support in many other Matua-populated areas.57 It is a story about the politics around a local popular demand among various in rural West Bengal, but more importantly, it tells us about the official Left’s treatment of the demand raised by the Dalits. The fashion in which the LF had pitted Ambedkar opposite Harichand-Guruchand raises a lot of questions on the politics of memorialization. Quite deliberately or unfortunately, the Left has failed to perceive Harichand-Guruchand as modern icons of anti-caste movement in Bengal. It was definitely easy for the Left to memorialize Ambedkar, and not Harichand-Guruchand, precisely because the former can conveniently posited as a ‘national’ icon, as currently described in the college website, who had “struggled through his life for the emancipation of the downtrodden people of the society”. On the other hand, the icons of Harichand-Guruchand immediately invoke in the public memory a different history which the Bengali bhadralokhas carefully suppressed and forgotten long back. The Left couldn’t sustain its political position for long. Immediately realizing the decline in support, itbegan to bridge its differences with Thakurbari. In 2008,the Forward Bloc leader Haripada Biswas came quite close to the MM leadership and became the president of the All India Matua Mahasangha Advisory Committee. Later he published an interesting booklet titled ‘Life History of Hari-Guruchand Thakur, their Philosophy and Activities in brief ’ with an introduction by Kapil Krishna Thakur. Biswas in his preface to the booklet made an appeal to the readers: “This booklet is the brief history of the vast works and activities of Sri Sri Hari-Guruchand and Pramatha Ranjan Thakur. I hope that the studious and intellectual readers will read this booklet and accept the life-style and trend of thoughts of these three noble souls. I may also hope that they will join their shoulders with those of the downtrodden and the neglected people for leading a simple, happy peaceful life and then the glory victory of the Matua Religion will be

The Caste Question and Decline of The Left in West Bengal

215

ascertained and their lies the success of this effort.” – Haripada Biswas (M.L.A), President, All India Matua Mahasangha Advisory Committee, Shyamnagar, 15.07.2009 The LF government also instituted an award for Dalit upliftmentin 2010 and named it Harichand-Guruchand Memorial Award. The first recipient of the award was Kapil Krishna Thakur, the then Sanghadhipati of MM. It also sanctioned a research centre at Rajarhat, in the outskirts of Calcutta called Harichand-Guruchand Research Centre. However, all these were done too late. The death of a Matua and shift in party-politics The Matua religion, being born out of an anti-caste consciousness, has its own specific religious texts, rituals and practices which are distinct in many ways from brahminical practices and are widely followed by the followers. The MM since its formal revival in 1988 has been continuously trying to institutionalize their belief and practices as a different religious order of the Dalits, different from Hinduism. A recent demand of MM before the Indian government is to recognize the Matua religion as a distinct nonHindu minority religion along with Sikhism, Buddhism and Jainism.58 The organization has also published a wide range of literatureon the specific rites and ritual practices regarding birth, marriage, death, and everyday life so forth. Such efforts made it convenient for the devotees to follow these non-brahminical practices. Saroj Bepari59 is a Matua devotee whose family was rehabilitated in a camp in Chattisgarhback in the late 1960s. Saroj babu hardly remembers those days as he was only two years old. Later on he came to Thakurnagar following his relatives who had already settled there. Once a tour-guide in Vellore, then a cycle-vanpuller, and currently a contract labourer; Saroj babu has kept on changing professions. He doesn’t possess any land but sometimes cultivates some seasonal crop as a sharecropper. His family includes his wife, two children, mother, and brother. His father was a Matua gosai (preacher) who died in 2003. Before his death, Saroj babu’s father asked him to perform the last rites following the Matua rituals and without involving any Brahmin. To keep his father’s last wish, Saroj babu buried his body in the small courtyard in front of his house and didn’t cremate him. He performed all the rituals himself. This act initiated a huge uproar in the neighbourhood. The families in the village were divided into

216

West Bengal under the Left (1977-2011)

two factions overnight. One group defended Saroj babu, while the other vehemently opposed him and called him a “Mussalman”. The incident led to some clashes among the two factions. The group which defended Saroj babu, he recalled, went to the local “comrade’s house”. Surprisingly, without even properly listening to them, he asked these people to report it to the local police station. What was the point in supporting the party, Saroj babu continued, whose member didn’t even bother to visit us at the time of need. They expectedthat local CPI(M) leaderwould visit to the site, see what happened and then decide if at allSaroj babu had done something wrong. The MM firmly stood by Saroj babu and the local TMC leader extended his support to this faction. Immediately after this incident, 14 families in the village decided to join TMC. Before concluding this story, Saroj babu proudly asserted, “We didn’t change the party for a goat or for Indira Abash Yojna. We changed it for humanity”. All these three instances explain the brahminical character of the mainstream Left in West Bengal. In case of the first, the LF’s decision of police intervention to dismantle a hunger-strike movement of the Dalit refugees reflects on its harsh political stance on the question of migration from Bangladesh. Sumanta Banerjee has rightly pointed out that the LF’s position on cross-border migration from Bangladesh under the Buddhadeb Bhattacharyya administration was no different from that of the BJP and other Hindutva forces.60 The migration question in fact exposed the Left’s upper-caste Hindu political character. The second case shows us the Left’s incapacity to appreciate and acknowledge the contributions of the local icons of an anti-caste movement in Bengal. And from the last narrative, we can conclude that the party, which was otherwise the sole mediatory institution in village politics during the LF regime, actually failed to settle a local dispute when it boiled down to the question of defending the cultural rights of a Dalit religious group. Finally, all these instances show that the politics of West Bengalis undergoing a change over the last decade which is marked by the crisis of party-society and introduction of a new politics of the group in rural areas.With regard to the caste question, the politics of the Matuas in contemporary West Bengal as a cohesive group under the leadership of MM over the last decade have undoubtedly played a significant role. Conclusion From the above discussion, we can conclude that the crisis of party-society was no sudden phenomenon. The anti-land acquisition peasant movements

The Caste Question and Decline of The Left in West Bengal

217

since 2006 onwards in Singur and Nandigram only formally declared the crisis which actually was taking shape in the different corners of the state for some time. Popular demands which were brewing at the village level among various marginal groups, as we discussed above, could not find expression within the model of party-society and required a different model for political representation. The politics of the group organized independently outside the realm of party-society as well as in constant dialogue with it therefore helps us to understand more clearly this changing political landscape of the state. What we see is a constant politics of bargaining done by the respective organizations of the different groups like the Namasudras, Rajbanshis, Gorkhas, Lepchas, Muslims and so forth over the last decade with the all the political parties in order toachieve recognition as well as material benefits. A recent demand of a number of these groups, for example, is that of a separate development council. In West Bengal, the TMC has so far most successfully negotiated with many of these minority groups. In case of the Matuasfor instance, we have seen that the members of the Thakur family, Manjul Krishna Thakur and Kapil Krishna Thakur have been given party tickets by TMC in 2011 state assembly elections and 2014 Lok Sabha elections respectively. The religious head of the community Baroma had also campaigned for his sons during these elections. After the untimely death of Kapil Krishna Thakur, his wife Mamata Bala Thakur wonthe by-election in the Bongaon Lok Sabha constituency in 2015 as a TMC candidate. The Left quite evidently could not catch up with this changing scenario. Apart from the Left and TMC, the other important candidate at the realm of party-politics currently is the BJP which has received significant percentage of votes in the last couple of elections. The BJP has also managed to get the support of the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha in the last decade and has promised them a separate state. Since the Lok Sabha polls in 2014, the state-election scene in West Bengal is shifting from bipolarity to multipolarity contest. The results of the 2016 state assembly elections show that the TMC, with 44.9% of the vote share, has been the biggest gainer in the process of bargaining with the different marginal groups. The BJP has also managed to get a significant 10.2% of the votes. The LF, which had entered into a disastrous alliance with the Congress this time, saw a steep decline in its vote-share (25.6%) while its partner Congress received 12.3% of votes.This result reconfirmed the paradigm shift from bipolarity to multi-polaritywhich I argue is a consequence of the crisis of the party-society in the last decade

218

West Bengal under the Left (1977-2011)

accompanied by the independent politics of the different marginal groups who are at present important actors in themultipolar arrangement. With TMC, essentially a centrist political party, getting an absolute majority with 211 seats in the state assembly, the future of opposition politics in the state however cannot be predicted. Whatever divertion it takes, one cannot deny the emerging trends of group politics and their powerful assertions which have successfully challenged the urban, upper-caste bhadralok hegemony in the present politics of West Bengal. Endnotes 1 Rezzak Mollah is the former CPI(M) leader who is known for his organizational abilities and political influence as a vocal peasant leader. Unlike the white dhuti-kurta-clad urban, upper-caste bhadralok leaders of the party, Mollah’s public image has developed over the last couple of decades as the quintessential village leader through his political actions, vocabulary and certainly his sense of public dressing, always accompanied by a gamcha (towel) around his neck. While serving as the Land and Land Reforms minister in the last Left Front government under Buddhadeb Bhattacharyya, he alarmed the party to revise its policies of land acquisition in the wake of peasant movements in Singur and Nandigram. In the aforementioned statement, a part of a telephonic conversation with two social scientists, he justified his criticism of the party using the metaphor of beehive struck by a stone. See Dwaipayan Bhattacharyya and Kumar Rana (2013), ‘‘West Bengal Panchayet Elections: What Does it Mean for the Left?,’’ Economic and Political Weekly, 48(37), pp. 10-13. 2 Bhattacharyya and Rana(2013), ‘‘West Bengal Panchayat Elections,’’ p. 13. 3 Ibid. 4 See link: http://ganashakti.com/english/news/details/4602 5 The Hindu, February 23, 2014, Kolkata. 6 In a meeting held at Bharat Sabha Hall in central Calcutta on January 30th, 2016, which I attended during my fieldwork, leaders like Sukriti Ranjan Biswas and Dr. Nazrul Islam, who were part of the Samajik Nyaybichar Mancha, expressed their discomfort with Rezzak Mollah’s decision to join the TMC and condemned him for backstabbing the newly formed forum. These organizations are now retrying to initiate some similar umbrella organization in the coming future. 7 Saroj Giri (2015), The Left is Dying, Long Live The Left, Outlook. See link: http://www.outlookindia.com/website/story/the-left-is-dying-long-live-theleft/294977

The Caste Question and Decline of The Left in West Bengal

219

8 A Dalit-Muslim political alliance is an interesting chapter in the history of Bengal politics. At the time of Partition of India in 1947, Jogendranath Mandal, the leader of All India Scheduled Caste Federation allied with the Muslim League since he believed that the Dalits and Muslims share similar political interests and concerns, and they must necessarily ally in order to contest the upper-caste dominance in the province. In contemporary West Bengal as well, a section of the Dalit activists and writers like Sukriti Ranjan Biswas and Manoranjan Byapari advocate for rebuilding such an alliance. For a detailed discussion, see Dwaipayan Sen (2016), An Absent-minded Casteism? in Uday Chandra, Kenneth Bo Nielsen, Geir Heierstad eds. The Politics of Caste in West Bengal, New Delhi, Routledge 2016, pp. 103-124. 9 For detailed discussion, see: Bidyut Chakraborty (2011), The Left Front’s 2009 Lok Sabha Debacle in West Bengal, India, Asian Survey, 51(2), pp. 290-310; Jyotiprasad Chatterjee and Suprio Basu(2014), Bipolarity toMultipolarity: Emerging Political Geometry in West Bengal, see link: http://www.lokniti.org/punjab_pdf/West-Bengal.pdf (accessed on June2, 2016). 10 The Matuas are the followers of an anti-caste religious movement which was initiated by Harichand Biswas a.k.a Harichand Thakur (as his followers called him) in the late 19th century eastern Bengal and institutionalized by his son Guruchand Thakur. The followers of Harichand-Guruchand are almost exclusively Namasudras and are variously scattered over Bangladesh and India after the Partition of India in 1947. In West Bengal, the Matua movement was revived by Pramatha Ranjan Thakur, the grandson of Guruchand and also a member of the Congress party. The Matuas use the term Dalit, patito, pichiye-pora-manush, sudra-samaj to describe themselves. For detailed discussion on the Matua community, see Sekhar Bandyopadhyay (2011), Caste, Protest and Identity in Colonial India: The Namasudras of Bengal 1872-1947, OUP, Praskanva Sinharay (2016), Building up the Harichand-Guruchand Movement: The Politics of Matua Mahasangha, in Uday Chandra, Kenneth Bo Nielsen, Geir Heierstad eds. The Politics of Caste in West Bengal, pp. 147-168. 11 Praskanva Sinharay(2012), A New Politics of Caste, Economic and Political Weekly, 47(34), pp. 26-27. 12 Partha Chatterjee(1993), The Nation and Its Fragments: Colonial and Postcolonial Histories, Princeton University Press, Princeton, pp.173-174. 13 B.T. Ranadive (1991), Caste, Class and Property Relation, National Book Agency, Calcutta. 14 Cited in Ranadive, 1991, Caste, Class and Property Relation, pp. 8-9.

220

West Bengal under the Left (1977-2011)

15 Ibid. 16 See link: http://cpim.org/sites/default/files/documents/2006_feb_Dalit_res. pdf (accessed on June 2, 2016). 17 Since mid-2000, the different Dalit groups have started to mobilize themselves independently in the politics of West Bengal. For instance, the Matuashas successfully mobilized them in the last decade and vociferously asserted their presence in the state politics. In West Bengal today, no political party can ignore the Matua factor while contesting elections, particularly in the districts bordering Bangladesh. In other words, the politics of Matuas have broke the long-drawn silence on the caste question in the state. See Praskanva Sinharay (2012), A New Politics of Caste. 18 Partha Chatterjee(1997), The Present History of West Bengal, OUP, New Delhi, pp. 69-86; Anjan Ghosh (2001), Cast(e) out in West Bengal, Seminar, 508. 19 Partha Chatterjee (1997), p. 82. 20 Ibid, p. 83. 21 Prabhat Patnaik(July 16, 2013), In the Long Run, The Telegraph, Kolkata. 22 Quoted in Christopher Jaffrelot, 2003, India’s Silent Revolution: The Rise of the Low Castes in North Indian Politics, Permanent Black, Delhi, p. 255. 23 Gopal Guru (February 1, 2016), A Tragic Exit from Social Death, Outlook. See link: http://www.outlookindia.com/magazine/story/a-tragic-exit-fromsocial-death/296480 (accessed on June 2, 2016). 24 Anjan Ghosh (2001), Cast(e) out in West Bengal, Seminar, 508. 25 Ross Mallick (1999), Refugee Resettlement in Forest Reserves: West Bengal Policy Reversal and the Marichjhapi Massacre, The Journal of Asian Studies, 58(1). 26 Manohar Mouli Biswas and Shyamal Kumar Pramanik (2011), Introduction, in Manohar Mouli Biswas and Shyamal Kumar Pramanik (ed.), Satarshe Bangla Dalit Sahitya, Bangla Dalit Sahitya Sanstha, Kolkata. 27 Anjan Ghosh (2001), Cast(e) out in West Bengal. 28 The irony is that the same LF after its defeat in 2009 Lok Sabha and 2010 civic polls “reckoned Muslims as OBCs and has accordingly announced 10% reservation for them”. Santosh Rana (2010), The Crisis of Identity, Frontier, 43(12-15), also see Sweta Kushry (1991), Mandal Commission and Left Front in West Bengal, Economic and Political Weekly, 26(8), pp. 419420. 29 Anjan Ghosh (2001), Cast(e) out in West Bengal.

The Caste Question and Decline of The Left in West Bengal

221

30 Sekhar Bandyopadhyay (2008), The Story of an Aborted Revolution: Communist Insurgency in Post-independence West Bengal, 1948-50, Journal of South Asian Development, 3(1), p. 3; also see Marcus Franda (1971), Radical Politics in West Bengal, MIT Press, Cambridge and London. 31 Sekhar Bandyopadhyay (2011), Caste, Protest and Identity in Colonial India, pp. 210-237. 32 Sekhar Bandyopadhyay (2008), The Story of an Aborted Revolution. 33 See Partha Chatterjee(2016), Partition and the Mysterious Disappearance of Caste in Bengal, in Uday Chandra, Kenneth Bo Nielsen, Geir Heierstad eds. The Politics of Caste in West Bengal, pp. 91-93. 34 Sekhar Bandyopadhyay (2011), Caste, Protest and Identity in Colonial India, pp. 247-248. 35 For a detailed discussion on UCRC, see Prafulla Charabarti (1990), The Marginal Men: The Refugees and the Left Political Syndrome in West Bengal, Lumiere Books, Calcutta. 36 Ranabir Samaddar(2013), Whatever has Happened to Caste in West Bengal?, Economic and Political Weekly, 48(36), pp. 77-79. 37 Sekhar Bandyopadhyay (2011), Caste, Protest and Identity in Colonial India, pp. 249-262. 38 Ranabir Samaddar(2013), Whatever has Happened to Caste in West Bengal? 39 Dwaipayan Bhattachatyya (2009), Of Control and Factions: The Changing ‘Party-Society’ in Rural West Bengal, Economic and Political Weekly, 44(9), pp. 59-69. _ (2011), Party Society, its Consolidation and Crisis: Understanding Political Change in Rural West Bengal, in Theorizing the Present: Essays for Party Society, in Anjan Ghosh, Tapati Guha-Thakurta and Janaki Nair (eds.), OUP, New Delhi, pp. 226-250. 40 Partha Chatterjee (2009), The Coming Crisis in West Bengal,Economic and Political Weekly, 44(9), p. 42-45. 41 Dwaipayan Bhattachatyya (2011),Party Society, its Consolidation and Crisis 42 Dwaipayan Bhattachatyya (2009), Of Control and Factions. 43 Ibid, p. 69. 44 Arild Engelsen Ruud (2003), Poetics of Village Politics: The Making of West Bengal’s Rural Communism, OUP, New Delhi, p. 146. 45 Dayabati Roy (2012), Caste and Power: An ethnography in West Bengal, India, Modern Asian Studies, 46(4), p. 973.

222

West Bengal under the Left (1977-2011)

46 Rajarshi Dasgupta (2009), The CPI(M) ‘Machinery’ in West Bengal: Two Village Narratives from Kochbihar and Malda, Economic and Political Weekly, 44(9), p. 81. 47 For a detailed discussion on the crisis of party-society, see Dwaipayan Bhattacharyya (2011), Party Society, its Consolidation and Crisis, pp. 238240. 48 Ibid, p. 238. 49 Bhattacharyya too anticipated the coming up of such an opposition, which he termed ‘opposition from outside the party society’ and gave us the examples of political formations like the Kamptapur People’s Party (in case of the Rajbanshis), Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (in case of the Gorkhas), Jamiyat-e-Ulema-e-Hind (of the minority Muslims). However, he uses the term ‘identitarian politics’ to denote the politics of these communities. See Ibid, p. 245. 50 For a detailed discussion on the politics of rehabilitation and discriminatory policies vis-à-vis resettlement of lower-caste refugees, see Anasua Basu Raychaudhuri (2010), Politics of Rehabilitation: Struggle of the LowerCaste Refugees in West Bengal, Voice of Dalits, 3(1); Pradip Bose (2010), Refugee, Memory, and the State: A Review of Research in Refugee Studies, Refugee Watch, 36. 51 Sandip Bandyopadhyay (2011), Who are the Matuas?, Frontier, 43(37). 52 Cited in Sumanta Banerjee (2003), Bengal Left: From Pink to Saffron?, Economic and Political Weekly, 38(9), p. 864. 53 For a detailed discussion on the refugee resettlement in and around Thakurnagar, see Ranabir Samaddar (1991), The Marginal Nation: Transborder Migration from Bangladesh to West Bengal, Sage Publications, New Delhi, pp. 96-106. 54 Interview with Ganapati Biswas on November 12, 2014. 55 One can get a version of events behind how the college was established in 2005 in their current website. See link: http://drbrasmahavidyalayahelencha. in/about (accessed on June 4, 2016). 56 Interview with Sunirmal Biswas on November 12, 2014. 57 Debanjan Das (March 29, 2009), Vote-e Matua Mahasangha Niye Eto Rajnoitik Utsaho Keno?, Bartaman, Kolkata. 58 Praskanva Sinharay (2016), Dalit Question in the Upcoming West Bengal Assembly Elections, Economic and Political Weekly, 51(9), pp. 17-20. 59 Interview with Saroj Bepari on April 22, 2016. 60 Sumanta Banerjee (2003), Bengal Left: From Pink to Saffron?

11 Muslims, Christians and The Left in Bengal Bonita Aleaz One can start the chapter with certain amount of concern, the concern relates to the absolute paucity of writings on ‘non-Hindu communities’ in India.1 This chapter finds that to a certain extent specific to West Bengal while historical, evolutionary accounts are not missing relating to the study of religious minority communities lodged in West Bengal, yet contemporary studies primarily analyzing behavioural responses and/or interactions with the left regime in the state are extremely scanty, this has helped ground the a priori ‘essentialized’ understandings relating to the various communities. Recent reports brought out by the Sachar commission have brought out the grave fallacy of subsuming specificities of a community under generalized notions. The gross neglect of the need to analyze community behaviour, comportment, explicit needs, attributes or even political expressions particular to a community leads not only to fallacious distributive norms but adds to misunderstandings relating to the support bases of the system as well. Therefore it becomes all the more significant to question the nature of the interface between the Left Front government and the religious minority communities. The chapter focuses primarily on the Muslims and the Christians, being the two largest religious minorities in the state and uses information garnered through periodic surveys, document analysis as also participant observation. Below the comparative figures of two Censuses are given for the three communities in India and in the state. Table 11.1. Comparative Census figures of the Hindus, Muslims and Christians in the country and in West Bengal, 2001 and 2011 2001

2011

Hindus

Muslims

Christians

Hindus

Muslims

Christians

India

80.5%

13.4%

2.3%

79.8%

14.2%

2.3%

West Bengal

72.57%

0.64%

70.54%

27.01%

0.72%

25.25%

Source : Religion, Census of India 2001 and Census of India ,2011

224

West Bengal under the Left (1977-2011)

The chapter does not enter into the debates surrounding the increase or abatement in numbers of either the Muslims or the Hindus, much has already been written about it, the above figures are for information purposes alone. . There is a great deal of difference between the usage Muslims and Christians of West Bengal and Muslims and Christians in Bengal. 2 My argument is the two religious groups are not just residents in West Bengal but claim rightful presence in the state; they are ‘of ‘West Bengal. This usage highlights the insider /outsider complexes that surface in the course of community studies. The empirical evidence provided later exacerbates this point with both the communities vehemently asserting their inalienable rights to the region. 1. The policies of the Left Front Government in West Bengal towards the minorities How did the minorities fare during the period of left rule in West Bengal? This can best be exemplified by presenting an overview of the left’s approach towards the two main minority groups in the state. 1) After gaining power in 1977, Chief Minister Jyoti Basu’s first speech from the All India Radio was significant due to its political rhetoric. He congratulated the people for having imposed their trust on the left: You have won back the right to vote in freedom after a long and arduous struggle… We are conscious that the people of West Bengal have shown great political maturity in voting for a left government and they expect a change in the interest of the people and our state. We shall strive to the best of our ability to be worthy of the trust and confidence reposed in us… Problems have accumulated over the years in all spheres — food, clothing, housing, transport, power, education, health and even with regard to drinking water facilities. The economy of the state is in a moribund condition and the people’s suffering knows no bounds. Massive unemployment, closed factories, retrenchments, absence of investment, power shortage — all these problems have assumed frightful proportions. The condition of the countryside beggars description. We shall make serious and sincere efforts to tackle these problems.3

Muslims, Christians and The Left in Bengal

225

The speech did not refer to any programme of social democratization or to religious minorities per se. Rather it prioritized the political gains and referred to the economic tasks at hand , in this the inclusive tone was paramount, the policies were for all. Such pronouncements were made periodically by other party members as well; no specific reference appeared related to particular programmes for the upliftment of the backward religious minorities. It was only at the14th Congress held at Madras in 1992 that the Party expressed its policy perspective towards religious minorities in a tangential manner; this was couched in a general espousal relating to the right to dissent: Under socialism, the right to dissent, freedom of expression and plurality of opinion will flourish with the aim of strengthening socialism. The question of whether other political parties exist or a multi-party system will prevail, depends crucially on the role that these parties have played during the process of revolution and socialist transformation.4 After relinquishing power it was only in 2004 that Jyoti Basu in his preelection speech made a reference to the negative role played by religionists in the country: The basis for the threat to India’s secular-democratic edifice comes from the communal ideology which is propagated insidiously by the BJP and its mentor – the RSS. Setting India on the path of progress and strengthening national unity requires the rejection of all communal ideologies and the parties and leaders who represent them.5 The above chronological review indicates the purposive exclusion of any reference to specific community development programmes; theirs’ was a secular ideological commitment and it was adhered to rigorously. However, the disastrous consequences of such a policy of complete ignorance and subsequent absence of specific attention towards the welfare of particular communities were soon highlighted by the Sachar Committee Report. The report brought to light the dreadful performance of the West Bengal Government in community welfare and development. 2) In March 2005 the Rajinder Sachar Committee, was commissioned by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to prepare the latest social, economic and

226

West Bengal under the Left (1977-2011)

educational condition of the Muslim community of India. The committee was headed by the former Chief Justice of Delhi High Court Rajinder Sachar, including six other members. The committee prepared a report of 403 pages, and presented it in the lower house (Lok Sabha) of the Indian Parliament on 30 November 2006, 20 months after obtaining the terms of reference from the PMO. The Sachar Committee had compared the status of West Bengal Muslims with the Scheduled Castes in the country and come to the conclusion that the former were worse off than the Scheduled Castes. This effectively meant that the government had solid evidence that social, economic and political indicators pointed towards the fact that the Muslims constituted the lowest rung of the ladder among the different groups in the country. The report had its desired effect and one finds the West Bengal Government for the first time making tremendous efforts to rectify its hitherto nonchalant stance towards religious minorities in the state. A spate of policies was announced by the state government in 2006 for the Muslim community. The July issue of the government publication West Bengal carried a comprehensive report citing the landmark strides the government had made specifically in developmental measures for the Muslims in the state. In many instances these measures, as claimed, predated substantially the scathingly negative report of the Sachar Committee. Some of the facts and figures cited by the government publication are given below. The report began with a declaration of the long perceived need to have a full –fledged department for minority welfare: The need was increasingly felt by the Government of West Bengal to create minorities’ development & welfare department, which would conceptualize, evolve and execute different development and welfare programmes for the minorities of the state of West Bengal. With the increasing range of its activities the state government has allotted a sum of Rs. 13 crore during the financial year 2006-2007 against 6 crore during the financial year1997-1998, the year when this department had started functioning as a full-fledged department.6 The West Bengal Minorities’ Development and Finance Corporation (WBMDFC) was established in 1996 mainly to promote selfemployment opportunities in various trades and activities and to develop entrepreneurship through infrastructural and financial help from the state government as well as from National Minorities Development and Finance Corporation. The target groups were mainly the backward sections of the

Muslims, Christians and The Left in Bengal

227

minorities. Since inception the WBMDFC has disbursed 143.80 crore among 45,325 beneficiaries for self-employment activities.7 Girls’ education seemed to receive some priority; this was indicated by the efforts made for the construction of about ten hostels to accommodate nine hundred Muslim girls in most of the backward districts having considerable Muslim presence in the state. Apart from the above a scheme to disburse stipends for poor and meritorious students was taken up under the aegis of the WBMDFC, an amount of 1.05 crore among 7524 beneficiaries in the state. Till 20032004 these stipends were disbursed by the Wakf boards. Subsequently they were made over to the WBMDFC. The government report mentioned the advances it had made in the area of Wakf property. Wakf (endowment) is a permanent dedication of a person professing Islam in the name of the Almighty. To manage those properties, a statutory body namely “The Office of Wakf Commissioner” was constituted as per provisions in the Bengal Wakf Act, 1934. In the year 1995, a Central Act namely, “the Wakf Act, 1995” was enacted which came into force in 1996. The Board of Wakfs, West Bengal was constituted as per the provisions of the Act and it was reconstituted in the year 2001. The running of the Board has been seriously questioned by the community. Questions were raised after the General Budget discussions in 2001 in the State assembly regarding the serious malfunctioning of the Board: A serious allegation, impugning both the government officials and in this case certain Muslim elites as well, was made with reference to utilization of Wakf (endowment, plural awakf).Two basic characteristics of Wakf were and continue to be : perpetuity and permanence. This means that the nature and purpose for which the property is originally endowed, in principle, remains unaltered. Ostensibly these funds were to be used for the educational progress of backward Muslim boys and girls. However, the Wakf investigation board discovered that millions of rupees worth of endowment funds had been indiscriminately appropriated.8 In the light of some of the problems associated with the management of Wakf properties, the tenth fiqh Seminar,( among others) made the following observations: Awakf are to be held in perpetuity; Muslims of India along with the government are responsible for their protection and development; sale or transfer of any Awaqf is abhorrent. The Wakf board’s proposals on the correct method of disbursement of funds were overruled on many occasions. Self-employment and free educational schemes among the poor was also encouraged. The WBMDFC has been disbursing “Interest-

228

West Bengal under the Left (1977-2011)

Free Education Loan” to the poor and meritorious minority students for undertaking technical and professional education from the financial year 2003-2004. An amount of Rs. 137.00 lakh has been disbursed among 240 such beneficiaries till 2006. Countrywide there was huge flak against the left front government with the publication of the Sachar Committee Report. Its credibility was called into question as never before , at this juncture it was not the sitting Chief Minister Shri Buddhadev Bhattacharya but the veteran Shri Jyoti Basu the erstwhile Chief Minister who had to step in to salvage them from the situation . His letter to the Prime Minister Shri Manmohan Singh in October 2008, in the wake of the Sachar Committee Report was significant. It expressed the concerns of the State Government specifically over minority affairs and the need for shifting the attention from the centrality of political issues to social democracy.9 3) Subsequently we find the left becoming more conscious about its role towards the religious minorities and at the nineteenth Congress of the CPM at Coimbatore in 2008, for the first time the party publicly acknowledged its bounden responsibility towards the Muslim minorities in the state. Two sections of Part II of the resolution were exclusively devoted to the analysis of the status of the community and their commitments in the future.10 4) The ordeals of the Left Front government were however far from over, it faced a serious task in 2009, when the Ranganath Mishra Committee Report was tabled in Parliament, also referred to as the Report of the National Commission for Religious and Linguistic Minorities, May 2007 (tabled in Parliament in December 2009). It presented an important challenge, since it had to respond factually regarding its policy and implementation on the minority front. After the Sachar committee Report of November 2006, this was a grave reminder of the long pending tasks of the government that constantly referred to its pro-poor image. However, this time the government was prepared; it had preempted the questioning in Parliament and was prompt in its response: a) Going beyond the Ranganath Mishra Commission recommendation the WB government provided 10% reservation in government jobs for OBC Muslims and 7% for non Muslim OBC’s. They took certain quick policy measures and came up with the statement: “As a result of the expansion of

Muslims, Christians and The Left in Bengal

229

State OBC list, currently, among 2.02 crore Muslims in Bengal, 1.72 crores are OBCs amounting to over 85% of total Muslims in the state.”11 The 10% reservation facilitated fifty three backward Muslim communities in the state. b) In response to the recommendation that Select institutions in the country like the Aligarh Muslim University and the Jamia Millia Islamia should be legally given a special responsibility to promote education at all levels to Muslim students, the WB government cited the instance of setting up a new campus of the Aligarh Muslim University at Murshidabad on 300 acres. This was apart from the Aliah University, started since 2007, was the erstwhile Calcutta Madrasah, which now offered a five year integrated course of secular subjects as well. Instances were also cited of the WB State University in Barasat and Gour Banga University in Malda that have over 20% enrolment of Muslim students. The above mentioned measures were all in the wake of the Sachar Committee Report, and pre-empted the Ranganath Mishra Commission. So the period of implementation of the policies was very brief between 2007 and the pre-election period of 2009.

Table 11.2. Achievements of the Left Front Government in the field of Madrasah Education Issues Allotment for Madrasah education No of Madrasahs

Years 1977-78

2010

560000

610 crores

238

605

West Bengal Madrasah Education Service --

4000 new teachers

Total Madrasah teachers

19,992

2580

Source: People’s Democracy, An organ of the CPI(M), New Delhi Posted by Ajoy Dasgupta 3rd April 2011.

The above figures posted in the CPM mouthpiece, People’s Democracy showed that the government was to a certain extent determined to salvage its image since the publication of the Sachar committee report to rectify the previous gross negligence of the community’s educational development. c) Some other facts and figures were given which sought to comprehensively respond to both the Ranganath Mishra Commission report and the Sachar Committee report.

230

West Bengal under the Left (1977-2011)

Table 11.3. Actions taken by the Left Front Government for the Muslims in West Bengal Issues

2010

explanation

1.

Multi Sectoral Development Project (MSDP)

264.24 cr

This is 36% of total MSDP till 30/12/11, highest in the country

2.

Houses under Indira Awas Yojana

21317

3

Anganwadis

4109

4.

Additional classrooms

2043

5.

Landownership by Muslims

25.6%

Of total cultivated land ,being held by 30.9 % of rural households, this is the total of rural Muslim households

6.

Total Pattas distributed to Muslims (19772010)

18%

Of the total

7.

Primary enrolment

School 30.03%

--

Percentage of total enrolment in state. National enrolment average 13.04% in 20092010.

source: As Table 2 above.

5) These efforts to salvage its image continued almost desperately even after it received a serious drubbing at the State Assembly polls in 2011. The twentieth Party Congress of the CPI (M) held in Kolkata in January 2012, was significant , even though the party was no longer in power, it affected possibly the most important turning point visible in the policies and programmes of the CPM. The shift as has been mentioned above appeared in the document produced after the Coimbatore conference, yet the Kolkata conference seemed to be strategically more important since the ‘concern for the minorities’ was seen as a continuing one even though it was no longer in power. 12It was an absolute volte face visible in the policy of the major coalition party, in including a substantially large section specifically subtitled “Problems of Muslim Minority” in the policy document, four large paragraphs from 2.86 to 2.90 were devoted to the thorough analysis of the same. They started with an allegation that the UPA had turned down their proposal of having a sub-plan for the Muslim minority in line with the existing sub-plan for the Scheduled Tribes, so that dedicated funds for the

Muslims, Christians and The Left in Bengal

231

development of Muslim majority areas could be allocated. They refuted the Central Government’s proposal to provide 4.5 % reservation for the Muslims within the existing 27%, rather as stated earlier their demand was for 10%. For the first time the word ‘Christians’ was included in their proposals: “ the benefits of reservation enjoyed by the Scheduled Castes should be extended to their counterparts among the Muslims and the Christians”.13 They also expressed their strong indignation at the treatment meted out to Muslim youth in the wake of any terrorist or communal attack “this biased and discriminatory treatment by the police and investigating security agencies is a gross injustice and it only feeds into the communal stereotyping of the Muslim community. The CPI (M) demands an end to such discrimination and violation of human rights.”14 Through governmental postings on its website, and publications in its official media ,along with various writings by a range of party supporters also periodically emerged from 2009 onwards, strongly upholding the achievements of the Left front in the realm of minority welfare, in certain instances it was claimed to be the best in the country. Prasenjit Bose15 sought to compare the achievements of the Uttar Pradesh Minority Financial Development Corporation’s functioning from 1994 (two years before the inception of the West Bengal Minority Development and Financial Corporation) and came to the conclusion that the WBMDFC emerged best in the country! This phase of attempted changes in policy formulations regarding the Muslims was however interspersed with the unfortunate Singur and Nandigram events in association with the governments’ wellintended yet ill-conceived industrialization plans. The government paid heavily for its policies on forcible land acquisition and eventually had to give way for the emergence of the Trinamul government in May 2011. The analysis presented above reveals the post Sachar period was indeed one of concerted attempts to rectify the previous lacuna in community– oriented development. The government policies were mired in the perspective of ‘trickle–down’ effects of development, that development in one area eventually influenced the growth of all. That this was a total misreading of the situation, resulting from gross alienation from the grass roots where the majority of the Muslims were lodged was soon to be revealed.

232

West Bengal under the Left (1977-2011)

2.1. The Muslim response The Muslim volte face in the 2011 assembly elections in West Bengal was expected. They had already expressed disapproval towards the left in the preceding Lok Sabha and municipal elections. The massive distancing from a previously almost quiescent community however came as a big blow to the left. An explanatory viewpoint becomes significant here. The left had all along provided ‘security’ to the minorities 16over a period of time this became an ‘instrumentalist and a pragmatic’ issue as well, of mutual convenience.17 The provision of basic security interpreted as ‘noninterference’ in community affairs along with the Left’s commitment to a non-communal environment in West Bengal and significant efforts to stem communal violence was reciprocated with a steady support base from the Muslims. But this question of ‘security’ was violently cast against deeper questions of livelihood, employment and the daily experience of excruciating poverty. After the Sachar Committee published the disparaging report of the left government’s disastrous record towards the Muslims the efforts at industrialization by the government had to be violently aborted. Traditionally, till the assembly polls of 2006, the Left Front could depend on securing about 18 out of the 25 per cent Muslim vote in the state. PostNandigram and post-Singur, the situation changed radically, with a big chunk of Muslims - who dominate Nandigram and Singur - moving to the Trinamul Congress and the Congress, making the Left Front vulnerable. The 2011 election results of the two constituencies of Nandigram and Singur, traditionally left bastions were as follows: Table 11.4 Results of 2011 Assembly election, Nandigram and Singur Constituency

District

Winning candidate

Number of votes

% of votes won

Winning party

Nandigram

East Midnapur

Firoza Bibi

103,300

60%

TMC

Singur

Hooghly

Rabindranath 100,869 Bhattacharya

57.61%

TMC

Source: Eciresults.ap.nic.in 14May 2011, accessed 25/10/12

Another area of investigation is to establish the type of interface that was eventually visible among the Muslims and the government. For this I refer to my own survey data obtained through intensive survey conducted from 2006-2008 along some of the border districts and towns of West Bengal, namely, Uttar Dinajpur, Nadia, Murshidabad, Malda,

Muslims, Christians and The Left in Bengal

233

North 24 Parganas and South 24 Parganas. A number of questions had impelled the research, the most significant being their perceptions / affiliations towards the government in the context of changes in life and living over time. The inordinate rise of the Muslim population in the last decade was the subject of controversy among the right wing political groups in the country. The fresh division of the district into Uttar and Dakshin Dinajpur could explain the sudden increase in the Hindu population in the newly formed Dakshin Dinajpur (Uttar Dinajpur has a traditionally larger percentage of Muslims) and the corresponding increase in the Muslim population in Uttar Dinajpur during the eighties and the nineties, but the spiraling growth in the Muslim population even in the last decade in Uttar Dinajpur and the decline of the Hindus in the neighbouring district was attributed to illegal migrants of one community in the northern region and the continuing flight of the Hindus from the southern . This offset the traditional majority/ minority complexion of the region. There has been cross border migrations and this is corroborated by the data obtained from Census reports. Located between the unsavoury Kishengunje District of Bihar on its left, which also has a large concentration of members of the minority community and sharing its borders with Bangladesh on its right, this “chicken neck” district is a habitual attraction for migrants from both sides. Small tea shop owners along National Highway 34 along the road from Malda to Uttar Dinajpur, very frankly observed there was absolute break down of law and order in their own District of Kishengunje in Bihar, this had prompted them overtime to migrate along with their families to the eastern “comparatively safe haven” of Uttar Dinajpur. “If they respected the law, the mandate of the local party, then their community was left alone.”18 The entry of outsiders into primarily an agrarian belt did create certain amount of upheavals. My queries were impelled by the plaintive note heard from many regarding their unprofitable occupation. Deep tube wells could not be used due to absence of electricity for long hours at a stretch; the price of fertilizers had increased; the markets were not situated in prime locations, they were meant to be at the cross roads of villages but their locations in remote areas were the manifestations of the intensity of local clout exercised by people in a certain locality. Some villagers in the Tehatta region of Nadia District, who claimed their residence from the time of the Battle of Plassey, rued that “all had lost out in the land reforms, both the Hindus and the Muslims.”

234

West Bengal under the Left (1977-2011)

While these complaints seemed to be the general woes of ruralites, the villagers near the border had more deep-seated problems. The barbed wire boundary running along the borders with Bangladesh was erected a few years ago. The wide fencing in a great many of the cases created a peculiar phenomenon called zero point land, which fell inside the wide fencing but could still be cultivated. The Border Security Force controlled the opening and closing of the gates across the barbed wires apparently with extreme strictness but much depended upon their whims and fancies as well. Even exigent circumstances prevented free access; political influence, economic clout all counted towards gaining favours from the B.S.F. the growing incidence of tea gardens in the districts of Uttar Dinajpur, and Dakshin Dinajpur also affected the farmers. The entire infrastructure in the areas such as Krishna Sujali, Ramgunge I and II Blocks; or Matikunda I and II, (Uttar Dinajpur) bore the brunt of slow but steady encroachment of tea gardens over and against cultivation. The farmers simply did not find it lucrative to continue with farming operations any more. They were coerced in various instances to part with their farm land in lieu of some amount of money. Usually Rs 12000 was paid per acre. However, these plaintive notes were counterbalanced by certain other voices that claimed tea gardens had brought in employment to at least 20% of the unemployed. I could see a communal divide in these observations, the Muslims seemed to complain, but the Hindus seemed to be more resigned. The common refrain heard was it was no longer profitable to engage with agricultural operations any more. Loss of land therefore signaled large-scale poverty and the evidence of impoverishment of the villagers was very much visible. The shift further heightened informalization of the labour force that lived at subsistence level. A few more positions expressed by the respondents should be described: I wanted to see if there was any correlation between political support and material benefits or loss of the same. Only 13.01 % stated that they had obtained specific benefits, whereas 74% said they had faced problems; 11% felt they had not faced any problems on account of their political preferences. 2% did not respond to this query. Perception of discrimination was profound in the areas surveyed; discrimination in the job sphere (a first class Post graduate, Net qualified in Mathematics had her name wiped out mysteriously from the College Service Commission panel; a qualified person despite being selected was ultimately denied the job of an Assistant under the Panchayat in a village under Tehatta, Plassey para, as his appointment

Muslims, Christians and The Left in Bengal

235

would tilt the balance in favour of one community) was the most serious allegation voiced at the individual level. Innumerable allegations of not being found suitable for School Service Commission jobs were also made. (Vide interviews conducted by me in Tehatta, Nadia, and various villages in Uttar Dinajpur, also in North 24 Parganas).19 At the community level however discrimination of a different kind was alleged. These grievances related to discrimination in obtaining the benefits of development earmarked for particular villages dominated by the Muslims being diverted to another village dominated by the Hindus; roads and tube wells in dilapidated conditions; schools without any modicum of infrastructure; all this appeared in stark contrast to the relatively better conditions prevailing in either the next locality, the next village or area where members of the Hindu community lived. These facts to a great extent corroborated the findings of the Sachar Committee Report that indeed much has to be done in areas dominated largely by the members of the minority community in the region.20 The above statements point to a slow but perceptible shift in political support bases towards viable alternative political power, yet what was remarkable was the intense alignment with the region and the desire to hold on to their hearth and home despite abject marginalization in distributive benefits.64% of my sample expressed eagerness to move out in search of better employment; 24% wished to stay on and identify with whatever the future held for them but a large 83% expressed a fierce support for retention of hearth and home in Bengal! What emerges from the above narration is not a case for communal conflict, neither is it a case of possible revolt. For analytical purposes I see an instrumentalism here applicable both for the self the community and the state. 2.2 The Christian Response The Christians in Bengal have been conscious of the fact that the government has always meant the Muslims in the state by the use of the epithet “minorities”. Thus policies, plans or disbursements have been made exclusively for that community rather than all the minority communities in the state. Repeated applications made in this respect to acquaint the government of similarities in status of both the Muslims and the Christians in the state on many counts have been to no avail. The allegation was both the Central as well as the state government placed more importance on the Muslim community rendering them to a “a minority among minorities”.

236

West Bengal under the Left (1977-2011)

21

So, right at the outset the gross discrimination even in the status of a minority is glaringly obvious. Before I proceed further it is important to get an idea of the percentages constituting the Christian community in West Bengal and the districts that hold the maximum number of the religious group as per the 2011 census. The state has a mere 0.72% of the population who identify as Christians( all denominations combined). Of the districts Darjeeling holds the highest numbers : Christians are 2.3 % of the population ( 2011 Census, as also in 2001). The response of the Christian community can best be recorded by following the activities of the most comprehensive organizational representative of all Christians in the state, referred to as the Bangiya Christiya Pariseba (BCP). This organization proclaims ‘united mass movement towards unity, justice, peace and service’. It is the only state level, all denominational, non-political, registered Christian Forum in West Bengal, authorized by all the major denominations in the state: the Roman Catholic, Church of North India (Protestants), Methodists and Heads of other denominations to “ stand and speak on behalf of the Christian community of West Bengal.”22 The movement was initiated on the 25th of May 1994, to strengthen the hands of the Church and other religious bodies with three major issues: 1) Rights to establish and administer educational institutions of our choice as per Article 30 of the Indian constitution. 2) Rights to enjoy various governmental privileges including reservation in jobs and education for Christians of Schedule Caste origin and Christians holding Portuguese names.23 3) Encountering of anti-church fundamentalist’ agenda and activities.24 The above mentioned objectives encompass more or less the comprehensive objectives of the Christian community; the non-political stance mentioned in the preface is significant. One observes the community maintaining this attitude throughout the period being analyzed. Though the community at large has maintained a non-political front, yet a political party called The Christian Democratic Party joined the “Save Bengal Front formed by Mamata Banerjee on the eve of the 1998 elections. Several small parties opposed to the Left Front, such as the Muslim League, the Awami Muslim League, the Indian Union Muslim League and the All India Christian Democratic Party, joined the Front.25 This party did have a marginal presence in West Bengal , it was at one time renamed as the

Muslims, Christians and The Left in Bengal

237

All India Christian Democratic and Backward People’s Party. However it existed as a registered, unrecognized political party.Arun Anthony Biswas, the single name associated with the party is a retired school teacher; he wishes to protect the interest of the Christians and other backward people. His stand point remains:” Christians are often attacked. We need to be united. This is why I am trying to increase our support base by tying up with minority groups.”26 The monthly journal Nabayan, is the magazine for the Bengali speaking Christians all over India, Bangladesh and overseas. It is published by the Bangiya Christiya Sahitya Kendra, located at 65A Mahatma Gandhi Road, Kolkata .It is a major publication centre of the Bengali Christians and has been in publication since 1967.The editorial as well as the letters to the editor, reflect the tone and the mood, the orientation of the community towards the political structure, specific events and issues in the state. A perusal of the journal over time shows none of the writings expressed affiliation with any specific party or ideology; rather the discussions are to a large extent informative and pragmative in nature. For instance, the editorial published immediately after the left front came to power in 1977 critiqued the autocratic regime instituted by the Congress party. It hailed in unstinted words the return to democratic governance in Bengal by the election of the left, and this, the editorial claimed was a clear stamp of erudition displayed by the people of Bengal. Similarly in 1980, when Mrs. Indira Gandhi regained power at the centre, the editorial expressed inordinate hope on the new Prime Minister, saying the reemergence of the Congress was through an ordeal by fire. Supplications were made that her leadership be successful.27 Despite the apparent apolitical stance, their interface with the government over the issues indicated above with which the Bangiya Christiya Pariseba (BCP) has identified itself, has been persistent and forceful. Their methods to present their rightful demands have ranged from dialogue with the authorities to forming pressure groups to actively projecting their demands. In 2008 an organization, The West Bengal Association of Minorities Educational Institutions was formed “to fight the discriminatory policies of the government,” the General secretary Herod Mullick , reported to the press.28 More than 2500 schools run by Christians, Sikhs, Muslims, Buddhists and other communities joined the association. The intention was to meet the education minister of the state and present their charter of demands. The West Bengal Minorities Coordination Committee was

238

West Bengal under the Left (1977-2011)

formed on the 23rd of August 2006, to discuss various problems faced by the minorities and seek viable solutions for them. This constituted: Furfura Sharif from Amanat Foundation, West Bengal Madrasa Students Union, West Bengal Minority Youth Federation, Ahle Sunet al Jamet and Natun Gati represented the Muslims; The Sikhs were represented by Rashbehari Gurdwara Jagat Sudhar, Sikh Nari Manch, and SikhYouth Forum. The BCP represented the Christians.29 The educational sector constituted their main area of demands. The BCP alleged that despite their contributions being maximal in the education sector yet, discrimination prevailed: “This Marxist government says it’s secular, but in practice it is not.” Herod Mullick the Secretary of the BCP alleged a whole list of grievances that glaringly pointed towards the extreme marginal treatment of the community even in the matter of school education by the government. So they planned to go to Delhi to start an agitation there.30 Their allegations included: 1) Recognition to schools run by Christian institutions did not occur despite fulfilling the criteria for regular schools. The schools resented interference by the government, since under Article 30 of the Constitution, minority schools can administer and establish their educational institutions independently, but the state government’s 100 point roster was preventing them from doing so.31 2) As per their specific rights guaranteed under the Constitution, they followed a 50% reservation for students in schools run by them; however, through a Supreme Court order instituted since 2005, suddenly this privilege was denied to the training colleges, in fact Christian students were totally missing from the first lists published.32 3) A much more debatable issue was the School Service Commission (Amendment) Bill 2006.The Bill categorically stated that “the government would either stop governmental grants to a minority school, or cancel its affiliation, unless the school appointed its teachers according to procedures enlisted by the School Service Commission.” This was a serious infringement on the rights of the minority communities.33 Other types of interference were also noted; reduction in the number of seats in B.Ed colleges run by Christian institutions by the government on the plea that it violated existing teacher-student ratio set by the National Council for Teacher Education. This was done without consideration of the fact that recruitment of teachers would also be hampered;No Objection certificates

Muslims, Christians and The Left in Bengal

239

required to set up new educational institutions was not available; there was inordinate delay in this, beyond the stipulated 90 days. There was abject partiality and red tapism against minority institutions in procuring the NOC. No information was given to them regarding the time or the number of documents to be submitted.34 The obtainment of minority status itself was a tremendous hurdle, apart from inordinate delay in this, sometimes recognized institutions could be derecognized by relevant universities (for instance Cluny Women’s College located in Kalimpong, which was derecognized by the North Bengal University on flimsy grounds).35 The management of primary schools also reflected undue advantage taken by the government. More than 200 primary schools were located on church lands, the church provided the infrastructure, but their management was in the hands of the government. These were gross infringements on minority rights.36 4) The BCP demanded the setting up of a state level body, the National Commission for Minorities in West Bengal; this they felt would help the speedy redressal of the problems being faced by them. The setting up of a National Commission for Minority Educational Institutions was not sufficient, since the problems had to be solved locally. 5) Exemption from the governments’ reservation policy for both teaching posts and enrolment of students was important This demand was granted after the state government decided to lift the status of reserved seats for SC/ST teachers in government-aided Urdu medium schools. 6) Land-grab allegation against the government also was a serious issue. This was not Singur and Nandigram alone ; the Christians claimed similar victimization. The Seventh day Adventist Church that ran a school for poor children on 375 acres in Falakata, in Jalpaiguri was told by the government that it could keep only 24 acres.The allegation was that the church had flouted land ceiling rules, an organization could not hold over 7.5 acres in urban areas and 24.20 acres in other areas. However in special cases where approval had been obtained from the central government and the objective was to set up an industry or for a development project of the state retention of excess land was possible. Citing the land rules, the state government had started acquiring 60 acres from the Methodist church in Asansol; 21 acres from the Baptist Union Church in Midnapore; 21 acres from the Evangelical Lutheran church in Purulia and 14acres from the church of North India in Jiagunge, Murshidabad. The crisis this generated was very severe, since a lot of philanthropic work was carried on in most of these lands, which were

240

West Bengal under the Left (1977-2011)

actually donated. Such activities had to be curbed due to the decision by the government. The BCP had contended in court that the government could not include church lands under land ceiling laws.37 7) In August 2008, the state planned a new Education Bill under which all private institutions were to come under one comprehensive law. The draft of the bill contained: a 17 point agenda that included –a fee structure as per the guidelines of the government; setting up of schools as designated by the government; and elected guardian representatives. Strong protests were launched against this move as well.38 8) At one point of time the media reported that “Exhausted with the persistent victimization, around 700 Christian schools across the state expressed their desire to break away from the School Education Department and join the Education Department. These were affiliated to the state Boards for Madhyamik and Higher Secondary examination”.39 What this effectively meant but which the media failed to correctly interpret was, the schools privately managed by Christian managing committees had to apply via the School Education Department in the State for recognition if they wished to be affiliated with Delhi Boards of Examination, but this was a very frustrating and lengthy process. In the case of schools affiliated to Madhyamik or Higher Secondary Examination systems the experience was less excruciating.40 Despite some ameliorating efforts being made by the government to stem the growing anti-left attitudes there was a visible turning away from the left front government and for the first time the BCP instructed the Christians to vote for the non-left combines in the Lok Sabha and the assembly elections. The Chairman of the National Commission for Minority Educational Institutions had assured the Christians that they need not unduly worry about non-obtainment of no-objection certificates for their schools, because if their demand was not met within the stipulated 90 days of the application , the matter no longer rested with the state government. They could function on the basis of their minority certificates.41 Herod Mullick, the All Bengal State Secretary of the Bengal Christiya Parisheba had a few more observations to make . (Vide interview in the office of the BCP located on 16 Elgin Road, Kolkata, on 18th of October 2012) He pointed out the basic problem lay in the left government’s refusal to categorize the Christians in the same category as the Muslims; thus there was not a single Christian in any of the minority related offices. OBC

Muslims, Christians and The Left in Bengal

241

certificates were not easily available to backward class Christians since the rules were not compatible with the practices that governed Christian conversions. For instance a person converted in the early 1990s, could never produce a caste identity certificate, because that simply did not exist; hence the benefits of OBC, available to the Muslim was not available to the equally impoverished Christian! Moreover the clause that the surname is decisive in the case of castes also does not hold for Christians since their names change after conversion. Mullick felt the extremely weak position of the Christians in the state was primarily due to their own inner fragmentation; moreover the excessive spirituality exhibited by the church even in serious political issues prevented a forceful united front from being formed. So their demands were shelved and treated with marginal concern! The formation of the Bangiya Christiya Parisheba had rectified matters to a certain extent. It represented a hard wrought unity among the Christian community; their influence had penetrated to the grass roots as well .Mullick believed that some demands had been met by the left front, but not all.42 3. Concluding Observations: The observations made above relating to the Christians and the Muslims during the period of Left rule in West Bengal on no account point to internally homogeneous communities. The question may be asked her where are the communities lodged today and in what condition?’’ land concluded ‘‘A clientalism.’’ A series of articles published in the Economic and Political Weekly analyzed the unusual stability of political power in rural West Bengal. The basic question of this chapter also had been: “What are the reasons internal to the institutions of government and politics in rural West Bengal that might endanger the stability of Left Front rule?” The findings have shown successful institutionalization of clientalism and institutional efectiveness in the state, has translated into continued stability in the region. While the omnipresence of the party cannot be refuted, I have tried to question the assumption that the party at the cost of any other institution has achieved successful penetration of the vast fabric of rural life. Rather the argument advanced here is, a particular variant of the democratic principle, pragmatism of the everyday, was found to be in operation for a greater part of the 33 years, this was mutually satisfying both to the small minority communities dotting the landscape as well as the coalition of parties. From the standpoint of the latter, a dialogue with only the outer rim of

242

West Bengal under the Left (1977-2011)

the community has been necessary; in this way immediate countenancing of the baggage of alternate ideologies, belief systems and power structures emanating from the same could be permanently shelved; on the other hand, from the standpoint of the community the inner precincts retain their dense sacrosanct impenetrability, at the same time the largesse of security which may not come with such ease in other states of the country is also ensured. The political strength of this tacit agreement was however never fully explored by the party in power, leaving the links very loose and tenuous, which has been detrimental to it in recent times. Endnotes 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12

13

14

Rowena Robinson (2003), Christians of India, New Delhi: Sage. Ibid,p.9 Jyoti Basu, Chief Minister, in a message broadcast from the Calcutta Station of All India Radio, on June 22, 1977 On Certain Ideological Issues, Resolution Adopted at the 14th Congress of the CPI(M),Madras, January 3-9, 1992 Jyoti Basu’s Election Speech on Door Darshan, People’s Democracy, Vol XXVIII,No18,2 May 2004. West Bengal (2006) p,1 Ibid. West Bengal Legislative Assembly, General Discussion on Budget, Feb 2001 Jyoti Basu, Letter to Prime Minister in response to his letter of 7th October 2008,http://jyotibasu.net/?q=node/251, accessed 22/10/2012 Political Resolution, Adopted at the XIX Congress of the CPI(M) March 29 to April 3, 2008, Coimbatore accessed on 26th August 2014. Ranganath Mishra Commission Report (2009)p.1 The Kolkata conference of 2012 does not strictly fall within the purview of this paper, yet it is mentioned here , to facilitate the radical shift that was brought about in course of time by the party in its policies towards the minorities. The Kolkata conference of 2012 does not strictly fall within the purview of this paper, yet it is mentioned here , to facilitate the radical shift that was brought about in course of time by the party in its policies towards the minorities. The Kolkata conference of 2012 does not strictly fall within the purview of this paper, yet it is mentioned here , to facilitate the radical shift that

Muslims, Christians and The Left in Bengal

15

16 17

18 19 20 21 22

23 24

25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32

243

was brought about in course of time by the party in its policies towards the minorities. Prasenjit Bose (2009) “What the communists have done to West Bengal”, http://mail.sarai.net/pipermail/reader-list/2009-April/019293.html accessed on 15th September 2011. Asghar Ali Engineer(2010) “Indian Muslims: Problems and Voting Pattern, http://www Csss-isla.com, 24th June , accessed on 25/10/12 Bonita Aleaz (2012) “Pragmatic Components of Indian Democracy: Notes from the field” in Partha Pratim Basu et al ed. Democracy and Democratization in South Asia, New Delhi: Har Anand Publishers . This view could be interpreted from that which was projected by a large number of those surveyed. Both the residents along the National Highway, which in itself is a vulnerable area and those in the inner localities far away from motorways, felt that the political brokers did not unduly touch the community. Ibid. Ibid. Ibid. The Statesman, 15 January 2009. Bangiya Christiya Parisheba, A Brief Profile,p.1 The Christian population in West Bengal is more than 10 lakhs: which is about a little more than 1 % of the population; More than 60% are of SC origin; Tribal Christians are about 39%; the number of Dioceses are : Catholics 8; Church of North India :4; Baptist, Methodist and The Assembly of God Church are the other prominent denominations; apart from these the other smaller denominations are 17. Ibid. Bangiya Christiya Parisheba, A Brief Report of the Movements of BCP, till date toward retrieving and sustaining Educational Rights of the Christian Minority Educational Institutions in West Bengal As Per Article 30 of the Indian Constitution , as covered by the Media, p.1. Frontline Vol. 15, No. 10 , May 09 - 22, 1998. Times of India, 23 April 2009. Nabayan, January 1980, p. 3. TheTelegraph,12 December 2008. The Indian Express, 24 August 2006. The Sunday Express, 24th April 2005. Sunday Hindustan Times 24th April 2005. Ananda Bazar Patrika, 22 May 2005.

244

33 34 35 36 37 38 39 40 41 42

West Bengal under the Left (1977-2011)

The Telegraph, 5th April 2006. The Statesman, 12th December 2008 The Telegraph, 26th August 2008. Hindustan Times , 7 March 2006; The Telegraph 24th March 2007; The Indian Express, 10th March 2007; The Statesman,24th March 2007. The Telegraph,17th August 2008. The Indian Express, 23rd August 2008. Indian Express, 14th February 2009. Interview, Herod Mullick on 28th August 2014. The Statesman 24th March 2007. Interview with Herod Mullick, the State Secretary of the Bangiya Christiya Parisheba, at his office, 18th October 2012.

12 Women/Community and Politics in West Bengal Bandana Chatterji Introduction – The women’s question in Bengal The women’s situation in present day Bengal confronts us with a perplexing paradox. On the one hand, Bengali women (together with men) benefited from the social reform movements of the mid 19th century. Compared to the rest of India they had the earliest exposure to education, cultural liberalization and partial political participation in the nationalist movement. But today, in the first decade of the 21st century, women in Bengal are the victim of one of the highest crime rates, domestic violence, rape and trafficking. Without doubt there has been a marked decline in the basic security and respect for women. The inescapable question is, what went wrong with the process of liberalization and empowerment of women in Bengal? It is during the period of Marxist rule in West Bengal that the contradictions in women’s position in Bengal came to the surface. I would like to place the issue at the interface of community and politics and explore possible explanations of the situation. More specifically, I will ask, why has gender violence escalated in Bengal since 1990? Looking Back 19th century: The New Patriarchy? The women’s ‘question’ in Bengal has been from mid 19th century located in the space of the community, but influenced by political determinants. This inter-linkage explains the ambiguous role of Bengal’s women. Adoption of western ideas in the politics of nationalism was rationalized and traditionalized at the same time by distinguishing the outer from the inner, the political/material from the spiritual. So in spite of making education available to women, their designated space remained the home, the domestic world and their role was to uphold tradition. Westernization was juxtaposed with tradition by locating women in

246

West Bengal under the Left (1977-2011)

the community. Thus in Bengal a ‘new woman’ was created; educated, modern in dress and behavior but modest, docile, self-sacrificing. This development has been conceptualized by Partha Chatterjee1 as the “new patriarchy.” As Chatterjee argues, Bengal legitimized the subjection of women under a new patriarchy which distinguished the ‘new woman’, on the one hand, from the too westernized and on the other, from the common woman. It legitimized certain expectations from the new woman– the Bengali Bhadramohila, namely, skills of household management, thrift and virtues of modesty, but not independent thinking. In the socio-political changes of the late 19th century the woman’s voice was generally silent; women’s groups or movements were absent, the only available expressions of women at the time were through autobiographies of women writers of the period, such as that of Rassundari Devi and Binodini Dasi. 20th Century – pre independence and post independence Women’s entry into the political arena as autonomous actors was only from the beginning of the 20th century primarily through the initiative of two remarkable women, Sarala Devi Choudhurani and Saroj Nalini Dutt, through the formation of Mahila Samities. From 1920s women’s involvement increased considerably with Gandhi’s non-co-operation movement and also through participation in the extremist political movements. The immediate pre-independence period witnessed mass participation by local peasant women through nari bahinis in the Tebhaga movement and also in movements by tea workers. Such politicization of women generally helped the left parties. The Naxalite Movement A new dimension in women’s political participation was added in Bengal through the Naxalite movement in the late 60’s and early 70’s. Girl/ woman comrades moved to the villages, used arms, worked, lived side by side with their male counterparts. Marriage and family were relegated to a secondary role. It incorporated aspects of both peasant and extremist movements. Politicization for the Naxalite women appeared to be complete and all embracing yet in-depth inquiry exposes major gaps in ideological integration and the restricted role of women in party’s decision-making apparatus. Communists in general, including Marxists and Naxalites, were

Women/Community and Politics in West Bengal (1977-2011)

247

reluctant to subscribe to the concept of ‘equality and freedom’, for women; very naturally, women’s issues were relegated to a secondary position. An example of this is found in the poignant narrative of a Naxalite woman, Krishna Bandopadhyay.2 But undoubtedly, just as the pre-independence nationalist movements, the Tebhaga and the Naxalite movements significantly shifted Bengali women from their location in the community to the political space. Women under Marxist rule Encouraging trends – The brighter side The advent of CPI(M)-led coalition government in 1977 was welcomed with hope and expectation by not only the rural and urban poor but also by women in general. It is another story that within few years this expectation was belied and the hope turned into disillusionment. Self Help groups Among the positive initiatives undertaken by the Left Front, of major significance was the establishment and proliferation of self help groups (SHGs), both for the poor in general and women in particular. The importance of self help group lies in the fact that these groups become the major agencies of empowerment of women, both economically and in socio- political in terms. The rationale was to provide an opportunity to women of poor families to achieve self sufficiency and betterment of economic conditions. In comparison to other parts of India, self help group in West Bengal was a late starter. In Andhra, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, the self help group movement began in the 1980s under the supervision of NGOs. In West Bengal it came into existence in 1999. By 2007-8 the number of self help groups reached 7.98 lakhs, with a membership of 80 lakhs of which 90% were women. The source and sponsorship of self help groups in West Bengal can be categorized under two heads – (i) SHG under government programme and sponsorship (ii) small savings and micro finance groups formed by NABARD, Cooperative Bank and NGOs. The West Bengal government followed two basic principles with regard to SHGs from 1999. One, in every block at least 50% of SHGs would be managed by women. Two, in any group, not more than 20% of members would be from economically self-sufficient families. Thus SHGs would primarily comprise women and

248

West Bengal under the Left (1977-2011)

members from poor families. In West Bengal the SHG movement developed on state initiative and remained government dependent; NGOs have a secondary role. The groups have enabled rural poor women folk to aspire for economic empowerment through group activity, participate in decision making and management. But self help groups have not been limited only to rural areas; for rural areas it operated under ‘Suvarna Jayanti Swarojgar Jojona’ and for urban areas under ‘Swarna Jayanti Sahari Rojgar Yojona’. The government consciously followed a policy of involvement and participation of women in these groups. A survey conducted by Debjani Sengupta, Jyotiprosad Chattopadhyay and Supriyo Bose3 under West Bengal Women’s Commission in four districts (S. 24-Parganas, Hoogly, Purulia, Jalpaiguri) and four municipalities highlights the caste/religious composition, attitudes, role in decision making of women in groups. In terms of social composition in both towns and villages 43.3% are from scheduled castes, 14.6 from scheduled subcastes, 6.7% from backward castes and 35.2 from general castes; it has been observed that with participation in SHG women have become concerned with their children’s education. The said survey shows that more than 83.5%of women in villages and 91.9% in towns support girls’ education.4 Moreover, 80% of the women members of SHG either singly or jointly take decision on financial management. But a disturbing revelation is that 46.5% of women in the SHGs still support giving dowry; 88.3% consider that girls below 18 could be married. One encouraging attitude change is that 90% of women in villages and 91.1% in towns oppose wife beating by husbands.5 No doubt, the self help groups have gained acceptance and popularity among women in West Bengal. In contrast, few women in the state availed the jobs granted under Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MNREGS). In West Bengal, 33% of women have participated in MNREGS compared to the national average of 47-48%. Apart from the survey conducted by Debjani Sengupta et al, there is a large literature on SHG based on surveys. Two such studies can be mentioned which adopt a critical view of SHGs. A survey conducted by Robin Das on Khejuri CD block in Purba Medinipur district while recognizing their positive role in bringing about economic and social change in poor rural families, highlights the problems of SHGs such as poor management, lack of planning and indifference on the part of the government in providing guidance.6 In

Women/Community and Politics in West Bengal (1977-2011)

249

another survey on rural entrepreneurship development Sreemoye Das and others point out the failure of SHGs to maintain a common standard in terms of income saving or developing entrepreneurship among women.7 However, the success of SHG movement in Bengal is of major significance. One, it has positively contributed to economic empowerment of women. Second, through the SHGs women located in the community could attain group solidarity and some degree of power. Panchayat Another commendable achievement of the Marxist government has been to achieve participation of women in the panchayat system. Women’s representation was negligible at panchayat level prior to the 1990s. It is only the passage of the 73rd (amendment) Act by Parliament in 1992 providing for one-third representation of women in rural local government that ushered in women’s participation in local government. West Bengal included the women’s reservation provision in the 1992 Amendment of Panchayat Act. The Act provides that at least one-third of the total number of seats to be filled by direct election in every panchayat will be reserved for women. Women had the advantage of competing for the reserved seats as well as for the general seats. In the 1993 panchayat elections, 24,895 (35%) were reserved for women including SC/ST women. During the Marxist rule four panchayat elections were held in the state after 1992 amenment: in 1993, 1998, 2003 and 2008. The latest election was held in 2013 with the TMC in government. In the 1998 elections for the first time reservation of women office bearers at the three levels of Gram Panchayat, Panchayat Samity and Zilla Parishad were made. The Marxist government further proposed that by 2010 it would introduce 50% reservation for women at all levels of 3-tier panchayat system. In terms of actual numbers elected as well as in terms of the number of panchayat office bearers women’s representation often crossed the stipulated 33.33%.8 A major example of women’s participation in the panchayat system was the all-women Gram Panchayat in Kultikiri – an obscure village near Jhargram– one of the 10 Gram Panchayats in the Sankrail subdivision. Panchayat elections in 1993 produced three such all-women Gram Panchayats in the state. The all-women panchayat, in spite of limited resources, was able to achieve considerable success. Soil conservation, creation of ponds, production centre of readymade garments, general economic empowerment of women had been its areas of contribution.

250

West Bengal under the Left (1977-2011)

Critique of women’s participation in panchayat In spite of the fact that West Bengal has been one of the front runners in implementing 33% reservation for women in panchayat elections, the actual participation of women in decision making and in the political process is questionable. It is not that elected women panchayat members have not brought about benefits for the rural areas. In many cases they dealt with basic needs of women, such as bringing piped water to the village, supervising Integrated Child Development Service (ICDS) and child education. Nonetheless women representatives, particularly the married women, even when they were Pradhans and Uupa-pradhans, were either indifferent or influenced by their husbands and male members of the husband’s family. Consequently, the women panchayat members were denied the opportunity and scope to develop leadership qualities. Participation in Assemblies and Parliament The initiative shown by the CPI(M)-led government in implementing rural women’s representation is not evident in the sphere of parliamentary and assembly elections. Women’s representation in the West Bengal State Assembly has followed the all-India pattern and till 1996 remained below 8%. The number of women MLA’s increased from 6 in 1971 to 37 in 2006 declining to 34 in 2011 (Table 1). Table 12.1: Women MLAs in West Bengal 1982-2011

Year 1982 1987 1991 1996 2001 2006 2011

Total No. of Seats 294 294 Do Do Do Do

Total no. of Women MLA 7 12 23 22 28 37 34

Percentage of Women MLA’s 2.38 4.08 7.82 7.40 9.52 12.58 12.1

Source: Article by V. Munshi in J. Bagchi ed. Changing Status of Women in West Bengal(New Delhi: Sage, 2005), 87.

Women/Community and Politics in West Bengal (1977-2011)

251

In the 2011 assembly elections male voting pattern increased from 82.3 to 84.4 whereas female turnout went up from 80.3 to 84.5. But the number of elected women members declined in spite of the fact that more than half of the new voters were women. As in rest of India, in West Bengal also the poor representation of women both in parliamentary and assembly elections is due to the small number of contestants fielded by political parties. It rarely crosses the mark of 10%. Even in the 2011 assembly elections, the CPI(M) fielded 41 women candidates, TMC 34. While the latter could get 24 were elected, only six from the CPI(M) were elected. But this was an indication of a greater malaise; women have been consistently denied representation in the party’s highest decision making bodies. Till 2008, the CPI(M), with 25,440 women members, had only 8 women in 87-member state committee. It is the attitude of overlooking women in the party’s decision making bodies and leadership posts which in the long run created a dearth of motivated women party leaders even at the panchayat level. Most of the other left parties were in a worse position. In comparison, the Congress with 80 members in the highest body had 27 women members. This is despite the fact that all the leading parties have women’s wings – the CPI has its NFIW (National Federation of Indian Women) and the CPI(M) has AIDWA (All India democratic Women’s Association), AICCWW (All India Coordinating Committee of Working Women) besides PBGMS (Paschim Banga Ganatantrik Mahila Samity) in West Bengal. The BJP’s women’s organizations are linked with the RSS and VHP. All BJP women members are members of Rashtriya Sevika Samity, Mahila Mandal and Durga Bahini. Besides the women’s wings of different parties various autonomous women’s organizations have mushroomed since the 1980s and 90s. They deal with various issues such as trafficking and violence against women. Notable among them are Apne Aap World Wide, Sanlap. Groups dealing with violence against women operate under ‘maitreye’ network; some of the other groups are Sachetna, Swayam, Women’s Interlink Foundation. Education A very important indicator of social development is the level of literacy and education among girls. This would largely depend upon the educational opportunities provided to the girls by the state government.

252

West Bengal under the Left (1977-2011)

Laws with regard to primary and higher education are often framed by the Union government. But their implementation depends on the state. An important factor in implementation would be the facilities provided by the schools and supported by the state. The Left Front government promoted Centre’s schemes of primary education for girls, such as Sarba Siksha Abhiyan and ICDS to a degree successfully. But the problem with girls’ education in Bengal as in the rest of India lies in the malfunctioning of the schooling system and deep rooted prejudices towards girls’ education. Amartya Sen9 in his introduction to the Pratichi Trust Education Report has admitted the ‘imaginative moves of West Bengal Government’ to spread the network of school education more widely and firmly, but also pointed out the problems and inadequacies that affect primary education in the state. On the positive side, as Table 2 clearly indicates, the Left Front government has been able to expand female literacy from 46.6 per cent in 1991 to 71.2 in 2011. Table 12.2: Literacy rate Literacy Rate , age 7 years and above (%)

1991

% of population who completed primary education

% of population who completed 5 yrs of schooling

2011

1993

2007-2008

States

Female Male

Female Male

Female Male

Female Male

Gujarat

48.6

73.7

70.7

87.2

33.5

85.9

Kerala

53.6

88.5

86.2

93.6

92.0

96.0

60.5

65.8

99.2

98.8

Karnataka 44.3

67.3

68.1

82.9

30.4

46.8

85.2

90.3

Punjab

50.4

65.7

71.3

81.5

41.0

51.6

89.3

89.8

West Bengal

46.6

67.8

71.2

82.7

29.2

47.4

71.0

71.7

All India

39.3

64.1

65.5

82.1

28.1

48.6

83.7

86.2

Source: (i) Jean Dreze and Amartya Sen; Economic Development and Social Opportunity(New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1995) (ii) Uncertain Glory: India and its Contradictions(London: Allan Lane/ Penguin, 2013).

In Table 2 a random selection with some other states shows that female literacy level in West Bengal may not be the highest, but in the higher bracket. By 2011West Bengal was in a similar position with Punjab and Gujarat; only Kerala has higher literacy. West Bengal’s position is slightly

Women/Community and Politics in West Bengal (1977-2011)

253

better than the All-India average of 65.5%. In terms of gender equality in literacy, it has improved from 1991 to 2011 (the gap of 21.2 per cent was reduced to 11.5 per cent). The Table also shows that proportion of population completing primary education or five years of schooling has improved from 29.2% for female (1992) to 71.0% in 2007-08. Though the improvement in female literacy and girl’s primary education under the Left Front government has been creditable, many shortcomings continue. Among the problems highlighted by Amartya Sen10 are poor attendance and high school dropout, teacher absenteeism, low quality of education and lack of parental involvement. Also, Ranjana Srivastava11 in a survey of primary school mentions that though the number of primary schools in West Bengal is around 50,000 the rate of growth is 0.71% compared to 2.37% in M.P., 1.63%in UP and 2.5% in Rajasthan. West Bengal has been able to provide drinking water and mid-day meal but lacks separate toilets for girls and has poor electricity. In the last two decades there has been an imperceptible change in terms of girls’/women’s attitude towards education. This is particularly evident among the girls’ mothers, especially those involved in self-help groups. Increasingly girls in Bengal’s villages, particularly Muslim girls, are conscious of the need for education, and demand, from their families the right to complete school education. More than increase in literacy rates it is the growth of this consciousness among women and girls of the need for education for a life beyond home which has been revolutionary. Muslim women It is primarily in the sphere of education that Muslim women in Bengal as elsewhere in India are placed in a very difficult situation. Educational backwardness among Muslim women in Bengal has contributed to economic backwardness; work for them is limited and confined mostly to the unorganized sector; politically also they play a subordinate role. R.N. Jehangir12 on the basis of data collected from 299 Muslim women in Murshidabad found 40% of women still illiterate. The factors responsible for this have been low economic status, lack of education of parents, and practice of early marriage. Even those who go to school drop out at the primary or middle level. The mean age of marriage has been 14.9. Political awareness has been low among uneducated, even if urban, women. Political participation has been very low both among rural and urban Muslim women. It is active

254

West Bengal under the Left (1977-2011)

only in the time of voting to some extent. Educational opportunities, as far as they are available, are bringing about a change in their situation. Marxist rule – the darker side The Left Front’s initiative in empowering women in Bengal through self help groups, the Panchayat system and partially through the expansion of literacy need to be appreciated though its record of women’s representation in the central and state legislatures and in the party hierarchy is insignificant. What defies logic is the CPI(M)-led government’s record with regard to security and dignity of women. The record is not unilinear from 1977 to 2011; rather it can be divided into two distinct phases – (i) from 1977-1998 and the (ii) from 1999-2011. In the first phase (1977-98), West Bengal could be considered to have well provided security for women and the government’s record of protecting women, often overlooked, demands credit. In the second phase (1998-2011), there was sharp deterioration in terms of security and dignity of women making empowerment a distant vision. Legal Structure After assuming power, the Left Front brought into force certain institutions through legislation (in line with national laws) to protect the rights of women. The Family Court Act, 1984 established the Kolkata Family Court in 1994 to promote conciliation and secure speedy settlement of disputes relating to marriage and family matters. Besides, following Art 39A (equal justice and free legal aid) a Legal Aid and Advice Scheme was framed in 1980 by the government of West Bengal. The Legal Service Authorities Act, 1987 enabled the formation of Lok Adalats (People’s Courts) and the State Legal Service Authority for supervising and providing legal services. In line with the National Commission for Women, the West Bengal Commission for Women was established in 1992. Its functions included review of constitutional and other laws pertaining to women and recommendation of amendments or remedial measures; initiation of investigation or special studies with regard to discrimination against women; visit to jails and other destitute homes, hold literacy and pre-litigation counseling workshops. Violence against women In assessing the women’s situation in Bengal in realistic terms the crucial question is the extent of dignity, respect and security enjoyed by women in the state. Data from mid-1990s indicate that women in Bengal increasingly came to be targets of crimes and violence.

Women/Community and Politics in West Bengal (1977-2011)

255

Though ‘violence’ is the reality of a girl’s/woman’s existence, there is a lack of a satisfactory definition. In the 1993 UN World Conference on Human Rights violence was defined as anything that jeopardizes fundamental rights, individual freedoms and physical integrity of women. Articles 1 and 2 of the Declaration dealt with subsections such as domestic violence, including physical, sexual and psychological violence; violence within the community which covered rape, sexual abuse and sexual harassment at work, trafficking and forced prostitution. With regard to violence the separation of public and private spaces becomes irrelevant. An important aspect of the UN Declaration was outlining the obligation of the state to prevent and eliminate crimes against women, to ‘punish the perpetrators and protect and rehabilitate the victims’. In India, the constitutional provisions upheld gender equality and prohibited discrimination against women. But the patriarchal base of the society helped retain the subordinate role of women. Women’s movements of the 1970s and ’80s created an awareness regarding violence against women as also about the role of the state in controlling such violence. With the Marxist-led coalition coming to power, expectations were aroused that women would achieve greater equality and dignity. The First Phase and the transition Statistics indicate that women in West Bengal from 1977 to 1998-99 enjoyed a fair degree of security. On an all India basis, West Bengal stood 22nd with regard to crimes against women and could be considered as one of the safest states for women. But data from State Crime Records Bureau and Crime Records Section of Kolkata Police indicate the growing tendency of violence against women even from 1995. Anuradha Talwar13 an activist, notes that crimes against women increased from 3,937 in 1990 to 7489 in 1998. Reports based on district-level data of crimes against women show that in 1999, South 24-Parganas had the highest percentage of crimes against women with 938 cases followed by North 24-Parganas and Medinipur. In the breakup of crimes against women in West Bengal (excluding Kolkata) Table 3 shows rape cases rose from 733 in 1995 to 826 in 1996, dipped to 730 in 1998 and went up again to 779 in 2000. In Kolkata alone (Table4), rape cases registered were 28 in 1997 and went up to 30 in 2000. A striking aspect of cruelty against women was torture by husband and his relatives which rose from 3,208 in 1995 to 3,829 in 2000; in Kolkata, such

256

West Bengal under the Left (1977-2011)

cases rose from 134 in 1997 to 196 in 2000. Dowry deaths went up from 80 in 1995 to 269 in 2000; in Kolkata from 9 in 1995 to 15 in 2000. Table 12.3: Crimes against Women in West Bengal (Excluding Kolkata)

No. of cases registered

Crime heads

1995

1996

1997

1998

1999

2000

Dowry murder

5

3

16

8

6

9

Dowry deaths

80

69

241

239

252

269

Bride murder

148

149

145

156

131

135

Death other than dowry deaths

1,249

1,196

1,030

1,027

1,080

957

Cruelty by 3,208 husband and other relatives

3,288

3,594

3,535

3,618

3,929

701

Kidnapping of women and girls

729

699

788

700

711

Rape

733

826

796

730

795

779

Molestation of women

1,174

1,117

1,158

1,076

1,001

905

Eve-teasing

13

11

10

5

5

9

Source: The Additional Director General of Police, State Crime Records Bureau, Kolkata, cited in J. Bagchi (ed), Changing Status of Women in West Bengal, p.117.

Table 12.4: Crimes against Women in Kolkata Heads of Crime

1997

1998

1999

2000

Rape

28

27

24

35

Dowry death (U/S. 304B IPC)

6

10

5

15

Abetment of women to commit 27 suicide (U/S. 306 IPC)

26

31

25

Torture on housewives (U/S. 354 134 IPC)

169

159

196

Molestation (U/S. 354 IPC)

167

199

152

22

28

46

119

Eve-teasing (U/S. 294 IPC/509 53 IPC)

Source: Same as in Table 3.bove.

Women/Community and Politics in West Bengal (1977-2011)

257

Women face maximum violence in their own homes; it is violence which women encounter from their husbands and close relatives. Practically it is a universal phenomenon. Till 2000, at the all-India level, domestic cruelty by husbands and relatives formed only 36% of the total crimes against women. But in West Bengal, strangely 55% of the total crimes against women were by husbands and relatives. The Second Phase The overall script with regard to crimes against women alters dramatically from 2000 onwards. From being one of the safest states for women in 2000, Bengal sank into being one of the most dangerous. Prior to 2000, Bengal ranked 22nd among India’s states in terms of crimes against women; by 2004-05, it was placed in the 2nd position after UP. Crimes against women There was an unmistakable rise in crimes against women from 2000 onwards as we have just mentioned, but past 2005 the rise became alarming, to say the least. Crimes against women generally include rape, molestation, dowry deaths, eve teasing, cruelty and torture by husbands and his relatives, and kidnapping of girls and women. In 2000 the cases of such crimes in West Bengal was recorded to be 7043, but by 2005 the figure nearly doubled to 12,706. The state had the distinction of occupying the second highest place in the country. This trend continued till 2011.The State Crime Records Bureau (SCRB) provides detailed data with regard to crimes against women from 2005 to 2011(Table 5). Table 12.5: West Bengal – Crimes against women 2005-2009 Year

Crimes againstWomen

2005

12,700

2006

13,669

2007

17,546

2008

22,674

2009

24,041

2010

26,125

2011

29133

Source: State Crime Records Bureau.

258

West Bengal under the Left (1977-2011)

With regard to rape cases in the state a similar pattern is evident. In 2000, the figure was, according to SCRB, 814 but by 2004 it rose to 1475 and in 2005 it was 1673. By 2004-05 West Bengal was reported to have the second highest number of rape cases in the country. By 2010 in West Bengal, 26,125 cases of crimes against women were registered. Its position was second just after Andhra Pradesh (27,244). By 2011, this figure rose to 29,133, with 2363 rape cases, the highest in the country. Besides, there were 4168 cases of kidnapping and 19865 cases of cruelty by husband. Thus according to NCRB, by 2010-11 the state was in the top rank in terms of crimes against women for eight successive years. From 2004-10, it had second highest incidence of rape and by 2010, had the highest. Between 2009 and ’10, rape cases increased in rest of India by 15%; in West Bengal it was by 34%. It had also the highest number of cases of domestic violence and trafficking. The scenario was rather grim, not only for West Bengal but for the whole of India. The then Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharya expressed concern and admitted that crimes against women were on the rise in West Bengal; but he also pointed out that it was a nationwide phenomenon particularly evident in Maharastra, Andhra Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Delhi. Domestic Violence In the entire range of crimes against women the crime most reported from the state is domestic violence, i.e., torture by husband or in-laws. This is supported and substantiated by NCRB data. Even before 2000, the percentage of domestic violence in the state was much higher than the national average. According to NCRB, in 2001 there were 3859 cases of domestic violence; by 2004-05 the figure rose to 6936 and in 2007 it was 9990.In 2008, Bengal was second on the list of cruelty and domestic violence. Of the 81,344 cases reported in 2008, about 3,663 were from Bengal. By 2010 17,796 cases of domestic violence were registered. The data available with the National Crime Records Bureau in 2009 found West Bengal having the highest rate of domestic violence, with a record of 16,112 cases. This is followed by Rajasthan with 10,371 cases, MP with 3938 cases and Bihar 2532 cases. Domestic violence takes many forms. It can be rape by parents and close family members and relatives; more common is cruelty by husband which can take many forms. Table 6

Women/Community and Politics in West Bengal (1977-2011)

259

presents the comparative data of four states on domestic violence provided by NCRB. Table 12.6: Data of Domestic Violence 2009. Rape by parents Rape by relative and close family members

Cruelty by husband

States

NCRB

NCRB

NCRB

MP

14

202

3,938

West Bengal

3

237

16,112

Rajasthan

26

95

10,371

Bihar

1

0

2,532

Source: NCRB.

The National Family Health Survey III (NFHS 3) conducted a survey of domestic violence in 29 states in 2004-05. It found that a substantial proportion of married women in India (all-India average 37.2 per cent) were emotionally, physically or sexually abused. For West Bengal, it was 40.3 per cent. It is the growing incidence of violence suffered by women at their homes, which had led to the passage of Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act in 2005-2006. Without doubt, this Act which women’s groups had been lobbying for was a major breakthrough in women’s right and security. But strangely the Act did in no way affect the level of domestic violence, at least in West Bengal; rather as records show it has been on the increase from 2005 to 2012. One major factor has been the apathy and indifference of the West Bengal government to implement the Protection of Domestic Violence Act with the necessary infrastructure. The Act provides for the presence of protection officers in police stations; once approached by a woman they are supposed to provide her and her children immediate safety from violence, place her in a safe location and guide the woman to lodge a complaint, get a court order and monetary relief. The protection officer can either be from the state government or an NGO.As Chirosree Basu14 notes, West Bengal government has evaded appointing such officers on financial ground though other states like Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Delhi have gone ahead within 1 year of the passing of the Act. Prior to the 2006 Act, police stations in Kolkata like that in Mumbai had established

260

West Bengal under the Left (1977-2011)

special cells for counseling victim of domestic violence; but in reality women were counseled to return to their homes or approach court on their own. A major factor for the increase in crimes against women is the low conviction rate in the state. The apathy at the government level particularly in matters of domestic violence is reinforced by social attitudes. One very interesting dimension is revealed by survey conducted by NFHS-2 in 2000.15 The survey indicates that one out of four women in West Bengal accepts at least one reason as justification for wife beating; 16 percent of women justify wife beating if the wife neglects the house or children; 14 percent consider that if the wife goes out without telling her husband wife beating is justified. If a wife shows disrespect to her in-laws 11 percent justify wife beating. Gupta and Chatterjee find that a higher proportion rural women (26 per cent) than urban women (11 per cent) agree to justify wife-beating. Agreement declines with education. Trafficking: Another very gloomy and negative aspect is the vulnerability to trafficking among poor women and girls. Bengal, compared to other states in India, has higher figures for trafficking in women and children; it is viewed as the major catchment area for trafficking. Human trafficking can be regarded as exploitation of men, women and children for financial purposes; to be specific, it is the systematic buying and selling of women and girls by deception, threats, violence or through the use of authority. Such girls/ women are either sold (i) for domestic purposes or for (ii) commercial sex, i.e. prostitution. Trafficking can be regarded as a subset of migration but its primary cause is economic. It is illegal under the Indian Penal Code (IPC) and the Immoral Traffic in Persons Prevention Act 1986 (ITPA) which is based on Suppression of Immoral Trafficking in Women and Girls Act of 1956. IPC lists as illegal the procurement, buying and selling of minor girls for prostitution. But a study of police records made by the NGO, Sanlap, reveals that 80% of those arrested under ITPA were sex workers, who were victims rather than perpetrators of crime. For this reason, one of the major demands of sex workers is the abolition of ITPA. For ventilating this and other demands, from 1995 female sex workers formed the Durbar Mahila Samanway Committee in Kolkata. Information on trafficking is not easy to acquire. The major source is police data. In West Bengal, the pattern of trafficking can be understood by

Women/Community and Politics in West Bengal (1977-2011)

261

figures of kidnapping of women and girls from 1995-2000; in 1995 it was 729, in 1997, 788 and in 2001 it came down to 701. According to NCRB data, West Bengal, by 2010, had the highest rate of human trafficking in the country. West Bengal has come to operate as the major source, transit and destination point of trafficking. The districts in West Bengal which are highly prone to trafficking are North and South 24-Parganas, followed by Murshidabad, Malda and Coochbehar. The district of South 24-Parganas is the largest supplier of girls to the rest of India. Among other districts in West Bengal which can be considered as the source areas are Darjeeling, Dinajpur, Malda and Jalpaiguri. These facts are corroborated and supported by the Women Development and Social Welfare Department of the government of West Bengal. A report by Kishaloy Bhattacharya16, published under NDTV in April 2012, highlights the situation in a village, Sandeshkhali in Sunderbans. In the last ten years there is hardly a home where a daughter has not disappeared. For dealing with the increasing problem of trafficking the Union Ministry of Home Affairs directed the states to set up special Anti- Human Trafficking Units (AHTUs). In every district in West Bengal the unit was supposed to begin functioning from 2009, but then the state government failed to implement it. The limitation of the Marxist government to directly intervene in matters of domestic violence is somewhat understandable but its failure to provide security for the economically backward women can hardly be justified. The magnitude of trafficking in the state is enormous. Without doubt conditions in West Bengal make it a vulnerable area for trafficking; lack of economic betterment and job opportunities can be considered as the single most important factor. Women become easy targets of trafficking networks lured by the hope of economic security. This is often referred to as the product of “feminization of poverty”. Location of West Bengal has also been a contributing factor.West Bengal shares 2216 kms. of border with Bangladesh and 50-60 km of border with Nepal. This factor alone makes Bengal as the major transit point as stark poverty motivates the girls of Bangladesh and Nepal to move to West Bengal. The highway NH 34 is used as the major transit route. Further, the breakdown of the family, parental neglect or pressure induces adolescents to escape from their home and community. The culture of inequality and gender discrimination offers very little choice to the economically deprived girls but to migrate and be trafficked. The effort to prevent and control trafficking in West

262

West Bengal under the Left (1977-2011)

Bengal was primarily initiated by NGOs; such organizations as Ruchira Gupta’s Apne Aap Worldwide, Sanlap have played a pivotal role in bringing home trafficked girls and rehabilitating them. The effort by the Left Front Government has been more theoretical than actual; the Anti-Trafficking Unit, suggested by the Centre in 2009 took more than three years to be established; another very important indication of the indifferent attitude of the government was the limited number of conviction of traffickers. Under the Marxist government the rate of conviction decreased from 1.66 to 0.24 between 992-98. It is only recently (post 2012) that the West Bengal government has established a State Level Anti-Trafficking Committee and a West Bengal Task Force. Search for reasons Women in Bengal today confront a major crisis. It is a crisis of security, of retaining one’s dignity and respect in aspiring for equality. Despite some positive developments contributing to women’s empowerment especially in the rural sector during the Left Front regime, women in Bengal gradually came to be threatened by loss of basic security, and dignity. An expanding consumer culture, unemployment, breakdown of the traditional community and family values and the role of the media highlighting women’s body all have created a culture of anomy. There has been an erosion of Bengali middle class bhadrolok ethos which earlier had acted as a deterrent to gender violence. To look for an explanation, we can possibly think of three broad categories of factors: economic, political and social. (i) Economic: Apparently the CPI(M) was committed to economic empowerment of rural women. It did provide certain avenues for loans and employment for poor rural women. But it failed to redistribute property for women; till 1988, land titles continued to be in the name of the head of household (male). Strangely, the women’s wing of the CPI(M), that is the PBGM (Paschim Banga Ganatantrik Mahila Samity), failed to mobilize peasant women on this issue, nor did it demand that women be recognized as sharecroppers. Rural women in Bengal also failed to secure loans for cultivation and self employment. Globalization and its consequent market economy, brought about profound changes in terms of cultural attitude, behavioural patterns and rising expectations among the youth. Innovative technology, multinational

Women/Community and Politics in West Bengal (1977-2011)

263

jobs and the flow of money to sections of the youth, and the consequent ‘good life’ contributed to the buildup of expectations among all sections of the young. Media and advertisement furthered this fantasy of ‘good life’. This was true for the rest of India as well. But what was different for Bengal was the lack of economic opportunity in the state. The desired industrialization did not take place under the CPI(M) rule. Job opportunities were very limited for the middle and lower classes. The consequent frustration in turn expressed itself in defiance of the legal order and social customs. Use of technological gadgets such as mobile camera, video’s, and the internet contributed to the growth of cyber crime for sex and money. Poverty, economic desperation and disillusionment with the situation in Bengal led many girls to migrate in huge numbers to Delhi, Bombay and other parts of India lured by the promise of jobs. Thus, trafficking is a direct fall out of this low level of economic development, both in rural and urban Bengal. (ii) Political: The political scenario in West Bengal did not apparently contribute to crimes against women at least during the 1990s but neither was it conducive to women’s empowerment either politically or socially. An air of indifference existed with regard to women’s issues. Women’s autonomous organizations in Bengal from the 1980s attempted to mobilize women and general public opinion on varied women’s issues, but as has been mentioned by Raka Ray,17 their autonomy and functioning were restricted. Women’s organizations being essentially fronts of political parties were controlled by them. Women were practically invisible in politics under the Left Front government. Women’s representation in successive cabinets in the state was negligible. There was no ministry to address issues of women; social welfare programmes were limited; most women in different bodies were nominated rather than elected. At the village level too women tended to be under-represented till 1993. The local party cadres openly opposed women’s candidacy. Amrita Basu18 states that CPI(M)’s failure to sponsor female candidates resulted in two consequences: one, it perpetuated electoral prejudice against women’s participation in public life; and second, women continued to remain timid about political life. The Marxist approach to women’s empowerment was beset with contradictions. At one level, it was theoretically committed to equality, but on the ground, it perpetuated gender inequality. As early as 1952, among

264

West Bengal under the Left (1977-2011)

the undivided Communists, Bengali woman writer Sabitri Roy’s book was banned for expressing a different view and her Communist husband was suspended. This trend continued. Amrita Basu states that the party did not consider women’s issues as serious political questions; they were reluctant to provide political space for women’s agenda; it was the class question which to the Marxists was vital, not gender.19 Thus, even though the PBGMS was organized it was for mobilizing electoral support. While its membership grew phenomenally over the years it followed the party line with no space for women’s agenda on a long term basis. The Marxists perpetuated the subordinate, conservative, and sexlinked role of Bengali women adopting a conservative stance in matters of divorce, widow remarriage and infertility. It felt comfortable with women being confined to the household as wife and mother. As Amrita Basu20 reiterates, economic reductionism and social, cultural conservatism of the Marxists led to the ambiguity in its stance toward women. These inherent contradictions prevented the CPI(M) from taking a clear stand in dealing with domestic violence or crimes against women. (iii) Social: At the core of Indian (Bengali) women’s existence are the entrenched traditional attitudes. The deep rooted patriarchal perception views women only in subordinate position, though at the rhetorical level it is mystified and glorified. For gender discrimination has been a fact of life and it is relevant even before birth. This is the pattern all over India. Whatever the data on professional and successful women, there is practically negligible change in attitudes to women. For Bengalees and Bengalee women, the narrative is somewhat different. In north India, patriarchy and male domination is openly expressed and subordination demanded. In Bengal, the ingrained patriarchal attitudes are camouflaged under liberal exterior but continue to exist in the subconscious. Confronted with increasingly independent minded and assertive Bengali women, anger and hostility gradually build up; it is this anger which is expressed through increasing domestic violence. Interestingly, as Ruchira Gupta reports,21 the attitude of police officials, head of foundations and even policy makers which she has encountered in course of her work, is no different. Their usual view is that “men will be men.” This has contributed to a ‘culture of impunity’ with regard to violence against women.

Women/Community and Politics in West Bengal (1977-2011)

265

Conclusion An assessment of the impact of left rule on the position of women in West Bengal is somewhat difficult. The LF partly attempted to fulfill its promise of gender equality but a major part of women’s expectations remained unrealized. Indeed the communists in Bengal played a major role in mobilizing women and in providing them with some political space. The LF strengthened their economic empowerment through self-help groups; the modified panchayat system initiated their political empowerment but of greater significance was the change in women’s consciousness through expansion of girls’ education. But it is a matter of tragic irony that towards the end of their rule the vulnerability of women came out in the open. The last decade of LF rule witnessed a sharp decline in the safety, security and dignity of women. While it was a ‘safe state’ for women in the past, this abrupt deterioration discredited the Marxist-led LF government to a great extent. The root of this malaise lay partly in the external situation, in the CPI-M’s failure to comprehend the implications of the changes brought about by the globalization process and its failure to deal with it. Consequently, lack of economic opportunities and chronic joblessness stood face to face with heightened expectations caused by spread of education and dramatically enhanced access to information. Associated with it was the breakdown of ‘bhadralok culture’ and value system. This was compounded by the factor internal to the CPI-M: its ambiguity about the position of women in society and family. It failed to go beyond the middle class stereotyping of the image of women. Thus, political radicalism, economic reductionism and social conservatism of the Marxists created the women’s situation in West Bengal very unstable and crisis ridden towards the end of the LF rule. Endnotes 1 2 3

4

Partha Chatterjee, dŚĞEĂƟŽŶĂŶĚ/ƚƐ&ƌĂŐŵĞŶƚƐ (New Delhi: Oxford University press, 1993), 127, 137; also, chaps. 6-7. Krishna Bandopadhyay, “Naxalbari Politics: A Feminine Narrative,” in EcoŶŽŵŝĐĂŶĚWŽůŝƟĐĂůtĞĞŬůLJ, 5 April 2008. Debjani Sengupta, Jyotoprasad chattopadhyay and supreo Bose, Progress ŽĨtŽŵĞŶ͛Ɛ^ĞůĨͲ,ĞůƉ'ƌŽƵƉƐŝŶ^ŽŵĞŝƐƚƌŝĐƚƐŽĨǁĞƐƚĞŶŐĂů͗^ƵƌǀĞLJ (Kolkata: Dasgupta and Co. 2011), chap. 2. Ibid, 62.

266

5 6 7

8 9 10 11

12 13

14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21

West Bengal under the Left (1977-2011)

Ibid, 65. Rabin Das, “Emergence and Activities of Self Help Group,” /K^Z:ŽƵƌŶĂůŽĨ ,ƵŵĂŶŝƟĞƐĂŶĚ^ŽĐŝĂů^ĐŝĞŶĐĞ 20 (1), January 2015: 28-39. Sreemoye Das, A. Mitra and Md. H. Ali, “A Study on the Impact of Women’s Self Help Groups on Rural Enterpreneurship Development--A Case Study in Selected Areas of West Bengal,” /ŶƚĞƌŶĂƟŽŶĂů:ŽƵƌŶĂůŽĨ^ĐŝĞŶƟĮĐ ĂŶĚZĞƐĞĂƌĐŚWƵďůŝĐĂƟŽŶƐ 5 (3), March 2015: 2250-3153. Niladri ŚĂƩĂĐŚĂƌLJĂ͕ ͞ZƵƌĂů >ŽĐĂů 'ŽǀĞƌŶŵĞŶƚ ŝŶ /ŶĚŝĂ͕͟ ŝŶ ZĂŬŚĂŚĂƌŝ ŚĂƩĞƌũŝ;ĞĚ͘Ϳ͕WŽůŝƟĐƐ/ŶĚŝĂ;ĞǀĂŶƚŽŽŬƐ, ϮϬϭϰͿ͕Ϯϭϵ. Amartya Sen, /ŶƚƌŽĚƵĐƟŽŶƚŽWƌĂƟĐŚŝdƌƵƐƚĚƵĐĂƟŽŶZĞƉŽƌƚ (Delhi: Pratichi Trust, 2002), 2. Ibid, 5-6. Ranjana Srivastava, “Review of Elementary Education in Selected States,” cited in Rakhahari Chatterji, WƌŝŵĂƌLJĚƵĐĂƟŽŶŝŶtĞƐƚĞŶŐĂů͗dŚĞĂƐĞ ŽĨdǁŽsŝůůĂŐĞƐ(Monograph, Department of Political Science, University of Calcutta, 2007), 8. R. N. Jehangir, DƵƐůŝŵ tŽŵĞŶ ŝŶ tĞƐƚ ĞŶŐĂů (Kolkata: Minerva, 1991). Anuradha Talwar, “Gender Based Violence in West Bengal,” cited in Jasodhara Bagchi (ed.),dŚĞŚĂŶŐŝŶŐ^ƚĂƚƵƐŽĨtŽŵĞŶŝŶtĞƐƚĞŶŐĂů (New Delhi: Sage, 2005), 116. Chirosree Basu, “Unprotected at Home and in the World,” The Telegraph, 1 November 2007. Manjari Gupta and Ratnabali Chattopadhyay, “Law and Violence against Women,” in Jasodhara Bagchi (ed.), 119. Kishalay Bhattacharya, NDTV Report, 4 April 2012 (http://www. youtube). Raka Ray, &ŝĞůĚƐŽĨWƌŽƚĞƐƚ͗tŽŵĞŶ͛ƐDŽǀĞŵĞŶƚŝŶ/ŶĚŝĂ (New Delhi: Kali for Women, 2000). Amrita Basu, Two Faces of Protest: Contrasting Modes of Women’s Activism in India (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992), 67. Ibid, 54. Ibid, 70. Ruchira Gupta, “Violence Everyday,” The Telegraph, 25 December 2012.

13 Ganashakti ‘The enormous pair of bellows’: Tracing the History of the Party Organ1 Nilanjana Gupta

Thirty four years is a long time. For the Communist Party of India (Marxist) a party born in 1964, thirty four years constitute the bulk of its existence. During this period, India shifted from the Nehruvian vision of a planned, state-led economy to the neo-liberal market-oriented model. The international socialist world either collapsed—a development that the Indian Communists found difficult to accept—or seemed to abandon its true ideology as in China or Vietnam. In power in West Bengal, the CPI(M) thus had to constantly redefine itself in order to negotiate the realities of providing governance in the state and its ideological programme during this period of paradigm shifts. To capture some of these negotiations, this article will analyse Ganashakti, the ‘daily organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) West Bengal State Committee’2 as a reflection of some of the trajectories of change in the ideological and organisational attitudes and structures of the CPI(M) during this period. The article will combine content analysis and personal interviews to trace through this one particular narrative strand, the history of the remarkable event of an elected Communist-led government being in power for such a long period of time, unique in political history. In Marxist ideology, the important role of party literature has been emphasised from the very beginning of the period of the organised left movements. Lenin in an essay “Party Organisation and Party Literature” had written in 1905, “Every newspaper, journal, publishing house, etc., must immediately set about reorganising its work, leading up to a situation in which it will, in one form or another, be integrated into one Party organisation or another.”3  In another essay, writing of the need for a party controlled newspaper to be available all across Russia, Lenin makes the following comparison: “This newspaper would become part of an enormous

268

West Bengal under the Left (1977-2011)

pair of smith’s bellows that would fan every spark of the class struggle and of popular indignation into a general conflagration.”4 In the Indian context too, this lesson was taken very seriously. Quite naturally, with the split in the Communist Party of India and the formation of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) one of the tasks undertaken was to create publications of various kinds to communicate with both its own party members and the populace at large. Today the CPI(M) has daily newspapers in the regions of its strength: Deshabhimani in Malayalam, Daily Desher Katha in Bengali, but published from Agartala, Prajashakti in Telegu, Theekkathir in Tamil and of course, Ganashakti in Bengali. These are in addition to the centrally published fortnightlies Peoples’ Democracy (English) Lok Lehar (Hindi) and the quarterly The Marxist. There are many more publications of various kinds published in several languages, but this list only serves to show the priority of publications in the organised left movement, and especially the CPI(M). The Bengali weekly Swadhinata (Independence) had been started in 1942 by the Communist Party of India, and converted to a daily in 1945 as the struggle for independence intensified. However, due to the periodic crackdowns by the British administration, it was forced to close down for some periods. Even after Independence, during the Indo-China conflict, it was banned for almost two years. During the sixties, the ideological debates within the Communist Party of India began to get more intense while simultaneously there was a rising visibility of the left leading to a series of successes of the left movement in Bengal. Jyoti Basu was a crucial figure during this period as he held, simultaneously, the important positions of leader of the party in the Vidhan Sabha, the Secretary of the Regional Committee and the editor of Swadhinata. In 1962, Swadhinata was forced to close down. The sixties were a turbulent decade in Bengal. Jyoti Basu’s memoirs recall: In the food movement of 1966, the police opened fire at Basirhat killing Nurul Islam while in Baduria, Ali Hafiz and Kalu Mondal were killed. Others who became martyrs were Sukhen Mukherjee in Behala, Bablu Das in Khardah, Ananda Hait in Krishnagar, Ranjan Dutta in Konnagar, Narayan Sadhukhan in Serampore, Rabin Pal in Rishra and S.P. Singh in Hind Motor. Many of these martyrs were either boys or youths.

Ganashakti ‘The enormous pair of bellows’: Tracing The History of the Party

269

In the first four months of 1966–in the name of putting down the agitation on the release of political detenus and the food movement— the police killed more than 50 agitators. Apart from this, raids and searches in the houses of our supporters were the order of the day. People were brought to police outposts and subjected to major atrocities. There were no limits to the oppressive measures which the Congress regime launched on us those days. Even women and children were not spared. The attacks incidentally were not only confined to our supporters but the general public too suffered a lot. But despite all this, the Congress rulers could not stop the wave of agitations let loose by the general public. A historic 48 hour general strike was observed in West Bengal on September 22 and 23; this was entirely unprecedented. Buoyed by this, we demanded that the Congress government should resign immediately. The entire state was up in arms against the state government.5 As Basu goes on to explain, Keeping the demands of people in mind and realising the importance of the moment, we decided to go ahead and publish an eveninger which would be called “Ganashakti;” we did have a monthly of the same name earlier. It had later become a weekly but had to fold up. On January 3, 1967, the first edition of “Ganashakti” rolled off the presses with Saroj Mukherjee as its editor and publisher. The fourpage newspaper was priced at 10 paise.6 Shanti Das Choudhury in an article published on the occasion of the completion of 25 years of publication of Ganashakti writes that a “Weekly Ganashakti” had been published under the editorship of Saroj Mukherjee from 1966. However, the political turmoil of this period made it clear that the party required more than a weekly and thus the decision to publish a daily paper was taken, even though it was extremely difficult for what was then a small party under attack. The party was facing not only physical attacks, arrests of leaders, but also a slander campaign in several of the leading newspapers. Thus, there was a “desperate need for a daily newspaper which would publish the left’s views, the party’s views, would be able to take the truth to the public, which was not controlled by the rulers or the exploitative class, a paper that would stand by the exploited, the deprived and the workers and help to strengthen their movement.”7 Das Choudhury goes on to say that this was needed immediately to be able

270

West Bengal under the Left (1977-2011)

to fight the fourth general elections which were due. Thus a four page, five column (42 Semi+28 Semi) evening daily began in 1967. The masthead of the very first issue of Ganashakti reflected the party’s understanding of the role of the paper as it carried the electoral symbol of the CPI(M)—the hammer, sickle and the star8—and the slogan “Vote deen bachhte, Tara, haturi, kaste” (To survive, Vote for the star, hammer and sickle). In an editorial printed on the first page of the first edition of the evening daily and titled “Pledge9” the objectives of the paper are stated clearly: “To be the trusted, ever-present companion of the struggles of the Communist Party...It will uphold and spread the struggle of the workers and the working class...It will tirelessly remove the mask of rulers—the Congress Party—to reveal its devious anti-people conspiracies.” Despite repeated fines and arrests of the editorial staff during the Emergency, the paper survived and tried its best to fulfil the needs of a party under attack from political parties and the state machinery. On 26th June 1975 when the state of Emergency was declared in India, the space allotted to editorials on the front page was left blank and only the words “State of Emergency Declared” were printed in the white space. Throughout the period of Emergency, blank spaces would be left in the place where articles were censored until the censors objected to this strategy and it was decreed that all columns should be filled. Oldtimers talk of the various negotiations that took place with the officials in charge of censorship and the role played by the Minister of Information and Culture Subrata Mukherjee (now a Minister in the Trinamool-led Government). However, this discussion will take up the story from 1977 when the Left comes to power, and to its own surprise, stays in power for an uninterrupted 34 years. For this analysis of the changes that the paper has gone through, the editions of Ganashakti were scanned for the months of March and August in 1977, 1982, 1986, 1991, 1996, 2006, and 2011. These years were elections years in the state and it was felt that the political issues and rhetoric would be sharpest in such situations10. The months were chosen such that the biannual readings could capture changes incrementally. In addition interviews were taken of some people who worked for the paper both in the present and the past. By using these multiple methodologies, a sense of the larger changes will be discussed. In 1977, Ganashakti was still a four-page evening daily priced at 10p. The quality of paper, printing and photographs was still very poor. The newspaper was seen primarily as a way of countering propaganda of the

Ganashakti ‘The enormous pair of bellows’: Tracing The History of the Party

271

‘enemies’ of the Left Front. An excerpt from the chapter titled “Media’s Vilification Campaign” in the book People’s Power in Practice: 20 Years of Left Front in West Bengal edited by Buddhadev Bhattacharya, Anil Biswas and Mihir Bhattacharya11 will suffice to show the deep antipathy towards the mainstream media that existed in the CPI(M). Since its inception in 1977 the Left Front government in West Bengal has had to sail against the tides of conspiratorial designs of the Congress (I) and other anti-Left parties...This apart the nascent Front even had to deal with the disinformation and malicious propaganda spread against it by the big-media houses since day one of its coming to power. There has been misinformation against everything, the work of the Left Front, the policies, different incidents happening in the state. There have been campaigns against the CPI(M), its leaders, even ministers in the government. To bring down the image of our party, the Left Front and the government, the anti-Left newspapers have been publishing misleading and even false news. Their sole motto is to oppose the Left Front. To succeed in that they can support even anti-national activities. Not only the print media, all these years the electronic mass media has also been used against the Left Front.12 The chapter then goes on to discuss particular examples of the anti-Left Front propaganda of the mainstream commercial media houses. The chapter ends with the following paragraph: It may be concluded that uninterrupted propaganda against Left Front Government and the Left parties was not successful to reach its target...the continuous process of campaign from political platform of left parties is a bolt resisting force to this propaganda [sic]. The political campaigns through meeting, procession, poster, wall writing, exhibition, leflet [sic] and organisational exercise by millions of cadres of Left Parties should be mentioned as continuous communication to the people. The party organs of Communist Party of India (Marxist) and other left parties are also a support to this campaign programmes. The daily organ of CPI(M) West Bengal State Committee, Ganashakti (peoples’ power) with the sizeable circulation in the state is playing an important role to counter the anti left propaganda as well as to influence a cross section of the people.13

272

West Bengal under the Left (1977-2011)

In the March 1977 issues, the role of the paper as a support to the election campaign is very clear. The editorial is still placed on the front page and the articles are political in nature, rather than about reporting any events or happenings. The appeals for comrades to collect the election manifesto from the party offices and distribute them are printed prominently every day. Events are reported from the districts, but they too are either about the Left parties or about Congress ‘misdeeds.’ There is no sports coverage nor are there any articles about international news. Particular incidents or information is also framed within the overall political discourse. For example, the water scarcity across districts is described as causing great hardship to the peasants and it is blamed on the policies of the ruling Congress government. One of the only exceptions to this political news reporting is the serial publication of a translation of the letters written to each other by the Rosenberg couple who were executed for treason by the United States of America in 1953 for passing information about the atomic bomb to the erstwhile USSR. While the paper is sold at only 10 paise, the revenue is also very limited. There are very few advertisements, that too only for locally manufactured goods or products, such as Boroline or Femina Snow (both products of GD Pharmaceuticals) or seeds for jute cultivation. This paper used to be sold every evening at rail stations, bus stops and other busy intersections by party workers, volunteers and trade union members. It often used to reach the districts a day or two later. Clearly, the paper was not published or distributed for news value, but for its role as a vehicle for pro-left propaganda and as a template for party activists and sympathisers to follow. While this role of the paper is unchanged in August 1977 as may be seen in the publication of a list of slogans to be used in processions and other campaigns, with the overwhelming victory of the Left Front and the formation of the first Left Front government we notice the appearance of several advertisements of government corporations or departments such as the West Bengal Government’s Milk Commission, Eastern Railways, Metro Rail West Bengal State Electricity Board alongside those for Boroline, Femina Snow and a free-style wrestling show. Rates for advertisements are published on the back page and are still very low. We also notice that for special days, such as May Day, there are many more photographs and the quality of printing is also improved. However, the siege mentality of the CPI(M) remains, and in fact possibly grows stronger and the need to

Ganashakti ‘The enormous pair of bellows’: Tracing The History of the Party

273

create a propaganda machine strong enough to combat the attacks of the ‘bourgeois press’ is often discussed at the party’s organisational meetings. The first step towards strengthening the role of Ganashakti is taken in 1980 when an offset machine is bought and in a couple of years, photo composition replaces the older linotype system and the paper begins to look more modern and attractive. The paper is still priced for the working class at 25 paise and still hawked on busy evening roads. However, the party increasingly feels the need to improve the level of communication with the masses as now not only the party, but the government too needs to be defended against the ‘conspirators’ who, according to the party’s understanding, are desperately trying to put an end to the Communistled government, by using all available tactics including unethical ones. Interestingly, the paper now becomes not just the organ of the CPI(M) but also begins to defend the government and the party begins to use the paper to spread more awareness about the government’s work too. One of the points of internal debate within the party was regarding the relationship of the party and the government. However, Ganashakti always saw its own role as a defender of both the party and the government. As the marketdriven newspapers did not portray government policies or initiatives in a positive manner, the argument went, it was left to the party newspaper to do so. The layout of the paper is still functional in trying to cram all the important news and notices into four pages. While the number of photographs has gone up, the basic layout of either an editorial or some important event takes up most of the bottom of the first page and headlines seem to be slogans and clarion calls, such as: “To make the General Strike and Hartal successful, strengthen the campaign—CITU” or “To ensure National Solidarity, Strengthen the Fight against Exploitation.”14 However, even within these constraints of space, there are some discussions about a few of the films screened at the Filmotsav side by side with articles on organisational issues, for example issues relating to the run up to the Party Congress. This period also sees introduction of a variety of sections, such as “About Culture” (Sanskritir Katha) or “Writings from Rural Bengal” (Gram Banglar Patra-Patrika). Ganashakti acquired a teleprinter around this time which made it possible for the paper to include the news provided by the various news agencies. This was perhaps the first step towards becoming a newspaper rather than a party paper. Every Tuesday there was a column with the title “Ateeter Katha” (About the Past) which would feature writings

274

West Bengal under the Left (1977-2011)

about important moments in Communist history. Thus, the paper was not only about providing information but also educating and orienting readers about the past. All these additions meant that 4 pages were no longer sufficient and from 1st December 1984, the pages were increased to 6 and the price was increased to 50 paise. The increase in the number of pages also allowed, for the first time, the inclusion of feature articles alongside the news and propaganda articles. The elections to the West Bengal State Legislative Assembly in 1982 which returned the Left Front to power with a huge victory made it clear that the 1977 win was not only due to the backlash of the Emergency and that as Das Choudhury puts it, the burden of responsibility of the government lay on the CPI(M) as the largest party of the Left Front. The need to communicate the truth about the government became even more urgent and thus discussion began within the party about transforming Ganashakti to a morning daily. Finally, at the 15th Conference of the State Unit of the CPI(M) held in 1985, it was resolved that Ganashakti would become a daily morning newspaper from 1st May 1986 and an appeal was made to raise a corpus fund of Rs 10 lakhs for this purpose. This shift transformed the paper from an evening bulletin about the party and its activities to a full-fledged newspaper and in important ways reflects some of the changes in the self-perception of the CPI(M) as a whole. The morning edition was to enter into direct competition with the commercial media. The people associated with the early days of this transformation talk of one of the aims being to make Ganashakti the only paper a household needed for all its requirements for news. In order to make Ganashakti meet the standards of the commercial media, for the first time the party appointed a team of young men and women to be full-time workers on the newspaper. The new format introduced a different work ethic into the party newspaper as it took on a new role in addition to acting as the publication of the party organisation. Previously, deadlines were more flexible; if something could not be carried on a particular day, it could be published a couple of days later as Ganashakti was about dissemination of information and analysis rather than providing the latest news. Now that it was presenting itself as a morning daily in direct competition with the commercial newspapers, deadlines had to be met. Thus, it had to become a more complete newspaper. The international and sports sections became particularly successful in attracting readers beyond the immediate party members and sympathisers.

Ganashakti ‘The enormous pair of bellows’: Tracing The History of the Party

275

The sports section was more focussed on football, seen as the most popular sport in Bengal and other sports such as swimming, hockey were covered in detail. Cricket, seen as an elite sport, never received the same kind of coverage during this period. The household subscription method began to replace the earlier method of hawking as the prime mode of dissemination. Initially, the circulation was in the hands of the local party comrades who would deliver the paper every morning and collect the money at the end of the month. Thus, this practice also ensured a regular contact between the local party members and the sympathisers. Gradually however, this practice was often replaced by regular commercial news agents taking over this role and even today, there are as many commercial agents as party workers who fulfil this task. The practice of using boards to put up each day’s edition near bus stops or other important crossings also made it much more visible and many people could be seen reading the paper at these points too. In many ways the period of the late eighties was a period of transition in the history of Ganashakti. New technology and modern printing machines improved the look of the paper and in 1990, the first colour photographs are introduced. Another significant step was taken in 1991 when the first ‘Saradiya’ volume was published by Ganashakti. All the important newspapers and magazines in Bengal publish eagerly awaited annual volumes during the Durga Puja season which carry commissioned writings by the most popular writers and poets in Bengali. Ganashakti’s venture turned out to be very popular amongst not only the regular subscribers but others as well. This too shows how Ganashakti saw itself as equal to and in competition with other mainstream media. In an interview with Shanti Das Choudhury, a veteran at the paper, we asked him about what he felt were his most memorable moments. Of course, one important, exciting and challenging period he mentioned was this period of transition from the evening to the morning daily. Another anecdote that he told is reflective of several aspects of the way in which Ganashakti, the party and the larger political arena of movements and elections are tied together in an apparently seamless bond. Very late one night in 1987, he was the only person at the Ganashakti office, just waiting for the printing to be completed, when he noticed a couple of lines coming in on the teleprinter which reported a Swedish radio programme alleging that huge sums of money had been paid as ‘kickbacks’ to major politicians in India. Das Choudhury recalls that he was a relatively junior member

276

West Bengal under the Left (1977-2011)

then, and there was no one he could consult. Recognising that this was a news item worth reporting, he included it on the first page, with almost no details to accompany it. He recalls that the only other newspaper to have carried it was The Telegraph which also had just the brief mention. He was very proud that Ganashakti had been able to ‘beat’ all the other newspapers in this particular case. Bofors of course became the biggest news story of the times. For Ganashakti, however, it was more than just news; Bofors was a political issue which was used effectively in the electoral campaign in 1987. Das Choudhury recalls how Ganashakti reporters would research and report every detail and how much of the information related to the Bofors scandal was first published in Ganashakti. He also mentions that this was a good example of one of the roles played by the paper—that of providing the facts for campaigners and activists across the state. The Bofors scandal grew to become one of the main campaign planks against the Congress in the ensuing elections and campaigners effectively utilised the material published in the paper. A look at the coverage of the Bofors issue in Ganashakti and other Calcutta-based newspapers can help us see what differences existed, if any, during this early period of the paper’s existence as a daily newspaper. On 16th April 1987, Swedish Radio alleged that Bofors had paid substantial amounts of money as kickback to key politicians and defence personnel in several countries including India to ensure sale of their products. As recounted earlier, among the Calcutta-based newspapers only Ganashakti and The Telegraph carried this news. However, Ganashakti carried on with detailed coverage of the allegations regularly. The focus was often on the resultant debates, allegations and counter-allegations in Parliament. Speeches by CPI(M) Members of Parliament, such as Somnath Chatterjee, were covered in detail, as were the official responses of the government spokespersons. It is interesting that Ganashakti consistently referred to the accusations as “allegations” thus following traditions of fair journalism, despite the clear political position of the party. Detailed articles on the long Cabinet meetings and the responses of the then Defence Minister V.P. Singh were also common. The Telegraph and Ananda Bazar Patrika also had stories on the Bofors deal through April and into May, but it appears that the focus was somewhat different. The main point shifted from the allegations of corruption to stories

Ganashakti ‘The enormous pair of bellows’: Tracing The History of the Party

277

which cast doubt the credibility of the original broadcast. Repeatedly the reluctance of Swedish Radio to reveal, not only the sources, but more facts and figures about the alleged kickbacks became the focus of the stories. It was of course The Hindu which did the most intense and comprehensive investigative journalism and while Ganashakti never had the resources to do its own investigation on such a scale, it carried regular series of feature and discussion articles which made most of the relevant material available to its readers and the campaigners in the party. During the controversy over the Thakker Committee Report when the Union Cabinet refused to allow the President Zail Singh to see a copy of the Report despite a request from him, Ganashakti represented this development as an admission that the Report contained potentially damaging information. Ananda Bazar Patrika however was busy debating the controversy as a constitutional issue. Reading the coverage of Ganashakti of the Bofors issue gives a good idea of the way the paper balanced political ideology with journalistic ethics while keeping the needs of the organisation in mind. According to Das Choudhury, Ganashakti reporters are proud of the fact that they always check out their facts thoroughly and they have proof of everything they publish. Several people have filed cases against us in court, he asserted, but never have we been convicted of misrepresentation or deliberate falsification. He continued that even today, people in other media also know that if something has been published in Ganashakti it must be true. Das Choudhury felt that this paper could never afford to lose its credibility because it was a political paper. One major controversy that has dogged the Left Front is what is known as the Bantala issue. If this word ‘Bantala’ is googled, the first entry that appears is Wikipedia, and if one looks at that entry—‘1990 Bantala Rape Case’—this is what one learns: “On 30 May 1990, three health officers, two from the Health Department of the Government of West Bengal and one from UNICEF were raped by a gang of miscreants in Bantala Road when they were returning from Gosaba Rangabelia. One of the officers and their driver died while resisting the attackers.”15This is also how the incident is remembered in public memory. Yet interestingly if one goes back to the newspaper reports of this incident, one begins to see how insidiously the media works in constructing stories and histories. The violence took place late at night on 30th May 1990 and both Ganashakti and Ananda Bazar Patrika (ABP) make it their front page

278

West Bengal under the Left (1977-2011)

headline on 1st June and the incidents as reported seem to be more or less the same: a car with two Government officers and one UNICEF officer was stopped by some ‘anti-socials’ near Bantala, the women were dragged out of their car, stripped and lynched. The ABP headline can be translated as “Woman Officer Dead, 3 Injured in Lynching, 70 arrested”. The Ganashakti headline is almost identical: “Anti-socials attack kills one woman officer, driver and two other women officers injured.” Both newspapers go into greater detail in this and other related articles about the prompt police action, the visit of CPI(M) leaders, the government’s decision to pay the costs of medical treatment, the compensation to be given to the victims’ family and so on. Both newspapers also keep this story as the lead article on the 2nd of June with ABP carrying as many as four separate articles which concentrate on reactions from the Health Minister, Prasanta Sur, a CPI(M) mass meeting at which district leaders condemn the inhuman violence, the numerous arrests made and other aspects. Ganashakti too reports all of these and other comments too. However, a comment by the Chief Minister becomes the focal point on that day. In response to questions by the Press, Jyoti Basu made a statement which the ABP quotes as a reflection of the callousness of the reaction of the Government. The particular sentence was, “These things happen all the time.” This was quoted without the entire statement which was printed in Ganashakti. While ABP framed the sentence in a way that seemed to imply that Basu was dismissing the violence and lynching as a minor, unremarkable incident, the entire quote in Ganashakti shows exactly the opposite—that Basu was regretting that some anti-socials incite and take part in such barbaric acts. Such people should be arrested and punished he said. However, this particular spin on the Chief Minister’s remarks begins to turn the ABP coverage into a much more political narrative and the tone of the stories that follow become more strident against the Left Front government and the party. Over the next few days, though facts are mentioned by ABP—such as the CPI(M)-sponsored bandh in the area, the fact that among those arrested, there were some CPI(M) supporters, the processions organised by the women’s wing of the CPI(M), the protest in front of the thana by the Coordination Committee—the tone becomes much more condemnatory and the word ‘rape’ is used for the first time, though speculatively. There are insinuations that the party leadership had wanted this team to be silenced for some reason. The phrase uttered by the

Ganashakti ‘The enormous pair of bellows’: Tracing The History of the Party

279

Chief Minister becomes distorted and though ABP also mentions findings of the fact-finding committee which say that the women were beaten and lynched, but not raped, the insinuations seem to stick. Since 7th June, ABP changes the reference of the story from ‘women murdered’ to just the name of the place ‘Bantala.’ The stories make speculative connections between the murders and allege corruption of CPI(M) leaders. Meanwhile, the Government orders a judicial enquiry into the whole sequence of events. From 4th June onwards, Ganashakti begins to take on the ABP ‘apaprachar’ or propaganda of distortions. For the next three days, the stories in Ganashakti aim at emphasising the horror of the attack, the need for suitable punishment, the fact that among those arrested there were some CPI(M) supporters, but the party leadership did not condone such horrifying violence and called for punishment for all who were involved. The last important article was published in Ganashakti on 7th June while the ABP carried on for a while till the Municipal Elections drew near and all other news was overshadowed. What is interesting is that public perception of this violence recalls rape and CPI(M) attempts to cover up and protect its leaders. A quotation from an article published in Mainstream more than 10 years after the murder claims: Way back in the early eighties, the CPI-M added rape as a political weapon. In the mid-eighties Ms Anita Dewan, an officer of the UNICEF, detected a huge fraud involving UNICEF funds in some CPI-M-controlled panchayats in South 24-Parganas. When she was returning with some seized incriminating documents, her vehicle was waylaid at Bantala. It was set on fire. The driver was killed. And Ms Dewan was raped and murdered. Her naked body was thrown into a paddy field. When the incident was reported to Jyoti Basu, who was then the Chief Minister of the State, his cryptic and cynical remark was: “Such incidents do happen, don’t they?”16 This is a quotation from an article published in 2010 by D Bandhopadhyay who currently serves as a Rajya Sabha member nominated by the Trinamool, but while many may object to the polemics, not many people would contest the ‘facts’. It is this kind of battle that the Ganashakti wages and continues to fight even today. One of the main changes that were brought about by the change from a eveninger to a daily was that previously, Ganashakti was largely written

280

West Bengal under the Left (1977-2011)

and printed with the help of a large group of volunteers. Usually school or college teachers, they would come after work to write, edit and proofread the articles. Often student activists too would be part of the team. However, with the decision to transform the paper, the need for a whole-time committed staff was felt. Initially, the volunteers continued to contribute, but the pressures of publishing quality material every morning meant that volunteerism made way for more full time staff. From the beginning, the staff were treated at par with the ‘party whole-timers’ that is with those who choose to work full-time for the party. Rather than seeing this in professional terms, the work at the paper was seen as a political task and recruitments were made carefully to ensure that the staff would be content to work for the very low wages offered to them. In fact, Debashis Chakraborty, currently working as News Editor, said that wages were decided on the basis of need, rather than qualification or time spent. For example, he said that as his spouse has a full-time well-paying job, he took only a very small amount of money which just about covered his travel expenses from home to the office, but some of the printers who were the sole bread earners of their family would get higher wages than him. All who work at Ganashakti, perceive their work as a party task and thus the commitment is of a high level. The normal pressures of a professional corporation are missing here. Even the normal hierarchies that function in any institution or corporation are, he felt, absent as the shared political commitment created a sense of cooperation rather than competition among the people who worked there. Currently there are 192 people working for Ganashakti and that includes drivers, printers, lift operators and other staff. Compared to the other daily newspapers this is a small team. Chakraborty also pointed out that the paper is prepared entirely online. We too noticed that there was no paper lying around or cluttering the offices anywhere. He informed us that the entire software and digital architecture was created in-house as there was no question of hiring a company to do it at commercial rates. Later, when the paper in Tripura went online the Ganashakti team went to help them out. The layout of the office is open plan with a few cubicles meant for four of the editorial team, but these also seemed to be rather informal spaces with people moving in and out and sitting wherever convenient rather than jealously guarded, symbolic private spaces. There is an air of informality and camaraderie between all members of the team, including say the lift operators. However, we did not see any women on the premises during the times that we were there.

Ganashakti ‘The enormous pair of bellows’: Tracing The History of the Party

281

Chakraborty said that it was becoming increasingly difficult for Ganashakti to retain its readership. On the one hand, newspapers today are interested in providing entertainment in the form of gossip, scandals and celebrity-driven news whereas Ganashakti can never change its basic role. As an article called “Contemporary Media and Party Publications” puts it, “the commercial mass-media is increasingly becoming divorced from mass-reality” whereas Ganashakti’s role is to report the events in society that are not entertaining such as farmer suicides which are increasing all over the country everyday, or stories about movements and meetings where people are protesting the conditions of their everyday life. Where the role of the commercial media itself is changing, Ganashakti is finding it very hard to increase its subscription. It is in the nineties that major shifts in the policy of the Left Front Government and in the party are discernible. In the words of Atul Kohli, by the nineties, ...the CPI(M)’s ideology had shifted from a revolutionary to a reformist orientation. The doctrine of ‘class confrontation’ as a method of establishing the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ is no longer central to the party line. Instead, the CPI(M) has evolved a more moderate stance best characterised as a ‘developmental and a democratic socialist’ ideology. It emphasises the use of state power for facilitating ‘development with redistribution’...this results in leaving capitalism intact as a mode of production, but directing efforts towards the consolidation of electoral power by channelling some public resources to the lower agrarian classes.17 This ideological shift emerged out of intense debates within the party structures and was not at all an easy process. Even as late as in 2007, the Chief Minister Buddhadev Bhattacharya has to explain and convince his party comrades about the need for new thinking. In a speech to the Central Units of the Party, Bhattacharya acknowledges that, “There is a tenor of opposition from within the Left Front itself ” and though he does not mention it, from within the party itself. In fact the tone of this speech (later published in The Marxist Vol XXIII 1st January -31st March 2007) makes it clear that he is making an effort to win over his own comrades. He makes it a point to mention that “The State Government’s industrial policy was declared by former Chief Minister Jyoti Basu in 1994.” Perhaps the most interesting is the following paragraph:

282

West Bengal under the Left (1977-2011)

IBM, Cognizant, and GE Capital have evinced interest in investing in the IT sector and we need their units. We will await the final denouement of the software debate. We must do something about our young men and women who are computer-literate and know English. Mitsubishi Chemicals invested Rs 1.7 billion at Haldia, and they are willing to open a second unit there—we really cannot refuse them. Videocon is willing to set up a TV factory in North Bengal. Shall we dissuade them? Jindals have chosen to set up a Rs 35.5 billion steel plant at Salboni in Midnapore West. The message that we would like to send to entrepreneurs abroad is that we need private capital. The Party Programme has been changed. Earlier it talked about state takeover of all monopoly and foreign capital. We do not really hold that position now. The last Party Congress resolved that there would be no FDI in the retail trade. West Bengal has not moved an inch outside the assessment of the Party on the issue. Yet these debates were never reflected in the pages of Ganashakti. Even when debates were sharply dividing local committees, district committees and even the Politburo, the issues under debate were never articulated in the party paper. When asked about this, Debashish Chakraborty said that there was no question of such debates being reported or reflected in a party newspaper. The debates and discussions were matters considered internal to the party and the paper was a public document. Thus only the outcomes or the decisions of the party debates should be published for everyone to read. The issues of Ganashakti of the period from 2006 onwards reflect the shift in the party’s policy in the reporting, analysis and op-ed practically every day. The huge electoral mandate in 2006 in favour of the Left Front was interpreted as a vote for a new wave of industrialisation in the state. This aggressive pro-industrialisation and pro-investment stance was personified by the then Chief Minister Buddhadev Bhattacharya with the Industries Minister Nirupam Sen as his lieutenant. Every day several news reports, features and op-eds highlighted the need for industries in the state to bring jobs to young men and women. The detailed reporting of Buddhadev Bhattacharya’s speech on 16th June 2006 just after this victory at the youth gathering at Netaji Indoor Stadium organised by the Democratic Youth Federation of India (DYFI) does not focus on movements organised by the youth; rather the slogan for the meet is ‘Struggle for a Glorious Future.’ The Chief Minister explains how this ‘glorious future’ is to be achieved: the peaceful and positive environment in the state is attracting

Ganashakti ‘The enormous pair of bellows’: Tracing The History of the Party

283

new proposals from industrialists all over the country and the state government is encouraging them in order to ‘relieve the pain of poverty and unemployment of today’s youth.’ This thrust in support of industrial investment is sharpest during 2007 and until the withdrawal of the Tata Motors from Singur, the paper is strident in its support for the government’s actions and bitterly opposed to the anti-land acquisition movement led by Mamata Banerjee and supported by several Maoist factions. The huge banner headline on 4th October 2008 reporting Ratan Tata’s decision to pull out of the investment screams accusingly: “Trinamool rampage puts an end to Nano” and is followed by several stories on the same issue. In fact, the front page carries no other news. Biman Bose’s statement “Let the people judge who want to destroy the state” is an articulation of the party line of that time and as usual Ganashakti is the means by which the party line is disseminated. However, the huge success of the Trinamool and its allies from 2009 onwards also proves that despite its best efforts, Ganashakti was unable to counter the propaganda and convince people of the party’s stand. The defeat in the state Assembly elections in 2011 has now once again forced Ganashakti to reposition itself as the voice of opposition in the state and it remains to be seen how successfully it can articulate and disseminate the party positions in future. In the 34 years that the Left Front was in power in West Bengal, and even before, Ganashakti played a very crucial role in the various campaigns that the party undertook. In many ways, the developments of the paper reflects not only the gradual growth of the party but the contours or directions of that growth during these years. The growth is not just a question of bigger numbers, but the growth of ambition too. From a ideologically based party of the working class and peasants, the CPI(M) had to transform itself into a responsible party capable of providing good and honest governance. To keep in line, Ganashakti had to transform itself into a daily newspaper taking on the mainstream commercial media. The introduction of professional production values, full-time employees and feature articles of general interest reflect the larger shift in the CPI(M)’s character. Yet, the paper never lost its sense of primary purpose. While conscious of the limitations of holding power in just one state in a large nation, Ganashakti often fell prey to the party’s sense of being under attack by the larger corporate and political entities of the nation. The paper itself took on the role of a party paper in a socialist state by defending the work of the

284

West Bengal under the Left (1977-2011)

government and its policies. In many ways, the Ganashakti newsroom is practically like a commune where ideological commitment and satisfaction provide the motivating forces even in a commodified and consumerist society. The history of Ganashakti reflects the changes in the CPI(M)’s policies and positions in its content, production values and self-defined role in the political arena. Newspapers have been theorised as the means by which communities are constituted on a daily basis. Benedict Anderson suggests that newspapers are a daily ritual, a “mass ceremony…a substitute for morning prayers… [affirming] that the imagined world is visibly rooted in everyday life.”18 While Anderson’s words have a distinctly religious connotation, we can perhaps say that Ganashakti played and continuously plays a similar role in the lives of party members and sympathisers—it proves every morning that there is a community which reads of the dreams and hopes of an ideology that seems to be under threat globally, nationally and locally. The very existence of such a widely circulated paper proves to the readers each morning that they “Shall Overcome.” That is a great achievement in itself. Endnotes 1

I would like to thank Indrani Bhattacharya, Project Fellow at the School of Media, Communication & Culture, Jadavpur University for gathering much of the material used in this essay. 2 http://www.ganashakti.com accessed 18th December 2013. 3 http://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1905/nov/13.htm access-ed 26th January 2014. 4 “What is to be done: Burning questions of our Movement” http://www. marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1905/nov/13.htm accessed 26th January 2014. 5 http://jyotibasumemoirs.wordpress.com/2009/04/01/chapter-xxxvmoreand-more-agitations/ accessed 20th December 2013. 6 ibid. 7 Shanti Das Choudhury, “Ganashaktir Panchees Bachhar” Ganashakti: Silver Jubilee Special Edition Kolkata: 1991 p35 (translation: author’s). 8 As opposed to the hammer and sickle the internationally accepted symbol of communists. 9 Shapat. 10 Unfortunately, the newspapers for the year 2001 are missing in the libraries and could not be included.

Ganashakti ‘The enormous pair of bellows’: Tracing The History of the Party

11 12 13 14 15

285

National Book Agency, Kolkata: 1997. Ibid p 236. Ibid p 248. Both headlines from issues published in March 1982. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1990_Bantala_rape_case accessed 15 June 2014. 16 D Bandopadhyay, “Musings of a Pensionjivi on Sumanta Banerjee’s Letter” Mainstream, Vol xilviii, No 42, October 9, 2010 accessed 16th June 2014. 17 Atul Kohli The State and Poverty in India:The Politics of Reform Cambridge University Press, 1989, p132. 18 Benedict Anderson Quoted in Robin Jeffrey, India’s Newspaper Revolution: Capitalism, Politics and the Indian Language Press 1977-99 C. Hurst & Co. Publishers, 2000 p.10.

14 Civil Social Initiatives in West Bengal Amartya Mukhopadhyay Beginnings in Colonial Era This article does not treat civil society as an exclusively Western concept but takes it to be a product of colonial modernity, and in this sense the notion of civil society in the Indian context unfolded first in colonial Bengal. Different modern forms of civil society, though limited and circumscribed, came into being in colonial Calcutta ushered in, by the introduction of modern political practices as an upshot of the combination of colonialism, liberalism and capitalism in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, together with the institution of a modern colonial state, which changed the nature of state-society relations in India.1 But this bhadralok civil society did not thrive or prosper after independence for complex reasons including the legitimacy and hegemony the Nehruvian state attained as the necessary, sufficient and appropriate agent of democracy and social change as well as the Gandhian organizations providing the necessary space for seeking an alternative to state action.2 This paved the way for what the Rudolphs have termed with much felicity as the ‘command polity’3 – as long as ‘command politics’ held sway, civil society had to be either weak or dormant. Command Politics and Civil Society in West Bengal: Congress, the Marxist-Left and the Diminution of Civil Social Space in the 1950s and 1960s The situation in post-partition West Bengal was no less inimical to civil social engagement. A ‘command polity’ was securely in place, overseen by two tall leaders, each of whom imparted a different dimension to it. The high political and social stature of B.C. Roy, Congress Chief Minister and legendary physician, supported by the organizational skills and ‘machine politics’ of Atulya Ghosh, party boss, squeezed the space of civil society. But whatever space, social or political, was left by the duumvirate of Roy and Ghosh was

Civil Social Initiatives in West Bengal

287

occupied by the Leftist political parties and their cultural organizations. Apart from the CPI and –after the 1964 split – the Communist Party of India Marxist (CPI M), there was a number of left parties in West Bengal upholding Marxist or socialist principles but organizationally distinct from the mainstream Marxist or Socialist parties. These parties – their origin going back to the economic and cultural dislocations which severely affected the Bengali middle class in the twentieth century – provided an alternative space for those who did not find Roy’s parliamentary welfarism or Ghosh’s machine-political organizationalism sufficient as space or succour.4 Talking about ‘dislocations’, the greatest was caused by the partition and the sudden influx of millions of Hindu Bengali, refugees in India from East Pakistan, most of whom settled in the three districts of 24-Parganas, Calcutta and Nadia in West Bengal. The activities of the CPI among the displaced, aided by efforts by comrades from East Bengal, acted as a surrogate for civil society. Apart from these activities, the people’s movements that the left parties initiated during the 1950s and early 1960s left little room for any additional civil social initiative.5 Things even worsened in the early seventies, when the picture of protest and resistance around group theatre became multiform due to the antagonism between the rightists and the leftists, the internal rifts in the communist parties, the peasants’ revolts in Naxalbari and Srikakulam, the active role of India in Bangladesh’s war of liberation and through the glorification of Mrs. Gandhi’s tyrannical rule. Yet, it looked as if the imposition of emergency by Mrs. Gandhi had given a fillip to new social initiatives for cultural, artistic and political freedoms. A section of theatre groups came up with a repertoire of plays supportive of peasants’ struggles in Telengana, Naxalbari, Srikakulam, etc. The Emergency of 1975 also provided a subject of expression of anti-system cultural commitment under the leadership of theatre personalities like Utpal Dutt and Jochhan Dastidar. From here and during the run-up to 1977 a host of electoral propaganda plays like Din Badaler Pālā, Naya Tughluq and Special Train by Utpal Datta, Kānthāler Āmsattva by Digindrachandra Bandyopadhyay, Agnikşhara by Sajal Roychoudhury, Hei Sāmālo by Gnyanesh Mukhopadhyay, Janatār Vicāre by Chiraranjan Das, Megh Kātār Pālā by Srijeev Goswami denigrated Congress rule and rallied support for the parties of the left coalition, in tandem with other groups of civil society.6 It seemed civil social forces were on the upswing.

288

West Bengal under the Left (1977-2011)

The New Command Polity and Civil Society: Left Front and its Politics The new vista however was a mirage or will-o’-the-wisp, cruelly dispelled by the policies and politics of CPI (M)-led Left Front government after 1977, once it came to power, whether in the rural or the urban areas. The entrenched Left Front’s mistrust of civil social groups included NGOs, rural cooperatives and all other voluntary associations. Robert Thörlind7 argues that the CPI (M)’s two-pronged rural development strategy in West Bengal, revolving round land reforms and democratic devolution of powers to the panchayats, was wary of them, though to transmute land reforms from socio-psychological confidence of poor peasants to tangible economic gains, they had to be provided credit, technology and information, and had to be encouraged to form and join cooperatives. But the Left Front government reserved these developmental tasks exclusively for panchayat institutions. This strategy left some policy areas neglected, as improvement of these required “more social engagement, knowledge, sensitivity and local initiatives from party and panchayat members as well as an increased mobilization of local (financial and human) resources.’’ For example, in areas like health and education alternative support for the rural poor was available mostly from community development NGOs. But they found no succour from the Left Front government, which, according to Webster, “obstructed or even attempted to co-opt local NGO efforts for development.”8 Indeed, in rural West Bengal, “local civil associations like youth clubs, sports clubs and women’s and farmer’s associations have quite often been influenced and affiliated, if not fully incorporated, into one of the CPI (M) mass fronts”, such as the Democratic Youth Federation of India, the Mohila Samity or the Krishak Samity. No wonder there were not too many truly ‘apolitical’ civil associations with membership along class lines, apart from religious associations, NGOs or other voluntary associations working in community development with the poor as a target group. But while these NGOs have concentrated on less ‘political’ policy areas neglected by the Left Front government, and in some remote parts of the state more radical NGOs run by former Naxalites have been regarded by the CPI (M) as political competitors, still “compared to a caste-ridden state like Bihar, there have not been many ‘New Social Movements’ organized in West Bengal … based on caste, gender, occupation and so on.”9 In this connection, Thörlind makes the very interesting analogical point that the CPI (M)’s view of NGOs as “contenders for its rural support” was much on the lines of the “way that historically Congress viewed the

Civil Social Initiatives in West Bengal

289

upsurgence [sic] of locally powerful parties in the states.” The CPI(M)’s aversion to NGOs arose from the large foreign funding of the NGOs, which not only betokened a deliberate Western imperialist strategy to penetrate Indian society, but the distribution of these funds from Delhi made the NGOs part of a “Congress strategy against the CPI(M)’s support in the rural areas of West Bengal.” The Left Front’s position was that if NGOs desired to work in West Bengal they would have to do it in close cooperation with the panchayats, which would have the right to monitor the origins of NGO funding. Moreover, the funds would have to be devolved from Delhi to the zila parishads, which would then distribute them to the NGOs. The rationale of this panchayati surveillance over NGOs was that “the panchayats have to be responsive and accountable to their entire constituencies while the NGOs only need to respond, while not being held accountable, to the interests of their specific target groups.” Reacting to this adversarial position of the CPI (M) Central Committee members to NGOs, about 160 West Bengal NGOs resolved in October 1996 to form a common cooperative front to better withstand the institutional opposition to their demands from the Left Front government; to lobby for funds and projects jointly; and also to induce the government to consult the NGOs when preparing developmental policies at state and district levels. The government suspected this move as some NGOs trying to utilize their positions as ‘local patrons’ to organize mass mobilizations against the state government and its development policies in areas like health and education. This is why some people thought that rather than relying on foreign funded NGOs, the best way of organizing rural civil society in West Bengal was to set up “really efficient pro-poor grassroots cooperatives on a broader scale in West Bengal.” Actually, Biplab Dasgupta, a Central Committee member of the CPI(M), admitted this neglect of rural cooperatives to be one of the major historical failures of the CPI(M) and the Left Front government, and attributed this blunder to the allocation of the cooperatives and agricultural marketing ministries to non- CPI(M) partners who could not appreciate the importance of these departments.10 In Kolkata and other urban areas of West Bengal the same dialectic of obstruction and cooptation sapped the vitals of the civil social forces. The CPI (M) created a series of mass fronts straddling the political and the social life of the people— the Centre of Indian Trade Unions for workers; Krishak Sabha for peasants and farmers; All Bengal Teachers’ Association for school teachers ; multi-party West Bengal College and University

290

West Bengal under the Left (1977-2011)

Teachers’ Association and West Bengal government Teachers’ Association for college and university teachers; Ganatantrik Lekhak Shilpi Sangha for artists and littérateurs; Student’s Federation of India for students; Mohila Samity for women; and Democratic Youth Federation of India for young men and women. This organizational network acted as alternatives and dampeners to any independent voice of protest and dissidence, and to any need for civil social mediation. As one scholar points out, “By securing benefits, these frontal organizations have gained enormous respect among their supporters … Unlike other contending parties, which are revitalized once the poll dates are announced; these frontal organizations always remain active in their respective fields. By linking the government and the governed, they provide inputs to the policy makers that may not be otherwise available. The government thus never remains a distant agency to those at the grassroots, which undoubtedly consolidates the ruling party’s support base.”11 The way the resultant hegemony affected even cultural organizations was reflected in the identity crisis of the much touted Group Theatre of Calcutta. As Chatterjee insightfully comments: The much vaunted politically conscious, theatre loving public seems to have deserted it. There have been few productions of any significance in the last few years. Most group theatres of repute are continuing to perform old favourites of a decade, not so much because they still draw large crowds, but because their new attempts attract even fewer people. … Even that firm favourite of the 1970s — the Bengali reincarnation of Bertolt Brecht— is now jaded. The explanation, Chatterjee contends, lay as much in the dramatic contents of the theatre as in the politics of the CPI (M). First, the audience might have been “tired of the kind of theatre served up to them in the name of the political theatre”. Though what “was new in the late 1960s and early 1970s is now hackneyed”, and “the practitioners of political theatre in West Bengal”, had “nothing new to say”, being “unable to talk about politics as something that is immediate, relevant and lively”, this did not detract from the fact that: … this condition of artistic immobility coincides with the period of Left rule in India… (True), the Left Front government has given more direct inducements and support to the group theatres than any previous regime in the State…The artistic crisis is more the result of constraints

Civil Social Initiatives in West Bengal

291

created by the very fact of existence of a Left establishment in power. Just as the workers’ or peasants’ or students’ movements have lost their militant edge, in much the same way political theatre has lost its bite, the sharpness of its critical gaze, its precision in identifying targets, its capacity for satire and irony, and the nobility of anger. The subjects today are abstract, general, not too immediate; the treatment vague, cautious, blasé.12

But it is possible to view this ennui as the outcome of a process, which put group theatre as a part of civil society before some existential problems. Mukhopadhyay points out that while in election plays before 1977 antiestablishment views dominated, in post-1977 plays constructive criticism of the new system became the chief goal of the theatre groups, as in an election play before the 1982 elections, namely Tāriņī Jotdārer Cakrānta Phāns Holo Kī Kore by Kingshuk Datta, where a dialogue between two peasants point out how the new government was implementing an old act benefiting sharecroppers kept in hiding by the preceding Congress government. But Mukhopadhyay reminds us that while group theatre thus lent its support to the efforts of the Left Front government for democratization of the political society through associating the masses in the process of administration and development through democratic decentralization, the government did not extend this decentralization to the domain of culture. Rather, what became visible in the course of governmental financial support in the spheres of Bangla Akademi, Natya Akademi, Nandan, Natyamela, Kavita Utsab (Poetry Festival), Little Magazine Fair, Book fair etc. was a type of bureaucratism, elite rule, and centralization of political patronage. Besides, a large chunk of the support and patronage became Kolkata-centred. It was true that contrasted with the limited patronage in the forms of financial grants received by select troupes of Sombhu Mitra, Utpal Dutt and Tarun Roy from the central cultural ministry, and financial grants received by that of Shekhar Chattopadhyay from the German Embassy, the post-1977 Left Front Government made the system of government financing far more impersonal and democratic. But together with this came an inevitable process of self contradiction. Clientelism on the part of top administrative officers and stalwarts of the theatre world, mingled with the age-old Indian tradition of familial prestige regarding selection of who would be the recipients of subsidies and training, who would impart training, and who would be members of the theatre academy, bedevilled the process of democratization of support, thereby creating a situation of ambivalence

292

West Bengal under the Left (1977-2011)

regarding the political society inside the theatre world as part of the civil society.13 Still the atmosphere of mutual friendship did not completely evaporate, and in their dilemma about the Left front Government not only top theatre groups in Kolkata, like Nāndīkār, Theatre Workshop, Onyo Theatre and others, but rural and mofussil groups took refuge in Brecht, black American theatre, allegorical mythology and/or folk ballads. Good examples of the last three are ‘Berah’ and ‘Ebār Gaŋeśer Pālā by Theatre Workshop and ‘Mādhab Mālanci Koinya’ by Onyo Theatre. The relative democratization of patronage on the part of the Left Front Government and the conforming responses by the theatre groups did not however ensure the end of all cultural policing. ‘Reactionary’ plays still got the stick, as in the second show of Sacre du printemps (Rites of Spring) directed by leading German choreographer Pina Bausch in April 1979 under the joint sponsorship of the Goethe-Institut and the Indian Council for Cultural Relations, which was disrupted by DYFI on grounds of obscenity, with demonstrators storming the stage, leading to the abandonment of the show. Next day a 500-strong procession marched to the Goethe-Institut mouthing slogans against imperialist West Germany and its promotion of apasanskŗti (decadent culture). And shortly thereafter, when leading thespians of the city joined hands in 1980, under the banner of Calcutta Repertory Theatre for an ambitious production of Brecht’s Galileo directed by guest director Fritz Bennewitz from the German Democratic Republic, and literally all the stalwarts of the Kolkata theatre world, obstacles were put before two leading theatre critics, Dharani Ghosh and Samik Bandyopadhyay, from even attending the performance, let alone reviewing it.14 So, during the heyday of Left Front rule, among the few forms of civil social organizations that evaded the captivating tentacles of the state were certain groups which concerned themselves with environmental issues and with the help of public interest litigations caught the environmentally less than sensitive state on the wrong foot. A case in point would be an NGO named the Howrah Ganatantrik Samity (GNS), which gradually circumscribed its larger civil-social activities to environmentalist activism. As a Polish scholar puts it: The GNS is rooted in the non-marxist, socialist tradition of the Jayaprakash Narayan movement… Basically the GNS is a civil rights organisation that got involved in environmental issues because of

Civil Social Initiatives in West Bengal

293

immediate, every day exposure to grievances… But until the GNS turned to the Supreme Court in April 1995, these campaigns had resulted in little else than paper and occasional police beatings and arrests.15

After its failed attempts to have the plans to build a commercial complex in Bellious Park stayed by the High court in the late 1980s, the GNS fought pitched legal battles with the Howrah Corporation and the state government in the High Court as also in the Supreme Court during the 1990s against the construction of a massive auditorium and a stadium on the Howrah Maidan. It constested the continuance of a civil defence camp on the green stretch, arguing that the maidan served social and environmental needs, apart from taking the Corporation to the court over the continuance of a very unhygienic and non-airconditioned Police morgue where dead bodies piled up in the backyard of a police station in central Howrah, and the unauthorized and unplanned fish and betel markets close to the Howrah Station. The GNS and its Secretary Subhas Datta could not stop the construction of the auditorium and the stadium and their later clearance by the Green Bench of the Calcutta High Court on the ground of huge expenses incurred, but succeeded in getting the morgue revamped and upgraded, and the civil defence camp and the fish-and-betel markets relocated. Similarly, another pressure group named PUBLIC (People United for Better Living in Calcutta) succeeded with the help of bureaucratic allies in the government to stop continuous diminution of the Eastern Calcutta Wetlands. In 1992, it moved the High Court, which, apart from allowing a world trade centre and an exhibition ground covering an area of almost 190 hectares, adjudged that “no other development projects would be permitted in the area of 5,500 hectares outlined by the map of the waste recycling region.”16 But Howrah GNS with Subhas Datta as its moving spirit, who also fought single-handedly since 2007 to force the annual Kolkata book fair with its huge litter out of the Kolkata Maidan,17 and groups like PUBLIC existed on the periphery of Kolkata’s civil social and public sphere, making small dents into the cultural hegemony of the Left Front regime. However, all this changed after the sixth Left Front Government took oath under the leadership of Buddhadeb Bhattacharya in 2006, with a tally of 235 seats in the 294 strong Legislative Assembly.

294

West Bengal under the Left (1977-2011)

Civil Society Overtakes West Bengal The push factors for the resurgence of civil society in West Bengal, whether in the form of activist theatre, activists on the stage, or other combines of intellectuals were not merely internal. Since the late 1980s there had been a worldwide rejuvenation of the concept of civil society; and its reasons have gone back beyond the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1989-91 to (a) the restructuring of western European capitalist economies in the midand-late eighties; and (b) the growth of new social movements during the past decades.18 But as the concept invaded Indian politics its meaning became a subject of contestation. While an activist-theorist regarded civil society as “a cacophony, not an orchestra,” with “different kinds of voices speaking for different segments of society,”19 Pratap Bhanu Mehta adopts a Durkheimian perspective on civil society, to notice a “strange absence in the civil society discourse in India”. For, though the “core of the civil society is professional associations”, which “are the principal source of a functional and institutionalized morality in modern societies”, the current discourse was limited only to “a large number of professionals in the NGO movement”. He thinks it necessary to distinguish between “the professionalisation of social movements and the idea of professions as civil society.” So only when the professions do their duty, can the existence of professional communities, in which norms and standards are maintained, be ensured, on which both states and markets rely.20 Aruna Roy, political and social activist and Magsaysay awardee, considers civil society as “an ambiguous phrase” because the people they work with, like “workers, peasants and landless labourers” have no role in it.21 This theoretical digression is important because, it helps us understand the kind of vidvajjan-dominated civil society that overtook West Bengal politics during most of the sixth Left Front government’s tenure in the name of ‘śuśīl samāj’. The term, redolent of Adam Ferguson’s concept of ‘polished society’22, came into currency in West Bengal.23 once the ‘Brand Buddha’ model of industrial development in the state lost its sheen even for its urban devotees,24 and the Bhattacharya government was even more criticized over the alleged homicide of a subaltern Muslim boy on 21 September 2007, who had the temerity of secretly marrying the daughter of a non-Bengali industrialist of West Bengal, by a few top order cops with the complicity of a few politicians belonging to the left and the Trinamool Congress (TMC). The change in the situation comes out best from the difference in the impact which a rejuvenated group theatre had on West Bengal politics

Civil Social Initiatives in West Bengal

295

during the fifth Left Front government and after the sixth Left Front government came to power. As early as in 2002, plays critical of the Left Front government and its deviations from Marxist ideology started being staged in Calcutta theatres to packed halls. Winkle Twinkle, written by Bratya Basu (now a minister in the TMC-led government), directed by Debesh Chattopadhyay, and produced by theatre group Sansriti was a trendsetter. Then a series of critical plays followed, like Tistaparer Brittanto (2001) and Mephisto (2004), directed by Suman Mukhopadhyay; and Fyataru by Debesh Chattopadhyay. But the coveted civil social cacophony reached its crescendo only after a few other developments. These were: the debacle and fiasco of the governmental decision to allow the building of the Tata Nano Car Factory in Singur in Hooghly district in May 2006; an unauthorized and faulty notification for a chemical hub to be set up as a Special Economic Zone in Nandigram in Purba (East) Medinipur district by a powerful local CPI (M) leader on 3 January 2007; the developing turmoil at Lalgarh in Paschim Medinipur district of Jangalmahal since November 2008, and the Rizwanur Rahman episode. It is not within the purview of this article to judge the moves of the state government or the opposition led by Mamata Banerjee in these incidents. What is more relevant is identification of the diverse voices in the cacophony. We are dealing with the last factor separately, because it quickened perhaps the most varied and multifaceted civil social reaction in Kolkata. Rizwanur’s Death and Civil Society in Kolkata at Its Broadest Rizwanur Rahman was a computer graphics trainer of 30, who was alleged to be murdered after marrying Priyanka Todi, daughter of industrialist Ashok Todi, though the incident was initially passed off by the police as suicide, since his body was found lying on the railway tracks. But evidences of police intimidation before his death led to a media blitz, where it was alleged that the police was covering up the case under the pressure of the rich industrialist father. On 16 October, 2007, the High Court expressed its dissatisfaction with the investigation of Rizwanur’s death carried out by the Criminal Investigations Department of the state government and ordered a CBI inquiry in the case. The next day, under intense and mounting pressure from the civil social groups, the Chief Minister gave a statement that the entire set of top five suspected police officers, including the Police Commissioner, in spite of their knowledge that Rizwanur did not commit any crime under law, actively participated in the torture and intimidation of the poor boy and ordered their transfer from their positions, till their guilt

296

West Bengal under the Left (1977-2011)

or otherwise was proven by the CBI investigation. In May 2010 the Kolkata High Court declared the case as one of murder, but the Supreme Court set it aside in a much later ruling. But we are not concerned about the twists and turns of High Court and Supreme Court rulings in the case25, but about its civil social fallout. For, this was one occasion where civil society broke out of the bonds of śuśīl samāj’ and captive groups of political parties/leaders or groups sympathetic to particular political formations. The candle light vigil that started before St. Xavier’s College was joined by common ordinary people, and it was these “invisible, ordinary, faceless citizens of Kolkata”, who had forced the Chief Minister’s hands, even when the reaction of even the fireeating opposition leader was initially muted, whether because the victim’s kin had also indicted a TMC MLA or because she knew “that it is basically a victory for the civil society”. But Sujato Bhadra, activist of the Association of People’s Democratic Rights (APDR), and one of the people deeply involved in the campaign thought the breadth and spread of the reaction unprecedented. As he said, “I cannot recollect any other event when the civil society in Bengal asserted so vocally in demanding justice … people came out on the streets ignoring the religious laksmanrekha to protest against police brutality, money power and the state government’s callous attitude.”26 Reawakened Literary Public Sphere The developments at Singur and Nandigram,27 together with those at Jangal Mahal28 brought about a rainbow coalition of the TMC, SUC (I), Maoists, at the state level, with support for TMC at the central level, and a large section of Kolkata-based intellectuals and theatre groups. These three developments brought about angry reactions from poets, littérateurs, playwrights and other theatre people as voices from the civil society. The spread of the reaction along the entire spectrum of political and apolitical opinions is indicated by eminent poet Alokranjan Dasgupta’s anti-Yeatsian collection of poems Rose is Now Political29; Prasun Bhowmik’s collection of poems Gentleman;30 Bibhas Chakraborty’s collection of newspaper articles, Diaries of Hard Times;31 the book fair edition of Bijalpa featuring Kabir Suman’s famous song on Chhatradhar Mahato and other songs, along with poems by Tarun Sanyal, Alokranjan Dasgupta, Joy Goswami, Jaya Mitra, Jashodhara Roychoudhuri, Pratul Mukhopadhyay and others;32 as well as the exclusive Bijalpa edition on Lalgarh, featuring stories, poems, and articles by people like Mahasweta Devi, Tarun Sanyal, Shuddhasattva

Civil Social Initiatives in West Bengal

297

Bhattacharya, Pashupati Prasad Mahato and others.33 But these are just a few examples of the literary public sphere taking political stances. Group Theatre and Śuśīl Samāj: Rejuvenation, Liberation or Journey towards another Cooption? Group theatre was another rallying point of antigovernment voices, with Ruddahasangeet by the troupe Bratyajon, written and directed by Bratya Basu, and premiered on March 20, 2009, just before the Lok Sabha polls setting the trend. But quick to join were a large number of eminent public intellectuals and artists – playwrights, actors, directors, filmmakers, singers, painters, poets –who came out on the streets on 14 November 2007 after the Nandigram firing of 14 March 2007 and coercive land acquisition in Singur, demanding change as members of ‘śuśīl samāj’. Their ranks were formed not only by diehard detractors of left rule, but also by many who had been sympathizers of the left, but had become disenchanted after the disturbing neo-liberal tendencies of the Left Front. The protagonists of ‘parivartan’ organized candlelight vigils and sent teams to go into Adivasi and other communities to talk with victims of state as well as Left Front harassment and violence. Their reports and protests created new spaces of mobilization. Suddenly, it looked as if a third, and independent, voice was emerging that went beyond the partisan bickering of the CPI (M) and Mamata Banerjee’s TMC. For a year or two, in 2007 and 2008, there was a deep seated feeling of a critical civil society gathering autonomy, and its activities generated an anti-incumbency wave against the Left Front’s so called ‘misrule’ of 34 years. During the 2009 Lok Sabha elections, the TMC was able to ride this anti-government wave to increase its tally of Lok Sabha seats from a paltry 1 to a respectable 19. But this came at a cost. Some of the front ranking intellectuals and artists in the civil society movement contested the Lok Sabha elections on TMC tickets and won. Kabir Suman, eminent singer, was the most famous of them. After her electoral success, Mamata Banerjee, then railway minister, rewarded quite a few of the eminent individuals leading the movement, seating them in paid positions on various railway committees. This offered grist for CPI (M)’s ridicule of these members of the intelligentsia as ‘railjībī’ or intellectual hucksters out in search for breadcrumbs thrown from the rail ministry. Inevitably, this weakened the civil society initiative greatly. Once again the voices became partisan and the potential for a ‘third space’ shrank. Public intellectuals such as Sankha Ghosh, Mahsweta Devi, Kaushik Sen

298

West Bengal under the Left (1977-2011)

and a few others strove to retain their somewhat independent space. But the movement had clearly lost its fizz. Mamata Banerjee continued her pitched electoral battle under the slogan of ‘parivartan’. Hoardings announcing this goal, signed by and alongside portraits of leading intellectuals provided ammunition to the charge by the CPI (M) that the pro-change members of the movement had become highly partisan in their criticism; that while atrocities against Maoists and ordinary people by the state and CPI(M) were being condemned, violence perpetrated by Maoists or members of the TMC against CPI(M) cadres and other parties in the Left Front hardly ever came up for censure. This greatly undermined the non-partisan leadership that so many were expecting from the civil-society movement, leading many to question whether, in the pursuit of change, the pro-change intelligentsia was compromising on the basic requirements of civil society.34 Moreover, by the time the 2011 Assembly elections became due, Mamata Banerjee looked around for film stars from the commercial Bengali film industry for bedecking the list of candidates, though they scarcely represented civil social forces. While some of the more visible election winners for her were ‘performing fleas,’35 artists rather than members of the intelligentsia, a core team of public intellectuals continued to act as her think tank. It comprised: veteran educationist and journalist Sunanda Sanyal; academician and economist Abhirup Sarkar; award-winning author Mahasweta Devi; theatre directors Bibhash Chakravarty, Shaoli Mitra and Arpita Ghosh; painters Subhaprasanna, Jogen Choudhury and Samir Aich; singer Pratul Mukhopadhyay; poet Joy Goswamy and others. Almost all of them were placed on committees being set up by Mamata Banerjee to guide her on various issues, most of them being blissfully unaware of great anthropologist E. E. Evans-Pritchard’s advice to his students: “He who sups with the administration needs a long spoon.”36 This is why noted journalist and rights-activist Sumanta Banerjee’s open letter to some of the prominent intellectuals in West Bengal supporting Mamata for the 2011 assembly elections, in Mainstream Weekly, conveying his worry and caution,37 went unheeded. While agreeing with them about the corruption and deviance of the CPI (M) and the regime it led from the Marxist path and the need to unseat it from power, Banerjee reminded them about Mamata Banerjee’s antecedents, dubious early patrons, and questionable ways of rise to power to argue that their backing of her electoral campaign had “sinister implications and will bode ill for West Bengal politics.” He rather urged them to “give a lead to an alternative movement… A movement for a third option…”38

Civil Social Initiatives in West Bengal

299

The open letter drew an irate response in the same issue of Mainstream itself. The commentator ridiculed Banerjee’s plea for an autonomous civil social space as a “‘sadbhavana’ platform”, on the ground that in the backdrop of “the height of popular hatred of the people against the CPI-M”, all “transgressions of the TMC and its leader” need to be “forgiven and forgotten for the time being, because, the people want to see the end of CPI-M rule.”39 This raises unsavoury questions about the possibilities of sustaining civil-social autonomy in the post-parivartan state. Thus once the decision was arrived at that within the current set-up, there was no way to bring about change except by displacing the Left Front and bringing in a TMC government through elections, confusions were compounded among the intelligentsia regarding their future course of action. While some of them decided not only to support the TMC and even fight the elections on the party’s ticket, others maintained political distance from both camps, protesting against all forms of state- and party-sponsored violence. As a result, as the elections approached, the civil-society movement practically fizzled out under the strain of the polarization demanded by electoral politics. In such circumstances, the position of those members of the intelligentsia who had refused to join any camp began to look increasingly vulnerable and irrelevant.40 The confusions continued even after the elections. In the run up to it many group theatre stalwarts, including Kaushik Sen, Arpita Ghosh, Bibhas Chakraborty, Bratya Basu, Shaoli Mitra, Manoj Mitra, and Meghnad Bhattacharya complained that because of their oppositions to the depredations in Nandigram by the CPI (M), call shows of their plays were finding last minute cancellations, and difficulties in getting governmentowned auditoriums.41 But after the TMC came to power, the inevitable question arose about their future role: “Will those actively interested in Bengali political theatre have to press the pause button for a while before they start questioning the system again”? Those who answered the question in the positive were well represented by Debesh Chattopadhyay who had directed Fyataru and Fandigram (meaning Nandigram was a ruse), both critical of Left Front rule. Though he declined having any ‘political stamp’, he thought it necessary “to give the ruling party the required time to settle down and bring about a change.” But there were others like Kaushik Sen, the actor-director who topped the blacklist of CPI (M) in the pre-election days, smelt at these statements the unmistakable scent of cooption. Indeed, he detected some signs that had already appeared from the figures given by

300

West Bengal under the Left (1977-2011)

the Left Front of how many people have died during the change of guard in spite of the contention of Mamata Banerjee that these figures are fudged. So, his play, Sei Sumouli, set in the background of the night of May 13 (or the date of counting of votes) about the suicide of a woman, and the accusations and recriminations of her husband and partner about who was more to blame for death, addresses the problem of aparivartan (non-change).42 Overcoming ‘Taming’ and Thinking beyond Śuśīl Samāj Thus the question that stands out post-2011 elections in West Bengal is will this ‘śuśīl samāj’ dominated by ‘performing fleas’, excluding teachersscientists-professionals, or what Pratap Bhanu Mehta calls ‘the professions’, and valorizing as intellectuals mainly people connected with the entertainment industry, literature or the fine arts, be equal to the task? The question is difficult to answer. Because, as the politics of the post-election state gets besmirched by unnecessary controversies43 and the silence of a sizable section of the śuśīl samāj on these questions gets more and more deafening, one wonders if what Neera Chandhoke has called in a recent article as the ‘taming’ of civil society’ in the national context in India,44 is also not happening in West Bengal. For, Chandhoke refers not only to the impatience of our august parliamentarians and Union Ministers across the entire political spectrum: regarding the Anna Hazare and Baba Ramdev groups, demanding among other things the creation of an independent Lokpal; bringing back the black money stashed away in secure places inside and outside the country; or regarding the publication of a harmless cartoon “that was drawn in 1949”, and included in “a textbook published six years ago;”45 but also to the “exemplary precedent set by Mamata Banerjee who managed to read between the lines of a cartoon and see a death threat.”46 The issue now is that while the liberal-democratic Indian State, provincial governments included in its connotation, is over-and-ever-ready to “neutralize civil society by laying down the boundaries of what is politically permissible and what is not”, if civil society is ready to interrogate and resist these boundaries. This is important because, as Chandhoke points out, “civil society organizations need to understand that civil society cannot be conceputalised in abstraction from the state, because it is the state that establishes the boundaries of civil society activism.” In the backdrop of these insights, what are the things that civil society in West Bengal should avoid to overcome taming and cooption, and what should citizens remember to obviate it? First, civil social groups have to remember

Civil Social Initiatives in West Bengal

301

that a domesticated civil society that releases its catharsis in TV channels or candle light vigils may not be sufficient, howsoever might the neo-liberal impulses of a section of the print and electronic media or of the government newly awakened to poor people’s travails disparage other modes of activism in the name of avoidable disturbances. Rather between elections “citizens have the right to intervene in the way the activity called politics is conducted through modes of direct action such as dharnas, street corner meetings, demonstrations, strikes and representations, as well as other channels provided by civil society organizations.”47 Secondly, civil social activists, be in the professions or in the world of performance should take lessons from the mistakes of their predecessors in the left era of restricting their activities and activism since a bondhu sarkar or friendly government is in power. For civil society a bondhu sarkar is an oxymoron, out there for the inevitable cooption. Thirdly, the people should remember that a neo-Fergusonian śuśīl samāj as ‘polished society’ does not exhaust the possibilities of civil society in the state. This is because, in the words of Chandhoke again: “Civil society is a space but more significantly a set of political values, and no one group, or movement, or campaign, or struggle, or association is civil society per se.”48 It is in this sense that Sunita Narain’s words that civil society is “a cacophony, not an orchestra”49 can be meaningful. Ignoring these messages may entail that the soil of Bengal would remain as infertile as ever for a vibrant and multifaceted civil society. Endnotes 1. See Sudipta Kaviraj and Sunil Khilnani (eds.), Civil Society: History and Possibilities (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), pp. 287, 303-04, 306-12; Swarupa Gupta, Notions of Nationhood in Bengal: Perspectives on Samaj, c. 1867-1905 (Leiden ; Boston : Brill, 2009), pp.13-15; Partha Chatterjee, “The Disciplines in Colonial Bengal”, in Chatterjee (ed.), Texts of Power: Emerging Disciplines in Colonial Bengal, published in conjunction with the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta, India (Calcutta: Samya, 1996), pp. 13-15. 2. Amitabh Behar and Aseem Prakash, “India: Expanding and Contracting Democratic Space”, in Muthiah Alagappa (ed.), Civil Society and Political Change in Asia: Expanding and Contracting Democratic Space (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 2004), p.197. 3. See Lloyd I. Rudolph & Susanne Hoeber Rudolph, In Pursuit of Lakshmi: The Political Economy of the Indian State, Paperback Edition (New Delhi: Orient Longman, 1998), p.212.

302

West Bengal under the Left (1977-2011)

4. See for this Stanley A. Kochanek, The Congress Party of India: The Dynamics of One Party Democracy (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1968), pp. 251-58; Marcus F. Franda, “Political Development in West Bengal”, in Political Development and Political Decay, (Calcutta : Firma K.L. Mukhopadhyay, 1971) pp.38-43. 5. See Joya Chatterjee, The Spoils of Partition: Bengal and India, 1947-1967 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), pp. 119, 142, 287. 6. Kuntal Mukhopadhyay, Nātya, Sāhitya, Nātyasamājtattva (Kolkata: Ratnabali, 2011), 130-31. 7. Robert Thörlind, Exploring Social Capital and Politicization in the Bengal Region, Nordic Institute of Asian Studies NIAS Report Series, no. 42 (Copenhagen, NIAS, 2000). 8. Neil Webster, “The Role of NGDOs in Indian Development: Some Lessons from West Bengal and Karnataka”, The European Journal of Development Research 7 (1995):407-33, quoted in ibid, pp. 75-6. 9. Neil Webster, “Institutions, Actors and Strategies in West Bengal’s Rural Development: A Study on Irrigation”, (1999) quoted with comments in ibid, pp. 74-77. 10. Ibid, pp. 77-81. The Sreedharpur Cooperative Bank in Memari block of Bardhaman that Thörlind refers to traces back to its Gandhian roots in 1918, and the Bankura Womens’ Cooperatives for tribal women in Bankura was made possible because of personal initiative of Benoy Chowdhury the minister in charge of land in the Left Front government. Ibid, pp. 79-81. 11. Bidyut Chakrabarty, Indian Politics and Society since Independence: Events, Processes and Ideology (Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge, 2008), p.143. 12. Partha Chatterjee, The Present History of West Bengal: Essays in Political Criticism (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1997), pp. 113-15. 13. Mukhopadhyay, Nātya, 132. 14. S.V. Raman, ‘Hindering Performances,’ in Art and The City, Goethe institute, Max Mueller Bhawan Indian, www.goethe.de/in/lp/prj/kus/ 15. See Hans Dembowski, ‘Courts, Civil Society and the Public Sphere: Environmental Litigation in Calcutta’, Economic and Political Weekly 34:1-2 (January 2, 1999): 50. 16. Ibid., pp. 50-53. Also see Hans Dembowski, Taking the State to Court: Public Interest Litigation and the Public Sphere in Metropolitan India (Essen: Asia House, 2001),Asia House’s online version of the book published originally in 2001, pp. 83-180, www.asienhaus.de/public/archiv/taking_the_state_to_ court.pdf, accessed on 28 June 2012. 17. See Arindam Chatterjee, ‘Rooted to the Ground’, Hindusthan Times, Kolk-

Civil Social Initiatives in West Bengal

303

ata, January 25, 2012. 18. John Keane, ‘‘Introduction,’’ in Keane(ed), Civil Society and the State : New European Persputwas Chandra: Vero, 1988), pp.2-13. 19. “Civil Society is a Cacophony, Not an Orchestra”, Sunita Narain, Director of the Centre for Science and Environment interviewed by Rashme Sehgal, in Infochange Agenda: We the People – Exploring the Role and Impact of Civil Society in India, Issue 17 (2009), [hereafter Infochange Agenda: We the People], p. 33. 20. Mehta, “The Dog That Did not Bark”, in Infochange Agenda: We the People, pp.60-61. 21. Aruna Roy, “Politics for People”, interview of Aruna Roy, taken by Rashme Sehgal, in Infochange Agenda: We the People, pp. 44-5. 22. See Adam Ferguson, Sect. III, ‘Of Relaxations in the Spirit of Polished Nations’, in Ferguson, An Essay on the History of Civil Society (1767), Google eBook in the public domain, pp. 321-27. 23. The term had an older currency in Bangladesh. 24. For this initial euphoric enthusiasm of West Bengal urbanites for this model of development which involved the Chief Minister’s tightrope walking between hardcore detractors of economic liberalization and revisionists who unhesitatingly welcomed the neoliberal ideology to the extent it facilitated the economic well-being of the state, and its role in expanding the support base for the Left, see Chakrabarty, Indian Politics, pp. 141-43. For a detailed and supportive analysis of this model and its compatibility with Left ideology see, Partha Pratim Basu, “Brand Buddha in India’s West Bengal: The Left Reinvents Itself,” Asian Survey 47:2 (March/April 2007):288-307. 25. For the developments over Rizwanur Rahman’s death see Times of India, Kolkata, September 25, 2007; October 12, 2007; October 22, 2007; October 23, 2007; October 25- 26, 2007; November 3, 2007; November 4, 2007; November 5, 2007; November 6, 2007; November 8, 2007; November 22, 2007; 29 November 2007; January 5, 2008; March 12, 2008; March 27, 2008; April 28, 2008; October 1, 2008; October 2, 2008; November 11, 2008; November 20, 2008; December 2, 2008; December 18, 2008; February 21, 2009; May 5, 2010; May 18, 2010; May 19, 2010; May 29, 2010; June 7, 2010; June 8, 2010; March 1, 2011; March 15, 2011; April 2, 2011; April 21, 2011. 26. See Rajat Roy, ‘A Civil Society Awakens’, www.hardnewsmedia. com/2007/11/1667, accessed on 20 April 2012. 27. See for chronological accounts and widely varying representations of the Singur and Nandigram episodes, S. K. Mandal, Ethics in Business and Corporate Governance (New Delhi : Tata McGraw-Hill Education, 2010), pp. 108-09; Nivedita menon and Aditya Nigam, Power and Contestation: India

304

West Bengal under the Left (1977-2011)

since 1989 (Nova Scotia, Canada: Fernwood Publishing Ltd, and London: Zed Books, 2007), pp.105-06; Janak Raj Jai & Rajiv Jai, SEZs, Massacre of Human Rights with Special Reference to Singur and Nandigram (New Delhi : Regency Publications, 2007), pp.1-36; and Prakash Karat, ‘What Really Happened in Nandigram’, Rediff News, rediff.com, last updated on March 23, 2007. 28. For sympathetic accounts of the start of the Lalgarh agitation, with the Shalbani land mine explosion on 2nd November 2008, targeted at the Chief Minister’s convoy returning from the proposed site of Jindal Steel Plant, resulting hyperactivity of the police, as precipitants of the movement adivasis, see Koustav De, ‘Lalgarh, an Icon of Adivasi Defiance’, mrzine.monthlyreview.org/2008/de171208.html; Partho Sarathi Ray, ‘A Year of Lalgarh ’, Sanhati, January 11, 2010, sanhati.com/front-page/1083/; both accessed on 28 June 2012. For some sources of the politics of Jangal Mahal, meshed with that in Singur and Nandigram see ‘Lalgarh’, Indian Express, November 19, 2008; Sukumar Mahato, ‘Bounty after withdrawal of Lalgarh agitation’, Times of India, December 10, 2008, and kanu Sanyal, ‘Lalgarh is not a Communist Movement’, naxalwatch.blogspot.com/.../lalgarh-is-not-communist-movement-kanu, accessed on 29 June 2012. 29. See Dasgupta, Golap Ekhan Rajnaitik (Kolkata: Bijalpa, 2008). 30. See Bhowmik, Bhaddarlok (Kolkata: Bijalpa, 2009). 31. See Chakraborty, Duhsamayer Dinalipi (Kolkata: Bijalpa, 2008). 32. Bijalpa, Bookfair Edition, 2010. 33. Bijalpa, August-September-October2010 issue. 34. Rangan Chakraborty, ‘Among the Bidwadjan’, Himal, July 2011, retrieved from http://www.himalmag.com/component/content/article/4529-among-the-bidwadjan.html, on 7.1.2011. 35. I borrow the word from English playwright Sean O’Casey’s description of P. G. Wodehouse, as “English literature’s performing flea”, and the latter’s instantaneous adoption of the derogatory remark as an apt description of himself, so much so that he published an autobiographical book under the title. See Wodehouse, Performing Flea: A Self Portrait in Letters, with introduction and additional notes by William Townsend (London: Herbert Jenkins, 1953). 36. Quoted in J.A. Barnes, The Ethics of Inquiry in Social Science (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1977). P. 53. 37. See Sumanta Banerjee, ‘An Open Letter to Mahashweta Debi, D. Bandyopadhyay, Suvaprasanna, Sujato Bhadra and Other Friends...’, Mainstream 38 (September 11, 2010). 38. Ibid.

Civil Social Initiatives in West Bengal

305

39. Dipanjan Rai Chaudhuri, ‘On Sumanta Banerjee’s Open Letter’, Mainstream 38 (September 11, 2010). 40. Chakraborty, ‘Among the Bidwadjan’. 41. Joydeep Mazumder, ‘Post-Nandigram Firing, The Communists are Shooting at Another Movement: The Theatre’, Outlook 48: 22 (May 27-Jun 2, 2008): 18. 42. Priyanka Dasgupta, ‘Politics on Stage’, Times of India, Kolkata, September 20, 2011, retrieved from articles.timesofindia.indiatimes.com › Collections › Ruling Party; also ‘Politics on Stage’, www.haata.com/political/politics-on-stage/, visited on January 7, 2012. 43. Among the controversies one may remember the efforts of TMC leaders to present rapes in Park Street and Katwa as attempts at tarnishing the image of the government and punish police officers who cracked one case; supporting the harassment of a University teacher by hooligans for exchanging a cartoon about the Chief Minister and the outgoing and incoming Union Railway Ministers in the Facebook; and ordering administration not to subscribe for elite English dailies and mass-circulation Bengali dailies critical of her, though the circular was later amended to include a few of them, and soft-pedaling TMC cadres’ hooliganism in the campus in a few colleges and one University. 44. Neera Chandhoke, ‘Taming Civil Society’, Economic and Political Weekly XLVII: 23 (10 June 2012): 39-45. 45. Ibid., pp. 39-40. 46. Ibid., p.40. 47. Ibid., p.40. 48. Ibid., p.41. 49. See note 19 above.

15 Epilogue Rakhahari Chatterji The Left’s electoral fortune, after hovering around 50 per cent vote share, started to decline rather sharply from the Lok Sabha elections of 2009. In 2009 it came down to 43 per cent declining further in 2011 to 41 per cent. As it always happens in Indian elections, the decline in seat share was much more dramatic: from 80 per cent in 2006 Legislative Assembly elections it came down to 21 per cent in 2011. The reverse was true for the non-left opposition of which the lion’s share was of the Trinamool Congress (TMC). In 2011 the TMC secured 184 seats as against a mere 40 secured by the CPI-M, and a total of 62 by the entire Left Front. This was no less than an electoral tsunami for the TMC. Many were apprehensive of large scale violence in the wake of the election reverses. That did not happen although small scale violence continued to take place as the CPI-M and the left parties were drawing attention to the destruction of their offices in various localities throughout the state and attacks on their cadres. In 2011 the TMC fought the elections in alliance with the Congress. The Congress won 42 seats and became part of the government to begin with. But very soon, frictions started between the allies as old animosities began to reappear and the alliance collapsed soon. In 2016 the TMC resolved to fight the elections alone while the Congress and the CPI-M decided to come close and formed a hurried and somewhat controversial alliance immediately before the elections. Many members and supporters of the CPI-M thought that the alliance with the Congress was ideologically faulty and strategically selfcontradictory as the party was fighting the Congress in the electoral battle in Kerala at the same time. Others hoped that perhaps it could give a strong challenge to the already beleaguered TMC faced with a major financial scam, public outcry over the collapse of a flyover and the Narada sting operation. It was also thought that Mamata Banerjee’s belligerent leadership style, concentration of power in her hands, political control of the police, attacks on liberal institutions, failure to rejuvenate the economy will

Epilogue

307

negatively affect her electoral prospects and drastically reduce her electoral performance. The optimists for the CPI-M –Congress alliance were deeply disappointed by the outcome of the 2016 elections. Despite all the odds, the TMC not only came back to power, but had dramatically improved its performance over the preceding elections securing alone nearly 45 per cent of the votes and 211 seats out of 294 total seats of the Legislative Assembly. This was phenomenal performance by any standard and it reflected the large degree of confidence in and expectations from the TMC/Mamata Banerjee among the general populace of West Bengal. The earlier support base of the party mainly in south Bengal had now spread considerably in the north Bengal districts which previously were a preserve of the Congress and some Left parties. The result also marked a disjunction between the views of the urban elites and the press on the one hand, and the masses, both urban and rural, on the other, somewhat predating Donald Trump’s victory in the US. Post 2016 elections the CPI-M continues to be in deep disarray. The controversy within the party on the rightness or wrongness of the alliance with the Congress has subsided a few months later; yet the party is not able to find the appropriate policy or strategic direction. The old leadership shows incapability of coming out of the time-worn frameworks of thought (such as resorting to bandhs) as it also fails to generate a new leadership which is energetic and capable of thinking out of the box. For the CPI-M, one way to get out of the political paralysis could be to encourage a debate among the party intellectuals and free thinking intellectuals sympathetic to the Left on the future course that the party could take in the shifting context of state, national and global politics. More attention needs to be paid to the longer term policies and strategies than to immediate gains. It may not necessarily be important for the party to get back to power as soon as possible. Purging the thought process and clarifying its understanding of the context of action demand greater attention. There is no doubt that post-independence politics is changing drastically in terms of value system as well as structure and culture of power. It is indispensable for the Left to comprehend the nature and the depth of what is emerging before the ideological, political and strategic issues can be formulated. * Meanwhile, the Trinamool Congress is set to rule West Bengal for the next five years. During the last five years it did not achieve much that is big. Yet it did

308

West Bengal under the Left (1977-2011)

have some achievements. Public programmes such as ‘Shiksha Shri’, ‘Kanya Shri’, ‘Yuba Shri’, ‘Sabuj Sathi’ have benefitted large sections of the youths, male and female, belonging to economically disadvantaged families. Rural roads in large numbers have been upgraded and better maintained which have palpably benefitted rural people of all classes with better transport and communication facilities, better opportunities for business and commerce, relatively easier access to health and educational facilities. The ‘Jangal Mahal’ region has received special attention and provided with improved infrastructure, rice at two rupees a Kilogram, employment opportunities in the state police force. These, with central assistance, have contributed considerably in pacification and development of the area known as Maoist belt. Once restive north Bengal marked by Gorkha separatism has also come under control as smaller tribal groups like the Lepchas, Bhutias, Tamangs and others have been brought under separate development boards. Whether it will have long term positive impact is to be seen. The TMC government also opened many colleges and universities, medical colleges and hospitals, polytechniques throughout the state, sometimes in close proximity to similar existing institutions. More than providing better education they serve as opportunities for providing jobs. The TMC government has been particularly sensitive to the need for inclusion of the minority Muslims. Their inclusion in the OBC list, started by the Left Front government, has been given boost by the TMC government such that a large portion of the community has now come under the scope of its benefits.1 The government has provided special assistance to Muslim religious and educational institutions which some sections have come to see as violating secular principles. Through all these policies the TMC government wants to appear as prowelfare. Despite these welfare activities, however, the agricultural sector continues to decline. One major problem agricultural producers face is the lack of ware houses and cold storages to preserve their bumper stocks and to protect them from rotting resulting in heavy financial burden. Probably this is one major reason for the heavy indebtedness in the agricultural sector to which Partha Chatterjee has drawn our attention. He says, ‘the state of indebtedness of Bengal peasants in contemporary times – the worst since independence – comes as a stark reminder of the colonial times’.2 Different opinions are available on the issue of West Bengal’s growth under TMC rule. Shoaib Daniyal claims, on the basis of WBIDC data, that the state has registered rapid growth under Mamata Banerjeee in multiple

Epilogue

309

terms: for instance, in terms of Gross Value Added and per capita income growth the state has overdone the national averages. So also in social sector development like the death rate of below 12 month old children, annual number of female deaths per 1000 births, or reduction in fertility rate. Kolkata as a city has grown in GDP terms and in employment generation compared to all the other major cities except for Chennai.3 S. A. Aiyar, Consulting Editor of the Economic Times, has also pointed out West Bengal’s better performance compared to Jayalalitha’s Tamil Nadu. Based on the data provided by the Ministry of Statistics website, he shows that West Bengal state GDP has improved from 4.72 in 2011-12 to 7.15 in 2014-15 (both based on 2004-05 weights).4 Economist Ashok Lahiri, even while admitting that there has been progress in industrializing West Bengal, as illustrated by the commissioning of the cement plant at Godapiasal and progress on the proposed offshore floating storage facility for eight million tonnes per annum (mtpa) liquefied natural gas near Digha, points out that it is characterized by a remarkable degree of “miniturisation” of projects. He gives the example of the state government’s proposal to set up six new theme-based township projects at Siliguri (education and health), Bolpur (culture), Asansol (industry), Kalyani (information technology), Howrah (sports) and Baruipur (senior citizen).They vary from 50 to 127 acres, and miniaturization is evident when comparison is made with the 886-acre Gujarat International Finance Tec-City or GIFT city being built near Ahmedabad and the 337-acre Mysore campus of Infosys. ‘But miniaturisation will not work for industry and infrastructure. Even 20 50-acre townships will not generate benefits equivalent to a 1,000-acre township’, Lahiri says.5 The problem of land acquisition has probably become the most important factor contributing to what Lahiri calls ‘miniaturisation’ of projects. Lahiri asks, how will the state collect 2470 acres of land required for integrated manufacturing cluster in the state as part of the proposed Amritsar-Delhi-Kolkata Industrial Corridor (ADKIC)? Bengal has sought Rs 2,000 crore from the central government for improving infrastructure at Petrapole bordering Bangladesh. Lahiri asks, ‘does the government have enough land at Petrapole to develop a world-class cross-border trade facilitation facility?’ In a sense, one can see how the Singur and Nandigram movements are coming to haunt Mamata Banerjee. In January 2017 a violent protest

310

West Bengal under the Left (1977-2011)

movement emerged in Bhangor in the outskirts of Kolkata when the government tried to acquire relatively small amount of land for a power grid substation. The local people began obstructing the police from entering the area in the same manner as had happened in Nandigram.6 Similarly, in March the same year locals tried to prevent acquisition of a mere three acres of land with a lake within for a railway project to connect Arambagh in Hooghly and Bishnupur in Bankura, and the local TMC office was vandalized because the TMC people were the contractors for the job of filling up the lake. 7 Lahiri correctly points out that West Bengal suffers from too many people and too little land. With 1,029 people per sq km, it is the second most densely populated state in India, after Bihar. Land is scarce, and net sown area constitutes 62.89 per cent of the reported area, with area under non-agricultural use and forests covering 13.48 per cent and 18.52 per cent respectively. The residual of about 5.5 per cent is accounted for by categories such as fallows and waste land. It is indeed a sensible argument that urban centres and industrial areas will come up only in fallows and waste land is an unrealistic expectation. It is also true that agriculture cannot gainfully provide employment for much of West Bengal’s working age population. But the issue is, will the industry of this new age provide enough jobs to compensate for loss of agricultural land due to industrialization? Is it possible to promote industries in West Bengal which require less land? Is it possible for West Bengal to hope for a mix of agro-industries and service sector industries to play an important role in the economy? Can we think of an appropriate model of industrialization for West Bengal? There is no doubt that land acquisition has become a central issue in the politics of West Bengal. Irrespective of the party in power it is necessary to find out a constructive way to get out of this tangle so that the state is not condemned to get confined in a groove. It is not possible to predict how long the TMC will stay in power. Many commentators believe that if the middle class consisting of urban intellectuals, government servants and small traders have almost completely turned against the party, their disenchantment is neutralized by the support Mamata Banerjee has received from the large swathes of rural Bengal and the urban poor.8 This support will continue as long as she can manufacture a winning combination. But if the Left remains too weak to challenge, the void could be filled in by the rising BJP. Already there are reports of substantial rise of the BJP in traditionally rightist pockets of the state.9 If

Epilogue

311

the TMC shows any sign of decline, the BJP is going to have traction. How a border state like West Bengal with explicit ethnic and religious sentiments will react to such a possibility is to be seen. Every ruling party, at the centre or in the states, is talking of development and of reaching to the poor. Every ruling party is trying to be investment friendly and pro-welfare. How much of that is happening on the ground is not quite verified. That is a problem for the voters, in West Bengal as also in the rest of India. But here emerges an important task for the opposition: to find out the truth about these claims however noisily they are made, and more importantly, whether such claims are targeted towards pushing more fundamental issues into oblivion. Do we have such an opposition in West Bengal today? Endnotes 1 2 3 4

5

6 7 8

9

Partha Chatterji, “Projatantranei, ache abimisra rajtantra” (No Republic, Unalloyed Monarchy), ABP, 19 April 2016. Partha Chatterji, Ibid. Shoaib Daniyal. https://scroll.in/article/806031/is-west-bengla-economyactually-reviving-under-mamata-banerjee S. A. Aiyar. http://blogs.economicstimes.indiatimes.com/swaminomics/stateof- growth- performance- favours- mamata- banerjee- and- is- iffy- for-jayalalithaa Ashok Lahiri, “The Story of West Bengal’s Dismal Industrial Performance,” Business Standard 6 June 2016.http://www.rediffmail.com/money/ report/ column- the- story- of- west- bengals- dismal- industrial- performance/ 20160106/ html www.dnaindia.com/report-west-bengal-s-bhangor-on-boil-villagers-clash -with-police-over-power-grid-substation-2293381 http://www.ndtv.com/Indianews/trinamool-congress-office-vandalized - indispute -over-rail-project-in bengal-1670404 Ajoy Ashirwad Mahaprashasta, “Critical Challenges Lie Ahead for Trinamool Congress,”http://thewire.in/29553/critical-challenges-lie-ahead-fortrinamool-congress-to-retain-west-bengals-vote/ Sayandeb Chowdhury, “West Bengal Elections: The more things remain the same,” http://indianexpress.com/article/elections-2016/opinion/columns/west-bengal-elections-2016

Index

Numbers 73rd and 74th Constitutional Amendment Acts of 1992, 20 74th Constitution Amendment Act, 103, 108 1993 Municipal Act, 103

A Aiyar, S. A., 309, 311 Aligarh Muslim University, 229 All Bengal Teachers’ Association, 29, 289 All India Christian Democratic and Backward People’s Party, 237 All India Coordinating Committee of Working Women, 251 All-India Coordination Committee of Communist Revolutionaries, 41 All India democratic Women’s Association, 251 All India Gorkha League, 71 All India League for Revolutionary Culture, 48 All-India Naxalbari Krishak Sangram Sahayak Samity, 41 All India Peoples Resistance Forum, 48 All-India Youth Congress(I), 11 Ambedkar, Dr. B.R., 206, 213 Amra Bangali, 82 Amritsar-Delhi-Kolkata Industrial Corridor (ADKIC), 309 Amulya Sen, 44 Anandamargis, 4

Andhra, Karnataka, 247 Anil Biswas, 271 Anita Dewan, 25, 279 Anjan Ghosh, 86, 88, 208, 220, 221 Anti- Human Trafficking Units, 261 Anti-Trafficking Committee, 262 Anuradha Talwar, 266 Arild Ruud, 209 Aruna Roy,, 294, 303 Asansol-Durgapur Development Authority (ADDA), 106 Ashok Lahiri, 309, 311 Ashok Mitra, 27 Asok Bhattacharya, 80 Atul Kohli, 4, 15, 36, 37, 133, 156, 281, 285 Atulya Ghosh, 286 Awami Muslim League, 236

B Babari Masjid, 23, 24 Bagchi, Bimal Krishna, 213 Bandopadhyay, D, 279, 285 Bandhu, Shilpa, 118 Bandopadhyay, Krishna, 247, 265 Bandyopadhyay, Sekhar, 85, 208, 219, 221 Banerjee, Mamata, 4, 5, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 19, 25, 32, 50, 51, 58, 62, 64, 127, 159, 197, 203, 236, 283, 295, 297, 298, 300, 306, 307, 309, 310 as TMC leader, 308 floating TMC, 308 injured, 308

314

parivartan, 308 Save Bengal Front, 308 Singur and Nandigram,, 308 Banerjee, Sumanta, 41, 42, 60, 62, 68, 75, 85, 86, 216, 222, 285, 298, 304, 305 Bangiya Christiya Pariseba, 236, 237, 241–244 Sahitya Kendra, 237 Bantala, 3, 121, 277, 278, 279, 285 Bardhaman Development Authority (BDA), 106 Bargadar Act (1950), 136 Basic Development Plan, 97 Basu, Debkumar, 104 Basu, Jyoti, 3, 4, 7, 19, 31, 73, 74, 77, 120, 127, 134, 159, 207, 208, 224, 225, 228, 242, 268, 278, 279, 281 Bantala incident, 225 Caste, 138 Gorkhaland agitation, 67, 81 Memoires, 225 Nandigram, 16, 19, 33, 49, 52, 54, 55, 58, 59, 63, 127 new industrial policy, 31, 121, 129 Sachar Committee Report, 225, 228, 229, 235 Battle of Plassey, 233 Bengal communists, 26 Bengali bhadralok, 67, 69, 84 Bengali nationalism, 83 Bengal Municipal Act 1932, 98, 102 renaissance in, 69 Wakf Act of, 1934, 227 'bhadralok', 5, 6, 37, 67, 68, 69, 70,

West Bengal under the Left (1977-2011)

84, 85, 204, 206, 208, 218, 265, 286 culture of, 265 Bhadra, Sujato, 296, 304 Bhattacharya, Buddhadeb, 7, 19, 35, 54, 74, 77, 78, 113, 120, 159, 211, 216, 218, 228, 258, 271, 281, 282, 293 crimes against women,, 22 development agenda, 19, 31 Gorkhaland agitation, 67, 81 illegal infiltration, 3, 7, 9, 10, 15, 22, 31, 32, 33, 34, 35, 39, 49, 68, 93, 113, 114, 117, 118, 119, 120, 124, 126, 129, 133, 210, 231, 232, 263, 310 industrialization, 3, 7, 9, 10, 15, 22, 31, 32, 33, 34, 35, 39, 49, 68, 93, 113, 114, 117, 118, 119, 120, 124, 126, 129, 133, 210, 231, 232, 263, 310 Lalgarh, 52, 54, 55, 56, 57, 58, 59, 63, 64, 295, 296, 304 mainstream media, 271, 275 need for new thinking, 281 Bhattacharya, Mohit, 103 Bhattacharyya, Dwaipayan, 10, 12 Bhattacharyya, Dwaipayan, 16, 35, 38, 209, 218, 222 Bhoomi Uchchhed Pratirodh Committee, 53 Bhore, Joseph, 169 Biswas, Ganapati, 211, 212, 222 Biswas, Haripada, 214, 215 Biswas, Kamalakshmi, 213 Biswas, Kanti, 203 Biswas, Manindra Bhusan, 213 BJP, 4, 25, 211, 216, 217, 225, 251,

Index

310, 311 Body-Mass Index (BMI), 167 Border Security Force, 234 Borough Committee, 103 Bose, Biman, 212, 283 Bose, Prasenjit, 243 Bose, Subhas, 70 Brahman, Ratanlal, 208

C Calcutta Madrasah, 229 Calcutta Metropolitan Development Authority [(CMDA), 97 Calcutta Municipal Act, 97 Calcutta Repertory Theatre, 292 Central Valuation Board (CVB), 106 Centre for Enquiry into Health and Allied Themes (Cehat), 171 Centre for Trade Unions, 29 Centre of Indian Trade Unions, 289 Chakraborty, Debashis, 280 Chakraborty, Debashish, 282 Chandhoke, Neera, 300, 305 Chatterjee, Biswajit, 130, 135 Chatterjee Group, 133 Chatterjee, Kanai, 44 Chatterjee, Partha, 7, 16, 38, 205, 208, 219, 220, 221, 265, 301, 302, 308 Chatterjee, Somnath, 120, 134, 276 Chattopadhyay, Jyotiprosad, 248 Chaudhuri, Binay, 207 Chhetri, Shanta, 78 chhotolok, 68 Child Mortality Rate (CMR), 166 China, 91, 160, 170, 187, 267, 268 Choudhurani, Sarala Devi, 246 Choudhury, Benoy, 21, 87

315

Choudhury, Binoy, 6 Choudhury, Shanti Das, 269, 275, 284 Christian community, 236, 241 Christian Democratic Party, 236 Christian Forum, 236 Citizenship Amendment Act (2003), 211 CITU, 29, 80, 273 Cluny Women’s College, 239 Congress Party, 3, 4, 8, 11, 12, 13, 19, 24, 25, 26, 27, 32, 37, 40, 41, 42, 43, 45, 47, 49, 50, 51, 52, 53, 57, 58, 67, 77, 80, 84, 115, 133, 136, 137, 144, 147, 159, 169, 198, 203, 208, 209, 211, 217, 219, 225, 228, 230, 232, 237, 242, 251, 269, 270, 271, 272, 273, 276, 282, 286, 287, 288, 289, 291, 294, 302, 306, 307, 311 Coordination Committee, 29, 41, 237, 278

D Dakshin Desh, 44, 48 Dalit-Muslim alliance, 204 Damodar Valley Corporation (DVC), 115 Daniyal, Shoaib, 308, 311 Darjeeling Gorkha Autonomous Hill Council, 78 Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council, 75, 76, 77, 86 Accord of 1988, 77 Dasgupta, Biplab, 110, 155, 289 Dasgupta, Rajarshi, 210, 222 Dasi, Binodini, 246 Das Munshi, Priya Ranjan, 80

316

Das, Sreemoye, 249, 266 Datta, Bhabatosh, 103 Deb, Rabin, 78 Democratic Youth Federation of India (DYFI), 282, 288, 290 Deshabhimani, 268 Deshabrati, 41 Destination West Bengal, 120 Development Strategy Committee, 99, 100, 103 Devi, Binapani, 212 Devi, Rassundari, 246 Digha-Sankarpur Development Authority (DSDA), 106 Directorate of Local Bodies (DLB), 106 District Planning Committee (DPC) Act, 104 District Urban Development Agency (DUDA), 106 Durbar Mahila Samanway, 260 Durgapur Steel Plant (DSP), 114 Dutta, Subrata, 45 Dutt, Saroj Nalini, 246

E

West Bengal under the Left (1977-2011)

Ganatantrik Lekhak Shilpi Sangha, 290 Gandhi, Indira, 237 Gandhi, M. K., 70, 133, 237, 246, 248, 287 Ghising, Subhas, 72, 74, 75, 76, 77, 78, 79, 80, 87 GM food, 154 Gorkha homeland, 77 agitation for, 67, 81 Janmukti Morcha, 79, 217, 222 Gorkha League Association, 71 Gorkha National Liberation Front, 72, 73, 79 Gorkha National Liberation Front (GNLF), 72 Greater Cooch Bihar, 83 Green Revolution, 20, 137, 142, 147, 148, 154 Group Theatre of Calcutta, 290 Gupta, Monobina, 36, 51, 56, 57, 62 Gupta, Ruchira, 262, 264, 266 Gurung, Bimal, 79, 80, 86

H

feminization of poverty, 261 Fertilizer Corporation of India (FCI), 115

Haldia Development Authority (HDA), 52, 106 Haldia Petrochemicals, 117 Haq, Mahbubul, 159 Hill Men’s Association, 71 Hindu Mahasabha, 208 Hira, Nakul Chandra, 213 Human Development Report (HDR), 159

G

I

Ganapathy, 46, 56

India, i, ii

Economic Research Foundation, 172 Emergency of 1975, 287 Ethnic imaginations, 82

F

Index

Indian Council for Cultural Relations, 292 Indian Medical Association, 176 Indian Union Muslim League, 236 Industrial Advisory Council, 116 Industrial Policy Resolution, 116, 119 infant mortality rate (IMR), 165 Integrated Child Development Service, 250 Integrated Development of Small and Medium Towns (IDSMT), 101 Integrated Rural Development Programme, 21

J Jaigao Development Authority (JDA), 106 Jamia Millia Islamia, 229 Jamiat-Ulema-e-Hind, 53 Jangalmahal region, 57 Jangal Santhal, 41, 42 Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM), 101 Jharkhand Mukti Morcha, 70 Jharkhand Party, 56 Jindal Steel Plant, 54, 304

K Kamptapur, 67, 222 Kamtapur, 70, 81, 82, 83 Kishan Sabha, 40 Kishenji, 52, 57, 59 KMDA, 97, 105, 106 Kolkata Corporation, 6

317

Kolkata Environmental Improvement Project (KEIP), 101 Kolkata Metropolitan Area (KMA), 99, 105 Kolkata Metropolitan Planning Committee (KMPC), 105 Kolkata Municipal Development Authority (KMDA), 106 Kolkata Urban Agglomeration (KUA), 95 Konar, Harekrishna, 6, 137, 155, 156 Krishak Sabha, 289 Krishak Samity, 48, 288 ‘Krishi Jomi Bachao Committee (Save Farmland Committee), 51 Krishi Jomi Raksha (Save Farmland) Committee, 32

L Lalgarh, 52, 54, 55, 56, 57, 58, 59, 63, 64, 295, 296, 304 Lalgarh/Jangalmahal, 59 Lama, Tamang Dao, 74 Land Reform Act (1955), 136 Legal Aid and Advice Scheme, 254 Legal Service Authorities Act, 254 Lenin, 39, 41, 42, 196, 267 Lepcha, S. P., 77 liberalization, 9, 30, 129, 130, 131, 133, 137, 148, 149, 153, 171, 245, 303 Lok Adalats, 254 Look East Policy, 120

M Madrasa education, 24

318

Madrasa Service Commission, 24 Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme, 248 Mahato, Chhatradhar, 58, 296 Mallick, Ross, 8, 16, 36, 37, 156, 220 Mandal Commission, 207, 220 Maoist Communist Centre, 44 ‘Maoist’ revolutionary organizations, 43 Marcus Franda, 208, 221 Marichjhanpi, 3 Marichjhapi, 207, 220 Matangini Mahila Samity, 54 Maternal Mortality Ratio (MMR), 166 Matua Mahasangha Advisory Committee, 214, 215 Matua Mahasangha (MM), 204 Matuas, 204, 210, 211, 212, 213, 216, 219, 220, 222 Mayor-in-Council, 102, 103 Mazumder, Charu, 41, 42, 43, 44 Medical Council of India, 172, 176 Medinipur-Kharagpur Development Authority (MKDA), 106 Mehta, Pratap Bhanu, 294, 300 Metropolitan Planning Committee (MPC) Act, 104 Millennium Development Goal (MDG), 166 Mishra, Vinod, 45 Mohila Samity, 288, 290 Mollah, Rezzak, 32, 203, 218 Mollah’s, 203, 204, 218 Mullick, Herod, 237, 238, 240, 244 Municipal Administrative Reforms Committee, 108

West Bengal under the Left (1977-2011)

Municipal Engineering Directorate (MED), 106 Muslim League, 219, 236 Muslims, v, 23, 160, 161, 204, 217, 219, 220, 222, 223, 224, 226, 227, 228, 229, 230, 231, 232, 233, 234, 235, 237, 238, 240, 241, 243, 308

N NABARD, 247 Nabayan, 237, 243 Nandigram, 5, 10, 13, 15, 16, 19, 33, 49, 52, 53, 54, 55, 58, 59, 62, 63, 126, 127, 135, 210, 217, 218, 231, 232, 239, 295, 296, 297, 299, 303, 304, 305, 309, 310 Nano (small car) project, 126 Narada sting operation, 306 National Commission for Minorities, 239 National Commission for Minority Educational Institutions, 239, 240 National Commission for Religious and Linguistic Minorities, 228 National Commission for Women, 254 National Commission on Children, 181 National Crime Record Bureau, 24, 36, 258 National Democratic Alliance, 211 National Emergency (1975-77), 19, 137 National Family Health Survey, 167, 259

Index

National Federation of Indian Women, 251 National Health Profile, 165, 172, 179, 180 National Minorities Development and Finance Corporation, 226 National Planning Committee, 169 National Slum Development Programme (NSDP), 100 National University of Educational Planning and Administration (NEUPA), 185 Naxalbari, 40, 41, 42, 45, 47, 48, 49, 52, 56, 60, 265, 287 Naxalite movement, 25, 40, 57, 59, 246 Nehru, 70, 101, 114, 136 New Democratic Revolution in India, 46, 59 Nirmal Gram Yojana Scheme, 53 Nozick, Robert, 197

O “Operation Barga” (OB), 4, 5, 6, 21, 26, 139, 155, 157 Other Backward Classes (OBC), 24

P Party society, 27 Paschim Banga Ganatantrik Mahila Samity, 251, 262 Paswan, Bhikhari, 25 Paswan, Ramvilas, 54 Patil, Shivraj, 77 Paulo Freire’s, 138 PCPA, 55, 57, 58 People’s War, 44, 45, 46, 48, 49 People’s War Group, 44, 45

319

Permanent Settlement (1793), 206 Police Santrash Birodhi Janasadharon Committee (People’s Committee against Police Atrocities—PCPA), 55 Prabhat Patnaik, 34, 220 Pradhan, C. K., 77 Prajashakti, 268 Prantitya Parishad, 72 Pratichi Trust Education Report, 252, 266 President’s Rule, 19, 43, 145

R Rahman, Rizwanur, 295, 303 Rajinder Sachar Committee, 225 Ranadive, B.T., 205, 219 Ranganath Mishra Commission, 228, 229, 242 Ranganath Mishra Committee Report, 228 Rao, Koteswar, 52 Rao, Mupalla Laxman, 56 Raychaudhury, Ajitava, 130, 135 reform communism, 26 Revolutionary Communist Centre of India-Maoists, 44 Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act (RTE, for short), 181 Right to Education Act, 189 Rizwanur Rahman episode, 295 Roman Catholic, Church of North India, 236 Roy, B.C., 286 Roychoudhury, Sushital, 41, 42 RSS, 225, 251 Rudolphs, 286

320

Russia, 267

S Sachar Committee, 23, 225, 226, 228, 229, 232, 235 Sachar Committee Report, 225, 228, 229, 235 Sachetna, 251 ‘sadbhavana’ platform, 299 Sahaj Path, 182 Samajik Nyayvichar Mancha (SNM), 203 Sanlap, 251, 260, 262 Santhal Rebellion, 58 Sanyal, Kanu, 41, 42 Sarkar, Abhirup, 8, 9, 16, 135, 156, 298 Scheduled Castes, 5, 23, 138, 205, 226, 231 Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, 23, 138 School Service Commission, 235, 238 Seetharamaiah, Kondapalli, 45 Self Help groups, 247 Sen, Amartya, 159, 168, 179, 182, 197, 198, 199, 252, 266 comparative approach, 197, 198 elementary education, 182, 183, 186, 187, 190, 192 Human Development Report (HDR), 159 Pratichi Trust, 252, 266 Transcendental institutionalism, 196 Sengupta, Debjani, 248, 265 Sen, Nirupam, 282 Sen Roy, Himadri, 54

West Bengal under the Left (1977-2011)

Sen, Satyabrata, 104 Sharma, Sukhbilas, 104 Siliguri-Jalpaiguri Development Authority (SJDA), 106 Singh, Manmohan, 212, 225, 228 Singh, Zail, 277 Singur, 5, 7, 10, 13, 15, 16, 19, 32, 33, 49, 50, 51, 52, 53, 58, 59, 62, 63, 126, 127, 128, 129, 133, 135, 210, 217, 218, 231, 232, 239, 283, 295, 296, 297, 303, 304, 309 Singur agitations, 50, 52 socialism, 8, 41, 144, 197, 225 Socialist Unity Centre, 51 Sokhey, S.S., 169 Special Economic Zone, 52, 295 Sriniketan-Santiniketan Development Authority (SSDA), 106 Srivastava, Ranjana, 266 State Crime Records Bureau, 255, 256, 257 State Finance Commissions (SFC), 104 State Urban Development Authority (SUDA), 106 Status of Education Reports, 183 Student’s Federation of India, 290 Suppression of Immoral Trafficking in Women and Girls Act, 260 Sur, Prasanta, 278 Swadhinata, 268 Swarna Jayanti Sahari Rojgar Yojna (SJSRY), 100 Swayam, 251

T Tagore, Rabindranath, 182

Index

Tata Motors Limited (TML), 32, 113, 126, 283 Tata, Ratan, 283 Tebhaga movement, 51, 208, 246 Tebhaga-Naxalbari, 52 Thakker Committee Report, 277 Thakur, Kapil Krishna, 212, 214, 215, 217 Thakur, Mamata Bala, 217 Thakur, Manjul Krishna, 217 Theekkathir, 268 Thörlind, Robert, 302 Trinamool-BJP alliance, 25 Trinamool Congress (TMC), 11, 12, 19, 32, 33, 47, 49, 50, 51, 52, 53, 54, 57, 58, 59, 63, 80, 159, 198, 203, 210, 216, 217, 218, 232, 249, 251, 294, 295, 296, 297, 298, 299, 305, 306, 307, 308, 310, 311 Trump, Donald, 307

U United Progressive Alliance, 58 UN World Urbanization Report 2005, 91 UPA, 12, 23, 77, 171, 230 Urban Development Strategy Committee (UDSC), 103 urban local bodies, 97, 98, 99, 100, 102, 103, 104, 105, 106 Uttar and Dakshin Dinajpur, 233 Uttar Pradesh Minority Financial Development Corporation, 231

V Verma, J.S., 168 Vietnam, 267

321

W Wakf boards, 227 Ward Committee, 102, 103, 108, 112 West Bengal College and University Teachers’ Association, 29, 289 West Bengal Commission for Women, 254 West Bengal Government College Teachers’ Association, 29 West Bengal Human Development Report 2004, 21 West Bengal Industrial Development Corporation (WBIDC), 118, 120 West Bengal Mahila Congress(I), 11 West Bengal Minorities Coordination Committee, 237 West Bengal Minorities’ Development and Finance Corporation (WBMDFC), 226 West Bengal Minority Development and Financial Corporation, 231 West Bengal Municipal Act 1993., 102 West Bengal Social Welfare Advisory Board, 24 West Bengal Women’s Commission, 248 Women’s Interlink Foundation, 251