Focus on Nandigram

Events in Nandigram and Kolkata over the past year (and especially the last fortnight) reveal much about conflicting conceptions about the rule of law and governance in contemporary India. It is impossible to provide the full context for the many issues that are at the heart of discussing Nandigram within a short post. I can only provide some links to enable those unfamiliar with the issue to get started: here is a Wikipedia entry which provides the context for the current violence, tracing events back to the flashpoint of March 2007. Here is an NDTV newsreport which details the violent ‘recapture’ of Nandigram by the CPI-M in mid-November 2007. Further information about Nandigram can be found at the websites of alternative media outfits here and here. Though some of us on the blog had previously focused on the issue for what it revealed about the contentious SEZ policy, it has taken on far wider implications since. The ruling CPM party in West Bengal clearly believes that Nandigram is an issue over which it has the final say, and upon which other institutions of governance have no standing to comment. In recent days, the CPM was reported to have asked Parliament to stay away from the issue because it is a ‘state subject’. Here is a newsreport from this morning’s Telegraph which reflects this stance in respect of institutions within West Bengal – specifically, the High Court of Kolkata and the office of the Governor. I am struck by the fact that this line of reasoning is quite similar to that employed by General Musharraf recently to fend off attacks by the courts and other political parties on his administration. This may, however, be a knee-jerk reaction, and the issue seems far more complicated, involving as it does a multitude of interests and competing agendas of political parties, corporate groups, the media in India, constitutional authorities, economic policy-makers and other actors. This post is not making an argument as much as pointing to analysis offered by others that seek to unpack the issues involved. I rely principally on two columns that appeared recently in the pages of the Hindustan Times by regular columnists Barkha Dutt and Vir Sanghvi. Here are extracts from Dutt’s piece: This time the violence has unfolded behind a veil of intrigue and secrecy. Unlike in March, when an entire country watched horrified as police guns pummelled unarmed villagers with bullets and bulldozed their way through Nandigram, this week Marxist foot soldiers made sure that blockades and threats and the stealth of the night would keep them protected from public gaze. But, as horror stories managed to break through the shroud of silence — bone chilling stories of rape, plunder and murder — the West Bengal Chief Minister gave away the game himself. With the transparent aggression that marks a man with a guilty conscience, he flared up in rare anger and told journalists that the protestors in Nandigram been “paid back in their own coin.”
And so, just like that, the mask was off. There wasn’t even a feeble attempt to deny that CPM cadres had been permitted by the party to storm their way back into Nandigram. If they had to shoot, kill and rape to make their way back in, so be it. No explanations were provided for why central paramilitary forces were sent in only after the Left’s militia was firmly back at home base. No apologies were offered for why a state government in democratic India should need to wage an extra-constitutional war. Other than contempt and criticism, there was no response at all to the high-minded public lament by Governor Gopalkrishna Gandhi. As far as the Chief Minister was concerned his party’s private army had “retaliated in desperation”. Twenty fours later, after a storm of protests over his remarks, Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee had another opportunity to take back his words, or make a retraction that is standard for politicians. He didn’t bother. Instead, he took it all one step further by declaring that he stood by his comments because he could not forget his “political identity” and he was “not above the party”. But what happened to not being above the law? … … … After two eruptions of political violence in Nandigram, the dispute has gone much beyond a debate over economic reform. The controversy is no longer confined to whether an Indonesian chemical plant should have been allowed to come up in villages that don’t want it. It’s now only about one thing — the abject failure of governance. And to borrow a phrase from the Left, the state government will eventually be paid back in its own coin. Vir Sanghvi offers a different perspective, where he rejects the bulk of Dutt’s analysis. For him, this is not an issue about the rule of law or governance, but one that demonstrates to him the essential nature of the CPM. His piece is strongly polemical, and I for one was not entirely persuaded. However, his piece is useful for the facts he asserts to build his argument: If it was the state that had to impose the rule of law, then why didn’t the West Bengal government send in the police? Instead, it was armed CPM cadres who went into Nandigram and fought pitched battles with the extremists, killing and raping villagers in the process while simultaneously assaulting the media to prevent their violent acts from being recorded. All this was because the CPM, in the manner of all communist parties, sees no distinction between the party and the state, between the cadres and the police and between the enemies of the party and the enemies of the nation. Anybody who thinks that the true lesson of Nandigram is about the poor man’s right to hold on to his land or to the imposition of the rule of law on extremists misses the point. The debate about acquisition is an old one and there can be no dispute over the need to fight extremism. The lesson of Nandigram is not about any of those things. It is about the true nature of the CPM, a totalitarian party that does not recognise the difference between the rule of law and the rule of the Politburo. If Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee had used the instruments of the state to regain control of Nandigram, many of us would have supported him. Beneath the extremely rancorous debate, there are genuine issues that those with an interest in our legal system should be concerned about. I hope that some of us on the blog will be able to both comment upon, and follow this issue closely. As this report indicates, the issue is scheduled to be raised in Parliament tomorrow.

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  • I was hoping someone could clarify how “police firing” can be unconstitutional? Can the courts determine to what extent force can be used by the police/security forces?

  • Jaideep Mazumdar’s column ‘The Executioner’s Song’ in Outlook suggests a plausible line of thinking in the CPM:
    “As for the timing, party sources point out that if Nandigram hadn’t been “taken now”, it would have been impossible for the CPI(M) to contest the panchayat polls there in April next year. That would have irreparably damaged party morale all over the state and further emboldened the Opposition, especially the Trinamool Congress. Also, the harvest season was on, and the standing crops needed to be attended to immediately. With most of the CPI(M) workers staying in relief camps, this wouldn’t have been possible. Also, party supporters who had stayed back in the villages were being asked to pay money before harvesting their land to the Bhumi Uchched Pratirodh Committee (BUPC)—the anti-land acquisition brigade which has the support of the Trinamool and other opposition parties.

    A CPI(M) district committee member doesn’t gloss over the import of the timing: “It was a very volatile situation and our workers were desperate to return to their villages. The state had asked for the CRPF and had the force arrived before our operation, it would have been impossible to uproot the BUPC. That would have wiped us out from the panchayats here.”

    If this is indeed true, it shows that this has always been an exercise of domination through force. Earlier reports said that CPM cadre was evicted from Nandigram by the opposition forcefully; today we see a ‘recapture’, essentially the same enactment in reverse. Here is my purely armchair perspective on that. Before this attack, the CPM probably had a strong motive to prevent normalization by allowing those evicted to return as that would have strengthened the opposition ranks and power. Police deployment may have temporarily restored order but the area would still have been under opposition control with people returning and eventual restoration of peace happening under the latter’s terms which would not have been acceptable to it. The opposition probably felt that it was legally impossible to displace them and therefore while fully willing to allow resettlement, there was nothing more for them to offer while the CPM saw danger in allowing this strong arming to succeed as it would have wider ramifications across the state and refused to cave in without their own cadre being allowed to reestablish themselves in the area. Under these circumstances, the dialogue was bound to fail. Nor is it surprising that Banerjee saw the refugee problem as a ‘drama’ since she was not really preventing their return. Now that the CPM has succeeded in restoring their own dominance, they have good reason to want normalcy restored. Once the game on the ground was largely over in its favor, the government had no trouble in allowing CRPF deployment to ‘bring’ law and order and the opposition has little left to do except try to get maximum media mileage out of this. The problem then, as I see it, is not party-specific but with the culture of political mobilization carried out by all sides through extortion, violent intimidation and forcible banishment of dissent.