Buddhudeb Bhattacharya, the Chief Minister of the Indian state of West Bengal, is a troubled man today. For 30 years his party, the Communist Party of India (Marxist), has enjoyed uninterrupted rule in this state. Time and again it has been returned to power through what are said to be ‘free and fair elections’. Support for the CPI(M) Party has been huge and widespread, taking in its ambit not only the masses, but also the Bengali intelligentsia.
But in recent years things have started to change. In the 1990s India began to open up to foreign capital and follow the path of globalization. Not long after – and despite its Communist Government – West Bengal, the first state to industrialize under colonial rule, began to pursue this path. The Party was opposed to globalization at the ideological level, but on the ground it was another matter. Pragmatism won the day. The Party chose a different strategy at home in the interests of ‘development’ (jobs, infrastructure) and modernity (roads, shopping malls).
People watched, with a mix of both scepticism and hope. For sceptics, this was the typical doublespeak of the organized Left. For the hopeful, there was more at stake. Maybe there was a way of getting globalization right? Maybe it wasn’t inevitable that poor people would lose their land and get sidelined in the process.
Perhaps there was a way of controlling globalization to make it democratic, inclusive and fair? To give people a stake in what was seen as economic progress? If the Communist Government in Bengal could show the way, it might be a breakthrough, a model for other Indian states to follow.
But it was not to be. That hope was destroyed in Nandigram, a small village not far from the capital of Kolkata (Calcutta) where the Indonesian industrial giant, Salim, was to build a huge chemical plant. Local people, led by groups of women, resisted the takeover of their lands, fighting back, sometimes violently. So the Government sent in its forces. The police attacked. Fourteen lives were lost and many more people, including some police, were injured.
Rather than deplore the violence, express regret or attempt to talk to residents, the West Bengal Government, led by its Chief Minister and supported by Politbureau members, remained silent while Party cadres and local goons went on a rampage – burning houses, forcing people from their homes and intimidating them into signing over their lands.
The result? Fear, anger, resentment and a widespread disillusion with the CPI(M). As the Chief Minister spoke of ‘us’ and ‘them’ à la George Bush and Parliamentarians defended the attacks on Nandigram, hundreds of thousands of people – including writers, filmmakers and activists – took to the streets of Kolkata, attempting to bring home the truth that there has to be a difference between a government and a party; that a government is responsible for all its people, no matter what their political colouring. But to no avail. Battle lines remain drawn, people remain fearful of Party goons and reluctant to return to their homes.
A critical part of this unfortunate story is the question posed by many of the protesters: when the Left starts acting like the Right, what remains for ‘progressive’ people to hold on to? An elected Left government in power for 30 years is a rare thing indeed. But are the exigencies of globalization and the need for global capital so important that they can force the Left to sacrifice what has traditionally been its very base – peasants and poor people?
What’s also grossly underestimated here – I can find no other word for it – is the sense of betrayal, the heartbreak and the disillusion of those who have believed in the Left and been its most ardent supporters. The conclusion seems clear: economic globalization does not, indeed cannot, benefit the poor.
Not only has the experience of Nandigram caused a profound cleavage among the supporters of the Left in West Bengal, it has also deeply divided feminists and the women’s movement in India. As with all collective violence, many of the battles are fought on the bodies of women.
Despite clear evidence of numerous rapes by Party cadres in Nandigram, the State Women’s Commission of West Bengal, a highly respected body, reached the dubious conclusion that there had been only one such attack. Nor did the Commission condemn the sexual violence unequivocally, as they should have.
For feminists this betrayal, by an organization they respected, supported and trusted, has made for a distance and a disillusion that is difficult to bridge. So much is irrevocably lost – but will the men and women in power in the CPI(M) in West Bengal realize and accept this? Will they care?
It’s difficult to say. Perhaps the only thing that can be said is that globalization has claimed another set of victims, this time of a different sort.Urvashi Butalia