It is over a decade since Mamata Banerjee made peasant discontent with government takeover of their land the unique selling point by which to make herself and her party the focal point of opposition, so that she could co-opt a part of the grass roots agitations that had developed in Singur and Nandigram, and marginalise the more radical elements. When she won elections in 2011, and again in 2016, it was by the pretence of being the great supporter of peasants. The reality is different.
The new land acquisition law by which the TMC government has been operating has moved away from the colonial to a neoliberal market oriented set up. Under the old act, the state would declare that a project was in public interest, and take over land at a compensation rate to be decided by the state. Under the new style, direct acquisition rather than state intervention is being highlighted.
However, neither the state, nor the “market” move in a vacuum. The interests of the ruling class ultimately take precedence. So in Bhangar, since 2014, peasants have “sold” their land, because toughs supporting Arabul Islam and other “leaders” of the TMC used muscle power. The Power Grid Corporation of India Ltd (PGCIL) wants to set up a power plant. Peasants were coerced into signing away their land to the PGCIL, with Arabul Islam and his mass of goons playing the key role. Initially they were told that only a small power house would be built. Later, through a notification by the PGCIL they came to understand that a much bigger project was planned and their interests would be hampered in several ways .
When peasants mobilised against this, and formed the Jomi Jeebika Vaastutantro O Poribesh Raksha Committee (Committee for the Protection of Land, Livelihood, Ecology & Environment), they were met with state and ruling party hostility. A Raj Bhawan march on 22 December, and road blockade, highlighted their resistance, as well as the issues being raised. It is true that formally, there had been no large scale protest when the land sales had occurred in 2014. But as the protests have shown, certain crucial things are at stake. No Environment Impact Assessment has been carried out. No public hearing has been conducted to allow local people to seek clarifications or express any opposition before the project was launched.
As resistance mounted, the government hit back with force. On December 27, Section 144 was imposed in a radius of 1.5 km surrounding Khamarait, and gatherings of more than three people were subject to arrest. Employees and officials of PGCIL were exempt from Section 144. On December 28, a huge gathering of several thousand people took place. People coming in vehicles from Deganga, Beliaghata, and other places, arrived on foot after being stopped by the police. Roads leading to the meeting were manned by police and the hired goons of the ruling Party. The administration was given till January 1 to meet all demands. When Arabul came to threaten the villagers, thousands gathered to chase away his goons. On 11 January the members of the Jomi Jeebika Vaastutantro O Poribesh Raksha Committee put up a road blockade and demonstrated for 5 hours in support of their demands. Faced with the united resistance of thousands of people the administration and the government was panic-stricken and desisted from using force. The Additional District Magistrate met the demonstrators and pacified them by committing that the District Magistrate would discuss with the committee after the Gangasagar Mela (a famous Hindu religious fair held in West Bengal at the confluence of the Hooghly river and the Bay of Bengal). Till then work for the sub-station would not resume.
After promising to withdraw the grid from the area, the authorities reneged on this promise, leading to a mass meeting being called on 14 January, which was however not permitted at Polerhat. Over 5000 gathered at Anantapur village at an alternative spot to avoid provocations and conflicts. Alarmed at such resistance, massive police attacks were mounted from 16 January and 17th January. When angry protestors blocked roads, two persons, Alamgir Hossain and Mafizul Khan were killed by the police and with their collusion Arabul’s goons masquerading in police uniforms.
The media, the corporate concerns, have shown clearly where they stand. Peasants and fisherfolk have expressed grievances over the following issues:
The news channels, or a very large part of them, have been pointing fingers at a group of comrades working in the Solidarity Committee, suggesting, in line with the state government, that it is a group of so called outsiders, sometimes tagged as Maoists, at other times as students of two Universities where radical activists are known to be active, who are stirring up trouble. Jio, the Ambani mobile service, aligned with the Modi government, went into the act from the morning of 20th January, sending messages to all Jio customers that “outsider Maoists and their goondas are spreading false information among the villagers”, and that “they will light the fire of unrest and go away, but you will have to remain in peace. So please do not pay any heed to false propaganda.” In ABP group’s Bangla TV channel, villagers asking question about the environment were simply called superstitious.
We take the following stance over the issue:
First, we are for a democratic and transparent process. Any land acquisition must follow a public declaration of the reason, and a discussion with residents.
We demand that if there are really no environmental issues, then the government and the PGCIL must explain why no EIA was carried out, and also that instead of levelling accusations against scientists who are claiming that there are certain problems, the matter should be openly examined.
We demand the arrest and legal action against those who attacked the peasants and murdered two of them.We reject all rhetoric of “outsiders”. It is the right of toiling people to express solidarity with one another. Even if they were non-Indian passport holders, they have that right. And to accuse any Indian of being an outsider is to raise the question of who has what sort of rights in India? If PGCIL has the right to come into an area to set up a Power Grid unit, why would activists not have the right to come there as well? Was Mamata Banerjee, the present chief minister of West Bengal, an outsider in Singur? We are well aware that trade union activists are routinely accused of being outsiders.
The charge of being Maoists is another insidious charge. In today’s India, when you are accused of being a “Maoist” or a “terrorist”, it is as if instantly you have lost all democratic rights. If Maoists go to the peasants who are agitating by organising local committees, they are not doing anything that toilers and activists connected to them have not done in the past. So first, we deny that Maoists (that is, the CPI-Maoist party) are the main movers in this agitation, and say that their name is dragged in only to legitimise huge police violence. Second, we assert that anyone, including the Maoists, have every right to democratically organise people.
At the same time, we emphasize that the whole post-2011 development politics in West Bengal has lessons for the left. It is clear that whether one pursues a policy of acquiring land through the government or through direct purchase, and whether one uses a populist, an openly capitalist, or a left-developmentalist mask, if the party in question wants to enter government within the bourgeois system, the government will ultimately follow the goals of the ruling class.
Capitalist development and modernization will always come at the cost of the rural and the urban poor. In Singur, Mamata Banerjee proposed giving land back to the “unwilling” peasants. But what of the agricultural labourers? What of the workers in various sectors connected to the peasants? Similarly, it is not merely a matter of increasing the compensation to peasants in Bhangar, though even that would be an admission that they were initially cheated. But what about agricultural labourers? What about the large number of people that depend on fish embankments (bherries) for their living and stand to be displaced have not been given any reassurances. The Bidyadhari river flows through this region and has become a canal, clogged by the pollution from Kolkata. Local fishworkers are already reeling from the effects of this environmental disaster, and stand to be further dispossessed.
At the same time, it should be evident that the response cannot be simply a fight to maintain the peasants in whatever condition they are in. Rather, the goal has to be modernization, which will have to be democratic, which must take ecological concerns into account, and which must be based on policies that ensure that all sectors of affected people are part of the actual policy making and implementation process.
Finally, therefore, those on the left who had thought that tactical alliances with the TMC over Singur and Nandigram are beneficial, have to engage in serious introspection and self criticism. The toiling masses having been continuously cheated, then and now. The left ought to have warned the masses of such consequences but their alliance with the TMC with a non-class perspective dashed all such chances. On the other hand, we welcome the ‘mainstream’ left for its voice on the Bhangar issue. However, if they take the Bhangar struggle as a means to catapult to power without changing their fundamental approach on land acquisition it would certainly amount to an act of deceit. There are indeed full reasons for such apprehensions.