Nandigram and the deformations of the Indian left

Issue: 115
Posted: 2 July 07

Aditya Sarkar

On 14 March this year, the state government of West Bengal, headed by the Communist Party of India (Marxist), sent several thousand police troops into the rural district of Nandigram in East Midnapur, the scene of a three-month movement by peasants against the establishment of a Special Economic Zone on their land.

Over 19,000 acres of peasant land in its various forms—cropped land, homestead, schools, mosques and temples—were to be turned over the Indonesian-based Salim group for chemical and pharmaceutical units, shipbuilding and real estate. 1 Peasant resistance ushered in the new year as villagers began digging up and barricading roads, blocking the entry of police, and the state and party apparatus, into their land. A series of clashes between party cadres and villagers culminated in the decision of the chief minister, Buddhadeb Bhattacharya, to send in the police on 14 March. Whether the Left Front government that rules West Bengal actually orchestrated the massacre of villagers—official estimates say it left 14 dead, the unofficial count ran into hundreds—or not, it certainly stood by and watched while policemen and CPIM cadres, some disguised as police, ran amok among the villagers, in an orgy of killing, torture and rape. Since March Nandigram has witnessed further confrontations between the party and peasants, the fraying of the livelihoods and networks that held the local economy together, and the slow strangulation of protest by the state government.

Nandigram exposed the horrific possibilities at the heart of the Bengal left’s embrace of global, neoliberal capital, but it was not unprecedented. It was foreshadowed at Singur, one of the most fertile and prosperous tracts of agricultural land in the state and in the country. Here the West Bengal government had turned over a thousand acres of cultivated land to the Tatas, India’s biggest industrial house, for the establishment of a motor factory—a takeover that entailed the loss of over 20,000 livelihoods. A movement with its roots in the villages of Singur sparked off solidarity campaigns in Calcutta, attempts by the chief opposition party, the Trinamul Congress, to climb on board the bandwagon, initiatives by far-left Naxalite groupings, and protests across the country by left leaning cultural activists and intellectuals disgusted by the prolonged deformations of a party and government many of them had once identified with. It brought to the forefront of national politics the issue of Special Economic Zones (SEZs), with their conjoined logics of mass displacement, the right of companies to administer their territory largely independently of state law, the abrogation of constitutionally guaranteed labour rights and the violation of environmental standards. These themes were repeated and amplified during and after the mayhem at Nandigram, and the battle continues.

The paradox of an apparently left wing administration embracing the most brutal and intrusive contemporary regime of global capitalist expansion threw into relief the antagonism between India’s chosen path of economic development and the livelihoods and aspirations of the majority of its citizens. This tension was not in itself new. SEZs are the flashpoint, but land can be grabbed for many purposes—real estate hubs, factories, townships. Land grabs have been the source of major confrontations setting local communities against big business and the state in Jharkhand, Orissa, Punjab, Maharashtra, Gurgaon, Gujarat and various other places.

The most important sites of resistance to state sponsored corporate invasions are the land and people affected by them. At Kalinganagar in Orissa, where a bauxite plant is planned, fierce resistance continues despite the charming decision of the national government to install anti-personnel landmines against the incursions of resisting tribals. At Jagatsinghpur, also in Orissa, the South Korean steel company Posco has been allotted land for an SEZ, and here the local resistance has taken the form of kidnappings of company officials, who are unharmed, in order to induce the government to take account of the demands of those affected by the project. In Jharkhand dozens of SEZ projects hang in the balance, unable to get off the ground because of fierce mobilisations against them. At Singur villagers still regularly breach the wall separating them from the Tata factory site, despite the heavy presence of punitive state mechanisms. At Haripur, not far from Nandigram, the central government had planned a nuclear power plant. Local inhabitants have blockaded their villages and set up something akin to an autonomous zone.

In each case powerful companies and a mammoth state apparatus have negotiated agreements on massive land grabs, but in each case actual construction work has been indefinitely stalled by the strength of local mobilisations. In this sense, the expansion of neoliberal capitalism in India has finally hit a genuine roadblock, and confronts, in its own way, as intense a crisis as the populations affected by its projects do. The state and the companies involved have at present only two options. To back off entirely, jeopardizing investor confidence, the kickbacks from these agreements for ministers and bureaucrats, and the future of the strategy of unmandated land acquisition. Or they can violently repress resistance, producing instant crises, as at Nandigram, where the CPIM has been forced to suspend, for the moment, the planned SEZ.

In a way, the clear “no” to current economic policy in India parallels the resistance to recent attempts to impose free trade agreements on Latin America, though perhaps without the same depth of ideological ferment. In both cases, the dominant trajectory of capitalist growth has run up against the obstacle of utter, uncompromising popular refusal, and the cosy myth of a consensus around a particular model of economic growth—apparently “value-neutral” but actually deeply ideologically constituted—has been shattered. Nationally and globally, this is a crucial moment in the history of capital.

The new battle lines beginning to take shape in India cross and blur the antagonisms of official party politics. The major political formations in India seem increasingly united over the legitimacy both of the currently hegemonic national economic policy and the use of state repression to enforce it. In West Bengal the organised left is at the helm of the SEZ drive. In Maharashtra the Congress party is in charge of implementing comparably brutal drives. In Orissa a coalition of the Biju Janata Dal and the BJP, India’s major right wing formation, have been administering a similar assault upon tribal communities with the aid of the army. In Gujarat and Jharkhand the state BJP administrations are the initiators and executors of this drive.

In each of these cases the takeover of land that sustains thousands of people and its transfer to companies that are accountable only to their shareholders is presented as a fait accompli—something the state has the right to do, regardless of the wishes not only of local populations, but also of their democratically elected local representative bodies. This is the heart of the new consensus. The divisions between left, right, and centre, real and bitter as they are in other arenas of national politics, have virtually ceased to matter.

The opposition to this does not run along the lines of party politics either. The CPIM’s propaganda machines have been working overtime to convince us that the resistance to the Nandigram and Singur land grabs were machinations of the Trinamul Congress, on the one hand, and the revolutionary left wing Naxalites, on the other. Nothing could be further from the truth. The uprisings stemmed from the extremely rational desire of local agrarian populations to hold on to their land, and the resistance cut across party lines, in Nandigram consisting overwhelmingly of people who had been supporters or even members of the CPIM.

The real battle being fought here, then, is not principally between rival ideologies—though we can usually assign “left wing” and “right wing” labels to the objective positions taken up in this struggle. It is, rather, a direct confrontation between democracy and capital, which are increasingly incommensurate with one another. If democratic accountability were taken seriously by those who govern, corporate land acquisition could not be conceived of as an inevitable outcome, since it entails the disruption of mammoth numbers of lives and livelihoods. Pushing it through necessarily involves the curtailment of democratic procedures and entitlements. But the use of coercion to push such an agenda through invites further and increasingly militant forms of resistance, and the impasse, far from being resolved, grows. Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold.

Losing the Left

For most people in West Bengal the spectacle of the organised left’s recourse to bloody massacre and authoritarian repression is nothing new. The CPIM in this state wins election after election, partly on the strength of land reforms it undertook in the 1980s (and is now abandoning), but also on the strength of sustained ballot rigging and intimidation. It cushions corrupt and venal bureaucracies, a trade union culture stripped of its once legendary vitality by utter subservience to party dictates, a politics of patronage and nepotism at all levels, and, across vast parts of the countryside, local networks of party authority that function as armed fiefdoms. Lakshman Seth, the CPIM MP from Tamluk, the constituency in which Nandigram is located, and in many ways the architect of the 14 March massacre, is only one of many cases in point.

While many on the left internationally celebrate the CPIM’s achievement of 30 years of unbroken Left Front power as an example of democratically mandated Communist success, the state level administration subverts democracy at every point, and is in the process of reinventing itself as a party driven by corporate interests and the aspirations of the upper middle class. Indicators of this are the enormous leeway given to real estate speculation, 2 the abysmal state of primary education and health services, and the eagerness with which the government has embraced global capital. A poster at a recent demonstration against the massacre gave us an effective, if hysterical, evaluation of the West Bengal government:
“CPIM = Capitalist Party of India (Murderer)”.

This is an evaluation that many on the far left in India would extend to the organised left as a whole. They would point out that there is a long history of violence, intimidation, and bullying here—that the official Communist movement in India has both blood and compromise on its hands. They would point out, unassailably, that the party has never repudiated Stalinism—indeed, its annual conferences still contain accolades to the Soviet Union that make it sound as if 1956 never happened. They would point out that the Left Front government in West Bengal was party to the massacre of Bangladeshi settlers in the Sunderbans in 1979, and also that Jyoti Basu, its chief minister for more than two decades, superintended the brutal eviction of hawkers (“Operation Sunshine”) from the pavements of Calcutta in 1994 to make the city look pretty for the British prime minister John Major’s visit. They would point to the organised left’s assaults upon revolutionary Naxalite and Maoist groups in West Bengal, and perhaps also claim that these latter formations represent the only true, authentic face of left wing politics in India.

For its part, the CPIM nationally has done more than its fair share of work in giving weight to these accusations. The central party leadership lied through its teeth while citing figures of consensual land acquisition in Singur and Nandigram. It has consistently refused to issue a condemnation of the West Bengal state unit’s repression of popular protest, or to acknowledge the resistance to the SEZ as anything but a conjuration of its political rivals. And it has, unforgivably, done absolutely nothing to restrain the excesses and brutalities of party cadres in Nandigram, which continue as a matter of course today. Such an approach is due in large part to the party’s utter dependence on its units in West Bengal and Kerala, the only major states where it is powerful, for its clout in national politics. But whatever the reasons, the approach constitutes a break, perhaps irrevocable, with radical and progressive politics, and more generally with anti-capitalism.

These failures and betrayals are fatal at this conjuncture in Indian politics. Social movements across the country, most of which share left wing values and perspectives, have organised bravely against big dams, corporate takeovers of land, the exploitation of labouring people, the ecological consequences of industrial capitalism, and the continuing erosion and marginalisation of the livelihoods of millions as a result of national economic policies. Until Nandigram happened, it was possible for the left to share a common platform with these movements, for instance during the World Social Forum and its offshoot, the Indian Social Forum. After Nandigram, it is difficult to see where this shared space is.

The organised left, it is true, has taken up significant issues in parliament—for instance, in its protests against airline privatisation and pension reform. Bitterly and ironically, this left provided a public space for arguments against the course of national economic policy, and in particular—here the ironies grow hideous—the establishment of SEZs.

Countless party loyalists have been shaken to the core by the events in West Bengal and there are major struggles within the CPIM. In Kerala, the Communist chief minister, V S Achyutanandan, follows a policy trajectory radically at odds with his counterpart in West Bengal (though there have been significant moves within the state party unit to oust him and move rightwards). But the dogma of party line, the compulsions of loyalty towards comrades (however erring) and the need not to break rank hold back these tensions, and refuse them meaningful public space.

Officially the CPIM is opposed to the current economic policy of the Indian national government, and the track it has been on for over a decade. Equally officially the CPIM nationally endorses the policies and chosen trajectory of its West Bengal unit. These are irreconcilable positions. Perhaps these are dialectical contradictions that will be miraculously transcended. But if we are reduced to praying for magic to save the organised Indian left from itself, we must at least acknowledge how grim things are. The left has apparently deserted the battleground at a time when the struggles against global capitalism in India are more urgent and relevant than they have ever been.

After Nandigram the CPIM has lost any claim upon the trust of movements and mobilisations that actually do the work of resisting the invasions of capital. But it would be a serious mistake to see this, as many on the far left do, as something inevitably written into the script of the organised left decades ago, or to see these betrayals as anything but tragic. The official left in India, for all its Stalinism, its compromises and blunders, was historically at the forefront of massive mobilisations of workers and peasants, and nowhere more powerfully than in West Bengal, where generations of Communists worked tirelessly for the rights of workers, sharecroppers and poor peasants, and against brutal social inequalities. Its power, both in West Bengal and Kerala, was founded on its responsiveness to agrarian discontent, its ability to mobilise politically around it, and its responsibility in leading land and labour struggles. It led one of the largest labour movements in history, in Bombay (now Mumbai); it organised incredibly important peasant movements in Bengal and Telengana in the 1940s and 1950s; it put India’s most progressive land reforms in place in the states it governed. If this left has been lost then mourning, rather than celebration or vindication, is the response most appropriate to left minded people.

More may have been lost, however, than a legacy and a memory of historic struggles, which were fought by other—and better—men and women, in other times. There is, after all, an active, though far from powerful, official left outside its regional centres of accumulated power. Organisations of women, teachers, students, workers, and social activists affiliated to or allied with the CPIM have been working in Delhi and across North India, in large parts of the south, in Maharashtra and in various other parts of the country, against the kinds of policies that drive the poor and the marginalised to the wall and embed social injustice within the governing political ethic. As a left wing student who grew up in Delhi, I have always seen the official left, in meetings, in campaigns and on demonstrations, as a space one could turn to for succour, comfort and political solidarity, despite the frustrations and differences one may have had with the official line of the party. The mobilisations against the Hindu right at the time of BJP rule would have been unthinkable without the presence—indeed, the protective umbrella—of the organised left. I believe this is also the relationship that many of India’s most serious social movements have had with the left: a relationship of simultaneous irritation and gratitude, disappointment and solidarity. At any rate, a shared space used to exist. After Nandigram it is difficult to see where that shared space is any more. The political paths of a party that calls itself left wing and movements that follow some of the best values of the left increasingly diverge. Medha Patkar, India’s most important social activist and arguably the leader of the global movement against big dams, was the most prominent public face of the protests around Nandigram. This is symptomatic of the necessary but deeply tragic constellation of oppositions and fissures within progressive circles after the massacre.

The tensions of resistance

The organised left’s greatest failure comes at a time when the battle against neoliberal capitalism in India is intensely alive and vocal. The loss throws into sharp relief the choices and pitfalls facing an emergent resistance. This resistance takes various forms.

First, and most importantly, there are the movements launched from the grassroots. The corporate takeover of basic human and natural resources produces, at each step, more or less complete refusal on the part of the local communities who stand to lose. Political parties and outfits may or may not join in the resistance. But even where they do not, the threat experienced by communities from the state and capital produces, inevitably, its own strategies of mobilisation and organisation, and its own debates. The immediate, automatic act of refusal has been clarified in many cases into structures of resistance, through the formation of committees, the election of representatives, and the planning of short term and long term strategies.

Such structural solidifications of resistance, however, need to be situated in their immediate social contexts, which often enough have the shape of deeply divided and hierarchical local community relations, fissured by class, caste and gender. Does the partial unity that resistance necessarily engenders disturb older, deep rooted patterns of local injustice and exploitation? The answer is still open and unresolved. The incredibly vocal and militant participation of Nandigram’s women in the resistance points in one direction, but the persistence of certain caste divisions and the reluctance of some of the lowest groups in the caste hierarchies to join the movement in Singur points in another. There is no automatic logic that weds the opposition to big capital to a “progressive” political consciousness that calls all sources of injustice and hierarchy into question. But equally, there is no guarantee, in a time of uprising and the need to create a consensus around resistance, that the existing social orders will maintain their stability and not undergo a process of internal churning. Time alone will answer this question.

Second, there has been an efflorescence of largely uncoordinated citizens’ initiatives, loosely seen in terms of “civil society”, since Singur and Nandigram. The sudden outburst of protest in Calcutta in the wake of the West Bengal government’s land acquisition policies exemplifies this. Calcutta was a city that for decades had seen virtually no serious progressive oppositional politics, with the staleness of both the ruling administration and the official opposition (the Trinamul Congress) producing a crippling sense of cynicism and jadedness. It woke up to a frenzy of mobilisation and activism that testified both to the residual strength of Bengali nationalism and a deeply entrenched left wing structure of feeling, a sympathy for the unprivileged that, ironically, the organised left had in earlier times done much to produce and disseminate.

Students’ associations organised protest and relief campaigns, medical teams visited Nandigram and galvanised a sense of active disgust among doctors and nurses, who took to the streets in large numbers, and associations of lawyers, journalists and artists also joined in the campaigns of solidarity with the resistance. Similar initiatives were set in motion in Delhi, and the symbolic effect of protests in the capital city, as always, in excess of their immediate practical value, helped force the issue of land grabs into national media headlines.

These citizens’ mobilisations are enormously important, for, while the real battle continues to be fought in villages, tribal belts and localities, publicly visible manifestations of solidarity in high profile metropolitan spaces help sustain the mood of opposition and demonstrate the mythical nature of the neoliberal policy “consensus”. It remains to be seen, however, whether they will be able to reproduce the resilience of committed activism, through coordination and organisation, over a sustained period of time.

Third, there are the social movements that have been campaigning for social justice and ecological sustainability. Many of these—the campaign against the Narmada dam, the fishworkers’ movement in Madurai, various organisations working for the rights of Dalits, women’s groups and associations set up to fight for unorganised labour—are clustered under the umbrella of the National Alliance of People’s Movements (NAPM), which held a month-long protest sit-in in central Delhi shortly after Nandigram. These groups vary immensely in size and importance, but demonstrate the range and plurality of progressive initiatives in India. Most of them have no direct links with any political parties, though some of them are on good terms with movements of the far left and others have worked closely with state administrations where these have been responsive. There is a continuum between them and some of the more progressive NGOs: the lines often blur, but the tensions between social-welfarist drives and more radical, political forms of mobilisation are felt at various levels.

It is too early to say whether these largely single issue groups can produce a plausible challenge to the agenda of the Indian state and big business, and coalesce around a coherent political platform that seriously disturbs the governing consensus.

Finally, there is the revolutionary far left, in its various factions and forms. To many, the Naxalites and Maoists represent the authentic vanguard of popular resistance, as the only politically organised and ideologically coherent movements that are genuinely committed simultaneously to fighting against big capital and mounting a radical offensive against the state. But this is far too roseate a picture.

The far left in India is a patchwork of deeply divided organisations, all loosely committed to the legitimacy of armed resistance to the state, but some more open to the question of parliamentary participation than others. One of the most disturbing features of their history has been their unwillingness to rethink the need for armed revolutionary violence of the most savage sort. The decision to keep the option of armed resistance open is in a sense understandable in the context of prolonged state repression of an order of savagery that far exceeds their own. In Nandigram the counter‑violence of villagers against the CPIM was clearly produced by a sense that it was either kill or be killed. In such a situation it is not easy to stand back and pre-judge “Naxal” strategies of resistance. It is possible, however, to ask whether such violence, which breeds its own vicious, cyclical logic, can actually be politically productive. In various parts of India—Bihar, Chhattisgarh, and Andhra Pradesh, for instance—the cycle of state repression, exploitation by big landholders and revolutionary violence has bred situations where we are often left with little more than the machinations, brutality and terror wreaked by rival mafias. This is not the only form of “resistance” practised by far left outfits, but it would be fair to say that it has been a dominant trajectory ever since the tragic foundational episode of Naxalbari (in Begal in the late 1960s), where revolutionary left wing idealism soon gave way to internecine warfare and bloodshed.

Those who celebrate the revolutionary drive of the Maoists and Naxalites against the corruption and degeneration of the organised left tend to forget something very important. For the longest period of its existence this organised left occupied the very ground that the “far” left does today: it took up issues of deprivation and injustice at levels where none of the mainstream political formations had anything to say, and it drew its legitimacy from that. It was always crippled by its internal authoritarianism, by the blind dogmas of party line, and by its slavishness to the shifts and turns of Soviet policy. But the revolutionary left today, for all its principled opposition to capital, is usually equally authoritarian in its internal structures (equally committed to what is calls “democratic centralism”), equally defined by party line and as blindly worshipful of Mao as Communists used to be of Stalin.

It is difficult to see a progressive and genuinely democratic left wing politics emerging from such locations, though the real and often heroic resistance offered to capital and the state by many far left groupings should not be underestimated. It is also true that the “far left” is a complex animal, not only divided into a range of legitimate or underground parties split over tactics, strategies and ideology, but also spread across other spaces—civil and democratic rights campaigns, citizens’ mobilisations against state terror, independent radical trade unions, and social movements of various kinds, where one can usually find both conservative and revolutionary factions. One has to hope for internal transformations, or for the emergence within the far left of strands that valorise not only revolutionary zeal and consistency, but also work towards achieving cross‑regional, democratic mandates for their politics. This would, however, mean eschewing both the violent excesses and the righteous vanguardism that permeates so much of their politics today.

The question of democratic mandate defines most sharply the dilemmas confronting the resistance to corporate capital in India today. The state, for all practical purposes, is accountable only to itself. The “legitimate” political parties, from left to right, are rapidly coming to share a neoliberal consensus with no foundations in popular consent and are accountable, increasingly, only to top-down structures of leadership. The various movements and mobilisations that have risen to resist them are accountable mainly to their adherents, and unable so far to formulate a coherent politics open to wider democratic debate. If this is true of the Naxalites, it is also true of the far less ethically problematic rainbow coalition of social movements. These movements usually organise around limited issues and have trouble widening their horizons into a politics that can command generalised consent and establish a real hegemony.

It is here that the loss of the organised left pinches most sharply. It means the loss of a space, however limited, of constitutionally protected and “legitimate” political opposition. This is the impasse progressive resistance finds itself in today. There is no democratically accountable location within the “legitimate” political spectrum from which attacks upon the embrace of state and capital, with its disastrous consequences for the whole country, can be mounted. At the same time, the discontent with the chosen path of national development has never been more sharply pronounced and more visible than it is today, and this has produced a rich harvest of oppositional mobilisations, engaged in the search for a definite political space in which to anchor themselves.

It is a situation where one finds oneself feeling that something has to give. India is crying out for a real democratic left, stripped of old dogmas and able to face up to its role with responsibility, accountability and humility. For that, however, significantly new forms of political radicalism and left wing practice are needed that break from the dead past and the stifling present. Perhaps the clamour of democratic protest in the wake of Nandigram signals a new beginning, a signal towards new directions. Perhaps global capital and the powers of the state simply remain too strong, too resilient, to allow a dent to be made. It is a moment of political impasse that we live through at present, even as tensions mount and boil and break to the surface of our times.


1:Mohammed Salim, the businessman to whom the land was to be turned over, helped bankroll Suharto’s genocide of Indonesian Communists. The Communist-led government of West Bengal is eager to do business with him. If ever proof was needed of the irony of the current conjuncture of the Indian left, or of the way capital swallows up and transcends ideological animosities in its expansionary drives, it is here.

2:Real estate is at the heart of the new model of development in various parts of India. The township of New Rajarhat in Calcutta, a recently constructed urban space that was built upon the displacement of an agrarian community, is a testament to the physical excision of poor and underprivileged communities for the establishment of luxury apartments, malls and enclaves of leisure, residence and work for the upper middle classes. This logic permeates urban planning in most of India’s major metropolitan cities, most visibly in Bombay, and in Gurgaon near Delhi.