Successful Bandh against Left Front Government

SOON AFTER returning to power for the sixth successive time, the Left Front Government gravitated towards the far right and its economic philosophy could hardly be differentiated from the economic policy of the Centre. Privatisation and contractualisation were pursued with vigour, road-blockades were banned, and workers’ strikes were opposed. And, along with its neo-liberalism, came the steep fee-hikes in multiple sectors. They also began to wear the mantle of ‘hard’ rulers. All these fuelled the anger of the people, and within a short period of winning the popular mandate, the LF Govt. found their resentment rising. The situation called for a protest against the anti-people policies and measures of the government. The SUCI and CPI (ML) Liberation rose to the occasion and called for a statewide bandh on 10th January. Some ML factions and some other struggling forces supported the bandh call. The issues of the bandh were: hikes in hospital charges, education fee, electricity charges, the government’s decision to introduce the repressive legislation POCA (a la POTO) and eviction of toilers from their makeshift dwellings.

In spite of CPI(M)’s terror and the government’s all out efforts to foil the bandh, it became an overwhelming success. In almost all districts the shops downed their shutters, markets, educational institutions, business establishments, banks and other organisations remained closed. Private buses almost remained off the roads, train services were disrupted and even where some trains and buses plied with government help, they were bereft of passengers. Even in CPI(M)’s stronghold of Burdwan the streets wore a deserted look, and according to a report published in The Times of India on 14th January 2002, the bandh was “near total in Bhattacharjee’s (CM’s) own constituency.” To CPI(M) the bandh call was sacrilegious and, quite naturally, the government came out so vehemently against it. The Left Front (LF) Chairman Biman Bose even held out a veiled threat: “If forcible imposition of bandh is considered a democratic right, then it is also a democratic right of the people (cadres?) to use force to prevent the bandh”. But the issues were so live and burning that no one could prevent the bandh call from eliciting people’s spontaneous support.

To make the bandh a complete success, extensive propaganda was carried out by our Party for days together. Thousands of leaflets were distributed, hundreds of street-meetings were held throughout the state. To keep up the momentum of the campaign, the Party organised ‘law-breaks’ in all district headquarters on 4th January and activists courted arrest. In the face of CPI(M)’s threat the Party prepared to confront the challenge with dogged resistance. In keeping with its newly cultivated image of a stern administrator, the government let loose the police on Party activists. The administration issued stringent circular that any govt. employee absent on the bandh day would be severely punished, the police machinery was geared up and posted in all important places so that bandh supporters could neither take out processions nor block roads or rails. The govt. threatened to arrest bandh supporters on non-bailable charges if they blocked roads or rail traffic. The CPI(M) leadership asked their party cadre to remain on the streets to foil the bandh.

Haldia Petrochemicals privatised

EVEN AS Arun Shourie was revelling in New Delhi in his grand design of disinvestment, its echo was reverberated here in West Bengal. If Shourie’s exercise would put public sector giants like the Maruti Udyog, the Jessop and the like under the privatisation hammer, the Left Front Government, in a like manner, has handed over the control of Haldia Petrochemicals (HPL) – its showcase to the world – to the TCG group headed by Purnendu Chatterjee, known more for his Soros connections. From the very beginning the HPL ran into trouble due to its equity sharing ratio, bad shape of its finances and lack of adequate market for it products. And the only way to get it rid of its ills, so thought the government, was to hand over absolute control to private hands. As a result of the agreement between the government and the TCG group, the company’s equity would stand enhanced at 51%, from its earlier share of 43%. The exit of the Tatas from HPL also synchronised with this decision. From policy to finance, the TCG will have the final say in every matter. It was TCG which earlier blocked IOC’s entry into the HPL. And now, word goes around that the TCG will bring in the Bofors-tainted Hindujas. The CPI(M), which once raised so much hullabaloo against the Hindujas, finds nothing wrong in their participation. Asked to comment on the participation of the Hindujas in the HPL, the CPI(M) State Secretary Anil Biswas said, “We have protested against many others. We will do so in the future, too. But for the development of the state we need private capital. Capital, after all, cannot come from the grocer’s coffers”. Obviously, neo-liberalism has capitulation at its core, and our social-democrats have mastered that art quite perfectly.

But the people of West Bengal responded to the bandh call in all seriousness against these loud threats of the govt. The police and the RAF entered our district party office in Siliguri to arrest the bandh supporters, in Dhanekhali and in Pandua (in Hoogly), all the activists in a rally were arrested, and the rallyists in Kolkata, who were only raising slogans, were arrested. When the bandh supporters in Kaliachak (in Malda), in Barasat, in Halisahar, in Thakurnagar (in 24 Parganas) took out processions or blocked rail or road, police lathi-charged and arrested our comrades. The same happened in Purbasthali, Balagarh, Dhubulia, Bankura, and Baharampur, where police arrested the peaceful processionists. In Raiganj and Balurghat not less than 400 comrades were arrested for simply holding mass meetings in support of the bandh. Altogether 700 comrades, including eleven state committee members and seven district secretaries of our Party were arrested under 151 & 283 of the IPC. In Kolkata, the SUCI activists, including women comrades, were severely lathi-charged and arrested. But the bandh was total. All the shops, business houses, banks, and schools, colleges and universities remained closed throughout the state. The attendance in govt. establishments and industries were very poor. The bandh was total in many industrial areas of the state including where we have only a few activists as in Asansol and Haldia. Our Party has decided to carry on the movement to its logical end. Mass meetings, rallys, even rail-roko, rasta-roko will be held in future until the govt. rolls back the hikes and altogether gives up the idea of introducing POCA in West Bengal.

Though the CPI(M) opposed the bandh, its partners like RSP and Forward Bloc extended moral support to the issues of the bandh. This suggested that all the LF partners did not see eye-to-eye with Buddhababu’s government. As reports go, all is not well even within the CPI(M) itself. The CPI(M)’s wing of government employees, the Coordination Committee, with its growing disillusionment with the government’s policies, is becoming critical of them. In a news item in The Times of India of 18.1.2002, it was reported thus: “In a scathing attack against the state government’s attempt to chart a new path of development, where the trade unions would behave in a ‘responsible’ manner, investors would feel safe and the government’s work would speed up through extensive use of computers, the Coordination Committee, in the recent issue of its Organ Sangrami Hathiyar, has urged the employees and the workers to defeat ‘all attempts to weaken and finally destroy trade union struggle in the state’”. The following quote from Sangrami Hathiyar also found mention in the news report: “Such a slogan (their call to union leaders to behave in a ‘responsible manner’) is aimed at satisfying the industrialists and attracting foreign investors. It is a whip to force the workers to submit to the will of the bourgeoisie”.

With pressure mounting inside and outside, the CPI(M)-led LF was forced to admit that it could not but play second fiddle to the policies of the Centre: “It was as a consequence of the Centre’s policies that the State Government had to take such measures”. (Joint declaration of the LF on 5th January in connection with the 10th January bandh.) Whatever grievances the state government might have against the Centre’s policies, Buddhabahu, of late, is losing no opportunity to lay bare his government’s intention of charting out full cooperation with the Centre. Another feature that came to the fore was that in respect of opposition to the bandh, the LF, the BJP and the Congress, were all found to be travelling in the same boat.

The largest opposition party in the state, the Trinamool Congress (TMC) is increasingly finding itself devoid of initiative in the state. Since the drubbing it received in the elections, and later, its return to the fold of the BJP-led NDA, it could not revive itself and its oppositional role was hardly noticeable. The TMC tried to cash in on the bandh call by extending ‘moral support’. Our Party however spurned its offer, for the people of west Bengal could well do without the support of a hardcore anti-left, rightist outfit. The support that the bandh generated has made it amply evident that there is enough scope for the fighting left forces to broaden their space and strengthen left resistance. They can well grow into a viable force which will fill the oppositional vacuum.

– Joydeep Mitra