Sixty Days of New Regime in West Bengal
Sixty days have elapsed since the TMC-Congress combine assumed power in West Bengal under the leadership of Mamata Banerjee. “Change, not revenge” was the slogan with which she had swept the polls in April and May. Real life of course does not match this rhetoric – change from above and revenge from below would be a more apt description of the unfolding reality in Bengal today. And if the change is to be measured against what was promised to or expected by the people who had overwhelmingly rallied around her, there are already a number of early signs of backtracking and betrayal.
Land, livelihood and democracy are the three key subjects that have dominated the political discourse in Bengal in recent years. To be sure, the new government has touched all these three areas – but in a piecemeal, partial and pretentious way that is emerging as a characteristic pattern of the new regime. Let us take the question of land first. The new government has taken some measures on the question of land acquisition and land use, but is conspicuously silent on the agenda of land reforms and land rights.
The government has passed a bill cancelling the lease granted to Tata in Singur and seeking to return the land to ‘unwilling’ landowners whose land had been acquired forcibly without their consent. The bill has predictably been challenged by Tata and the Supreme Court has stayed the process of returning the land till the case is decided by the High Court and possibly by the Supreme Court. But while making this gesture of returning land to ‘unwilling’ landowners, the government has once again ignored the equally important issue of compensating and rehabilitating the sharecroppers and landless labourers and toiling masses who lost their livelihood in the wake of the forcible land acquisition. Nevertheless the move to return the land forcibly acquired in Singur, if only a minor part of it, to the landowners marks a significant victory for a crisis-ridden peasantry battling against corporate power and a coercive state.
In another welcome move, the new government has banned diversion of land acquired/leased for industrial purposes into real estate. West Bengal has something like sixty thousand closed and sick units and huge chunks of industrial land have already been transformed into lucrative real estate property, not the least in former CM’s own constituency Jadavpur. There have also been several cases of companies violating the lease agreement and diverting part of their lease-holding for real estate profiteering. A two-member committee set up by the new government has already submitted a new land policy document ruling out acquisition of agricultural land for industry.
While the policy-level gestures of the new government thus seem to be in favour of agriculture and the small landowner, reports of eviction of share-croppers and pattadars (those who got redistributed land under the previous regime) are coming in from almost all corners of the state. The phenomenon of reversal of land reforms had started under the Left Front government itself, but the change of the regime has certainly emboldened rural vested interests to try and recapture at least part of the land they had to forgo under land reforms. The record of West Bengal has been very poor in terms of implementation of the forest right act and the new government remains as apathetic on this score as the previous regime.
The last few years of the CPI(M)’s 34-year-long uninterrupted rule had earned considerable notoriety on account of political terror, mass killings and state repression, especially the joint paramilitary campaign in the tribal-dominated ‘jangal-mahal’ region in the south-western districts of Bengal. Restoration of democracy, including an end to the joint campaign, release of all political prisoners and negotiated political solution to all long-standing key movement demands in the state was naturally the biggest popular expectation from the new regime. And if the early indications are anything to go by, it is on this score that the people seem to be headed for the greatest disappointment.
The new government has refused to end the ongoing joint paramilitary campaign. During her recent visit to the ‘jangal-mahal’ region, Mamata Banerjee announced plans to set up a training headquarter for the COBRA (Commando Battalion for Resolute Action) in the region. She also declared her government’s plan to recruit ten thousand local tribal youth in the police or as volunteer force. Does it point to a Bengal version of Salwa Judum where the government would seek to pit armed tribal youth operating as special police officers against the agitating tribal people? On the issue of release of political prisoners, the new government formed a review committee packed with retired bureaucrats and police officers and a few human rights activists. Out of some 500 plus political prisoners languishing in various jails of the state, the committee shortlisted 78 names and Mamata Banerjee has further pruned it to 52, only about 10% of the estimated political prisoners in the state. And as with the question of land, here too there are reports of a veritable campaign of political vendetta by TMC and Congress forces whether on trade union or student front or in rural areas. According to CPI(M) sources, 24 leaders and activists of the Left Front have been killed since the Assembly elections. Many CPI(M) and CITU offices have been shut down and the CPI(M) says many of its cadres have had to flee in the face of sustained TMC-led assault and intimidation.
In recent past West Bengal has witnessed a series of mass revolts against loot and corruption in the public distribution system and employment guarantee schemes and against large-scale exclusion of the poor from the BPL list. The new government has not announced any meaningful corrective measure to resolve these pressing problems facing the rural poor. During her visit to ‘jangal-mahal’ Mamata Banerjee declared that her government would provide the entire tribal population in the area with BPL cards, trying to pit the issue of welfare against the popular anger against police atrocities. The issue of BPL is however not a specific problem of the jangal-mahal – it concerns the poor in the entire state. Large numbers of starvation death cases have been reported from the tea gardens of Jalpaiguri. If the government is really serious about resolving the problem of BPL, it must announce a new policy of automatic inclusion of all agricultural labourers and other landless sections, casual/contract workers and the toiling masses in the unorganised and informal sectors.
The CPI(M) remains too discredited and demoralised to provide any effective opposition to the new regime. While the party officially said it was not opposed to the idea of returning land to the peasants in Singur, the MLAs of Left Front staged a walkout when the bill was placed in the Assembly, ostensibly on ‘procedural’ grounds. Large sections of the rural poor who had voted for the Left Front in the Assembly elections are now faced with a concerted TMC offensive and in many areas the CPI(M) is hardly able to put up any effective resistance. The CPI(ML) and all mass organisations led by the party must intervene in this situation with wide-ranging initiatives on the very issues that have catapulted the present regime to power. On 12 July a demonstration of share-croppers and agricultural labourers was held in Hooghly district demanding justice for the dispossessed landless people of Singur. The party is also responding to cases of eviction of sharecroppers and pattadars. After the August 9 jail bharo campaign, the state unit of the party will organise a mass convention in Kolkata on the core agenda of land, livelihood and democracy.
Veteran CPI leader Chaturanan Mishra passed away in Delhi on 2 July. He was 86. The CPI(ML) central committee was in session at Mysore when the sad news reached and the CC observed silence for two minutes to pay homage to the departed leader. Comrade Chaturanan Mishra played an important role in building the CPI in Bihar. In the early phase of his long political life, he also worked on the trade union front. As leader of the CPI legislature group, twice he was the leader of Opposition in Bihar Assembly and in 1996-97 when the CPI joined the UF government at the Centre, he became the Union Minister for Agriculture.