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Mainstream, Vol XLV No 48

What is Happening in West Bengal?

Sunday 25 November 2007, by Arup Kumar Sen


West Bengal has experienced three decades of Left Front rule with the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M) acting as the dominant partner in the coalition government. After coming to power in 1977 the Left Front (LF) Government took some significant land reform measures within the constitutional framework. Keeping this in mind, Atul Kohli characterised the Left Front rule as the ‘rise of reform communism’. Actually, in the early years of its rule, the LF Government avoided the path of open violence in social transformation and concentrated its attention to winning the confidence of the rural voters. A recent World Bank study noted that attention to land reforms is widely seen as one of the key reasons for the ‘remarkable political stability’ in West Bengal.

But, the recent land acquisition drive for industrialisation has created a ‘legitimation crisis’ for the government. The state has used its coercive machinery blatantly to force the unwilling peasants to surrender their land in Singur and Nandigram. Moreover, the distinction between the party and the government has been blurred, particularly in the context of Nandigram. At present, Nandigram has been virtually transformed into a battlefield. In fact, the administrative machinery of the State ceases to exist in that region. Media reports suggest that the CPI-M has taken possession of the region by sheer acts of violence.

Very recently, different districts of West Bengal have also witnessed public outbursts against the corrupt ration dealers. And the public anger is often directed against some of the CPI-M leaders in rural Bengal, who are alleged to have links with the corrupt dealers. There are some instances which testify that the Maoists have entered the field to give expression to popular anger. One such incident took place in a village in the West Medinipur district where the Maoists looted the shop of a dealer and distributed the food items among the villagers. This kind of popular justice is often characterised as ‘mob justice’. Sankar Sen, the former Director General, National Human Rights Commission, has recently stated in a national daily that the growing number of incidents of quick and ‘mob justice’ show that the people do not have faith in the criminal justice system of the country. He has warned that this kind of popular justice represents a ‘serious threat to democracy’.

It is true that no sensible citizen should give unqualified support to such violent expression of popular anger. But, if the basic livelihood issues of the people are not given due consideration, there is every possibility that popular justice will take violent forms of expression. Many of us would be surprised to know Jayaprakash Narayan’s notion of popular justice as expressed in a public speech in the late 1960s:

My Sarvodaya friends and my Gandhian friends will be surprised to read what I publicly say now. I say with a due sense of responsibility that if convinced that there is no deliverance for the people except through violence, Jayaprakash Narayan will take to violence.

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