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Mainstream, Vol XLV, No 49

Has the Left taken one Right Turn too many?

Wednesday 28 November 2007, by D. Bandyopadhyay


There is a lingering belief among quite a few in West Bengal that there is something of “Leftism” still left here. That the pro-poor radicalism that the “Left” once had, had been reduced to ashes due to the malignant heat of authority and pelf being in power for the last three decades in this State, escaped notice of many a non-discerning onlooker.

One MP of the ruling party openly and proudly proclaimed in a public meeting in the presence of the Chief Minister of the State that he had come to this State from across the border almost as a beggar but due to the manipulation and manoeuvring of the CPI-M party which he joined early and by aligning himself with money-bags and wheeler-dealers of business he had become very rich. It was not an empty boast. It is a fact. So he advised the rebellious peasants of Nandigram who refused to part with their agricultural lands for the chemical hub to take his line of joining the collaborators of the business and industrial tycoons to get rich quickly like himself. It all happened in public and was widely covered both in the electronic and print media. There was no denial from anywhere. This episode is being mentioned not to denigrate any person but to show what the leadership of the CPI-M thought about its objectives which were so far removed from the “spectre of communism” which had once haunted the Czars and the Popes, Metternichs and the Guizots in the late forties of the 19th century Europe. From the famous document penned by Karl Marx and Frederich Engels in 1848, the CPI-M of this State, nay, all over India, has taken a perfect U-turn of 180 degrees. Today, they represent and stand for the patricians and not the plebians, for the freemen and not the bonded labour, for big landowners and not for tenants-at-will and agricultural workers, for the large corporate houses and not for workers, for the owners of big retail chains and not for the hawkers and small grocers—in a word for the oppressors and not the oppressed. The Manifesto stated that two great hostile classes directly face each other: Bourgeoisie and Proletariat. In one of the greatest betrayals in history, the CPI-M today stands in favour of the bourgeoisie as against the proletariat. This is not my observation. If one carefully noticed the statements of the Chief Minister of the State from early 2006 till now one would be touched by his transparent renegadism. His statement that for the industrialisation of the State he would act as an agent of the big capitalisrts was lapped up by the media as the most profound statement of the generation. Someone failed to brief him that in its 250-year history, capitalism never required Marxist mediation—real or phoney. One could only exclaim: if this is the state of Marxism in West Bengal, Marx need not have wasted his life in the British Museum, writing tomes against capitalism, damaging his eyesight and living in penury.

I anticipate a sharp reply from anyone of the party’s Smart Alecs that an individual is not the party. To meet that challenge one would have to look into the performance of the party in this State for the last three decades and assess the distance it has travelled away from Marxist thoughts and practices. One would not have taken them on Marxism had they not tried to create a brand image of “Marxists” to contradistinguish themselves from other Left parties like the CPI, RSP, Forward Block etc.

In Bengal the then CPI became popular among the poor peasants, sharecroppers, khetmazdoors through their land struggle. In the forties of the last century there were uprisings of sharecroppers in the northern districts of undivided Bengal. It was largely spontaneous. The CPI joined the fray and took over leadership of the militant movement of bargadars for two-third share of the crop. It was called the “Tebhaga” movement. It spread to four big northern districts. When the movement was reaching its zenith, the cadres sent from Calcutta to conduct the movement were bewildered. They asked for guidance. The party leadership fumbled and was in search of a face-saver. The then willy Premier of Bengal, H.S. Suhrawardy, promptly came out with a draft bill conceding some demands and provided an escape route to the party. It enabled the party to pull out and the movement collapsed. Suhrawardy was a smarter guy. He withdrew the draft bill on the pretext that in view of the impending constitutional changes, it would not be proper to push through such an important legislation. The bhadralok comrades at Calcutta felt relieved. During that trouble at the village of Khanpur now in South Dinajpur district of West Bengal, 22 sharecroppers were killed in a police firing.

In 1948-50 a similar militant movement of sharecroppers took place in the southern police stations of South 24 Parganas district and in Singur in Hooghly district. There was a case of a major police firing in the village Chandanpiri where 11 persons were killed including six women of whom the names of Ahalya and Batasi have enriched the folklore. When through the initiative of the local sharecroppers the movement took an decisive radical turn, the CPI leadership at Calcutta got befuddled. They did not know whether they should support the turn towards radicalism or gracefully withdraw given a face-saver. The statesman in Dr B.C. Roy provided them a way out. He enacted the Bhagchashi Act which just provided for some procedure for settlement of Bhagchash dispute without conceding any demand. Comrade leaders at Calcutta heaved a sigh of relief and withdrew the movement. Among the cadres sent from Calcutta to lead the movement those who tilted towards more radical lines, were promptly exiled from West Bengal to find new pastures elsewhere. All of them were forgotten excepting one who went to Tripura, who was suspended from the party in his late eighties. Though the party betrayed the Tebhaga movement twice, all these came out much after the events. Hence it created a good impression among the poor peasantry. The activities of Harekrishna Konar who led a strictly legal movement of vesting of one million acres of ceiling surplus land in the late sixties in the two UF Governments and the ‘Operation Barga’ of the late seventies and early eighties of the last century endeared the party to the lower peasantry and khetmazdoors. But that was almost a different party with a different leadership who then believed in mobilisation of the downtrodden as the means desirable of social change.

AFTER the LF was returned for the second term in 1982 there was a clear and noticeable change in the class character of the CPI-M and, therefore, its attitude towards socio-economic problems. In the three-tier panchayat election held in 1978 the party gave tickets to about 60-62 thousand candidates who all belonged to middle, upper and rich peasantry. The party had at that time around 28,000 members all in and around the Calcutta metropolitan area. It had hardly any member in the rural areas. So, on the theoretical ground that middle, upper and rich peasants were productive agents (not being rentiers), they were not class enemies but friends. The party embraced them with open arms. The panchayats were captured by them. With that the character of the rural CPI-M also changed radically towards the Right. It came out starkly in a survey of class analysis of the elected panchayat members in early 1979. It was conducted by Dr Satyabrata Sen, the then Advisor to the LF Government. It was found that only seven per cent of the elected GP members came from landless groups of khetmazdoors and bargadars; 93 per cent had interests in land. The same type of survey was conducted in 1983 after the second general election of panchayats by Dr Sen. This survey also confirmed the findings of the first one. The party and the panchayats in rural Bengal were captured by the landed gentry. The results were obvious for everyone to see.

During the land struggle, the party’s slogan was “land to the tiller”. After 1.6 million sharecroppers were recorded, the title to land could easily have been devolved on them. It required a small change in the law. But it was not done and will not be done because it went against the class interest of the landed gentry who were in power in the rural areas. Thus, all the sacrifices of all the sharecroppers in the Tebhaga movement were totally defeated by the party with the same name which once upon a time led the movement.

Second: even after the programme of large scale vesting of ceiling surplus land during Hare- krishna Konar’s time, it was found that taking advantage of the legal loopholes regarding classification of lands a lot of recoverable land could not be touched. In the early eighties Benoy Choudhury changed the definition of land in the law to conform it to the dictionary meaning. It was hoped that more than half a million acres of land would vest. The rural power structure totally frustrated the move and no extra land could be recovered under this amendment. Not only that, the present CPI-M Government is determined to remove the cap on land ceiling to invite investment. Thus, they are bent upon undoing whatever reforms Harekrishna Konar and Benoy Choudhury did. The leadership is now resolved to usher in a programme of “land de-reform” to the utter detriment of the interests of agricultural workers, sharecroppers and marginal farmers.

Thirdly, poor peasants could be really produc-tive if they could have easy access to institutional credit at a reasonable rate of interest. The total need of agricultural credit per year, according to Dr Asim Das Gupta, the Finance Minster, was of the order of Rs 10,000 crores of which about Rs 800 to 900 crores came from institutional sources. Thus, the bulk of the credit came from the rich peasantry to whom high rates of interest were the major source of extraction of surplus value. So no attempt was made by the CPI- M to develop alternative institutional sources of credit through cooperatives; otherwise it would hurt the class interest of the rich peasants who are now the party bosses in the rural areas.

Fourthly, the new agricultural policy of the State Government formulated on the World Bank’s lines emphasised the need for diversification of crops from the staple cereal of paddy and wheat to other high value non-food commercial crops. If they provided for the wherewithals for such diversification to small and marginal farmers who constituted 92 per cent of the farming community in the State, one could have understood the move. But in the name of diversification, they are trying to induct the corporate sector in agriculture including the hated “contract farming” system. Anyone having any knowledge of the agrarian history of Eastern India would know what a rapacious and ruthless system it was during the period of indigo plantation. Indigo cultivation was done through contract farming. There were several uprisings in Bengal against it and Mahatma Gandhi’s first public action in India was against the contract farming of indigo in Champaran in Bihar in 1917. Today we do not have a Reverend James Long or a Dinabandhu Mitra to fight against the evils of contract farming. Thus, from the clarion call of “land to the tiller” the CPI-M has moved to the ruthless and pitiless policy of “land to the Tatas, the Salims and the corporate houses by evicting the tillers”.

ONE is really touched by the CPI-M’s new-found romance and love affair with big industry. It may be of some interest to recall that the ultra-economism of militant labour led by the Left, particularly by the CITU, causing vandalism, depredation and pillage of industry, resulted in closure of about 54,000 small and medium industrial units rendering nearly half-a-million workers jobless. These medium and small industrial units, often managed by families, constituted the backbone of the industrial structure of Bengal when its position was first among all the industrialised provinces soon after the independence.

Now that the party and its leadership is having a biological urge for industrialisation, logically a start could have been made by attempts to revive, restructure, resuscitate some of these closed units which had the infrastructure and skilled man-power. The party leadership is not interested in it. They are “lustfully” eyeing at 40,000 acres of land of these closed units for developing real estates. Thus, they are allowing the industries to be destroyed so that realtors and the party apparatachiks could make hey while the sun shines. The other serious effect was the casualisa-tion of labour even in the so-called organised sector because of availability of such a large number of unemployed skilled workforce and also what the ILO calls “feminisation of poverty”. The National Commission for Enterprises in the Unorganised Sector, August 2007, has given some startling figures. Casual workers in the non-agricultural sector get only 57.20 per cent of the national minimum wage. That means each casual worker is exploited to the extent of 42.80 per cent of his/her wages on each day of casual employment. It depresses the level of wage rates all over resulting in what Marx wrote in 1848 “naked, shameless, direct brutal exploitation” of the workers in the workers’ haven of West Bengal.

At the beginning of industrialisation in the UK there was the “Enclosure” movement which threw out peasants and agricultural workers from land based livelihood. They swelled the pool of the unemployed proletariat. This army of unemployed workers supplied cheap labour to the new industry and made them profitable. The CPI-M has followed the same model of creating an additional pool of half-a-million erstwhile industrial workers who became unemployed due to the closure of 54,000 small and medium industrial units. This pool would continue to depress the wage rates for the new industries that the CPI-M leadership is thinking about. It will be based on pitiless, fierce and uncaring exploitation of labour. What the barons of England did to supply cheap labour to the new industries, the branded Marxists are doing the same for their new wave of industrialisation. Unfortunately there is no Charles Dickens to create a world class literature based on the toil and tear, sweat and blood of the exploited workers of Bengal.

THERE is another major fallacy. Modern industry is not labour absorbing like the early textile mills of Lancashire. The current technology is labour displacing. Any industrial unit with uptodate production processes would require Rs 1 to 3 crores or even more per employment depending on its nature. Thus the existing pool of unemployed labour would not be absorbed. In 1991 when the country accepted the neo-liberal economic reforms programme, the total employment in the organised sector was 267 lakhs. It went up to 282 lakhs in 1996-97. Since then the employment has been gradually coming down. In 2004 it stood at 264 lakhs. Thus, in 14 years of operation of economic reform there has been a net loss of three lakhs of regular employment when our economy has been growing at the rate of eight to nine per cent per year. We have already entered into the period of ruthless, remorseless, merciless and jobless growth as predicted by the UNDP in the mid-nineties of the last century. In Singur about 10,000 rural households would lose livelihood. Though no authentic figure has come out either from the Tatas or the government, economists have calculated that there would not be more than 500 new direct jobs in the small car factory of the Tatas. Of course, they would carry very high salary but the social cost ‘benefit analysis would give a high negative result.

In Singur and Nandigram, the CPI-M is trying to confuse the issue by posing it as an Industry versus Agriculture controversy. Actually, it is the question of location of the industry. All multilateral organisations and the Government of India have been advising against acquisition of land which would result in large scale displacement causing problems of proper resettlement and rehabilitation. Yet the CPI-M Government did the opposite. With 15 lakh hectares of non-agricultural land still available in the State, there was no economic and ethical justification for selecting the highly fertile land in Singur for the Tata Motors. That the CPI-M is acting mindlessly has been proved beyond doubt by their own decision to set up the chemical hub
at Nayachar as against Nandigram. Thus the mass massacre at Nandigram now stands self- condemned.

In this context the recommendation of the National Commission for the Enterprises in the Unorganised Sector (August 2007) would be pertinent. It observed:

The basic issue is that while, at present, the Land Acquisition Act compensates loss of assets, it should more basically compensate the loss of livelihood. The relative loss may be much higher for a landless labourer or sharecropper on the fields of an absentee landlord but it is only the latter who is eligible for compensation .... The Commission is of the view that it is not enough for government to demonstrate that there are public benefits of its action. Alternative livelihoods must be provided to the affected poor without inordinately increasing the large existing burden on them. (pp 177-78)

The ruling caucus in West Bengal was not only totally silent on this issue but could not care less about such rational and humane suggestions. They are busy promoting capitalism with state power, perhaps being totally oblivious of the definition of fascism which is exactly the same.

The so-called “non-progressive” and “anti-CPI-M” media often carry news of starvation deaths in West Bengal. There were reports of starvation deaths among the primitive tribes of Lodhas, Sabars, Kherias in the western districts of the State. There had been persistent reports of starvation deaths among the tribal workers of the closed tea-gardens in North Bengal. With an average monthly income of Rs 519 for the marginal farmers and Rs 840 per male agricultural worker it is only natural that some of them would suffer from hunger and starvation. But the CPI-M Government denied all such stories and declared that all these deaths took place because of “cerebral seizure”. That was medically correct because unless the brain stopped functioning a person could not be declared clinically dead. When the Governor of the State himself went to a closed tea-garden to find out the state of affairs and came about convinced of cases of starvation death, the CPI-M leadership passed snide and sarcastic comments about him. Members of the public naturally got confused. But then came the devastating revelation by the National Sample Survey of India. In a report entitled “Perceived Adequacy of Food Consumption in Indian Households 2004-05”, it stated that 10.6 per cent of rural households in West Bengal did not get enough food every day in some months of the year. This was the highest figure among all the States and 1.3 per cent of households in rural West Bengal suffered from food inadequacy every month of the year. Thus 11.9 per cent or 12 per cent of rural population in West Bengal suffers from food inadequacy and hunger. In absolute terms it would be a staggering figure of 70 lakhs. Therefore it is a fact that every evening 70 lakh children, adults and old persons in the rural areas of the State retire for the night with moderate to acute hunger. This is the crowning glory of the sizzling thirty-year rule of the Marxists.

The Chief Minister of West Bengal declared openly: “What we are practising here is capitalism. I am a realist and not a fool.”
Bravo! What music to so many ears! He resolved the irreconcilable contradiction between capital and labour by kowtowing to capitalists and accepting their supremacy and ascendancy.

Marxism is dead in West Bengal. It did not die a natural death. It died in the hands of a gang of imposters who are masquerading as “Marxists”. Let other segments of the society tremble at the bourgeois counter-revolution led by a political party whose electoral brand name is CPI-M, but in reality the letters stand for the Capitalists’ Party of India (Marketist). The bourgeoisie has nothing to lose except their tax and bank liabilities and legal obligations. They have a world to win.

And the peasants and workers of the State have also hardly anything to lose except their lands and livelihood gaining in the process a world of despair and darkness.

The author was the Secretary to the Government of India, Ministries of Finance (Revenue) and Rural Development, and the Executive Director, Asian Development Bank, Manila.

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