Sunday, November 18, 2007

Focus on Nandigram

Events in Nandigram and Kolkata over the past year (and especially the last fortnight) reveal much about conflicting conceptions about the rule of law and governance in contemporary India. It is impossible to provide the full context for the many issues that are at the heart of discussing Nandigram within a short post. I can only provide some links to enable those unfamiliar with the issue to get started: here is a Wikipedia entry which provides the context for the current violence, tracing events back to the flashpoint of March 2007. Here is an NDTV newsreport which details the violent ‘recapture’ of Nandigram by the CPI-M in mid-November 2007. Further information about Nandigram can be found at the websites of alternative media outfits here and here. Though some of us on the blog had previously focused on the issue for what it revealed about the contentious SEZ policy, it has taken on far wider implications since.

The ruling CPM party in West Bengal clearly believes that Nandigram is an issue over which it has the final say, and upon which other institutions of governance have no standing to comment. In recent days, the CPM was reported to have asked Parliament to stay away from the issue because it is a 'state subject'. Here is a newsreport from this morning’s Telegraph which reflects this stance in respect of institutions within West Bengal – specifically, the High Court of Kolkata and the office of the Governor. I am struck by the fact that this line of reasoning is quite similar to that employed by General Musharraf recently to fend off attacks by the courts and other political parties on his administration. This may, however, be a knee-jerk reaction, and the issue seems far more complicated, involving as it does a multitude of interests and competing agendas of political parties, corporate groups, the media in India, constitutional authorities, economic policy-makers and other actors.

This post is not making an argument as much as pointing to analysis offered by others that seek to unpack the issues involved. I rely principally on two columns that appeared recently in the pages of the Hindustan Times by regular columnists Barkha Dutt and Vir Sanghvi. Here are extracts from Dutt’s piece:

This time the violence has unfolded behind a veil of intrigue and secrecy. Unlike in March, when an entire country watched horrified as police guns pummelled unarmed villagers with bullets and bulldozed their way through Nandigram, this week Marxist foot soldiers made sure that blockades and threats and the stealth of the night would keep them protected from public gaze. But, as horror stories managed to break through the shroud of silence — bone chilling stories of rape, plunder and murder — the West Bengal Chief Minister gave away the game himself. With the transparent aggression that marks a man with a guilty conscience, he flared up in rare anger and told journalists that the protestors in Nandigram been “paid back in their own coin.”

And so, just like that, the mask was off.

There wasn’t even a feeble attempt to deny that CPM cadres had been permitted by the party to storm their way back into Nandigram. If they had to shoot, kill and rape to make their way back in, so be it. No explanations were provided for why central paramilitary forces were sent in only after the Left’s militia was firmly back at home base. No apologies were offered for why a state government in democratic India should need to wage an extra-constitutional war. Other than contempt and criticism, there was no response at all to the high-minded public lament by Governor Gopalkrishna Gandhi. As far as the Chief Minister was concerned his party’s private army had “retaliated in desperation”.

Twenty fours later, after a storm of protests over his remarks, Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee had another opportunity to take back his words, or make a retraction that is standard for politicians. He didn’t bother. Instead, he took it all one step further by declaring that he stood by his comments because he could not forget his “political identity” and he was “not above the party”.

But what happened to not being above the law?

… … … After two eruptions of political violence in Nandigram, the dispute has gone much beyond a debate over economic reform. The controversy is no longer confined to whether an Indonesian chemical plant should have been allowed to come up in villages that don’t want it. It’s now only about one thing — the abject failure of governance. And to borrow a phrase from the Left, the state government will eventually be paid back in its own coin.

Vir Sanghvi offers a different perspective, where he rejects the bulk of Dutt’s analysis. For him, this is not an issue about the rule of law or governance, but one that demonstrates to him the essential nature of the CPM. His piece is strongly polemical, and I for one was not entirely persuaded. However, his piece is useful for the facts he asserts to build his argument:

If it was the state that had to impose the rule of law, then why didn’t the West Bengal government send in the police? Instead, it was armed CPM cadres who went into Nandigram and fought pitched battles with the extremists, killing and raping villagers in the process while simultaneously assaulting the media to prevent their violent acts from being recorded.

All this was because the CPM, in the manner of all communist parties, sees no distinction between the party and the state, between the cadres and the police and between the enemies of the party and the enemies of the nation.

Anybody who thinks that the true lesson of Nandigram is about the poor man’s right to hold on to his land or to the imposition of the rule of law on extremists misses the point. The debate about acquisition is an old one and there can be no dispute over the need to fight extremism.

The lesson of Nandigram is not about any of those things. It is about the true nature of the CPM, a totalitarian party that does not recognise the difference between the rule of law and the rule of the Politburo. If Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee had used the instruments of the state to regain control of Nandigram, many of us would have supported him.

Beneath the extremely rancorous debate, there are genuine issues that those with an interest in our legal system should be concerned about. I hope that some of us on the blog will be able to both comment upon, and follow this issue closely. As this report indicates, the issue is scheduled to be raised in Parliament tomorrow.

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