Elementary Aspects of Popular Insurgency in West Bengal
Violence has erupted once again. This time in Khejuri – a place in the vicinity of Nandigram, which was the base from where the CPI(M) launched its operation ‘recapture Nandigram’ on 14 March 2007. This was the red fort where the arms were collected and the goons brought in to liberate Nandigram. As one news report had put it:
‘Along with arms and ammunition, CPM flags and helmets of the kind worn by police were seized from the hideout, triggering suspicion that the men had donned uniforms and joined security forces on the day of the firing. Cellphones found on them showed they were in touch with senior CPM leaders, sources said.’
Khejuri is also the place where, just a little over a month ago, violence had flared up again. This time it was followed by the killing of Prasanta Mondol and the alleged rape of his wife. Prasanta Mondol was one of those who had left the CPI(M) two months ago and become one of the important Trinamool Congress (TMC) leaders in Khejuri. The spiral unleashed by that round of violence has continued through till after the election results were out.
Now Khejuri has been liberated – this time apparently by the TMC. The buildings that once exuded power – the offices of the ruling CPI(M), now stand, as one report put it, like ghost houses, ‘telling the story of public fury against the CPI(M) leaders and cadres in the area.’ This report goes on: ‘Angry villagers had raided the building and ransacked the office, damaging property and burning documents. The floor was strewn with half-burnt party documents, including membership renewal forms, and a picture of Che. The remnants of a burnt red flag told the story of a fallen left citadel of the Marxists in Khejuri.’ The violence has been going on for more than two days now and shows no signs of abating. In the meanwhile, hundreds of CPI(M) supporters are said to have fled Khejuri. According to some reports, somewhere between 20 and 25 CPI(M) offices have been set on fire.
So what happened? How did this impregnable fortress of the CPI(M) fall like a house of cards? This area where the very sight of the red flag spoke of the might of the CPM and struck terror not so long ago; how did it turn overnight into an area of rampaging mobs baying for the party’s blood? Without any trace of resistance? How did TMC suddenly liberate this liberated area? That is a story very few want to talk about. It is convenient for everybody concerned to present the whole thing as just a turf war between the CPI(M) and the TMC. It is indeed a turf war and the TMC is indeed guilty of violence as much as the CPI(M) has been. And indeed, everyone in their right minds must condemn the TMC perpetrated violence as well.
But saying this is not enough in the context of what is happening in West Bengal today, and an an even-handed condemnation of all forms of violence will simply not do. It is misleading in the extreme to suppose that in this state that the CPI(M) has ruled with an iron hand, the TMC has suddenly become so powerful so as to start hounding the CPI(M), which has suddenly, overnight, become the hapless victim. Take for instance, a report in The Telegraph that began thus: “Yesterday’s bullied have turned today’s bullies” and then went on to say: “Around 11 this morning, around 200 Trinamul supporters went to the Kamarda CPM office, which had been attacked once on Tuesday, and destroyed whatever remained of it.” And further: “Then they proceeded to the home of zilla parishad member Himangshu Das. On the pretext of ‘searching for arms and ammunition’, they went about systematically ransacking his house and breaking furniture. Task accomplished, they turned to the house of his neighbour Makhan Panda, a CPM local committee member at Kalagachhi.” Different reports state the number of attackers differently ranging from 50 at the lowest to about 700 at the highest.
There is clearly something amiss in this picture. Elsewhere, we have suggested that the CPI(M) in West Bengal, thanks to a combination of a party organization that goes deep into every village and the panchayat machinery, today possesses one of the most formidable surveillance apparatuses anywhere. It is hardly conceivable that with such a machinery the CPI(M) would not have advance information of any such major attack being planned. After all, for the TMC to mobilize a few hundred people to burn down, not one or two but 25 offices of the CPI(M), would have required elaborate planning and collection of arms. Especially, given the fact that the local CPI(M) has had arms in every nook and corner of Khejuri, it would have been a seriously risky business to go into such an operation without proper planning.
And yet, the attack did take place. How did it happen? Khejuri became possible, it seems, in exactly the same way that Nandigram did: The CPI(M) supporters and followers themselves deserted the party. At the very least, the flow of information to the party has to have stopped. In other words, even those who have not deserted it but would have got wind of the plan, have to have kept quiet about it. The other possibility is that they simply did not get the information. That means that basically, most of the organization has to have shifted allegiances leaving just the leaders. And we have three very significant clues that suggest why such a thing might have happened. One, illegal arms were recovered from a number of places, including the houses of local CPI(M) leaders like Subrata Kar, the panchayat pradhan. Ordinary people reportedly led the police to places where arms were stacked up. Second, residents told the Indian Express reporter (report cited above) that they targetted Kar not just because he was a CPI(M) leader but also because many people were angry with him after he allegedly collected nearly Rs 2 lakh from them promising them electric connection. He had allegedly collected the money six years ago but the villagers had kept silent so far because the MLA from Khejuri and the panchayats were all under the control of the CPI(M). Third, as another report in the Express testifies, the aftermath of the attack also revealed the tip of the iceberg of the massive corruption in the implementation of schemes like NREGA. Here is what the report says: ‘In the debris of the ransacked house of a local CPI(M) leader, who’s also the panchayat pradhan of Kalagachia, Durga Das, a daily wager, spotted his NREGA job card. In the past, Durga Das had approached the CPI(M) leader, Subrata Kar, on several occasions for a job under the 100-day employment scheme, but was told that since he did not have a job card, he wasn’t eligible for work under the NREGA. Now, after arms and ammunition were seized from the cowshed of Kar’s house here and the building looted, Durga Das and 19 others found their job cards from the trash.’
These instances of accumulated discontent – indeed anger – reveal the dynamic that lies behind this sudden shift of political allegiance of the people that was occasioned by the defeat of CPI(M) and its ‘strongman’ Lakshman Seth in particular. There is something special about West Bengal here. Despite the democratic set-up and regular elections down to the panchayat level, the kind of power that the CPI(M) wields can only be described as totallitarian. There is no way that common people could have raised any of these issues short of defeating the CPI(M) and uprooting it. There is another dynamic however, that lies behind the violence. This has to do with the political culture spawned by the CPI(M) over the last three decades where it tolerated nothing but total control. Its battles for supremacy enveloped all – including junior allies in the Left Front. Midnapore has of course been the site of a longest ongoing war of supremacy for a long time now. Keshpur in the late 1990s and early 2000s was one such flashpoint. It was not without reason that Benoy Konar, at the height of Nandigram, threatened Mamata Banerjee by saying the ‘we will make Keshpur out of Nandigram.’ It is this culture of violence that is now finding an accentuated expression and it just so happens that now, right now, it is the CPI(M) itself which is at the receiving end.
The CPI(M) propaganda machinery is, of course, desperately trying to suggest whatever is happening and has happened in West Bengal – from Singur and Nandigram to Khejuri is simply the handiwork of the TMC and Maoists playing some diabolic politics in the state. From the very beginning, the CPI(M) has been denying that what it was facing in Nandigram (and Singur) was popular anger. It kept up a shrill rhetoric of ‘outsiders’ – of ‘people who had come from ‘Bihar, Orissa and Kolkata and were clandestinely holding meetings’ and misleading people. The ghost of ‘imperialism’ was invoked as well and many opponents in the state (e.g. the PBKMS) were accused to receiving imperialist funds. We had written repeatedly on Kafila, drawing attention to the manner in which the issue was being misrepresented as one of a battle between two different kinds of political elites. The entire endeavour of the CPI(M) was to show that everything was basically a turf battle and Mamata Banerjee was ‘playing politics’ (while it presumably was working for a disinterested, nonpolitical thing called Development!), aided by the Maoists.
Many years ago, Ranajit Guha in his classic, Elementary Aspects of Peasant Insurgency in Colonial India, talked about the difficulty of extricating the voice of the insurgent peasants of the 18th and 19th centuries. Guha was, among other things, pointing towards the difficulty of treating the colonial archive as the authentic repository of the ‘truth’ about the past, where inevitably the ‘small voice of history’ got lost. Guha did not find much hope even in the folklore relating to peasant militancy, for as he put it, ‘that can be elitist too’ and ‘not all singers and balladeers took a sympathetic view of it’, as many of these balladeers and singers belonged to upper-caste families fallen on hard times. Guha, however, did not lose hope. He found a way out. The prose of counter-insurgency, he said, derives directly from the insurgency and is determined by the latter in all that is essential. ‘The reports, despatches, minutes, judgements, laws, letters etc in which policemen, soldiers, bureaucrats, landlords, usurers and others hostile to insurgency register their sentiments, may be a representation of their will – but that will is in fact, predicated on another will – that of the insurgent.
Thankfully, in relation to 21st century West Bengal, we do not have to depend entirely on an archive of the past. We witness events in real time – and in an era of media explosion. The will of the insurgent – if it could worm its way through the pen of the colonial official, can certainly become manifest much more easily in our present, irrupting through the density of media representations. But if one does wish to verify Guha’s claim, one need only look at the prose of counter-insurgency on the pages of Ganashakti, People’s Democracy and Pragoti, or in the handouts issued by Alimuddin Street and AK Gopalan Bhavan and sometimes faithfully reproduced by the ‘bourgeois media’.
Guha is particularly fascinated by one aspect of peasant insurgencies: their sudden and unexpected character that is so often expressed in terms like ‘eruption’, ‘explosion’, and ‘conflagaration’. They present, in such moments, an image of a ‘world turned upside down’. ‘Such radical subversion, this real turning of things upside down, which is only another name for rebellion’, says Guha, ‘constitutes a semiotic break: it violates that basic code by which the relations of dominance and subordination are historically governed in any society.’ That code is being violated suddenly, beyond all expectation in West Bengal today.