Left Politics in West Bengal: Examining The ‘Marxists’ and The ‘Maoists’ * By Partha Sarathi Publisher : Purbalok Publication PP 272; Rs 250.00
by Soumya Guhathakurta
Frontier | Vol. 49, No.23, Dec 11 – 17, 2016
The book* is the result of the author’s engagement with left politics in West Bengal since 1965-66. He was active with radical politics and he resigned from the “Maoist party” in 2001. The book is a quest to come to grips with the ideology, to chronicle the rise of the left in West Bengal and to analyse the Left’s performance in power. A close look is taken at the radicals as well as the left’s handling of gender and caste issues and the perpetual tension that exists between power, people and the party.
It was the author’s conviction that the revolutionary party he was associated with in the mid 1970s was the only party based on a “scientific ideology”, the “science of Marxism”. It was a disappointment when the Strategy and Tactics document of the CP1 (Maoist) stated, “The path followed by the Chinese Revolution is also applicable in semi-colonial semi-feudal India….” since the formulation was not based on “the concrete analysis of concrete conditions”. Similarly, the CPI(M) party programme “demands first and foremost the replacement of the present state by a state of People’s Democracy” but nowhere does it state the way forward by which the transformation will be achieved, to the contrary, the parliamentary left is deeply mired in parliamentary politics of the day and also driving the neo-liberal agenda to the extent of setting up “Special Economic Zones”.
The book traces the rise of left in Bengal from the Tebhaga movement in the late 1940s which was a peasant movement not only confined to the “economic” demand of a two-third share of crops for the share-croppers but a political movement to liberate themselves from the oppressive “landlord system as a whole on which the colonial system was based….” The CPI leadership issued a call to withdraw the movement in September 1947 without consulting the agitating peasants or the local leaders. In 2005, the author visited the twin villages of Dakkhin and Uttar Chandanpiri of Kakdwip (Namkhana block, South 24 Parganas) where the movement had flared up once again after 1947. He found,” The Landlords and jotedars against whom the peasants had struggled had practically vanished from the area and all their lands had been distributed among the peasants.”
The Food Movement of 1966 was a spontaneous eruption of mass discontent in post-independence West Bengal. While the controlled price of rice was 82 paise per kg, due to scarcity of supplies in the rationing system, prices had soared to Rs 5 per kg. This was in a scenario where even earnings of the middle class were meagre and “…primary teachers in West Bengal were agitating… to raise their minimum monthly salary to… Rs 125 in the city areas”. Hoarding was rampant and people’s initiative to release the essential commodities locked up in godowns came to be popularly known as “Dumdum Daowai”. The left parties were quick to seize the initiative and on 17 February 1966 the indiscriminate police firing on a students’ rally in Basirhat, 24 Parganas (North), claimed the life of Nurul Islam, a school student in class 5. Students agitation spread like wildfire and the author remembers his participation, “…in a number of students’ strikes and rallies protesting the killing of Nurul.” Till 16 March 1966, 34 persons were killed in police firing. Day to day life was disrupted and “…6 government offices… and around 100 train bogies and coaches were burnt.” There was an overwhelming participation of children aged 10-15 years in the movement. By April 1966, the movement “…was out of steam mainly due to the reluctance of the left leaders to further continue the movement…” that was bent on challenging the legal framework as laid down by the state. The movement ended but the militant spirit remained and threw up many future leaders of all the left parties. A fraction of the Congress party broke away during the pendency of the Food Movement under the name of Bangla Congress. Two consecutive United Front (UF) governments of left parties allied with Bangla Congress were formed in 1967 and 1969.
On the question of Land, Harekrishna Konar had written that “The labouring peasants of the villages will sit together, identify the jotedars and mahajans and at any cost redistribute their land among the peasants”, (Deshhitoishi, autumn issue, 1966). However, the United Front governments “… did not pursue the path of radical land distribution….”. There were forcible grabbing of benami lands in the countryside by land hungry peasants and this helped the CPI(M) to extend its influence to the rural areas of West Bengal. Similarly, on the workers’ front, the CPI(M) made substantial gains by supporting militant movements like gherao. This was in an industrial scenario where sudden retrenchments of employees, lay-offs and lock-outs of industrial units by their management had become the norm. There were “… 811 incidents of gherao…” in 1967. There were also instances of the UF government trying to break workers’ movements by using their loyal unions. In Texmaco, employees were beaten up by “CPI(M) cadres and goons” because they had formed a breakaway union. Similar was the situation in other fronts like employees, teachers, unorganised workers, refugees etc.. where aggrieved people were brought under the party’s influence but voices of dissent were kept under check.
The radical left that was suffocating inside CPI(M) since the CPI split in 1964 and the Naxalbari peasant upsurge in 1967 that spread like a “prarie fire”, provided them a platform for consolidation and to break away from the CPI(M). On 25 May 1967 police opened fire in Naxalbari on a meeting called by village women and on 27 May 1967 Ganashakti, the CPI(M) eveninger, condemned the police firing. As reports of clashes with the rebel peasants kept pouring in, the Bangla Congress chief minister of West Bengal told newsmen on 12 June that a “reign of terror” was on in Darjeeling and the home minister of India took the cue to declare that “serious lawlessness” prevailed in the area. Harekrishna Konar and Biswanath Mukherejee were sent as emissaries by the UF government to Naxabari but they failed to convince the peasant activists to give up violence. Unlike Telengana and Tebhaga “…the leadership of Naxalbari peasant movement was not ready to bow down to the party’s dictate….”. On 20 June 1967 a CP1(M) politbureau resolution referred to the supporters of Naxalbari movement as an “anti-party group”. Pursuant to the resolution, 19 party members were expelled from the party. CPI(M) and the breakaway fraction fought a series of internecine battles in the cause of furthering revolution but really for area domination probably triggered by a “deep intolerance embedded in left politics…” The fight for area domination was also fought among the various left parties and this led to an unending cycle of political violence that was almost a daily affair. In the author’s view these “…internecine battles… were largely responsible for paving the way for the comeback of Congress in power in 1972….”.
The second UF ministry came to power in West Bengal in February 1969 with Jyoti Basu as the home minister in charge of the police department. The Naxalites declared the formation of CPI(ML) in April 1969. “Up to November 14, 1969, 64 people were killed in United Front clashes…” and the home minister justified the intra-front clashes as “class struggle”. CPI(M)’s murderous campaign against the Naxalites gained momentum during this period as the “…latter posed a serious ideological challenge…” to the revolutionary credentials of the former. The home minister ordered state armed forces to “…shoot to kill the people agitating under the influence of Naxalites in Debra and Gopiballavpur….” Ajoy Mukherjee, the chief minister, resigned in March 1970 and President’s rule was imposed on the state. The central government taking cue from the CPI(M) continued the murderous policy of using security forces to exterminate Naxalites. Surprisingly, the CPI(M) was successful in “…holding its ranks in West Bengal…” as only 500 members out of 16,300 members, as of December 1969, left the parent party as compared to 8,000 out of 16,000 in Andhra Pradesh. Therefore, in West Bengal, the CPI(ML) was predominantly constituted of students and youth, “…who brought with them the problems of impetuous actions like burning of educational institutions … or breaking of statues of the ‘national leaders’… and finally resorting to urban guerrilla warfare with the far superior state forces.” Within a very short time most of the leaders and dedicated cadres were either jailed or ruthlessly eliminated by the state forces. With the arrest and “custodial death” of Charu Majumdar in July 1972,” …the radical movement in West Bengal almost lost its steam and subsequently became fragmented in countless groups and factions.” Between 1972 to 1977, there was an unofficial ban on the activities of the left parties and Congress toughs had an open filed to practise area domination and to terrorise and push left activists away from their localities and place of work. The author notes, “Surprisingly … the left leaders remained almost untouched even during the Emergency Rule (June 1975 to March 1977) when most opposition leaders and even non-party critics of the government….. throughout India were thrown into incarceration.”
The Left Front (LF) government came into power in 1977 and the book devotes considerable space to this period. The author narrates his experience of a gherao that occurred at his place of work in the same year. Before the Emergency in 1975, the management of that particular industrial unit had signed an agreement with the union for payment of bonus at the rate of 12 per cent. When the Emergency was declared, the central government pegged the limit of bonus at 4 percent. The management dutifully “decided to deduct the bonus already paid to its employees over and above the 4 percent ceiling,….”. However, after emergency and even with a change of government at the centre and at the state, the management did not restore bonus to the earlier level. The elected union chose the path of negotiations and was mired in endless discussions with the management. The workers (total strength 6000 working over 3 shifts) became increasingly restive and went for a wild-cat gherao of the management. The gherao continued overnight and into the next evening and the local CPI(M) ML,A arrived at the scene and rebuked the workers for their ‘illegal’ act of confining the management. Driven to the end of their tether, the workers chased away the MLA and his cohorts and they would have assaulted him had the police not intervened. The gherao continued till midnight of the next day when the management apologised and accepted the demand of payment of bonus at the pre-Emergency rates.
In keeping with the general trend, “…the number and percentage of informal workers substantially increased during the LF period….” As per the “Report on Conditions of Work and Promotions of Livelihoods in the Unorganized sectors” of the NCEUS, published in 2007, the proportion of unorganised workers among all non-agricultural workers in the industry group in West Bengal in the year 2004-05 was 77.5 percent against the all India average of 71.6 percent. The author rightly contends that “…the greatest disservice of the left to the working population of West Bengal…” was the fragmentation and disintegration of the organised working class. The clash of interests between permanent and casual/contract workers was used by managements and also unions to scuttle legitimate movements. The LF government sat back and watched the sordid embezzlement of Provident Fund (PF) and Employees State Insurance fund (ESI) by the owners of industrial firms, mainly those belonging to the more than a century old Jute industry in Bengal. In 2003 alone, no less than Rs 550 crore were deducted from employees salaries and yet not deposited in the appropriate fund accounts.
The most publicised achievement of the Left Front government was the implementation of land reforms comprising of re-distribution of land vested in the government and registration of the names of bargadars or sharecroppers, to guard against their eviction. D Bandopadhyay, an IAS officer in charge of the land reforms programme later wrote, “…the LF government eschewed the line of mass mobilization which it had consciously followed on an earlier occasion”. The author had participated in an ethnographic study of rural Bengal in 2005 based on which he examines the land reforms in the villages Chandanpiri (South 24 Parganas) and Amdohi (Bankura). In Chandanpiri, on 6 November 1948, during the Kakdwip phase of the Tebhaga movement, 8 peasants including 4 women had laid down their lives while resisting a police force. During 1966-70, there were movements in the village to seize benami lands and as well as to implement the demands of Tebhaga. CPI(M) led the movement and emerged as the most powerful political patty in the area. However the party lost its influence in the village principally after the “…expulsion of a popular peasant leader of the village from the party….” By 2005 the Trinamul Congress (TMC) was all powerful and many erstwhile CPI(M) activists of the village were among its supporters. However, even with the turn of events, “… most of the bargadars were found enjoying full land rights….”. In Amdohi, the dominance of the landed gentry was not challenged till the advent of Left Front to power in 1977 and hostilities broke out between the upper caste land-owners and the scheduled caste landless. A Congress leader was killed, police arrests were resisted, crops were looted and some land and water bodies were seized during the course of the movement. Although CPI(M) came to dominate the village society on the crest of this movement and the dominance continued till 2011, “…the land ownership pattern in the village remained mostly unchanged….”. It is the author’s point that the land reform measures initiated by the Left Front government was a job left to bureaucrats and it was meant to be accomplished with “…the help of party representatives in the villages…”, mostly from the landed class, and so the age-old domination of the landed class remained. If one were to go by the Political Organisational report of the 22nd State Conference of CPI(M) held in 2008 then till January 2007, “…on an average a beneficiary household had received 0.38 acres of land…” and it can be concluded that that cultivating such small patches of land is not a viable proposition.
“While Operation Barga did not aim at providing land rights to the bargadars…”, in many places bargadars remained unrecorded even after 30 years of LF rule and in many places they were far short of receiving 3/4th of the produce. In fact, the CPI(M) was worried about the cases where the bargadars were not paying the due rent to landowners and the 20th State conference of the CPI(M) expressed this concern. Further, as per the Land Reform Amendment bill 2006 drafted by the LF government, the bargadar may “…surrender the right of cultivation in respect of 50 percent of the land cultivated by him as a bargadar….”. During the course of working on a research project in 2008-09, the author visited Falta, the site for the first SEZ in West Bengal. It was set up in 1984 by evicting peasants from three villages located on a fertile stretch on the banks of the Ganges in exchange for monetary compensation, significant portions of which allegedly remained unpaid till 2009. Also, title deeds to homestead lands allotted to the evictees and on which they have been living for 25 years were yet to be distributed. A study of Nandigram, an area with a large number of unregistered bargadars, was a part of the same research project. The unrecorded bargadars were in the forefront of the anti-land acquisition movement that went to be the final nail in the Left Front government’s coffin. It must be noted that a resolution adopted by the CPI(M) at All India Convention on the problems of Dalits in 2006 read “All schemes to reverse land reform legislation and give away land to the multinational corporations and big business houses should be scrapped forthwith”, and yet the same party after winning the 2006 state assembly election offered acres of multi-crop land to corporate houses.
Under the West Bengal Panchayat Act, 1973, the First elections to the three tier panchayat system was held in 1978. The LF government can be credited with the holding and regular functioning of the Panachayati Raj Institutions (PRI) well ahead of other states. However, the government held back the implementation of a number of Constitutional provisions aimed at empowering the PRI. The Third State Finance Commission, West Bengal (2008) commented that “While it has been repeatedly announced that the plan budget of each department has been decomposed into Sate level and District level components, in reality, the same is yet to be undertaken”. Further, the Commission identified twelve areas where the need for devolution of powers was immediate. Among these were primary education, primary health, water supply and public distribution system where de-bottlenecking of the delivery mechanism at a decentralised level would have improved the quality of life in rural areas. It is the author’s contention that the post-1977 changes in rural Bengal were less about devolution of power and more about consolidation of state power and extending the party influence to the grassroots of rural society without disturbing the status quo. The book draws attention to a study of eight districts of West Bengal incorporated in the West Bengal Human Development Report 2004 showing that 23.9% and 20.1% of Gram Panchayat and Panchayat Samiti members respectively belonged to the “owner cultivator” strata and 32.5% of Zilla Parishad seats were occupied by teachers. According to a 2002 study by Moitree Bhattacharya, 90% of the electorates in Raghunathpur, Hooghly and 80% of them in Jogram, Bardhaman, “… showed absolute lack of interest in the panchayat’s activities”. Moreover, the CPI(M) utilised the PRI to indulge in ‘paiye deowar rajniti’ (or the politics of distribution of benefits/patronage) where funds for development were channelled only to party supporters. This mode of distributing largesse has now been mastered by all parties in power in the PRI and this has led to a deep schism in rural societies along political lines between those that benefit from various government schemes and those that do not.
Examining Surya Kanta Mishra’s position in 2007 of development being, “…industrialisation for the sake of peasantry and agriculture itself…”, the book draws attention to the number of jobs generated in West Bengal during the LF regime. While in 1980 the strength of the public and private sector combined was 2664 (‘000s), by 2009 the figure had shrunk to 2021 although 44,414 teachers were recruited between 2007 and 2009. However, during the period there was an increase in the number of industrial units as well as the capital invested in them. The Index of Industrial Production (base: 1999-2000) was 198.8 in 2009-10. This was coupled by an increase in man-days lost due to industrial disputes during 1980-2009. However, contrary to popular belief, the increase in loss of man-days during the period is singularly attributable to lockouts and not strikes. While in 2009 the number of lockouts had skyrocketed to 275 from 130 in 1980, the number of strikes during the period were down from 78 to 11 only. It can be concluded that the LF rule was period of industrial truce with rising production and investment, diminishing employment, aggressive industrial relation measures adopted by business managers and tepid working class actions. This was undoubtedly facilitated by the parties in power and their minion trade union leadership. It is in this scenario that one must read the UNDP HDR 2010 which points out that in West Bengal “…52.2 million people are MPI poor” and this translates to 57 percent of the state population if one goes by the Census 2011 headcount. [Multidimensional Poverty Index (MPI) tracks multiple deprivations across the three dimensions of education, health and living standards].
In the chapter “Power, People and the Left” the reader’s attention is drawn to the notion among communists of “…ideological superiority over others…” and once in power “…they must continue in power at any cost as they are infallible….” While, as Mao Zedong stressed that “…it was the Chinese people who gave the Communist Party power…”, the people component becomes secondary once power is attained. The rise of left forces in West Bengal in the late 1960s was on the back of the urban middle class, the refugee population that migrated from East Pakistan, the organised working class and the rural poor. The Congress government at the centre and the state were quite apathetic to the plight of the refugees fleeing post-partition East Pakistan. The leadership of the umbrella organisation United Central Refugee Council (UCRC) was with the left parties and the refugee movement demanding rehabilitation often took a militant path. During the 1966 food movements, most refugee colonies were bastions of militant activists, where along with many unemployed lived those who were slowly getting employed in industries, in government jobs and in educational institutions. Post-1977, after the LF government came into power the working conditions and earnings of state government employees and teachers changed for the better. Thus, the LF government took care of the economic demands of a significant section of their support groups except the working class in the private organised sector and in the unorganised sector in general and very soon this was the section that was left in the lurch and subject to the onslaught of market forces.
The author also discusses about the abysmal record of the left parties including the Maoists on gender and caste issues. The left parties “…always undermine gender issue as something inferior to class issues….” and in the process perpetuate gender bias within their organisations although women have always played a very important role in left movements all over the country. In a meeting held in 2004, many women’s organisations and activists put a few pointed questions to two radical left parties in Andhra Pradesh, the CPI (Maoist) and the CPI (ML) (Janashakti). They questioned the confinement of women to marginal roles in struggles, to the dismissal of women’s question as devoid of ideology and political perspective and the tendency to avoid discussion of the fundamental and ubiquitous power relationship between men and women. The Maoist response to the question was a retrograde “…internal structure of the party was bound to reflect the patriarchal orientation as the cadres are drawn from different sections of society….” The response emphasised that it is “…easier to gain political authority than to eliminate patriarchy….” While all the left parties are vociferous supporters of Women’s Reservation Bill they have lagged behind the other political parties in electing women representatives to the parliament. The CP1(M) 22nd State Conference held in 2008 reported that women constituted only 10.33 percent of the party membership. Crime against women was a serious issue under the LF government and continues to be so under the present dispensation. Although 7.6 percent of the Indian population live in West Bengal, the National Crime Bureau records for 2010 reveal that 12.2 percent of all crimes reported against women occurred in the state. A study conducted by Sachetana Information Centre between 1996 and 1999 covering 870 households in two districts of West Bengal revealed the widespread prevalence of dowry as “…a core concern of 99 percent of the people surveyed…” and that 60 percent of the households had married off their daughters within the age-group of 10 to 18. West Bengal government had issued a circular in 1992 to facilitate distribution of land to women but the circular has been implemented more in the breach. A Central Statistical Office (CSO) survey 2009-10 reveals that that women’s participation in the manufacturing sector in West Bengal was a low 2.2 percent vis-a-vis the national average of 20 percent and that the wage gap between men and women is a whopping Rs 60,000 per annum.
Similarly, in the case of caste, the upper caste bhadralok domination of public space and political power in West Bengal continues till date. Although the SC/ST communities wholeheartedly participated in all the political movements that have swamped the state since the 1940s, “…dalit and tribal assertion remains a far cry….” SC and ST communities together constitute 28.5 percent of the state population and yet their representation in government jobs is a bare minimum. West Bengal is the only state where the number of upper caste MLAs has increased from 38 percent to 50 percent between 1972 and 1996. The combined SC, ST, OBC and Muslim population of West Bengal counts a whopping 93 percent and yet the upper castes have consistently dominated the council of ministers, the middle and upper bureaucracy, the police force, the professions and the academia in West Bengal.
The most riveting chapter of the book is the one on “The Radical Left”. The author confesses, “I have literally lived with radical politics for nearly 30 years since my college days in the early 1970s and spent the prime youthful years of my life searching for a revolutionary “alternative….” In his words, “…when I joined the ranks of Naxalites they were already a divided lot…” and “…I traversed from one group to another…” and then, “… 30 long years passed…. in searching the so-called ‘correct political line’, at the end of which I completely withdrew myself from the radical stream of left politics realizing the futility of such a search within the old framework of party-centric thinking and activities”. During the LF regime, the CPI(M) had a stranglehold over vast swathes in rural Bengal and there was barely any space for other political formations. In the early 1990s some activists from different radical groups in West Bengal contacted the People’s War Group (PWG) on the strength of its proved capabilities of combining mass mobilisation along with armed struggle in the face of furious state terror. During the merger talks with the PWG leadership in 1993-94 it was stressed that a concrete study be done of the changing socio-economic perspective of rural Bengal and also of the crisis in the world socialist movement where, “…without exception all the erstwhile socialist countries reverted to capitalism”. However, no such study took place and on joining the organisation, the PWG leadership immediately deployed the cadres in the “…forest belt bordering the states of West Bengal, Orissa and Jharkhand.” The forest pockets were “strategic areas” where armed forces could be formed, sustained and the cover used for armed activities in the districts ol West Medinipur, Bankura and Purulia. The PWG later merged with the MCC to form the Communist Party of India (Maoist). The author points out, “the forest area…. did not match with the mainland rural belt of West Bengal…” and such a strategy deserts, “…the plains areas and leaving the peasants and workers of the plains who constitute overwhelming majority in the state population”.
Coming to Nandigram and Lalgarh, the author observes that “In Nandigrarn, the anti-state movement turned into a bitter struggle for the peasantry to thwart waves of attacks by the armed marauders of the ruling party.” And, “In Lalgarh, Maoist actions were hardly directed against the landlord class, while scores of poor and middle class people owing allegiance to the CPI(M) fell to their bullets.” He wonders how such actions match with the Maoist party’s “… rhetoric of anti-feudal agrarian revolution….” With deep penetration of parliamentary politics into every section of the Indian society and with the distribution of benefits through PRI, even the deprived sections of the country have developed a stake in the system. So, in spite of the Maoist party’s utter disdain for the parliamentary system and the parliamentary parties, a politbureau member declared to a news channel that “I want to see Mamata Banerjee as the Chief minister of West Bengal”. The party is also not averse to using the media and human rights organisations to connect with the people and yet the party spokesperson wrote in 2006 that “Many of these can become hideouts of the reactionary forces and work for counter-revolution in diverse subtle ways.”
In the Lalgarh region, the Maoists started squad activities in 1998-99 but till 2008 there was no mass base or mass movement of note in the region. And surprisingly, they sought, “… strange bedfellows, first the CPI(M) and then the Trinamul Congress (TMC)….” With the formation of the TMC in 1998 a vicious struggle for area domination broke out in the rural areas bordering West Medinipur, Hooghly and Bankura districts. The violent actions were led by armed gangs burning, looting, killing and injuring with impunity and thus resulting in a lot of misery to the ordinary people living in these areas. It was a coincidence that the People’s War Group had also started activities in this particular area of West Bengal. They took a partisan interest in the war of political domination that was playing out in the area and in 1999, “…the Maoist squad annihilated one local BJP leader…” in Sandhipur village, Garbeta I block. In retaliation, the TMC-BJP forces came down like a tonne of bricks on the Maoists and relatives of a Maoist leader were killed and one was blinded. The CPI(M), earlier cornered by the TMC-BJP combine stepped in to provide food and shelter to the Maoists. The CPI(M) also re-organised its forces and trained them in guerrilla warfare with the help of Maoists. As soon as the TMC-BJP went on retreat, the CPI(M) turned their guns against the Maoists and this time the TMC came forward to help them. A retreat was provided to the Maoists in a village named Chhoto Angaria, but soon the CP1(M) got whiff of the ‘shelter’ and burnt the house after killing “…at least five squad members of the Maoists….” The owner of the house fled to the safety of Kolkala and the TMC’ supremo called the press to claim that several of her party supporters have been killed by the CPI(M) in Chhoto Angaria.
No lessons learnt, the Maoists found themselves in the middle of the Lalgarh movement that broke out in November 2008 and led to “…near-complete alienation of the state administration from almost the whole population of the jungle-mahal of West Bengal”. The People’s Committee against Police Atrocities (PCPA) published the demands of the Lalgarh movement and the first demand among eleven was that “The SP (district Police Superintendent) has to apologise holding his ears….”. The author acknowledges that the Maoists “might have influenced the formation of the people’s committee….”. A document published by the CPI (Maoist) in 2009 acknowledged that the Lalgarh movement was “…for your political rights and self respect of the adivasi ard non-adivasi toiling masses….” It is the author’s wry comment that from the said statement or from the demands of the Lalgarh movement “…it does not transpire that the agitating masses of jungle-mahal were aspiring to overthrow the present state by armed revolution”. In 2011, the PCPA put up its candidate for assembly elections and as per their earlier tested and failed model, the Maoists chose to support the then principal opposition party. Yet in a 2009 interview Kishenji commented, “We decided in 2007 that this [the Junglemahal] would be a guerrilla area.” In an earlier interview in 2009, an interview that contradicted Kishenji’s statement, the CPI(Maoist) Zonal Committee secretary had said their immediate plan was to “…break the shackle that the ruling CPM has put on the people…” and that their ultimate goal is, “We want public funds to be used by the people’s committee”.
The CPI(M) leadership maintained a low profile in the face of the popular Lalgarh upsurge but with gun toting Maoists in the forefront, the party in power had the cynical opportunity of calling in joint (central and state) armed forces into the area. Under the smokescreen of the joint forces, the CPI(M) worked to regain dominance over the area by setting up armed camps. The possibility of people’s mobilisation against such armed camps was amply demonstrated by the Netai incident where locals protested against the armed camps. In retaliation the CPI(M) goons opened fire and killed 9 unarmed villagers. However, far removed from such mass agitations and in pursuance of a “guerrilla area” the Maoists launched an armed offensive. Soon the junglemahal became a war zone and CPI(M) supporters, mostly poor and middle class village people and also security personnel were killed in the conflict. However, Maoists could not match the fire power of the state and came closer to the TMC and during the build-up to the 2011 elections Kishanji made his now famous statement about his preferred choice for the position of the chief minister of West Bengal.
After the state assembly elections and with the advent of TMC in power, the joint forces continued to be after the Maoists and members of PCPA and Adibasi-Mulbasi Committee were coerced/cajoled to join the TMC. The Maoists retaliated with individual killings but the anti-climax was the precision killing of Kishanji and this raised “…questions about the extent of the state’s intelligence network inside the Maoist ranks”. Engaging with the murky side of parliamentary politics the Maoists were worsted again.
In conclusion, the author delves on the three dichotomies that have impeded the left movement. Firstly, although Engels wrote, the state seldom “…withers away…” and “…power to the Soviets and power to the party cannot be the same”. Secondly, the party “…functions from above…” and instead of a people’s control over the party, it is the party that attempts to control all and sundry. Thirdly, for exigencies of ‘practice’, ‘theory’ is put on the back-burner. So, ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ becomes ‘dictatorship of the party’. The “…mainstream left in India essentially practice trade unionism and parliamentary politics, while mouthing revolution…” and the radical left never undertake ‘concrete analysis of concrete conditions’. To end, the book falls back on Engels’ preface to the Manifesto of the Communist Party where he observed, “…Marx relied solely and exclusively upon the intellectual development of the working class…”. The author wishes, “Left politics… probably… require to be liberated from the vicious grip of petty bourgeois leadership….’
This book is a wonderful read and recommended to those still trying to come to terms with post-1960s left politics in West Bengal and the course it meandered till the CPI(M) lost the Lok Sabha elections in 2009. It is a fond hope that an index at the end of the book and tighter subbing will better this book in its next edition.
14 November 2016