Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Violence against the organised Left in West Bengal

By Jayati Ghosh

The appalling violence that has been unleashed against Left cadres and other innocent citizens in West Bengal is not just deeply disturbing in its own right. It is also a sickening reminder of the dreadful period of the 1970s. At that time, when the Left Front was still essentially an incipient political force and there was fierce contestation for state power, West Bengal was the site of the most noxious and vicious targeted violence against Left individuals, aided and abetted by the then government at the Centre. When the Left targets started retaliating, West Bengal became the terrain of dreadful and continuous violence between groups.

All this happened more than thirty years ago, and therefore most people involved in the current violence – whether as perpetrators or victims – did not experience it, do not remember it and at best are only dimly aware of those terrible years. This forgetfulness is itself is a triumph of the Left movement and indeed of the Left Front government in the state – that it succeeded in bringing peace to a very troubled and violent state, and that too for an extended period of more than three decades. This success has been ignored in much of the current political discourse and media analysis, and indeed has not even been adequately recognised by those within the Left Front themselves.

Of course this does not mean that there was no violence at all in this period, or even that the state government succeeded in completely eliminating all forms of politically motivated aggression. But certainly the appalling tension and corrosive political violence of the early 1970s appeared to have become a thing of the past. West Bengal was also remarkable among most other states in the country in keeping at bay the communal and caste-based conflict that has become endemic to many other states in the country.

This remarkable achievement has clearly been undermined in the recent past, partly because of some mistakes made by the state government, but even more so because of the cynical manipulation of people’s sentiments by the political opposition.

The “Maoist” takeover of Lalgarh and the need to bring in large numbers of state and central paramilitary forces to bring back normal administration in the area is only one example of this, even though it has received the greatest prominence in the national media. But the violence and targeted damage to life and public and personal property have not been limited to this kind of declaration of “liberated zones”.

After the election results, across the state, Left supporters, and particularly members and sympathisers of the CPI(M) have been brutally attacked, assassinated, severely wounded, and their personal property destroyed. The presumption of the attackers apparently is that their victims will not retaliate in kind. Of course that is absolutely correct, since it is clear at least to the Left parties as well as to all right-thinking people that to do so would only cause descent into the worst kind of destructive chaos.

But this restraint should not be interpreted to mean that the state government will remain helpless and inactive in the face of post-election disorder. The operations in Lalgarh have already shown that the state government has been forced to take on the local violence there through its own quasi-military operations. But elsewhere in the state as well, the horrific proliferation of violent attacks also has to be dealt with sternly and quickly.

This is where the role of the opposition parties in the state, the central government, and indeed the national media, all assume so much significance. It is no secret that much of the recent violence has come directly from members or supporters of the Trinamool Congress. It is also no secret that the so-called Maoists in some districts have been first openly and then tacitly supported by the Trinamool Congress, which is reported to have also provided financial and other support to such groups in the past, with the single-point agenda of destroying stability in the state and somehow forcing the collapse of the elected Left Front government.

And the mainstream media has displayed remarkable double standards about the violence in West Bengal and the state response to it. In any other state, such violence would have been immediately condemned. But for West Bengal, the rules are apparently different. On the one hand, there have been calls for the resignation of the state government on grounds of lack of legitimacy because of the recent election results, and a presumption that open violence targeting Left cadre is only to be expected; and on the other hand the government has been pilloried for inaction, when it is well-known that an immediate firm response would have been immediately condemned as being too heavy-handed and aggressive.

But the media response is deeply disingenuous. It is certainly true that the recent election has been a major setback for the Left and especially the CPI(M) and especially in West Bengal. There is correctly introspection and acceptance of the need for course correction.

Yet the extent of the setback also should not be overplayed. With all its flaws and errors of omission and commission, which the party and the ruling state government have themselves accepted, the Left still commands a lot of electoral support in West Bengal. The latest results from the Election Commission show that the CPI(M) got 33.1 per cent of all the votes cast, and together with its other Left Front allies, got 43.3 per cent of the votes. This is only 1.3 percentage points less than the Trinamool Congress (31.18 per cent) and Congress Party (13.45 per cent) taken together. This hardly qualifies as cause for rejection of the state government, and certainly cannot possibly justify any targeted violence against state cadre.

The central government has also played an unsavoury role in the recent violence, with its slow response to the desperate pleas for outside support to control the violence and its implicit encouragement of forces that are out to destroy the Left Front. The cynical attempt to use those who see themselves as “ultra-left” to destroy the Left clearly has wider backing, including from imperialist forces that have not forgiven the Left for its principled opposition to the Indo-US nuclear deal and similar alliances.

But this is not just short-sighted, it is also deeply dangerous. The central government too must recognise that allowing this to continue would backfire on itself, much in the same way that Indira Gandhi’s encouragement of the Sikh extremist Bhindranwale in the early 1980s, in order to annoy the opposition party in Punjab, ultimately backfired quite viciously on the Congress Party and the central government.

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