Friday, August 24, 2012

Surya Kanta Mishra: “The attack on democracy is even more intense in the rural areas.”

Interview with Surya Kanta Mishra, CPI(M) Polit Bureau member and Leader of the Opposition in the West Bengal Assembly by SUHRID SANKAR CHATTOPADHYAY.

FRONTLINE, Volume 29 - Issue 09:: May. 05-18, 2012

‘In denial mode'

“IT is as though criminals have started thinking that it is their government.” Surya Kanta Mishra, Leader of the Opposition in the West Bengal Assembly and Polit Bureau member of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), feels that West Bengal is heading towards becoming an “anarchic State”.

In an interview to Frontline, Mishra spoke about issues ranging from the rise in violence in the State, the Mamata Banerjee government's policies and its claims of achievements made in the past one year. “Instead of taking the State forward from where it stood a year ago, they are reversing the process of progress and development, undoing all that had been achieved. The future really looks gloomy,” he said. Excerpts:

The CPI(M) has adopted a policy of wait and watch before making any proper assessment of the Trinamool government. But what is your preliminary assessment a year after it came to power? In which direction do you think the State is heading?

We had never said that we would not be critical. We said we would play the role of a responsible Opposition. We will not oppose for the sake of opposing as they [the Trinamool] did. There is a fundamental difference between our opposition and theirs. When Mamata Banerjee was announcing her achievements after 100 days or after 200 days [since assuming power], we pointed out that one could not make a proper assessment in such a short time. The problem is that she started claiming that she had completed 90 per cent of the work. We did not want any report card from her, nor did we want to grade her.

But one thing that has become clear after almost a year is that the government does not have any vision. It is directionless. They have neither any concrete programme, nor any sense of priority. They are trying to rush things through, which is proving counterproductive, be it in the area of industry, land, or problems in the Darjeeling hills. Every time they try to resolve an issue, they complicate matters further.

But one thing that the Chief Minister should not have done – a promise she has not kept – is the assault on democratic institutions and democracy in general. This is dangerous, and we had earlier warned that this assault would not be confined to us, the CPI(M). It will spread.

As to where the State is headed, nobody really knows. All that was done before is now being undone – like land reforms, the establishment of a democratic, decentralised panchayat system and other institutions of participatory democracy. Our successes in the agrarian sector, based on which we were setting up industries – all such processes are being reversed. This is endangering the overall growth of the State. I will not yet say that an anarchic situation is prevalent here, but I fear it is heading in that direction.

Over the last several months political violence and crime have been on the increase. Do you think the government is doing enough to curb them?

The violence against us has increased a lot. Since May 2011 [when the Trinamool-led government came to power], around 4,800 Left workers and supporters have had to be hospitalised – most of them in serious condition. A large number of them have, in fact, been crippled by acts of violence. After coming to power, the Trinamool forcefully occupied more than 700 CPI(M) offices.

The situation is particularly bad for Left workers and supporters in the eight districts of Pashchim Medinipur, Bardhaman, Bankura, Hooghly, Purbo Medinipur, Cooch Behar and the North and South 24 Parganas. In the first four districts that I mentioned, it is no longer possible to carry out even simple democratic functions; more than 40,000 Left workers have been driven out of their homes, party offices have been forcefully occupied, hefty fines have been imposed upon them. We have a detailed list of these figures.

It is not possible to understand the situation by the number of killings alone. In the 1970s, under the Congress government, there were more killings of Left workers. But the situation of silent terror that is prevalent today is more effective in demoblilising any political opposition. It is not that they are perpetrating such terror in places where the Left is weak; in fact, it is worst where we have a reasonably strong support base – like the first four districts that I just mentioned. You can see how we were proved right when we said that this violence would be directed not only against us; today, Congress workers are being attacked. Even sections within the Trinamool camp are fighting each other.

Apart from political violence, general crime has also increased greatly. It is as though criminals have started thinking that it is their government; and the police and the administration are just not handling the situation in a proper manner.

With all these things happening around us, the Chief Minister remains in denial mode, insisting that nothing has really happened. In none of the incidents of violence and crime – be it the Park Street rape case, the murder of two CPI(M) leaders in broad daylight in Bardhaman, or the rape on a train in Katwa – has the Chief Minister condemned the acts or apologised for them. Instead, she said they were orchestrated incidents.

What is your opinion on the government's policy relating to land acquisition for industries?

First, I would like to say, regarding land, that thousands of people in rural Bengal have been ousted in the last one year. Even Trinamool supporters have not been spared.

Now, regarding the State government's land acquisition policy. The government claims that it is against acquiring land on behalf of industries. So how can land be acquired for industrial purposes? Their solution has been to lift the land ceiling, so investors can directly buy land – but the government will have no role in acquiring land from the farmers. Unfortunately, this will empower the land mafia and the land sharks, and as a result, farmers will be denied their rightful compensation and rehabilitation packages, which will not happen if the government acquires the land.

Moreover, big manufacturing industries will be reluctant to come, as they know how difficult it will be for them, without the intervention of the government, to get the kind of land required to set up large plants. The situation is not conducive to big industries.

Not just in the case of land. The present government does not really have a proper industrial policy. Take the case of power. When we were in government, we left behind for the State a surplus; the present government is now in such a state that it has to reduce power generation to minimise losses. Moreover, the way the resource mobilisation plan has been done, nobody knows where funds for infrastructure development will come from. The process of industrialisation is not just about giving land. It is important that the atmosphere is also conducive to industrial growth.

What is the government's major achievement in its first year in power?

Apparently, the Darjeeling hills are peaceful – which everyone can see is not the case – and peace has returned to Jangalmahal. But this is just an illusion of peace. It cannot be considered an achievement, as it is paving the way for another wave of problems. Then, of course, there are a whole lot of promises that are yet to be kept. The only positive work that I feel the government has done is to have decided not to set up the Legislative Council as it had decided earlier. We opposed this decision, and they finally dropped the idea.

Instead of taking the State forward from where it stood a year ago, we are seeing that they are reversing the process of progress and development, undoing all that had been achieved. The future really does look gloomy.

There has been some disenchantment with the government among the urban middle class. Do you think this has spread to rural voters? Will it have an impact on the upcoming panchayat elections?

We have seen disillusionment among the urban middle class, even among those who voted for a change. But the attack on democracy that we talked about is even more intense in the rural areas. On top of all that, there is major distress in the agrarian sector, as is evident in the spate of suicides by farmers and agricultural workers groaning under the burden of debt.

Whether this will influence the results of the upcoming panchayat elections is very difficult to say. The ruling party has been threatening to prevent the Opposition from fielding candidates. It all depends on whether our candidates will be allowed to file their nominations. But I will say that when people start understanding the implications of what is happening around them, they will get disillusioned. But to go into the mode of active resistance takes some time. 

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Mamata’s paranoia

Deccan Herald, Aug 18, 2012

West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee is becoming more and more intolerant and paranoid about individuals who question her and institutions which she is oath-bound to protect.


A simple question asked by a villager at a public meeting about rising fertiliser prices and farmer deaths was enough to brand to him a Maoist. Even though he was in fact a supporter of her own party, he was arrested, let off and rearrested and is now facing charges which may land him in prison. Some students got into trouble a few weeks ago for asking her questions she did not like in a TV talk show. A professor was arrested for forwarding on the internet a cartoon that lampooned her. Any word of criticism is taken as a sign of a conspiracy to unseat her.

The allergy to adverse comments and unfavourable opinions extends to institutions also. Earlier this week she cast aspersions on the judiciary and judicial bodies by claiming that judgments can be bought for money. The statement was made at an official seminar in the West Bengal Assembly. It was highly inappropriate and irresponsible on the part of the chief minister to make a sweeping statement about the judicial system in public in so cavalier a manner.

The immediate reason for the tirade, it may be assumed, might have been the striking down of the Singur land legislation by the Calcutta high court. If there is dissatisfaction with the working of the judiciary or a specific complaint against any judge, there are institutional ways of redressing it. It is wrong to make charges without substantiating them and throw mud on the entire judicial system.

Mamata also criticised ‘committees and commissions in the country’ for their lack of ‘accountability’ after the state human rights commission awarded compensation to two people, including the professor who circulated the cartoon, and recommended action against the policemen who arrested them. Obviously the comment was an attempt to hit back at the body whose order has embarrassed her.

The increasingly intolerant ways and words of the chief minister has started creating discomfort even among her supporters. There are cases of people losing their freedom or lives for asking inconvenient questions in authoritarian societies. But questions are vital in a democracy and Mamata Banerjee is yet to learn this. She should remember that she came to power after posing to the people of the state questions about the Left Front government.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Zero tolerance


FRONTLINE, Volume 29 - Issue 17 :: Aug. 25-Sep. 07, 2012

Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s absolute intolerance of criticism resurfaces with the arrest of a farmer.
Mamata Banerjee. Her apparent paranoia has made her overdependent on the police.

West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee has made it very clear that she will not tolerate dissent, criticism and jokes against her government and that police action will be initiated against her critics. First came the arrest of a professor who forwarded an innocuous cartoon of her by e-mail; then came the branding of a college student who asked her an uncomfortable question on a private television channel’s chat show as a Maoist; and now an indigent farmer has been detained for voicing his grievances to the Chief Minister at a public meeting.

All Shiladitya Chowdhury, a farmer from Binpur, did was to point out to Mamata Banerjee at a rally at Belpahari in Pashchim Medinipur district that the rise in fertilizer prices was ruining farmers. But that was enough for the angry Chief Minister to label him a “Maoist” and have him arrested under non-bailable sections of the Indian Penal Code (IPC).

On August 8, like thousands of others in the region, Shiladitya had gone to attend Mamata Banerjee’s rally at Belpahari. The area was until recently a known Maoist belt, and so the Chief Minister’s rally was taking place amid heavy security. Shiladitya, who was sitting in the front row beyond the security cordon, got up in between and loudly said that farmers were dying and were not getting proper prices for their produce, that fertilizer prices were increasing, and that the government was not doing enough to redress farmers’ grievances.

Mamata Banerjee reacted aggressively, pointing him out in the crowd and ordering the police to catch him. As he was being led away, she referred to him as a Maoist who had sneaked into the rally ground to create disturbance. Upon questioning Shiladitya, the police found that he had no links with the banned Communist Party of India (Maoist) and allowed him to return home. But later, the Jhargram Superintendent of Police, Bharati Ghosh, reportedly claimed that Shiladitya had “escaped” before the interrogation was completed – a feat that is difficult if not impossible given the heavy security at the venue.

After his “escape”, Shiladitya went straight home to Nayagram, but the police waited two whole days before picking him up again on the night of August 10. This time he was arrested under Sections 332 (voluntarily causing hurt to deter public servant from his duty, a non-bailable offence), 353 (assault or use of criminal force to deter public servant from discharge of his duty, non-bailable), 447 (criminal trespass, bailable) and 506 (criminal intimidation, bailable). The following morning he was produced before a district court and remanded in judicial custody for 14 days.

The arrest raised a storm of protest from a cross section of the media and civil society. Political parties, both allies of the Trinamool Congress and those in the opposition, spoke out in one voice against the arrest. Communist Party of India (Marxist) Member of Parliament Nilotpal Basu said the arrest was tantamount to “autocracy” while West Bengal Pradesh Congress Committee general secretary Om Prakash Mishra called it a “bizarre case of heightened intolerance”.

Ambikesh Mahapatra, the Jadavpur University professor who was arrested in the cartoon case. The West Bengal Human Rights Commission has recommended that the State government compensate him.

The strongest criticism came from an unexpected source – Chairman of the Press Council of India and former Supreme Court judge Markandey Katju, who had, months earlier, showered praise on Mamata Banerjee for her integrity and uprightness. “Her action is most undemocratic, to say the least. I had earlier given a statement in favour of Mamata Banerjee…. But now I have changed my opinion and believe she is totally undeserving to be a political leader in a democratic country like India…,” he reportedly said. He also warned officials carrying out her orders that they could face a situation similar to those sentenced in the Nuremberg trials.

Even in her days in the opposition when she was heading the violent agitation in Singur that led to the departure of Tata Motors’ small car project from the State, she reacted angrily to any question she perceived to be critical of her movement. The term “Tata’s agent” was attributed to anyone asking her an uncomfortable question. But after assuming charge as the Chief Minister of West Bengal in 2011, her threshold for tolerance of any perceived criticism has been diminishing at an alarming rate.

Apart from Ambikesh Mahapatra, a Jadavpur University professor of chemistry, Subrata Sengupta, septuagenarian retired engineer, was arrested for forwarding by e-mail a month-old cartoon relating to Mamata Banerjee’s insistence on removing the then Union Railway Minister, Dinesh Trivedi, from the Cabinet and replacing him with present Railway Minister, Mukul Roy. Her branding of young students who asked her uncomfortable questions on a television chat show as “Maoists” came a month later. As she stormed off the set, she asked the police to take photographs of those who had posed difficult questions to her.

There are many who feel that Mamata Banerjee appears to be constantly looking over her shoulder for unseen enemies. This apparent paranoia, say others, perhaps explains her overdependence on the police. “Apart from the intolerance and undue haste that characterises the present government so far, there appears to be a more-than-necessary dependence on the police. This may be harmful in the long run for any democratic polity,” a senior government official told Frontline. Despite all the criticism, the Mamata Banerjee government has remained unapologetic. On each occasion she and her party leaders defiantly justify their stance, no matter how illogical their justifications may appear.

In the cartoon case, the government and the party’s interpretations of the innocuous mail ranged from being “lewd and obscene” to indicating a sinister plot to kill Mamata Banerjee. The farmer’s voicing of his grievances was interpreted as a dangerous bid to breach security and cause mayhem. Mukul Roy, who was present at that meeting, claimed that Shiladitya was drunk and pushed the police personnel and women around him, although video recordings of the incident show no evidence of such action. Shiladitya, who hails from a family of policemen, had been selected for a training programme at the Central Reserve Police Force camp at Binpur.

As with the previous incidents, this time, too, the Trinamool leaders’ excuses serve only to diminish the credibility of the ruling party. “It is not what he said but how he said it that was offensive,” a Trinamool Congress source told Frontline.

HRC Report

In a development that has caused much embarrassment to the State government, the West Bengal Human Rights Commission’s report on the cartoon incident has recommended that the State government compensate both Mahapatra and Sengupta by paying them Rs.50,000 each for the manner in which they were arrested and detained and take action against the policemen responsible for the arrest. The report states: “Citizens who are expressing or airing a critical opinion about the ruling party cannot be picked up from their residence by the police at the instance of an agitated mob whose members are unhappy with the critical views of those two persons. If this is allowed to continue, then not only the human rights of the dissenters will perish but free speech, which is the life blood of our democracy, will be gagged. Constitutional provisions will be reduced to parchment promises and we will be heading towards a totalitarian regime in complete negation of democratic values….” The Commission also made it clear that “no one can attribute even remotely any suggestion which is lewd or indecent and slang” in respect of the cartoon that was forwarded.

Though it is not binding upon the State government to follow the recommendations, according to political analysts, governments normally abide by such suggestions. What remains to be seen is whether the present report will prompt the Mamata Banerjee government to avoid such embarrassments in the future.