Is there not an eerie resemblance between the current goings-on in West Bengal and the grisly events that took place there exactly four decades ago? The dramatis personae are the same: the Right, represented by the Congress ruling at the Centre, the Left, euphemism for the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and the ultra-Left, identified as Naxalites in the early 1970s and now passing as Maoists. It is as if the intervening 40 years are irrelevant, the drama enacted then is having a rerun; some roles have, however, been extraordinarily reversed.
Forty years ago, the central concern of the Right was how to contain the CPI(M). The monopoly of power enjoyed by the Congress in the state had been broken mostly on account of onslaughts launched by the Left. The CPI(M) was a taut, militant outfit with a clear-cut ideology and thousands of dedicated workers stripped for action. It had captured the imagination as much of the dispossessed peasantry in the countryside as of the urban middle classes, and its organizational hold among the industrial workers had tightened further. The Marxists — or so it appeared to the worrying types among the Congress bosses — were bent on creating anarchy all over the state. They must be thwarted; in any event they must not be allowed any space in the state administration. Twice in quick succession, United Front ministries put together by the CPI(M) were ejected through the deus ex machina of Article 356 of the Constitution. The turbulent working class in industrial hubs on either side of the lower Hooghly and such other spots as Durgapur were confronted by armed constabulary dispatched by New Delhi, such as the Central Reserve Police Force and the Central Industrial Security Force. At the same time, the state police, in cohorts with the rural oligarchs, came down heavily on the rebellious share-croppers and landless hordes incited by the Marxists. It was touch and go. There was a real danger of the CPI(M)’s getting an absolute majority in the impending state assembly elections.
At that juncture, the Right, that is, the Congress, instructed police and security personnel under its political control to seek the assistance of the ultra-Left, the Naxalites, in the holy battle against the Marxists. The Naxalites had broken away from the CPI(M). They were a frenzied lot, their immediate objective was indiscriminate killing of Marxists who had supposedly betrayed the revolution. This provided a wonderful opportunity for the Right. Congress goons and police agents infiltrated the ranks of the Naxalites. In several areas, a tactical alliance took place between the ultra-Left and the Congress to plot the murder of CPI(M) cadres or to eject them from their hearth and home.
The Right was only partly successful in its game plan. Deployment of terror tactics denied the Marxists an absolute majority in the assembly elections in 1971; they were made mincemeat of in the fresh polls the following year. The main purpose, though, remained unachieved. Excesses committed by both anti-social elements let loose by the Congress as well as Central police personnel sharply swung public sympathy in favour of the Marxists. While the CPI(M) could be kept out of the state administration, it could not be weakened politically. Even though it had to remain more or less in hiding it actually marched from strength to strength.
Half a loaf was better than no loaf; the Right took this dénouement philosophically and turned its attention to its erstwhile temporary tactical ally, the Naxalites. Congress hoodlums, assisted by Central and state police forces, did a thorough job of annihilating the Naxalites, and that was that.
It is 2010; there is a resuscitation in West Bengal of the same triangular phenomenon witnessed 40 years ago. The cast is basically unchanged. The traditional Left, represented by the CPI(M), however finds itself playing an altogether different role. Four decades ago, its thesis proclaimed India to be a federal integer constituted by diverse nationality groups populating the different states. The party was resolute in its determination to defend and expand states’ rights. It was dead set against the induction of Central police and security forces for preserving or restoring law and order in a state; it in fact questioned the legitimacy of outfits such as the Central Reserve Police Force and the Central Industrial Security Force since, under the Constitution, law and order was a state subject. All those formulations are now over and done with; the objective reality is taken to be altered. The CPI(M) at present presides over the state administration in West Bengal. That apart, the new incarnation of the ultra-Left, the Maoists, have made deep penetration into a number of districts in West Bengal taking advantage of what Andre Gunder Frank has called “the development of under-development” among the tribal population. They are no isolated splinter group like the Naxalites were in the 1970s. They have extended their influence among the adivasis over considerable parts of the entire country. In West Bengal, they have once more chosen to make CPI(M) leaders and cadre their particular target on the logic that, over here, the latter represent State power. The Marxists are very much on the defensive; armed forces at the disposal of the state administration have been unable to cope with the ultra-Left, so much so that in many areas, administration has practically ceased to function. The CPI(M)’s leaders in the state are now beseeching the Congress-ruled Centre to, please, send more and more contingents of the Central Reserve Police Force to overpower the Maoists. The Right, ruling at the Centre, has responded with alacrity. Central forces have arrived and participated in joint expeditions along with the state police, to flush out ultra-Left activists. While there have been limited successes here and there, in the overall the results are, however, disappointing. It could hardly be otherwise. For however twisted the theory and praxis of the Maoists might be reckoned to be, they have succeeded in entrenching themselves among the tribal people. Given the mass base they have succeeded in establishing, they cannot be wiped out in the manner the Naxalites were four decades ago. It is going to be a long haul.
There is apparently a lack of understanding among the CPI(M) leadership in the state about this aspect of the ground reality. A certain naiveté marks their appeal to the Right to come and rescue them from the clutches of the ultra-Left. It betrays a frightening lack of analysis of class relations. Besides, even assuming that the Maoists are unmitigated evil, does it still behove the Left to identify itself totally with the Right to ensure their liquidation? The mere fact that the Right is responding positively to the SOS of the Left hardly implies that the Congress and its class friends are going to abandon their ambition to destroy the conventional Left as well. In the lexicon of the Right, no distinction exists between the Left and the ultra-Left. From its class point of view, communists of all species deserve extermination. While Congress rulers in New Delhi will offer cooperation to the Left in order to suppress the Maoists, it is far from their intention to do anything that could help extend the longevity of the Left Front regime in the state.
In contrast, the CPI(M) leaders in West Bengal seem to have forgotten their class line. One of them has gone on record after the Dantewada massacre that it was time to sink all differences and fight unitedly against the common enemy, the ultra Left. Really? Does he mean that the Left would henceforth fight the Maoists unreservedly in the company of the Right (which, in Chhattisgarh for instance, is a joint front of the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party)? Has the season come to forget the unclear deal of the nuclear liability bill, the higher education bill, the foreign educational institutions bill, the proposal to convert the special economic zones into Nazi-type labour concentration camps, the rush to dismantle the public sector, the unabated inflation officially engineered to create extra profit for industrialists, hoarders and speculators, the sell-out of banks and insurance units to foreigners and the total surrender of foreign policy to the Americans? Is the Left telling everybody around that, where the ultra-Left is concerned, keeping in abeyance the class line and allying with the most retrograde rightist forces are necessary and permissible?
There is a problem though. The Left has a natural constituency which might not agree with the view that a value judgment on the grim tragedy in Dantewada was legitimate without taking into account the depredations perpetrated over the years in Chhattisgarh by Salwa Judum, jointly sponsored by the BJP and the Congress. The newfound love for the Right on the part of the traditional Left might persuade this constituency to withhold its allegiance. Does that prospect bother the ones who should be bothered?
Ashok Mitra is a former Chairman of the Agricultural Prices Commission and Chief Economic Advisor of the Government of India. He was the first Finance Minister of the Left Front Government in West Bengal in 1977, and a former member of the Rajya Sabha, the upper house of the Indian Parliament. This article was first published by The Telegraph (Calcutta/Kolkata) on 23 April 2010; it is reproduced here for non-profit educational purposes.