Opinion

Singur, Nandigram And Mamata Banerjee’s 'Khela'

How TMC chief Mamata Banerjee had re-launched her political career by hijacking the land issue over Tata car plant.

Singur, Nandigram And Mamata Banerjee’s 'Khela'
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Bolte paro boro-manush motor kyano chorbe?
Gorib kyano sei motor-er tolay chapa porbe?

(Could you tell me why the rich will ride cars/ and why should the poor be run over?)

It is one of the popular lines written by the pre-Independence era Leftist poet Sukanta Bhattacharya, who also happened to be an uncle of Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, Bengal’s for­mer chief minister who headed the Left Fro­nt government since 2000. But by the end of 2006, the poem had become a weapon in the hands of Trinamool Congress (TMC) chief Mam­­ata Ban­erjee, known as an avowed anti-­communist till then, who started repeate­dly reciting the lines during her speeches. Her plan was to destroy the CPI(M)-led Left Front with their own weapon—farmers’ struggle.

Land struggle was one of the reasons the Left Front government came to power in 1977 and the reforms they implemented had been considered one of the main reasons the governm­ent lasted for more than three decades. But soon after coming to power for the seventh consecutive term, they had invited Tata Mot­ors to set up the Nano car plant in Singur, a project for which about 1,000 acres of farmland had to be acquired. The proposed chemical hub in Nandigram would have required 5,000 acres.

As protests broke out against the planned land acquisition, Mamata Banerjee found it an issue she could not let go of. Her political car­eer had reached its nadir, her party having won only one of the state’s 42 seats in the 2004 Lok Sabha elections and 30 of the 294 seats in the 2006 assembly election. She had nothing more to lose. But her own past stood against her.

One of the most-popular leaders of the Ben­gal Congress in the 1990s, she broke away and for­m­ed her own party at the end of 1997, speci­fic­ally accusing the Congress of being soft on the Left in Bengal because the party required the help of the Communists to keep the Bhara­tiya Janata Party (BJP) away from power at the Centre. Soon after the formation of her party, she identified the BJP as her natural ally, cons­idering that they would never strike a deal with the Left.  

Her hatred for the Left can possibly be estim­a­ted from the fact that in 2003, she even atten­ded an event organised by the BJP’s parent org­a­nis­a­tion, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak San­gh (RSS), in New Delhi, on the occasion of the release of right-wing ideologue Tarun Vijay’s book, Communist Atankvaad (terrorism), which detailed the alleged “atrocities” of the Left in India and Nepal, covering all hues of Left—parliamentary and undergro­und. In the presence of Mohan Bhagwat and oth­ers, she descri­bed the communists as ‘fascists’ and ‘hypocrites’, and the RSS functionaries as patriots.

When a farmers’ agitation broke out in the sec­ond half of 2006, first in Singur and then in Nan­di­gram, she found it the best opportunity to script a political revival. But she had none by her side. Neither Congress nor BJP was willing to oppose such big industrial projects, one of them involving the Tatas.   

It was the fringe Left groups, human rights org­anisations and the left-leaning civil society members who were protesting the state gover­nment’s plan and calling for a resistance. They included smaller Left parties such as CPI(ML)­(Liberation), SUCI(C) and the CPI(ML)(PCC), organisations such as Paschimbanga Khet Maj­d­oor Samiti, Matangini Mahila Samiti and the Association for Protection of Human Rights (APDR), apart from Leftist cultural personalities, writer Mahasweta Devi, thespian Bibhas Chakraborty and singer-songwriter Kabir Suman, among others. 

Mamata Banerjee realised she had no other option but to work with these people and deci­ded to reorient herself. By the end of 2006, her events were surrounded by Leftist slogans hig­h­lighting the rights of the farmers, including the iconic ‘land to the tillers’. Leftist protest songs played on loudspeakers around the venues. It was quite a contrast to the scenes seen around her until Singur happened.

In her attempts to earn the trust of the leftist act­ivists and to also clarify her pos­itions before the public, she started explaining her pol­itical position differently: she was not aga­inst leftist ideology, rather she adm­i­red real Communists who made many sac­ri­fi­ces for the uplift of the downtrodden; but the CPI(M) was pseudo-leftist. Thr­oughout the entire period till coming to power in 2011, she kept Mahasweta Devi, an avowed Leftist, tribal rights activist and sympathiser of the Naxalite movement, in the front and adh­ered to most of her suggestions.

“It was a unique situation. Among the protesters, the TMC was the biggest organisation and Banerjee the most-popular face. But we had no experience whatsoever in organising a farmers’ movement. Therefore, she largely depended on organisers of the small left parties and former Naxalite leaders,” said a veteran TMC leader, now a minister in the Mamata Banerjee government, requesting anonymity.

The movements were organised under the ban­ner of Krishi Jami Raksha Committee in Singur and Bhumi Uchchhed Pratirodh Com­m­ittee in Nandigram. “At meetings of these bod­ies, left activists used to come up with strategies and tactical ideas, whi­le TMC leaders used to estimate the feasibility of execution based on their mobilisation stren­gth,” recalled a media professional who had att­ended several such meetings as a left-wing stu­d­ent activist.  

During the period of active resistance to land acquisition, many such left activists from Calc­utta and other suburban towns had camped in the villages of Singur and Nandigram for weeks. But on the days of major events, the mass mobilisation depended largely on the TMC.  

It is in this process of integrating with the lef­tist forces outside the Left Front that she even co-opted many leftist individuals into her par­ty—­she gave a Lok Sabha ticket to singer Kabir Suman, inducted former Naxalite activists Pur­nendu Basu, Dola Sen and Pradip Banerjee into her party, as well as theatre personalities Bra­t­ya Basu and Arpita Ghosh—all of whom subsequently got ministerial or parliamentary berths or party positions.

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(This appeared in the print edition as "Grass roots Rebel")

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