At 70, veteran Naxalite leader Kanu Sanyal remains as sprightly as ever. Recently he was in the news for his stand on principles. Sanyal applied for power supply at his residence in Jalpaiguri district, but the departmental staff asked for a bribe which he refused. As a result, there was no power for months despite a proper connection.
A visiting scribe reported this, following which West Bengal Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharji ordered immediate supply, alongwith an apology from the concerned staff. All very fine and noble, but Sanyal remains sceptical: "If this is what happens to us, then how do you think common people manage?" he asks.
In a wide-ranging interview, Sanyal, once synonymous with armed agrarian struggles in the Terai and Naxalbari, outlines the radical Left assessment of the present political situation in India with special reference to Gujarat and Bengal, together with a candid assessment of the Bhattacharji's performance.
What is your assessment of the Gurajat riots and the official steps taken so far?
We sent a team to Gujarat, but officials suppressed many facts. The riots this time were unlike any that this country has seen before. Some people, backed by the VHP and the RSS are openly threatening Muslims, who are as Indian as any of us, to pack up and leave. The concerned government has done little to prevent this. I think we all have failed to do our duty.
I would like to point to the impact of these riots in other states.We recently visited Jaunpur and Azamgarh in Uttar Pradesh. We found that minorities there were extremely scared of what had happened and were now wondering whether they could stay in India! A whisper campaign is being carried out by the VHP and the RSS against them, and again the administration has done little.
What about the role played by the media?
I would rather not comment on the coverage of the riots. Even in this situation, there are papers published from Maharashtra which claim that Muslims are planning to take "massive revenge" for what has happened.
This I find dangerous, for it could mean fresh attacks in other states. Look at the element of planning that precedes communal violence. It is as though one group of people is openly telling another, you are no good, you don't count, we can do what we like with you ....
Your views on the role of the Opposition.
I really do not know. I would like to take a broader view and I think it is not just a question of the communal riots, the Opposition did not fight hard enough against the atrocious Union Budget presented this year.
The CPI (M) instead of debating the issues, staged a walkout. This only helped the government. Then instead of dealing with the burning issues, there were these meaningless debates on Sections 184, Article 356 and so on to keep everybody engaged in the worst form of parliamentarianism.
Why was Advani for instance not pressured into disowning Modi in Gujarat, or (Yashwant) Sinha for the damage they had caused? The people feel deeply let down by the Opposition.
You say this helps the government?
Of course. The BJP and the NDA take advantage of the the confusion and disunity within the Opposition ranks.
What is your take on some of the NDA partners?
That is more interesting. At least Ram Vilas Paswan took a bold stand, but the Trinamool Congress was simply disgusting in its opportunism. Mamata Banerjee simply cannot wait to become Minister again. The TDP too was guilty of duplicity.
What steps have your groups taken?
Apart from our visits, we met former Prime Minister V.P. Singh, but before our programme with him could be finalised (for north India), he suddenly fell sick. However, we are still in touch and are not exactly idle. We have organised protests, marches, demostrations. But certainly more was needed, I admit.
What of the Congress, the biggest secular party in the country?
I do not know. The Congress may not be communal like the BJP, but its communal record is not inspiring. Perhaps the last two secular leaders of the party were Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru. In Gujarat, we received disturbing reports that in some areas Congress and BJP supporters had participated in riots jointly.
Could there really be an alternative to the BJP without a centrestage role for the Congress, for all its shortcomings?
The Congress cannot be relied upon specially in crisis situations. But some coordination at the floor level and co-operation is always possible to isolate the BJP. But the Left parties want to impress the people that this is the best that can be done in the situation, and they cannot do more. This I oppose most strongly. On economic matters where is the difference between the BJP and Congress policies?
Is a different economic approach possible in these days of liberalisation?
Certainly, we can still call for a self reliant economy and help our own industries by deciding to back swadeshi goods. It won't be easy convincing the people of the efficacy of our slogans, but agitation and struggle will be necessary.
Unfortunately the Left, the parliamentary Left is now participating in the system that stands for this liberalised economy, instead of launching mass struggles as outlined in their own programmes. They have betrayed the Left cause.
Turning to Bengal, the Left Front has completed 25 years of its rule and Bhattacharji one year of his tenure. How do you assess the LF performance from a radical Left viewpoint?
I would say that from a bourgeois standpoint, there has been some progress. For instance , the sharecroppers (bargadars) now have been registered and enjoy some rights they did not have before. There has been a rise in production. In Karnataka, they made the sharecroppers owners of their plots about a decade ago. So who is ahead?
Factories close down in Bengal, but workers do not get the protection and help they got earlier. Jyoti Basu openly said: "Since we are in government, we cannot agitate." What does such a statement mean for the peasants and workers? Have all their grievances been met?
Even politically, there is less freedom than before. The other day, a man was arrested in Siliguri for putting up a Maoist poster. Under the Congress we were arrested for putting up pro-China or Vietnam posters.
Under the Congress it was not necessary to secure police permission to hold rallies or organise protests. These days the government has made it compulsory for parties to secure permission. Is this an improvement for political activists, I ask you.
Instead of addressing genuine grievances of the oppressed Rajbangshi people in north Bengal, Bhattacharji, surprisingly, declared war against them. He does not know that his police have herded over 400 innocent people including women and children in jails on trumped up charges. Is this good governance by any means?
So it is difficult to answer in brief whether the LF rule has been a boon or a curse for Bengal. The issue is more complicated than that.