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Tuesday, June 15, 2021




TSI exposes the horror of a regime in west bengal, and why democratic india should overthrow this totalitarian regime
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THE  BRUTALITY HANDBOOK A rush of omnipotence

The CPI(M)’s version is not quite the Oinam brutality, but they’re getting there

How long will this happen, over and over again, one wonders. The old familiar wretchy knot in the gut, as the car hits bricks on a newly filled ditch that had been dug across the road, remnants perhaps of the last stand of the villagers of Nandigram before the first horde of marauding cops and comrades moved in. Minutes earlier, we are halted by a potential mob, 100 loud rustics who stick their faces to the windshield and windows, demanding that the engine be switched off, and then demanding to know how we got in. “Press, let them through,” they say after some consideration. Farmers perhaps who’ve realised not everyone is a landgrabber; maybe a result of the media doing its job, calling Buddhadeb Bhattacharya a killer and what not. “They were CPM cadres,” a senior photojournalist and former Naxalite corrects us later in the evening. “I know them by their body language.” If true, we’d been lucky, for they could have been the ones who bled two reporters just days before, and were now poaching their kill.

Then, as we enter the villages, Nandigram, Sonachura, Adhikaripara... tiny hamlets of little clay huts, vegetable gardens and pukurs, ponds shaded by the occasional banyan tree, they appear from the alleys, a familiar blur, dazed, the crucified collective, disbelief etched harsh across their faces; scores of terror-stricken villagers, thrashed, shot at, their bones broken, their gods destroyed, their women molested and raped, survivors of the CPI(M)’s 15 January ‘SEZ’ siege. As we trudge through the breezy bone-dry fields of Nandigram, the only woman in our team, now two years in the profession, is part of the community, walking with sisters, listening in rapt attention. “A lot of people, even children, were killed and thrown into the river,” she says, making her cause. “Their women were molested and abused. Two were raped.” And who was to tell her that killings, custodial deaths, molestation, rape and thrashings are the basics in any handbook of State brutality? It’s tried and tested: in Oinam, Manipur, in 1987; in Assam during Operations Bajrang and Rhino in the 1990s; in Mokokchung and Kohima in Nagaland in 1994 and 1995; in West Bengal, Nandigram seems like the State’s 21st century beginning... THE  BRUTALITY HANDBOOK There is always a method to the ‘madness’ that Sheikh Raja, whose 18-year-old brother-in-law was killed in the Nandigram siege, talks about. And the reason is always made known, often pre-siege, for purposes of democratic transparency, whatever that means for a government gone awry. According to Buddhadeb, “Nandigram is a part of West Bengal and not a liberated zone,” from which his cadres were thrown out, for a whole two-and-a-half months. The results of messing with the State machinery, and its men, could only have been devastating.

Even as two Nandigram women spoke up in hospital saying they were sexually assaulted, the ones who survived the slaughter and were still in the villages refer to it as ‘unspeakable’. In her 60s, maybe 70s, Chobi Rani Pramanit, eyes still red from the teargas shelling, is braver. “I told one of the men who was abusing and assaulting me that he was young enough to be my son, and he hit me on my breasts,” she says, holding her chest, while the younger women with her look down, or away. “My brother is a policeman,” she says, as if in an afterthought. “If this is what he does, the next time I go to my parents’ home, I will ask him to become a beggar instead.” Dr Shanti Ranjan Mallik, who has been brought in from Belur by the Bhumi Ucched Pratirodh Committee, and is now seated in his first-aid outpost on a ramshackle verandah, is more clinical in his observation, yet implicit enough: “No one here has said anything about rape till now, but all the women who have come to me have injuries on the trunk of their bodies. The men were beaten on their extremities, with an intention to immobilise.” THE  BRUTALITY HANDBOOK For someone from the eastern hinterland, Nandigram could be a rewrite, however short, of the Oinam story, with CPI(M) cadres first thrashing two journalists and then stopping all, especially the media, from entering the villages till 16 March. In Oinam’s infamous Operation Bluebird in 1987, security forces, having lost some nine of their men to Naga militants, cordoned off 31 villages for months, allowing no one in. Inside was mayhem: women were raped at the altar of a church, mothers were made to deliver babies in the gaze of jawans, men were put in sacks, which were then tied to jeeps that were driven around. It left some 15 dead, and scores of women raped, human rights organisations later reported. In Nandigram now, God again chose to ignore his disciples, the attack coming in the middle of their Mahaprabhu puja, while they were preparing their offerings. “Many of the policemen had their pieces hidden in black cloth,” says Soumen Kumar Paik, as he crowds around the doctor to get his injuries examined. “I was prevented from giving water to someone who had been shot and was dying.” In security force parlance – and now in that of the CPI(M) perhaps – it’s called area domination. Often, as in Nandigram, Oinam and Mokokchung in faraway Nagaland, the people are the enemy.

The night before, a local television channel in Kolkata interviews Ashok Mukherjee, a leftist dramatist who once travelled the land spreading the Marxist word. “I can hardly recognise Buddhadeb anymore,” he says, denouncing the ‘barbarism’ of the State government. “Till the other day I knew him well; he’s been like a brother”. Post-Nandigram, Mukherjee, like so many others of his kind, rushes to wash his hands off what has happened. “I am not CPI(M); I am a leftist,” he says in the interview. So where does Buddhadeb go from here? “Nowhere. He has to set up his SEZs because this is an industrial wasteland where communists have shut down everything,” says a former comrade. THE  BRUTALITY HANDBOOK As the sun sets on Nandigram and the media cars turn back to the city four and a half hours away on the Kolkata-Mumbai highway, leaving Nandigram’s villagers to the darkness, one cannot help but wonder how the place will look in maybe five years. Will the villagers have returned to their crops, the tale of 15 January a part of their history? Or will their streets and squares be dotted with columns of white solid concrete, as in Assam, where students have 856 of their young friends to remember? Maybe we should tell the women that in case they are raped, they should not wash themselves and instead hold within their bodies the trace of their hellish violation for that all important vaginal swab, for ever so often, their perpetrators will be in masks of black. For that is a basic in the handbook. THE  BRUTALITY HANDBOOK Neo-segregation

The State is torn apart once again, this time by its own rulers

Much beyond a metaphor, Bengal seems in the throes of another division. This time it’s between the sickle-wielding CPI(M), the self-proclaimed protectors of the farmer, and the silent majority, those who actually believe in equal rights and are willing to die for what they believe: the right to survival, the right to plough fields, the right to work in offices, kitchens, or graveyards, in short the right to choose, and, at the end of the day, the right to live, and die, with dignity.

Bengal’s 16 March bandh was evidence enough that the State’s normally silent majority would now speak out. Or speak nothing for that matter, waiting, in silent solidarity, at bus stands, airports and railway stations for hours before public transport finally appeared on the city’s streets in the evening. “The government has to learn that it cannot decide things according to its whims and fancies,” said Debjani Biswas, a management student. “The bandh is nothing,” said Sudipta Ganguly, a housewife. “It should have been protested by a public curfew.”

Bengal burned once again. “Any other form of protest such a gherao of the Vidhan Sabha would not have been adequate. This was to protest against the barbarism at Nandigram,” said Partho Sarkar, an income tax practitioner who stayed away from work on the bandh. The message from the people was simple: if Buddhadeb and his people weren’t willing to atone for their sins, people were... THE  BRUTALITY HANDBOOK The land that owns us

Maybe it’s the right time to develop wastelands, like our ancestors did

Land. They don’t make it anymore. Probably that’s why it’s so much a burning thing. Amidst the raging controversy over the Nandigram killings, the consequence of people not wanting to part with their land, and the State bent on taking it, one facet has gone untalked about. India is a vast country and has more than six million hectares of uncultivated land, described as ‘wasteland’. The Centre pegs it at 6.07 million hectares, and that is a lot of land. There’s another truth: India has as much as one and a half times the plain land that China has. That ought to be enough for all, except that there’s no incentive to get to that land. Attention is on land that looks attractive (with a history of fertility) and is accessible. Not many are pausing to think that this land too was once inaccessible and left barren.

Nearly half the land holdings in India are less than a hectare, and only a tenth of the farms in India are 10 or more hectares (the average farm is about 0.5 hectare in Kerala, 0.75 hectare in Tamil Nadu, three hectares in Maharashtra and five hectares in Rajasthan). The irony is that land reform in India (basically taking land away from big landlords and distributing it among the poor) began in West Bengal. Now, it is in the same West Bengal that the worst State response to petty landowners is happening.

The nature of land holding that independent India inherited is crucial to what is happening today. The Special Economic Zones (SEZs) are a recent practice in India but in the beginning, cultivable area was largely in the hands of big landlords. Small land holdings were beginning to splinter into even smaller bits and the class of society later described as ‘landless agricultural workers’ was growing fast. There was barely a system of documentary evidence of landownership or tenancy. It is only now that many States are using the computers for this. Therefore, land was important status symbol in India.

However, this status symbol was so important that everyone began to eye it (gold came later). So, there was a growing tendency for the original land holding to be progressively subdivided. This created land holdings that were too small to provide a livelihood for a family (especially true of West Bengal). Since land is both the only perpetual asset, farmers began to borrow money against land. Soon, this led to loss of land to moneylenders or large landowners (the principal reason why farmers kill themselves in Vidarbha). THE  BRUTALITY HANDBOOK The big landlord in India is buffeted by two other principal players in the land drama: the government and the growing army of Naxals. There’s too much fuss over land holdings of private players in India. With the result that barely anyone recognises the big reality – the biggest landowners in India are the Ministry of Defence and the Ministry of Railways. Both these ministries own so much land that they have no precise idea. Naxals have their own way of tackling the land issue. In States like Andhra Pradesh where their movement has been based for decades, Maoist guerillas simply plant their flag on land that they deem is to large for one owner. Once the dreaded flag has been planted, there’s little that can be done. It’s like a death sentence and the owner goes for truce. However, even here the truly big landlords are rarely harmed because, as Intelligence sources would put it, they even fund the Naxals.

It is in this scenario that the SEZ has come in. The concept can work, like in Gujarat for example. Here, the government has set up the SEZs on largely saline land that no one wants. But when something happens like in Singur and Nandigram, where the land looks nice and green, or like in Haryana where Reliance was given 25,000 acres for India’s biggest SEZ project, there’s a scandal. People feel under siege and they hit back. There are some important elements for an SEZ to succeed. There must be political will, a good location, good domestic and international linkages, human capital and, most important, coordination with comprehensive countrywide reform. In India, the last aspect is not happening.

Land, in comparison, is there. It wouldn’t be a bad idea if India can shift people to areas described as wasteland. There’s enough there and if various governments start now, land could still be India’s great asset. At the moment, there’s simply too much blood being spilled over it. It’s not a nice thing to trade in land where people walk. Maybe we should go to areas where no footfalls have taken place. And then see...
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Issue Dated: Feb 5, 2017