Thursday, May 12, 2011
Poster at Nandigram protest meeting in Calcutta, 2007. Slogan:
From Singur to Nandigram, Resistance's new naam (name).
The people's struggles in West Bengal over the last decade and more have brought to centre-stage the issue of land. City-folk, intellectuals, professionals, people who empathise with the peasants - are quick to point out that the old must give way to the new, that the spread of urbanisation is inevitable and irreversible, that a village cannot hold out against the advancing city, that industry is necessary and so on. And that, therefore, in a region of significant population density and relative land scarcity, it has to be agricultural land that is given up. They emphasise the issue of proper compensation and rehabilitation.
We are living in a time of great scams. Historically too, there have been some great conspiracies. And always, the poor and powerless have borne the brunt of these, and been simply forgotten. The bulk of the people in entire regions of the country have been living out, and continue to do so, direly, the ramifications of the planned consignment of their places to backwardness and zones of exploitation and extraction. Entire peoples and communities, cultures and languages, live out the consequences of the planned expropriation of a place by "enlightened" people from outside, and the conversion of the indigenous people into serfs, in a mutually beneficial plot between them and the state (colonial, Indian).
Although the mega-scam / conspiracy of forced land acquisition in Rajarhat by the CPI(M) mafia preceded Singur and Nandigram, and was held up as a "model" of consensus-based land acquisition, Rajarhat is now set to explode in the face of the arch-villain, Gautam Deb. In the documentary film on Rajarhat, "Their City on Our Land", an elderly farmer says, "we are not poor, we are rich, we have land, they have nothing, only money, but they don't have land. They buy our land with money, and become rich and we become poor." And just as the historic election in West Bengal comes to a close, the election in which the land question was perhaps the key issue driving the desire for change, in the very centre of the country, another explosion of the land question is taking place.
The city folk who empathise with the peasants but think land acquisition is unavoidable, a necessary sacrifice for collective advance - they must realise that democracy is not just about what they think it is about. Democracy in India implies an unflinching adherence to some basic parameters, that are being set by people's struggles in this land of historical injustice and inequity. The struggles are democracy in action, and the parameters set by them are directions for public policy and governance. Knee-jerk resort to assertions that "there is no alternative", "dams are vital", "urbanisation is inevitable", "land must be acquired" and so on is only part of the unquestioned continuation of status quo, regarding what "development" means and entails. It only shows what "power" is, and where it lies, who has it, and who does not. So, really, it is very clear that the empathic, development-oriented city-folk are with someone and against someone else.
But time is running out. The people of this country are not going to go on and on accepting that status quo, which is entirely one-sided: some sit in comfort while some suffer the earth sinking beneath their feet. The peasant whose land is being seized today, is not the peasant of an earlier age, who gave way to capitalist industry. He and she are here today, together with us, and contemporaneous with global capitalism. And fighting against it, unlike anyone else. Fighting for survival.
What is the alternative? That is what the city-folk ask. As if, over and above all the comfort and privilege they have enjoyed, they are now also privileged to have this formulated by the (powerless) people and handed over to them, to examine with cynical arrogance. What about them? What is their role? What can they do? Have they tried to immerse themselves in this concern, taking full responsibility? Instead of the sneering, despising disdain reserved for the poor and powerless. You better think fast, and think soundly, for your balls are otherwise going to be excised by the peasant's tangi.
If there is to be a market economy, that must be guided by people's interests. The lives of people cannot be dictated by unbridled market forces.
The poor are ingenious and enterprising, they must be in order to survive. In central Kolkata, slum dwellers hang around the spaces where the cars of early morning shoppers in New Market are parked. As soon as the babu goes off, someone will swiftly duck behind the car and crouch and empty his bowels, and thus get ready for another day of labour to sustain the fragrant city. That same ingenuity and razor-edge, do-or-die intensity must be brought to the engagement with the subject of "alternative" - by those who today only ask the question.
Against the "irreversible", "immutable" sway of global economy, the poor and powerless in Bengal, the ever rebellious land, have screamed out: you shall not take our land! The unstoppable advance of the jack-boot of economic forces, that goliath, may finally have come up against a little David in the Bengal peasant.
Which side are you on? Will you finally start working with the people and for the people, to fabricate an alternative, to produce a genuine local crop?