Thursday, August 7, 2008

Do Bigha Zameen : A Modern Retelling

It is more than a matter of the 400 acres of land at Singur. The Tata plant running into labor trouble at Singur is an example of several tectonic shifts in our politics.

We have here a bizarre situation where a party committed to the welfare of the toiling masses provides police protection to a capitalist firm — after being accused of having acquired land by force using the party muscle to coerce the local “peasantry” into parting with it.

The peasants are being led by a party comprised of more or less one person, Mamta Bannerjee, whose ideology on most matters is unknown except that she loves to oppose any thing and any one with a passion. Of course, her supreme passion is to hate the Left Front. But, she opposed the Congress leadership when she was in it, opposed the NDA when she was part of it and retains an ambivalent relationship with it even now. And, of course, she opposed several in her own party who tried to give it an identity and an ideology.

The irony is probably all the more jarring because the Left Front’s once stellar record in land reforms must be staring it glaringly in the face. Although most of the country has passed laws paying lip service to the “land to the tiller” concept, it has been the earlier Left Front governments in the Jyoti Basu era that took the matter of land reform seriously and single mindedly pursued it.

“When Benoy Choudhury became Minister of Land and Land Reforms when the Left Front came to power in 1977 after two short earlier spells be began ‘Operation Barga’, Bargadar being the word used for sharecroppers who had no security of land. West Bengal’s reforms turned out to be the best land reform and distribution system in India. The so-called land reform schemes in the other states like U.P. and Bihar had just been a hoax, the landlords continued to rule their empire with an iron hand. Benoy Choudhury and the team he created saw to it that sharecroppers had tenure over their land and could not be evicted.”

From the time of Benoy Choudhury the journey was long. In the early days of Left Front rule, land reforms were of such high importance that in the West Benga “quota” of the CPI (M) politburo a seat was held by the land and land reforms minister and, of course, the portfolio itself was awarded to a senior minister. That the same “seat” is now occupied by the industry minister since the last party congress speaks a lot about the distance covered.

The situation of the Left is understandable. Industrialization may be a necessity, but it has to live up its own formidable legacy in giving land to the landless and not taking it away as it is doing now. The trouble is compounded by the fact that today there are no leaders of the stature of a Benoy Choudhury who would command the credibility that he and others like him with a mass base did. That would have allowed them to have communicated with the people in a vocabulary of their own and be believed. Today, the few mass leaders that the Left has are pygmies compared to the giants who preceded them.

And meanwhile, as the Left Front sorts out its fractured identity, we will be treated to the spectacle of the party of the “toiling masses” providing protection to merchant princes even as the Trinamool Congress, a part of the right-wing NDA committed to free enterprise, agitates for the aspirations of the poor. Keep your television sets on in the coming days. A “worker’s party” using police to keep agitating peasants at bay will be a sight to behold.

No comments: