The current manner of democratic governance in Southasia came with the British, but did not depart with them. The countries that were under direct British rule inherited the institutions of governance, and continued to use them on the assumption that they offered the best option for democracy and independence. Thus, democratic governance of British origin continues with great gusto in India and Sri Lanka, while Pakistan and Bangladesh keenly await its reappearance in public life. Nepal and Bhutan, meanwhile, are trying to explore how their traditional monarchies can transcend to the Westminster model of parliamentary governance.
The democratic governance in the region, which also includes the world’s most impoverished areas, seems to have become a model for developing countries far and wide. With India becoming an economic giant whose gross domestic product is growing annually by nearly 10 percent, industrialisation has become its single most important economic strategy. In turn, the smaller Southasian countries marvel at the status of this big brother next door, and their politicians clamour for the same type of economic development and affluence that they find in India.
Against this backdrop has arisen what has by now become known as the Singur-Nandigram episode. Over the past several months, these two towns in West Bengal have become widely known for the ongoing local opposition to and conflicts over governmental attempts to acquire land for industries. In Singur, the incoming industry belonged to the Indian giant Tata; while in Nandigram, there was an initial proposal for the establishment of a special economic zone, though this was subsequently withdrawn following intense public protest.
Events in Singur and Nandigram reflect the growing dichotomy between government commitments to promote industrial growth at any cost, and the threat to the livelihoods of large numbers of citizens that would occur as a result of the acquisition of land for industry – the ability to do so, incidentally, is given by the Land Acquisition Act of 1984, also a legacy of British rule. At the core of the events in Singur and Nandigram, much of which were violent, lies the question of land. Indeed, the conflicts over land have been so intense that no serious question has been raised as to the nature of the industries in question, their products or their ownership status.
There is no hiding from the fact that economic growth in India has been distributed very unequally. The age-old ‘percolation’ theory, whereby benefits were assumed to ‘trickle down’ the social ladder, has largely hit the rocks, leading to the poor remaining marginalised from the social, economic and political processes. This applies across the Indian political spectrum, independent of the declared ideological status of the party in government. The rapid industrialisation being experienced in certain places in India indicates that an important convergence is taking place in the Indian polity. Whether in Gujarat, ruled by the rightist Bharatiya Janata Party, or in West Bengal, where for more than three decades parties claiming Marxist ideological roots have been in power, the same industries are being invited to set up shop. The investors are naturally happy with such a convergence of economic priorities, as chief ministers of Indian state after Indian state increasingly line up to invite them to set up industries. Unlike the earliest years of Jawaharlal Nehru, when industries ran after the leaders, the shots are now being called by the corporates.
The cases of land acquisition in Singur and Nandigram are not the largest of such land transfers currently going on in India, but surely they are the most discussed. In many other states, such acquisitions and transfers are being planned on much larger scales, and implemented with significantly more state aggression towards the landholding communities. Right now in Orissa, for instance, there is talk of the emergence of a new Nandigram-type resistance by local people. Thanks to the widespread discussion of the events at Singur and Nandigram, coupled with the deep involvement of non-party activists and common people, a rich discourse is now readily available. This can be of significant value in providing leads to modifying and restructuring democratic governance in India, as much as in providing more deep-rooted structures for democracy in other parts of Southasia.
Credit for much of this change should go to the non-party political process in West Bengal. On 14 November, this process was able to draw 100,000 people into the streets of Calcutta, to take part in a silent, peaceful march to register their protest against the violence being perpetrated by the police and ruling party cadres in Nandigram. From the state government’s secretariat, Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee interpreted the violence and the subsequent entry of the cadres of his party in Nandigram as a positive achievement, and emphatically stated that the detractors of his party had been “paid back in their own coin”. Later, in a less convincing manner, he allowed that such a statement had not been particularly appropriate.
On 11 December 2007, in a leading daily from Calcutta, Bhattacharjee again repeated the oft-made statement that, even against the backdrop of Singur and Nandigram, there was no question of discontinuing the process of industrialisation in the state. Thus, any industry owned by anyone with significant money, and which produces anything that sells widely, automatically receives the highest priority in governmental policy. But a government run by Marxist parties is expected to promote industries in the public sector, promote a technological base emerging from national laboratories, and provide employment and produce goods that satisfy the basic needs of the people.
In the cases of Singur and Nandigram, the industries are private. While industries per se are described as inevitable, necessary in order to address widespread un- and underemployment, it is common knowledge that the technologies of today are not geared towards the generation of employment on any significant scale. There is no openly available documentation that the new phase of industrialisation in West Bengal would have any distributive impact on income. Indeed, the automation in the proposed Tata automobile plant is expected to guarantee the availability of very few jobs, and that too for a higher demographic category by far than the Nandigram peasantry. Somewhere along the way, we seem to have missed the distinction between industrialisation as a broad socio-economic and cultural process, and the mere expansion of private industries on land taken from poor farmers by the government.
Such disregard of public interest in industrialisation could be expected from governments of rightist parties. But the reality is that the left government in West Bengal has not been able to chart a different policy for industrialisation. The contradictions are exemplified by the fact that on the same day that Bhattacharjee was reiterating his commitment to industrialisation, another Calcutta daily carried a headline announcing that a vehicle belonging to the Kolkata Police, which is under Bhattacharjee’s charge, did not stop to attend to a road-accident victim, instead merely speeding away to leave him injured and bleeding.
After more than 55 years of democratic governance in India, the government commitment to industrialisation at any cost, and the widespread neglect of the basic needs of the poor, appear to have become the hallmark of the relationship between an ordinary person and the state. Anyone with knowledge of the poor in India’s villages knows that, even as an increasing number of expensive malls are being inaugurated in the cities, there is simultaneously a growing number of young children in India whose parents feel required to sell them off to get cash for food. Who said that the market economy has not touched the poor?
The time has come to look for innovative new approaches to democratic governance. After 60 years of independence in large parts of the region, the institutions of governance appear to have undergone some important but informal changes. The rituals of institutions of representative democracy remain relevant only up to the point of election. Thereafter, however, the accountability of representatives has gradually disappeared, with politicians increasingly interpreting their roles less as lawmakers and more as rulers of the areas they represent. This reduces their constituencies to virtual jagirdaris – administrators traditionally appointed by emperors for specific areas – in which the independent-minded poor become victims of fear of private goons, or even the police.
In most Indian states, this jagirdari is taken up by individuals with known muscle power. But in West Bengal, not powerful individuals but cadres have often captured and retained areas under their flags, as was seen in Nandigram. This is described by the more sober individuals in the media as the ‘criminalisation’ of politics. No one says that this is the inevitable result of the ‘ritualisation’ of democratic governance as left by the British. Instead, this emerging jagirdari model of democracy fits in nicely with the pre-colonial political-cultural traditions of the region. Can we allow such a process to take us back to pre-colonial feudalism?
Such an erosion of the democratic process is experienced in all parts of Southasia, and social activists have made crucial contributions to raise popular awareness on such degradation of democratic governance. West Bengal is also fortunate in having a competent, informed governor in Gopal K Gandhi, who neither has a party background nor a vision truncated by narrow party interests. At the same time, the people of West Bengal, in particular the intellectuals, have proven to be alert against the continuous encroachment into the citizens’ space in policymaking. It is for this reason that the 100,000 non-party protestors who marched silently in Calcutta on 14 November succeeded in unnerving political parties of all colour.
The events in Singur and Nandigram are only the tip of the iceberg of a Southasia-wide malaise: the silent erosion of democratic governance and the marginalisation of the common citizens in the region, all of it conducted under an ostensibly ‘democratic’ process. The vast literature surrounding Singur and Nandigram cannot now be allowed to be used by political forces elsewhere to hide even larger land deals that are currently in the offing in other states. The widespread public debate around Singur and Nandigram needs to be understood as a signal from West Bengal that the people at large are not convinced that industrialisation without employment guarantee is a sound policy, and needs to be reassessed from a wider and popular perspective involving technology policy and choice of the mix of products. Indeed, the vehemence of these conversations emphasises that the citizens are currently very concerned about the marginalisation of the common people from governance, as well as the absence of accountability of the elected representatives. Democracy does not have a single unique form, and needs periodic restructuring to ensure that citizens are not deprived of their share of power in governance.
It is in this direction that the current widespread consciousness about Singur and Nandigram can be of seminal use for the people of Southasia as a whole. Democracy does not have any one specific operational format, and at various points various countries need to shape the functional structure of their particular form of democracy. In the case of Southasia, ensuring accountability of the people’s representatives, and stopping them from becoming jagirdars in their constituencies, are two of the main challenges. With the prospects of Nepal coming out with a new Constitution, with Pakistan in the midst of a crisis over the identity of the Constitution, with people in India increasingly finding the present system of representation ineffective, a great opportunity is arising for the structuring and restructuring of democratic governance in the region.
Southasia will be able to remove its poverty and develop in fundamental ways only if jagirdari governance is kept out, and accountable, democratic governance is put in place. For this, there are several experimental steps. One can, for instance, try out proportional representation of parties, so that no individual can become the ruler of his or her constituency. Various levels of representation and distribution of power at different spatial units can also be tried, in order to ensure both honesty and efficiency. We all must remember that voting is not a sleeping pill that one takes periodically and that leads directly to good governance while the citizens rest peacefully. Rather, the future of Southasia depends on an innovative redesign of the equation between the political parties and the non-party political process. All of us need to join in this exercise, and bring an end to the hopelessness of the poor and marginalised millions in Southasia.
The questions of industrialization
Over the course of 2007, Singur and Nandigram became virtually synonymous with fault lines not only across West Bengal, but among left intellectuals across India. The state, which has just marked three decades of rule by the Left Front, led by the Communist Party of India (Marxist), has become symbolic of a pro-people communist ideology gone awry. Since the beginning of 2007, Singur, where the Tatas propose to set up an automobile factory, and Nandigram, the site of a chemical hub in a special economic zone, witnessed large-scale protests from local peasants opposing land acquisition and displacement. Harsh repression by cadres of the ruling party, retaliation by opposition party members, a ham-handed response by the state-government, as well as pressure from civil-society organisations – together these forces ultimately caused the central government to intervene, eventually sending in the Central Reserve Police Force to control the volatile situation in Nandigram.
In all of this, the nub of the matter has been obscured: What form of industrialisation is truly in the best interests of the majority of people? How should an administration go about acquiring land, building infrastructure and setting up industries such as these? How can the political class, one which talks the language of the left, be made to deliver on its promises? As important, the situations in Singur and Nandigram have demanded a redefinition of what constitutes politics itself, and the importance of democratic dissent in a state where civil society may have been lulled into too much civility.
The dust is yet to settle after a year of upheaval. With so many issues remaining unresolved, the editors at Himal decided to bring together a range of articles, exploring the many, varied dimensions of Singur/Nandigram. Jayanta Bandyopadhyay’s overview strongly indicts the jagirdari style of governance, and Vijay Prashad analyses the schisms in the left. We also present translated articles from Ekak Matra, the Bengali journal from Calcutta that is working to foster a critical Southasian political-cultural discourse in a regional language. These pieces likewise seek to provide a broader, from-the-ground perspective: the pieces by Amit Bhaduri, Ashok Mitra and D Bandyopadhyay first appeared in Ekak Matra’s May 2007 issue, soon after the issue heated up. They delve into the nature of industrialisation in West Bengal. Then, in an article that appears in the journal’s January 2008 issue, Sumit Chowdhury takes a hard look at the nature of current political mobilisation.
–Jayanta Bandyopadhyay is a Calcutta-based professor in sustainabl development.