Communists risk power in land grab

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 22 February, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 22 February, 2007, 12:00am


Farmers in West Bengal revolt against forced acquisitions for industrial use

Anger and anxiety are etched on the face of farmer Rashid Ali Mondal as he surveys his paddy field - the economic lifeline he refuses to barter away for cash.

'We are not afraid of the police or communist cadres. We will burn alive anyone who tries to grab our land,' said Mr Mondal, 35, of Nandigram in West Bengal, where the communist government is seizing agricultural land for industrial use.

The irony is that the Communist Party of India (Marxist) rode to power in West Bengal three decades ago on the back of such disgruntled peasants. The party consolidated its hold through a land reform programme, which established the rights of landless labourers and farmers over the soil they tilled.

And a once-grateful peasantry has re-elected the communist-led government a record seven times since 1977, making it the longest-serving democratically elected communist regime in the world.

But many farmers say the communists have lost their vote forever.

Nandigram is the epicentre of an unprecedented peasants' revolt against land acquisitions which has left seven dead. Stunned by last month's backlash, West Bengal's government has put on hold plans for a 7,690-hectare Chinese-style special economic zone (SEZ) in Nandigram, uprooting 100,000 families in 38 villages.

But the government is pressing ahead in Singur, 40km from Calcutta, where about 400 hectares were forcibly acquired in December for a Tata Motors factory.

There are daily demonstrations now in Singur by evicted farmers, backed by the main opposition party, Trinamool Congress.

Singur and Nandigram are not the only regions in the leaders' sights: leaked government documents highlight plans to seize prime agricultural land for at least eight SEZs which already have been approved by the federal commerce ministry. The land will be handed over to cash-rich Indian and foreign companies, including Indonesia's Salim Group, for setting up a chemical hub, bio-tech complexes, industrial estates, townships, ports and expressways.

'We stood by the communists because they said they would never desert us. But now they are snatching our livelihood and our food,' said Singur farmer Tridib Das.

'The unkindest cut is that communists are using the patently anti-people colonial era Land Acquisition Act of 1894 to grab land and seem little interested in rehabilitating and resettling the displaced,' added Mr Das, who has refused to accept the government's cheque for his land.

As opposition to forced acquisition intensifies, analysts predict a civil war in the countryside, pitting farmers against the police and communist cadres, unless the Marxist government freezes its plans.

'Violence is in the air. Farmers will not take it lying down. The communists have bitten off more than they can chew,' said Biswajit Roy, political correspondent of Anand Bazar Patrika, West Bengal's leading newspaper.

Buddhadev Bhattacharya, West Bengal's embattled chief minister, said this month: 'Communists are not fools. We are realists. If we don't move from here to the large-scale industrialisation of the state, the benefits we got from land reforms will be lost forever.

'From the communist flag we cannot drop the sickle - but we must emphasise the hammer now.'

Significantly, roughly 50 per cent of the land eyed is tilled by Muslims - a minority whose rights communists claim to safeguard. Secular Marxist ideology turned Muslims, who account for 28 per cent of West Bengal's 80 million people, into a loyal vote bank. But plans to grab their farms - and some mosques - have suddenly alienated them.

Another irony is that it was the leftists who taught Bengalis to regard industry and business with suspicion. The situation could have a dire impact on the communists' performance in next year's village development council elections. If the communists suffer an electoral reverse in West Bengal, their importance in national politics will also become questionable.

Now, the communists enjoy strong influence as their support is crucial for the survival of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's Congress party-led government.