10th December was observed as Human Rights Day all over the world, including in West Bengal. The interesting thing about West Bengal was the programme organized by the State Human Rights Commission. In the presence of Shyamal Kumar Sen, the Chairperson of the Human Rights Commission, West Bengal Chief Minister Buddhadev Bhattacharjee explained that there is a difference between preserving human rights and hobbling the police. When it is a matter of fighting terrorists, police should not be demoralized by criticisms. Excesses against terrorists should not be viewed as human rights abuse.
This speech by Mr. Bhattacharjee came just five days after The Telegraph, English language paper claiming to be most widely circulated in West Bengal, wrote an editorial, where it advocated a very hard line against Maoists. It argued: “The menace of Maoist violence is not new to West Bengal. When it had first surfaced in the late Sixties and early Seventies, it was eradicated through counter-violence. Mr Bhattacharjee must learn from that experience and nip the present movement in the bud before Maoist weeds strangle the hundred flowers of West Bengal.”
There is a pattern in this approach. And that pattern is called drive to authoritarianism. It is possible to conduct seemingly democratic elections, when an organised cadre force, backed by the police at need, threatens and cows the whole of rural Bengal, as well as substantial parts of cities, before election time. At that stage, a few protests do emerge, and of necessity, some of them become violent. Every violent protest can then be labelled Maoist, or terrorist. If this sounds too outlandish, we should remember some news The Telegraph or Ganashakti never published. A few years back, there was a panic (and manic) arrest of people suspected to be Maoists. Now the CPI(Maoist) or its predecessors, the CPI(ML) PW and the MCC, were not banned organisations in West Bengal. But people were picked up on suspicion, tortured, harassed. One man named Abhijit Sinha was so shattered by his experiences that he committed suicide. An Association for the Protection of Democratic Rights activist was arrested for possessing, among other things, a copy of From Marx to Mao Tse-tung, written by George Thomson. This is a book any political science M.A. student might consult. In May 2002, Sheila Roy and Mamata Ray in North Bengal were suspected of being close to the Kamtapur Liberation Organisation, and were made to stand in the courtyard of their own house and brutally beaten up. Mithu Roy and Shampa were two of the urban women arrested in this phase. Shampa, a first year student of Gurudas College, was arrested for being a member of the Peoples’ War Group.On 16th August 2002, she was presented before the Baharampur Court, and told the judge that for the past four days she had been kept in the police lock up without any food.
Coming to recent events, like the peasant protest at Singur, we have had a very interesting development. First, a sizeable part of the mass media (not including The Statesman and the Bengali Dainik Statesman) has been supporting the ruling party and the government to such an extent that even honest reporting of news has been given a go by. Just like the CPI(M), these papers went on repeating that only outsiders were fomenting trouble. An English daily even sought to link up every issue in West Bengal with Singur. A train hijack was associated with Singur. And the responsibility for the violence in Singur was laid on the doors of Maoists coming from outside. As a matter of fact, the Chief Minister was even more explicit. According to him, these were Maoists from Jadavpur University. Yet, eyewitness accounts, police arrest lists, all show that in fact, most of the people were locals, and it was a massive police force that committed violence, entering peoples’ houses, often helped by local members or supporters of a particular party, and dragging out and beating up people. One woman, Swapna Banerjee of Nari Nirjatan Pratirodh Mancha, was arrested, and a widely circulated English daily promptly turned her into the key Maoist organiser. The police also treated her in the same way. So she was taken to the police lock up, and according to her own testimony, she was locked up inside the toilet. Even after the bail petition was granted by the Calcutta High Court, it took nearly 48 hours before she was released.
In another case, Abhishek Mukherjee, a young man who had suposedly attacked a Tata showroom, was charged with ‘Conspiracy Against the State’.
Just these few cases give an indication of the utter lawlessness of the police in West Bengal. If some minister or CPI(M) functionary turns up to say, as they are doing these days, that the police always behaves like this, we need to turn to the Chief Minister’s comments. We do not, at least according to the Constitution of India, live in a police state. We live in a democratic state, says the constitution. There is a rule of law, not a rule by the police, says the constitution. Every person is presumed innocent, till found guilty by a court of law, in a trial where proper procedures are followed and the accused have full rights to defend themselves. The elected government is supposed to represent the people, not rule it like a medieval ruler with his soldiers.
If our “Marxists” wish to show contempt for the constitution, we should pay heed to the attitude of Marx and Engels. Writing to August Bebel in 1874, Engels commented: a free state is one in which the state is free vis-a-vis its citizens, a state, that is, with a despotic government. So for Marx and Engels, the aim was to maximize democratic popular control over the state. As Marx put it about the same time: Freedom consists in converting the state from an organ superimposed upon society into one completely subordinate to it. And near the end of his life, Engels dotted the ‘i’s and crossed the ‘t’s when he explained that the dictatorship of the proletariat he and Marx had talked about was realised by the Paris Commune, which had an absolutely democratic, pluralistic, multi-party government, accountable to the people.
So what is Mr. Bhattacharjee arguing for? What are certain newspapers urging him to do? We can now put it down in simple terms. Mr. Bhattacharjee believes that if he wins elections, this gives him a mandate for riding roughshod over every oppositional viewpoint, emerging from all layers of society. He and his government are willing to allow people the right to protest if police have actually beaten a suspected thief to death. But for any matter relating to government policy, civil society protest will not be tolerated. First, it will be branded anti-development. Then there will be the charge of being ‘outsiders’. And finally terrorism related accusations would be brought forth. Once that is done, the police would have the right to apply any manner of brutality, without being challenged. For after all, the Chief Minster says criticising them when they are fighting terrorists will break their morale. And then they will shoot people in the back, claiming these were encounter deaths. This was how the Naxalite movement was broken in the early 1970s.
What the turncoats from Marxism and the liberal ex-professors of History do not seem to realise is the simple lesson of history, that once we create a police state, it does not stop with the “right” victims. When the Weimar Constitution, hailed as the most democratic of constitutions, was created, it left one loophole for emergency rule. This loophole would be used for years to rule without a parliamentary majority, further whittle down democratic rights, till that in turn paved the way for Hitler’s rise to power. The Maintenance of internal Security Act was originally brought forward by Mrs. Indira Gandhi ostensibly to fight Naxalites. In 1975, leaders and cadres of every opposition party realised that by not fighting tooth and nail against the MISA, they had created the situation where they too could be arrested and put under bars.
We can of course understand the motivations. Hailing from a Stalinist tradition, Mr. Bhattacharjee and his party are people who never recognised real right to dissent. They remain one of the few big political parties in the world that even today believes that the genocide (of communists, of peasants not willing to hand over land for collectivisation, of national minorities) carried out by Josef Stalin was really good, and it “built socialism”. So even when they give up socialism and opt for globalised capitalism, they have not changed their methodology.
As for that section of the media yelling for blood, we can understand their motives too. Liberalism comes in two basic forms, within which there has always been a contradiction. Political liberalism stresses civil liberties. Economic liberalism stresses the right of capital above all. If, to uphold that, political rights like civil liberties have to be jettisoned, so be it. Behind the seemingly proper words “counter-violence” lies the reality that the state is being asked to ignore all constitutional guarantees. We have, under the tender ministrations of Mr. Bhattacharjee, already slipped a long way down that road. Unless we act at once, the result will be terrible, not just for Maoists, but for all of us who value our democratic rights.