Four years back, they beat us at Beeleghata. Five years back, they beat us at Tolly's Nullah. Few were there to fight. That is why this time they dared so much at Singur. I wrote this statement for ICS, of which I was then a member. We need to go back and look anew at the old battles.
Stalinists Observe Human Rights Day by Fighting for Neoliberal Policies
(Statement of the West Bengal Committee, Inquilabi Communist Sangathan, Indian Section of the Fourth International)
On 10th December, 2002, on the day observed annually as Human Rights Day, police in Calcutta unleashed brutality on shanty dwellers in the Beliaghata Canal area. A large number of people were evicted from the only homes they had ever known, for the crime of being “illegal squatters”, in a country where a huge number of people live below the poverty line and where the idea of a room of one’s own is a distant dream for most men and women. Protesters were beaten up, and over a hundred were arrested, including Sujato Bhadra, former General Secretary of the Association for the Protection of Democratic Rights, West Bengal, Shaktiman Ghosh of the Hawkers Sangram Committee, and Pranab Bandyopadhyay, veteran Gandhian and local community activist. Subsequently, the shanties were set on fire.
For the last half a decade, the neoliberal turn of the ruling combine in West Bengal, the Left Front, has been steadily deepening. They have not given up their authoritarian mould learnt from Stalin (the CPI( M), the major partner, remains one of the world’s most fervent admirers of Stalin, going to the extent of defending the mass murders of the 1930s), while adding to it a sustained commitment to neoliberalism. As, for them, a top-down bureaucratic control had been synonymous with socialism, the failure of that bureaucratic dictatorship compelled these rudderless leftists to an open accommodation with the most acute capitalist counter-offensive. West Bengal Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee explained that his party was opposed to globalisation only insofar as a handful of countries benefited from it. So as long as the capitalists of India also make a killing, it is good.
However, the left front has a distinct vote bank, and therefore requires a different discourse. It has to proclaim that all its policies are for the majority. It boasts that it has a government of a different kind. It even claims that it is opposed to unwarranted evictions of toiling people, and asks people to remember how Sanjay Gandhi and Jagmohan had evicted people from the Turkoman Gate area during the Emergency of 1975-77. Since a series of its own measures nowadays are palpably anti-poor, anti-working class, it needs redefining what being for the people means. Development is the key word. In the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, development used to mean creation of new jobs, setting up new schools, public health care systems, and so on. Now, the word has been entirely emptied of the old meanings in even the most reformist and moderate forms. What does the improved Left Front mean by development? When pavement hawkers were removed, with payloaders smashing their stalls and the cops seizing their goods, a government utterly incapable of providing jobs to people, declared that urban development and beautification was the goal. The meaning became clear soon enough. In order to enable motor manufacturers to sell more cars, shiny new flyovers, built with money loaned by Japanese and other funding agencies, started coming up. At the same time, tram services were reduced, and kept in archaic forms of the pre-independence era rather than being modernised. This, despite the evidence that they provide a cheap and environmentally safe mass transport alternative, and that increasingly they have become important across Europe. In fact, it is part of the acceptance of the globalisation agenda, that instead of improving public transport systems, the government has gone in a big way for the development of conditions facilitating the sale of more and more cars.
The partially successful eviction of hawkers was followed by yet another development discourse – this time targeting shanty dwellers along some 11 canals in and around Calcutta. The first attack in 2001 threw out settlers along the Tolly Nullah. A year later, a People’s Commission On Eviction and Displacement, heard about the evictions and issued its Interim Report. The Commission consisted of Justice R. Sachar (retired) Chairman, Justice Moloy Sengupta (retired), Pijush Som, Dunu Roy, Maitreyi Chatterjee, Samar Bagchi, Sanjay Parikh, Colin Gonzalves and Monideep Chatterjee. The Commission report stated that : “In all the cases investigated, the commission found that it was the poorest of the poor who were the victims of demolition/displacement. The commission was shocked to find the residents of the rail bridge at Tollygunge living under railway platform, in extremely inhuman conditions like rats in their holes, with the fear of being crushed by a train at any time. They have been living animal-like existence for decades, it is extremely distressing that the government has not paid any attention to their pitiable condition. Similarly, those at Beliaghata (canal side) were living in an area completely unfit for human habitation. Most of the persons evicted were either rickshaw pullers, domestic workers, casual labourers, tribals, fishermen, and self employed persons. A large number were scheduled caste and scheduled tribe. We found their family income before demolition very low, and most often, below the minimum wage. After demolition their families shall become utterly destitute”.
Concerning the citizens’ right to information, the Commission noted: “Article 19(i)(a) of the constitution of India speaks of freedom of speech and expression. This has been interpreted to include the right to receive information – the right to know. And yet we have found not only in this case, but in all the cases of eviction and displacement, that as far as the government of West Bengal is concerned, they appear to have a right to hide the truth from the public. The West Bengal government officials appear to go out of their way not only to keep all information relating to their development plans top secret, but in fact, they do worse, and deliberately mislead the public as to their intent. This point was forcefully stressed by Mitul Dhar, one of the deponents before the commission.”
Concerning rehabilitation, the findings of the commission began with the damning indictment that: “The simple principle of rehabilitation which is required to be followed is: ensure requisite rehabilitation at the new place before displacing a person and uprooting him from his traditional roots. The people are questioning as to why the brunt of development is borne by the suffering displaced persons who are not benefited by such developmental activities. This commission therefore makes a strong appeal to the government to follow a policy on rehabilitation before displacing the poor”.
The Commission also found that the use of force had been massive: “In all cases we found extreme force being used against the civilian population. In this respect, a comparison with the British police may be in order. There is absolutely no attempt made to carry out the evictions with even a trace of humanity. It is obvious that in the contemplation of government, the poor figure lower in the ranking order than animals, and perhaps even lower than garbage. Bulldozers were invariably used, a large police force with lathis and guns were invariably on sight. The Rapid Action Force was used in the Tolly Nullah eviction. Lathi charges were common. The demolition of houses with people inside was reported. Eviction at gun point was reported.”
These were some of the interim recommendations of the Commission:
1. The persons proposed to be evicted should be given full information and consulted well in advance in respect of whether the eviction is necessary at all, and if necessary the framing of the rehabilitation scheme necessary and the manner and mode of shifting.
2. Resettlement is a result of development projects. These development projects, as well as the rehabilitation schemes, must flow from the right to life and livelihood.
3. In all cases, it should be the responsibility of the state not to shift people and, as far as possible, to integrate peoples' housing in the very place where they are staying according to a scheme.
4. In cases where it is unavoidable that people be shifted, the new site ought to be as close as possible to the original site. Adequate time should be given for a transition to the new site. The entire scheme should be planned in consultation with the people. Adequate finance should be made available including finances for shifting people and the cost of construction.
5. In no circumstances should the shifting be done in bad weather.
6. The state should avoid in all cases, the use of force. This is unacceptable in a democratic state.
7. Refugees living in the country for decades have to be treated like human beings and be rehabilitated in a humanitarian manner.
Quite clearly, Minister for Urban Development Ashok Bhattacharyya and his boss, the patron of arts, Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, found this a joke. So flagrantly violating all norms of humane behaviour, ignoring the UN Commission on Human Rights, 54th Conference principles, as well as the “National Policy On Resettlement And Rehabilitation,” 1998, they have proceeded to evict people without any alternatives being provided. They have denied that the government has any duty whatsoever to provide for any living space for these people, since they are illegal occupants. Possibly, their first illegality was to be born at all, since they cannot afford to live in the Brave New World of privatization, increasingly expensive housing and transportation, to say nothing of food costs, being brokered by Bhattacharjee as the way to development.
It was symbolic, that the Left Front Government chose 10th December as the latest date. It sent out a message that the squatters and such other people do not merit human treatment. It is for the oppressed to draw the necessary conclusions. Once again, many had hoped that the government would relent and either provide alternative space, or stop the eviction. Others had placed their hopes on the Trinamool Congress of Ms. Mamata Bandyopadhyay, or on lesser Left Front parties like the Forward Bloc, CPI and the RSP. They must now recognize that in fact, none of these parties will really fight. In a political system where parties contest for votes, it is important for Ms. Banerjee to show an apparent pro-poor stance while she is out of power. But she will not fight. She was conveniently in a hospital, and the rest of her party was marked by its absence. Indeed, the Mayor of the Kolkata Municipal Corporation is a leader of her party and he has strongly supported the evictions. As for the FB, CPI and the RSP, while they were concerned with their local bases, they are even more concerned with their ministerial berths. They know quite well that none of their parties are going to wage a fight for a break with capitalism, so why risk cabinet berths for issues where the mind of capital is clearly made up? The only way ahead is to build organizations of the different oppressed groups, and to begin the process of linking these up, as well as to fight within the organized labour movement for a turn to active solidarity with all such marginalized groups of people.
· Stop all further evictions.
· Immediate rehabilitation as well as payment of compensation to all the evicted people without looking at issues of whether they were “legal” squatters.
· Resist neoliberal globalisation.
· Oppose capitalism and all parties serving the capitalist class.
· Build organizations of the oppressed.