Listen to the Decentralised Voice

March 21, 2007

Source : Somnath Mukherji in The Statesman. The author is an electrical engineer based in Boston, and works with AID.

There are certainly reasons for celebrating the 59 years of India’s existence as a sovereign republic. During the period, the state has become for-development, for-growth, for-industrialisation ~ the only attribute it needs to acquire is for-people, specifically the poor.

Getting a passport has become easier, getting in and out of the airports smoother, driving on the highways faster, setting up industries in special enclaves with tax-holidays easier ~ only the existence of the small farmers seems to be getting harder.
State repression in India is happening with such frequency that a new incident emerges before the anniversary of the previous one can be mourned. A pro-development State which is turning increasingly anti-people seems to have become an end in itself.
In a period marked by the aggressive advent of neo-liberal marketisation, when economism has become the organising principle of society rather than a more diverse and complex core of human good, the states of the developing world have become foot-soldiers in clearing the way for the advent of the global capital and the accompanying homogenising forces.

In this post-modern role, somewhat reminiscent of the heads of princely states in pre-colonial India, the states at once appear invincible to the masses and vulnerable to the whims of the global capital.

In West Bengal’s recent experience in Singur and Nandigram, the State has vociferously guarded the interest of the Tatas and the Salim Group, while coming down heavily on the people. Sustainability is not built into the logic of the market. In fact, it is antithetical to it, for, sustainability and constant growth of wealth are irreconcilable. Hence, no weight is assigned by the market to the sustainable component of non-corporatised agriculture, let alone the socio-cultural moorings of the people to it. In its commodified state, land begets the highest return on investment from real-estate and development of industries. As the usher of the global market, the State incentivises (read subsidises) powerful corporate interests and sympathises with its compulsions.

Special Economic Zones (SEZs) are enclaves where the obligations of corporations as entities operating in a democratic set-up are diluted: tax holidays, breaks from labour laws, and subsidies on basic utilities such as water and electricity that the rest of the country craves for. How such iniquitous structures can bring about social and distributive justice remains an enigma.

Violence is a necessary component of the development paradigm that we seem to have embarked upon. Incongruous local fabrics have to be ripped up and reset, to be re-stitched into the grid of the global, homogenised mesh where controls are passed to far off centres.

Since the State monopolises on violence, it becomes the most suitable actor to uproot the existing structures. While the violence in Singur was unleashed directly by the police, Nandigram experienced the brunt from the strong bulwark of the State-party nexus. It is this collusion that bolsters the spirits of party leaders such as Benoy Konar to declare brazenly to resort to violence in “self-defence”. The police have always encountered the countryside in general and the marginalised in particular, as a breach of law rather than a citizenry to be protected.

From Nitahari and Muktsar, to Kherlanji and Nandigram, the apathy of the police verges on complicity. The rapidity of the Rapid Action Force (RAF) comes into question in light of the fact that it took them six lives before arriving on site at Nandigram. This is in sharp contrast to the alacrity with which the police arrested Medha Patkar on the morning of 10 January. Can one visualise the police coming to the aid of lungi-clad men in pockmarked vests and bare feet women with veils covering the vermillon in their hair?

By its action in Singur and its inaction in Nandigram the police have articulated its role as an enforcer of the State’s will and not the protector of the masses and the law. All available political space in Bengal has been taken up by the electoral interests in general and the Left Front in particular. In the cacophony of the disorganised Opposition and the well-rehearsed voice of the CPI-M, the diverse and ardent voices of the people and their movements are drowned.

Whether it is against the hanging of Saddam Hussein or the opposition to the land grab in Singur or the eviction of squatters in Dhakuria, opinions are monopolised by the parties and to the rest of the urban elite, it assumes a nuisance value of traffic snarls and lost revenue due to rallies and strikes. Tuning our perceptions to the party voices had deafened us to the voices from the grassroots.

Mapping peoples’ movements and resistance in a framework of party politics amounts to the cooptation and hijacking of their voices. The thunder of an organic people’s resistance like Singur was stolen by Mamata Banerjee’s fasting in Kolkata, while the fasting of several women in Singur went unnoticed. Though there might be tacit support from political parties, organic peoples’ movements will not exhibit any congenital adherence to the political ideologies of the Left-Right spectrum. Singur and Nandigram demonstrate a clear break of social movements from Left politics. In Nandigram, as in Singur, the State has repeatedly pointed fingers at the involvement of the “outsiders” in the form of extreme-Left and extreme-Right elements in fomenting trouble, with the aim of delegitimising and discrediting a genuine people’s resistance.

Even if there were some truth to the allegations, these rural communities are not centres of passivity bereft of inherent intelligence, waiting to be instigated and mobilised by external forces. The pre-dominance of women in both the resistance in Singur and Nandigram are indicators of the grounded and local nature of the movements. It is worth noting that, while the farmers’ voices opposing the land grab were expressed in the localities of Singur, their purported demand for rapid industrialisation was heard only at a rally in Brigade Parade Ground in Kolkata.

It is relatively easy to decipher the decentralised local voice of the people from that articulated by the party ~ only if we listened.
The resistance in Singur and Nandigram are genuine articulation of the people’s voices ~ an expression of the extraordinary resilience of ordinary people; a rejection of the sub-ordinary solutions by the “extraordinary”elite in power; a subaltern vocalisation that refuses to be captured in the framework of Left-Right politics of power and hence does not register in the minds fed by the media. Such voices are not only legitimate but have historically tempered the totalitarian tendencies of the colonial and post-colonial State.

These vocalised aspirations are not anti-development, backward, stagnant or regressive. Instead, they aspire for change and progress that is contextually sensitive to the culture, society and ecology ~ a development which is not captured by the market calculus of the metropolitan elite. Built into the logic of these developmental aspirations are sustainability, eco-sensitivity, non-violence and a strong desire to maintain diversity, drawn from the bedrock of civilisational values, without the need for centralised institutions and heavy capital and technological inputs. These voices could thrive ~ if only we created space for them. Societies running on the guide-rails of free market and technology can barely be expected to come up with holistic, equitable and non-violent solutions, for, empirical reality spans a much wider spectrum.

Technological solutions for global warming coming out of industrialised nations are merely shifting costs from one sphere to the other ~ from air to land (carbon sequestration), from the “North” to “South” (off-shoring polluting industries), from the visible to invisible (burying toxic waste). Even the effects of these shifts are nullified by the economy of scales. A holistic view of the empirical reality is obscured by an overly specialised knowledge system and a homogenised mental landscape.

Perhaps, the secret to more humanistic models of development would emanate from making space for the articulation of these grassroots aspirations by holding the centralising and homogenising tendencies of the present development paradigm at bay.

Amongst other things, rural and non-consumerist societies maintain an organic link to their past which can at times prove to be a treasure trove for time-tested and evolved ideas. There is no dearth of these voices in India, unfortunately, they get trapped in constant reverberations in the chasms of the rural-urban and the have-have not divides. We could still hear them ~ if only we listened.