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Street Fighters of Bengal and the Vietnam Experience


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The unyielding campaigners against land acquisition say that opposing land acquisition is not necessarily an anti industry mind-set. See how our leader Mamata Banerjee always pronounces that she wants to see the cheery face of both the industrialists and farmers. Is it not possible to industrialize without acquiring farmland? Theoretically even the most intangible ideas can be proved as possible. So, industrialization without acquiring farmland is also possible.

But a practical problem cannot be argued or concluded upon with theory alone. In Bengal, 24% of its total land constitutes the urban-industrial sectors, 13% of it is forestland. Farmland constitutes 62%, while the fallow land is only 1%. From where will the required additional land for new industries come? Is it the first time that land is acquired for industry and development projects in Bengal? Back in time, when Bengal was a leading industrial state in India, huge tracts of land had been acquired for mammoth projects like Durgapur Steel Plant, Alloy Steel Plant, expansion of IISCO, DVC projects, Farrakka hydroelectric project and so on. These acquisitions were easy as it was acquired from absentee landlords who owned large amount of surplus land but were not the actual cultivator themselves. In 1978, the newly elected Left Front government launched Operation Barga and undertook land reform measures. For the first time, poor peasants were given cultivation rights to the land they toil. Land reform directly benefited the sharecroppers - the poorer sections of peasantry, specifically marginal and small farmers. Consequently the agriculture achieved a remarkable progress and growth which changed the rural scene of Bengal. Also rural poverty sharply declined as wages were increased significantly.

After thirty years, the rural economy has started to show signs of stagnation. Farmlands are constantly been fragmented due to division of property among generation next in the rural families. The cost of farming has also drastically increased. Thus, farming is generating lesser remunerative price. Day by day, the numbers of landless people are increasing among the farming families, those who have no option other than venturing into trades or employing themselves elsewhere. Depending only on farmland is therefore not a sensible idea even among the farmers who are found to regularly migrate in big cities for temporary jobs during off seasons. Saying so, the fact cannot be ignored that farmers have a deep sentimental attachment with their lands. Losing their dear land is not a minor matter for them. The campaigners against land acquisition have cleverly used this sentiment to score their narrow political points.

Keeping this scenario in mind where Bengal badly needs industries and development for new employment and income earning opportunities, voicing against any form of land acquisition - be it for industry, power project or roads is in other words, a direct impediment to the prospects of the future generation of the state.

For almost two and a half years, the anti land acquisition groups has spearheaded protests and a strong propaganda war to malign the industrialization initiative of the Buddhadev Bhattacharjee led LF government in the most obnoxious manner with the active support of a large section of prominent media groups. It had started in May 2008 at Singur, climbed to its peak at Nandigram, turned again towards Singur now and waiting to explode in the near future at Katwa, a district town of Bengal where land acquisition process will start soon for a 1,320-MW power plant. The principal force in all the protests is the Trinamul Congress lead rainbow coalition - the People's Secular Democratic Front and intellectuals christened by the self-proclaimed godfather of Bengali culture, Anandabazar Patrika (ABP) as ‘Sushil Samaj', a rather puny Bengali rendition of ‘Civil Society’. They are hence highlighted as the ‘good guys’ of the society resisting land grab policy of the WB government, precisely the neo liberal ‘Stalinist’ CPIM - the ‘bad guys’.

Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky in their book Manufacturing Consent have elaborately discussed how a systemic propaganda system can ‘manage’ public opinion. In their path breaking study of the American media, Herman and Chomsky have shown how the American media undertook the sacred task of manufacturing public consent to support and legitimize the American establishment's fictitious ‘fight for democracy’ crusade in truculent countries.

Similar in Bengal, the propaganda system is following a basic model of dividing the two participants of the conflict in black and white. The government and its main political party CPIM is ‘bad’ and the protesters are ‘good’. Therefore, when the government sends police to maintain law and order of an area it is stated as the ‘bad guys’ instigating ‘state terror’. When the protesters or the ‘good guys’ engage themselves in rampant carnage, forcefully evicting helpless villagers who are not supportive to them, it is called ‘spontaneous mass fury’. When a CPIM activist (an unworthy victim according to the propaganda model) is murdered, it's called ‘CPM goon is killed by the oppressed and angry villagers’. When an activist from the rainbow coalition (a worthy victim according to the propaganda model) is murdered, it is called ‘a poor peasant is killed by CPM goons’. The former will therefore not generate sustained coverage; the later will elicit a propaganda outburst. When a CPIM leader speaks for a ‘political battle', it is inflated as an atrocious war cry to persecute the democratic rights of common people. When a singer named Kabir Suman tempts people to kill three CPM everyday in public, it is taken as an emotional response to the ‘CPM atrocities’ by a socially conscious artist fighting for democratic rights.

The same activists were seen raising a slogan Amar naam tomar naam, Nandigram Nandigram (My name your name Nandigram Nandigram) in the streets of Kolkata on the days of the Nandigram hullabaloo. Medha Patkar became so glad hearing it that in her several media bites she referred to this slogan as a highly emotional expression by the concerned people of Bengal in solidarity with the ‘worthy victims’ of Nandigram. The ‘concerned’ people she was taking about had by that time marched in huge numbers by the call of the so called Sushil Samaj in a ‘historic’ rally at Kolkata. It was the same rally which had a starry frontal section, with a number of famous and ‘responsible’ Bengal intellectuals who were but totally disconnected from the rear end of the rally which was infiltrated by lumpen Trinamul supporters with vulgar placards and slogans. This slogan was a poor copy of the original Amar naam tomar naam, Vietnam Vietnam (My name your name Vietnam Vietnam), a truly historic slogan originated in the streets of seventies Calcutta in solidarity with the Vietnamese people, fighting against the brutal American troops. It could be concocted by one of the ‘Swajan’ intellectuals or radical Naxalites full of zip in Nandigram to reheat their sodden revolutionary spirits. Vietnam's fight is highly regarded as a great symbol of determined resistance against imperialism. No one can deny this fact. The name of Vietnam arouses high emotion within the hearts of the rice fed middle class Bengalis. Thus, by imitating the slogan the protesters thought to come close to the virtual reality of the Vietnamese heroic struggle.

A French colony from 1893, Vietnam was combined into a single territory with Cambodia and Laos by the French colonialists and together recognized as Indochina. In 1925, Ho Chi Minh founded the Indochinese Communist Party, spearheading movements against the colonial power. During the Second World War, when Vietnam came under Japanese possession, Ho Chi Minh established a communist-nationalist alliance known as the Viet Minh which supported the allied forces. In August 1945 after the Japanese defeat, Viet Minh took power in Vietnam and declared independence from French colonial control, naming the country Democratic Republic of Vietnam. Vietnam was the first country in Asia to achieve independence from colonial domination, even earlier than India. After the war, the French tried to force in with their colonial power and a new colonial war broke out. From the initial stage, the French war was sponsored by American government through a secret fund earmarked for Indochina. After the Viet Minh victory at Dien Bien Phu in 1954 the French were forced to move out after splitting Vietnam into two parts. North Vietnam became a communist state under Ho Chi Minh and South Vietnam turned into a French-backed republic. The American objective in Vietnam, as usual, was to prevent a Communist regime from consolidating its power in a country of strategic interests to them. In the pretext of restraining communism in South-East Asia the American military escalated its intervention against a legally constituted and legitimate government. In 1965, American army began bombing North Vietnam, and sending troops to assist the South. Under the communist leadership, the Vietnamese people fought a heroic battle against the gruesome and brutal American troops and by 1973 were victorious in driving out the already despondent Americans. After South Vietnam fell to the Viet Minh in 1975, North and South Vietnam officially reunited under the communist party leadership In June 1976 and was renamed Socialist Republic of Vietnam.

From 1975 to 1986 the new socialist government of Vietnam established a centrally planned economy and collectivized land ownership by a collective agriculture policy. Private business was not encouraged. From farmland to industries the state owned everything on behalf of its people. But in the mid-1980s, the farm collectivization policy failed badly which turned into an economic disaster for Vietnam. The state run enterprises were at a loss, food was rationed and the country was on the brink of a famine. 1.5 million tons of rice was imported as the country could not grow enough rice to feed their own people. Another reason of this deep crisis was the collapse of the Soviet Union; Vietnam's chief patron and aid donor. The doctrinaire approach to socialism was showing signs of a total collapse.

At this juncture, in 1986 the Vietnamese Communist Party in a historic shift announced a departure from its policy of central planning and collective agriculture and implemented a program of market socialism called Doi Moi (economic restructuring). The policy of Doi Moi consists of three interconnected fundamental points: a shift from a bureaucratically centrally planned economy to a multi-sector economy working under a market mechanism with state management and a socialist orientation; democratizing social life and building a legal state; implementing an open-door policy and promoting relations between Vietnam and all other countries in the world. One of the key reasons to this change was instigated by the baby boom in Vietnam after 1975 which has created an incredibly young population with an average age of just around 25. The need for the government and the party was to provide a secure future for these postwar baby-boomers when they come up into their prime.

Doi Moi took its time to show up the effects, but over the past few years economic liberalization has endorsed rapid, poverty-reducing growth for Vietnam. Over the past decade the country's annual growth has averaged 7.5 per cent. As remarked by ‘The Economist', Vietnam has become the darling of foreign investors and multinationals. New SEZs, industrial parks, software parks are coming up in huge numbers there. Obviously, these are not being built on sky but on acquired agricultural land. ‘The Economist’ also says that, “The success of Vietnam's economic transformation is often measured by the falling share of agriculture in the country's gross domestic product. Industry and services are indeed growing even faster than farming and absorbing its surplus labour. Agriculture, forestry and fisheries now provide barely half of all jobs in Vietnam, compared with over two-thirds only ten years ago. Even so, over 70% of the population still live in the countryside, so a successful rural economy will remain the key to maintaining Vietnam's impressive progress on cutting poverty. "

Did the Vietnam government under the leadership of the Vietnam Communist Party (VCP) ignore agriculture after adopting the liberalization policy? Absolutely not. Compared with the mid-1980s when the country was on the brink of famine today it has achieved an agricultural miracle and surpassed India to become the world's second-largest exporter of rice after Thailand. Vietnam is also one of the world's main providers of farm produce today. “Vietnam's farmers have become important competitors in all sorts of agricultural produce, from nuts to peppers to rubber. They are even selling tea to the Indians. Its fishermen and foresters are also doing well by feeding the world's growing demand for seafood and timber (though not always sustainably). Vietnam's exports of farm, forest and fisheries produce rose by 21% last year, to $12.5 billion, and further growth is expected. " Vietnam's economic progress contributed significant development projects in rural Vietnam. A vast electrification program has brought power supplies to more than 90% of Vietnamese homes. Nearly all children now go to lower secondary school and almost two-thirds of them continue to upper secondary level.

Bengal has many similarities with Vietnam. The land area of Vietnam and its population is almost the similar to Bengal. Also like Bengal, most of the population of Vietnam is occupied in agriculture. In both places the principal crop is rice. As Vietnam is self sufficient in food crops, Bengal has also emerged as the leading agricultural state of India in the production of rice, potatoes, fruits and vegetables.

There are also noticeable differences. First of course that Socialist Republic of Vietnam is a one-party state and Bengal is part of a multiparty Indian democracy. It can be argued that due to the authoritarian character Vietnam government can easily oppress the voice of the protesters while here in Bengal the protesters can stir up considerable resistance against the policies of the government and even stall them. There are other significant differences also. The Vietnamese people are practical and hardworking - ‘like a nation of bees buzzing inside a bottle, thrumming with repressed energy’. They are more concerned about their present and the future of their children but have not disregarded their past. In the contrary, Bengalis in Bengal are an indolent and emotional lot, happy to live in their romantic day dreams. They are stubborn lions in their homes but could amazingly amend themselves into a loyal, submissive and compromising kind outside their own milieu. Vietnam's heroic struggle evokes nostalgia in their minds because they have a romantic approach to the word ‘struggle’. They are delighted to walk blindfolded towards their disastrous future, guided by the stagnant dogmatic minds of their homebred theorists and activists, those who are still living in the Tebhaga peasant movement days. Professor Amartya Sen described it as “supplemented intellectually by the old physiocratic illusion of prosperity grounded only on agriculture". They have even hired stagnant minded advisers from outside the state to authenticate their hypothetical fears about the conflict between agriculture and industry as if their own set of contemptuous leaders was not sufficiently enough. In a classic case of paradox, they cherish the Vietnam experience of the seventies but ignore to look towards the Vietnam experience of today.


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