Sunday, December 09, 2007

The fields of Nandigram

I have been following with concern in recent weeks the situation in the Indian state of West Bengal. Home to the world’s longest serving democratically elected communist government - the Communist Party of India Marxist (CPIM) - the region recently saw terrible state-sponsored violence last month in the form of a raid by Communist party cadres against the village of Nandigram, which resulted in the deaths of at least six people, the raping of several women, the burning of peasant homes and the flight of thousands of villagers into exile. This appalling display came about as a direct result of the CPIM’s desire to convert the Nandigram paddy fields to a special economic zone for an Indonesian-owned petrochemical complex.

Having reported on the brutal treatment of Haiti's peasants on that country's Maribahoux plain (evicted from some of the best farmland in the nation in 2002 to make way for a free-trade zone by the ostensibly-populist government of then-President Jean-Bertrand Aristide), it would seem that Nandigram would be yet another case of a self-appointed political elite professing progress on one hand while trampling on the rights of the very people - the poor- that they claim to advocate for with the other. The sympathies of thinking, democratic progressives like myself could rest nowhere else than with the villagers victimized by the CPIM government. Indeed, as my friend Dilip D'Souza pointed out in a recent blog posting, “sensible, responsible thinkers on the left are appalled by the crimes of Nandigram, exactly as sensible, responsible thinkers on the right were appalled by the crimes of Gujarat 2002.”

Such simple humanity evidently still manages to escape sector of the international left, though.

In an open letter in The Hindu portentously addressed “To Our Friends in Bengal,” a handful of Western-based “radical” intellectuals lectured, not for justice, but rather, for “reconciliation” between the victimized peasants and the CPIM government, as if victimized and victimizers were operating on a ground of moral equivalency.

“The balance of forces in the world is such that it would be impetuous to split the Left,” the letter lectured the families of the dead and the raped, and the Indian left as a whole. “We are faced with a world power that has demolished one state (Iraq) and is now threatening another (Iran). This is not the time for division when the basis of division no longer appears to exist.”

The letter’s signatories counted among their number the usual assortment of cause-du-jour affluent commentators on world affairs, all making comfortable livings for themselves adopting “radical” positions while making sure to steer well clear of the line of fire.

There was Michael Albert, the founder of the frothing internet publication ZNet. There was Tariq Ali, the lavishly wealthy political dabbler and unreadable author of bad poetry. And, of course, never one to be left out of a poorly thought-out social critique, there was Noam Chomsky, who apparently also likes to dip his toes in Indian regional politics when not waging campaigns against books he doesn’t like or lauding revisionist histories in the 1990s Balkan wars.

Again, my experience in Haiti taught me a little something about dealing with this current of thought, where “solidarity” becomes a byword for lack of transparency, lack of accountability and lack of debate about the best means to help poor people create a better life for themselves. Alas for Haiti, many of its most articulate progressive intellectuals write with proficiency only in French, thus often not being able to contribute in any expansive way to the debate of the fate of their country in the English-language media, while many genuine English-proficient progressives with knowledge of the country, through either fear of reprisal or lack of interest, remain silent. In India, however, the democratic left said “not so fast.”

Responding to Chomsky et al on the Nandigram missive, an open letter by a group of Indian progressives including Arundhati Roy, Mahashweta Devi and Sumit Sarka, patiently explained that the CPIM, in their view, “today is to stand for unbridled capitalist development, nuclear energy at the cost of both ecological concerns and mass displacement of people…and the Stalinist arrogance that the party knows what ‘the people’ need better than the people themselves.”

“Moreover” the letter went on. “The violence that has been perpetrated by CPIM cadres to browbeat the peasants into submission, including time-tested weapons like rape, demonstrate that this ‘Left’ shares little with the Left ideals that we cherish.”

The Chomsky et al signatories responded to this with another open letter, which appeared to backtrack a bit from the initial, unequivocal call for unity, but this was not quite enough for Sumit Sarkar, who, in the pages of The Guardian, took the signatories of the initial letter to task for their authors had an "ignorance of what is happening in India. They have no idea of the on-the-ground facts."

As a progressive committed to trying to create a more just, equitable, healthy and humane planet, I was heartened to see the vigorousness with which India’s progressives responded to the attempted hijacking of the dialogue on the Nandigram debate on the world stage by a powerful self-fashioned intellectual elite, epitomized by the signatories of the initial letter. With genuine solidarity with oppressed peoples, with vigorous on-the-ground investigative reporting and with a continuing engagement in bringing the voices of the disenfranchised to the attention of a world where strident currents of both the left and the right have vested economic interests in ignoring them, I believe that, in time, the peasants of Nandigram, like the peasants of Maribahoux, may at long last see justice, and a government that genuinely represents and responds to the needs of its long-suffering people.


Anonymous said...

Harsh but fair. You obviously like a challenge.

Michael Deibert said...

You don't know the half of it.

George Orwell said in his preface to Animal Farm, a book that got him mercilessly vilified by the British left for daring to mock the Stalinist Soviet Union, that “if liberty means anything at all it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear."

He was quite right, in my view.

Anonymous said...

Well, I'm not that optimistic as you're in your concluding remarks. Nandigram will be conveniently forgotten, as Order is being restored and Justice implemented.
And No, we're not Winston Smiths, nor are we meant to be— for there are no cherry trees here, and no jails and detention camps for forcing us to love our big and small brothers. We do that willingly. :)

And the corpses of the dead rot inside the earth in silence. Perhaps they'll speak, surely they'll speak, but no, not to Madam Justice.

Azza said...

Hi Michel
I'm admirer of your work and am awaiting shipping from the States of your Haiti book. I was there in September and published this piece on rape and women's rights in Haiti a couple of weeks ago in the Observer (UK) - it got virtually no attention whatsoever, sadly... Here's a link,,2218356,00.html
With respect
Alex Renton

Michael Deibert said...

To Radical Hypocrite: I hope that the suffering of Nandigram, like that of Gujarat, and like that of Haiti, is not forgotten, and I will do my able best to make sure that it is not. It is sometimes hard not to give up hope when faced with all the terrible machinery of state, of power, of financial interest, but I feel that too much is at stake, people's lives in a very real sense, to give up the fight quite just yet.

To Alex: Thank you for the compliment. I remember seeing your piece when it came out, and was glad that the Observer was willing to run such a long report on sexual violence in Haiti, and give so much space to the voices of actual Haitians to express their opinions.

I spent many days in Cité Soleil between 2001 and 2004, and got to know something of the people and their lives there, both the ordinary pastors, teachers and market women and also the leaders of the armed factions, many hardly more than young boys, and almost all since slain in Haiti’s terrible fratricidal political wars. I write extensively about the people of Cité Soleil and other, often little-visited, corners of Haiti and their plight in my book, Notes from the Last Testament: The Struggle for Haiti, which I hope you like, and also in this Op-Ed “Ballots instead of bullets,” which appeared in New York Newsday in November 2005:

I hope that you have a chance to visit Haiti again.

Best wishes,

Michael Deibert

Michael Deibert said...

The URL didn't take for some reason, here it is:

Ballots instead of bullets?
Posté le: lundi 7 novembre 2005


Newsday Inc.

When Jacques Roche's body was found on a road in Haiti's capital of Port-au-Prince in July -- his wrists handcuffed, his arms broken and the coup de grace having been administered with a bullet to the head -- one of that nation's best-known journalists had become only the most high-profile victim of a grinding march of violence that has claimed some 800 lives in the past year.

Roche, an editor at the newspaper Le Matin, had worked extensively to protest the brutal treatment of Haiti's peasants on the country's Maribahoux plain, who were evicted from some of the best farmland in the nation in 2002 to make way for a free-trade zone by the government of then-President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

Following Aristide's ouster by formerly loyal street gangs and members of Haiti's disbanded military, Roche hosted a television program where members of political parties and civil society groups -- frequently including members of a civil coalition that helped drive Aristide from power -- would discuss the issues of the day. He was exactly the kind of well-meaning person, intent on furthering a peaceful civil society, that Haiti needs. Those needs will be further explored in presidential and legislative elections next month.

When accusations of blame for Roche's killing pointed to gangs from the capital's impoverished Bel Air district, a hotbed of support for the former president, and several defectors from Aristide's political party charged publicly that the former president is orchestrating the violence from exile in South Africa, a painful sense of the inevitable descended upon me.

When I had arrived in Haiti in 1997, I found a country midway through the presidency of Rene Preval, the only president in its history to serve out his full term in office and oversee the transfer of power to an elected successor. Given little respect by a recalcitrant parliamentary opposition, often treated with disdain by the international community and undermined by Aristide himself (who formed his Fanmi Lavalas political party the year I arrived), Preval looked moderate and progressive compared to what followed. The Preval administration worked well in tandem with international development organizations. Haiti began the process of integration into the regional Caribbean Community and Common Market, and huge strides were made in professionalizing a police force that had been merely another wing of repression during the tenure of Haiti's army, disbanded by Aristide in 1995.

All of that came to an end with Aristide's re-inauguration in 2001. The president, once a priest in a Port-au-Prince slum, had first been elected in 1990, only to be ousted in a coup seven months later. Returned by a force of international troops in 1994, Aristide seemed determined not to let history repeat itself. But he became a mirror of the dictators that many hoped his election would drive from office.

On my frequent visits to the capital's sprawling Cité Soleil district, where more than 250,000 people exist in conditions of deprivation and squalor that can only be described as criminal, I watched as young men were armed by a now-politicized police force. Aristide had filled the force with cronies and some of the most notorious members of the military he had disbanded less than a decade earlier.

Helped to weapons and ammunition by individuals such as Hermione Leonard, then police director for the region around Haiti's capital, reporting to the president, these young men with names like Labanye (Banner), Kolobri (Hummingbird), Tupac and Billy -- who long had been excluded from Haiti's political process -- were given the honor of meeting with Aristide at Haiti's National Palace. They were promised that help would come to their community if they attacked opposition demonstrations.

I often asked why they would defend a government that seemed to have done so little. On the contrary, they often said, would any other government in Haiti have even acknowledged their existence, let alone invited them to the palace? But in darker moments, they would confess that they felt they would be killed by the police if they did not do the government's bidding.

With presidential and legislative elections now scheduled for mid-December following two postponements, the question of whether these gangs feel they have a stake in the process will determine how fairly voting in the capital will proceed. With the Lavalas movement split into two camps -- one backing Preval, who is running for re-election, and one backing former World Bank official Marc Bazin -- and thousands registering in Cité Soleil and Bel Air, the signs are guardedly hopeful.

Far from being the simple thugs they were often depicted as, these gunmen could have represented a youth movement to help turn the nation around. But their legions were blurred with those of hard-core criminals, and it was people like Jacques Roche who paid the price.