On 14 September 2016, in Singur, West Bengal, a triumphant Mamata Banerjee, the chief minister of the state and the chief of the Trinamool Congress, occupied a make-shift stage measuring around 4,000 square metres. The historical significance of the spot on which Banerjee stood, located on the Durgapur Express highway opposite a now-defunct Tata Motors factory, was hard to miss. It was on this very site, a decade ago, that she had protested the heavy-handed manner in which land had been acquired for the Tata factory under the watch of the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M), a major constituent of the Left front, which was then in power in Bengal. Now, Banerjee was here to return 9,117 land records to farmers and compensate 800 peasants from whom land had been taken forcibly. She declared that 14 September would henceforth be celebrated as Singur Dibas. “I had made a promise and have been able to keep it. This is our biggest victory,” she said.
Banerjee’s jubilation was well-founded. On 31 August, a two-judge bench of the Supreme Court justices Gopala Gowda and Arun Kumar Mishra deemed that the acquisition of land for the Tata Motors’ project was “illegal,” stating that it had been carried out without following the correct procedures. Gowda and Mishra also directed the current state government to take back the land from the company and hand it back to farmers within 12 weeks. Banerjee, who, as the leader of opposition, had taken over the farmers’ movement against the acquisition in 2006, could not have asked for more. The Supreme Court verdict vindicated her, both politically and morally. “This is a victory of the poor people who fought for their land and home,” she said after the verdict was announced. Alluding to her party’s role in the protests, she continued, “This is also our victory because we fought for them and stood by them during their worst days.” Partha Chatterjee, the education minister of West Bengal, went a step further and suggested that the Singur agitiation be included in school text-books without further delay. Soon after the verdict was announced, Chatterjee reportedly said, “If incidents like Jallianwala Bagh massacre or Sepoy mutiny can be included in the syllabus then why not Singur movement? It is a movement where farmers have fought for their cause and despite all adversities they have been victorious at the end. The students should know all about this.” Subsequently, the state education department sent the syllabus committee of Bengal a proposal to this effect. The committee hasreportedly approved this inclusion and is currently working on finalising the details.
For the Left, which once boasted of Bengal as its strongest citadel in India, this judgment is the second blow it has been dealt in the state in recent times.
First came a humiliating defeat at the state assembly elections held earlier this year. The CPI-M, which won a meagre 26 of the 294 seats in the Bengal assembly, found it difficult to explain why it had won less seats than its ally, the Congress. The “Bengal line” of a Left-Congress alliance, which the state’s CPI-M leaders had fought so hard for, was a disappointment. (The Bengal line of the CPI-M argues for a broader coalition of the Left and secular parties, as opposed to the “Karat line” of equidistance from both the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Congress.)
The electoral loss also exposed fault lines within the party. Leaders such as Prakash Karat, the former general secretary of the CPI-M, who had opposed the alliance, were proven right. Those who had strongly pitched in favour of it, such as Biman Bose, the former general secretary of the CPI-M in Bengal, and Surjya Kanta Mishra, now the state secretary of the CPI-M, appeared to have made an error of judgment. Five years after it was ousted from power in Bengal for the first time in 33 years, the Left is bereft of any meaningful leadership: its rank and file are demoralised by the TMC’s relentless attacks and its heft in national politics is at an all-time low.