Historicising the Contemporary: Making Sense of Paribartan in Bengal

EPW, Vol - XLIX No. 3, January 18, 2014

Passive Revolution in West Bengal: 1977-2011 by Ranabir Samaddar (New Delhi: Sage Publications), 2013; pp XXV + 240, Rs. 650.

Ranabir Samaddar’s latest book is a valuable contribution to the rich literature analysing the causes and consequences of the collapse of the Left Front () government in West Bengal for two special reasons. One, being an anthology of essays and comments published in newspapers and periodicals between 1986 and 2012, it reads as a live running commentary on different dimensions and turning points of the rule, thereby providing the reader with a detailed historical context to the Paribartan, as the big change of 2011 is commonly called in Bengal. Secondly, by proposing to frame the contemporary history of Bengal in the problematic of passive revolution, the author starts up an interesting new thread of inquiry and argument.

Samaddar walks us through the highly interesting period (1977-2011) of change-stagnation-change with 43 chapters (originally published as so many articles/comments) thematically arranged under five sections. In the first two sections (“Capital, Labour and Politics” and “New Issues, New Perspectives”) he mostly dwells on the pre-2006 era of the rule. The third section (“Contentious Politics”) covers the Singur, Nandigram and Lalgarh episodes at length, while the fourth (“Messy Change”) traces the Trinamool Congress’ (TMC) trajectory to power and comments on the first year of the new regime. The author speaks about the continuity of an undying rebellious streak and the radical undercurrent prevailing in Bengal in the fifth section (“Perennial Themes”).

While each chapter deals with one specific episode or issue, the “Introduction” offers a generalised summing up and introduces the idea of passive revolution. This discussion is continued and concluded in the “Postscript” titled “The Epoch of Passive Revolution”.

The Left Front:

A Critical Survey

The main asset of the collection is a thoroughgoing critical survey it does of the long regime. In “A Decade of Strike by Capital”, the first essay in the first section, Samaddar examines the 1980s, when factories were closing down and “the unions and the State both remained mute witness to the onslaught on workers…. In fact, the unions often became part of a structure that resulted in managerial hegemony – just as the policies of the so-called pro-labour State government did” (p 4).

Indeed, the government did precisely nothing even when in a few cases workers themselves tried to run the factories. “The Tannery Workers of Tangra” presents a detailed micro-study of the history and working conditions of these workers – many of them from Bihar – their process of unionisation and their agenda of struggle in the face of absolute apathy of the government.

Samaddar also takes the government to task for its elitist urban policy. “Rajarhat – An Urban Dystopia” offers an excellent exposition on the history and topology of Rajarhat (a Kolkata suburb significantly named “New Town”) as a city built on the grave of a thriving agricultural community, through massive capture of wetlands, breakdown of a traditional drainage and waste management system, and, above all, destroying a fragile environment and an extremely low-cost subsistence economy, which used to provide, in turn, low-cost fish, vegetables, etc, to the metropolis of Kolkata.

In a couple of articles, the author exposes the myth of the so-called food security supposedly achieved under the LF rule. He recapitulates a series of militant protests against corrupt dealers of fair price shops in 2007, which resulted from the deprivation of the downtrodden. “Earlier in the same year”, he informs us, “an inquiry by the Union Government had found that only 10 percent of the rural poor were getting regular supplies [of subsidised food] in the remote villages of West Bengal” (p 134).

And, of course, there are a number of articles where he masterfully chronicles the agony and the ecstasy of the Singur and Nandigram movements. He explores the role and scope of the civil society movement, and the way popular politics of claim-making were finding newer avenues.

The focused discussion on particular lapses and fault lines is complemented by an insightful overview of the essential logic of the LF rule and the process of its inevitable collapse:

party substituted for society, local bosses working as local barons substituted for the party, party committees substituted for government’s intelligence wing, inviting speculative and comprador capital appeared as steps towards organic industrialisation of the state and protests began to be considered as conspiracies against Left rule.… Democracy came to signify stability in contrast with anarchy under Congress misrule. Old injustices were left unaddressed, again on the plea that a new age was coming and, hence, the state needed stability. The excluded must not protest too much, they must keep hope on stability, because if stability could be ensured, inclusion would be possible.… And stability meant stability of the party, of the party-led government and of the party led society. In this mire of stability vitality was soon lost (p xvi).

Samaddar is right on target when he asserts,

Endless attacks on jobs and complete surrender by the organised trade union movement to retrenchments, lay-offs, lock-outs and closures resulted in massive setback to workers’ movements with the Left Front government remaining a passive witness or a facilitator. Likewise, the panchayat big bosses at the district and subdivision level became corrupt wheeler-dealers. Prosperous farmers, men of substance and the rural gentry became the political class in the villages of Bengal. Student union bosses became parallel power centres extracting fees and other contributions, while teachers association bosses controlled recruitment of teachers at every level. Deals were negotiated through party functionaries. And when capping all these, land grab began, food production reached stagnation, destitute villagers started committing suicide, Left Front had no one to blame for the idea of good and clean government crashing down. It had only to blame itself (pp xviii-xix).

Exactly where lay the deep-running fault lines that enabled the high optimism of 1977 to degenerate into the bloodbath of Nandigram? What were the changes in the Communist Party of India (Marxist)’s (CPI(M)) party programme that accompanied and complemented the changes in the LF’s real life politics? Such questions remain unaddressed, yet the critique is reasonably comprehensive.

The ‘Mamata Phenomenon’

Compared to that, the assessment of the “Mamata phenomenon” and the TMC regime turns out to be rather superficial and ambivalent. This is not simply because the TMC and its government is a lesser-known quantity, but has to do with the author’s theoretical approach. In an interview recorded in October 2008, Samaddar asserts that by 1987 the rebellious spirit of Kolkata began to express itself “in the activism of Mamata” (p 227).

The partisan activities of the Congress (of which Mamata Banerjee remained a leader for another 10 years after 1987) – and later of the TMC – are thus prioritised over movements launched by the non-ruling left and other spontaneous agitations as the true vehicle of the vital spirit of the city. And he adds, in a very positive note, “Mamata may be seen as the true child of the left project on the soil of Bengal” (ibid). In a later article he takes a step ahead and quips: “While their [the reference is to the “main section of erstwhile Naxalites”] long efforts against the West Bengal rulers have now been usurped by Mamata, they do not see that their efforts have now borne fruit” (p 159).

Here, the analyst is wide off the mark. The main section of the communist revolutionaries launched mass movements against the government in the people’s interest and from a consistent left position. They correctly refused to see the replacement of a degenerated “left” government by a rightist highjacker in leftist garb as a fructification of their struggle, and they stand vindicated by subsequent developments.

After the installation of the new government, Samaddar welcomed the chief minister’s “travelling” and “dialogic” style of governance and expressed the hope that “the Bengal spring will continue” (pp 175-76). He was also generous with unsolicited advice. In an article titled “The Challenge of Building a Non-corporate Path of Development”, he presented before the chief minister a carefully thought-out seven-point agenda that started with thoroughgoing land reforms (pp 182-85). Surely, he would not have done this if it were a Congress or BJP government. Apparently, he believed that the TMC was capable of striking a mortal blow to the rural vested interests, and completing the unfinished agenda of land reform in West Bengal!

As is well known, such illusions were initially shared by a good many progressive, democratic and left-leaning intellectuals, artists, literary personalities and common people in West Bengal and beyond. But, soon, a large number of them woke up to the fact that an authoritarian regime had usurped the democratic space created by popular unrest and rejection of the government, and started complaining that the “change” has been only for the worse.

Not so Samaddar. He remained a prisoner of cautious optimism. When the new government started displaying its true colours in the three months after coming to power – when, parallel with pronouncements of “development and relief”, a massive paramilitary force was deployed in Lalgarh – he was shocked:

The government strangely thinks that relief and development measures can be enough. It also thinks that by inducting thousands of local youth into a local constabulary is a step towards peace. The Supreme Court judgement on 5 July on Salwa Judum or “Koya Commandos” should open our eyes about the dreadful consequences of raising such vigilante groups. Such a step can only increase killings (p 180).

What Samaddar failed to realise was that there was nothing strange about it. Banerjee was doing exactly what she was required to as the head of the party of order: enacting a mini Salwa Judum in West Bengal. Very soon all semblance of reaching out to the people of Jangal Mahal would be abandoned, the leader of the People’s Committee Against Police Atrocities, Chatradhar Mahato, would never come out of jail, and Maoist leader Kishenji who rooted for Mamata before the elections would be encircled and killed.

The drift continued. By the time the Mamata government completed one year in office, it had laid bare its right reactionary character in numerous ways. The post-paribartan regime was marked by frequent physical assaults on political opponents, peaceful protesters and rights activists; all kinds of extortions and hooliganism, including at educational institutions, were indulged in by the TMC cadre everywhere with impunity; a spate of rapes and instances of gender violence, coupled with police inaction, only produced patriarchal, sexist remarks from TMC ministers and public representatives and naked denial on Mamata’s part.

In addition, her long-nourished dream of turning Kolkata into London translated into evictions in Nonadanga (a Kolkata suburb) along with arrests of activists; on the issue of political prisoners, the TMC government went back on its promise; government employees and teachers who dared to join the all-India strike of 28 February 2012 were threatened and attacked; -style land-grab was resorted to in Loba (Birbhum district), and dismissal of farmer suicides and the agrarian crisis has continued. The list was almost endless.

And yet, after witnessing all this, Samaddar makes this final comment in May 2012. Conceding that complaints against the Mamata government are partly true, he hands out an explanation:

The government is learning by the ropes… when the lower classes come to power through electoral means and by a judicious combination of street politics and electoral mobilisation, they will take time to learn the art of governing (p 202).

Why such an apologetic tone? At a more fundamental level, on what basis does a social scientist of Ranabir Samaddar’s eminence glorify the TMC – which he calls elsewhere “a centrist populist party” (p 159) – as the agency thanks to which the lower classes are supposed to have finally come to power in West Bengal? In the “Postscript” he declares, “we shall need time and composure to find out if the present party of populism, the Trinamool, will irrevocably take the rightist way”. But was not the picture clear enough by the time these words were written?


The collected essays and comments do not provide us with a clean answer to such vital questions. Can we glean one from the theoretical exposition in the “Introduction”-“Postscript”continuum?

Here, the author characterises the entire period of 1977-2011 as an epoch/era of “passive revolution” (pp xxiv-xxv), and declares that this is an ongoing story of transition (p 234). He tells us that his project is to “take the cue from Antonio Gramsci” and “situate this understanding in the specific context of Bengal” (ibid).

Gramsci developed this concept by contrasting the history of the formation of the Italian nation state through the Risorgimento, with the French revolution, and expanded it to cover the modern history of Europe. Unlike the 1789, 1831 and 1848 bourgeois revolutions in France, which involved revolutionary mass participation from below, after the experience of the Paris Commune (1871) the bourgeoisie opted for a path in which the requirements of a capitalist social order would be satisfied by small doses, legally, in a reformist manner – in such a way that it was possible to preserve the political and economic position of the old feudal classes, to avoid agrarian reform, and, especially, to avoid the popular masses going through a period of political experience such as occurred in France.[1]

For Gramsci, passive revolution is, thus, a nuanced application of, and therefore a contribution to, the Marxist theory of classes and class struggle, state and revolution. Understood in this sense, the conceptual tool has been put to good use by some scholars in probing the history of modern India, notably by Partha Chatterjee in Nationalist Thought and the Colonial World (1986).

However, Samaddar’s treatment of passive revolution in Bengal lacks theoretical rigour and clarity, partly because the “Postscript”, which contains the exposition, is very brief and, rather than being grounded in the main body of the book, reads like a stand-alone theoretical note awaiting elucidation. The reader is, therefore, left asking: which class(es) or subclasses constitute(s) the hegemonic force propelling passive revolution in Bengal and trying to transform society in its own image? Or, is it simply the amorphous “lower classes” coming to power through electoral means (p 202) and the people practising “popular democracy in an epoch of passive revolution” (p 234)?

On one vital point, however, Samaddar is very clear and forthright. He presents passive revolution “as the other scene of radical politics” (p 231). Going ahead, he asserts, “The revolutionary possibility always haunts the passive present and torments it” (p xi), and declares that “the dialectic of revolution/passive revolution never dies” (p 234). This fits perfectly in the spirit of Gramsci, who had attempted to conceptualise a revival of the revolution in the West in a situation of passive revolution – a revival to be based on regeneration of mass activism going beyond the parliamentary framework. As Bengal awaits – better to say, staggers forward to – a more radical flare-up of this dialectic, we wait for further comments and theoretical perspectives on that future turning point/transition from this perceptive analyst.


1. Antonio Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks, p 119, translation by Quintin Hoare and G Nowell Smith (New York, International Publishers), 1971.

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