Singur Verdict Will Help Mamata Consolidate Her Position in Bengal

The Supreme Court's order returning land to the farmers comes at a time when the Trinamool Congress needed a political boost.

Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee celebrates the Supreme Court's verdict on Singur. Credit: PTI

Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee celebrates the Supreme Court’s verdict on Singur. Credit: PTI

New Delhi: In 2006, a fight by farmers in the agriculturally-rich Singur area of West Bengal set in motion a chain of events that would severely dent the Left Front which was then in power in the state.

At the invitation of the CPI(M)-led government, the Tata group had chosen this site out of the six it was offered, to manufacture its dream ‘1-lakh car’, which later came to be known as the Nano. Proximity to the national highway, easy access from the state capital, Kolkata, and abundant resources, made Singur a natural choice for the corporate giant. Riding on his comprehensive victory, the then chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharya, intent on industrialising the state, departed from his party’s state-backed economic model towards a market-driven development approach. The Left Front attributed this conspicuous shift to the state’s employment crisis and the consequent need to industrialise despite widespread criticisms it had to face from sections of the Left.

However, much to the shock of the Left Front, many of its staunch peasant supporters felt betrayed and turned against the CPI(M) soon after the state government ordered the acquisition of 997 acres of land in Singur for the Tatas. The agitating farmers found support from civil society and from many political quarters, chief among them being Mamata Banerjee, a member of parliament then, who was staring at political oblivion after the recent drubbing her party, Trinamool Congress (TMC), received at the hands of the Left Front. In the 2006 assembly elections, the Left Front had won with its biggest tally ever – 233 seats in a 294-member assembly – while the TMC and its allies had to contend themselves with only 30 seats.

The state government defended its decision by announcing its plan to turn the area into an automobile hub. While it claimed that much of the acquisition happened consensually, the farmers’ agitation kept growing, triggering a state-wide peasant movement that eventually led to the downfall of the 34-year-old, virtually invincible, Left Front government.

The Left’s blunder

In the years that followed, the state government used all the forces at its command to stem dissent – sometimes brutally. The decline of the Left prefigured Mamata Banerjee’s rise as the tallest leader of the peasant masses. Singur, and later agitations in the Muslim-dominated area of Nandigram over a much larger, state-supported land acquisition drive for a chemical hub by Indonesia’s Salem group, became the twin centres that sparked political change in Bengal.

With unprecedented numbers in the assembly, Buddhadeb Bhattacharya, in May 2006, had announced the acquisition of the Singur land. On May 18, Ratan Tata, chairman of the Tata Group, confirmed that the Nano would be manufactured in Singur. A week after, a bunch of farmers who were protesting were brutally beaten up by the police, sparking the farmers’ movement. Banerjee’s 26-day hunger strike that followed in December elevated her to the position of the only leader who could directly confront the state government on the issue. The Singur episode precipitated the Left Front and TMC’s bitter battle that continues to this day.

In January 2007, when the Tata group started setting up the plan amidst huge police protection, some agitating women torched the factory fencing. In March, a farmer committed suicide in protest against the forcible acquisition. Violent clashes between protesters, who had organised themselves under the Singur Krishi Jami Raksha Committee and the police followed throughout the year.

“Hundreds were severely injured in the police assault and 72 put behind bars. Women with small children were arrested under the Arms Act and/or charged with attempt to murder. Payel Bag, a two-and-a-half-year-old, spent four days in prison, along with two pre-teen boys. 26-year-old Rajkumar Bhul became the first martyr of the Singur struggle after he collapsed with severe internal hemorrhage from police beating,” Mainstream reported.

Eighteen-year-old Tapasi Malik’s brutal gangrape and murder by CPI(M) party workers polarised intellectuals, activists, artists, and a large section of the urban middle class in support of the protesting farmers, and eventually to the TMC, in the assembly elections that followed in 2011. Meanwhile, the Left Front government faced many legal challenges that questioned the ‘consensual’ nature of the acquisition. The courts ordered the state government to file a fresh affidavit to show how much of the land was acquired through force. The government, which was under tremendous pressure by then, had to agree that 30% of the land was acquired without consent and that it was obtained for a ‘public purpose’. Banerjee, on the other hand, kept claiming that around 400 acres of land was acquired through force – a substantial 40% – and has affected a majority of the population in Singur.

Caving in to this pressure, Tata Motors suspended work in September 2008 and announced that it is looking for alternative sites to relocate. In an unsuccessful bid to contain the agitation, the state government announced an improved compensation package for the land losers. However, within a month, Tata motors relocated to Sanand in Gujarat after an open invitation from the then Gujarat chief minister, Narendra Modi. Ratan Tata said that the plant could not work under constant police protection. The TMC and other democratic forces opposing the Left Front declared a victory for the agitating peasants.

Singur and TMC’s victory march

Mamata led her party to a stupendous victory in the assembly elections of 2011 with her  slogan Maa, Maati, Manush – Mother, Earth, People – that grew from the Singur agitation, underlying the centrality of the heavy-handed land acquisition efforts at Singur and Nandigram.

Immediately after taking over the reigns of the state, the Trinamool-dominated assembly passed the Singur Land Rehabilitation and Development Act, that allowed the state government to take back land from Tata Motors. When the state government took over the disputed land, the Tatas challenged the constitutionality of the law in the courts, following which the matter remained unresolved. Throughout her first term, Banerjee kept promising the public that her work would not be over until she returned the land to the Singur farmers.

Singur and adjoining areas, however, have solidly backed the TMC since the movement. TMC leader Rabindranath Bhattacharya has won the Singur seat three consecutive times. The party also roped in Becharam Manna, the convenor of the Singur Krishi Jami Raksha Committee. Manna is now a two-time MLA from the adjoining Haripal constituency.

Legal twists and turns

While the agitating farmers have finally won the legal war in the apex court, they had been at the receiving end at the lower courts. The first legal battle in January 2008 went in favour of the Tatas, when the Calcutta high court upheld the land acquisition in Singur. Dismissing a PIL against the company, the two-member bench that included the chief justice, Surinder Singh Nijjar, had said that the acquisition was for a “public purpose and it would lead to employment generation and socio-economic development of the area.”

With the aggressive posturing of the TMC government, the Tatas challenged the constitutionality of the rehabilitation law in the high court, which later refused to intervene. On Tata Motor’s appeal, the Supreme Court directed the TMC government not to return the land to farmers and asked the high court to settle the dispute. The hearing at the high court started in July 2011 under Justice I.P.Mukherjee, after another judge recused himself from the case.

In September 2011, Banerjee won an important victory when the Calcutta high court upheld the Singur Land Rehabilitation and Development Act, passed by her government, as ‘constitutional and valid.’ Justice I.P Mukherjee concluded the matter by effectively saying that it was within the sovereign right of the state to pass a law that allows it to redistribute land for public purpose.

However, hearing another case on the same issue, the court, in 2012, found the Act at variance with the Central Land Acquisition Act, 1884. Criticising the 2011 judgement of the single bench, the court said the bench should not have used the clause ‘purposive interpretation’ to rectify the ‘vagueness and uncertainties’ of the law. It also said that the government should have taken presidential assent for the bill. The decision came as a huge boost for the Tatas.

This judgment was finally overturned on August 31, 2016  when the Supreme Court declared that the acquisition in Singur was illegal and directed the state government to return the land to the farmers within 12 weeks. The decision gave Banerjee a much-needed boost in the current political context of Bengal.

Political ramifications

Despite securing a comfortable victory in the state, TMC has been reeling under constant charges of corruption against its top leaders. Banerjee, during the election campaign, was caught on the defensive over allegations of lumpenism in the party. The Supreme Court’s decision, therefore, has come as a major shot in the arm for her, even if it is a severe blow to the Tatas. Banerjee has found a great moment to consolidate the peasant masses, workers, and especially the urban intelligentsia which had rallied behind her during the Singur agitation, but has completely turned against her in the last five years. In a masterly stroke, she invoked the radical Bengali author, Mahashweta Devi and ‘others who made sacrifices’ for Singur in an interaction with the press just after the Supreme Court’s judgement. Devi, a revered figure among the intellectuals, died recently but had been one of the most vocal supporters of the farmers’ movement.

“Now I can die in peace,” said an elated Banerjee after the verdict. “This is a landmark victory… We have waited for this judgment for 10 years. This is a victory for the farmers, I expect everyone to celebrate this as ‘Singur utsav’. It is like an invocation for Durga puja celebrations,” Calling the Left Front government’s decision to acquire land forcibly in Singur “historical suicide”, she hit out at the CPI (M) which has been levelling charges of corruption and misrule against her.

While Banerjee has added yet another feather in her cap, the CPI (M) has been adamant in its erstwhile position on Singur even after the verdict. While ideologically, it is in not in a position to espouse a market-driven economic model, its leaders have not been in an apologetic mood.

The Left Front’s chief ministerial candidate in 2016, Surjya Kanta Mishra, in his response to the verdict, said, “We never opposed returning the land to [the farmers]. But today’s verdict has made the issue more complex. Now the question will be how the land will be returned and in what condition. What will happen to those who had taken the compensation and returned the land?”

Many of its leaders still stand by the the decision to acquire the land in the first place and have talked about the need to industrialise the state. “If we agree that there has to be some industrial development, then we must also ask ourselves where will the land come from,” a state-committee member of Bengal CPI(M) told The Wire.

Between this polarised fight between the CPI (M) and the TMC, the Supreme Court’s verdict has put the state BJP and the Congress in a curious position. The BJP, principally a supporter of a  market-driven economy and of easier land acquisition rules, had opposed the Left Front’s move but had been silent when Tata Motors shifted to Modi-ruled Gujarat. BJP state president Dilip Ghosh, therefore, cautiously responded to media queries. “The big question after the Supreme Court verdict is how is the TMC government is planning to return the land. Will the Tata factory be demolished?” he said.

In this political tug-of-war after the verdict, the Congress has been conspicuous by its absence. The Congress, which had been a vocal opponent of the Left Front government during the Singur movement and had allied with the TMC to form the government in 2011, had contested the 2016 polls as an ally of the Left Front. With 44 seats, it is also biggest opposition party in the assembly as the Left was reduced to a paltry 32 seats. Perhaps, this ironical unfolding of events explains the party’s silence.