Violence on the Left: Nandigram and the Communists of West Bengal

AFTER A PERIOD of relative impotence, the Hindu-supremacist right in India has rebounded, with the December reelection of Bharatiya Janata Party candidate Narendra Modi as chief minister in Gujarat. Modi’s role in the mass murders of Muslims in that state in February 2002 has long been so well documented that he has been denied a visa to enter the United States. Recently, moreover, extensive corroboration of his role was elicited by a hidden-camera inquiry conducted by the news-magazine Tehelka. Despite overwhelming evidence that he is a mass murderer extraordinaire—or perhaps, because of it—Modi defied media predictions, and even exit polls, to win by a landslide, a victory in which fund-raising and politicking by Indians residing in the United States (40 percent of Indian Americans are Gujarati) played a large role. Because the rival Congress Party, which controls the central government in a coalition, understands well the intense hatred of Muslims that animates many Gujarati Hindus, leading politicians tiptoed around the issue of sectarian violence, hoping to defeat the BJP in Gujarat on its weak economic record. Only Sonia Gandhi, courageously and repeatedly, denounced Modi’s reign of blood. (American Gujaratis responded with an e-mail campaign denouncing Gandhi in abusive language.) Hitler is revered as a hero in school textbooks in Gujarat. In Modi, those who worship at that shrine seem to have found the type of leader they seek. Let’s hope that the nation as a whole does not embrace his charismatic call to hate.

Meanwhile, however, violence has been in the news from a very different part of the Indian political spectrum. People connected to the Communist government of West Bengal have been guilty of some extremely vile actions, including rape and murder, toward dissident peasants, in a struggle over land acquisition, and the government has done nothing to prevent these terrible things. This struggle has split the Indian left, between those who think that people on the left must maintain solidarity in the face of right-wing threats and those who insist on calling murder murder no matter who does it. It’s a conflict from which we can learn a lot, not only about Indian politics but also about what stance a contemporary left movement can reasonably and morally take on rural development issues.

West Bengal’s Communist Regime
Communist parties played a significant role after independence in two Indian states, West Bengal and Kerala, but they rose to power only in the late 1960s. The Communist Party of India split in 1964 over the Sino-Indian War. The party currently dominant in West Bengal, known as the CPI(M) (Communist Party of India, Marxist) backed China and initially opposed democratic nationalism. Nonetheless, despite grumbling about “bourgeois democracy,” the party gradually came to accept a nation-friendly parliamentary role, espousing democracy, if with less than wholehearted enth...

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The Kurds

[W]hen we refer to all Kurdish fighters synonymously, we simply blur the fact that they have very different politics. . . right now, yes, the people are facing the Islamic State threat, so it’s very important to have a unified focus. But the truth is, ideologically and politically these are very, very different systems. Actually almost opposite to each other. —Dilar Dirik, “Rojava vs. the World,” February 2015

The Kurds, who share ethnic and cultural similarities with Iranians and are mostly Muslim by religion (largely Sunni but with many minorities), have long struggled for self-determination. After World War I, their lands were divided up between Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Turkey. In Iran, though there have been small separatist movements, Kurds are mostly subjected to the same repressive treatment as everyone else (though they also face Persian and Shi’ite chauvinism, and a number of Kurdish political prisoners were recently executed). The situation is worse in Iraq, Syria, and Turkey, where the Kurds are a minority people subjected to ethnically targeted violations of human rights.  

Iraq: In 1986–89, Saddam Hussein conducted a genocidal campaign in which tens of thousands were murdered and thousands of Kurdish villages destroyed, including by bombing and chemical warfare. After the first Gulf War, the UN sought to establish a safe haven in parts of Kurdistan, and the United States and UK set up a no-fly zone. In 2003, the Kurdish peshmerga sided with the U.S.-led coalition against Saddam Hussein. In 2005, after a long struggle with Baghdad, the Iraqi Kurds won constitutional recognition of their autonomous region, and the Kurdistan Regional Government has since signed oil contracts with a number of Western oil companies as well as with Turkey. Iraqi Kurdistan has two main political parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), both clan-based and patriarchal.

Turkey: For much of its modern history, Turkey has pursued a policy of forced assimilation towards its minority peoples; this policy is particularly stringent in the case of the Kurds—until recently referred to as the “mountain Turks”—who make up 20 percent of the total population. The policy has included forced population transfers; a ban on use of the Kurdish language, costume, music, festivals, and names; and extreme repression of any attempt at resistance. Large revolts were suppressed in 1925, 1930, and 1938, and the repression escalated with the formation of the PKK as a national liberation party, resulting in civil war in the Kurdish region from 1984 to 1999.

Syria: Kurds make up perhaps 15 percent of the population and live mostly in the northeastern part of Syria. In 1962, after Syria was declared an Arab republic, a large number of Kurds were stripped of their citizenship and declared aliens, which made it impossible for them to get an education, jobs, or any public benefits. Their land was given to Arabs. The PYD was founded in 2003 and immediately banned; its members were jailed and murdered, and a Kurdish uprising in Qamishli was met with severe military violence by the regime. When the uprising against Bashar al Assad began as part of the Arab Spring, Kurds participated, but after 2012, when they captured Kobani from the Syrian army, they withdrew most of their energy from the war against Assad in order to set up a liberated area. For this reason, some other parts of the Syrian resistance consider them Assad’s allies. The Kurds in turn cite examples of discrimination against them within the opposition.