//A Sense of Humiliation : Ashok Mitra

A Sense of Humiliation : Ashok Mitra

Telegraph India , 2 Feb 2007, Ashok Mitra

Why the bhoomi puja in Singur is such a great let-down

This piece is being written not from anger. It is occasioned by sorrow, despondency and, one must add, a sense of humiliation.

Like a bad coin, the Tata small car project in Singur, in the district of Hooghly in West Bengal, keeps turning up in the news. Controversies continue to rage over the procedure of acquiring land for the purpose of setting up the plant, the justness or otherwise of the amount of compensation paid for the individual holdings taken over, the terms negotiated by the state government with the Tatas concerning the fate of those displaced from the land and, finally, whether the re-industrialization of West Bengal would have to be entirely dependent on the magnanimity of those who had de-industrialized it in the first place, the state filling the role of only a complaisant spectator.

These controversies need not detain us at this moment. What however does is a curious event that took place in Singur on January 21 last. On that day, a bhoomi puja was arranged there to signal the start of the small car project. It is not altogether clear who sponsored the ceremony. The corporate group of the Tatas is dominated by members of the Parsi community; it would be somewhat extraordinary on their part to organize a Hindu ritual as an integral part of any of their enterprises. Research concerning the matter has not progressed very far; what would be interesting to know is whether, in the course of the past one century of their being around, the Tatas ever commenced the operations of a project with the observation of the quintessentially Hindu religious observance, bhoomi puja.

There is something of more serious import. According to statements made by spokesmen of the state government, the 997 acres of land on which the project is supposed to come up have been acquired by the state on behalf of the West Bengal Industrial Development Corporation. The entire land is supposed to continue to be in the possession of the corporation; the Tatas are merely being offered the privilege of establishing the factory on its expanse. Were the Tatas keen to have a bhoomi puja, it should therefore have been obligatory on their part to seek the formal approval of the WBIDC. Was such permission sought and granted? Assuming the response to the query to be in the affirmative, did the state industrial corporation seek the views of the Left Front government in the matter? The corporation, after all, is wholly owned by the state government.

The question of permission apart, a number of other facts too deserve to be taken note of in this connection. The puja ceremony on January 21 was reportedly attended by top-ranking representatives of the state administration, including the district magistrate and the district superintendent of police; the managing director of the WBIDC was also present. The entire ceremony was evidently conducted under their patronage, and the state administration, one cannot abandon the feeling, took a leading part in organizing the puja, including taking care of such details as renting the services of a pujari or fetching from the market the coconut shell which was split into two as part of the religiosity. The Tata officials in attendance were from outside the state and would not have been in a position to take charge of these things.

Whatever manner the issues involved are analysed, one particular conclusion is inescapable. It was bhoomi puja performed on what is claimed to be still government property; it was organized by government officials qua government officials. And this is precisely where anguish begins to seize the mind. The multitude of its supporters and admirers look up to the Left Front government in West Bengal as the repository of secular ideals; they pin their faith on it to act as vanguard in the relentless fight against the fundamentalists and religious obscurantists. They consider the left as the only effective countervailing force to crush the conspiracy launched in the Bharatiya Janata Party-ruled states, like Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh, to Hinduize secular India. As they view it, India is a secular republic; the country’s Constitution says so. The commitment of the Constitution must be honoured and, where necessary, defended till the last drop of blood is shed; only the left, millions across the country have been accustomed to think, could be trusted with this assignment. Now they will be in a state of shell shock.

Secularism does not imply, as leaders of the Indian National Congress have trained themselves to assume, embracing all religions with the same fervour. It should, on the other hand, mean that the state maintains equal distance from, and shows equal indifference to, the different religions. The secular-minded in the nation cannot but be devastated by the tidings of the bhoomi puja at Singur sponsored by the Left Front government. It would be of little use for higher-ups in the state government to pretend that they are not supposed to know of happenings at the base of the system. Singur has been a sensitive political issue for months; the suggestion that important officers belonging to the state government could have participated in the ritual without the knowledge of their political superiors is beyond belief. Nor is there any report that any disciplinary proceedings have been started against these officers for the outrageous breach of secular principles they have committed.

Put on the defensive, the West Bengal ministers may admit, sheepishly, that what took place was because of an oversight. That would hardly wash. For the BJP government in Gujarat, presided over by Narendra Modi, could similarly claim that it was not possible for them to keep track of the genocide in Baroda, Ahmedabad and elsewhere in their state during those grisly days in 2002.

No point in beating about the bush, it is a great let-down. India is currently a battlefield where religious fundamentalists are making every attempt to capture positions of vantage so that they could drag the country back to the Dark Ages. Those confronting them in different parts of the country and in different spheres used to refer to the Left Front regime in West Bengal as the guardian angel, protecting the ramparts of secularism founded on the bedrock of rationality. The Left Front will henceforth be diminished in their eyes. In the process, it itself will feel diminished. More than a quarter of the population of West Bengal belongs to denominations other than Hindu. Some of the land taken over in Singur belonged to members of such denominations. What frame of mind would these people be in once they are told of the Hindu ritual observed on the land they once owned and has since been taken over by a government which avows to follow secular principles?

Finally, there is the issue of right to information. Is it a part of the formal or informal arrangements the state government has entered into with the Tata group that the latter should be allowed to do a bhoomi puja on the land temporarily transferred to them? Or is it the state government’s point of view that, unless the Tatas were permitted to do the puja, they would have refused to invest in West Bengal and moved to some other state? If the latter be the case, would that not be a bit like, say, the government of India arguing that if Goa was not converted into the snakepit of a sex resort, no foreign direct investment would come to the country and travel elsewhere?