On a bright Saturday morning, at 9:00 AM, I strolled the streets of Salt Lake looking for the home of Rabin Deb, one of the tallest CPI (M) leaders in Kolkata who saw the heydays of Communist raj in Bengal. ‘Ah! Rabin Babur baadi? Aiy to aage’, (Ah! Are you looking for the residence of Rabin babu? Just go a little ahead) said a man I asked for directions. As I entered the modest home of Rabin Deb, the small sitting area right off the balcony had a small bookshelf with books about Che Guevera, The Age of Capital, Documents on Party Organisation and in contrast, a book about the Constitution of India.
The walls in his home were littered with pictures that told the tales of a time when Communists had not been politically wiped out in the state. Right above the door, hung a picture where Deb was seen with former Chief Minister Jyoti Basu.
CPI (M) leader Rabin Deb is a member of the central committee of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), the working President of India China Friendship Association (West Bengal) and used to be the Chief Government Whip when the Communists were in power. Largely considered to be an ‘encyclopaedia’ of West Bengal politics, Deb spoke to OpIndia at length about the Bengal elections, the culture of violence in Bengal, TMC, BJP, the Naxal movement, China and more.
The questions asked are in bold followed by the answers provided by Mr Rabin Dev in the course of the 60 minute long interview.
What is your initial assessment and thoughts on the upcoming Bengal elections?
After Mamata Banerjee came to power in May 2011, in West Bengal, no free and fair elections have been held. This time, it is the 17th Assembly elections after independence. The question is whether the electorate will get the chance to cast their vote. The police, the anti-socials always create hindrances in elections and create panic. The question is whether free and fair elections will be held this time and whether the electorate will get the change to cast their votes as per their own choice.
How do you see the role of the central paramilitary forces in ensuring free and fair elections? The central govt has sent 150 units in Bengal
See, in every election, the Election Commission announces that central forces will be deployed to ensure free and fair elections. The problem is that they are unknown to the state. They are coming from other states and they have to take help from the local police. Now, if the local police are biased towards the local party, how will they function independently and without fear and favour? This time also, the party in power in the centre and the party in power in the state, both are in question. Both are utilising the administration in favour of their own party. This is the problem. If central forces come here, who is in charge? Amit Shah. Who is looking after the state election on behalf of All India BJP? It is him. So he is in charge of the election and he is also sending his force, so people have some doubt whether they will function properly.
So what is the ideal situation according to you? You are saying central forces will favour BJP and local police will favour TMC. So what do you think would be the ideal situation?
The ideal situation is the people rising. If the common people, the electorate, rise against such conspiracies and onslaught, then it will be fine.
But how will the people rise?
Well, if the people arise against the misgivings, then there will be… you see.. they are the few. You see, in our state, in our electorate, there are 7 crores 32 lakh people. Our polling percentage is nearly 80%. So over 5 crore people will cast their vote. You see, if people get united then everything will be fine. Every conspiracy will be defeated and people will be in a position to cast their vote properly.
Let’s go back a little. You have fought in the state against Mamata Banerjee for so many years and there was a culture of violence in the state as far as politics is concerned. Do you think that culture has continued to this day?
You see, yesterday, when Mamata Banerjee announced her party’s nominee (candidate list), in several constituencies and segments, their supporters were blocking roads, crying and mobilising their supporters against the Trinamool.
So you are saying those who did not get tickets were protesting against TMC?
Yes. Absolutely. And that is the culture you will see now. This is the main sorry figure of this state. Earlier it was in UP and Bihar and other places, but now, in the last 10 years, Mamata Banerjee and her colleagues and their uttering, are getting anti-socials and others to create hindrances. From the administration’s side, without taking any steps, they are doing this.
But one can say that the culture of violence started with the Communists.
The communists? No, no. Not at all.
We have seen incidents like Nandigram, Sainbari, where a mother was fed her sons’ blood..
Not at all. You see, it was propaganda. It was a campaign by the media. Initiated by the present ruling party and those who were in opposition. They have initiated this propaganda.
(Editors note: The Sainbari massacre happened in 1970. TMC was founded in 1998. BJP had no presence in the state in the 1970s. It was an electoral fight between the CPI (M) and the Congress party).
You see, what happened in 1972? The total election was rigged. The communists boycotted the assembly for 5 years.
This is the election where Congress won?
Yes! At that time. You see, where have TMC and BJP got this from? At that time, those who were Congress hoodlums joined TMC. Now, the TMC hoodlums have joined BJP.
But was it not the Communists who actually joined the TMC?
Well, yes. Some of them did. You see, they are giving money. Rs 5 crores.. Rs 10 crores.. that is the rate of an MLA in Bengal. Earlier it was not like this. You can go through 34 years of Left front. Nobody crossed the floor. But in the last 10 years, it is Mamata Banerjee who has started this. In 2016, Dipali Biswas from Malda was the first to switch sides and join TMC. Why? Under threat. They are told ‘you join me, or you will be put behind bars. There will be cases filed against you’. If you don’t support the ruling party, then the police and the goondas they will create problem to any peaceful person.
(Editors note: In 2016, Dipali Biswas joining TMC was considered a rather major event. Even Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury, who was then the West Bengal Congress President, had alleged that Biswas had been given money to join TMC. At that time, Chowdhury had told the media, “I had a talk with Dipali Biswas’s husband who said they got Rs 3 crore to join Trinamool Congress. He said it was a huge amount for them and they could not withstand the temptation”.)
You spoke about the 1972 violence…
1972 and earlier also, I am not just talking about one election. Do you see what happened in 1957? Bidhan Roy was going to get defeat against Labour leader Mohammad Ismail. Trade Union leader. He lost! But he won after counting some postal ballots. He at that time created terror because he was the Chief Minister.
(Editors note: Since the incident is old and the relevance of the 1957 election may just escape the memory, it becomes important to recall what happened back then in short. This article by the Telegraph gives a little window into the era. It says that Bidhan Chandra Roy was an anti-communists and the CPI was his worst critic. Roy belonged to the Congress party. In 1957, Bidhan Roy had won by a narrow margin, defeating Mohammad Ismail. The Left had alleged that Roy had rigged the elections and had tortured him with expletives. According to the Telegraph report, “Within the chambers of the legislative assembly, the man who harassed Roy at every turn and hurled imprecations at him was none other than the redoubtable Jyoti Basu, today’s angry old man. The communists lampooned Roy in ugly graffiti across Calcutta’s walls and even came close to accusing him of rigging the elections when Roy won by a narrow margin against a communist candidate, Mohammad Ismail, in 1957. It would be no exaggeration to say that the Left’s response to Roy has been one of extreme hostility”.)
It was the communists who fought and reinstated democratic rights. It was the Congress in 1972, it was the Congress in 1975 to 1977 through promulgating the emergency and then the restoration of democracy was the main slogan of the communists. In Bengal, for 34 years there was no election between ’72 and ’77.
It was all propaganda! They could not prove anything. There was a national campaign but it was proved only 1 person was killed in the Marichjhapi massacre. During Sainbari, some people killed somebody. They attacked the procession of the Left. In the counter-attack, somebody died. The names of our leaders were put in FIR, but nothing happened. Till 1977, the Congress government was there but nobody was punished. So what about these issues? In Anandamarg, it was an internal rivalry and they failed to implicate Communists. This was all propaganda using the media.
But Communists do believe in ‘revolution through the barrel of the gun’. So there is a fear that is Communists come to power, the entire Naxal movement might be rekindled
Not at all! You see, in 1967, when we came to power with the help of the ruling class, it is then when the Naxal movement started. They took to guns because they could not get power through elections. It is a game-plan. Naxalites in Bengal were a creation of Congress because they failed to fight the CPI (M). Then they utilised the Naxals and the ultra-left. Atulya Ghosh, the veteran Congress leader, wrote a book where he spoke that twice in Bengal the government was changed with the help of the money given by the USA. This money was given to Indira Gandhi herself.
Ok. With everything you have said about Congress, why is the CPI (M) then in an alliance with the Congress today?
Now the situation has changed. A party in power and a party out of power makes a big difference.
But you are saying that the Naxal movement was started by the Congress
But at that time they were the ruling party. But if you go deep into the roots of the issue, you will find that the main reason for the Naxal movement is economic segregation. They failed to serve the country, provide jobs, give remunerative price to the farmers and that is why grievances were created. Then they go ultra-left and go in the wrong way.
Ok. So now if the CPI (M), Congress alliance comes to power, how will the Naxal movement, that found resonance at the time, be curbed again?
It will be curbed because we will give democratic rights to them. You propagate your policy, but don’t go the ‘ultra way’.
What do you mean by giving them democratic rights?
Democratic rights means they will propagate their ideology, their policy, their way of thinking.
But isn’t their ideology violence and ‘revolution through the barrel of the gun’?
Then they have to announce it. Every political party, when you try to get the registration, you have to declare that they need to abide by the constitution. The thing is, the BJP is not abiding by this but we are. This is why we are peaceful. You have to go to the people. If they accept, then you win. If they reject you, then you lose. When Buddhadev Bhattacharya lost, we accepted the mandate and worked with the opposition. But if you lose, saying its a truncated election, it was a rigged election does not work. That is not the way.
So if your alliance loses, you are saying you will not make allegations of elections being truncated?
You see, we have announced that we will give democratic and civil rights to everyone, all the institutions. We will not be like the central government. See what happened to Disha Ravi. We will not do this. We are going to announce our election manifesto that will include that we will let everyone to express their opinions, people will get the freedom of expression, which has been suppressed by Mamata Banerjee and PM Modi. We are trying to create jobs.
Since you spoke about jobs, I just wanted to clarify – the current Communist party is not against industrialisation?
Not at all! We are for industrialisation.
Also, the communist party believes that the Naxals should be given democratic rights, but if they pick up the weapon, then they should be answered with a weapon?
Yes. They should be dealt according to the law.
So gun for gun should be the answer?
NO! We don’t believe in gun for gun.
Then how will you deal with the Naxals who pick up the weapon?
There are so many cases. If you go to the people and convince them, they will think we are on the right path. They will believe they will get a job. Their children will get opportunities. They will get an education and books for free. Their basic needs have to be met. Why will they fight if they get everything? If they get everything, why will they pick up the weapon? In the last 10 years, there has been no industrialisation.
The Naxals are brainwashed after being fed tropes about Jal, Jungle, Zameen. How will you then balance industrialisation with that narrative?
We will try to maintain the forest. That is a rule in our country. But you see, buildings are coming up. Look at the global scenario of global warming. It is an important, global problem. Why do you think COVID-19 started? Consciousness needs to be created.
You see how in Vietnam, Korea, Cuba, Laos, China, they have been less affected. Nobody died in North Korea. None!
Out of COVID, you are saying?
But, Covid-19 originated in China
But you see how only 6,800 people died in China. In India, over 1.57 lac people have died. But China’s population is more. It was a lie that COVID-19 started in China. Now, WHO has investigated and declared that COVID-19 did not start from China. Every country is suffering from an economic slowdown. Only China in the globe has got 4.5% increasing GDP. In India, it is declining by 23%.
So are they the enemy?
Some people are trying to take us towards the conspiracy created by Donald Trump. In COVID affected, the first position is held by the USA. The second is Brazil (for those who died). For those who died, it’s India.
(Editors note: Officially, China has clocked 4,363 deaths arising out of COVID. But there is evidence that the numbers are highly suppressed. In the October to December quarter, while the world GDP contracted, India clocked a 0.4% growth)
But don’t you think China is suppressing the number of dead?
Yes. But less.
Ok. So what do you think makes China more capable of handling the pandemic?
The socialist system.
I have to go now.
Just 10 more minutes. Coming to the recent elections, Congress claims to be secular. Communists have traditionally been anti-religion. What explains the alliance with a religious fundamentalist like Abbas Siddique?
The constitution gives everyone the right to propagate their religion. Hindus and Muslims. What does secularism mean? It means religion cannot be mixed with politics.
Isn’t that what Abbas Siddiqui is doing?
If politics and religion are kept separate, then it is secular. Fundamentalism means that whatever I practise, the other person also has to practise the same.
Congress is now distancing themselves from Abbas Siddiqui, saying that their alliance is with the CPI (M) and Abbas Siddiqui seat sharing is with CPI (M), not the Congress
No question about that. The first rule of the alliance is that everyone should be secular. From birth, they don’t join politics. They change with experience. During the British, everyone was in Congress. Then, some people joined the Communist party after it was formed.
So you are saying he has changed?
Yes. People can change. The question is whether he is propagating fundamentalism after joining the alliance.
But Congress is now saying that Congress is not in an alliance with Abbas Siddique, the seat sharing is being discussed between Communists and Abbas
That is just their utterance. We are trying to unite. BJP is trying to dis-unite.
So was Congress on board with the alliance with Abbas Siddiqui?
Yes. They were on board. We are trying to unite. There are scheduled tribes, scheduled castes, they are all there with the Indian secular front.
You mean ISF?
Yes. ISF. It is not an organisation of the Muslims.
There are three factions now – TMC, your alliance with Abbas Siddiqui and AIMIM led by Asaduddin Owaisi. There is a lot of chatter about how the Muslim vote is going to get split three-way in these elections. How will that change the elections
Earlier, the media was propagating a dual fight in Bengal between TMC and BJP. After the Nobanno march, the media realised that TMC and BJP are not the only two forces in Bengal. The United Alliance emerged. We are trying to unite all sections of the people and the BJP is trying to divide the people. Why are you only telling that Muslim votes will get divided? Why are you not saying that Hindus votes will get divided?
Hindu votes are always divided. Muslim votes are not
No. BJP has also taken some Muslim people. Why are Shia people joining them? We are trying our best to unite the people. No question of any religion or language. People who lose their jobs are not divided between Hindus and Muslims. Such issues affect everyone.
If the alliance then emerges as a King-maker, who is the lesser evil and would you rather give outside support to TMC or BJP
BJP is the biggest evil. Our policy is defeating BJP and TMC. In the state, TMC invited BJP. Don’t forget that Mamata was aligned with the Atal Bihar Vajpayee govt. It is the TMC that invited BJP. If we do emerge as the king-maker, we will discuss and make a decision. We don’t want multiple elections, it is not the solution. We will make a decision.