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.

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