Kolkata: Politburo member of the Communist Party of India (Maoist) Koteshwar Rao has often been quoted in media interviews as saying that his outlawed party’s armed struggle, now confined to the economically backward countryside in West Bengal, would soon spread to the state’s industrial hubs as well.
Rao didn’t explain how, but his close aide Telugu Deepak, recently arrested by the Kolkata police, said during interrogation that the Maoists and other radical political groups have been slowly spreading their wings among workers in industrial units in Kolkata and its suburbs, according to the police.
“For the past one year, the Maoists have been penetrating jute mills in West Bengal at an alarming pace,” said a jute mill owner, who did not want himself or his mills to be named. “It’s beginning to worry us. I believe workers in many jute mills are providing shelter to Maoist leaders and activists in their colonies.”
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Deepak has been trying to spread the Maoist movement among workers in Kolkata for at least 15 years, said Raj Kanojia, additional director general of Criminal Investigation Department (CID) of the state police. “None of us knew it. But, based on what Deepak revealed, we are now keeping a close tab on the activities of some ultra-Left groups. Workers in the unorganized sector are a soft target for these outfits.”
The administration is worried that militant trade unionism, for which West Bengal had gained notoriety in the 1960s and 1970s, could be making a comeback, said another CID official, who declined to be named because he is not authorized to speak with the media.
The Maoist insurgents used to have considerable influence on jute mill workers across the state till the mid-1990s, but their operations are now restricted to a handful of jute mills in the northern suburbs of Kolkata, according to Purnendu Bose, president of Indian National Trinamool Trade Union Congress, the labour arm of West Bengal’s main opposition party, the Trinamool Congress.
“Workers coming from neighbouring states have traditionally given shelter to Maoist leaders in their homes,” said Bose, who has led many agitations in jute mills.
“Also, the staff quarters of abandoned jute mills were easy hideouts for Maoist leaders and activists, but now the workers have realized that the Maoists aren’t going to help them in the long run, and have turned to us,” he said.
The jute mill owner quoted earlier, however, said established trade unions such as the one led by Bose were tacitly helping the Maoists expand their base.
“It’s because they are fighting a common enemy: Citu (Centre for Indian Trade Unions),” he said.
Citu is the labour arm of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), the party that along with allies has been ruling West Bengal since 1977.
Bose denied links with the Maoists.
“We aren’t really worried that the Maoists could disrupt the running of our jute mills,” the mill owner quoted earlier said. “But what we surely don’t like is the fact that they are using our mills as a base to spread their movement in Kolkata.”
Not just the Maoists but also several other ultra-Left political outfits such as the All India Central Council of Trade Union (AICCTU) and Indian Federation of Trade Unions (Iftu) claim their support base had expanded substantially in the past few years.
These aren’t underground organizations; they aren’t waging war against the state like the Maoists.
Iftu says it added 20,000 supporters in West Bengal in the past two years, while AICCTU’s support base expanded by at least 30% during the same period to about 53,000 members.
Both these parties said they benefited from backing peasants in Singur and Nandigram in their agitation against farmland acquisition for industrial projects. It was the new industrial policy of the West Bengal government, under which the state began acquiring farmland to build factories, that helped political outfits such as Iftu shore up support for itself, said Iftu’s president Paltu Sen.
“We are gaining at the cost of Citu,” said Atanu Chakraborty, AICCTU’s president. “Citu’s support base in West Bengal is fast dwindling.”
Citu has admitted this in its recent publications, but one of its key leaders and a former member of Parliament, Santasri Chatterjee, said the ultra-Left political groups were “irresponsible” in their bargaining techniques and the administration must deal with them firmly.
Chatterjee, who leads the Citu union at car maker Hindustan Motors Ltd’s factory in West Bengal’s Hooghly district, has been fighting tooth and nail with Sangrami Shramik Karmachari Union, an ultra-Left political group, which, a few years ago, had emerged as the dominant force at the factory.