The India-U.S. joint air exercise in West Bengal's West Midnapore district meets with strong protests in the State, mainly organised by the ruling Left Front.
"INDIAN sky is not for sale to the U.S." The recurring slogan said it all as around one lakh people, at the call of the Left Front, gathered in Kadua field, barely 500 metres away from the Indian Air Force (IAF) base at Kalaikunda in West Midnapore district, to protest against the India-United States joint air exercise that began on November 7. The demonstration was a vibrant and visually colourful affair, with the red flags and banners of the Communist Party India (Marxist) standing out defiantly against the backdrop of a blue sky and green paddy fields. The menacing hum of the U.S. and Indian fighter jets taking off was challenged by songs of peace and protest performed by various artists, and the unified roar of a people voicing their protest against the possibility of the world's sole superpower getting a foothold in their country.
Manoj Dhar, a district leader of the CPI(M), said: "The security of our country should never be compromised. The U.S. never does anything for peace. There is always blood on the hands of its soldiers. This goes against the basic philosophy of our country and sends the wrong signal to our neighbours. This demonstration shall send out the message that wherever the U.S. goes, it will be met with resistance." Representatives of almost all the other Left Front constituents - the Communist Party of India, the Revolutionary Socialist Party, the Samajwadi Party and the All India Forward Bloc - took part in the protest.
It is true that 1,500 trucks brought people to the site of the protest, but not all availed themselves of this facility. Balaram Mahato (47) and Buddheswar Mahato (45) are marginal farmers who live 50 km away from Kalaikunda. They came on their own, though it meant that they had to wake up at 4 a.m. to catch the local train and reach the Kadua field after walking several kilometres. "We have come to voice our protest," Balaram said. "We know what the U.S. did in Iraq and Afghanistan. And now they plan to come to India and know our secrets. We don't want them here," said Buddheswar.
Those sitting around nodded in agreement. It was not only men who came to the rally. There were a large number of women too from various parts of the district, many of whom came unaccompanied by men. Two tribal women, Sitamoni Soren (65) and her sister-in-law Myna Tutu (70) travelled over 40 km from Jamboni Thana to take part in the protests. "What is happening is wrong, and it would be wrong for us to keep quiet. Like everyone elsewhere, we love our country and have come to protest against alien influence here," Sitamoni said.
As fighter jets were returning to the strip, flying low after a phase of exercise, a section of the crowd surged to the side of the field waving the red and black flags of protest, trying to drown the sound of the mighty aircraft in their own roar. As each jet passed overhead, they shouted: "America's dadagiri will not be accepted here", "Grind down the black hand of the U.S." and "F-16s that killed women and children in Iraq and Afghanistan, go back". The protesters burned two effigies of President George W. Bush and hoisted the Indian flag.
An IAF Squadron Leader, who did not want to be identified, said: "They [the U.S. forces] are fully aware of the demonstrations, but they are cool about it." Twelve U.S. F-16s along with Indian jets such as the Mirage 2000, the MiG 27 and the Su 30 are participating in the exercise, COPE India '05, which will continue until November 19. The exercises are taking place in phases. In the first phase of the first day, eight U.S. and 11 Indian aircraft were used.
"The number of phases in a day is determined by the condition of the aircraft and the time taken to re-fuel," said the Squadron Leader. The exercises take place from sunrise to sunset and micro-light craft are used for bird survey. The security measures taken to pre-empt any kind of problem were quite extensive. Over 1,000 police personnel, including 100 senior officers, were deployed at Kalaikunda and a 2-km-long barricade was constructed around the protest site. Ajay Nand, Superintendent of Police (S.P.), West Midnapore, said: "The protest was absolutely peaceful, but with so many people in one place we had to take precautionary measures." The Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) was on standby, and the IAF security personnel also surrounded the field, approximately two and a half times the size of a football ground.
THE protests were not restricted just to Kalaikunda. More than 10 lakh people all over the State, from Bagdogra airport in north Bengal to the U.S. Consulate in Kolkata, assembled peacefully to register their opposition.
Left Front chairman and CPI(M) Polit Bureau member Biman Bose, addressing a large gathering at Dum Dum, said that since India was not a member of any military bloc, the joint exercise was a wrong step by the Central government. He stressed that November 7 was indeed the day for such demonstrations, since it was the 88th anniversary of the Russian Revolution.
Even north Bengal, which normally remains immune to political agitations in Kolkata, lent its voice. In front of the Bagdogra airport in Siliguri, a demonstration continued for three hours. Coochbehar and Jalpaiguri towns witnessed large processions led by Left Front leaders, with tea garden workers joining in. Demonstrations were held in the industrial areas of Burdwan, Durgapur and Howrah.
In fact, the protest movement started as soon as the U.S. aircraft landed in Kolkata on their way to Kalaikunda. On November 4, there were massive demonstrations outside the Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose Airport at Dum Dum, which led to talks between Defence Minister Pranab Mukherjee, West Bengal Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. CPI(M) State secretary and Polit Bureau member Anil Biswas told Frontline: "This is a part of our anti-imperialist movement, especially against U.S. imperialism in South-East Asia, particularly India. This kind of exercise is a threat to the sovereignty and national security of our country and it is a matter of grave concern." He pointed out that the Common Minimum Programme (CMP) of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) stated that an "independent foreign policy [would] be pursued to promote multi-polarity in world relations and oppose all attempts at unilateralism." Hence the joint exercise was a violation of the CMP, Biswas said.
"While it is true that we don't want the UPA government to fall, it is taking our softness for granted. If this continues, we will not remain soft any more. Instead of following an independent foreign policy, it is surrendering the country to the U.S., that way it is alienating traditional friends like Iran. We will discus this with the Centre, and then, if necessary, rethink our strategy," said Biswas. He said that in the age of coalition governments, the Congress had to readjust its ways. "They are once again trying to establish authoritarian rule. But a coalition cannot be guided by the policies of a single party," he said. The next phase of the Left's movement will kick off with a convention on the foreign policy of India on November 13.
Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, addressing a press conference in Kolkata, said that while the State government would continue to welcome investments from the U.S., it will oppose its hegemony in military might. "We are opposed to any strategic alliance with the U.S. government. If at all there is need for such an alliance, it should be with Russia and China," he said.
He stated that he had already told the Prime Minister that though the Left Front government was opposed to the military exercise, it was constitutionally obliged to provide infrastructure and logistic support to it. At a massive rally in Krishnanagar, he asked: "Why should India join the military exercise with U.S. imperialists whose hands are still stained with the blood of the innocent?"
Although the State government and the Left parties had to contain their anger within the confines of constitutional propriety, there is no denying the fact that the protests were not in vain. Following the demonstrations, there were reports that the Defence Ministry was reconsidering its plan of action and in future such exercises may not be held in Kalaikunda.