The Flag of Flipkart

How Billionaires Celebrate ‘Naxalbari 50’

Sandeep Banerjee

Abare bodied mason, whose name was given as some Murmu, stood outside Kanu Sanyal's home, "a single room hut thatched with corrugated tin... in a dilapidated condition... portion of the roof has cracked; sun-rays light up the room where his books, notepads and clothes lay in a heap..." A boy who helped open the door said "He was a recluse, totally disillusioned after the failure of the movement, and eventually hanged himself". That boy was wearing a T-shirt of Indian Cricket team bought online. Some of visitors who came to Naxalbari took selfies in front of Sanyal's home and Mao's statue using the selfie-stick of Murmu's son. This is a scene from Naxalbari as presented by Indian Billion plus business FLIPKART in "In Naxalbari, Flipkart customers fly the flag of a new revolution" (Dated 06-07-2017). How succinct was the portrayal—failure of the movement, frustration, self-inflicted death—one photograph in that page was captioned: 'The dilapidated hut of revolutionary Kanu Sanyal in Naxalbari. A depressed Sanyal committed suicide here after his dreams were crushed'. And one also finds Murmu surmising: "It is a market economy, there may be inequalities but no scope for violent deaths..."

But death stalks. The writer of the Flip story, as can be guessed reading the story and the publication date, visited Naxalbari in between last week of May and first week of June. And within five months, just a couple of days before the 100 years of Russian Revolution people read a story of a boy from a nearby town SIliguri, "State police rescue Siliguri boy from Chennai who fled home while playing Blue Whale game". The boy went to Chennai to commit suicide as directed by the computer online game, a wonder reaching thousands at the blessing of this present day market economy. Quite luckily he could be found and saved. But sadly there are unfortunate ones in this market economy whom death meets, for example one may go just two years back in a newspaper archive to find "According to government officials, at least six people have died in the last month due to sheer lack of resources" (Tea garden workers in West Bengal complain of death due to distress, Dated 06-11-2015) OR "70 tea farm workers die of starvation in West Bengal... As many as 32 tea plantations have closed down this year alone", OR the labourers and family members at closed tea gardens who die of diseases and malnutrition like the fate met by Remilika Oraon of a tea garden a couple of months before the Flipkart reporter visited Naxalbari. But who cares; perhaps all these can be labelled as not-violent deaths.

"Growth is the new change in Naxalbari ...with its emerging skyline of grain elevators, Hero motorbike showrooms, departmental stores ...bars chock-a-blocked every night with teenagers high on Bengali pop music, whiskey, and super-strong beer ...Godfather" jubilantly tells the Flip commentary.

Commodities, so beautiful, alluring, throng all sides, and poverty, hunger, paucity too. "The agents said they would buy her lipstick, cut her hair fashionably and buy her new clothes", the 21-year-old member of an anti-trafficking campaign said. The Reuter story presents a grim reality : "In the 276 mostly closed tea gardens of West Bengal, young girls are dropping out of high school and "disappearing" with agents, according to a Child Welfare Board official, who did not want to be identified". "Fagua Oraon was running late for work when traffickers stopped outside his hut and said they were taking his teenage daughter with them to the city for better employment. Oraon said 'no' and went to work. When he got home that evening, his daughter was gone".

Mason Murmu's son 'mostly seeks electronic gadgets and tees, his daughter sunglasses and perfumes' tells the Flip story."The peasants and tea-workers of the region are better off now than nearly a half-century ago when they were pushed to the brink and took up arms," says Subba. "The young generation is hooked on smartphones and video chats. They order everything through Flipkart—from specially designed mugs to impress girlfriends, to mozzarella cheese. Where is Lal Salaam in this?" Subba also informed the Flip reporter that 'majority of the tea garden workers have a cell-phone'.

The Flip story writer could spend some minutes to find out the wages of tea workers that time when he was writing this piece. It was Rs 132.50 and only in January 2018 the wage was hiked to Rs 150.00 as far one can gather from newspapers. But as India's National Sample Survey report of 2014 showed vulnerability of poor Indians in face of the new market aggressions—while the poorer half of the urban population spends 1.36%-2.15% of their total consumption expenditure for recharging mobile phones, for the rural India the figure was from 0.81%-1.62%, whereas the poorer half of the people could afford luxuries like one egg and half or less per month in rural area, and less than three eggs in urban India, but spent up to Rs 20 a month for mobile recharge in rural area and almost Rs 45 in urban India! 52.4% of households on the poorest 10% families in rural India owned a Mobile phone, for the urban India this figure was 74.1% for the poorer half of the people, almost 66-78% of households have mobile phones. So the telecom companies did succeed in cajoling the poor to allocate part of their meagre subsistence income for mobile phones.

Surely a good part of young generation, may be majority of them are really 'hooked on smartphones'. And there is a cultural shift. The only holiday season was the annual Durga Puja celebrations. "Now we have Valentine's Day parties", says Swapan Nath, a worker at Naxalbari's only watering hole. A week before Valentine's Day, orders for gifts go on high on e-commerce sites. "Things are changing fast, everyone knows how to grow, what to seek", ....rejoices the Flipkart story. The Flip story presented a story of activism too as people sometimes heard happening in the West, where the internet acts as a medium. Last week, angry tea garden workers blocked a highway for a few hours and got a planter arrested because he had turned violent. "We used WhatsApp to send the planter's details to the cops, we shared the recording of his turning violent. He was arrested within minutes," says Budhon Oraon, a tea garden worker. The entire crisis was over in a couple of hours and the workers returned to the gardens. "We didn't even talk about the incident; we watched India play Pakistan in the Champions Trophy finals, and we mourned the loss," laughs Oraon.

If the Flip story writer stayed another week or two there in this land of happy consumers, he could see some very old fashioned traits are still there. On June 12 and 13 more than 90-95% of tea garden workers staged a two-day strike. "The two-day strike in the tea gardens of north Bengal turned violent on Tuesday as workers clashed with the police in Jalpaiguri district. At least 20 tea garden workers and six police officials sustained injuries in the clash". "A peaceful procession of workers of the Tanghuajhar tea garden and civil society members was lathi-charged by the police today [Tuesday] afternoon. At least 20 workers, including women, and several civil society members were injured", Zia-ul-Alam, convener of the Joint Forum of Trade Unions, an umbrella organisation of 29 trade unions, told The Hindu. Pay hike was announced in January. But many workers are still very unhappy with the paltry pay hike suggested this January. And anytime one may see workers' violent protests erupting again in Darjeeling and Dooars.

It remains to be seen how the other side of the reality develops, how the oppressed people write their protest-story to Flipkart's and other billionaires' euphoria by their actions.

Vol. 50, No.35, Mar 04 - 10, 2018