Raging battle

Published : May 18, 2007 00:00 IST

Nandigram flares up again, on April 29, and fighting between CPI(M) supporters and the BUPC claims two lives.


THE intermittent clashes between supporters of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and the Bhumi Uchhed Pratirodh (Land Eviction Resistance) Committee (BUPC) headed by the Trinamool Congress and supported by the Socialist Unity Centre of India, the Jamait-i-Ulema-e-Hind and naxalites escalated into an all-out battle - the first major instance of violence since March 14 - in Nandigram, East Midnapore, on April 29. In the violence, which raged from 6 a.m. until the next day, two CPI(M) supporters were killed and 10 persons injured. Some 500 people of the region were driven out, and houses and shops were plundered and burnt.

While the CPI(M) points an accusing finger at the Trinamool for precipitating the violence, Trinamool supremo Mamata Banerjee puts the blame on "armed" CPI(M) cadre trying to push their way into BUPC-occupied Nandigram. According to State Home Secretary Prasad Ranjan Roy, the police were told to exercise restraint. "They did intervene but only to a certain extent. Even now, if the police were to enter many places in Nandigram, they would encounter stiff resistance, and we do not want to be forced into a situation where we will be compelled to take recourse to firing," he told mediapersons. It is clear that the State government wishes to err on the side of caution to avoid a repeat of the catastrophe of March 14, in which police firing and subsequent violence in Nandigram left 14 dead and 75 injured.

By May 2, though the intensity of the violence had abated to some extent, news of sporadic fighting and arson continued to trickle in. From January onwards, more than 3,000 people of Nandigram, including women and children, have been ousted from their villages by the BUPC and their houses looted and reduced to ashes, all for being CPI(M) supporters. Many of these people have sought shelter in relief camps set up in Khejuri, an area bordering Nandigram, where the violence of April 29 was particularly intense. On April 25, at a massive rally organised by Mamata Banerjee in Garchakraberia in Nandigram, Trinamool leaders who addressed the gathering said they would have to remove the red flag of the CPI(M) from Khejuri, Haldia and Nandigram.

Just a couple of days later, on April 27, Iliyas Mohammad, the Communist Party of India (CPI) Member of the Legislative Assembly (MLA) from Nandigram, was attacked at a public meeting in Chourangi Bazaar, a few hundred metres away from occupied Nandigram's Hazaarkata. Around 50 armed attackers on motorbikes, allegedly under the leadership of the Trinamool's Abu Taher, roared in at around 5 p.m., hurled locally made crude bombs, and broke up the meeting. They singled out Iliyas Mohammad and proceeded to beat him up. The MLA lost a tooth in the attack.

Addressing a press conference on April 30, Left Front chairman and CPI(M) State secretary Biman Bose, who is also a party Polit Bureau member, said that the violence on April 29 appeared to be "pre-planned". He referred to Mamata Banerjee's press conference on the same day at which she said that she had asked one of her Members of Parliament to intimate the Prime Minister's Office and the State Governor about the firing at Nandigram, barely two hours after the violence had broken out. "How is it possible for anyone to get information within two hours of an incident and that too while violence was still raging?" Bose asked. "The incident on March 14 was terrible and tragic," he said, "but a solution has to be reached through dialogue. We have repeatedly assured people that Nandigram will not be touched. The people of Nandigram will carry on with their lives as they have always done; so what is the point that the Trinamool is trying to make by creating such unrest?"

In fact, from as early as February 11, Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee himself has been reassuring people that there will be no land acquisition in Nandigram and requesting the Opposition, particularly the Trinamool Congress, to sit for discussions to put an end to the violence. Recently, addressing intellectuals, artists, cinema personalities and people from all walks of life, Bhattacharjee made an appeal to the Opposition: "The door to discussions is always open to you, and all I am asking you is not to set up a Bhumi Uchhed Pratirodh Committee anywhere and everywhere we are trying to draw investments."

The requests and assurances, however, seem to fall on deaf ears: The Trinamool has refused to enter into any dialogue with the government. The opposition boycotted an all-party meet called for April 21 to resolve the crisis in Nandigram.

Meanwhile, on May 3, in the course of a hearing on the Nandigram issue and the status report submitted by the State government regarding the situation, a Division Bench of the Calcutta High Court, comprising Chief Justice S.S. Nijjar and Justice P.C. Ghose, gave a number of directions to the State government. The court said that innocent villagers living in the area were being victimised and it expressed its concern over the matter. It referred to Article 21 of the Constitution, which guarantees life and liberty to each individual, and the statement of West Bengal's Advocate-General (Balai Roy) that the people of Nandigram were being deprived of their livelihood, and said, "We direct the State government to ensure that a ferry service be immediately resumed between Haldia and Nandigram." It further directed the government to ensure that there were no economic obstructions to the villagers of Nandigram and that they were ensured easy access to markets, schools, colleges, and so on. The court also asked the State government to ensure free and adequate medical assistance to the "victims of the carnage in Nandigram" from January till date. Finally, since a large number of people have been rendered homeless in the area, the State government has been directed to provide them with free rations of rice, wheat, kerosene and other essential commodities.

In the last four months of unrest, Nandigram society has undergone a change. Once a peaceful, sleepy place, it has taken on the image of a region of terror, with the BUPC declaring it to be a "liberated zone" and no officials of the administration or the police being allowed in. Large parts of the region still remain inaccessible, with the BUPC not allowing any repair work on the dug-up roads and broken culverts and bridges. It is not possible to carry out any development work, and practically all social celebrations and activities have ceased there. The joyous occasion of Poyla Baisakh (Bengali New Year) was a time of apprehension and sadness in Nandigram, with people living constantly in the shadow of violence and extortion. Even marriage engagements are breaking up. According to a report in a local newspaper, there have been innumerable such cases in Nandigram.

In fact, the only kind of recreation or entertainment for the people of Nandigram is propagandist video shows of the various factions of the BUPC. Each faction has reportedly made its own video interpretation of the "struggle for preservation of farmland" in Nandigram, in which the views and voices of the respective leaders of the groups are aired. That has apparently been cause for discord within as each party, through its video propaganda, has been projecting itself as spearheading the movement and claiming primacy of place in the BUPC. There have even been reports of scuffles between different parties.

To make matters worse, in a place where earning a livelihood has become a dangerous proposition, extortion and kidnapping have become the order of the day. To rejoin work, one apparently has to dish out as down payment anything between Rs.500 to Rs.5,000 to the BUPC. Ironically, even agricultural workers on whose behalf the BUPC claims to be agitating are not spared. According to sources in the CPI(M), a five-member committee has been set up by the BUPC to ensure payment of Rs.200 per bigha of land for those who wish to carry on the work of cultivation.

One thing has become clear: What started out as an agitation against land acquisition in Nandigram for the setting up of a chemical hub has become a struggle for the perpetuation of a "liberated zone" whose inhabitants have to either conform to the laws laid down by the BUPC or face its judgment.

The ultimate victim of all that is happening in one little corner of East Midnapore district is the whole State of West Bengal. A Principal Secretary to the State government told Frontline: "First it was Singur, now it is Nandigram; as a result of all this, the perception of West Bengal both within and outside the country has taken a severe beating. It was a very long and hard struggle to achieve the kind of growth we did, but now it seems to have all gone down the drain."

However, some hope can still be salvaged from Bhattacharjee's words: "We need industries in West Bengal, and there is no going back. There will be a chemical hub, and it will not be in Nandigram. The youth of West Bengal today are looking at us for their future. We cannot let them down."

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