The people of Nandigram affirm that before the BUPC was formed they lived in harmony as friends and neighbours.
The flags fluttering in Nandigram speak louder than words. Indeed, what would be inconceivable in normal circumstances is there for all to see in Nandigram town the green, saffron and white flag of the Trinamool Congress and the red banner of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) flying side by side, and, in some cases, even on the same pole. These indicate that the war is finally over and, irrespective of political affiliations, it is safe for the displaced people to go back to their hearth and home and carry on with their lives.
For the past 11 months, Nandigram, in West Bengals Purbo Medinipur district, was a battleground between the CPI(M) and the Trinamool Congress led-Bhumi Uchhed Pratirodh (Land Eviction Resistance) Committee a combine of disparate forces including the Socialist Unity Centre of India (SUCI), Jamait-i-Ulema-e-Hind and Maoists.
What started on January 3 as a spontaneous protest against a rumour of land acquisition for a chemical hub, grew and tore apart this tiny corner of the State when political parties got into the fray taking advantage of what they perceived to be a chink in the CPI(M) armour.
What followed put an end to not only the industrialisation plans in the area but also the unity of the people of Nandigram. Over the next 11 months neighbours turned against one another and destroyed houses and lives, all at the bidding of their political masters.
If, initially, the BUPC forced out CPI(M) supporters from their villages and homes, dug up roads and destroyed bridges and declared Nandigram a liberated zone, matters took a turn for the worse when 14 people died in police firing on protesters on March 14. The police were withdrawn following a political outcry and the BUPC took control of the place.
In November, violence resumed, this time in the form of clashes between supporters of the CPI(M) and the BUPC. The battle that raged from November 7 to 10 tilted the balance in favour of the former. The BUPCs hold over one and a half blocks in Nandigram was decisively broken by November 16 when six companies of the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) entered the region, a move that had the Maoists on the run. As of November 21, Nandigram town, except for the presence of the CRPF, gave no indication of the turmoil it had been through. Shops that had remained closed since March 14 were back in business, the local market was teeming with shoppers, schools were open and people went about their work.
The only reminder of the recent violence was the Braja Mohan Tiwari (BMT) High School, where around 1,400 people (as of November 21) a majority of them women, children and elderly people had sought refuge. Packed into the classrooms of the ground floor of the school, amidst stench and squalor, these people had little faith in the CPI(M)s promise that they would not be harmed if they chose to return home.
Laxmi Rani Das, aged 65 and her husband, Binode Behari Das, 75, fled their home at Tiakhali village on November 7 and went to live with their daughter and son-in-law. After a while we realised we were not welcome there, so we had no option but to come here, Laxmi told Frontline. We dont know when we can return, Binode Behari said. We have been told they [the CPI-M] are looting our houses and it is very unsafe for us.
In most of the cases, fear was being fanned by rumours. Tales of atrocities from nearby villages, mostly unsubstantiated, found their way into the refugee camp. Kalpana Das, 40, and her four children have been in the camp since November 7. How can we go back home, everyone here is scared. We have heard they [the CPI-M] will not spare us if we try to go back, she said. We have heard was the refrain in most of the stories of death, kidnapping and people going missing, which were being circulated in the school-turned-camp.
In one of the dark classrooms rested 11-year-old Mir Bulu, sullen and silent with his head on his mother Anjaman Bibis lap. The two indentations on his forehead indicate where a bullet had gone through on November 3. After the injury, he has shown signs of emotional instability and has terrible bouts of rage, said Anjaman Bibi. Near by, a tiny girl, not older than three years, was looking after her newborn sister. Meanwhile, the school bell rang to mark the commencement of the annual examination for pupils of class 10 and 12, a call for normalcy as it were.
Whatever their accusations against their former neighbours, they were unanimous on one point: 11 months ago, before the BUPC was formed, they lived in harmony as friends and neighbours. In the words of Sudarshan Mandal who fled his village, Gokulnagar: Earlier, we may have supported different political parties but at the personal level we were all on very good terms.
Speaking to Frontline, Ashok Guria, a leading member of the Purbo Medinipur district committee of the CPI(M), said: There is no reason for people to remain in the school camp. Certain Trinamool Congress members are causing panic by spreading rumours. We are firm in our commitment to peace and we promise that nobody who supported the BUPC will be harmed in any way when they return home.
As of November 26, barely a few hundred people remained at the camp (out of 1,400 on November 21), the rest having returned home.
Just outside Nandigram town, the picture was a little different the bustle of everyday life was still missing. Life was slowly but undoubtedly trickling back to normal in the hamlets, but the confidence of the people even in their own localities remained badly shaken.
Gokulnagar, which was one of the strongholds of the BUPC, almost resembled a ghost village with the shops shut and hardly anybody out on the street. Most people were reluctant to talk, and the few who did refused to divulge their names.
A middle-aged man, sipping tea with a few of his friends in one of the few stalls that were open, said, People are coming back to their houses, and there have been no instances of violence against any political party so far. But there is still a lot of fear among the people. Shops are open only for a while, and people, when they have to go out of their homes, are careful not to remain for too long at any place. Even though there was no recrimination against anybody in his words, he could not be persuaded to give his name.Relief material being
A group of CRPF personnel patrolling the empty lanes also dismissed any occurrence of violence in the region and backed up the residents observation that people were indeed returning home. But quite a few houses still remained empty, they added.
En route to Sonachura, one of the bastions of the BUPC and the Maoists, lies a tiny eatery, Kachidar Hotel, owned by Sushanta Bor. The hotel, being a little removed from any cluster of habitation, allowed Bor to remain uninvolved in the conflict. Normalcy is returning in the region and I have seen supporters of the BUPC returning home, he said.
Referring to the initial protest in the region, he said: At the beginning they were all united against their land being acquired for industrial purposes, and it was not a political movement. They probably didnt even realise when and how they got dragged into this political battle. An agricultural worker passing by from the nearby field paused to follow the conversation and interjected, Ebong ekhon ekhaney shob tham-thamey (And now there is an uneasy calm here).
At Sonachura, the return to normalcy is more perceptible, though far from complete. Sukanta Mandal, who runs a vegetable shop in the village, said: People are still edgy around here, but at least the sleepless nights are over. No more bombing; no more being woken up in the middle of the night to participate in a michhil [march].
The peace in Nandigram has come as a relief, particularly for the apolitical residents of Sonachura. It did not really matter who was the stronger force; whether it was the BUPC at the beginning, or the CPI(M) later, whoever called for a meeting, we would go, just to avoid trouble, a resident of Sonachura told Frontline.
One of the obvious signs of normalcy was the sight of children in school uniforms. Balaram Manna, a student of standard IV in the local school, said he was delighted to be reunited with his mates again. His 11-year-old friend Soumen Sahu was of the same opinion. It mattered little to them on whose side their fathers fought.
Mriganka Das of Sonachura was a BUPC member who fled his home when the battle tilted in favour of the CPI(M). Now back in his village, he feels he has nothing to fear. We were misled by Trinamool Congress leaders. We now realise that protection of our land was not what was on their minds when they said they wanted to help us. They just wanted to make this into a political issue, he told Frontline. The people of Sonachura have sinister tales to tell of outsiders pretending to be university students and taking control of their movement, of makers of hand-made cannons and rustic firearms who thrust the weapons into the hands of the residents while they remained in the background waging a proxy war.
Sukrushna Paik was among those who stood in the line of police fire on March 14. They [the outsiders] told us to be in the front with our children and assured us that the police would not open fire on us. Dont worry, they said, we are right behind you, she told Frontline.
Said CPI(M) leader Naba Samanta of Sonachura, whose elder brother Sankar Samanta was brutally murdered allegedly by members of the BUPC on January 7: These people [those who had supported the BUPC] are very poor and very simple, who were made to do what they did. They were misled and used for political ends. One thing should be made very clear, that they are not to be blamed at all; it is the politicians who used them that are criminals. We [the CPI-M] want them to know that they should come back home with their families, he said.
The CPI(M) supporters who were driven out by the BUPC returned to find most of their homes damaged or burnt down, their meagre belongings stolen, and the crop in their fields taken away. Uttam Kumar Paik, an old CPI(M) supporter, said: They made it impossible for us to stay if we didnt participate in their activities; and when we finally fled, they took all our belongings. As a result we have come back to practically nothing.
As of November 25, Peoples Relief Committee, a non-governmental organisation working with the support of the CPI(M), has already distributed 2,700 blankets, 2,000 saris, 2,000 dhotis, 1,000 frocks, 1,000 shirts, 1,000 mosquito nets, 900 plastic buckets, and foodgrains and vegetables among the affected people. The relief materials are reaching everybody, irrespective of party affiliations, said Ashok Guria. The district administration is also distributing relief, using Rs.1 crore disbursed from the Chief Ministers Relief Fund on November 14.
A three-member team of the National Womens Commission led by former CPI(M) MP Malini Bhattacharjee visited Nandigram on November 22, specifically to investigate an accusation of rape made by a woman of Satengabadi against CPI(M) activists. Although the medical report does not confirm rape, we have insisted that investigations be continued as the accusation is a very serious one, Malini Bhattacharjee told Frontline. The team also visited the school camp and later Satengabadi village.
People were returning home, though some in the BMT camp insisted that they would go back only if adequate CRPF protection was provided. In Satengabadi, most of the people from both sides had returned, and nobody had complained of harassment or discrimination, said Bhattacharjee. Another notable feature, Bhattacharjee pointed out, was that all through the turbulent period there was no communal division among the people of Nandigram despite the presence of some State-level leaders of the fundamentalist Jamait-i-Ulema-e-Hind among the BUPC.