Nandigram again

Print edition : May 23, 2008

In a reminder of last years violence, the region hots up again weeks before the panchayat elections.

in Kolkata

CRPF presence in Nandigram on April 20, after a clash.-PTI

WITH panchayat elections in West Bengal scheduled for May 11, the issue of Nandigram has come into the limelight again. After four months of peace, the strife-ravaged region is witnessing sporadic violence now.

The return of violence has taken few by surprise. For 11 months up to mid-November 2007, Nandigram was virtually reduced to a war zone with the Trinamool Congress-backed Bhumi Uchhed Pratirodh (Land Eviction Resistance) Committee, an informal alliance forged with naxalites, the Socialist Unity Centre of India (SUCI), the Jamait-i-Ulema-e-Hind, and the Congress waging a pitched battle against the Communist Party of India (Marxist) for control of the place. What originated from a piece of misinformation regarding land acquisition by the State government for the setting up of a chemical hub became an issue of national concern when on March 14 last year, 14 people, including two women, were killed and 75 were injured in police firing in the area.

Following this incident, the CPI(M)-led Left Front government in West Bengal, under political pressure from all quarters, had to withdraw the police from Nandigram. Taking advantage of the vacuum created, the BUPC set out to carve for itself a Muktanchal (liberated zone).

Since then and until November, Nandigram, which was earlier a sleepy nook in the West Medinipur district, became a bloody stage where opposing forces struggled for supremacy. When the first Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) patrol entered the area on November 12, 2007, it looked as if a dark chapter in West Bengals contemporary history was finally over; but tension prevailed in the region and the violence with which peace was finally established continued to simmer beneath the surface.

In early March this year, trouble started in Nandigram with the BUPC allegedly digging up roads and attacking CPI(M) activists. On March 3, just before Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjees scheduled visit to the area to preside over a ceremony for distributing land deeds among the rural poor, six CPI(M) activists were injured in clashes with BUPC supporters. It was a clear indication that the embers had not died out.

On March 14, Trinamool supremo Mamata Banerjee and State Congress chief Priya Ranjan Dasmunsi, who is also the Union Minister for Information and Broadcasting, separately visited Nandigram, ostensibly to join the villagers on the occasion of the first anniversary of the police firing in the region. It was also around that time that the elections to governing bodies of schools in Nandigram were taking place. Though both leaders left for Kolkata that day itself, the following day armed members of the BUPC waylaid some CPI(M) activists near Rajaramchak High School and beat up two of them severely. The ensuing violence spread to other areas of Nandigram, including Hazrakata, Satengabadi and Chowringhee Bazaar, and some shops were damaged in the violence.

According to informed sources, the BUPCs success in driving out the CPI(M) from Nandigram last year and establishing a Trinamool stronghold in the region, might have spurred it to attempt it once again. But unlike in the previous occasion when they managed to get good local support, this time they know that they can only create minor disturbances and disruptions, a CPI(M) source told Frontline.

Ironically, towards the end of March, the State Assemblys Standing Committee on Commerce and Industries, whose chairman is Congress leader Sudip Bandopadhyay, announced, following a visit to Nandigram, that the people of the region did indeed want industries, to create employment. It may be remembered that right from the time when Nandigram flared up, the Chief Minister himself had assured the people that no land would be taken from them for industrialisation unless they themselves wanted it.

The people want a ship-building yard at Jellingham in Nandigram. We will request the Chief Minister to withdraw his decision not to set up industries in Nandigram and create a situation in which the area of confrontation is not extended, said Bandopadhyay after tabling the report of the committee on March 25.

If the violence in March were dismissed by observers as stray incidents, they were proved wrong, when on April 15, a local leader of the Congress, Milan Pradhan, found himself at the receiving end of Trinamool supporters aggression. On the day when political parties were submitting their nominations for the panchayat polls, Pradhan was severely beaten near the Block Division Office.

It was a dispute regarding the fielding of candidates that led to the attack, an informed source in Nandigram told Frontline. The same night, in Sonachuda, the houses of two Left Front candidates were attacked allegedly by Trinamool supporters. Some other houses in the neighbourhood were ransacked by them.

On April 18, the situation got further aggravated when a rumour spread that a housewife in Gokulnagar was gangraped by CPI(M) supporters. She was taken at first to the district hospital at Tamluk and later to the SSKM Hospital in Kolkata. As violence escalated in various parts of Nandigram, the CPI(M) and the Trinamool traded accusations of abductions, aggression and arson.

On April 20, Mamata Banerjee, who had gone to Nandigram to visit the rape victim, claimed that her convoy was attacked by CPI(M) hoodlums and that she was forced to return to Kolkata. She also complained to Governor Gopal Krishna Gandhi, who summoned State Home Secretary A. M. Chakraborti for an account of the incident.

Ironically, on April 23, the SSKM Medical Board report ruled out possibilities of the woman having been sexually assaulted. The report, however, confirmed that she had suffered bruises in what appeared to be a struggle and said that she could have been beaten up with sticks.

We do not have either the history or the tradition of such activities in Nandigram. It could never have been the CPI(M)s work. Even her father and brother strongly criticised the way in which she was being used for political ends, local CPI(M) leader Ashok Guria told Frontline.

Mamata Banerjee, however, rejected the SSKM report as false. The same day she went again to Nandigram, this time under heavy security, and addressed a rally of around 700 villagers, where she accused the CPI(M) of having doctored the report.

This is not the first time that the Trinamool Congress has resorted to such accusations. In November 2007, CPI(M) cadre had been accused of raping Akhroja Bibi of Satengabadi and her two teenage daughters. It was also alleged that the two girls were murdered and their bodies thrown into the sea. Later on, the girls were discovered alive and well in Kakdwip in North 24 Parganas; medical tests conducted on the mother and the daughters did not reveal any evidence of rape.

According to informed sources, the Mamata magic may be waning in Nandigram. The BUPC is unhappy with the Trinamool as the latter has fielded its own candidates for the panchayat elections, at the expense of the SUCI, the Jamait-i-Ulema-e-Hind, and the Congress. According to reports, the periodic sojourns of Mamata and her convoy to the region are no longer cutting much ice with the villagers.

It was never an issue against land acquisition or against industrialisation. The whole BUPC phenomenon was a mask, behind which various parties were pursuing their own interests. The people of Nandigram have also started to understand that, and they do not want to be part of it anymore, said Guria. This reported waning of the BUPCs influence in Nandigram gains some confirmation from the popular response to the election meetings presided by Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee in the neighbourhood of the affected areas.

Meanwhile, violence continues in Nandigram. Ambushes, sudden attacks in the night, threats and arson may not be the order of the day, unlike last year, but the fact that they persist though in a diminishing form remains a source of concern.

On April 29, CPI(M) supporter Naru Pradhan was ambushed on his way back from the market in Balarampur, tied to a tree and beaten up severely by Trinamool supporters. The situation in the region is under control. There is no chance of it degenerating to last years level. Such skirmishes are not uncommon during election time in the country. We are sure these sporadic acts of violence will stop after the panchayat elections, a CPI(M) source told Frontline.

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