On March 14, 2007, 14 villagers, including two women, were killed in police firing at Nandigram, a sleepy fishing village in West Bengal’s Purba Medinipur district. The villagers were protesting against rumours of land acquisition by the Left Front government to set up a chemical hub. The killings sparked off a violent agitation that lasted over one and a half years and hastened the end of the Left Front’s rule in the State. It also had far-reaching implications as far as government policy for land acquisition was concerned. Such a long-drawn resistance by ordinary villagers against the might of a State government has seldom been witnessed in India.
In the 2006 Assembly election, the Left Front, riding high on Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee’s promise of industrial resurgence, returned to power for its seventh consecutive term with 235 out of the 294 seats. The opposition led by Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress was all but decimated. The police firing at Nandigram dramatically changed the political dynamics. The issue of forcible land acquisition took centre stage in Bengal politics. Mamata Banerjee had already taken up the cause of the farmers of Singur in Hooghly district, who were protesting against their land being taken away for the establishment of the Tata Motors Small Car Project and had sat on a historic 26-day hunger strike in Kolkata in December 2006.
In Nandigram, under the Trinamool’s leadership, the Bhumi Uchhed Pratirodh (Land Eviction Resistance) Committee (BUPC) was set up, supported by the Socialist Unity Centre of India, the Jamait-i-Ulema-e-Hind, and naxalite forces. CPI(M) supporters and their families were driven out, and there was an attempt to create a “liberated zone”. BUPC activists destroyed roads and access to bridges, dug up culverts and set up roadblocks to prevent any entry into the region under their control.
At the same time, the Singur protest raged on unabated, and in October 2008 the Tatas decided to move their project out of West Bengal, much to the humiliation of the State government. The parallel protests at Singur and Nandigram, coupled with Maoist activities in the Jangalmahal region (the contiguous forested areas of Bankura, Paschim Medinipur, Jhargam and Purulia districts) overwhelmed the ruling party, leading to its defeat in the 2011 election.
In 2013, the CBI, which had been investigating the Nandigram firing, practically absolved Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee and his government of any blame in the incident in its charge sheet. But the Left in Bengal never quite managed to fully recover.