Return to peace

Published : Dec 07, 2007 00:00 IST

After nearly a year of violence, the Left Front government has begun the healing process in Nandigram.

in KolkataInside Nandigram on

After 11 months of lawlessness, in the second week of November Nandigram in West Bengals Purbo Medinipur district took its first steps towards a lasting peace as embattled supporters of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) returned to their homes in the area. They virtually fought their way into the villages, and homes, they fled almost a year ago terrorised by armed supporters of the Bhumi Uchhed Pratirodh (Land Eviction Resistance) Committee.

The BUPC, led by the Trinamul Congress, was formed to resist the acquisition of land by the government for setting up a chemical hub or a special economic zone for chemical industries but soon found itself yielding space to elements with radical agendas, such as the Maoists.

As of November 16, six companies of the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) were in Nandigram and the Maoists fighting on the side of the BUPC were reportedly on the run. Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee said: The sun is rising in Nandigram, and it is a matter of time before its warmth can once again be felt by the people. The main priorities identified by the Left Front government led by the Communist Party of India (Marxist) are to provide immediate relief to the affected people, build confidence among them and restore normalcy in everyday life.

From all accounts, the Nandigram fiasco had its origins in a piece of misinformation that sparked a local agitation. Unscrupulous political opportunism hijacked the protest to convert this tiny southeast corner of West Bengal into a battlefield to perpetuate a liberated zone not bound by the laws of the land.

At a rally

On January 3, an inopportune notice sent by the Haldia Development Authority on its own initiative to the block development officer (BDO) in Nandigram, to identify areas that may be required for setting up a chemical hub, elicited a violent reaction from the local people. The State government then gave a verbal assurance that no land would be acquired without the prior consent of the people.

However, the BUPC, which the Trinamul Congress created, and the informal alliance it forged with naxalites, the Socialist Unity Centre of India (SUCI) and the Jamait-i-Ulema-e-Hind, began driving out CPI(M) supporters from the area. According to CPI(M) sources, these elements took control of the entire Block I and parts of Block II of the three blocks of Nandigram, destroyed roads and access to bridges, dug up culverts and set up road-blocks to prevent any entry into their liberated zone. Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee announced as early as February that the notice had been torn up and that the people need not fear losing their land anymore. In spite of this assurance, the BUPC continued to operate in the area.

On March 14, two and a half months after the trouble began, the government sent a police force to the area to restore road links. The resistance to this from the local people, instigated by the BUPC, turned violent and in the catastrophe that followed 14 people, including two women, were killed and 75 were injured (Frontline, April 6, 2007).

The government, faced with mounting political pressure, withdrew the police force. Taking advantage of this and the absence of administration in the area, the BUPC took over and began its reign of terror looting, extortion, violence against all those who raised their voice against it.

Trinamul Congress chief Mamata Banerjee turned down the State governments repeated offers for talks. Meanwhile, the BUPC continued to target CPI(M) supporters and leaders. More than 3,000 people, including women and children, who were driven out of their homes, took refuge in relief camps set up by the CPI(M). The experiences of the people who escaped indicated that extortion and violence were the order of the day in the once sleepy hamlets..

After nearly a months relative calm, fresh violence erupted in the end of October. Matters took a turn for the worse on November 7, and in the bloody battle that continued until November 10 four people were killed and 14 were injured. It ended with the BUPC losing its hold over its liberated zone. By the time the first CRPF patrol entered the area on November 12, the battle for Nandigram was over but the situation remained extremely tense.

Governor Gopalkrishna Gandhi

Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee said he had requested the Union Home Ministry as early as October 27 for the deployment of the CRPF. Had the Centre heeded his request and sent the forces immediately, the violence could have been avoided, he said. The primary task of the CRPF in Nandigram now is not to restore law and order but to build confidence among the people and prevent any further outbreak of violence.

On November 12, for the first time in 11 months, the CPI(M) held a meeting in Nandigram, in which local leaders such as Ashok Bera, Robin Maity and Niranjan Mandal participated. The repeated assurance that flowed from their microphones was: All those of you who have left your homes, please return. You will not be harmed.

The CPI(M) leaders said the assurance was meant not just for the over 2,500 of its supporters rendered homeless by the BUPC but for all residents of the three blocks regardless of party affiliation. Ashok Guria, a leading member of the Purbo Medinipur district committee of the CPI(M), is reported to have said: Nandigram does not belong to the CPI(M) alone. The flags of all the political parties will be kept aloft here from now on. Only weapons and those who wield them will have no place here.

Both the Left Front government and the party that leads it, the CPI(M), came in for strong criticism, particularly from a section of intellectuals and artistes, including film-makers Goutam Ghosh and Aparna Sen, for the recent violence. In Kolkata, first they led a procession urging a boycott of the International Film Festival, which coincided with the latest phase of violence in Nandigram, and then a protest march on November 14 condemning the governments stand on Nandigram.

CRPF personnel at

The CPI(M) said the same intellectuals, artistes, litterateurs and celebrities who condemned the government and the party now had remained silent for the past 11 months when thousands of families, including women and children, were driven out of their villages at gunpoint. In fact, another group of intellectuals, including screen legend Soumitro Chatterjee and leading novelist Sunil Gangopadhyay, took out a counter-procession on November 15.

The opposition parties, too, were not far behind the intellectuals. In Kolkata, approximately 180 km from Nandigram, normal life was once again affected on November 12 by a strike called by the Congress, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the SUCI on Nandigram. The Trinamul Congress went a step further and gave a call for a non-cooperation movement.

This was the third strike in two weeks, the earlier ones having been called by the SUCI and the Trinamul Congress on October 30 and 31. BJP leader L.K. Advani, who visited Nandigram on November 13, publicly announced that the situation there was a fit case for Presidents Rule.

Mamata Banerjee, true to her style of politics, resigned yet again; this time from her South Kolkata parliamentary seat. She said it was in protest against the continuing violence in Nandigram. But Lok Sabha Speaker Somnath Chatterjee rejected the letter on the grounds that it was addressed to the Prime Minister and not the Speaker.

The governments detractors seemed to have found their voice in Governor Gopalkrishna Gandhi, who, though acknowledging that no quarter should be given to the cult of violence associated with Maoists, said in a press statement, The manner in which the recapture of Nandigram villages is being attempted is totally unlawful and unacceptable.

According to the CPI(M), on the Nandigram issue this is the second time since expressing cold horror at the police firing on March 14 the Governor has stepped out of his constitutional line and taken a partisan stand on the situation.

A statement by the CPI(M) Polit Bureau said the Governor was well within his constitutional right to communicate his views to the State and Central governments. However, he has chosen once again to go public with a statement which is uncalled for. The content of the statement makes it clear that this is not the role expected from the office of Governor under the Constitution.

At Bhangabera on

Asked at a press conference on November 13 about the forcible repossession of land by CPI(M) followers, Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee said: I wanted to avoid this right from the beginning, but it was desperation which drove them to use force. The BUPC were paid back in their own coin. When they harassed CPI(M) followers for 11 months just because they were CPI(M) supporters, when they drove them out of their homes, were they [the BUPC] unarmed? Were they peaceful? Bhattacharjee, however, refused to comment on the Governors statement.

On November 16, a Division Bench of the Calcutta High Court, comprising Chief Justice S.S. Nijjar and Justice Pinaki Chandra Ghosh, delivering a judgment on a petition on the March 14 police firing in Nandigram, termed the police firing as totally unconstitutional and directed the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) to continue its inquiry into the incidents and submit a report within a month. The CBI had begun its inquiry on the direction of the High Court on March 15 when it heard a petition filed by the National Alliance of Peoples Movement.

The court also ordered a compensation package of Rs.5 lakh to each of the families of the 14 killed, Rs.2 lakh to those raped and Rs.1 lakh each to the injured.

What perhaps surprised the CPI(M) was the reaction of its partners in the government, notably the Revolutionary Socialist Party (RSP) and the All India Forward Bloc (AIFB). They held the CPI(M) alone responsible for the latest violence in Nandigram and RSP leader and State Public Works Department Minister Kshiti Goswami even threatened to quit the Cabinet.

One question that is asked is why the police were not deployed in the beginning to restore law and order. The governments response has been that it was wary of this option in view of what happened on March 14. Besides, it said, the opposition parties always accused the State police of being partisan. The Trinamul Congress even demanded that if the CRPF is deployed in the State, it should not be placed under the command of State police officers, which is the normal practice.

It was in this context, sources said, the government wanted to avoid police action as far as possible, and tried for a political settlement. The RSP and the AIFB, too, supported this position.

Sources said a number of peace committees had been set up at the district and local levels and some of them had started functioning as well, giving out the hope that the situation would return to normal without any further use of force. However, that was not to be.

The location of Nandigram, according to government sources, presented a difficulty for the government machinery to intervene. In the south is the Haldi river and the west opens into the Bay of Bengal. On the northern side is the Talpati canal, which links the river with the sea. The place is very vulnerable, and if extremist forces like the Maoists enter through the waterway, they can cause havoc in the region, a government source said.

The Chief Minister was certain about the presence of Maoists in Nandigram. He said: It is a fact that a strong group of Maoists from Jharkhand under the leadership of Ranjit Pal [the Maoist leader who is an accused in the March 4 murder of Sunil Mahato, Lok Sabha member of the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha and is listed as absconding] was operating in the region. They were heavily armed and even planted landmines in and around the area.

A strong indication of Maoist presence, according to sources, was the detection of a landmine at Gangrachar in Sonachura by the CRPF. According to reports, more mines were placed around Sonachura the BUPC stronghold in an attempt to keep the region isolated.

Sources said that on November 14 the CRPF uncovered what was virtually a landmine-manufacturing factory and seized 150 detonators, tin cans, batteries to charge detonators and various other ingredients. An indication of the presence of extremists from Andhra Pradesh was the discovery of a leaflet in Telugu laying down detailed guidelines for armed combat. According to the sources, the Maoists were not only fighting under the BUPC banner but also training people in firearms. They had even built bunkers in some places, the sources added.

Another criticism raised by the governments detractors is administrative failure on the part of the government. CPI(M) State secretary, Left front Chairman and Polit Bureau member Biman Bose told Frontline, West Bengal has 341 blocks, of which one and a half blocks were affected. Can a State governments performance really be judged on that alone, given all the factors that led to the situation there? The government has drawn up a strategy to restore administrative normalcy in the region. It has put up relief camps, and the local administration has been instructed to go from house to house if necessary to restore confidence in the people. Block and panchayat offices have been told to resume their activities, and gradually the police are being moved into the region.

My work now is to ensure peace in Nandigram and get administrative control there, said Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee and added that troublemakers from outside would not be allowed to remain in Nandigram.

The situation in Nandigram is slowing returning to normal. By November 14, bazaars in the area showed tentative signs of commerce and children could be seen going to school after almost a year of enforced holiday. Steps have also been taken to restore infrastructure and resume development work.

Our immediate priority is to use the funds for development work, which have been lying unutilised for the past 11 months, and thus generate immediate employment for as many people as possible, a senior CPI(M) functionary said.

However, one issue that the government had to address was the destruction caused to houses in the area, he said. Most the people returned to virtually non-existent homes; many of the homesteads had been set on fire or looted of their meagre belongings such as clothes and utensils.

To provide immediate relief, on November 14 a sum of Rs.1 crore from the Chief Ministers Relief Fund was disbursed to at least 700 of the most badly affected families cutting across political party lines. Those whose houses have been gutted are being given Rs.10,000 and those whose houses have been partly damaged are being given Rs.5,000.

Each family will also receive Rs.1,000 to cover immediate requirements for daily life. With winter approaching, we will also have to consider clothes and blankets for the affected, Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee said. Netaji Sangha, a non-political organisation of Kolkata, has stepped forward with a donation of Rs.50,000 to repair homesteads and many others too have made similar offers.

Asked whether the 11-month-long unrest in Nandigram would detract future investors, Bhattacharjee said: Not a single investor even those with whom we are currently in discussion have backed out. On November 14 he announced that West Bengal was set to have its first ever biotechnology park, which is coming up as a part of a collaborative effort between the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Kharagpur and Berkeley University of the United States.

Berkeley is famous of carrying out some of the most modern researches in tropical diseases such as malaria, dengue, and so on, and this will be of enormous benefit to the State, he said.

There is a nagging fear among many that the peace in Nandigram may last only as long as the CRPF remains. The Chief Minister, however, appears confident that a definitive solution has been arrived at. To a query at a press conference whether such incidents would be tackled differently in future, he replied that there shall be no recurrence of Nandigram.

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