West Bengal

Mamata’s Nandigram moment

Print edition : February 02, 2018

At Nandigram on March 14, 2009, Mamata Banerjee holding aloft her party's manifesto at a rally on the occasion of the second annivarsary of the Nandigram violence. Photo: Ashok Bhaumik/PTI

Villagers blocking a road in Bhangar in March 2017. Photo: By Special Arrangement

Farmers gheraoing a police station in Bhangar in protest against the forceful acquisition of land in December 2016. Photo: By Special Arrangement

THE land movement in Bhangar in South 24 Paraganas district is turning out to be a thorn in the side of the Trinamool Congress government. After a lull of nearly a year, violence flared up once again in Bhangar over forcible land acquisition for a substation by Power Grid Corporation of India Ltd (PGCIL).

On December 29, the region turned into a battle zone when a protest rally organised by the Jami Jibika Paribesh O Bastutantra Raksha Committee (Committee for Protection of Land Livelihood and Environment), a platform set up by the local agitators, was attacked by alleged Trinamool activists, in which two protesters reportedly suffered bullet injuries. Bombs were hurled by both sides and several vehicles were set ablaze.

Simmering discontent

Discontent has simmered in Bhangar since 2013 when PGCIL acquired around 13 acres of three-crop land for a Rs.300-crore power project. In January 2017, the tension sparked violence, and two villagers were killed in alleged police firing. This was the first time that Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s government faced a violent agitation over land acquisition, an issue on which she first came to power.

For days, various parts of the region were inaccessible as the protesters set up roadblocks with uprooted trees. Bhangar appeared to be heading in the same direction as Nandigram (where a violent land agitation persisted for more than a year, after 14 villagers protesting against a proposed chemical hub were killed in police firing on March 14, 2007).

Sporadic violence continued for several weeks, until gradually it appeared that the movement had died down. Thirteen people, including political activists, were arrested and booked by the police under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act.

As in January 2017, this time too the situation was aggravated by the presence of certain extreme left-wing forces, whom the local Trinamool party workers call “outsiders”. “We have asked the administration to arrest those agitators, who in the name of land movement are bringing terrorists into the region and are openly moving around with weapons," said Arabul Islam, Trinamool strongman of Bhangar and a former MLA.

The protesters deny the presence of “outsiders” and insist that the movement is being conducted by residents. “The local Trinamool goons are using the excuse of the presence of outsiders, and behind the shield of the police are trying to overrun the region and destroy our movement,” Sheikh Kalu, one of the leaders of the agitation, told Frontline. However, the villagers do not deny that certain people from outside the region have extended their support and solidarity to the protesters.

On January 4, 2018, hours ahead of a meeting organised by the protesters at Bhangar, the police detained 12 people, allegedly members of the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) Red Star, from Belghoria Railway station in North 24 Paraganas, who were on their way to the protest site. The CPI(M-L) Red Star, however, denied that those detained were affiliated to the party and claimed that they had come down from Assam, where a similar power project is apparently being considered.

For Mamata Banerjee, the prevailing situation is a particularly uncomfortable one as many view the State government’s determination to set up the power substation despite people’s opposition as a violation of its promise. Mamata Banerjee had made it clear that she would not allow any project to come up unless it had the full support of the local people. The violent Singur movement she spearheaded while in the opposition was on behalf of just 2,200-odd “reluctant” land losers against 11,000 people who had pinned their hopes for a better future on the establishment of the Tata Motors’ small car project. The movement forced the Tatas to shift the project that was expected to change the industrial fortunes of West Bengal, and paved the way for Mamata Banerjee’s rise to power in the State.

Another factor that has been instrumental in keeping the Bhangar agitation alive for more than a year is the fierce inner-party feuds in the region. However, according to Trinamool sources, strict orders have come from the highest level of the party that the feuding factions must bury the hatchet and facilitate the setting up of the project. “The Trinamool goons under the leadership of Arabul Islam had started the power grid forcefully by intimidating people into giving up their land. Earlier, the faction that opposed Arabul stood by us. Now the entire Trinamool party is oppressing us. They are moving around the villages terrorising people,” said Kalu.

In a meeting organised by the ruling party in Bhangar on January 7, local MLA and West Bengal Minister for Food Processing, Abdur Rezzak Molla, made it clear that the government would not budge from its stand. “You can have a dialogue with us, but do not ever think that the power grid project will be revoked,” said Molla. The protesters, however, were not deterred by the ruling party’s show of strength, and as of January 9 the situation in Bhangar continued to remain tense. “If they try to force the project through in spite of our protest, there will be bloodshed because the people would rather die than allow the power project to come up,” Mirza Hussein, a resident of Bhangar who is at the forefront of the movement, told Frontline.

Suhrid Sankar Chattopadhyay