Land Struggle

Taste of her own medicine

Print edition : February 17, 2017

Residents of Bhangar in South 24 Parganas district refused to remove the uprooted trees that they used to block roads. Photo: SUHRID SANKAR CHATTOPADHYAY

For days after the January 17 violence at Bhangar, the women of Tona village hid in the fields after nightfall. Photo: SUHRID SANKAR CHATTOPADHYAY

Sheikh Lutfor Rahaman and his aged mother were the only two people who remained in their homes at Madrasa Para village on the night of January 17. All the rest had left home fearing attacks. Photo: SUHRID SANKAR CHATTOPADHYAY

Bhangar virtually shut down for days as shops remained closed and children stayed away from schools. Photo: SUHRID SANKAR CHATTOPADHYAY

Mother of Mofizul Khan, who was killed on January 17. Like most residents of Bhangar, hers is a family of Trinamool Congress supporters so loyal that they use pillow covers sporting the party symbol. Photo: SUHRID SANKAR CHATTOPADHYAY

Mamata Banerjee’s administration faces an agitation against land acquisition that has disturbing parallels with the Nandigram and Singur agitations which turned around her plummeting political fortunes 10 years ago.

THE spectre of violent agitation against land acquisition, of the kind that was instrumental in removing the Left Front from power in 2011, has now come to haunt Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee and her Trinamool Congress in West Bengal. Bhangar in South 24 Parganas district turned into a battle zone when angry villagers clashed with the police as an agitation against the establishment of a power substation spiralled out of control. Two villagers were killed, allegedly in police firing, 30 policemen were injured, and more than 40 police vehicles were destroyed by a mob.

The simmering discontent over the setting up of the substation by Power Grid Corporation of India Ltd (PGCIL) erupted onto the surface on January 17 as thousands of village residents took to the streets following the arrest of some of the leaders of the protest movement and alleged harassment by the police in several villages the previous night. Armed with sticks and bricks, they took on a large deployment of police and forced it to beat a retreat. Bringing back memories of the violent and prolonged land agitations of Nandigram and Singur that Mamata Banerjee herself spearheaded in 2007 against the then Left Front government’s land acquisition drive for industries, the people of Bhangar set up roadblocks using uprooted trees to keep the police and the administration out. Despite the State government giving its assurance that work on the power grid would be stalled with immediate effect, the situation was tense for over a week. This was the Trinamool government’s first taste of a mass protest in rural Bengal after assuming power in 2011.

The PGCIL acquired around 13 acres (one acre is 0.4 hectare) of three-crop land in Bhangar in 2013 to set up a Rs.300-crore power project. Village residents in and around the project site claim that they have been protesting right from the beginning and that some of them were forced to give up their land. They say that their voices were stifled by the ruling party under the leadership of the controversial local Trinamool heavyweight Arabul Islam. “He [Arabul] threatened us with violence if we protested,” said Mamin Ali, a resident of Bhangar.

Casualties

Two bystanders, Alamgir Molla and Mofizul Khan, got caught in the January 17 violence and were killed. Alamgir, a 22-year-old student, was not a local resident; he was visiting relatives and was merely watching the agitation when he was gunned down. The other victim, Mofizul Khan of Munshipara, Bhangar, worked as a car mechanic and driver. When violence began to escalate on January 17, his employer called him to put his car away in a safe place. He was on his way home after completing the job, when, according to witnesses, a policeman driving past him shot him down.

Bhangar remained tense until January 23 as people refused to end the agitation and said that the roadblocks would be removed only if Mamata Banerjee herself came to assure them that the PGCIL project would be moved out of the area. Speaking to Frontline, Sheikh Kalu of Gajipur village, one of the chief leaders of the protest, said: “We are all Trinamool supporters. All that Didi needs to do is come here and tell us that the project will be scrapped. But she is not doing that. Rather, the local small-time leaders of the party are threatening us with violence if we do not lift the agitation.” Local residents made it clear that they had no faith in the local administration and the police.

Finally, in the late afternoon of January 24, the ruling party made some headway when Sabyasachi Dutta, the Mayor of Bidhannagar Municipal Corporation and Trinamool MLA, led a peace rally in the area. In the night, however, residents of some of the villages dug up roads to keep away the police and hoodlums. On the morning of January 25, Kalu told Frontline: “The so-called peace rally was nothing but a procession of Trinamool goons. Seeing them, the people feared an attack in the night, so they dug up roads in such a manner as to not allow the passage of big vehicles. Bikes and small cars can ply.” In the afternoon, the police and the Rapid Action Force (RAF) entered Bhangar and staged a flag march.

Until the RAF moved in, Bhangar, following the January 17 violence, was practically outside the influence of the administration, with uprooted trees blocking roads, shops remaining closed and parents too nervous to send their children to school. At nightfall, people left home to hide in the fields or sought shelter in neighbouring villages for fear of retaliation by either the police or the Trinamool section supporting the project.

Sheik Lutfor Rahaman, 60, recalled how on the night of January 17 his nonagenarian mother and he were the only ones in Madrasa Para village who remained in their home. “The entire village was empty as people left their homes in fear. My mother’s age prevented us from going with them. It was a night of terror,” he said. Najma Bibi of Tona village said: “The moment evening sets in, we hear the sound of bombs being hurled, and we take our children and escape to the fields where we spend the night in the cold.”

Echoes of Nandigram and Singur

There are chilling parallels between what is happening in Bhangar and the violent land agitations that took place in Nandigram and Singur 10 years ago. In Nandigram, the agitation was precipitated by rumours of land acquisition for a chemical hub. In Singur, the protracted protest led by Mamata Banerjee, who was then in the opposition, led to Tata Motors shifting its small car (Nano) factory project out of the State. When 14 people were killed in police firing in Nandigram on March 14, 2007, the opposition alleged that cadres of the ruling Communist Party of India (Marxist) were among the police contingent. Local residents raised similar allegations in Bhangar. A faction of the Trinamool had joined forces with the police and attacked local residents, they said. “Half of the policemen who attacked us were actually goons owing allegiance to a faction of the Trinamool. They were locals dressed in police uniform,” said Qutubuddin Khan, a local resident. The police have denied that they fired at local residents, and put the blame on “outsiders”. But witnesses insist that the gunshots had come from within a police van. “After they shot Mofizul, they tried to drag the body into the vehicle but were not able to," said Munshi Abdul Ghani, a resident of Munshipara village, who claimed that he had witnessed the incident.

As in the case of Singur and Nandigram, in Bhangar too there are indications that certain extreme left-wing elements have been active for some time and have been exerting influence over the villagers. Rumours of supposed health and environment hazards posed by the project accounted for much of the local resistance to it. The gist of what the residents of Gajipur, Bhangar, said was: Scientists have come and told us that if this power project comes through, with power lines going over our houses, then for 10 km around there will be no trees, no fish in the ponds, no crops in the fields; human hormones will be changed, and the children born subsequently will be deformed. Police sources have confirmed that certain extreme left-wing organisations have been quietly staging a whispering campaign against the power grid, posing as “scientists”, to play on the fears of the local people. The social scientist Biswanath Chakraborty pointed out that for the first time extreme left political parties have used non-scientific reasons and downright superstitions to mobilise rural masses. “This is a departure from their usual practice and ideology,” Chakraborty told Frontline.

Alik Chakraborty, member of the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) Red Star, which is among the groups active in the region, pointed out that that risks to human health and environment posed by a power grid in a populated area could not be overlooked.

In another development, the party’s general secretary, K.N. Ramachandran, who had come down to Kolkata on January 22 to visit Bhangar, mysteriously disappeared upon arrival. He resurfaced two days later in New Delhi, where he said he had been detained for 26 hours by people claiming to be from Central intelligence. In a press statement, he said: “I am not sure whether these criminals who detained and caused such mental harassment to me are from Central Intelligence, WB State intelligence or the goondas of the ex MLA of TMC and the present MLA and minister in the TMC cabinet, or a combination of all these....”

Fears of health hazard apart, the flippant attitude adopted by some senior Trinamool leaders incensed the residents of Bhangar. Abdur Rezzak Mollah, State Minister of Food Procurement and Horticulture who represents Bhangar in the Assembly, ridiculed people’s fears at a recent public rally in the area. “You will be provided with hybrid babies from other countries as a substitute,” he said. The cynical joke cut the people to the quick.

Not just land grab

On the surface, the Bhangar unrest looks like a protest against land acquisition. But there are other factors at work which have added greater intensity to the mass outbreak. Other grievances have surfaced, the foremost being the growing resentment over the conduct of the local Trinamool leadership. Residents claim that many people were forced to part with their land at throwaway prices, and not only for the power grid project. Some Trinamool leaders have apparently been purchasing land to build private housing projects. “Many of us were even forced to stare down the barrel of a gun to finally part with our land,” a resident told Frontline. One name that keeps coming up in connection with the land mafia is Arabul Islam. The current agitation has brought to the fore a movement against Arabul’s so-far unchallenged rule in the area. When contacted, the former Trinamool honcho was dismissive of the allegations and did not even bother to counter them. “Many people are saying many things, but those are not true,” he told Frontline brusquely. According to Trinamool sources, the violent outbreak is a result of vicious inner-party feuds and a struggle for area domination. “The opposition does not exist there, so they cannot be blamed for fomenting trouble. This is entirely a power struggle within our party in the region,” said a Trinamool source.

Mamata's perceived indifference

The residents of Bhangar, most of whom are Trinamool supporters, find the Chief Minister’s perceived indifference to their tragedy baffling. These are people so devoted to Mamata Banerjee and so loyal to the Trinamool that they even make their pillow covers with Trinamool symbols. “Earlier, when she came to us, it was like she was a part of our family. Why is she ignoring us now?” asked a villager from Tona-Munshipara, the village of the slain Mofizul Khan. Another resident provided the answer: “Because she does not need our votes anymore.” Their bitterness and feeling of betrayal was apparent.

Mofizul’s mother sat outside her house, clutching a pillow with the Trinamool symbol on it. Her voice had grown hoarse from crying. “Not one single Trinamool leader has come to our house, and my whole family has given its life in supporting the Trinamool,” she said. The State government, while maintaining that it had nothing to do with the two deaths in Bhangar, offered a compensation of Rs.2 lakh each to those killed in the violence on “humanitarian grounds”. Mofizul’s family, in spite of their desperate poverty, refused to take it.

Sign of things to come?

Many feel that the situation in Bhangar is a result of Mamata Banerjee’s own policy regarding land and her party’s high-handed style of functioning. In an investment-starved State like West Bengal, where the unemployment figure officially stands at a staggering 70 lakh, the State government, for all its tall claims, is finding it increasingly difficult to attract and retain major investments. Even small projects like the expansion of roads and local investment plans are seen foundering in the face of mass resistance.

The Bhangar project, which would have strengthened the State’s power situation, will also perhaps be eventually abandoned, although it is 75 per cent complete. Ironically, even as the Chief Minister addressed industrialists at the Bengal Global Business Summit, appealing to them to invest in the State, protesters claiming to be Trinamool supporters continued to agitate for the scrapping of a project of undeniable importance to the State.

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