Sunday, April 22, 2007

Interim Report of the Citizens’ Committee on Singur and Nandigram (29 January)

We, a group of concerned citizens with a Left orientation, visited some disturbed parts of West Bengal, between 26 and 28 January, 2007, as a fact finding team. Our team consisted of Prof.Sumit Sarkar, historian; Colin Gonsalves, Senior Supreme Court Advocate; Sumit Chakravartty, senior journalist; Krishna Majumdar, Delhi University; Tanika Sarkar, Jawaharlal Nehru University.

Three members of the team had earlier visited Singur on 31 December 2006 and 10 January, 2007. Three members again visited Singur on 28 January,2007. The members visited the following places at Singur in Hooghly: Khaser Bheri, Beraberi Purbapara, Gopalnagar, Bajemelia. At Nandigram (Purba Medinipur) we visited Bhuta Mor, Kalicharanpur, Garchakraberia, Sonachura. We also visited Bhangabera at Khejuri.

At all these places we were met with huge gatherings of people and also had extensive discussions with individual villagers, men and women. At Tamluk, Contai and Nandigram, we met District Committee members of the CPI-M, including Lakshman Seth, MP and Chairperson of the Haldia Development Authority, and Prashanta Pradhan, MP ; Prabodh Panda, MP, CPI; Shishir Adhikari and Shubhendu Adhikari, MLAs, Trinamul Congress; Siddiqulla Choudhury, leader of Jamiat Ulema-i-Hind; Debaprasad Sarkar, MLA, SUCI; Santosh Rana, PCC, CPI-ML. We also met a cross section of activists from these parties and leaders of the Bhumi Uchched Pratirodh Committee, Nandigarm and Singur Krishi Jami Raksha Committee. We consulted civil rights groups, police sources and previous fact-finding reports of the CPI-M and other organisations.

We have prepared a brief interim report within a day of our return to be followed by a final report. Our unanimous impressions are as follows:

At Nandigarm, all sections of the village people that we met, women as well as men, vociferously expressed bitter anger about the land acquisition process. They had heard rumours of land acquisition for the last year and a half, and had organised themselves to resist it. They had not been consulted at any stage, nor had any elected body ( panchayats or gram sansads ) been called to discuss the issue. On 3 January, people went to the Gram Panchayat office at Kalicharanpur to ask for information about a notice that had been reportedly issued by the Haldia Development Authority. They had heard that about thirty eight mouzas would be engrossed within the land earmarked for the SEZ under the Selim group. On being told by the Pradhan that no information had come, they demonstrated peacefully and left. They alleged that soon afterwards, the police attacked them with lathis and teargas and then fired upon them. Four people were badly injured.

A large crowd, including many women, carrying household implements like sharp knives, then came out and there was an hour long confrontation, after which the police retreated in some confusion. According to eyewitnesses among villagers at Bhuta Mor, a police jeep drove offcourse and hit a lamp post while trying to escape. The jeep got completely burnt through the ensuing electric short circuit, a policeman fell out into a pond and another tripped on the road and fell. The villagers rescued them and, after a light beating, sent them back. They had left behind a rifle which was subsequently sent back to the thana. Immediately, villagers began to erect barricades, bridges were broken and roads dug up to prevent the entry of the police and of CPM cadres into the villages. We saw hundreds of such barricades which are still in place.

A police camp was set up on the border between Nandigram and Khejuri. On 6 January, at around 5 PM, villagers saw the police vacating that camp. That night, a launch drew up on Haldi river at the ferryghat there. According to villagers of Sonachura and adjoining villages, a very large number of strangers, fully armed, disembarked, and occupied the police camp. At around 3 AM, villagers woke to the sound of bombs and gunfire, coming from the house of Sankar Samanta, a CPM activist. As they rushed towards the spot, they found the dead bodies of two village youths, Bharat Mondol and Sheikh Selim. When the body of thirteen year old Biswajit Mondol was found, villagers, in their fury, turned upon the Samanta residence and torched it, killing Sankar Samanta. Since then, they live under daily intimidation from CPM cadres, expecting massive retaliation. We found village women extremely apprehensive, begging us to spend the night with them.

We were told of these incidents by very large groups of villagers in different places. Their accounts tallied. An overwhelming majority of them said that they had always been CPM members or Left Front supporters till these events occurred. The account of events that Probodh Panda, CPI, MP, gave us, tallied with this, though he deplored the continued resistance by villagers, even after the Chief Minister’s assurance that nothing has so far been finalised about the Nandigram SEZ.

We were told by hundreds of Muslim women who surrounded us that they were determined to hold on to their land at all cost : “ Jami amra chharbuni”. “Even if we lose our sons and husbands, we will fight on, how many policemen can they send, there are more of us “ They said that even though poor, they produced most of their food and ran home based crafts like stitching of garments which were sold in Kolkata and Delhi : “ what will happen to our shilpa ? “ They said that they put the CPM on the throne and the Party rewards them with a bamboo. They had ransacked the CPM local committee office at Rajaramchak on the grounds that “ it was a house of sin. We had built it and now we ourselves are destroying it”. Further, they would not only lose their land and livelihood, but also villages, schools, homes, their entire community and culture.

They were totally sceptical of industries providing uneducated people like them with jobs. They, moreover, are doubtful that all the land will be used for industries since large tracts of Haldia land had not yet been utilised or been devoted to construction of rich residential buildings. They, moreover, see the Jellingham Project at Nandigram Block 1, where about 400 acres of land had been acquired in 1977 for ship repairs. One hundred and forty two families lost their land. The Project stopped functioning after five years and the site today lies deserted. Neither at Haldia nor at Jellingham, had any rehabilitation been done nor much compensation paid. Very few locals got jobs at either.

According to the CPM District Committee’s account, villagers were organised by the Trinamool and only Trinamool supporters were involved. They stoned the police and burnt the police jeep on 3 January, after which the police opened fire. On 7 January, villagers, again instigated by the Trinamool, had started the attack across the river and killed Sankar Samanta whom they described as “a very harmless man” who possessed a licensed gun which was snatched by the villagers. There had been no firing from his house, according to Lakshman Seth . About the number of casualties, police sources, the CPM District Committee as well as villagers say that four people have died, one of them being Samanta. There was, then, one CPM casualty, the rest were villagers. However, according to an earlier account given out by the Central Committee of the CPM, six of their Party people have been killed. According to local Trinamool sources, the number of CPM casualties was much higher : seven ( apart from Samanta ) according to one and thirty one, according to another. Trinamool leaders say that CPM casualty figures are minimised by the Party as they were of outsiders who were allegedly criminals.

CPM leaders said that villagers who resist land acquisition are Trinamool members and only pretend to be Left supporters. When we told them that village women raised the left fist in salute as Communists do, Lakshman Seth said that they had been rehearsed by the Trinamool since they knew the enquiry committee was known to be leftist.

Our impression was that the people of Nandigram are prepared for a very hard struggle. It is being waged with remarkable communal amity and with participation from all political groups, many of whom had been CPM just the other day. “ We were all CPM but now we only have our movement”, said a woman : “ we do not want to wander around like gypsies, carrying tents on our back “ We found the movement to be a genuine peasant movement, activated by mass fury or “ janarosh” , as Probodh Panda said, though he said now the Trinamool is trying to fish in troubled waters. We also feel that the fury was partly due to the total lack of transparency about the basic facts about land acquistion about which no government sources would inform them. They were not part of any discussion about matters that concerned their lives and livelihood.

The sequence of events in Singur is very well known. According to the Status Report issued by the CPM, most of the affected area is monocropped. They, however, seem to have used a land survey of the early seventies after which several deep tubewells have been sunk, and many shallow handpumps set up, increasing soil fertility enormously. According to villagers, most of the land is under four to five crops. There are also village based handicrafts, and a large number of rural ancillaries that employ very large numbers of people. We did find very green fields and relatively prosperous village homes. The people are very humiliated that their land has been described as poor in quality and their labour devalued as a backward form of work. The factory, they feel, will give work to very few of the displaced. Even in the unlikely event of one person per family getting a job in the factory, other members will not. Land is the foundation of their existence and they do not want to move over to factories.

Singur villagers learnt of the land acquisition for theTata factory from newspapers, there being no Panchayat meeting or Party spokesman who informed them. They claim that holders of 360 acres have refused to accept the compensation. They also claim that compensation is well below the actual land price. In both Singur and Nandigram, unregistered sharecroppers and agricultural labourers – a very large number, of several thousands – are not included within the category of compensation receivers. Property alone has value, not labour.

It is generally acknowledged that Singur villagers have not used violence against persons so far, even though there has been considerable violence by the police against villagers who demonstrated against acquisition with peaceful satyagraha methods, especially on 25 September and 2 December. Despite the peacefulness of protestors, Section 144 was clapped on Singur PS and on all roads leading to Singur. Even where it does not exist, protestors are arrested for congregating, and ordinary vehicles are stopped and searched. Women were beaten up by male policemen, filthy language was used, villagers and student protestors lathi charged, resulting in severe injuries. The charge of possession of dangerous weapons had been clapped on a two and a half year girl who was sent to prison for several days and was deprived of baby food there.

Noted social activists like Medha Patkar have been frequently been picked up and opposition political leaders manhandled. Even in Kolkata where no Section 144 exists, protestors have been kept under lock up and have been arrested during peaceful demonstrations, and have been lathi charged. Particularly strange has been the fate of Tapasi Malik, a young girl,who was found brutally murdered on 18 December. The police seems to have obliterated most of the evidence during preliminary investigations, insisting that she was murdered by a boyfriend whose existence, however, can not be proved. The fact that she had been a political activist in the movement and may have had political enemies is not taken into account in investigations even though her father insists repeatedly that a local CPM cadre could be responsible. Her male relatives are harassed, and her young niece was questioned vulgarly about the state of her underclothes. No policewomen were present at the questioning though that is legally obligatory.

We found a determined peasant movement in Singur, peaceful so far, except for some recent attacks on the fence surrounding the surrounding land. Villagers are determined to fight on, regardless of the costs to themselves. They now say that they will not be beaten up without retaliation, they will fight back in whatever way that is effective.

In conclusion, we found powerful movements, determined to press on. Large segments of erstwhile CPM members and supporters are deeply alienated, against the Party and the Government. Muslims are terribly offended about misinformed aspersions cast at the Jamiat as communal and they are not satisfied by the invitation offered to their leaders by the Party leadership to come and discuss the matter. We concluded that the apprehensions of peasants are fully justified as industries these days do not produce large numbers of jobs. There are alternative sites that can be acquired for industrialisation without damaging agriculture and village communities. Much peasant land has already been acquired for the New Rajarhat Township near Kolkata, creating environmental damage and dispossession of the poor. But it is earmarked for entirely non-developmental purposes to satisfy the demands of the very rich for their luxurious lifestyle. We also think that the media, on the whole, has been insensitive and irresponsible in their reporting. We urge the ruling Front to reconsider their land acquisition policy, to talk to all segments of the people and to listen seriously to their arguments. They need to think seriously about alternative sites for industrialisation that would not lead to the displacement of peasants. They need to think, in consultation with people, about the alternative forms of development. Otherwise, a rural civil war may ensue.