Friday, April 27, 2007

Political battle

Political battle

Volume 24 - Issue 06 :: Mar. 24-Apr. 06, 2007


The police firing and violence in Nandigram, which claimed 14 lives, are the culmination of disturbing activities since January.


Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee caught in a traffic jam on his way to address a public meeting in East Midnapore district, of which Nandigram is a part, on February 11. The blockade was caused by the huge crowd that had gathered to hear him.

The police firing and subsequent violence at Nandigram in East Midnapore district of West Bengal on March 14, in which 14 people, including two women, were killed and 75 were injured, have come as a major embarrassment to the Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led Left Front government in the State.

Speculation in January that the government would acquire land in the area to establish a chemical hub, to be set up as a special economic zone (SEZ), apparently led a motley group of people, including naxalites and members of the Trinamool Congress, the Socialist Unity Centre of India (SUCI) and the Jamait-i-Ulema-e-Hind, to come together under the banner of the Bhoomi Ucched Pratirodh (Land Eviction Resistance) Committee (BUPC) against the move. They began by targeting supporters of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), whom they chased out of the area and virtually established their own rule there.

For more than two and a half months, Nandigram, which is around 150 km from Kolkata, was a ticking time bomb, isolated from the rest of the State as the BUPC dug up roads and damaged bridges leading to the place. It finally exploded on March 14 when the police, sent in to restore the road links and law and order, fired bullets. Nandigram turned into a political battlefield.

The visuals on television news channels strengthened charges of police excesses. Most of the injured were women and children, who had been placed as a human shield to prevent a police advance. Many of them later said they were given to believe by their leaders that the police would not hurt them. The police have been accused of using more force than was necessary to disperse the crowd, and of allowing outsiders to don police uniforms and use firearms.

While the inquiries that are on will bring out the truth about these accusations, the CPI(M) Polit Bureau put the matter in perspective: "It is regrettable that lives have been lost in police firing. But the organised elements who utilised bombs and pipe-guns on the police have to take the blame."

Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee accepted responsibility for the incident and expressed distress at the loss of so many innocent lives. The Opposition, led by Mamata Banerjee of the Trinamool Congress, some Congress leaders and sections of the literati, demanded his resignation and the imposition of President's Rule in the State.

Incidentally, there was no direction from the Chief Minister to open fire. Then, it should have been a decision taken by senior police officers and the executive magistrate present on the spot. The police said they opened fire in exercise of their right of private defence when the mob turned violent and started firing pipe-guns and throwing stones and bombs. However, the Chief Justice of the Calcutta High Court reportedly held that the firing was prima facie "unconstitutional".

The State government directed an executive inquiry by the Divisional Commissioner and a police investigation by the Criminal Investigation Department (CID), West Bengal. The High Court, in an order on March 15 while hearing a petition filed by the National Alliance of People's Movement, directed the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) to conduct a preliminary investigation and report to it. The CBI submitted its report on March 22, the contents of which the court has not made public yet.

Addressing the press on March 15, Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee said: "We had not gone there looking for a confrontation, nor to acquire land... When I had already said there would be no land acquisition in Nandigram, then it is final." He apprised the media of the prevailing lawlessness in Nandigram and asked: "Can any government allow this to continue indefinitely?"


Reactions condemning the incident flowed unendingly as it were. In a press statement Governor Gopalkrishna Gandhi said: "The news of the deaths by police firing in Nandigram this morning has filled me with a sense of cold horror... . [T]he point uppermost in my mind is not `who started it', `who provoked it' or whether there were agent-provocateurs behind it. Investigations will reveal that. The thought in my mind - and of all sensitive people now is - `Was this spilling of human blood not avoidable? What is the public purpose served by the use of force that we have witnessed today?'"

Nandigram soon became the mainspring for a political agitation by Opposition parties of all hues. A team of National Democratic Alliance (NDA) leaders, led by Bharatiya Janata Party leader L.K. Advani, and including George Fernandes, Sushma Swaraj, S.S. Ahluwalia, Dinesh Trivedi and Mukul Roy, visited Nandigram on March 17. Advani compared the police firing to the Jalianwalla Bagh massacre and Fernandes, while participating in a Trinamool Congress procession in Kolkata told reporters: "This government [in West Bengal] is a criminal government and I demand its immediate dismissal."

Mamata Banerjee accused the State government of "creating unrest" in the guise of industrialisation and called for a 12-hour bandh on March 16 in protest against the Nandigram deaths. She said her "agitation against acquiring farmland would continue unabated". Her stand on industrialisation, however, still remains unclear. She says she is "not" against industrialisation, but has opposed almost every endeavour of the State government to bring in investments.

At the East Midnapore District Hospital, a woman who was injured in the clashes and police firing.

The Congress team to Nandigram was led by All India Congress Committee general secretary Digvijay Singh. The Congress State unit general secretary Manas Bhuniya said the Pradesh Congress Committee, in its report to party president Sonia Gandhi, stated that "the prevailing situation in the State warrants the imposition of Article 356".

The constituents of the Left Front - the All India Forward Bloc (AIFB), the Revolutionary Socialist Party (RSP), and the Communist Party of India (CPI) - did not spare the government either. They accused the CPI(M) and the State government of keeping them in the dark on vital issues and even threatened to reconsider their participation in the government if the situation was allowed to persist. Matters were thrashed out and the "crisis" was averted through two important meetings in which former Chief Minister Jyoti Basu was present.

Addressing a press conference after the final meeting, Left Front chairman and Polit Bureau member Biman Bose said: "The unity of the Left Front was there, is there, and will be there." It was decided that Left Front meetings would be held more regularly and all major political decisions would be taken in consultation with the Front members. The meeting also stated that "the Nandigram incident was tragic and the government will have to be careful that something like that is never repeated".

Left leaning intellectuals and well-known personalities in the fields of art, literature, theatre and cinema deplored the incident and decried the government. They organised rallies, some resigned from their posts in different akademis, and quite a few returned the honours awarded to them by the government.

Film-maker Goutam Ghosh is reported to have commented: "Although the Chief Minister has been citing the example of China as his model, he isn't aware that the Chinese government does not allow private firms to own land." Sources in the CPI(M) say that the Left Front government does not follow any model. Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, in an interview to Frontline ("From agriculture to industry", February 9), made it clear that "India should not follow any country or any model" in its special economic zone (SEZ) policy.

However, not everyone among Kolkata's intelligentsia feels that the CPI(M) has abandoned its ideals. Noted author Sunil Gangopadhyay and actor Soumitro Chatterjee, while expressing grief at the deaths, said they did not feel that the government was treading the wrong path in pursuing industrialisation. Others point out that the Chief Minister had stated that there was no question of land acquisition in Nandigram, and ask: What then was the basis for such a violent resistance to the entry of the police?

Planned violence

It all started on January 3, when the Haldia Development Authority, on its own initiative, sent a letter to the block development officer (BDO) in Nandigram for a preliminary study of the region to earmark areas that may be required for an SEZ project. Following the violent reaction to this by the local people, the State government ruled out land acquisition in Nandigram without the consent of the people. However, this sparked off a series of incidents, which the Trinamool Congress and others used to carve out for themselves an area beyond the control of the State administration. This they achieved by driving out all CPI(M) supporters from the area, using force or threatening them, and digging up roads and making Nandigram inaccessible. Repeated efforts by the government for meetings were rebuffed and clashes between the CPI(M) and BUPC members bloodied the once peaceful, sleepy nook in the State.

By many accounts, the chaos at Nandigram soon ceased to be a land issue and took the shape of a political campaign by the disparate elements that had tied up with the Trinamool Congress. Since January, there have been reports of "outsiders" skilled in the use of firearms and explosives being brought in as powerful enforcers of the BUPC.

On the morning of February 10, Sumita Mandal, a 15-year-old schoolgirl at Sonachura village was helping her mother in the field. Around 11 a.m., she went home to refresh herself. When her mother returned home an hour later, she saw her daughter's body strung up on a tree behind their house. Neither the police nor members of the State Women's Commission could enter the village to collect information on the incident.

The post-mortem report revealed that Sumita, the daughter of a CPI(M) sympathiser, had been physically abused by at least five persons before she was hanged alive and left to die. Her father Sukdeb Mandal had fled the village on January 7 following threats from the BUPC. The same day supporters of the Trinamool Congress almost beat to death Sukdeb's elder brother Bhudeb, a government employee, and killed a CPI(M) panchayat member Sankar Samanta. The child's killers remain at large.

Three days before this incident, seven policemen assigned to enter the region on a peace mission were attacked by Trinamool activists. All of them, except one, escaped, but with grievous injuries. Sadhucharan Chatterjee, an elderly policeman, died of his injures and his body was retrieved from the Haldi river. Among the 23 identified and arrested over the incident was Gouranga Doloi, a Trinamool Congress worker and a leader of the BUPC.

On Holi, March 3, a housewife of Kalicharanpur in Nandigram was gang-raped in her house, ostensibly because she did not pay the `fine', a heavy one, for not participating in a rally of the BUPC. Unlike Sumita Mandal, the victim lived to tell the tale. She managed to flee in the dead of night and take shelter in the CPI(M) camp at Tekhali, from where she was taken to the zilla hospital in Tamluk. Her husband and elder son, like more than a thousand others, had left the village and were staying with relatives in a neighbouring village. Enraged by her escape, her assailants waited for her husband and son to return and when they did, beat them up badly. Two months ago, the family was threatened and asked to pay Rs.5,000 as `fine'. When they paid the amount, a further Rs.50,000 was demanded.

Such incidents became the order of the day in Nandigram, though only a few found their way into the public domain. Nandigram had become an anarchic realm beyond the law of the land and the Constitution. The writ of the government did not run there. Addressing a press conference on March 19, State Home Secretary Prasad Ranjan Roy said: "We entered only five of the 18 villages in the five gram panchayats in Nandigram." After this, the State government had to withdraw police forces following the violence of March 14. At that point the situation in the 13 villages deep within Nandigram still remained outside the knowledge and jurisdiction of the State administration.

This was despite Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee's assurance on February 11 while addressing a massive rally in Khejuri in Nandigram: "There is no reason to blame the people of Nandigram. They will understand one day, and until that day we will not be taking a single step towards industrialisation in the region. No land will be taken by force from the people of Nandigram... It is true we want industrialisation, but not at the expense of the tears of the people."

He had said so earlier as well and had even made it clear that the proposed chemical hub would be shifted if the people of the region did not want it. Still, barely a week after his public pronouncement in Khejuri, 22 houses (18 on February 17 and four on February 18) were plundered and burnt by the BUPC. It was not necessary that the victims be CPI(M) workers or supporters; anyone who refused to carry the black flag and join them faced their wrath, including landless labourers.



Some of the CPI(M) supporters of Nandigram who took refuge in a relief camp at Tekhali stage a dharna in Kolkata.

The struggle for land seemed to have been hijacked by the Trinamool Congress' partners into one for the creation of a "liberated" area for themselves. The Chief Minister's verbal assurances were not enough for Mamata Banerjee. Addressing a convention of the Krishi Jami Rakshya Committee in Kolkata on March 18, she said: "Only verbal assurances will not do, all notices will have to be withdrawn legally. The Chief Minister had earlier said that the notice should be scrapped in Nandigram, but even after that genocide has taken place there."

To go back to January, when the trouble first began with the inopportune notice from the Haldia Development Authority, Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee made a public statement, saying: "I have asked the District Magistrate to tear up that notice." He also made it clear that the deployment of the police force in Nandigram had nothing to do with land acquisition and was meant to bring about a semblance of the rule of law in the area.

To defuse the tension, the very next day the East Midnapore District Magistrate issued a notification stating categorically that no land in Nandigram block would be acquired for industrial purposes. This was also a reiteration of the decision announced two days earlier at a meeting of the CPI(M) and its partners. It was also decided at the meeting that there would be phased withdrawal of the police from the region. On the night following the District Magistrate's notification, violence erupted again in Nandigram. Trinamool Congress activists attacked people in Sonachura, grievously injuring three, and dug up the roads and culverts that had been repaired. The next day, around 500 Trinamool Congress supporters, armed with crude bombs and guns, stormed the relief camp where those rendered homeless in Nandigram had sought shelter and ransacked the CPI(M) office set up there.

What went wrong in Nandigram on March 14 will be known only when the Calcutta High Court gives its full judgment on the basis of the CBI's report. One of the factors may be the deep-seated conspiracy that Biman Bose spoke about to Frontline to disrupt the industrial drive and even oust the government.

Whatever be the outcome of the High Court's findings and the various inquiries and investigations, the ultimate loser might be the unemployed young men and women who saw a ray of hope in the steadily improving rating of West Bengal among industrial investors from outside the State.