Zone of dispossessed - In Bengal’s West Asia, mother-to-be spends night on a bridge
IMRAN AHMED SIDDIQUI IN NANDIGRAM
A tiny Palestine here, a little Israel there.
In trying to resist a special economic zone of an Indonesian business group, a 185 square kilometre area of Bengal has turned itself into a war zone where the battle lines are as sharply drawn as in the West Asian conflict, and the borders as blurred.
Above all, it’s a story of refugees — dispossessed in their own land.
The “border” is marked by two bridges (see map)
Standing at the border post of Tekhali bridge, 20-year-old Sujata raises an arm to- wards her village Gokulnagar where she had a home. Sujata is eight months pregnant.
“I want to give birth at my house, but…,” her voice dies, killed by a surge of muffled weeping.
Fifty-nine other families of the same village, living in a CPM refugee camp, cast a glance homewards, barely 1.5 km away, every day.
It’s been four months since January 6 when Sujata and her family fled their home, with other CPM-labelled villagers, in the face of attack from political opponents grouped under the Bhoomi Uchchhed Pratirodh Committee, or Anti-displacement Committee.
Under the shade of a shack in the cruel summer heat of the day and under the open sky on the bridge at night, where she sleeps with husband Anukul, the child in Sujata’s womb has grown from four to eight months.
Much of divided Nandi- gram sleeps, or tries to sleep, in the open for fear of being caged within four walls when the offensive comes. Often the night air crackles with the swish of bullets and the flashes of bombs.
Last week, attackers raided the camp at Tekhali, otherwise a CPM area, ransacking Sujata’s shack that boasts of a mat, two stainless steel plates and a glass.
“We were lying on a mat spread in the middle of the bridge when we heard gunshots and blasts. We got up and started running. She stumbled and fell on the bridge,” said Anukul about his wife of a year.
Around 4,000 people — CPM supporters — fled their homes from some 35 Nandigram villages in January.
Over 1,500 of them have taken shelter in camps at Bhangabera, Sherkhanchowk and Bahargunj. Others have found safety in the houses of their relatives in CPM-dominated areas.
Small enclaves, or politi- cal ghettoes, have sprouted in Nandigram. Tiny Palestines, little Israels, the difference being that the poison in the soul is not delivered from a religious chalice.
Where was all this bitterness, such bitterness as to destroy decades of bucolic peace in just months? Such hatred that a neighbour do-esn’t wish for an uprooted neighbour’s return?
Chhabirani Mondal, 40, of Sonachura, an enclave of the Pratirodh Committee spearheaded by Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamul Congress, has had her nerves on edge for months. Chhabirani, even if she is a member of the “resistance”, can only take so much fire and sound. The daily test of sanity.
Part of the human wall that blocked police’s entry into Nandigram, she lives with her husband and three daughters in a mud house next to the now-locked home of CPM supporter Ashok Mandal, who fled in January.
The brick-and-mortar building stands out in a cluster of mud houses and shacks in the village where police firing caused the deaths of 14 people on March 14.
“So many people were killed. CPM supporters entered the village with the police. They dragged my husband out of the house and beat him. How can we allow Ashok and other CPM supporters who fled the village to come back? They belong to a party that killed innocent people. We’ll never let him in,” Chhabirani said, standing in front of Ashok’s house.
“His (Ashok’s) wife Rani used to come to my house every day. But now I hate them for their affiliation with the CPM. We have suffered a lot and now I want them to suffer.”
Dark thoughts of revenge are in the minds of some like her. March 14 is still to be two months old.
In the minds of some others, there’s the motive of political conquest.
Manu Das, a Trinamul activist, said: “Even our people on the Khejuri side have been made homeless by the CPM. They have been staying in relatives’ houses. It’s now a bat- tle between the people of Nandigram and Khejuri. Land acquisition is no longer an issue. It’s now a war for supremacy and capturing areas.”
Had CPM leaders, or the chief minister, heard this, Das’s statement would have been played over and over again for whoever was prepared to lend an ear. The CPM wants the world outside to know Nandigram is now a territorial battle, turned so by Mamata.
Maybe, the recent peace overtures from her side springs from the realisation that the world is beginning to believe so in a reversal of roles.
Many at Sonachura are sheltering relatives herded out of homes at Khejuri and are living in ceaseless fear of a CPM attack to retake the village.
“They dragged out my daughter and son-in-law from their house and beat them up. They ran for their lives at night and reached here,” said 60-year-old Manohar Maity.
His daughter Moni, the mother of a three-year-old son, has given up hope of returning home. “We plan to settle at Sonachura and start life afresh. But I am not sure whether we will live in peace here.”
The root of Nandigram’s war lay in the farmer’s fear of losing land. If that root was cut with the assurance of not building a special economic zone (SEZ) there, it grew back with the strength of a thousand trees fed by the blood of March 14.
Suspicion was steeled on the anvil of anger. The CPM’s opponents picked up this weapon. Having driven the CPM out of Nandigram, an area the party has traditionally dominated, the Opp-osition wouldn’t want it to re-turn. The chimera of easy el-ectoral victory beckons in a territory purged of rivals.
Anger bristles on the other side of the border, too. And suspicion festers in the refugee camps that the government will not be able to clear the way for the dispossessed to return home.
This week’s moves in Calcutta towards holding peace talks may have dulled the anxiety but surely not removed it.
Gorai Das trudges to the CPM office at Khejuri every day bearing hope that his comrades will help him go home. His mother is sick.
“We belong to the ruling party but are living in perennial fear. They (the party and the police) have done nothing so far,” he said.
Anwar Ali has been driven out twice with his family of wife and son. First out of his home and then out of the camp where they had taken shelter when Pratirodh Committee supporters raided it and set it afire.
“They have not been able to push us back even after more than three months. They say dekhchhi (we are looking into it) whenever we approach them. We do not trust the government and the police,” said 43-year-old Ali.
The administration has lost trust twice over. Nandi- gram closed its doors. Now, the ruling party’s supporters hold it in contempt for being powerless to get them back home.
For the CPM, too, it’s a double loss of face. In a place where it had a free run, the party has become a pariah, deserted by its own people. And though it rules over Bengal, it has failed to cut a path home for 4,000 of its supporters in a corner of the state.
Himangshu Das, the sabhapati of Khejuri panchayat samiti, said: “It has become a prestige issue for us. We have to push them back at any cost. Enough is enough.”
But he knows it’s not easy. “The battle has been lost but not the war,” he added, referring to the attempted re-entry by party cadres on Sunday. After a couple of hours, they had to retreat in the face of resistance from the Pratirodh Committee members.
Sujata — and Sanjukta, who’s five months pregnant and whose husband Maha-dev is suffering from lung cancer — may hope it’s not a war they need to fulfil a small wish.
This week has been rela- tively quiet on the frontline. First, the government’s report to Calcutta High Court blamed the CPM also for the persisting violence.
Now, there’s a possibility of a solution being thrashed out across the table between Mamata and the Left.
A month left for her to give birth, Sujata may just be able to hold on till Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee and Mamata decide she can go home and have her baby.
It will also be time to sow the new rice crop.